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Pickle paradise

Times Staff Writer

WHERE have all the pickles gone?

It wasn’t so long ago that every well-dressed American dinner table was bejeweled with an assortment of them -- emerald green tomatoes, ruby red beets and opalescent pearl onions, as well as less glamorous (though certainly no less delicious) okra, mushrooms and watermelon rind. The pickle tray was a standard part of a Sunday supper.

Nowadays, almost the only pickle you’ll find is cucumber. And while there’s nothing wrong with your basic bread-and-butter, half-sour or dill, there are so many other possibilities to explore.

What about radishes, for example, pickled pink, with a refreshing sweet-tart bite to match their crisp texture? Or tangy peppers, yellow turmeric-stained zucchini or even surprisingly savory pickled grapes?

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These are more than mere curiosities. They are perfect for the way we eat in the summertime. A bite of crisp tart pickle is as cooling as an evening breeze.

Their acidity cuts right through the smoke and richness of grilled meat, just as their sweetness and spiciness balance and complement it. Do you doubt it? Think about ketchup, which, when broken down to its basics, is really nothing more than a pureed pickle of ripe tomatoes.

Pickles also make great antipasti. Like olives (technically, yet another kind of pickle), their punchy flavors prime the palate for the bigger dishes to come.

But while many traditional pickles take weeks of aging to mellow and mature, there are very good pickles you can make in a single day.

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You don’t need fancy equipment or advanced cooking skills. If you can slice a vegetable and boil water, you can make a pickle.

The only gadget I used was a Japanese tsukemono-ki, a plastic pickle press that is available at Asian markets for around $20. It’s a simple contraption: Put the salted vegetables in the bottom, then put on the lid and screw down the plate to press the vegetables flat against the bottom, expressing their moisture.

Using this seems to keep the finished pickles crisper, but even though a pickle press is a handy tool, it is by no means a necessity.

First, a little definition: A pickle is a fruit or a vegetable that is preserved through acidity. Because most harmful bacteria have a hard time surviving in a low-pH environment, pickling was an important part of preserving the harvest in the days before refrigeration.

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There are two main ways of making a pickle. The first is by salting the food to draw out its moisture, which is rich in sugars that are fermented by naturally occurring bacteria to create lactic acid (the same acid that preserves so many of our favorite foods, including yogurt, cheeses and salumi).

This is how pickles as diverse as sauerkraut and olives are made. The flavors created are complex, but the time required is long -- weeks or even months.

A simpler form of pickle can be made simply by soaking food in an acid liquid, in most cases, a flavored vinegar mixture. All that’s necessary is to first soften the fruit or vegetable. This can be done either by blanching it briefly in boiling water or by salting it for an hour or two.

The latter has the added benefit of slightly dehydrating the fruit or vegetable, which allows it to absorb more of the moisture from the vinegar mixture, saturating it with flavor. As you might expect, this technique allows plenty of room for the creative cook to mess around.

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Vinegar choices

THOUGH ordinary, white distilled vinegar can be used for most pickles, you can get a different effect by substituting apple cider or Asian rice vinegar. Similarly, don’t feel bound to the common pickling spices of mustard, peppercorns, dill and their brethren. Try using cloves, allspice or cinnamon, fresh ginger or dried chiles.

The two ingredients you’ll want to include in some measure are a little salt to bring out the flavor of the vegetable, and some sugar to soften the harsh edges of the vinegar.

Though the flavoring of these brines is up to you, be careful that you have at least as much vinegar as other liquids (and note that apple cider does not have the same acidity as apple cider vinegar). Because commercial vinegar’s standard acidity is 5%, that’ll ensure that the finished brine is at least a safe 2.5%.

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However you flavor the pickle, there is likely to be a bit of a learning curve when you start experimenting. Soon, though, you’ll develop a palate for tasting pickles early. What may initially seem a little dull and one-dimensional can develop into something very delicious as herbs and spices contribute their flavor and the pickle mellows and deepens.

The first couple of times you experiment, don’t go overboard with the spicing. Give the pickles a day to develop and see how you like them before adjusting the recipe for the next attempt.

A good way to start pickling is by trying some reliable recipes from favorite cookbooks.

One classic on pickles, jams and jellies is “Fine Preserving,” by Catherine Plagemann. Originally published in the 1960s, it was largely forgotten until it was reissued in the 1980s with annotation by none other than M.F.K. Fisher.

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Though the idea of pickled grapes sounds unusual, Fisher said it was one of her favorite recipes in the book. Intrigued, I had to give it a try. It’s spectacular. The addition of just the tablespoon of minced onion lends a surprising savory dimension to the brine. (Oddly, Fisher says she left out the onion when she made it. . . . Maybe she is fallible after all.)

Zucchini easy

MY NEXT attempt was just as successful. If you’ve ever eaten a hamburger at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco (or at Benicia’s Union Hotel before that), you may well have tried the chartreuse zucchini pickles that come as a standard accompaniment.

And if you’ve tried them, you may well have asked the waitress to bring out a second helping. They couldn’t be easier to make, and doing them yourself means never having to beg again.

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Emboldened by these successes, I tried a couple of pickles of my own invention. I love torshi, the Middle Eastern turnip pickles, and I wondered whether you couldn’t get the same texture from a radish, but with a slightly different flavor.

Turns out, radish pickles are every bit as crisp, but with a subtle spice underneath.

I tried these a number of different ways -- with white vinegar and rice vinegar, spiced with cloves and flavored with peppercorns and mustard seed -- before settling on this version, which will now become a standard part of my appetizer repertoire. They are absolutely delicious served with sliced salumi.

