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First Look: Paul Virant's The Preservation Kitchen

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[Photos: Paula Forbes / Eater]

What's the key to opening a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Midwest that serves nothing but local produce year round? Canning. And thus chef Paul Virant's first cookbook is not dedicated to either of his restaurants — those would be Vie in Western Springs, Illinois and Perennial Virant in Chicago — but to the art of preservation.

Written with food writer Kate Leahy, The Preservation Kitchen covers cannable dishes from pickles to jams to sauerkraut, and then, most importantly, explains how to use them, from a full range of cocktails to a complete Thanksgiving menu. Also there is a recipe for beef bacon. Just saying. The Preservation Kitchen comes out April 3 (preorder on Amazon); an iBook version will also be available. Below, the intro to the book:

Introduction to Paul Virant and Kate Leahy's Preservation Kitchen

Capturing the Year in a Jar The soul of my kitchen isn’t in my kitchen at all. It hovers one floor above, contained within a narrow storage room lined with aluminum shelves. Even on the brightest days, the sunlight that filters through a small east-facing window is dim, hardly adequate. It doesn’t seem to matter. Packed with jars of pickles, jams, sauerkrauts, and other experiments in preserving, these shelves radiate with possibility.

When I need inspiration, I head upstairs and take inventory. Each visit provides me with a snapshot of the growing seasons. Early spring yields light-green baby artichokes, white turnips, and jars of lemon preserves. Army-green ramps and asparagus soon follow trailed by glossy pints of strawberry jam. Summer starts out slowly, a few pickled green beans, some snappy snow peas, a batch of giardiniera. By the end of September, however, the shelves bulge, emanating primary colors as carrots, dill pickles, peppers, eggplant, peaches, porcini, cherries, summer squash, and tomatoes—lots and lots of tomatoes—compete for attention. Then comes autumn, a subdued time when ruby-hued cranberries and winter squashes quietly signal an end to the harvest.

By the time winter blankets the neighborhood with snow, we have started dipping into our flavor arsenal, fortifying gravy with fiery cherry bomb peppers saved from July and dressing up cheese plates with sweet-sour grapes. Winter months are slow days for canning, but the process never completely stops. As soon as the New Year arrives, the mailbox fills with fragrant lemons and mandarins from generous friends in California, and we get to work.

When my family and I opened Vie in the fall of 2004, I knew I was going to serve local produce year-round. This idea doesn’t sound that radical now. But even just a few years ago, there were far fewer local family farms supplying Chicago restaurants than there are today. Among those, only a handful managed to extend the Great Lakes’ all-too-short growing season beyond summer. And we had other challenges. When we opened, Vie was a novelty in Western Springs, a historic suburb a half hour west of Chicago on the Metra commuter rail. It’s a quiet village of tree-lined streets and comfortable homes surrounding a main street with small-town essentials: butcher shop, bakery, diner, produce stand, hardware store, and ice cream parlor. We were the first serious restaurant to put down roots, and the first to acquire a liquor license. (Western Springs had been dry since Prohibition.) The whole project was enough of a gamble that I knew I couldn’t stay in business if I drafted a menu devoted solely to beets—one of the few local items available year-round—even if the menu tasted delicious. I started preserving a few summer staples to extend the seasons. But that was well before I realized how many flavors I could capture in a jar.

I grew up eating pickles. My grandmothers, both from Missouri, were avid canners, their summer meals often punctuated with a plate of tart dill-marinated tomatoes served straight from the refrigerator. Several years (and several restaurant stints) later, I grasped what my grandmothers always knew: vinegar draws out flavor. I decided that pickles had a place on a restaurant table.

In the pre-Vie days, while working around town for other chefs, I started making my own pickles. The experiment soon gravitated to homemade sauerkraut as vats of vegetables fermented on the counter. Soon I was reading everything I could find on preserving. Especially memorable were the archaic methods outlined in old American cookery books, which always went heavy on vinegar, spices, and sugar. Then I met Christine Ferber, the famed Alsatian jam maker whom many in France call—no exaggeration—the fairy godmother of jams and jellies. After taking her preserving class at Chicago’s French Pastry School, I became hooked on the world of aigre-doux, a French sweet-sour style of condiment that seemed to go with everything, from cheese to roasted meat. This inevitably led to more experiments.

Local farmers turned my part-time canning habit into a full-blown commitment. I started getting to know an entrepreneurial network of Midwesterners who worked year-round to grow local produce, insulating crops with hoop houses, greenhouses, and even compost piles so that chard, beets, arugula, parsnips, and sunchokes could flourish even when outside temperatures hovered well below freezing. Small farms in southern Wisconsin began to come together through community-supported agriculture programs, while stretches of central Illinois highway, once bordered by oceans of corn and soybeans only, transformed into land that supported goats, sheep, tomatoes, peppers, and lettuces. Michigan and Indiana farms beckoned with more produce, especially juicy organic berries and stone fruits. Through the back door came boxes of peak-season, Midwestern-grown produce that outperformed anything shipped from California. This produce deserved to be savored, and saved.

In the early days, I started slowly, a few cases of tomatoes and a couple of jams. But as I packed away jars of locally grown San Marzano tomatoes, more ideas came flooding in. How about fermenting Brussels sprouts, for instance? Or what about puréeing black walnuts with maple syrup for a nut butter? For about two years, our kitchen went through what I call our “experimental preserving extravaganza” period. Not everything was a success. A baby leek and carrot aigre-doux failed to win fans (leeks are generally better fresh or lightly pickled). Fermented tomatoes, meanwhile, polarized the kitchen—I liked them, and still make them on occasion. Others did not like their pungent tang. Gradually, the murkier experiments were pushed aside in favor of the winners, of which there were plenty. As our canning inventory accumulated, spreading from the second-story storage room into the basement of one of my employees, it became clear that this habit had evolved into an obsession, just as much about flavor as about principle. I had become a so-called jarring chef.

Our menus at Vie have developed alongside our seasonal preserves, and they are intrinsically linked together. The bond is reflected in this book. In Part One: In the Jar, I share recipes for preserves that take advantage of peak-season ingredients. In Part Two: At the Table, I demonstrate how to use these preserves in meals ranging from weeknight dishes to celebratory occasions. Organized around the seasons, these menus mix fresh produce with preserved ingredients, unlocking the culinary potential that occurs when we stretch growing seasons. Tying both sections of the book together is one simple adage: I eat what I can and what I can’t, I can.

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