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