Fermenting Pittsburgh

When we began to ferment things at Legume, we didn’t realize we were “doing fermentation;” we were just following a recipe. We had no inkling of the amazing biological processes that were happening in the beautiful stone crock of salted cabbage we kept out on full display in the dining room, which, about half of the time, turned into a crock of rotten funk. (I still remember the looks of “oh no, here we go again” I used to get from the servers whenever I brought the crock filled with the latest batch out to the dining room.) We had no idea that things such as temperature, time, and properly weighting the cabbage below the brine level made that much of a difference, which probably had a lot to do with our low rate of success early on. We were just following a recipe.

The second year we were open we began purchasing the majority of our vegetables from Who Cooks For You Farm. One fall day, Chris Brittenburg, who runs Who Cooks with his wife Aeros Lillstrom, came in the back door of Legume with a bushel of baby bok choy and a photocopy of a kimchi recipe. “Make this” he said. We did, and it turned out great, in part because we had learned by this point that these kinds of things did better in the basement. And though by this point we had an inkling that something mysterious was happening in the buckets of salted vegetables that sometimes tasted amazing after a number of weeks, we didn’t really think of ourselves as categorically “doing fermentation” or that we were “fermenters.” Still, we were just following recipes.

Eventually, I stumbled upon Sandor Katz’s book, Wild Fermentation, and a million things kind of crystallized at once. Up until this point, I’d viewed vegetable preservation mostly through the lens of canning things, because that’s what I’d observed my mother and grandmother doing growing up. From the very first summer we were open, my vision was to can a lot of food in the summer and fall in order to minimize our dependence on non-local conventional food streams in the winter. But canning is an extremely labor-intensive method that uses a lot of gas, water, and canning lids which can’t be reused. Moreover, most of the things we canned required a lot of vinegar and sugar in order to be safely preserved, which limited their uses in our cooking.

With fermentation, it became possible to preserve a lot more food in a fraction of the time, which radically changed the way we cook at Legume, especially in the winter and early spring. We soon learned that the benefits of using fermented foods in our cooking extended beyond preservation. From a culinary perspective, cooking with lactic acid opened up a whole new world by providing a new way of adding acidity to things alongside citrus, vinegar, and wine. Holistically-speaking, we discovered many of the fermented foods we made married very well in soups made with the rich stocks we always have on hand from all the meat bones we produce through butchering. Finally, there are all of the benefits of eating naturally probiotic foods, which, though not a huge draw for the restaurant, something which is tremendously satisfying to be feeding to people.

Though we got into fermentation because we were trying to preserve produce into the winter, it’s also led us down other paths. Four or five years ago, we went through a tempeh-making phase, but gave it up because it was really labor intensive and we just couldn’t keep up with it. We revisited tempeh about a year and a half-ago and learned how to streamline the process.  We now have a vegetarian tempeh burger on the Butterjoint menu, which is offered every day. On the Legume menu, tempeh appears in a more layered dish. Its current iteration includes a sauce made with canned tomatoes and frozen red pepper puree’ with vegetables from Who Cooks For You Farm, ginger, garlic, shallots, soy sauce, fermented hot pepper sauce, and molasses, which is very reminiscent of General Tso’s sauce.

Justin Lubecki, a local fermentation enthusiast and founder of Ferment Pittsburgh, recently took a sample of our tempeh over to the University of Pittsburgh Center for Biological Imaging. Here is what our tempeh looks like under an electron microscope:

It’s pretty great having a guy like Justin in Pittsburgh’s food scene to make these kinds of connections. This year, Ferment Pittsburgh will be holding its third annual Fermentation Fest on February 18th, from 11am to 5pm at Spirit in Lawrenceville. There will be fermentation workshops, various food vendors, more pictures of fermented foods from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Biological Imaging, and entertainment. It’s a fantastic event with things of interest for all ages.

In support of this awesome event, we will be hosting a happy hour from 4:30-7:30 tomorrow night (Saturday, January, 20) at Butterjoint to raise funds for this year’s Fermenation Festival. All proceeds from the sales of Wigle pickle backs and Threadbare Cider will go directly to support the Fermentation Festival, thanks to their kind donations of booze. Food-wise, all sales from fried pickles and tempeh burgers will be donated as well. We are delighted to support the work of Ferment Pittsburgh. Please stop on by.

