Hey, Carolina foodies, I have some sobering news for you: Tomato season is almost over.
Yes, it happens every year, but the growing season in Charlotte is so long that it's easy to forget fall and winter are just waiting in the wings. While apple cider donuts and pumpkin pies have their charms, I don't blame you for gazing wistfully after the last few 'maters trickling through our markets.
But don't worry: Farm wives are not the only ones "putting up" for the colder months ahead. With a blossoming interest in ingredients reflecting our rich farming culture, local chefs have also delved into a gamut of preservation techniques to spread the taste of summer out a little longer.
While home canning has regained popularity in recent years, restrictive state regulations require professional kitchens to file a variance with the state Department of Agriculture for each item they'd like to put in jars. Requiring meticulous details like model numbers on equipment used, and locking cooks into specific purveyors — which may change from week to week — the labor-intensive paperwork remains too cumbersome for small restaurants relying on variable, seasonal ingredients. As a result, the professionals must turn to other methods to hold onto those warm season flavors for later.
While Clark Barlowe of Heirloom restaurant has made a reputation for himself by using just about every kind of edible plant that grows in North Carolina, he's just as inventive when it comes to preserving them. He is currently applying for a variance from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to allow him to serve traditionally canned tomatoes, but has already made a practice of pickling and dehydrating foods from every season. This spring, he captured the month-long season of bamboo shoots by using a cold pickling method that doesn't require a variance. This summer, he's enjoyed playing with diners' expectations by frying pickled bamboo rings. "People pick it up and think it's going to be an onion ring, and it's a pickle," he says with a chuckle.
As the slight, soft-spoken chef continues saving summer ingredients, he naturally incorporates his own unique twists. For example, he made Carolina capers by pickling seed pods of coriander, ramps and nasturtiums. Normally made of flower buds and imported from the Mediterranean, capers require a substitute to maintain Barlowe's policy of sourcing all ingredients from North Carolina. "That's always been the most difficult thing with any of these ingredients," he says. "How do we create our own thing here?"
As a hallmark of this ingenuity, Barlowe applies multiple preservation methods to play with some more plentiful ingredients. For example, various types of tomatoes have been pickled, canned and even dried and turned into a powder, which results in a "really nice, bright, tomato flavor."
A natural teacher, he explains that dehydration amplifies the essence of an ingredient, while pickling changes the overall flavor profile by adding acid and salt. Again, regulations confine Barlowe to selling only refrigerated pickles, but that doesn't limit his imagination. Besides ersatz capers, he's already pickled okra and hops. He's not sure yet how he'll use the hops, but the amazing aroma has already captivated him.
"I think they're going to be a really nice component of something," he muses. "Like, chop the hops and add them to a sauce gribiche."
Over on the other side of town, Paul Verica is also open-minded about how he'll put his preserved summer foods to use in Heritage restaurant's cool-weather menus. At the end of corn season, he had his entire kitchen staff busy processing the last harvest, though Verica's not sure how they will show up on the menu.
"Literally, when you walked in," he tells me, "we were all standing there shucking corn that Poplar Ridge brought us today." Once the kernels are removed, the cobs go into a stockpot and the kernels are frozen individually. Since freezing changes the texture and moisture content of the corn, Verica ponders resurrecting it this winter as creamed corn, or a hearty corn chowder.
Freezer space is tight, so, like Barlowe, Verica varies his approach to preserving summer's harvest. He too has dried and powdered tomatoes this season. At Heritage, the powder was incorporated into a meringue base to create tomato meringue chips that added crispy interest to a tomato salad.
In addition to the freezer and dry storage, the cooler at Heritage also holds a plethora of saved foods. Pickled onions, cucumbers and gherkins await their turn on the plate, as well as fruit vinegars made with Southern classics like figs and blueberries, picked at nearby Newtown Farms. These will add dimension to salad dressings and sauces long after the bushes have gone dormant.
Preserving is key to Verica's farm-to-table, super-local approach. He has four main suppliers in the area, but only two of them grow year-round. "It was always part of the model for [Heritage]," he says. "For me, it's part of being as local as we can, and I knew that preserving was going to be crucial."
For both chefs, preservation falls naturally into their style of cooking, whether focused on uber-local, or wild and unexpected ingredients. While most chefs eventually tire of endless tomatoes and squash, and look forward to a turn of season for new inspiration, there's a small thrill in holding back a splash of summer taste.
As Verica says, "I want to be able to pull this corn out in the middle of January, and think back to this time and this place right now."