The history of safeguarding food for days, weeks, even months after harvest dates back to early human history. The Vikings were preservation pioneers, going to great lengths to keep meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, and even grains sustainable for extended periods of time. In those days, a sour milk and beer shake, salted meats and dried fish were essential foodstuffs. The alternative was starvation during the coldest months of the year, so their very lives depended on it.
Fast forward to the age of the gastronome, when just about every restaurant menu throws a nod to Northern European charcuterie. Preserved, pickled, canned, bottled, fermented and dehydrated ingredients fill the shelves of Canada’s most creative chefs. Lucky for OpenTable diners, these dedicated culinarians are passionate about the laborious routine of preparing winter-ready goodies. Here are a few of Canada’s restaurants preserving a range of culinary delights to reclaim seasonal favorites even as the cold front marches in. If you can’t get to one of these spots, check out OpenTable.com to find the right restaurant near you.
Chef Ian McHale is a giant among men in his commitment to the craft of putting up preserved goods. In his carnivorous paradise, Wildebeest, located in a refurbished 19th-century building in Vancouver’s historic Gastown district, McHale says the pursuit of preserving is all about capturing Mother Nature’s finest in a very short window of time.
“We know we are all going to have to work a little harder for a few weeks, but the result is being able to serve our guests elderberries in the winter and putting huckleberry jus on the menu even though it’s been out of season,” said McHale, who loves using preserved goods to break up the monotony of a winter menu. “For example, we make elderflower vinegar and we use that to dress salads, as well as a Douglas fir cone vinegar and that keeps it fun on menu change day – just grab a mason jar and you’re ready to go, no ordering needed.”
At Wildebeest, going into mushroom season, McHale dehydrated, pickled, and froze a lot of morels that had grown because of the forest fires that happened over the past year, using them in dishes as well as a morel cocktail at the bar with dehydrated morels grated over the top of a morel sour. Like the morels, everything has a place in McHale’s kitchen and he loves finding new ways to entice diners with unfamiliar ingredients. In the case of fish seasoned with sea coriander, which is like cilantro but is a beach grass, McHale dehydrates it with sea salt and pulses it to get the desired texture. He uses cattail shoots to garnish his charcuterie boards.
“The way we do our canning is we wind up with a byproduct of a byproduct that most people would consider waste rather than normal pickling where so much gets tossed aside,” he said. “In the case of one of our duck dishes, we take alcohol, wine, sherry or balsamic vinegar, and sugar to make something akin to an agrodolce, bring it to a boil, and reduce the liquid to drizzle over the duck for a dish that has more flavor and depth.”
McHale tops the duck with mushrooms, which gives it what he calls a rounded umami flavor. He favors using dehydrated, colorful salt to season, looking forward to wild salmonberries finding their way onto a dish very soon. McHale’s waste-not-want-not philosophy extends to jams and chutneys, too.
“We like to include nootka (sea rose) which grows by the sea and trailing blackberry and what we have left after the straining process that gets caught into the sieve we use for cocktails and to make kombucha,” said McHale, who credits his foragers with bringing him such inspired elements. “They get these beautiful ingredients for us and we know we can’t waste any of it – we might get thirty pounds of flowering currant, which weighs nothing, and we ask ourselves, ‘What can we do with this?’” In the case of the flowering currant, it shows up in cordials, cocktails, gels, syrups, and sauces.
Pickling and preserving root vegetables is a given in McHale’s kitchen, but he says the coldest winter months can be pretty fierce. It’s a time when many chefs struggle to find new ways to present the ubiquitous and humble potato. This is never a challenge at Wildebeest, where McHale has only to collect a jar of pickled summer radishes, summer carrots, or whatever else seems at home on one of his famed charcuterie platters.
“Across from the open kitchen is a very long pass and in front of that pass is the shelving where we keep all the pickles and spices,” said McHale, who does a great deal of fermentation (think kombucha vinegar and fermented kimchi mayonnaise) which serves as the foundation for his in-house charcuterie program. “All of our fermenting juice goes into it as a starter for our salumis.”
McHale also makes a fermented knotweed, an extremely invasive species from Japan that in the hands of a gifted chef makes for a refreshing alternative to hum-drum greens. “We should all be doing our best to eat as much knotweed as possible since to eat it is the only way to get rid of it – it tastes like rhubarb meets celery meets asparagus,” said McHale, who credits the Wagyu carpaccio as his favorite menu item. “We season it with smoked yarrow salt made in the same fashion as sea coriander salt, lightly smoke it for two minutes, and build all these layers of flavor.”