Thanks for reading and supporting local foodways.
Sincerely, Trevett

Interview with Mary

Part of what makes Legume such a special place to us are the talented, dedicated staff members who make up the back bone of our restaurant. They’re incredibly creative individuals, who work day-in and day-out to put out some of the best food in Pittsburgh (if we do say so ourselves).

That’s why we’ve decided to launch a new series to introduce you all to the front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house team members who make Legume the restaurant you know and love. To start our series, we’re talking with Mary Weber, our in-house butcher (and the commissioner of Legume’s fantasy football league, ‘Football for Breakfast’).

What does your job as butcher entail?
The majority of my days are dedicated to all of the  proteins that come into Legume. All of our beef and pork primals and subprimals become burgers and bacon for Butterjoint; steaks, tartare, sausages, braises and pates for Legume’s menu.  Cleaning and portioning our growing seafood selection is also an every day task.

What kind of background did you have before become the butcher?
Pre-Legume, I worked as a line cook and sous chef at Soba, and I cooked in Charleston, South Carolina for a year before returning to Legume.  I was promoted to sous chef for a stint before our previous butcher left. I was very excited to gain some experience in the meat department.

How does preservation season affect your day-to-day? 

Being involved in Legume’s preservation season has been a lot of fun, and I’ve gained a lot of knowledge from it. I’m responsible for a good chunk of our fermentation program, and maintaining our ferments is a bi-weekly task.

What is your favorite Legume dish?
My favorite dish at Legume is the cassoulet. It’s so rich and hearty when its chilly out.

What are your favorite places to eat in Pittsburgh?
My favorite places to eat are Butterjoint, Cure, The Vandal and sometimes McDonald,s for a Sausage McMuffin with egg and a hash browns.

Preservation Season

September and October is normally a time of year when we’re buried in preservation projects, trying to put away as much produce as possible in jars and buckets for our cold-weather cooking. But with construction for Pie For Breakfast happening in earnest, new changes to the Legume menu format, and a redesign of the Legume kitchen this month, preservation season is a little bit more on the back burner this year.

Yet even with all that is going on, we’ve had a pretty great preservation season, thanks to our amazing kitchen team. Chris and Aeros’s tomatoes were early this year, which meant we were able to do most of our tomato canning during the week of Labor Day, a week that is typically slow for us. It’s also been a huge relief that our butcher, Mary, has stepped up and grabbed the reins of the pickling program. (It’s like magic: the vegetables get delivered, and then the next day they appear in a bucket of brine.)  She’s even managed to break a record in the number of sour dill pickles put away (30 5-gallon buckets) and continues making a steady stream of radish, turnip, and cauliflower pickles each week now that cucumber season is over.  

It’s also been a very good year for new things. For the past five or so years, we’ve been really focused on developing the fermentation program, because it’s the easiest way to preserve a large volume of produce. The fermentation stuff is great, and has led to some really wonderful sour soups in the winter and spring, and pickles galore all year long–things that will never leave our menu. But this fall I wanted to get back to our roots and delve into developing some new preservation recipes using canning techniques, because we hadn’t really added many non-fermented things to our repertoire in years. We came up with three new things this September which I’m really excited about and destined to become winter cold weather staples for years to come: homemade catsup, cantaloupe preserves, and eggplant pickles.

The desire to make catsup began with a desire to make shrimp cocktail. Since this is Legume, opening a can of Heinz Ketchup to use as a base for our  “homemade” cocktail sauce is not an option, so we had to make our own catsup. Truthfully, a damn good cocktail sauce can be made with Heinz Ketchup, but not one with as much character, humanness, or as delicate and complex a flavor as a catsup made with 120#’s of summer produce at its peak (mostly tomatoes) cooked with some cider vinegar, demerara sugar, and lots of spices, and then reduced down to twenty quarts of wonderfulness.

