Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Report Upon the State of My Pickle, August 2010

I was intimidated by pickling and canning for a long time. Two things generally put me off on the whole process: First was the impression that it requires rigorous adherence to a systematic, scientific method to ensure proper results, lest in consuming said results, you die. Since I am not particularly good at reading directions or following instructions, it seemed much better to leave it to Gedney's.

The second discouraging facet of home canning has always been the fact that the glut of food begging to be pickled and canned arrives mid-summer, in the dog days' heat and humidity of late July and August, and who wants to be stuck in a sauna-like kitchen peering into steaming cauldrons when it's 90 with a dewpoint of 75? Pas moi, bien sur.

So I avoided delving into this arcane, sweaty, potentially deadly realm for years, but I was always jealous of those who had mastered it, who held the keys to this alchemy, who could endure the physical rigors of that sweat-lodge vision quest, who could make beautiful things out of the humblest materials, a lousy cucumber, salt, spoiled cider or wine. Those people were better than I, I was certain--smarter, stronger, more enlightened, more moral and pure.

And, they got dilly beans to snack on with their beer.

I finally overcame my reluctance to pickle around 15 years ago, I guess, spurred by an over-abundance of suyo long cucumbers from the garden. Ordinary overgrown cukes I have no trouble consigning to the compost bin. A well-formed suyo long cucumber, though, is such a magnificent thing--dark green, beautifully curved, bristly, ridged, sometimes growing to nearly a foot-and-a-half long--I couldn't bear to toss them or see them rot in the crisper. I gave a lot away, but I still had too many. I opened up the stained red-checked cover of the Better Homes and Gardens and found a recipe for bread & butters. It didn't seem too complicated. I made up a batch that filled a couple of quart jars. There was no steaming cauldron involved. I just stuck the jars in the fridge, and they kept all year, until the cucumbers were overwhelming the garden again. Now, was that so hard?

That experience set me down the path of small-batch canning, an approach much more like cooking than it is like the Industial-Scale Food Preservation that "home canning" had always implied for me. I have a few stand-bys--the bread & butters, French cornichons, sour dills--but each year I like to try a few new things.

Of course, it's generally the fruits or vegetables that you have the most of that you wind up looking for ways to preserve. For me, this year, that has meant taking a pickle to some wild foods that I hadn't preserved this way before: ramps, fiddleheads, chanterelles, milkweed pods.

I started with the ramps, wrote about it here. That Momofuku-inspired brine has become my go-to recipe for quick pickles. I did a jar of ostrich fern fiddleheads and ramps with that same brine, and I used it on the milkweed pods you see here in the little pottery dish:

Those pods are about an inch long, maybe a little longer, some of them. I blanched them in salted water for a couple of minutes before immersing them in the brine, and they've cured nicely in the last three or four weeks. They have a really interesting texture--nice sort of popping crunch to them--and the flavor is very like green beans.

Here's that brine again:

2 cups water
1 cup apple cider vinegar (or rice wine vinegar)
3/4 cup sugar
scant 2 Tbsp salt
2 small dried red chilies, seeds removed (or leave them in if you want more heat)--optional
1 tsp black peppercorns, also optional

And of course you could add other flavors, garlic, herbs, etc.

In the jar at top left in that picture, those are tiny milkweed pods that I turned into "Bide-A-Wee capers," preserving them the same way I do cornichons: toss with a good amount of salt and let sit overnight; rinse next day and place in a jar with a few peppercorns, some tarragon, a clove of garlic; boil vinegar enough to cover (I'm always using cider vinegar now, since we have so much home-made); the following two days, pour the vinegar into a small saucepan, bring to a boil, pour back over the pods. After that refrigerate and use as you would use capers. I can't wait to make a beurre noisette with some of those milkweed capers, to spoon over a grilled trout. I haven't been fishing much at all this summer, with the heat, and the streams often blown out from heavy rains.

With my excess chanterelles I made a soy sauce pickle based on a Momofuku recipe (just tasted those, and they're great); and a vinegar-blanched and packed in oil with garlic, chili, and herbs; and a jar of chanterelles in the manner of Polish pickled mushrooms. The last two preparations were from Linda Ziedrich's excellent The Joy of Pickling .