Finally, I wondered whether you couldn’t pickle Japanese shishito peppers -- commercial pickled peppers are usually dull, and small wax peppers can be hard to find, even at farmers markets.

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Hallelujah, it’s a snap, one of the easiest pickles I made. Simply cut a couple of slits in each pepper to allow the heat and the brine to penetrate, blanch them in boiling water for about a minute, then cover them with warm vinegar spiced with dried chiles, oregano and onion. The pickles -- crisp, sweet and tart -- will be ready to eat in eight hours or so.

All of these pickles can be canned, if you like, following the standard instructions. But they’ll keep their texture and flavor for weeks simply stored in the refrigerator.

Of course, delicious as they are, it’s doubtful they’ll be around anywhere near that long.

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russ.parsons@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

Zuni Cafe zucchini pickles

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Total time: 20 minutes, plus marinating and pickling time

Servings: 3 cups

Note: Adapted from Judy Rodgers’ “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.”

1 pound zucchini

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1 small yellow onion

2 tablespoons kosher salt

2 cups cider vinegar

1 cup sugar

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1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard

1 1/2 teaspoons crushed yellow and/or brown mustard seeds

Scant 1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1. Wash and trim the zucchini, then slice them one-sixteenth-inch thick; a mandoline works best. Slice the onion very thin as well. Combine the zucchini and onions in a large but shallow nonreactive bowl, add the salt and toss to distribute. Add a few ice cubes and cold water to cover, then stir to dissolve the salt. Alternatively, transfer the salted zucchini and onion slices to a Japanese pickle maker and screw down the top; do not add any water or ice cubes.

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2. After about 1 hour, taste and feel a piece of zucchini -- it should be slightly softened. Drain and pat dry.

3. Combine the vinegar, sugar, dry mustard, mustard seeds and turmeric in a small saucepan and simmer for 3 minutes. Set aside until just warm to the touch. (If the brine is too hot, it will cook the vegetables and make the pickles soft instead of crisp.)

4. Return the zucchini to a dry bowl and pour over the cooled brine. Stir to distribute the spices. Transfer the pickle to jars, preferably ones that have “shoulders” to hold the zucchini and onions beneath the surface of the brine. Seal tightly and refrigerate for at least a day before serving to allow the flavors to mellow and permeate the zucchini, turning them a brilliant chartreuse color.

Each 1/4 -cup serving: 27 calories; 0 protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 0 fat; 0 cholesterol; 74 mg. sodium.

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Pickled grapes

Total time: 20 minutes plus refrigeration time

Servings: Makes 3 cups

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Note: Adapted from Catherine Plagemann’s “Fine Preserving.”

3 cups stemmed red seedless grapes (about 3/4 pound)

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 cup white wine vinegar

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3 (3-inch) sticks cinnamon

1 tablespoon minced onion

1. Wash the grapes and divide them into three pint-sized canning jars.

2. In a small saucepan, bring the sugar, vinegar, cinnamon and onion to a boil, then simmer 5 minutes. Pour the syrup evenly over the grapes and insert a cinnamon stick in each jar. Seal tightly and refrigerate at least 8 hours.

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Each 1/4 -cup serving: 55 calories; 0 protein; 14 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 cholesterol; 1 mg. sodium.

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Quick radish pickles

Total time: 20 minutes, plus softening and pickling time

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Servings: Makes about 2 cups

2 bunches radishes (about 3/4 pound with tops removed)

1 tablespoon plus 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided

1 teaspoon whole mustard seed

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1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

3/4 cup rice vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

1. Trim the tops and tails of the radishes and quarter them lengthwise. In a large, nonreactive bowl, toss them with 1 tablespoon kosher salt to coat well. Add water to cover and several ice cubes. Set aside until the radishes have softened slightly but are still crisp, about 2 hours. Alternatively, transfer the salted radishes without the water and ice cubes to a Japanese pickle maker and screw down the top.

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2. While the radishes are softening, toast the mustard seed and black peppercorns in a small saucepan over medium-high heat until they are fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the vinegar, one-half cup water, the sugar and the remaining one-fourth teaspoon salt and simmer 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool until the pickling mixture is just warm to the touch.

3. Rinse the radishes well and pat them dry with a towel. Place them in a small, nonreactive container and pour the warm pickling mixture over them to just cover. Seal tightly and refrigerate at least 1 day to mature.

Each 1/4-cup serving: 11 calories; 0 protein; 2 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 0 fat; 0 fat; 0 cholesterol; 270 mg. sodium.

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Quick pickled peppers

Total time: 20 minutes, plus pickling time

Servings: Makes about 4 cups

Note: Shishito peppers are available at many Asian markets.

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3/4 pound shishito peppers

2 1/2 cups rice vinegar

3 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed

2 teaspoons kosher salt

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1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

1 small onion, sliced 1/4 inch thick

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2 to 3 whole chiles de arbol or other small dried red chile (optional)

1. Cut a thin lengthwise slit on each side of each pepper to allow the brine to penetrate.

2. In a medium saucepan, simmer the vinegar with 2 cups of water, the garlic, salt, sugar, oregano, peppercorns, onion and dried chile, if desired, until fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes.

3. Blanch the peppers in a large pot of boiling water until they begin to soften and the color just begins to fade, 2 to 3 minutes. Drain the peppers and pat dry with a kitchen towel; do not rinse them.

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4. Place the peppers, still warm, in a large nonreactive container with a cover and pour the vinegar solution over them. Seal tightly and refrigerate at least 8 hours. Each 1/4 -cup serving: 7 calories; 0 protein; 2 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 36 mg. sodium.


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