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Totally Pickled

A food writer joins the preservation nation

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MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen

A few weeks ago, I came down with an acute case of pickle envy, a condition that's less Freudian than it sounds. Strolling the farmers' market, I thought about all of the gorgeous produce that would be available for only a few more weeks: wacky-colored tomatoes, fragrant basil plants and slender beans in green, yellow and purple. Since I'm the kind of gal who doesn't eat tomatoes between October and June - they're just not good enough to bother with - the season's end hits me hard.

But as I walked by vendors hawking jars of bread 'n' butter pickles or sandwiches topped with local sauerkraut, I realized the end of summer didn't necessarily mean the end of tasty local vegetables. Then and there, it became my mission to "put up" as much food as I could for the winter. I pledged to pickle, preserve and freeze - whatever it took - to save some of the best of August for the middle of February.

In the recent past, food processing and storage weren't things one did as a hobby: They were essential to health, and sometimes to survival. Early Americans had never heard of vitamins, but they did know you could prevent scurvy by sucking down tomatoes and rosehips - which modern science has shown are full of Vitamin C, just like more exotic limes and grapefruit. If you couldn't get those fruits or grow them in the winter, you had to save 'em. Plus, in the days before leisure and disposable incomes, it was only natural that when cucumber plants went crazy in the July heat, housewives wanted to hoard the dark green cylinders instead of letting them go to waste.

Nowadays, preparing pickled beets and hot pepper jelly is faddish with the localvore and back-to-the-land sets. These folks don't do it from fear of starvation or debilitating vitamin deficiency diseases, but as a lifestyle choice. Like knitting, it's a way of retaining skills that are disappearing with older generations. It's also totally eco-friendly, decreases garden waste and makes for some delicious condiments. Showing off your well-lined pantry to admiring friends is a hippie status-symbol equivalent to a yuppie cruising the neighborhood in her new Lexus.

"Regular" pickles are soaked in vinegar and sealed in sterile jars via a hot-water bath. The vinegar, heat and resulting vacuum seal kill off potentially dangerous bacteria and keep the contents safe against new growth. Those who enjoy working under pressure can also preserve produce - minus the vinegar - in a pressure canner. The pressure causes mass germicide by bringing the container's temperature above the boiling point.

But there's also an ancient pickling method that's getting a lot of buzz with the new "green" set. It's called lacto-fermentation, because the "good bacteria" that turn shredded carrots and cabbage into kimchi, and cukes into half-sours, do so by producing lactic acid - just like the ones that feed on the sugary lactose in milk and convert it into yogurt, kefir and cultured buttermilk.

Lacto-fermenting involves creating an environment that discourages spoilage and encourages the growth of the friendly microbes. Stirring up a moderately salty brine that inhibits the nasty stuff, pouring it over clean produce, and weighting the veggies so they can't float above the surface typically does the trick. If you make your own cheese or yogurt, a little of the whey - which is loaded with just the right kinds of micro-organisms - can help jumpstart the process. After a couple of days, the liquid begins to bubble, and the food takes on a refreshing, sour taste.

Fermenting enthusiasts, such as Doug Flack of Flack Family Farm and the folks at FolkFoods, claim numerous health benefits result from consuming these foods regularly. Some of the supposed perks are improved digestion, healthy skin and hair and better immunity against disease. Sandor Ellix Katz agrees. The author of Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Culture Foods (Chelsea Green, 2003) has been living with HIV since the 1980s. He credits his good health to the consumption of fermented foods - not just pickles but also beer, raw-milk cheeses, miso and sourdough bread. Sounds like a pretty tasty health diet.

If I was going to go through the trouble of preserving food, I figured I might as well boost my digestion and make my hair shiny at the same time. But lacto-fermented ("LF") foods eventually need to be stored in a cool place, and the only cool place I have is my not-exactly-industrial-sized fridge. By contrast, high-acid foods processed in a boiling-water bath - i.e., pickled the usual way - can hang out at room temp for a year or more without risking a contamination crisis. A little of each seemed like the way to go.

The first step in making pickles, whether you're dousing them in vinegar or letting them ferment, is spending some money. My first stop was the hardware store - which, besides being the place to get lightbulbs or the whatsit that makes the sink stop leaking, turns out to carry canning jars, really big pots and pectin to set jellies. I trudged to the counter with a selection of wide-mouth pint and quart jars and some tongs for retrieving them from water baths. (Note: Be sure the tongs are long enough to reach into a really tall pot and grab the jars without sticking your hand in boiling water. I learned this the hard way). The store didn't have large crocks suitable for fermenting big batches of veggies at once, so I ordered a couple from Amazon.com.

Thus equipped, I swung over to City Hall Park for some edible supplies, then headed for my mom's kitchen, which is much more spacious than my own. Twelve hours later, I was the proud owner of one jar of fermented corn relish that was destined to go bad and five pints of spicy dilly beans.

What took so long? When it came to the beans, my first mistake was using a recipe from a book called Blue Ribbon Preserves, which distracted me with its blather about trimming off both ends of each bean and cutting them to even lengths on a bias. I was going for tasty and safe, not trying to blow away the judges at a county fair.

My second problem was lack of equipment. On my trip to the hardware store, I hadn't picked up a special wire canning rack that sits in the bottom of a pot and cradles your jars so they can't get into a rumble and crack. The book suggested an alternative: tossing a clean kitchen towel into the pot. After washing, cutting, blanching and cooling my beans, I was ready to sterilize some jars. I grabbed a nice, clean blue towel from the drawer and dropped it into the huge vat of water that had finally reached a boil after 45 minutes of not being watched. A few seconds later, the roiling liquid was a delicate shade of purple. I dumped it and started over.

The following weekend, I managed to get a bit more preserving done in approximately the same span of time. I added blanching and freezing to my repertoire, and have two bags of kale and five of summer squash ready to be turned into side dishes at a moment's notice. A grocery bag full of tomatoes is now a few pints of rich tomato sauce. And I've got two gallons of mixed vegetables - cukes, garlic, peppers, carrots, beans and eggplant - sitting on the counter in a salty brine. If luck and the microbe gods are on my side, they'll qualify as good-tasting pickles in a week or two.

I haven't managed to work my way through a virtual rainforest of basil that was given to me by a friend, and I still have more tomatillos than I know what to do with. But I've gotten better at figuring out how much salt to put in my brine and lining up jars in my new canning rack without boiling my fingers. By the time cold weather rolls around, I'll have enough put by to spoon up a little bit of summer every single day of winter. And the best part? I'm getting close to having ogle-worthy cupboards, and I'm completely immune to pickle envy.

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