Lauren Sandler describes Woodberry Kitchen the way some of us might describe a dream. Though she began working there three years ago, she’d heard stories about Woodberry ever since it opened in Baltimore in 2007. The restaurant has become nationally renowned for its New American menu that skews local and seasonal, conceived by chef-owner Spike Gjerde, who netted a James Beard Award for his work the year Sandler joined.
Sandler didn’t establish contact with Woodberry until she met Corey Polyoka, who’s worked closely with Gjerde since the restaurant’s inception a decade ago, by chance through her brother-in-law. At the time, she'd been living in New York and working at sibling restaurants Franny’s and Marco’s, both now shuttered. Yet she’d been filling her weekends with canning and preserving, hobbies she pursued diligently. When she heard that Woodberry was hiring someone to work on canning, she leapt at the opportunity.
“I didn’t realize my dream job actually existed,” Sandler explains to me one day last fall. “I don’t think what Woodberry is doing is happening anywhere else.”
The trio comes to the MUNCHIES Test Kitchen one irrepressibly gloomy Friday in October. They roam around the MUNCHIES garden and pick everything they can possibly find—white eggplants, sungold cherry tomatoes, Kyoto manganji peppers—and return to the kitchen to prepare a bounty of cocktails, sauces, and pickled produce. The kitchen turns, frankly, into a scene of mild chaos, though they maintain a sense of composure throughout.
This register—one of quiet, methodical intensity—comes somewhat naturally to Sandler. Since joining Woodberry, she explains, she's imposed order on what was a somewhat errant operation.
“I’m very organized,” she tells me. “I’m strict about following these rules that are set for us. Spike and Corey have always been compliant, but I don’t think they’ve always realized how compliant they had to be in order to legally run a food-processing facility up to the highest standards. I think my ability to explain why we need to think about everything a little bit more thoroughly before we pull the trigger was something that I brought to the table.”
The two had, without Sandler, been used to executing projects as quickly as they could after conception. Sandler has taught them to slow down. Still, she's quick to credit Polyoka and Gjerde with deepening her understanding of preserving and its many possibilities.
“The biggest thing they’ve taught me is probably how to take seasonality to a new level and focusing in on what’s at hand,” she explains. “Figuring out flavor combinations and techniques and methods based on the availability of products.”
Polyoka makes two cocktails to start: The first is a mingle of rum, vinegar, and ginger bitters filled with ground cherry preserves (which they make on-site by cooking the ground cherries with verjus, sugar, and manganji peppers).
MAKE THIS: Ground Cherry Cocktail
The preserves then go into a highball glass with rum, vinegar, ginger bitters, and smashed ice. You can garnish it, if you'd like, with the slices of pepper, ground cherries, and marigold flowers. Whatever your heart desires. Just drink.
MAKE THIS: Summer in a Cup
The other cocktail involves bringing water to a boil and pouring half of it over honey in a heat-proof measuring glass; you’ll set this aside and let it cool to room temperature. The rest of the water will go in a teapot with mint, rosella, and Mexican mint marigold, steeped for four minutes before it’s strained and placed in a fridge to cool.
You’ll then take both solutions and put them in a martini shaker with broken ice cubes, vermouth, apple brandy, verjus, shaking it vigorously for 30 seconds until cold. Strain it in a bowl over ice and garnish it with what you've got lounging around: mint flowers, Mexican mint marigold flowers, rosella petals, and strawberries. The team has, aptly, dubbed it “Summer in a Cup.”
Sandler acknowledges that the pickling and preserving can be precarious endeavors for home cooks. But she’s quick to assuage any anxiety by insisting that the team's recipes are pretty accessible. Hey—we’ve all gotta start somewhere.
MAKE THIS: Pickled Peppers and Tomatoes
Novices can start, she suggests, with the pickled peppers and tomatoes, which involve bringing verjus, turmeric vinegar, salt, and water to a boil in a saucepan before you add unripened green cherry tomatoes, pierced with a toothpick or skewer, and fish peppers. Bring them to a simmer before you put them in a heat-proof bowl in room temperature anywhere from 2 to 8 hours.
“I think that that’s something that should be un-intimidating to a home cook,” she tells me of this recipe. “It’s a short execution time and not a ton of prep.”
MAKE THIS: Sungold Tomato Sauce
Things get a little more complicated with the sungold tomato sauce. You can make the herb salt, a vital component, two months ahead; you simply chop rosemary sprigs, oregano and thyme leaves, and bronze fennel fronds before adding salt and mixing them together, storing them in an airtight container at room temperature.
For the sauce, you’ll need to heat some some sunflower oil in a saucepan and adding tomatoes alongside paprika and fermented fish pepper flakes, and some water.
You put it over medium-high heat, and, just as the tomatoes start to burst, press down on them with the head of your wooden spoon. That'll release their juices. Add basil and cook the sauce for about five minutes more, until it turns gummy and viscous. Serve it with the herb salt and spread it thick on toast.
Sandler believes that the pickled Japanese white eggplant might be the most labor-intensive of them all. It involves pickling shredded white eggplant in a jar and dousing in a pickling liquid of turmeric vinegar, fennel seed, coriander seed, salt, and water and topped with oil. She recommends you cover and chill this for 8 hours.
MAKE THIS: Pickled Japanese White Eggplant
"I could see how the lengthier process would be a little more intimidating to someone who’s not an avid pickler,” she admits. “But it’s pretty user-friendly.”
Preserving requires patience. But she promises the labor is worth it.