The Winery Restaurant at Pellers Estate, Niagara-on-the-Lake
For oenophiles, icewine is like a spoonful of heaven. That Peller Estates chef Jason Parsons has access to enough of it to make endless jars of his legendary icewine jelly means it shows up in the most delightful places. A veteran of six Relais & Châteaux properties and two Michelin-starred restaurants, Parsons is no stranger to extraordinary creations, like his icewine lobster linguini with black truffles. Diners come running to the Winery Restaurant at Peller Estates during Niagara-on-the-Lake’s annual icewine festival, where Parsons creates a special dinner complete with icewine fritters and icewine marshmallows, among other pleasures.
The rest of the year, eager diners show up to partake of Parsons’ icewine jelly, infused into dishes like his chicken liver parfait and on his cheese and meat boards that honor Canadian ingredients. “In preserving our icewine jelly, we hardly even cook the wine to keep the integrity of the wine and it is soft enough to spread on toast, yet firm enough to eat straight up with a piece of fruit or a piece of cheese,” said Parsons, who oversees many tasting menus at Peller Estates. “After the main course, we offer a cheese plate with Canadian cheeses and a glass of icewine, which pairs with the saltiness of the cheese and icewine jelly.”
During strawberry season, Parsons makes a cabernet franc icewine jelly. He serves it with fresh strawberry and black pepper ice cream. During the Peller Estates icewine harvest in January, the winemakers set aside 30 liters of icewine juice for Parsons, so he obtains the juice straight from the grapes. He freezes the juice for use throughout his menus, from sweet to savory in the cooking process and as a garnish, like with his signature crispy duck entrée. “We cook our duck in it before searing the duck in the pan to get it crispy, after which we add warm icewine juice and let it finish cooking,” said Parsons.
Chef Brad Holmes never shies away from any preservation process he can get his hands on at OLO Restaurant, as evidenced by the rows of gorgeous canned goods that line the shelves at the popular eatery near Upper Harbor. From salting and soaking of various mushrooms only available at certain seasons to his sourdough crisps, Holmes is an ardent fan of fermentation.
“We make a purple sauerkraut puree with sea buckthorn in it, preserved by juicing it in season and freezing it and then we have it all year round if we need it,” said Holmes. “During the growing seasons, farmers have a lot of stuff and then they have nothing so we do things like brisket, salted, dried, and smoked and sourdough crisps as there is a fermentation process in making a sourdough.”
Holmes, whose husband-and-wife owned OLO restaurant is intimate, warm, and comforting, the opposite of a 200-seat mega restaurant, is known for including various types of preserved components in a single dish. For example, he prepares his octopus dish with Korean chili, daikon, black garlic, and furikake. He sources many of those ingredients from the abundance of canning jars around the restaurant that he can pull from at any time of the year.
“We do a dine-around in January with canned peaches with raspberry sorbet which is a super taste of peak summer, but we do it in the dead of winter,” said Holmes. “The shelves sit empty a little in the summer and get filled up in August.” Holmes even preserves his garlic, fresh and cured at all stages, from the first green garlic to the stalk and tiny bulb.
To read chef Elvis Ray’s menu for Adega is to envision savory soups and sauces, grilled seafood and croquettes brimming with salty goodness. Even the shrimp bisque gets the celebrity treatment at Adega, garnished with lobster aioli, while diners struggle to decide between platters of prosciutto, squid, gravlax, and sardines, or cod quenelles, pica pau, and beef croquettes. In Ray’s Cataplana fresh fish stew, they find paradise in the bouillabaisse of mussels, shrimp, clams, squid, and fresh fish.
But one of Ray’s most beloved creations is his own Piri Piri sauce. “It is well known in Portuguese cuisine and its origins in Portuguese cuisine come from Portuguese settlers in Africa during the fifteenth century,” said owner Manny Botelho. “It is a very common sauce in South Africa, Mozambique, Angola, and now in Canada with all the Portuguese churrasqueira’s (grilled chicken houses) opening up.” Chef Ray’s version of Piri Piri sauce is something extra special. He prepares it with Piri Piri pepper, whole lemons, white wine, garlic, salt, lemon juice, and bay leaf. “Chef uses it mainly on shrimp and chicken dishes and also used his own sea salt mix to compliment these dishes,” said Botelho.
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Photo credits: Jonathan Norton (Wildebeest); Nataschia Wielink (Peller Estates); Dasha Armstrong (OLO).