Pickling gets a fresh interpretation

Once, pickles were the last thing anyone would mistake for stylish or sexy.

But they've come a long way from limp grocery store spear. With a makeover and an entirely new image, the pickle has left behind your grandfather's Reuben for a considerably more elevated spot on the food chain.

Fresh, locally made ones are a big attraction at farmers' markets, and chefs at trendy area restaurants are drawing inspiration from the age-old pickle recipe to create innovative dishes with almost any vegetable they can think of.

At Level in Annapolis, a small-plates restaurant that prides itself on cooking with ingredients from area farms, chef Alfredo Malinis Jr. offers a humble yet head-turning plate of house-pickled seasonal vegetables. Lately, the dish has included rainbow chard stalk, cucumber, turnip, breakfast radishes and broccoli, each steeped in brines that tap into any number of international flavor profiles.

The pickles are not only one of the menu's stars of the menu, but also a dish that allows the chef to present local vegetables long after their season has passed.

"It's really a way for us to continue to showcase our farmers' hard work and offer a little bit of a different dynamic," Malinis says. "'Oh man,' people say, 'I haven't' had pickled vegetables in forever.' It's kind of a little bit of surprise to serve something so common in a way that's not so common."

The pickling formula couldn't be simpler. Water with sugar, salt and vinegar. And a vegetable. Give it time.

That's essentially it.

The folksy technique has been helping families preserve vegetables for hundreds of years. But it's the way chefs are reinterpreting that basic principle that makes today's pickles worth talking about.

"We expound on those basic ingredients and go from there," Malinis says. "We play around a bit and have some fun."

Level's take on the traditional pickle uses a red wine or a champagne vinegar, and spices including peppercorn and fennel. For its Vietnamese pickle, Level will use rice wine vinegar, ginger and fish sauce. Another Asian variety might include soy, Asian leeks and lemongrass. A spicy version involves habanero pepper and chili flakes.

Into these brines and others, they'll toss almost anything — at least once. Baby carrots, breakfast radishes and turnips. Broccoli stalks, cauliflower, cherry tomatoes and beets. They tried potatoes, but the texture was all wrong. They tried fruit, including strawberries, watermelon and cantaloupe, but deemed the result "a little too weird."

"The creativity and the amount of flexibly is really kind of limitless," Malinis says. "As long as those core ingredients are in there, you can just about do anything you want."

At the In a Pickle stand at the downtown Baltimore farmers' market, owner Jason Gallant sells the standards: dill, bread-and-butter, half-sour. But he caters to the modern palate with flavors like wasabi, spicy and Old Bay.

At Baltimore's Demi, chef Tae Strain finds pickled dishes are a colorful way to brighten heavier plates.

He finishes his pork belly dish with pickled red cabbage. And for a whimsical take on the old deli favorite of smoked salmon and cream cheese, Strain serves a sweet corn risotto cake with crispy cream cheese and spicy sour cream garnished with a salad of smoked salmon, radish, greens and citrus-pickled red onions.

Strain appreciates how the pickling brings out and enhances a vegetable's color, transforming red onion into a bold pink and cabbage into a deep purple. It brings a touch of artistry to the plate and a light, refreshing bite.

"That's really the main reason to do it, to make a dish more vibrant," he says. "And to make a dish that could be heavy a little lighter."

At Level, even Malinis has been surprised by customers' reaction to the pickle plate. It's been so popular, he ordered a special divided plate just to serve it.

He suspects the draw has something to do with nostalgia: people's desire for a more wholesome, simpler time — or at least something that tastes like it.

"In the culinary world, there's such a saturation of things that are hip and trendy — molecular gastronomy, foams and jellies," he says. "I think chef are getting back to the simplicity of how to prepare things. Pickling is still sophisticated and interesting without recreating the wheel."

Demi's citrus-pickled red onions

1 large red onion

2 limes

2 lemons

2 oranges

1 tablespoon of white sugar

Clean the red onions, then cut in half and fine julienne. Juice the citrus and strain over the red onions. Add the white sugar, then toss until incorporated. Once it has combined, place the onions and all the liquid in a container with a secure lid. Let them sit for at least four to five hours before use. They are best eaten the next day when all the acid and sugar has combined, and when the color from the red onions has bled out to create a completely different color, a light pinkish red.

Courtesy of chef Tae Strain