Chef Jonathan Justus, a James Beard Award semifinalist and mad scientist/forager-in-chief at Justus Drugstore in Smithville, is well known for his deep commitment to local ingredients and flavors.
His foraging excursions, using GPS to locate stands of prized mushrooms; cooking heritage Missouri hogs in the ground for an Outstanding in the Field event at Powell Gardens; and harvesting honeysuckle in the middle of the night in his backyard wearing a miner’s helmet are a few examples.
His latest culinary obsession is house-fermented vinegars using local ingredients: clover flower vinegar, apple cider vinegar, pear cider vinegar, wild sumac vinegar and honey vinegar.
House-made ciders from local apples and pears or wine are the starting point for his vinegars. A gelatinous mass of particles that clump together forms naturally in the fermentation process. That mass is called the mother, and it can be removed when the desired flavor is achieved and used in another batch. Justus uses a generations-old mother that came from a French family in Wisconsin.
Anytime Justus creates a new ingredient, it gets heavy play in his kitchen. The house-made vinegars can be found in appetizers, entrees and desserts. “I’m trying to be more purist about flavors that are about here,” he says.
Three examples from the current menu:
▪ Sesame Golden Beets appetizer with cherry vinaigrette, curly endive, pickled daikon, sesame, lacquered hickory nuts and cilantro.
▪ Winter Spring Missouri Trout entree with house pear cider vinegar and Platte County maple syrup-dressed mustard cress, Norton grape verjus reduction and garlic butter compressed turnip, green lentils and Swiss chard.
▪ Apple Essences dessert with apple butter tart made with apple cider vinegar, persimmon and sage, served with sage butterscotch ice cream and apple cracklin.