Recently, I’ve noticed homemade pickles showing up on Bay Area resto menus. The first time I noticed (and ordered them) was at Oakland wine bar Encuentro a couple months ago. Encuentro had served a variety of pickled veggies, including green beans, onion, and fennel. Then last week I had them at Bar Agricole in SOMA–again, not your average pickled cukes, but pickled veggies–radishes, carrots, cauliflower.
Coincidentally, we’ve pickled at KoF during two classes now. Chef Olive seems to be sort of into pickling. And why not? Who knew it was sooooo easy to do? When I think of homemade pickles, I’m reminded of my Aunt Mary Lou, who was a Master Canner. Mary Lou canned everything under the sun. Each year, she and my uncle would plant a pretty substantial vegetable garden, which would take their family through each winter. When I was a teenager, I wanted to avoid visiting them during canning time because we’d invariably be put to work doing what I thought was some pretty menial, repetitive task for hours at a time to help them with the canning process, which was a family affair. Picking the ends off green beans, shelling peas by hand, putting one cherry at a time into an old-fashioned metal cherry pitter that was fastened to the edge of a table in their basement like a vice grip –canning just seemed both like too much work for the trouble, especially when you could just buy the same stuff frozen or canned at the grocery store, right?
Plus, I have to admit, some of the stuff didn’t always taste that great. In particular, I didn’t really like the pickled red cabbage, the German rot kohl or her freezer slaw, each of which seemed like we never could finish–it was like a new freezer box would appear every time one was used. And, I’m sorry to say, I recall a particularly flaccid batch of dill pickles that came home with us in droves one year. The cukes weren’t crisp like the ones we got from Vlasic at the store–if the Vlasic stork would have held one up to his mouth as if it was a cigar, like he did in the commercials, the poor thing would have wilted. But, her bread and butter pickles were great.
So, my memories of labor-intensive canning processes and flaccid dills did not set me up for thinking that pickling could be anything but a complicated, hours long process requiring pressure cookers, Mason jars and those funny, huge tongs meant for grabbing glass jars out of boiling water.
But to my wondrous surprise, there is a process called “quick pickling” that produces pickles in approximately a half an hour. Chef Olive first showed us how to do this in our Frying and Confit class (why, I don’t quite know–probably due to the same property of “cooking” via immersion in a hot liquid, albeit vinegar instead of fat, in this case). That week he made a really quick batch of cucumber pickles by slicing up a few Persian cucumbers and soaking them in some hot vinegar, sugar and spices that he’d boiled for about 20 minutes on the stove. A couple things stuck out for me about this process. One, that he used spices to make his pickles that I never would have thought would have made it into a pickle jar–star anise and cumin among them. And cloves of all things! Stuff I associate more with mulled wine at the holidays than pickles.
This past week he made pickles again–this time, pickled onion slices. Can I just say, yum? What a great way to eat raw onion without the nasty raw onion breath! (Although, technically the acid does “cook” the onion, just like sushi vinegar “cooks” the raw fish so we can enjoy sushi without making ourselves sick). Again, the process was extremely simple. Simmer vinegar, sugar, salt and a variety of spices of choice (there were pepper corns and mustard seeds in that batch) for 10-20 minutes then pour over a sliced up onion in a heat-resistant bowl. Within 15-30 minutes, your pickles are ready to eat, flavored with whatever strikes your fancy, and not flaccid!
This inspired me to try my hand at my first foray into quick pickling over the weekend. I made the trek to the Temescal Farmer’s Market and decided to pick up a variety of funky veggies to pickle. I already knew I wanted to pickle some carrots I had leftover in the fridge and that I wanted to include some onions after the previous day’s demonstration. I wandered from stall to stall looking for items to pickle. Of course, once I got started choosing things, I had a hard time stopping and so I kept going back to the same stalls over and over again and buying more things, one thing at a time, so that I ended up going buying three separate items at the same stall in three separate trips to the cashier. Not very efficient (and sort of embarrassing), I know, but whoever said inspiration was efficient!
I settled on onion, garlic (which I ended up buying pre-peeled at Whole Foods), fennel, carrot, pickling cukes and both regular and watermelon radishes. I was really tempted to also get green beans and cauliflower but thought I already might be going a bit overboard, so I stopped at lucky seven veggies. I also decided that trying pickling was a good excuse to check out the funky new spice store on Grand Ave., Oaktown Spice Shop, since I wanted to find some star anise, which is not usually at the regular grocery. Only $12 worth of spice damage later, I waltzed out of the spice store with cloves, cinnamon bark, star anise, cardamom pods, coriander and whole allspice. Apparently I should be making mulled wine pickles!
Since these culinary adventures of mine also tend to be an excuse to stock up on new kitchenwares, I also simply had to trek over to Bed, Bath and Beyond to get some glass storage containers because I didn’t want the vinegar mixture to be coming through some PCB-leeching plastic containers. Not having any sense of volume or restraint whatsoever and $80 later, I had six new jars of various sizes with those funky, pressure hinge thingies that can be both decorative and functional and used time and time again–they can even be “hermetically” sealed if you use the rubber ring that comes with them.
I had also picked up both apple cider vinegar and plain old white vinegar at Whole Foods because I wanted to try both. I decided that the funky mulling aromatics would probably be better suited to the cider vinegar. The veggies were distributed evenly into each of the largest jars I’d bought. For the apple cider batch, I added 1/2 cup of brown sugar, about a tablespoon of salt (eyeballed–yes, that is an exact unit of measurement!), a handful of four-peppercorn blend, then the cloves, cinnamon bark, star anise, allspice and cardamom. The only spices that made it into both pickle batches were allspice and cloves. With the white vinegar, I used 1/2 cup of regular white sugar, the allspice and cloves, black peppercorns, and crushed red pepper and salt. Actually, coriander also made its way into both batches.
After dissolving the sugar and simmering each for about 15 minutes, I decided to taste them. The white batch seemed pretty good as it was. The cider batch seemed to need both some extra sugar (another 1/2 cup–that cider vinegar is potent stuff–just sniffing it made me start coughing, let alone tasting it) and a little something else. I decided to add some Chinese Five Spice. Then I ladled each mixture into the two jars and let the veggies get to steeping (because pickling after all is also an infusion, just like tea!). Once the temp came down to about room temp, I put them in the fridge overnight. I tasted each batch tonight–not bad! My personal jury might be a bit out on the cider vinegar, we’ll see – I wasn’t sure that I picked up all the spice flavor profiles. It could be that the cider vinegar flavor is too potent as it is. I’m going to take some to work tomorrow to see what people think.