Shrimp cocktail is the kind of thing I love making at Legume, because I love making things that are considered hackneyed and overdone with an approach that is actually interesting and wonderful, not by deconstructing it with a chefy twist that makes the classic unrecognizable, but by actually using the classical form as a disguise for a radical approach to cooking based on invisible, behind the scenes processes. At Legume, the obligatory “twist,”  which fancy restaurants are supposed to put on classic dishes in order to make them contemporary-seeming is that there is no twist.  

The cantaloupe preserves began with Chris and Aeros having amazing cantaloupe at the market one Sunday, me bringing it home and eating some, and immediately calling Chris back begging for as much as he could bring me. This ended up being around 200#s which he brought the next day. I’d remembered a spiced cantaloupe we’d made a few years back from an old Amish recipe.  The recipe resulted in a preserved cantaloupe product that was really sweet, almost candy-like and cooked to the point where the cantaloupe became translucent, which limited its application. This time around we started with the same idea, but used a less sweet, less acidic brine, and cooked it for less time, which resulted in something we now call “crackaloupe.”  Right now it’s on the bluefish dish, which is glazed with the brine and topped with a relish of crackaloupe, jalapeno, and chervil.

Last but not least, the pickled eggplant turned out great. Chris and Aeros had these really great long, skinny eggplant with minimal seeds making it perfect for making firm pickles.  We salted and pressed them overnight, cooked them in some vinegar, and then packed them in olive oil with herbs, garlic, and pepper flake. It’s pretty great. I wish we’d done a lot more, but time’s been so scarce for the reasons mentioned above.

I’m really pleased that all three of these new things turned out well. The thing about preservation season is that there isn’t always the time to develop things, so a lot of what we preserve are actually experiments done on a huge scale. We got lucky this season. It’s a risk to attempt 200# of cantaloupe pickles without a tried and true method, but we take these risks because we know we’re not going to have the opportunity to get cantaloupe like that for another year. It’s a risk worth taking, however, because when these things come out good, it gives new energy to the menu for months to come. (Plus, now we have a written method we can use for years to come.) The bigger risk, at least in terms of keeping our kitchen a fertile creative environment, would be to play it safe.

Iberian Peppers for Tartare

Doug peeling and seeding Iberian cayenne peppers.Mixed with salt and garlic. We will purée in a few weeks after it sours. This is what we’ll use in beef tartare.  The Iberians are nice because they give nice color and some heat without being too hot.

Nasturtium Capers

 Nasturtium capers is something we’ve read a lot about over the years, but never had the chance to work with until Megan from Be Wilder farms offered up the seeds this week. We’re fermenting some, salting some, vinegaring some, etc. until we find a method we like.  So far, every method tastes good. 

Pickled Cantaloupe

The cantaloupe preserves began with Chris and Aeros having amazing cantaloupe at the market one Sunday, me bringing it home and eating some, and immediately calling Chris back begging for as much as he could bring me. This ended up being around 200#s which he brought the next day. I’d remembered a spiced cantaloupe we’d made a few years back from an old Amish recipe.  It was really great, but the recipe was really sweet and acidic and cooked to the point where the cantaloupe became translucent, almost like candy, which limited its application. What we did instead was to take the same idea, but use a less sweet, less acidic brine, and cook it for less time, which resulted in something we now call “crackaloupe.”  Right now it’s on the bluefish dish, which is glazed with the brine and topped with a relish of crackaloupe, jalapeno, and chervil.

Cantaloupe season flies by in Western PA. So we pickle it. 

The thing about preservation season is that there isn’t always the time to develop things, so a lot of what we preserve are actually experiments done on a huge scale. We got lucky this season. It’s a huge risk to order something like 200#s of cantaloupe to make pickles with, but we take these risks because we know we’re not going to have the opportunity to get cantaloupe like that for another year. When the results are not menu-worthy, that’s a whole lot of labor and food costs down the drain, (and a whole lot of mediocre staff meals). But to me, these risks are worth taking, because when these things come out good, it gives new energy to the menu for months to come.  The bigger risk, to my mind, is to play it safe.

Bellow is one of the recipes. We also did a few batches with pickling spices.  This one came out the best though.

