Beauty of Seasonal Food Preservation Methods

Experimenting with new and different ways to preserve the fruits of the season is an ongoing endeavor at the Culinary Vegetable Institute—something that’s fueled by practicality, sure, but also because Chef Jamie Simpson and his team truly believe in using produce from root to tip, creating flavorful dishes in a sustainable way.

Take brassica leaves, for example. More specifically, brussels sprouts leaves. There are parts of this plant that are typically considered to be inedible, or at least pretty difficult to cook. These pieces and parts are therefore often left in the field to ultimately fertilize the soil; although that’s an important job, it’s also possible to prepare brussels sprouts leaves in a way that’s delicious and nutritious. Here’s more about how.

“We apply smoke to parts of hogs,” Jamie says, “and then put them into a broth that’s sweetened and seasoned. We then braise the brussels sprouts leaves and can them in this broth, putting the cans in our root cellar. We have only two jars left from last season’s harvest, and now we’re producing for this season.”

This is a CVI version of bacon and greens and, while Jamie and his team could have used more tender leaves and a traditional slab of bacon, they didn’t. “Instead,” Jamie says, “this dish is built almost entirely from ingredients that would typically be unused, discarded, ignored.”

In general, the CVI team has been on the lookout for “fibrous things” that might not work well as an ingredient, at least not without some significant time and attention. “Right now,” Jamie says, “we’ve started new batches of things that have the spirit of fish sauce or soy sauce, and then pulling out moisture so that we can also create seasonings for other things.”

An example is this summer’s “very successful harvest” of heavy wild mushrooms that, on their own, wouldn’t slice well or be pleasant to eat. They were, as Jamie puts it, “Technically edible. Texturally impossible.” By grinding them and salting them and purging them of moisture, though, the kitchen team could create a “nice glutamate-driven seasoning for our kitchen.” It can be used to flavor pastas and marinades, as a dry curing or aging rub, and so much more.

And what about that mushroom water? It was fermented in the root cellar, and the resulting liquid is rich, aromatic, and “umami all the way,” a unique sauce reminiscent of soy sauce.

Here’s another example of honoring all parts of the plant, preserving them before winter weather arrives. As the summer season is winding down, most of CVI’s front garden will soon be slumbering. “So,” Jamie said, “we tried some new preservation techniques with some of the hardier herbs to capture their flavor and color, including to grind them into fine powders and vacuum seal them. These are very versatile and we’ll fold them into cakes, shortbreads, breadcrumbs.”

One example is the nearly ten pounds of rosemary that, when ground into powder, fit into one single bag, which saves space and the need for refrigeration. “Because we waste almost nothing,” Jamie said, “we then bound the rosemary sticks in butcher twine to dry them, and then they can be used to fortify broths.”

Another technique focuses on macerating ingredients in the honey that’s collected from the beehives on the CVI grounds. “Honey wants to equalize in its environment,” Jamie explains. “As a sugar, it becomes wet in humid conditions, almost fermenting. In dry environments, it becomes almost crystalized.”

The team at the Culinary Vegetable Institute has been adding plant matter to honey, such as herbs with delicate flavors and aromatic profiles, using just enough honey to submerge the ingredients. As the leaves soften in the liquid, this pulls moisture into the honey, which is a substance that’s a nearly perfect solvent for flavor.

“You can use dried fruits, wet fruits, just about any herb in the honey,” Jamie said, “and we’ve probably made 30 to 40 different varieties this summer. It’s a simple and natural process, and the pineapple tomatillo honey turned out especially well. With roasted shallot and garlic and chilis, it’s got the flavor of Chinese takeout.”

More About Putting Up Preserves

In years past, people stored fruits, vegetables, meats and more on their cellar shelves to provide food for their families throughout the winter, burying potatoes and other root vegetables in the cool soil for the same purpose. In some locales, the latter process was called “holing in.” After people dug a hole, they’d line it with something, from straw to sawdust, and then put their food in that hole. They might cover it with more straw—or sawdust—and then put a board or other material on top.

Fewer families, though, have been passing along their knowledge about food preservation methods than they once did, in large part because of the huge range of food choices that’s available in grocery stores all year long, with refrigeration close at hand. At the CVI, though, we continue to celebrate preservation. This allows the team, Jamie said, “to look at new ingredients with old, sometimes ancient processes, or old ingredients with new processes.”

Here’s an intriguing look at examining objects in a brand-new way:

In the past, when it came time to can foods to preserve them, people might refer to that process as putting their fruits and vegetables up. As part of our celebration of food preservation, we became a registered cannery to preserve delicious produce from The Chef’s Garden when the supply is greater than anticipated. We take the fruits of the season and we put them up.

To make that happen, we took a UC Davis California course, which allowed us to become certified—and then we opened a root cellar where we store vegetable- and floral-based vinegars, cocktail bitters, cover crop miso, natural sodas, healthy junk food, hot sauces, powders, flour, pickles, charcuterie, honey and more.

Although Jamie often gets his culinary inspiration from strolls through nature, a saunter through the root cellar is also an excellent source of inspiration.

