Jeff Ross on the Culture of Food Preservation

From kimchi and sauerkraut to pickles and kombucha, preserved and fermented foods are having their day in the national food scene. To explore this trend in depth, we got in touch with Jeff Ross of Blackberry Farm, an expert in the topic of food preservation. We discussed the role that preserved food has played in history and culture and how it’s an essential part of a healthy diet. Jeff told us how he and his colleagues at Blackberry Farm take advantage of several preservation methods to make the most of the produce they grow, and to create interesting and healthy dishes to share with guests.

KaTom: Can you tell us a little bit about your work at Blackberry Farm? What’s a typical day like for you?

Jeff Ross: I’ve been at Blackberry for 11 years. I started as the garden manager. I came in and installed the garden, and I did that for about 10 years. I had a crew and we took care of the garden and provided organic vegetables to the kitchen. As time went on, it became evident that guests wanted to get more involved in the garden, so we started having activities like tours, lectures, and hikes for foraging in the woods and things of that nature. A big part of that became cooking from the garden. We would harvest from the garden, go in the kitchen, and do cooking classes. That developed into a standalone business. We do it now five days a week.

My role has moved away from the garden, sort of. I’m not working in the garden day to day, but my title is Farmstead Educator, so I head up all the activities on the farmstead, which mainly includes the cooking classes that we do just about every day of the week. My day-to-day will be organizing either a lecture, a tour, or a cooking class and then doing those with guests.

It’s really worked out well because the farm-to-table thing is great for people to either experience at a distance or just at the table, but people want to get into the farm side as much as they do the table side. So going straight from the garden into the kitchen to cook it continues that line of where the food comes from and where it ends up, and people really get into that.

K: The weather is cooling down now, and we’re getting close to fall and winter. How do the changing seasons affect the way you approach the garden? How do the cooking classes change in the winter?

JR: We think of the farm the way people thought of it hundreds of years ago, where the farm and the weather determined what you ate. I like to tell my guests in the cooking classes, when they ask how I design my menus, that it’s not just random. The garden tells me what to cook. When you walk out into the garden either that morning or the day before, you see what’s in the garden and you can choose from that. You just kind of plug and play those ingredients into your recipes.

An important thing that the other chefs at the farm and I like to let guests know is that a recipe doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You can plug in ingredients and have the same result. For example, all summer long I’ve been doing a ratatouille which was peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and some onions. Now that the season has become cooler, the tomatoes are dwindling. The peppers are still making but the zucchini is pretty much gone for the season and so I’ve just been replacing that with chunks of sweet potato or butternut squash, so it’s the same recipe just with different ingredients. So, that way you can continue through the seasons.

A big part of the cooler season is that you can eat a lot more preserved things – things that have been pickled or fermented. That’s really what the wintertime is all about, which is right around the corner.

K: In your demo here at Chef Supplies, you talked quite a bit about preservation. What are some of your favorite preservation techniques and how do those play a role in the food you serve at Blackberry Farm?

JR: The thing about the garden and the farm in general is that we have refrigeration and a big walk-in refrigerator where we can keep things, so we can really have anything we want any time of the year. But that really does a disservice to the produce when you’re eating something that’s out of season that wasn’t picked in season.

We kind of had the idea that we could do without refrigeration. We’ll pick our tomatoes in the summertime and we’ll can them, we’ll preserve them, we’ll pickle them, we’ll dry them. We’ll even make powders out of them, and that way they can be stable until they’re ready to use in the wintertime. That way you can enjoy a can of tomatoes in the wintertime because they’ve been picked in the height of the season.

Quite often, pickles and things that are preserved or fermented, whether it’s kraut or beans that have been canned and slightly processed to secure them in the jar, that actually improves their nutrition. Fermentation is really great for your digestion. If you take these plants – and if you’re eating well, you’re eating mostly plants – those foods have lots of nutrients in them, including antioxidants and anti-inflammatory effects. So when you preserve things, it often boosts the nutrients in them. A lot of our health issues are from inflammation and poor digestion.

I think every meal needs something pickled. A lot of the world eats that way. In Asia, they’ll eat pickled radishes for breakfast. They’ll eat sauerkraut. The Koreans eat kimchee three meals a day. It really improves your digestion and helps with inflammation. It’s really a good, holistic way to eat.

K: We’ve heard a lot about chefs applying technology like vacuum pack machines in processes like “flash pickling”. Are you experimenting with anything like that? Are you using any high-tech methods to preserve food that you couldn’t have done in the past with traditional methods?

JR: We certainly are. Part of that is to speed up the process of pickling. In practically every restaurant these days – and even grocery stores and most butcher shops – you’ll see more things that are vacuum sealed than ever before because its excludes a lot of oxygen to slow down rot and pathogens that might get in there. By putting something in vinegar, salt, sugar, or herbs and vacuum sealing it, that really drives the flavor into the vegetables or the fruit and can pickle it in a quick period of time – and you can store that way, too. We always have something pickling.

People think of pickles as just cucumbers. Those are great. Who doesn’t love pickled cucumbers? But, everything that comes out of the garden can be pickled – including a lot of meats, eggs, and fruit. So we’ll pickle some strange things. We have some hops growing because we make beer at the farm, and we’ve been pickling some of the hops. It makes kind of a bitter vinegar that can be mixed into a vinaigrette. Bitterness is really great for your system, and it’s a pleasant bitterness, kind of like a radicchio or an arugula – that sort of flavor.

We’ll pickle the parts of plants that would normally get thrown away or composted, like the stems of collard greens, the leaves of radishes, or the leaves of carrots. Those are all really, really great when they’re pickled because they’re all edible. It’s just that the pickling or the fermentation makes them palatable – makes them easier to chew.

K: Kind of like how people pickle watermelon rind.

JR: Pickled watermelon rind is a great example. Rind is the secondary product of the fruit. Again, once you eat the rind, the pickling liquid is perfectly usable to make a vinaigrette, so you have three different things you can make out of it.

If we think about the weather here in East Tennessee, we do have a cool winter. But imagine in the days before gas furnaces and insulation and all that, people lived in these hollers and had wood fires and it was cold all winter long. The gardens were bare for months of the year and people would have to preserve their vegetables so they would have something to eat all winter long to keep them healthy.

Then, we also think about places that are even colder, like Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, or even parts of Korea where it gets really, really cold. They pickle everything. If you went to Poland, everything is pickled because the growing season is so short. They pick everything in that short season, put it in jars, and then have it throughout the year. In fact, it’s become a cultural thing where pickles come with everything. You just don’t go to an Eastern European home or a Korean home and not get 10 plates of different types of pickles with every meal. And the main course is sort of a secondary thing. The pickles are where it’s all at.

Tanner West
Tanner West

A dedicated festival-goer, Tanner West has seen more bands perform live in the middle of hay fields and city parks than most people have probably heard of. Raised on beans and taters, he recently renovated a home and three vintage sheds in the back woods of East Tennessee that serves as a quiet retreat for reading and ready base for hiking and camping trips. Despite being able to craft 500-word descriptions of restaurant equipment, Tanner is a man of few words who described the best meal he ever ate in one word: Coffee.

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