Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns dread being asked what kind of food they serve at Bar Tartine, the San Francisco restaurant they helm as co-chefs (and the sister restaurant to Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bakery). The short answer is that it’s food they like to eat themselves, that’s personal and nourishing. But it’s also food that takes inspiration from all kinds of cuisines, that’s born from creativity and collaboration, and that they truly make themselves, from scratch.
Nick and Cortney’s new cookbook is titled Bar Tartine: Techniques & Recipes, and it is literally a snapshot of the processes and dishes that formed the restaurant’s menu between February 2011 and February 2014, when they turned over the manuscript. The first half of the book is devoted to the techniques that create the boldly flavored dishes the restaurant is known for: drying ingredients and making vegetable powders; fermenting dairy and vinegars; sprouting and soaking; and making pickles and preserves. The latter half is all recipes, from soups and salads to shared plates,and inventive sweets — many using the naturally processed ingredients from the first half.
Here, we ask Nick and Cortney all about the food at Bar Tartine, the ingredients processed in their project kitchen and larder, and how to bring a taste of Bar Tartine to the home kitchen. Read on, then try a recipe from the book below!
Nick: I was working at a Japanese restaurant, and Chad Robertson came in and ate there a lot so we got to know each other. I wanted to do central European good — that’s my heritage — and I also wanted to open my own place. Chad called one morning and said, what do you think about doing central European food at Bar Tartine? He wanted to play around with something different. It sounded like the perfect opportunity. When you serve European food, you have to have good bread with it — it was a no brainer. Cortney and I met a couple of months before I started here. She wasn’t originally planning on working here — she had been teaching at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America). We met when I was doing a conference and ended up dating. When I started here she came in to help out, making cheese, butchering a goat, and that just turned into us working together every day. The next thing we knew, we were both doing it together.
Cortney: I was doing hands-on cooking classes. I had been in restaurants in San Francisco since 2001, and then I went to Sonoma doing winery work and teaching at the Culinary Institute. So I checked out other avenues and found my way back in.
What was your vision when you became chef at Bar Tartine? What was the reaction when you changed the menu?
Nick: When we started here the food was great: roast chicken, hamburger, an omelet — really bistro food. There were folks who came in for that and were not interested in the other stuff we wanted to do. So we lots a few people, but overall we gained a lot more than we lots. The business really took off.
What is the food philosophy at Bar Tartine?
Nick: We just cook things that we want to eat. There are no ethnic boundaries; things just have to make sense together. And it’s food we want to feed other people, that’s nourishing — that is really important to us. We don’t want to serve food that’s…
Cortney: Not really food.
Nick: Refined, packaged, that sort of stuff. But that’s the end of the limitations.
Cortney: We make things — that’s a big part of what we do here. That’s the jumping off point to creating flavors and dishes.
What do you make?
Nick: Everything, ideally.
Cortney: We culture all of our own dairy and make as many of our own spices as we can. There are a few things we can’t make that we bring in, but it’s very minimal — three or four spices. We ferment all our nonalcoholic beverages. We make a lot of chili paste and fermented pastes, syrups, condiments, cured meats and fish.
Nick: We want to get into processing our own oils. We want an oil press that would help us in extracting finishing oils from nuts and seeds — we could be doing that fresh.
Can you describe the food you make? What are some of your signature dishes?
Cortney: The smoked potatoes, which are fermented in a black garlic vinaigrette. We can’t seem to take them off the menu. Also our kale salad; we love to eat it, so we don’t take it off. It has tahini, kale, yogurt, yogurt powder and crumbled sprouted rye bread. We do many different versions of the fisherman’s stew, which Nick loves, so it’s always on the menu in some capacity. It’s always changing, sometimes with a red broth, a green broth, or different fish. There are often pickles on the menu and some kind of cultured butter and fermented dip to go with the bread. But other than that, the menu changes depending on what we’re getting from farmers.
From where do you draw inspiration?
Nick: I get mine from Cortney.
Cortney: Exactly. We just talk. We’re drawing from all sorts of places. We’re not reinventing the wheel or creating some avant garde dish — things are based in flavor memories or something we saw, or what someone’s family made. We have a Filipino cook who tell us about something awesome, and we’re inspired by something in it, so we make something loosely based on the idea of it. A lot of ideas come from the larder and what we’ve already made. I have a lot of cookbooks, but I don’t read them. I have a book buying problem.
How do fermentation and preserving play into your menu? What do you love about those techniques and foods?
Nick: More complex flavors come out of processing food naturally versus the sterile, refined flavors you get from food that doesn’t have living organisms. Like sauerkraut. We build a lot of flavors our of the notion of agrodolce — sweet, sour and salty all together. Those flavors are based on lactic acid fermentation, giving foods another element of sour that rounds out other flavors. It creates a lot of other compounds and aromas that you don’t get from products that are not fermented. Also, homemade spices just taste better when you process them from local ingredients at the peak of the season. There is no way to get a fresher spice than from drying it in house. Also, there’s a connection to the area that’s unique. Process locally, and your food tastes local.
Cortney: Fermenting also allows us to have things year-round that we may not be able to have otherwise. Like fermented brussels sprouts, which we’re using in the summer — we wouldn’t be able to do that otherwise. It gives our seasons longer life spans.
Tell us a little bit about the project kitchen and the larder. What’s going on in there right now?
Cortney: Right now, bubbling away on the counter, are carrots and turnips in brine.
Nick: We’re finishing up summer stuff. We get pounds of chili peppers every year, including Hungarian peppers that farmer friends are growing, so we make hundreds of different paprika chili pastes and powders. Paprika is really important in our food — we have a couple thousand pounds in paste. Right now, we’re winding down summer. We do a lot of tomato stuff in winter: tomato jam, or processing tomatoes with green coriander seeds. We’re getting into fall pickles; we have huge batches of turnips.
Cortney: And squash and carrots. And all the time we’re rotating in sour creams, yogurts, feta, that sort of stuff. Milk kefir. We have a naturally fermented farmer’s cheese in the oven aging right now. We’re sprouting chickpeas, lentils, fenugreek.
What was your goal with the Bar Tartine cookbook? How do you hope people use it?
Nick: We knew we wanted to tell the stores of our families and share dishes we like to eat that are important to us. We wanted to record what we were doing at Bar Tartine in a period of time. It’s not a comprehensive larder book that tells you how to do everything — it’s what we have done at Bar Tartine over the last couple of years. Being our first projects, it was really a learning experience all the way through.
Cortney: It also came pretty early on for Bar Tartine as it is today. Were different cooks, and we cook differently together, and our ideas at the restaurant are different than they were when we first started the book. Nick was hired to be chef here, and then I came in. We have similar palates, but a lot of the dishes in the book were very important to him. At that time, I was doing most of the processing, so it kind of made sense to divide up the book in that way — create two worlds where we could collide within them. We had to separate the book and then find a way to put it back together. Then it became more fluid.
What are some ingredients you’ve learned to love that you think home cooks should adopt?
Cortney: All the charred powders in the book are pretty delicious. We love those flavors — eggplant, scallions — and we couldn’t live without them. They are not things you can necessarily find on your normal store shelf. And the fermented pepper paste is definitely something people should have around at all times.
Nick: Lactic brine pickling. It’s so easy to do on your countertop and so good for you. You can use vegetables you have access to all year round.
Cortney: And you can throw everything all together. Our overgrown garden pickles are a good template for people pickling — just throw it all in, add water and salt, and you’re done.
What’s a good fermentation project to start with?
Cortney: Yogurt is a fun one, and you can have it within a day. Also any of the dried spices are good.
Nick: Drying herbs is really simple and useful.
Any tips for people starting out using your recipes?
Nick: Don’t follow them! Be confident. Ingredients constantly change. We are almost unable to follow recipes here because ingredients change so much. Trust what you like and what tastes good. Use the recipes as a template and adjust based on taste.
Cortney: Also, start with something delicious. If you’re not starting with delicious tomatoes, you will not have delicious tomato jam.
Nick: But that doesn’t mean pretty — ugly is good.
Cortney: It just needs to taste good.
Chilled Beet Soup with Coriander & Yogurt
We both grew up with grandmothers who loved to cook. The smell of beets cooking on the stove takes us straight back to their kitchens. There is little that is more comforting than this soup. At Bar Tartine, borscht shows up in a number of variations—both hot and cold—all year long. This chilled version filled with fermented ingredients is one of our favorites.
It is important to add the sauerkraut and kvass to the soup after the beets and potato are cooked. Keeping these probiotic-packed ingredients away from heat ensures that they are alive and active and that the sauerkraut will remain crunchy.
Serves 4 to 6
2 lb/910 g red beets (without greens), trimmed
1/2 cup/120 ml water
2 cups/480 ml kombu dashi (recipe below)
1 sweet white onion, diced
1 medium russet potato, peeled and diced
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 serrano chile, stemmed and minced
2 tbsp fermented honey, or honey
1 tsp caraway seeds, toasted and ground
1 tsp fennel seeds, toasted and ground
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3 cups/555 g sauerkraut with brine, chopped
3 cups/720 ml beet kvass (recipe below), or 3 cups kombu dashi, plus 1 tsp kosher salt
2 tbsp unfiltered grapeseed or sunflower oil
1 tbsp kosher salt
Leaves from 1 bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley
Leaves from 1 bunch fresh cilantro
3 tbsp kombu dashi or water, chilled
1 tsp coriander seeds, toasted and ground
1/2 tsp kosher salt
Drained yogurt for garnish
Chopped fresh dill for garnish
Freshly ground black pepper
Arugula flowers for garnish
TO MAKE THE SOUP: Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C. Spread the beets in a single layer in a shallow roasting pan. Add the water to the pan and cover tightly. Bake until tender enough to be easily pierced with a skewer, about 1 hour. Let the beets cool to room temperature, then peel them and, using a sharp knife, square off the sides of each beet, reserving the trimmings. Cut the squared beets into 1/4-in/6-mm dice until you have 2 cups/315 g diced. Reserve the scraps.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the dashi, onion, and potato and bring to a simmer. Cook until the potato is tender, about 30 minutes. Add the diced beets, garlic, chile, honey, caraway seeds, fennel seeds, and pepper and immediately remove from the heat. Let cool to room temperature and transfer to a large container. Stir in the sauerkraut and its brine.
In a blender, combine the beet scraps, kvass, and grapeseed oil and purée until smooth. Add to the cooled vegetables, stir in the salt, and refrigerate until well chilled, at least 2 hours.
TO MAKE THE CORIANDER SAUCE: Chill a blender beaker in the freezer for at least 15 minutes. Prepare an ice bath. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the parsley and cilantro and boil until they are bright green and tender, about 15 seconds. With a slotted spoon, immediately transfer the herbs to the ice bath. When cool, remove them, squeeze out any excess water, pat dry, and coarsely chop.
In the cold blender, combine the herbs and dashi and blend on high speed until smooth. Do not overblend or the mixture will heat up, which can spoil the flavor of the herbs. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the coriander seeds and salt. Immediately cover and refrigerate until ready to use. This sauce tastes best if eaten the same day it is made.
To serve, chill individual bowls in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes. Ladle the soup into the bowls and garnish each serving with coriander sauce, yogurt, dill, black pepper, and arugula flowers. Leftover soup will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
This is the most basic form of dashi. It contains only kombu and water. In many savory recipes, kombu dashi can be substituted for the water. It’s the seaweed version of bouillon cubes.
Makes 3.5 qt/3 L
4 sheets dried kombu, each 3 by 6 in/7.5 by 15 cm
4 qt/3.8 L soft or filtered water
Trim small slits into the kombu with a pair of scissors to help it release its flavor. In a large pot, combine the kombu and water and let soak until the kombu starts to soften, about 2 hours.
Place the pot over medium heat and bring to a gentle simmer (ideally 140° to 160°F/60° to 71°C), making sure that the water never boils. (Boiling the kombu will give the dashi an intense oceanic flavor and turn the broth cloudy. Cooking the kombu at a lower temperature yields a clearer broth.) Cook gently until the broth develops a mild sealike aroma and a noticeable but delicate salinity and flavor, about 1 hour. At this point, the kombu should be tender enough to pierce easily with a chopstick.
Strain the dashi through a fine-mesh sieve, discarding solids. If not using immediately, let the dashi cool at room temperature until lukewarm, about 30 minutes. Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.
This fermented beverage does not get the respect it deserves. The classic is made with whey and bread. Some recipes are sweet, some are saline and acidic. This one contains beets but many versions are instead flavored with herbs, fruit, or vegetables – just about anything can work. We like to drink this before and after meals, in a light beer, or as a pickle back with whiskey. We sometimes add grated serrano or horseradish for an extra bite. The lightly fermented beets left over from this recipe can be added to soups or salads, served as pickles, or juiced for Beet, Carrot, and Apple Kvass.
Makes 7 cups/1.7 L
5 cups /1.2 L water
2 cups/480 ml sour whey or beet juice, or 2 cups additional water plus 1 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp kosher salt, if using water
2 lb/910 g beets, peeled and chopped
2 rye bread ends
Pour the water, whey or juice, and salt into a large nonreactive container. Stir to dissolve. Add the beets and rye bread and top with a weight to keep the beets and bread submerged in the brine. Seal the container, using a lid with an airlock, if you have one. If you have sealed it without an airlock, open the container every few days or so to release carbon dioxide buildup, and check for mold. Place in a clean, well-protected, low-light area with an ambient temperature of 60° to 68°F/16° to 20°C until the beets develop a mild sour flavor, 7 to 10 days.
Strain the liquid, reserving the beets and liquid separately. Transfer the liquid to one or more fliptop bottles or canning jars with tight-fitting lids and refrigerate for up to 2 months. Pack the beets into one or more airtight containers and refrigerate for up to 4 days, or juice and drink.