For the Love of Pickles

In the Kitchen with...

For the Love of Pickles

By Erik Ness | Photos By Erik Ness 0

If you were dying for fresh market produce during the laggard spring, you know how Nisse Lovendahl felt. She’s been the prime pickler for the Underground Food Collective (UFC), creating tart and briny treats for the collective’s catering, restaurant and butcher business. And the months that stretched from last fall’s harvest to the first tendrils of spring were excruciating.

Pickles soothed her worries in the early weeks of winter. “It’s great to be able to look at those on the shelves as it gets freezing cold outside,” she said. “They’re bright-colored vegetables that will be around all winter.” But then, Winter. Wouldn't. Let. Go. Eventually, all they had left in the cupboard were a few pickled beets.

On a typical market day, Lovendahl says this to Pete Baisen, quartermaster and procurement guru for UFC: “Just get me a hundred pounds of something that looks like it will be good as a pickle.” This spring, she tagged along to market as well, and now she's pickling again, putting up ramps, onions, mushrooms, radishes, asparagus, overwintered beets and carrots.

Radio journalism—preserving stories like her preserved foods—was Lovendahl’s startup dream, until she discovered that it involved too much sitting down. “I have a lot of nervous energy,” she explains, sitting now, but sitting atop one leg, hands trapped in the other leg. It’s easy to imagine her suddenly uncoiling and bouncing around the room.

Her senior year at the University of Wisconsin - Madison she worked at Cafe Soleil as a barista and met Tory Miller, chef of L’Etoile and Graze. A post-grad work trip to Spain didn’t quite work as planned, but it got her thinking more deeply about food and culinary school. When she called Miller to pick his brain, he offered an internship, instead, to test how she liked the business. She wound up working there for more than 2 years before taking a job across the alley at the Underground Kitchen. A week later, the restaurant burned down. She moved into catering while the collective went into chrysalis stage.

“We were starting to talk about the butcher shop and what we wanted to have there - cookies, crackers, then pickles and jams,” she explains. She took over development of the pickle business when another employee went on maternity leave. “I love pickles. Love little cucumber pickles. Bread and butter pickles are my favorite,” she says. “My mom always had pickles in the fridge.” And Lovendahl always loved making jam—her grandmother is an inspiration.

She forgets precisely her first pickle—it was probably an onion pickle at L’Etoile—but slowly she expanded her ideas. A contemporary inspiration was Kelly Geary, a Brooklyn confederate of the Underground crew and author of Tart and Sweet: 101 Canning and Pickling Recipes for the Modern Kitchen. But she also went old school. “If you’re going to make a dill pickle it’s nice to be able to go back to the Ball Blue Book.”

But recipes will only get you so far; ultimately it’s still a form of alchemy. “Even if you taste the brine while you’re making it, the flavors change overnight after you’ve jarred it all up,” she says. And sometimes, you just get a feeling. “The radish and the juniper just sounded good,” she said of her newest creation, crisp with a little bite and a hint of desert air. “I’d never had that before.”

Pickling is one of those ancient culinary arts with a simple heart and a complex soul. Its origins are buried in antiquity, and it’s not hard to imagine how the ability to safely preserve surplus food helped enable the evolution of those societies who mastered it.

Like baking and brewing and charcuterie, even the home practitioner can concoct a delicious product. Some basic kitchen skills, a decent recipe, and you, too, can have refrigerator pickles. But making the transition to production is another thing altogether. Here, modern science takes over.

For example, you need training and licensing. Each of the recipes developed by Lovendahl has been lab tested, and its production process vetted by University of Wisconsin - Extension food safety specialist Barbara Ingham. “You have to have scientific evidence that what you're doing is safe,” she explains. She says the field is growing rapidly, helped along by both the growth of interest in home canning and the local food movement.

And the farmers are happy to sell in bulk. Lovendahl would go into work after market and find a lovely bushel or three of Romanesco broccoli (actually a form of cauliflower) or flats of mushrooms. Or maybe Driftless Organics would call about a hundred pounds of "second" onions—perfectly edible and perfectly delicious, but they just don’t make the aesthetic grade in the catwalk environment of Saturday market.

Sadly, just as we’re introducing you to her palette, Lovendahl is decamping for Brooklyn, where she’ll be working for none other than the aforementioned author, Kelly Geary, who runs a catering and preserves business there. Of course, since we are talking about putting food up, Lovendahl’s imprint on the Madison food scene will linger, for at least as long as the juniper radish pickle recipe survives.

Taking over is Katlyn Arnett, who is adding the pickling business to her Underground portfolio, after focusing on the baking and catering sides over the last year.

She’s excited to continue Lovendahl’s recipes, but is equally inspired to develop her own. “It’s a lot of experimentation, but also a lot of important science,” she says. Among the things she’s considering is reinterpreting jardinera, a pickled salad, of sorts. The market’s become new again as Arnett imagines how she can wrap foods in a twist of spice and acidity. “I want to take everything and find a way to can it.”

Erik Ness has been writing about science, health and the environment for more than two decades for publications as diverse as The Nation, Discover, and Prevention. He’s a newbie to food writing, but not the food movement -- he shone an early spotlight on Dane County community supported agriculture (CSAs) in 1997 in the Isthmus.

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