At the Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa, these plump, fermented
okra seeds make diners do a double take. Chef Christopher Kostow presents them in a delicate dish as a kind of faux caviar, alongside blinis, crème fraîche, and sliced fish. Not only is it a playful visual trick, but it’s a way to make the most of okra’s starchy texture at the end of the season. “For us, fermenting is a natural byproduct of having a farm,” Kostow says. He soaks the seeds in salty water (a simple process known as lacto-fermentation) until they’re firm and slightly tangy, then folds in a thick okra stock to bind the little beads together so they look like real caviar.
This cantaloupe may look like standard breakfast fare, but you’ll know the difference with one slippery, salty spoonful. At Momofuku Ko in NYC, chef Sean Gray packs the melon halves (skin on to help the fruit retain its structure) in shiso-leaf salt for 36 hours, then bathes them in Japanese plum vinegar. As the melon sits, the flesh becomes soft and slightly effervescent, thanks to the fruit’s natural yeast, which converts sugars to alcohol. “It has this really weird, almost molasses texture,” Gray says, “but it’s also very refreshing.” Thin slices of melon are the final palate-cleansing bite on the restaurant’s tasting menu.
“I always want that caper pop,” says chef Kevin Fink of Emmer & Rye in Austin. But rather than import capers from Italy, Fink makes his own version, using the buds of “meadow garlic,” alliums that grow wild all over South Texas. Their texture, Fink explains, is similar to caper buds, but the flavor is richer and more garlicky. At his restaurant, these foraged buds soak in salty liquid for up to six months, then finish their fermentation in whey (the liquid left over from cheesemaking) to add more complexity. Fink works these punchy alliums into everything from beef tartare to potato salad.
“We screw around with so much stuff,” says chef Erick Harcey of Upton 43 in Minneapolis. “Some things we’re like, ‘That was disgusting,’” he admits. But often the experiments, like these squeaky wood ear mushrooms, become fixtures on the menu. Lactofermented, the wood ears develop their flavor. After three days they’re ready to add depth to a sauté of fresh mushrooms. A couple days longer, and those powerful ’shrooms might be transformed into a funky sauce for culotte steaks. “I use them more like a seasoning,” Harcey says. “On their own, they’d be too intense.”
If you’ve had miso or soy sauce, you’re (perhaps unknowingly) familiar with the power of koji, the Aspergillus oryzae mold that unleashes the umami in soybeans. Often the koji mold is inoculated into white rice, but at Baroo in L.A., chef Kwang Uh creates his signature noorook (the Korean word for koji) by introducing those mold spores into a mix of grains like farro, kamut berries, and Job’s tears. After about a week, clusters of fuzzy grains form. When pulverized, the noorook becomes a magic powder that enhances the sweetness of kimchi fried rice and the earthiness of alt-grain risotto.