When it comes to cooking versatility, preserving fruit and vegetables by means of vinegars, jams and chutneys can’t be beat.
But Denver-based chef Alex Figura questioned one specific problem with the preservation process: Breaking delicate produce down in hot liquid results in a massive loss of textural integrity. Apples, berries, stone fruit and citrus that are crisp at their seasonal peak become mushy and, therefore, can add only so much to sweet and savory dishes.
Enter Figura’s slowly pickled fruit, like the strawberries you’ll want to use year-round (see the recipe).
First, fruit gets soaked in sugar so that the liquid gets drawn out. The syrupy result then gets combined with salt and vinegar, brought up to a low heat then poured back over the fruit. It sits for 24 hours, and then the process repeats until the fruit itself is somewhat dehydrated texturally but fortified with both sweet and sour.
The solid fruit and its pickling liquid then get used all over Figura’s kitchen, hitting every meal of the day and working through the long cold seasons until fresh produce is back at its peak again.
For the most part, Figura keeps the base recipe simple, pairing fruits with similar flavors and colors of vinegar: apple cider vinegar for fresh apples, plum vinegar for plums or white wine vinegar for white peaches. “I stay away from abrasive vinegars like balsamic or sherry,” he says. “Champagne, red and white wine, white distilled and white balsamic are all good, because they don’t take away from the fruit, and the goal is to use the acidity in the vinegar to elevate the fruit’s flavor and preserve it safely for a long period of time.”
The final product can be used in savory applications where additional sweetness and acidity serve the dish well or over fatty but neutrally flavored desserts like mild cheeses and custards. Here are Figura’s favorite ways to use his pickled fruits all day—and all year—long.
Bruschetta: Use your pickled strawberries for a killer bruschetta. Grill slices of good sourdough bread; smear them with a soft cheese like a chèvre, burrata or ricotta; and then scoop on some of the fruit and garnish with basil and fennel seeds (or pollen). “It covers all the contrasts you want. It’s rich but not heavy and acidic but not too sweet,” Figura says.
Salad Dressing: For a well-rounded vinaigrette, use pickled fruits made with red or white wine vinegar, replacing the vinegar in your basic recipe with the pickling liquid to taste. Hearty greens like kale and arugula work best, but also layered salads with complements that go against the sweetness, like briny olives, feta-style cheese or grilled romaine.
Grilled Meat Marinade: Add a little mustard and rosemary to the pickled fruit liquid, let your meat sit in a coating overnight, then grill it. “The char from the grill and sweet-tart combo work really well together,” he claims.
Poultry Glaze: “Duck and dark fruit work very well together, which is why they’re on menus everywhere,” Figura says. After you’ve roasted duck, pheasant or quail, reduce your stock until it coats the back of a spoon. Then add an equal amount of strained pickled cherry or plum juice, and reduce down again. Right before serving, add a little more of the vinegar you used to pickle the fruit in, like plum or red wine, to give it an extra kick and work against the fat of the meat. Finish with some fresh cherries or pickled mustard seeds, and sauce the serving plate with it.
Pasta Ragout: Braise meat into a ragout, and then reduce it at the end with a little butter and pickled fruit solids and liquid. Toss in the pasta and finish it with briny black olives, “so it’s not that sweet; the fruit is there as an acidic element, and the olives bring back the salty, briny element.”
Dressed-Up Maple Syrup: To add pizzazz to pancakes, mix equal parts of syrup and pickling liquid (or for a sweeter syrup, one part pickling juice to two parts syrup). This works particularly well with pickled cherries, adding a deep red fruit flavor to the autumn-tinged sweetness.
Dessert Grilled Cheese: Panfry brioche French toast, melt some funky-flavored cheese between two slices, and then soak both sides in a little pickling liquid for a sweet/sour/fatty dessert. Serve it with eggy ice cream to balance out the sweetness.
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