Lemon Verbena Cantaloupe
2,200g sugar
5qts water
5 cup champagne vinegar
3 tbs salt
36g fresh lemon verbena sprigs
1 tbs cardamomn
20# peeled, seeded, and sliced cantaloupe

  1. Bring all ingredients except cantaloupe to a boil. Let simmer 5 minutes.  Set aside and let steep the verbena for 30 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, measure 20# cut cantaloupe into a very clean 22quart container.
  3. Heat liquid back to almost the boil.  Pour liquid through chinoise into a clean container to remove spices.
  4. Pour liquid over the cantaloupe.  Weigh down with a few plates and let sit overnight. (The liquid may not cover the cantaloupe at first, but it will eventually as the brine draws water out of the cantaloupe pieces.)
  5. The cantaloupe is good at this point in the fridge for several weeks.  For longer storage, continue through steps 6 and 7. (See Very Important note about storing below.)
  6. The next day: pour off the brine from the cantaloupe into a pot and bring to a boil.
  7. Fill washed and sanitized wide mouth quart jars with 1# 8oz cantaloupe. Top off with brine to ½”, making sure to stir to eliminate pockets of air. Process for 15 minutes.

Very Important: These pickles must stay refrigerated, as they are not acidic enough to be shelf stable.


September is always a little nuts around here as we try to capture as much produce as we can.

Conveniently, this year Chris and Aeros’s tomatoes were ready the first week of September, which is good timing because it is typically a slower period for us. It keeps the kitchen crew busy instead of cutting their hours.

The PM crew washes and cores the tomatoes the night before. The AM crew comes in early to blanch, peel, and seed them.

Once the tomatoes are peeled and seeded, we take the skins and put them through the Squeezo, which will yield about 16-20 quarts of additional pulp.

After we cook all the tomatoes, we puree them and cool them.  300# of Roma tomatoes yields around 100 quarts of sauce and juice. (More about the juice later.)

The next morning we can the tomatoes. We could have done it the day before, but by that point in the day the PM crew is coming in, and it just makes more sense to break up the process into two days.

This is tomato water.  After we’ve seeded the tomatoes, we put the seeds and liquid through a chinoise and let the liquid settle over night.  The next day we carefully ladle the tomato water from the top, after all the solids have gone to the bottom. We end up with this clear liquid which is amazing for poaching fish in. We never seem to have enough of this.

After a while it gets tedious.  The last batch of tomatoes is less fun than the first.

Vegetarian Month

It’s vegetarian month at Legume.  What does that mean, really? It means we have a vegetarian tasting menu every day, canola oil replaces beef tallow in the fryer, and we have an extra vegetarian entree on the menu every day.

When vegetarian month is over, I think we’re going to try some new things in the vegetarian department. The American style entree which defines the kind of cooking we do at Legume–meat at the center of the plate, some kind of starch, some kind of veg, and a sauce–really doesn’t work very well for vegetarian food. Vegetarian cooking needs to be approached from a completely different angle. A better way to approach vegetarian cooking, I think, would be to offer a variety of smaller dishes. This is the direction I’d like to move in for our vegetarian guests, perhaps a whole section of the menu dedicated to smaller, focused vegetarian dishes, in order to relieve the pressure of having to accomplish the near impossible task of providing a satisfying vegetarian dinner on one plate.

We’ve been slowly working on building up a repertoire of smaller vegetarian dishes for the menu that will hopefully make eating a vegetarian meal at Legume a little more interesting. One such dish begins by pan-roasting delicious, sweet baby ya-ya carrots from Who Cooks For You Farm. They are then glazed with berbere-spiced honey and apple cider vinegar, and served with Seven Stars yogurt (which has been drained to thicken slightly and mixed with a little creme fraiche), roasted pistachios, and chopped mint.  

Another dish is the wild mushroom sandwich, which really isn’t a sandwich at all, but a heap of chanterelle mushrooms sauteed in butter with shallot and garlic on top of a small piece of sourdough which has been slathered with a puree of the season’s first new garlic (the best of the year for roasting) and topped with salsa verde and pickled cippolini onions.

The kitchen is looking forward to doing more of this kind of thing. The new, vegetarian-friendly small plates section of the menu will be rolling out after Labor Day, if not sooner. In the meantime, this month’s vegetarian menu will give you an idea of what is to come.

