“Pickles,” mused my son, crunching a sour, green spear at age 5, “aren’t like food you grow. They come from another food.”
It could have been an answer from Jeopardy: The Kindergarten Round. “I’ll take food preservation for $100, Mama.” I could see him flipping through his mental files, perhaps conjuring up the warm September night when cucumbers, garlic and dill seeds marched through the pickling assembly line of our kitchen.
It is worth noting that pickling was originally what people did to avoid scurvy and stay alive through the barren months of winter and during long periods of travel. The first pickles were soured by the fermentation process that occurs when fresh produce is chopped and immersed in salt water, known as lacto-fermentation. (Lacto refers to lactic acid, a byproduct of anaerobic fermentation, the acidic presence of which inhibits growth of harmful microorganisms.)
Every culture has a fermented “pickle,” from Koreans who eat, on average, 40 pounds of kimchi per person annually to cultures of the tropics who ferment cassava, transforming the root from poisonous to nutritious. Fermentation is neither scary nor difficult, and produces the most tasty and nutritious pickles.
Later, the more stable medium, vinegar, also a product of fermentation, became widely available and favored for pickling in countries like the U.S., in which we’ve lost connection to ancient food wisdom and pathways. Not only is vinegar a preservative, allowing produce to maintain crunch, flavor and longevity, but its acidity keeps microorganisms from growing, thus eliminating botulism, that big whammy of canning anxiety.
Pickling is a smooth and easy runway from which you may launch wilder DIY food projects, like making your own yogurt or squeezing chokecherries into crimson syrup. It could even lead to keeping chickens. If you’re interested in channeling your grandma – that is, if your grandma was unlike my grandma, more interested in anti-war demonstrations than fussing around in the kitchen – pickling is a great place to start.
Cucumbers are sometimes bitter, which according to Darrin Parmenter, our county horticulture extension director, is because “we expect them to grow when days are hot and nights are cold in June and when it doesn’t rain for 30 days in August. They’re stressed and they’re not going to take it anymore!”
Cucumbers, and all plants in the Cucurbitaceae family (melons, squash, zucchini) produce a bitter organic compound called cucurbitacin. Stress – lack of water, intense heat or chill, all hallmarks of climactic conditions in this area – can increase the levels of this compound, concentrated in the peel and the stem end of the fruit, both of which can be removed.
Nearly anything can be pickled, though some of the more common choices are green beans, garlic, turnips, radishes, carrots, peppers, onions, beets, cucumbers, cauliflower or any combination of the above. Pickles can be sweet, spicy or pungently studded with fresh or dried herbs.
Make pickles, not war. I think my grandmother would approve.
Notes on making pickles: A soggy pickle is a wasted cucumber. To enhance their crunch, use the freshest cucumbers possible and store in the refrigerator until pickle-making day. Soaking cukes in an ice water bath for thirty minutes prior to pickling can firm up cucumbers. Also, cut off the blossom end (where the fruit emerged from flower, opposite of the stem) of the cucumber because it has enzymes which cause softening.
Servings: Makes ½ gallon.
Ingredient:5-10 small/medium cucumbers2 quarts water3 tablespoons salt3 peeled whole garlic cloves2 dill seed heads (leaves are good too)2-4 grape leaves, optional (oak or apple will also work as the tannins will keep pickles crunchy)Directions:Use freshest cukes possible. Wash cukes well place in ice water bath for 30 minutes.
Bring water and salt to a simmer. Let cool.
In clean jar, place a grape leaf (astringency aids in crunchiness) in the bottom of a jar and start layering cukes on top vertically. Pack them in tight. Press the garlic and dill into available spaces.
After cukes are packed in, add another bit of dill and a grape leaf on top.
When brine has cooled, pour over cucumbers to cover the top grape leaf. Leave 2 inches headspace.
Cap tightly. Let sit on counter for 3-5 days. Brine will start bubbling and turning cloudy by day 2 or 3. When bubbling settles, around day 3-7 (taste for sourness), place in fridge or cold storage.
Escabeche (pickled onions, carrots and jalapeños)
Servings: Makes about 3-4 pints
Measurements can be approximate.Ingredients:¼ cup olive oil1 pound diced onions,2 pounds sliced carrots½ red pepper, diced½ pound jalapeños, stemmed and sliced into rings1-2 cloves of garlic per jar, peeled4 tablespoons fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried oreganoFor the brine:1½ cups apple cider or white vinegar1½ cup water2 tablespoons salt1-2 tablespoon sugar (optional)Directions:Heat the oil in a heavy pot or deep skillet and add the onions. Cook them over low heat until onions are just starting to go translucent, then add the carrots, jalapeños, red pepper and oregano, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
Add the brine ingredients, raise the heat, and bring the pot to a boil and cook for approximately 10 minutes, or until carrots become slightly tender.
Escabeche will keep in a jar in the fridge for 6 months.
Classic, Easy Dill Pickles
Servings: Makes approx 4 pints
Ingredients:3 cups of water3 cup white vinegar3 tablespoons salt 2 pounds pickling cucumbers 4 cloves garlic, peeled and halved4 large sprigs of fresh dill seeds or leaves¼ teaspoon black peppercornsDirections:Thoroughly wash cucumbers and soak them in ice water bath for thirty minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the vinegar, salt, pepper and other spices until simmering.
Slice cucumbers into rounds or spears and pack tightly into clean jars with garlic and dill.
Pour vinegar over cucumbers and either refrigerate and eat within 6 months, or water bath can and keep up to a year.