Nobody calls pickles “pickled cucumbers.” Pickles are pickles, a food in their own crispy, crunchy, sweet-and-sour right, thanks to the transformative power of brine. Over days or weeks, the liquid — typically a mix of vinegar, salt, sugar and spices — can give foods new textures, tastes and aromas. For many local chefs, there’s something creatively satisfying about pickling, says Jamie Leeds, the chef behind Hank’s Oyster Bar (1624 Q St. NW; 202-462-4265, and 1026 King St., Alexandria; 703-739-4265). “Chefs always like to … have control over flavorings. It adds a whole new dimension to food.” Depending on the season, Hank’s pickles peppers, grapes and even watermelon rind, and uses them as garnishes for cocktails and main courses. There are plenty of pickled plates to be picked from among the city’s peck of prime eateries, and here are just a few.
Pickled oysters at America Eats Tavern
America Eats Tavern
405 8th St. NW; 202-393-0812. (Federal Triangle)
While research and development chef Robyn Stern perused early American cookbooks to gather inspiration for America Eats Tavern’s menu, “pickled oysters were everywhere,” she says. Those who lived along the coast in the 19th century would pack oysters in a mixture of vinegar and spices to keep them fresh. To re-create those historic flavors for its appetizer plate of pickled oysters ($13), America Eats preserves its raw bivalves for about eight hours. “In one bite, it’s like a burst of flavor,” Stern says. “It’s still briny from the oyster, yet it’s so salty and somewhat acidic from the vinegar and then still a bit spicy” from the allspice, clove, black peppercorn and mace in the pickling liquid.
Deviled pickled eggs at Mintwood Place
Deviled Pickled Eggs
1813 Columbia Road NW; 202-234-6732.
Deviled pickled eggs stained with beet juice ($5) make a dramatic appearance at Mintwood Place. Chef Cedric Maupillier, who hails from France (and once cooked at Central Michel Richard), was inspired to create the Southern-inspired dish after his girlfriend (a sous chef at Mintwood ) persuaded him to try pickled eggs. “There are a lot of things I like to eat in the U.S. that people don’t think of in France. Pickled eggs is one of them,” Maupillier says. He isn’t a fan of eggs that have rested for a long time in pickling brine, because he believes the whites become “too chewy and plasticky,” so his brining process lasts just a day or two. “We brine them just to give them acidity,” he says. “The goodness of the regular deviled eggs and the zippiness of the pickled white really balance out. With a beer before dinner starts, it’s almost a palate cleanser.”
Beet salad at Unum
2917 M St. NW; 202-621-6959.
Beets get a peppery kick in their pickled incarnation served as part of new Georgetown restaurant Unum’s beet salad ($8). The colorful plate — composed of thinly sliced Chioggia (or “candy-stripe”) beets, red beets and golden beets — showcases the range and versatility of the root veggie. The salad’s pickled beets are preserved with brine containing rice vinegar, sugar, coriander seed and black peppercorn; the dish also includes roasted beets and raw beets. The beets are topped with goat cheese and drizzled with vanilla-balsamic vinaigrette. “It’s a perfect dish for people who aren’t necessarily beet fans, because you’ve got a variety of different flavors and techniques and tastes,” says Unum chef and co-owner Phill Blane.
Pickled pumpkin salad at Evening Star Cafe
Pickled Pumpkin Salad
Evening Star Cafe
2000 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-549-5051.
Golden slices of pickled pumpkin lend a dose of tanginess to Evening Star Cafe’s hearty pickled pumpkin salad ($9). It’s a pop of flavor that Georgia native and executive chef Jim Jeffords was proud to introduce. “Growing up, there was an enormous amount of pickling being done, but people had never done anything like pickled pumpkin,” Jeffords says. He simmers the pumpkin (or butternut squash, depending on the season) in a mixture containing apple juice and Champagne vinegar, and lets it sit for about a week. Balancing out the sweet-and-sour slices in the salad are spicy arugula, red peppers, onions, roasted pumpkin seeds and “piggy croutons” (brined, breaded and fried pigs’ ears). The unusual combo slowly caught on among customers, Jeffords says. “When we first reopened [after a renovation in December], we sold more of our winter citrus salad than we did of the arugula salad. But when more of an adventurous crowd started coming in, it balanced out.”
Peculiar Pickling: Plates for the Adventurous
Pickled trotters — yes, those are pigs’ feet — served with warm bacon potato salad are on Vidalia’s happy hour-only exhibition bar bites menu ($3). 1990 M St. NW; 202-659-1990.
Scandinavian/Slavic restaurant Domku pan-fries two pickled herring fillets before plating them with tomato, cucumber and red onion as an appetizer ($9). 821 Upshur St. NW; 202-722-7475.
Photo Credit: courtesy hank's oyster bar; courtesy evening star; katie stoops; Marge Ely/ Express; kris connor