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

James Beard Foundation Award

A few weeks ago, Legume Bistro was named a semi-finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award, in the category of Outstanding Restaurant.

Though we haven’t actually won anything, the recognition means a lot because what we do at Legume is very rare, and it is very difficult to communicate to the world exactly how this is so. All I can say is that the cooking and service we do every day is built upon a very fragile eco-system of relationships most restaurants aren’t willing to base their operations around, and a deeply-layered, process-driven approach to cooking that perpetually teeters on the edge of failure because of the never-ending attention it requires. Going about things this way is often cause for doubt, and so this kind of recognition goes a long way to encourage us further.

And though we haven’t actually won anything, the nod is a reminder to me to express gratitude to the staff, farmers, investors (who still haven’t seen a penny), and our guests for making Legume possible. We all had a part in this. Restaurants don’t exist in bubbles; they are intertwined with the communities they serve. That Pittsburgh can support a weird little restaurant like Legume says something about the health of our city’s progressive spirit.  For over ten years, Pittsburgh has allowed us to follow our hearts and do our thing, and for that we are grateful.

Late Winter at Legume 
Once we make it through the slog of Valentine’s Day week, we start to think about the late winter menu. March is a blurry time of year in the kitchen, and it requires a lot of planning and thought because if we don’t plan well, the menu will feel stagnant.  It’s not quite cold enough for cold-weather cooking, yet what’s available locally right now is pretty much the same stuff that was available in late December. The challenge this time of year is to make a menu that offers a sense of renewal and transition, without indulging in pseudo-seasonal trappings like asparagus, peas, and morels months before they are actually in season here.

Zurek is a Polish soup which is traditionally served on Easter. We typically serve it from the beginning of March until we start making wild nettle soup in April. Today we started the zakvas starter for the zurek, my favorite soup we make all year. The zakvas is a mixture of freshly-ground rye flour from Weatherbury farm, garlic, bay, marjoram, allspice and water that ferments for a week or so. We then use this tangy fermented mixture to thicken a stock made with bacon and root vegetables cooked in chicken stock.  To this we add hard boiled egg and coins of kielbasa, and a sprinkle of dried marjoram. I know it sounds weird, but it’s actually really good.

Any Saturday now I expect to see goose eggs at the Saturday East Liberty Farmer’s Market. That’s when I know spring is truly on its way, even if asparagus is still two months behind. We’ve been making goose egg flan for the past five or so years, and it has, like the cherry pie, developed a cult-like following. I’m looking forward to taking it to the next level this year with Seven Stars Cream, which we started working with this past summer.

Pete Burns reports he’s going to have two hogs available every week beginning in the middle of March, which means really great things at Legume. Pete’s is the best pork we’ve tasted since Dave Heilman’s. Too many farmers I talk to think genetics has nothing to do with flavor of pork, and that pigs only taste as good as what they eat. Not true. Diet, obviously, is very important, but so are the genetics. Everything we make with Pete’s pork just tastes better—the sausage, the goulash, the schnitzel: all of it. That it will be a regular thing is very exciting.

Long-time regulars might remember the antelope we used to serve many moons ago. We stopped serving antelope because we wanted to do all of our meat from Western PA.  But after so many years of lamb, beef, pork, lamb, beef, pork, lamb, beef, pork, occasional goat, lamb, beef, pork—we’re opening the door to the great beyond again. To be clear: we’ll never serve commodity meat or poultry or anything like that, but it seems a little senseless to limit all of our options to lamb, beef, pork, occasional goat just to say we get all our meat from Western PA when there are so many great farms doing really great work that just happen to be beyond our state’s borders.

A few weeks ago we received our first order of venison from Millbrook venison farm. It’s really good.  We’re serving it with parsnip puree, einkorn pilaf, and a little sauce made with gin, brandy, juniper, venison and beef bones, mirpoix, and homemade red currant jelly we made last summer. (No one makes a sauce like this anymore.) The dish is a labor of love, and we could never possibly charge what we need to charge to make it financially viable, even though we’re charging $39 for it. The Mainer in me cringes to think we charge that much for a plate of food, while at the same time the Mainer in me cringes to think how much it costs us to put each plate in the pass.  Expect to see venison a few more times before March is over.

Goat is kind of a late-summer thing, but in our kitchen, it’s psychologically in season in March because the cooks are eager to see new things happen in the kitchen, and throwing four whole goat a week into the mix of things shakes things up a bit.  Also, the goat we get from Brad Thoma is really, really good any time of year.

This year, I’m especially excited to see how our new butcher, Jason Wilcox, will approach the goat and hopefully help us get some new ideas for it.  Goat is one of the only animal we still receive whole. We used to receive pork and beef whole too, but that was out of necessity. If we wanted to work with high-quality local beef and pork in 2012, we had to get it whole and figure out what to do with it all; now there are pork and beef farms offering primals of the great-quality meat, so there is no reason to go through the whole animal hassle.  When it comes to goat, however, we can’t get them in parts yet, so we get them whole, four at a time.

That about sums up what we’re looking forward to this late winter. Everything changes again in the first or second week of April, when we’re focused on the wild foods of early spring—nettles, ramps, chickweed, wild mustard and whatever else Nick brings us. Then it all changes again when rhubarb and asparagus appear, usually the first week in May. What used to be the most difficult time of year in the kitchen is now the time of year I look forward to the most. Years of banging our heads against the brick wall of late winter and early spring has yielded a repertoire that is rich and interesting. And it continues to evolve from one year to the next.

Thanks for reading and for supporting Legume.

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.

Tomatoes


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.