It’s a trend that can trace its origins back some 4,000 years—a trend you were probably introduced to in your grandmother’s kitchen. This year, however, pickling seems to be having its star turn in the restaurant scene. You’d be hard-pressed to find a county restaurant that doesn’t serve up a dish highlighted by the tangy, pungent flavor of pickled vegetables.
But why pickling? And why now? For starters, it’s a foolproof way to brighten up any dish. With one fell swoop, pickling brings to the plate the “it” flavor of the year: sour. From salads to entrées to cocktails, people seem to be yearning for tartness.
But aside from taste, pickling’s current popularity can be traced to efforts to reduce food waste that have many in the industry looking for inventive ways to make food go further. This heightened understanding of what food waste means for our environment has brought about a new interest in ensuring bumper crops don’t spoil before they are consumed. “Pickling and preservation is more than a trend for us,” says Pocantico Hills’ Blue Hill at Stone Barns Executive Chef Adam Kaye. “We take advantage of the spring and summer harvests to pickle and preserve as much as possible for the colder months. It is really a way for us to expand our pantry of ingredients during the time of year when there is little else local to work with.”
In fact, the history of pickling begins with preservation. Before refrigerators, freezers, and, well, preservatives, pickling was the innovation that changed it all. Food would spoil in excessive heat and intense cold. And traveling with fresh vegetables and meat was nearly impossible—until the day highly prized cucumbers were brought from India to Mesopotamia sitting in brine to ensure they’d be edible throughout the journey. Not only did the food keep, but it tasted great.
This journey was key to the history of pickling and ensured that the process would travel the world. Most cultures have a preserved food that features prominently in their culinary history. From kimchi in Korea to herring in Sweden and sauerkraut in Germany, preserved food plays a major role in the signature dishes of some of the world’s great cuisines. And, incidentally, we can thank the Germans for the term pickle. The German word pokel means to salt or brine.
Today, in the same way pickling is employed in a range of cuisines, it is used to preserve many kinds of food. Pickling is not reserved for cucumbers.
If it’s in the kitchen, it’s probably fit for pickling. Immerse a fresh vegetable, fruit, or meat in an acidic liquid (such as vinegar) or cover it with a mix of salt and sugar, and over time, a chemical reaction occurs that preserves the food and changes its texture and flavor.
You’ll find something pickled in a number of dishes at Irvington’s Wolfert’s Roost. Chef/Owner Eric Korn knows a thing or two about what pickled and preserved foods bring to the table. “Pickling is all about a pop of flavor and making fresh produce last, which is a winning combination in any kitchen,” he says.
At Wolfert’s Roost, you can start out with a simple snack of sweet-and-sour pickled veggies or sample the fantastic salad of pickled and roasted beets. For something heartier, there’s the Vietnamese pho with pickled carrots and chilies. And fruit’s not left out of the equation, either. The crisp fried chicken is dotted with preserved lemons that have been covered with a mixture of salt, sugar, and chilies and then pressed under 30-pound weights for two to three months. Because space is at a minimum in this cozy restaurant, Korn is partial to a quick pickle, often opting to pickle with hot liquids to speed up brining time.
If you’re in the mood for some Korean kimchi and pickles, head to So Dong Gong Tofu in Hartsdale. An order of hot stone bibimbap is made truly special with the traditional banchan (sides) served with it. Featuring spicy pickled daikon and jalapeno, salty kimchi, sweet pickled cucumbers, and lightly pickled bean sprouts, the sides really amp up the flavor of the mild bibimbap.
A visit to Coromandel in New Rochelle takes you back to the very roots of the pickling movement. According to Joji George Parappallil, managing partner of Coromandel Group, “No Indian meal is complete without a touch of spicy pickle on the side.” At Coromandel, you can enjoy a spiced mixed vegetable pickle as well as a zinging lime pickle. And dishes like achari scallops or achari murgh feature puréed pickles to flavor the sauce.
Across the county at RiverMarket Bar & Kitchen in Tarrytown, you can sample the outstanding onion and butter pickle that has developed something of a cult following. Brined in a light, slightly sweet mixture, these pickles are the perfect topping for RiverMarket’s beef and veggie burgers as well as its popular lobster roll.
And if it’s pickles on the side of a cocktail that you’re after, try RiverMarket’s Bloody Mary. These pickles play a leading role in the restaurant’s Best of Westchester-winning Bloody Mary. This savory, spicy drink is adorned with a skewer of pickled baby carrots, cauliflower, and watermelon radishes that brighten and lift the drink to something beyond your everyday brunch beverage.