Relish the Season
Peek inside Chicago chef Paul Virant’s winter pantry and you’ll find a panoply of root vegetables, meats, and dairy. “That makes it Midwestern,” says Virant, owner of the celebrated Vie restaurant in the city’s suburb, as well as its sister eatery Perennial Vie. “But it has a lot of European inspiration behind it. We’re fortunate that a few of our local farmers have greenhouses, so we can get baby greens, fennel, and herbs. But the food is heavier on protein . . . we use cheese to add richness.” When it comes to cooking with cheese, the chef admits, “I have to hold back in the restaurant, or it would be in everything.”
To balance these hearty meals of the season, Virant has a signature ploy: reach for homemade preserves or pickled ingredients to add a tangy, bright counterpoint. His 2012 cookbook, The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-Doux (Ten Speed Press) is an ode to this fundamental feature of his cooking in every season. Virant proves how winter provides ample opportunities to make preserves from such seasonal crops as root vegetables, winter squash, and tree fruits such as apples, pears, and quince. These preserved foods can be incorporated into recipes for aigre-doux (a sweet-sour sauce), vinaigrettes, and desserts or used alone as a cheese plate accompaniment.
The individual cheese course at both restaurants is the genius of pastry chef Elissa Narow, who manages the cheese inventory. She shares Virant’s predilection for preserved foods, crafting dried fruit and sweet jams to serve as cheese accompaniments, along with nut rye toast and local wild honey. The cheese plate she curates at Vie has a broad range of all-American selections; only Midwest cheeses are served at Perennial Vie. In winter, Narow says, her ideal mixed-milk plate would include Pyramid Pointe, a goat’s milk cheese from Evergreen Lane Farm & Creamery (Michigan); Saxon Homestead Creamery’s semi-soft washed-rind Green Fields (Wisconsin); and Big Woods Blue cheese from Shepherd’s Way Farm (Minnesota). But, she admits, favorites are always subject to change. “It seems like every month, there’s a new cheesemaker or variety popping up,” she says. “I’m getting great cheeses from Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kentucky.”