Making Flavor Last Longer

Each month, Tasting Tableís Monthly Editions explores a single topic from a variety of delicious angles. Our September 2012 issue, Preserved, extends the lives of our favorite flavors, from pickles to powders and extra-boozy cocktails.

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    Many new restaurant concepts are risks… unless you’re Nicolaus Balla, chef of San Francisco’s Bar Tartine, and you want to open a sandwich annex. That project, which combines the legendary loaves of Tartine Bakery with the unconventional Eastern European flavors of Balla’s cooking, seemed fated. But out of the Sandwich Shop at Bar Tartine, which opened on August 1, came an even more exciting development: real estate for Balla to expand his larder and exponentially increase the number of preserved, fermented, pickled and dried ingredients that he makes in-house.

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    The shelves weighted with jars are no mere hobby; Balla insists that they are as integral to his dishes as the fresh ingredients he uses. “We’re able to layer flavor upon flavor upon flavor this way,” he says. It’s also a way for him to build on his close relationships with farmers. Several nearby farms grow certain vegetables especially for him, and he often buys the entire harvest. “Last week we had 1,500 pounds of apricots; some were dried, some became jam,” he says. “They’ll be on our menu for months to come.”

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    Nearly every dish on the Sandwich Shop’s menu uses a preserved element. Take the “chopped salad.” Instead of a bowl of finely diced vegetables tossed with slivered lettuce, the dish is a superb composite of experiments from the larder, including pickled mushrooms, fermented salami, house-made preserved pepper jack cheese and pickled peppers.

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    But perhaps the most interesting explorations at the Sandwich Shop are happening in the dehydrator. The device, which, as its name suggests, circulates warm air around an ingredient and evaporates its moisture, may not sound like a tool for the home cook. But Balla assured us it is: “I grew up in Michigan, and my mother had a dehydrator that stayed on throughout every summer and fall.” Balla has followed in his mother’s footsteps: The dehydrator is on all the time at the shop, drying everything from local anchovies and shrimp (which will later become shrimp paste and fish sauce) to fruit to vegetables, which are then ground and used in a variety of spice blends.

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    One such blend is based on the Japanese spice mixture togarashi. Made with dried sea laver (aka nori), dried kale and smoked onion powder, it syncs the powerful salinity of the sea with a cruciferous grassiness. Balla gave us the recipe and, frankly, we balked. Between the obscure ingredients and lengthy preparation process, it seemed an overwhelming endeavor for edible dust. So we tackled just one aspect--smoked onion powder (see the recipe)--and thank goodness, since the mixture has numerous applications: over pasta, on a baked potato or, as Balla suggests, dusted over goat cheese.

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    Balla refers to the recipe as a road map. “Use your instincts,” he told us. “If you donít have one of the ingredients, dry something else and mix just a little bit together to see if it works.” Indeed, this trial-and-error mindset is what led to a room full of put-ups. “And we’re already out of space,” he admitted.

    Here’s hoping it will inspire more projects in your kitchen.

  • SENT SEPTEMBER 18, 2012


    Not Another Cucumber

    A way to get reinvested in the pickle craze

    We would be remiss to overlook the humble pickle in a discussion on preservation. But we were tempted to do so out of sheer exhaustion: The veg-in-vinegar equation has been...

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  • SENT SEPTEMBER 17, 2012


    Rock the Block

    Cure your fish with salt

    The Norsemen of yesteryear knew what they were doing. Out of necessity, they preserved fish by packing it in salt. We have since learned to refrigerate, but there is nothing quite...

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  • SENT SEPTEMBER 14, 2012


    Strength in Numbers

    High octane spirits; good for drinking and more

    Your suspicion that your drinking tolerance has decreased recently might be right. Within the last decade, there's been a market-wide push toward alcohols with higher proofs,...

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  • SENT SEPTEMBER 10, 2012


    The Right 'Tract

    Make your own extracts, or try the new ones from Whole Spice

    We’re always impressed with the power of extracts. From vanilla to peppermint, the contents of those tiny bottles deliver a wallop of flavor to our favorite sweets, such as...

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  • SENT SEPTEMBER 5, 2012


    Time Table

    This September, go beyond canning

    We won't be obsessing over a new set of knives this fall, nor an updated blender. The gadget to have is a food dehydrator. It is the key to making some of the fascinating and...

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