If you're looking to punch up your plate, reach for a relish. We're not talking limp bits of oversweet pickles from a jar but rather the zippy, tangy, pungent and otherwise palate-rocking flavors of freshly made, bold, ethnic relishes such as Korean kimchee, Indian chutney and German sauerkraut.
By applying California flair to traditional recipes, Bay Area chefs like Preeti Mistry of Oakland's Juhu Beach Club and food purveyors like Kathryn Lukas of Santa Cruz's Farmhouse Culture are leading the charge in redefining time-honored traditions of pickling fruits and vegetables into bright side dishes, meat toppers and straight-from-the-jar snacks.
Home cooks are marinating on the trend, too: The lineup at Santa Rosa's upcoming Farm to Fermentation Festival in August includes a DIY pickle station and homemaker's kraut-off.
You don't need a lab coat or a culinary degree to master these fermented goodies. Usually, all it takes is fresh produce, salt or sugar, vinegar -- and time for the magical, good-for-you bacteria to do their thing.
San Francisco cookbook author and instructor Karen Solomon knows. The jam maker and canning expert has honed her pickle power through years of traveling to Asia and eating her way through San Francisco's ethnic eateries, including Dennis Lee's Namu Gaji, home of the kimchee taco and an early adopter of what has become a hipster restaurant must: the appetizer pickle plate.
Lee and Solomon both believe kimchee and all things pickled are gaining appreciation among Americans, because fermented foods have been missing from our diets for so long. From a culinary perspective, Lee says that chefs are always seeking new flavors and techniques, so the pungency and lively flavors really appeal.
"Even though it's the same product by name, it's actually something very personal from chef to chef," says Lee, who pickles everything from beef tongue to pork skins. "I like making dishes with items that people don't normally try."
To Solomon, the pickle is paramount for a good meal for many reasons. Not only are many pickled foods deceptively easy to make, but they are flavor and texture balancers. "They're delicious," she says. "There's nothing not to like about bright, savory, deep, unctuous flavors that add salt and contrast richness, especially meat. And Americans love meat."
In her new book, "Asian Pickles: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Cured and Fermented Preserves" (Ten Speed Press, $19.99, 200 pages), Solomon inspires readers to look beyond basic brines and kosher dills. The DIY guide includes 75 authentic recipes from five regions -- Japan, Korea, China, India and Southeast Asia -- along with foolproof techniques, resources for hard-to-find ingredients and ideas for using pickles in cooking.
In the Korea chapter, jampacked with kimchee and banchan, she pays homage to classic daikon kimchee with her own seasonal creation, Summer Radish Kimchi, which celebrates the season's fiery pink salad variety, greens and roots attached. "That's one of my favorite things about pickles," she says. "Nothing is wasted."
In the Southeast Asia section, she includes Atchara, the quintessential Philippines pickle made with green papaya, jalapeño chiles and white vinegar, and adds a Thai Pickled Cabbage that cures in lime juice.
"Thailand doesn't have its own signature cabbage pickle, but I personally love the flavor profile of fish sauce, garlic, ginger and chile, so I created this one," she says.
In Korea, however, pickled Napa cabbage is a force. It is almost unheard of to eat a meal without kimchee's crunch and the zestiness of spicy fermented chile paste. Here, in San Francisco, Lee makes kimchee based on his mother's recipe but sources ingredients, including tomatoes and green onions, from the restaurant's farm in Sunol. To ensure complexity, he adds a few steps in the hand-mixed, two-day process.
"We go through a laborious process of pressing and draining our cabbage to yield more lively flavor and crunch," Lee says. A Namu Gaji staffer is assigned to stir the kimchee every few days. "It is not common practice, but it helps us keep the fermentation and seasoning even."
At Juhu Beach Club, chef-owner Mistry is also refining her favorite childhood chutneys with a bit of California playfulness, from sour rhubarb to Granny Smith apple riffs on the classic green mango pickle.
"Unripened mango pickle is salty, sour and bitter, but with the Granny Smith apple, you get just a little bit more residual sugar, so it's balanced," Mistry says. Equally balanced is Mistry's sweet and sour Peach Chutney: Simply sizzle cumin and nigella seeds over medium heat before adding diced peaches and vinegar. It is ready in 10 minutes and delicious atop a grilled pork chop or alongside zucchini fritters.
This month, the "Top Chef" alum's menu will add a pickle and papadum plate featuring pickled summer squash and yellow wax beans.
"Being able to use seasonal, local ingredients makes it so much more exciting," Mistry says.
Farmhouse Culture founder Kathryn Lukas can relate. Every ingredient that goes into her line of raw organic sauerkraut, which is available at Whole Foods, comes from within 20 miles of the company's Santa Cruz facility. Lukas fell in love with kraut in the late 1990s, while working as a chef in Stuttgart, Germany.
"When I tasted it fresh from a farmer's barrel, it was tart, crunchy and also sweet -- and unlike anything I'd ever tasted," she says. "What's so cool about sauerkraut is that the real stuff actually tastes better than the fake stuff that's been sitting on the grocery shelves."
When she started Farmhouse Culture in 2008, she wanted to infuse kraut with "our regional, modern flavor sensibilities." Hence, Smoked Jalapeno Kraut that elevates nachos and Classic Caraway Kraut that perks up shredded carrots and green onions. No dressing necessary, just a drizzle of zesty California olive oil.
Even the company's kimchee, which was introduced in 2012, was made with California in mind. The unique recipe features seaweed flakes and date sugar, which Lukas says make it more palatable for those who find traditional kimchee spicy or stinky.
But, Farmhouse Culture's most popular kraut might be the Garlic Dill Pickle, which is heavenly on a hot dog, of course. Lukas calls it their gateway kraut. "Kids seem to like it," she says.
Then they'll love what's coming up this fall: A line of fermented, tomato-based salsas. Lukas says, "It's the California ketchup, right?"
farm to Fermentation
Now in its sixth year, Santa Rosa's Farm to Fermentation Festival has grown to include classes on making fermented foods and beverages at home, sampling goodies from California's premier fermented food producers, and attending educational presentations from authors and entrepreneurs. New this year: a DIY pickle station, fermented root beer float bar and a homemaker's kraut-off. Details: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 24, Finley Community Center, 2060 West College Ave., Santa Rosa. Tickets: $15-$40. www.farmtofermentation.com.