Key Ingredient was a multimedia cooking series produced by then-Reader staffer Julia Thiel and food writer/filmmaker Michael Gebert from 2010-2018 in which Chicago’s baddest chefs challenged their colleagues to redeem unusual, underappreciated, or often abhorrent ingredients by showcasing them in beautiful plated dishes that might or might not have been edible.
At the prompting of Funkenhausen chef Mark Steuer, we’re rebooting the series, pandemic-cooking-style.
The chef: Erick Williams, Virtue Restaurant
The challenger: Mark Steuer, Funkenhausen
The ingredient: pickled eggs
Pickled eggs are an old man’s drinking snack. And James Beard Award finalist Erick Williams of Hyde Park’s Virtue Restaurant is nobody’s old man. So with the second installment of Key Ingredient: Pandemic Pantry, he was annoyed enough that Funkenhausen’s Mark Steuer challenged him to make something delicious out of something he’s never eaten (though his grandfather probably had).
Williams thinks a high-acidity chicken ovum is the wrong thing to pair with his preferred beverages—beer or wine. He thought a pickled quail egg might be a good garnish for a martini or a bloody mary, but those are his least favorite things to drink. It was particularly aggravating because eggs take at least a week (or more) to pickle. Steuer might have a big dusty jar in his basement bar, but Williams sure didn’t.
What to do?
“You hard boil them just until the eggs are set because you want the yolk not green, but yellow,” Williams says. “And then you’re gonna add heat again through the pickling liquid, so they’ll cook a touch more. I was able to achieve yellow the first go around, so I was really stoked. It’s the little things in life.” Williams peeled them and submerged them in a standard pickling brine—say three parts vinegar to one part water, plus salt, aromatics, and herbs—and let them be.
Meanwhile, he had plenty to keep him busy. Virtue discontinued its curbside pickup and delivery business in late April and pivoted to preparing hot meals for nighttime medical residents at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Through a combination of the restaurant’s initial GoFundMe and a new First Responder Support Fund (that you’re invited to contribute to), along with renegotiations on the terms of his rent and (most of ) his vendor arrangements, Williams has been able to keep 6 to 15 of his employees working, depending on the orders of dishes, like roasted maple-glazed chicken with charred lemon broccoli or spaghetti marinara with zucchini and garlic bread, they need to get to the hospital each day. “There’s always some kind of full salad—not just lettuce in a box—and a chocolate chip cookie, or some other kind of sweet,” he says. “The mac and cheese is just warm enough so you don’t have to blow, but you don’t have to search for a microwave.” One less thing to worry about on a busy shift.
“You think people in restaurants are trying to figure out their next move?” he says. “Imagine the health-care workers. We thought, ‘Why don’t we work on their morale?’”
Still, with all that going on, Williams rose to the pickled egg challenge. “Pickles thrive in egg salad,” he says. So he cut to the chase with a classic, simple mix of diced pickled egg, olive oil, capers, chopped red onion, and dill, which he plated with some smoked salmon, biscuits, and pickled vegetables.
Go suck an egg, Steuer.
Who’s next: Brian Jupiter of Ina Mae’s Tavern, whose challenge is redeeming “dry-ass chicken breast” v
“That’s a real experience,” says Williams. “In restaurants it’s always some kid that knows everything who runs away from the stove for just a second and he overcooks the money. You burn enough shit and you burn all the profit. How do you recapture that revenue?”
Pickled Egg Salad
Chef Erick Williams, Virtue Restaurant
4 whole pickled eggs
1 cup olive oil
¼ bunch fresh dill, chopped
¼ cup capers, drained and chopped
¼ cup red onion, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
Dice the pickled eggs, and place them in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Add the olive oil, folding it in gently with a rubber spatula.
Finish by adding the chopped herbs, capers, and red onion. Taste and correct seasoning with salt and pepper.
Serve with biscuits, smoked salmon, sliced red onion, and pickles.