In the picture at the very top, that's my favorite pickle of the summer--cukes and crabs in the brine as above, without the peppercorns, with a little fresh Bulgarian carrot chili in place of the dried chili. This is a wonderfully simple, extremely refreshing pickle. The cucumber and the apple seem to sort of swap flavors after a few days in the brine--the apples have a bit of a watermelon rind taste to them, the cuke chunks become tart-sweet and a little fruity. Really good. I'm on my second batch. These should be eaten within a week or so of making them.

To make them, you just quarter and core a few crabapples or other small, firm, tart apples; cut a few pickling cukes into 1 1/2- to 2-inch lengths, and quarter those--and if they're very seedy trim off some of the seeds; make the brine as above, pour over the apple and cuke pieces packed into a jar with some chili, if you like. Refrigerate for a day before eating, and consume within a week. While the weather stays summery, that shouldn't be a problem.

After four days in the country I came back to Saint Paul to find my cucumbers in a state of riot. I just picked a heaping salad spinner full, to go with the half-a-crisper that's been awaiting company and a coolish day to get pickled. So this afternoon I'll be revisiting the classics I mentioned above--the bread & butters, cornichons, and Russian sour dills. Also on my radar: fermenting some kale, beets, and good old sauerkraut in anticipation of winter soups and choucroutes.

I hope you're getting your pickle on nicely this summer, and I'd love to hear about your favorite preserving recipes, too--pickles, canned goods, fermented stuff, jellies, or jams, whatever.

Cheers, and happy pickling to you.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw


el said...

Those milkweed pods are intriguing!

One year, I pickled some nasturtium seed pods a la capers: they're pretty good. But just like capers I don't use them terribly often.

Likewise, those apples. Are they really crabs or some kind of lady apple, I wonder, but then potato potahto I suppose: pickling sounds like a good place to end up with them. Beats jelly.

I confess I don't do much in the way of vinegar pickling any longer. I do a lot of lactic fermentation with a touch of whey as, well, I have lots of whey, but honestly we're not big on pickles. I do like sauerkraut and sauerruben and of course I always reach for my pickled red onions in the winter...but tastes have shifted. Like you Brett I am glad to have learned about small-batch canning; it is a lifesaver if you only have a pinch to preserve.

Anonymous said...

hi Brett-

thanks for this, I have still not been brave enough to attempt the alchemy you describe. I did have a dream several months ago seeming to be indicating that it would be a good idea for me to put up some food, as in....food shortages coming? Seemed like not only me but others were doing this canning.

angie said...

I echo El - milkweed pods! Very intriguing.

Trout Caviar said...

El, Angie, I've been circling around the milkweed for quite a while, after reading about it in Sam Thayer's work (foragersharvest.com). At the various stages of the plant's growth almost all parts are edible--and you can stuff life vests with the fluff from mature pods! So far I've just nibbled at the flowers and young pods, then did the pickles for the first time this year. They're good, both kinds; I would make them again.

Re the apples, all of our inherited apple trees are intriguing mystery varieties, and some are actually wild. I don't know what defines a crab. Those apples are large for a crab, small for a regular apple. The lady apple pictures I've seen show a red-and-green streaked apple, whereas these ones ripen to a uniform deep magenta, so who knows?

El, I'm with you on the wonders of fermented foods. I love them in winter soups, and I must have my sour dills with my ham on rye or sliced on my burger. I still have some from a gallon I put up last summer. They're remarkably crisp still, and here's why: sour cherry leaves in the brine.

Anon., it doesn't have to be just a dream! You can really do it. Start with something simple like a small batch of bread and butter pickles like I did. It's a really satisfying feeling to have your own home-canned food, and it doesn't have to be a big production. That book I mention, The Joy of Pickling, is a great resource, and the Ball Blue Book is excellent, as well. For fermented foods (a little more daunting for the beginner, but not at all difficult), Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz is a good guide (as well as a lifestyle manifesto...!).

Have fun~ Brett

sylvie in Rappahannock said...

seems like I missed this post last year. I love of your pickling - I read Thayer's books, I bought them both not in little part thanks to this blog :). Love to see what you are doing with pickling. I have been more adventurous myself over the last year, but no milkweed yet - they are far too beautiful... and I don't have THAT many (Dogbane, now, that's another story....)