Root Cellar

And, although it’s true that root cellars aren’t as commonly used as they used to be, the tide may be turning. TheDailyMeal.com predicts that, as food waste consciousness becomes increasingly more front and center in people’s minds, restaurants and families will focus more on pickling, canning, salting and more. In other words, according to this article, more people and places are expected to return to food preservation methods that have allowed people to survive over the centuries.

Here’s a brief look back in time at those methods.

History of Food Preservation

“Food historians believe pre-historic people preserved food accidentally through geography and living conditions. Things froze in icy northern areas and dried out in the hot Mediterranean sun. Early cave-dwellers likely stumbled onto smoking food after hanging it in the same caves where they made fires for warmth and light. Native Americans in ancient times sun-cured buffalo meat.” (Southern Kitchen)

And, when people—either accidentally or on purpose—discovered how to preserve food, this was a revolutionary change. More specifically, according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP), when ancient mankind first learned how to preserve food, that enabled them to “make roots and live in one place and form a community.”

As far back as 12,000 B.C., people were purposely drying food, using sun and wind, in the Middle East and Asian cultures—and, over time, that knowledge spread around the world. As time went by, techniques may have become more sophisticated, but the underlying concepts remained the same.

Ancient Romans appreciated the flavors of dried fruit and preserved a rainbow of them. By the Middle Ages, structures called still houses were built to dry fruits and vegetables, as well as herbs, in places where the sun wasn’t strong enough; people would build a fire, drying and sometimes smoking foods.

In fact, in islands off the coast of Scotland, people were still using drying houses to preserve their food just a few hundred years ago. According to Waste Not, Want Not: Food Preservation from Early Times to the Present Day by C. Anne Wilson, people on St. Kilda built stone pyramids with strategic gaps included to allow the drying air to enter. In 1698, visitors to the island noted that residents still dried their fowl without the use of salt or spice. After drying for a year in storehouses, fowl were then boiled or roasted.

Fermentation, meanwhile, is believed to be a happy accident, with the NCHFP saying, “No doubt that the first beer was discovered when a few grains of barley were left in the rain . . . Some anthropologists believe that mankind settled down from nomadic wanderers into farmers to grow barley to make beer in roughly 10,000 BC. Beer was nutritious and the alcohol was divine. It was treated as a gift from the gods.”

Pickling may have been a natural outgrowth, with the first pickled foods possibly done so in beer or wine—with leftover brine also used in interesting ways. Ancient Romans enjoyed a powerful fish pickle sauce called garum, with dishes only needing a few drops for intense flavoring. Another fun fact, according to the NCHFP: ketchup was originally a fish brine.

People buried more than root vegetables in years past, with kegs of butter being buried in peat in Scotland and Ireland. This allowed the butter to mature in a cool place, with a burial of seven years believed to be ideal. This practice was still happening in Ireland until the latter part of the eighteenth century, perhaps even later, and these barrels were found long after they were buried, as late as 1931. Other times, food was buried in ash for preservation purposes.

Additional food preservation methods—ones still used today—include curing, jams and jellies, and canning. Freezing was also a common method of food preservation, and each of these techniques can also play a key role in reducing food waste in contemporary times.

More About Food Waste Reduction

In October 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released their Winning on Reducing Food Waste: FY 2019-2020 Federal Interagency Strategy. In this report, they acknowledge how 30 to 40 percent of the food in the United States is being wasted, serving as the single largest form of waste found in daily trash.

They also restate their shared goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030 through “education and outreach, research, community investments, voluntary programs, public-private partnerships, tool development, technical assistance, event participation and policy discussion on the impacts and importance of reducing food loss and waste.”

Another report, The Business Case for Reducing Food Loss and Waste: Restaurants, was released in February 2019. This report summarizes what was discovered after pre-consumer waste was examined from 114 different restaurants in 12 countries—and it includes how restaurants that create programs to reduce food waste can save significant amounts of money. In fact, 76 percent of them recouped their costs in the very first year. Within three years, the typical location saved more than two cents on every dollar.

At the CVI, we embrace a broad spectrum of solutions to reduce food waste, focusing on sustainably creating delicious dishes, beautifully plated and full of nutrition.

Join Us at the Culinary Vegetable Institute!

We invite you to attend one or more of our upcoming events. These including our Fall Squash Vegetable Showcase on January 18, 2020.

When we plan our vegetable showcase dinners, the design process begins with the ingredient and place it on the highest pedestal. We classify traditional pairings and non-traditional pairings into columns titled: Meats. Fish. Grains. Herbs. Condiments. Alcohols. Vegetables. Spices. Nuts. Fats. Dairy. Then we consider preparations: Sauté. Fry. Roast. Bake. Grill. Ferment. Dehydrate. Juice. Freeze. Pulverize. Reconstitute. We look at every element of the plant as well, and question how we can incorporate every piece or part: Seed. Root/Tuber. Stem. Leaf. Bloom. Stamen. Fruit. We think about affinities of flavors and experiences in putting together combinations on the plate and dishes on the menu. Then the imagination kicks in, and we get busy in the kitchen.

There’s also our Christmas Tea Party on December 21, 2019!