Chicken Under a Schism

If Legume has a signature dish, it’s probably the Chicken Cooked Under a Skillet, which is basically our version of the Italian “chicken under a brick,” which is a spatchcock chicken roasted in a pan with a weight on top of it, forming a crispy skin and a juicy texture. It’s a dish that used to be on the menu every single day, and many folks would come specifically for it.  

We used to have this on the menu every day we were open, but as Legume evolved, and we began to think more deeply about how we source things, we began to question how we were sourcing our chicken. First of all, when I asked the farmer if I could visit the operation, they said no. Secondly, the topic of what the chickens actually ate, and whether or not the feed was GMO, was difficult to have, because the GMO issue wasn’t on their radar. I surmised that what we were getting, though certainly “local” as the crow flies and honestly quite tasty, wasn’t really the kind of “local” we were going for.

(That word–”local.” It’s a word that’s used a lot by businesses these days, but what does it really mean? I certainly don’t claim that my definition is the most correct one, but I do think it’s clear that the word means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. However, in terms of being an adjective meant to describe an inherent quality in food, it’s been rendered almost meaningless.)

At some point, we began working with Pete Burns from Burns Heritage Farm. Pete was open to farm visits, and was already in the process of transitioning to a GMO-free feed when we met him. The Burns’ chicken are on fresh pasture every day, and it shows in the flavor of the birds. It also means it is available in the summer only, when there is fresh pasture to be had. Once the cold weather comes, and there is no more fresh pasture, they close shop for the year.

This is the explanation for why our signature dish only appears on the summer menu these days. We plan to have it on the menu most days from now until the end of October, but there will be some weeks, like this past one, when Pete doesn’t have enough chickens of the appropriate size, and we don’t have enough for the week. We’re also cooking a limited number each day. Cooking whole chicken to order really gums up the wheels of the kitchen and can slow things down, so we’re preparing only what we think we’ll sell for the evening.  

Most people these days don’t have time to stand in a long line for the hyped-up food thing that may or not be there in the end. I certainly don’t, and am really sorry if this chicken thing comes across like that. I understand: sometimes you just want what you want, and you want it to be there. If that’s the case, let us know when you make your reservation and we’ll do our best to set an order aside for you if it’s on the menu that day. The chickens are slaughtered on Wednesday and come to us Thursday. Since we like to let the birds marinate overnight, this means the most reliable days to find it on the menu are Friday, Saturday and Monday, though most weeks we will have it every single day.  We want to make this work for the people who love this dish. Thanks for working with us.

I don’t want to pretend that everything we do at Legume is organic and local and perfect, because it’s not. There will be plenty of things I’m not especially excited to cook this winter: farmed Arctic char from Iceland, potatoes from Idaho for fries (once the local storage ones are depleted), and lots of other things. I can’t really explain why it is it feels so hard to compromise on the chicken and switch to a lesser-quality bird for the winter until Pete’s are available the next May.

Perhaps it’s because of the connection I feel with the Burns’ farm: the conversations I get to have with Pete, witnessing his creative process, visiting the farm and seeing how beautifully it operates in a holistic and life-centered way, and, of course, the pleasure of putting hands on food of great quality. It’s almost as if the relationship heightens the sense of sacrilege when it comes to compromise in a way that is not noticed with things we have no chance of a connection to, things like pineapples, chocolate and white sugar.  This feeling of mine is a burden too, because I know there are many folks who just want the damn chicken, no matter how it’s sourced. We’ve had four-tops walk out of the restaurant upon discovering chicken wasn’t on the menu that day, and that’s painful to watch.

That’s the tension that is always happening at Legume, between making beautiful art and maintaining a broad-enough appeal so that the business stays afloat. As cheesy as this sounds, I got into cooking in order to re-live moments of my childhood when I felt a strong connection to the earth: gathering mussels in front of my grandmother’s house, foraging for fiddleheads with my dad, picking blackberries with my friend Joe in a secret patch in the fields behind our houses, gardening, fishing. The art of Legume is in trying to keep these Peter Pan moments lasting for as long as we can. That’s the most important thing.

Thanks for your support and being a part of Legume.