Thursday, January 28, 2016

Zesty, Rootsy Winter Pickles

With fresh local vegetables becoming more and more widely available to us year-round, even here in the Frozen North, there’s no reason that pickling season has to end with the first frost.  Co-ops and winter farmers markets are burgeoning these days with locally grown vegetables in great variety.  Yes, they’re mostly roots, but what an abundance and variety of roots, from black, watermelon, beauty heart, and daikon radishes, to turnips in several colors, rutabagas, beets red and golden, celery root, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips.   

What’s great about this is:  Fresh, locally grown produce, in the middle of frikkin’ winter!  What’s less awesome is:  They’re all pretty much radishes and turnips!

Personally, I like radishes and turnips, but a steady diet of them through the long cold months becomes pretty monotonous.  A little pickling is a good way to change up the flavors and textures of these hearty, assertive roots.  And for winter pickling, I tend to lean to the East.  So here are two easy Asian pickles to make in small batches and enjoy alongside a bowl of ramen, a rice bowl meal, or as part of a regular Chinese meal, or just to nosh on at will. 

The first, Sichuan Pao Cai (Pickled Vegetables) is something I’ve made off and on for a long time, and something I would often order at the little restaurants in the alleys outside the university gates when I taught English at Sichuan University in Chengdu, waaayyy back in 1989-90.  A little dish of pao cai would be served bathed in chile oil (hong you) and a dash of soy sauce.  The pickles in Chengdu were always pink, I’m not sure why.  Recently I came across a fabulous recipe for a chile oil scented with wonderful aromatics.  I’m now addicted to it, and here’s the recipe, from Elaine Luo's excellent China Sichuan Food website--you'll find the red oil (hong you) recipe in the larger wonton recipe.

The other is a super quick pickle of thinly sliced radish (but you could sub/add turnip or carrot or what have you) in a simple mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, and sugar, with a little ginger and garlic for added depth.  To me, the sweet/sour/salty flavor combination of sugar/vinegar/soy is crazy delicious.  I could drink it like broth, but it would do weird things to the inside of my mouth, I fear, so I enjoy it in moderation and in pickles. 

This can be whipped up at the last minute, or made a day or two ahead.  It loses some freshness if left to sit too long, but it’s not going to go bad.  I often make up a small quantity to liven up rice bowl dinners.  With small radishes I tend to slice them very thin on the Benriner, while with larger radishes like a big daikon, I might shred instead.

Sichuan Pao Cai (Pickled Vegetables)

Makes one quart

You can use pretty much any firm vegetables in this pickle.  In winter it’s going to be mainly roots—red beets are the only one I would probably avoid; they would take over the pickle, both in color and taste, and also, they’re just not very Chinese.  In summer you could use green beans, cucumbers, peeled, diced broccoli stems, the thick white center rib of napa cabbage or bok choi.  My veg mixture for this batch was black radish, daikon, rutabaga, kohlrabi, cabbage core, and another radish, the one that’s pink inside, I don’t know the name, a friend had picked it up for me.  

This recipe is adapted from Mrs Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook, a key book in my cooking history.

4 cups firm vegetables in ½-inch dice, about a pound
6 – ¼-inch slices ginger root
2 or more dried red chiles—I used 2, as these particular chiles are VERY HOT!!!
½ teaspoon whole hua jiao (Sichuan peppercorns)
1 ½ cups water
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon rice wine or dry sherry
1 tablespoon cider or rice wine vinegar

Combine everything except the diced vegetables in a small saucepan, and heat just to dissolve the salt and sugar.  In a quart jar, layer ginger slices, chiles, and vegetables.  Pour in the brine, put a lid on it, and allow to ferment at cool room temperature for 3 or 4 days. You’ll see the brine start to become cloudy, and bubbles will rise from the depths when you open the jar.  When they are fermented to your taste, refrigerate.  The pickles will keep indefinitely.

Soy-Pickled Radish Slices

A mild radish, such as daikon or watermelon, is best in this pickle, which can be used almost right away, or refrigerated to mellow for a few days.  I used my Benriner Japanese mandoline to slice the radishes, but you can also slice them very thin with a sharp knife.

About 2/3 cup thinly sliced small radishes, or shredded larger ones
1 teaspoon finely shredded ginger root
1 small clove garlic, crushed, optional
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon water
4 teaspoons cider or rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar

Combine the radish slices, ginger, and garlic, and place them in a small jar—half-pint will do.  Combine the rest of the ingredients, stirring well to dissolve the sugar.  Pour this mixture into the jar with the radishes, put the lid on, give it a little shake.  Let stand at least 30 minutes before serving, or refrigerate for later use.  Will keep at least a week.


Joey said...

Looks great Brett! Thanks for convincing me that I defenitely need a new cookbook! Also, have you heard of Forage in Eau Claire?

I would love to see you prepare a Szechwan dinner there, and I would happily be your sous for the evening.

Hope you are well; going to pickle the last turnips from my garden now!

darlene said...

Sounds really interesting, Brett!! Never thought of pickling root veggies, but their general crunchiness sounds like a sublime outcome guaranteed. Ever creative, love it.

bookwoman said...

What a cool blog, Brett. Also, I have to tell you, there is a picture of an old man on your Facebook page. I met a young version of him when, as editor of Antioch's student-run literary mag, I hosted him as guest speaker way back when. Late 80s? Looking great, and am now rereading your first book. I will be a follower here, also. Very cool. ps: completely LOVE the word "rootsy."

Trout Caviar said...

Hey, Joey, nice to hear from you. I'd love to see what they've got going on at Forage. Tried to get in touch with them a while back, should give it another shot. Your offer to be my sous chef for a Sichuan dinner is more than generous! Let's see if we can pull that off~ Brett

Trout Caviar said...

Darlene, lovely to hear from you. Lots of Asian pickles are made with roots. And you're right, you rarely run into problems with soft pickles when using roots. Good way to jazz up the winter larder. Hope to see you soon~ Brett

Trout Caviar said...

Heya, bookwoman, what a fun blast from the past. I remember my Antioch visit distinctly (well, parts of it). My first book had won the GLCA New Writers prize and I got to do a tour of a number of colleges in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana. Antioch was for sure a highlight. Also, I believe I still have, somewhere, a copy to your magazine which contained a review of Three Nights. Thanks for getting in touch. What inspired you to write?


p.s.~ Will have to look into how a picture of an old man wound up on my Facebook page. I try to just keep pictures of dogs and food there....

Rhianon said...

Wow, thanks for sharing this recipe, it sounds delicious! I definitely need to try this. If you enjoy pickled foods and are looking for more recipes that utilize them, check out these great recipes: