White wine vinegar, water, honey and spice. I was more than a little curious as I gently simmered the ingredients over the stove. The aroma, at first richly fragrant and sweet with notes of cinnamon, allspice and vanilla, finished with subtle but sharp acidity from the vinegar as it filled the kitchen.
Fingers crossed, I poured the mixture over crisp sliced apple — another batch of quick fall pickles almost finished.
Cucumbers may be the poster child when it comes to pickles, but there is a world of possibilities out there, drawing on ancient techniques and inspired by cultures the world over. And where your options may once have been limited to the spread on your grandmother’s holiday relish tray, pickles are seemingly everywhere now, the darlings of artisan producers and the muse of chefs. Best of all? They’re simple to make at home and can come together quickly.
Lately I’ve been inspired by all the colorful fall produce.
Take cranberries. Pickled cranberries are a small step flavor-wise from cranberry relish and are simple to prepare. Combine cider vinegar and water with a handful of aromatics — cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise, orange zest and fresh ginger — on the stove. Add maple syrup to sweeten, and bring it to a gentle simmer to marry the flavors. Stir in the cranberries and heat just until they begin to pop, to allow the flavors to penetrate. Then chill the berries, submerged in the liquid, until ready to enjoy and up to a couple of weeks.
Where traditional pickles can take weeks to ferment — ingredients are salted, drawing out moisture and natural sugars that ferment over time to preserve the food through acidity — quick pickles come together in a day or so, the food soaked in an acidic liquid, typically vinegar-based, to saturate it with flavor.
Pumpkin is another option, and it makes for a great savory pickle. I prefer to cut the squash into larger chunks — an inch or so square — and salt them for a few hours to draw out moisture and soften the pieces. Rinse the pieces well, then add them to a pot of gently simmering white balsamic vinegar and water flavored with crushed garlic cloves, fresh sage, thyme and marjoram. Brown sugar adds a hint of sweetness and pairs well with the squash.
Feel free to experiment with vinegars and flavorings, fine-tuning to get the balance just right. Don’t overdo it with the spices at first, as they will continue to penetrate with time. And play with the size and shape of the pickles to get the texture and crunch factor just right.
It took a few trial batches — fine-tuning the spice blend here, adjusting the thickness of the slices there — before I got the apples just right. They’re great eaten out of hand but also work in salads and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Oh, and they look beautiful on a holiday relish tray.