You may have noticed that humble pickles are becoming—yes, believe it—trendy.
Restaurateurs make them and home cooks flock to pickling and preserving workshops. So jump on the bandwagon and make a batch. It will take less time than an episode of Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home.
Geff and I went to a wonderful, hip, casual café with serious food credentials, Piccino, in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco. The restaurant serves an appetizer plate that includes pickles including carrots, baby radishes, asparagus tips, and cauliflower florets. Both times they were great—the vegetables crisply crunchy, slightly tart, and not sweet.
I immediately came home and started experimenting with the many pounds of carrots in our CSA box. For some reason, the boys will eat raw and pickled carrots but not cooked carrots, the one sure-fire cooked vegetable my sisters and I loved when growing up. Just why the boys don’t appreciate the comforting sweetness of cooked carrots tossed with butter I will never understand.
So pickles it is. These fresh, quick pickles have many advantages: they can be prepared in a few minutes and keep several weeks in the fridge; they taste fresh and vibrant; the flavors can be adjusted to suit your palate; they are naturally fat-free and salt and sugar content can be adjusted to suit your palate and/or dietary requirements. Plus they make great snacks on their own or as a welcome change from crudités, and as condiments with sandwiches, burgers, and roasted meats and fish.
I thought pickles would be hard to make. Didn’t they involve fermentation? Complicated brines? Well, yes and no. I turned for help to my favorite vegetable cookbook, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyoneby Deborah Madison. I began my experiments with her Pickled Carrots and Garlic with Cumin. In that recipe you cook the carrots for a few minutes but do not boil the brine. But with Piccino’s pickles in mind, I just threaten the carrots–or whatever vegetable I plan to pickle–with heat. Another difference is that I do blanch the garlic. I’ve also made Judy Roger’s fabulous red onion pickles from her Zuni cookbook. Her method requires more work than I want to invest, so I adapted her spicing and use an easier method. Because pickled onions on burgers is an unbeatable combination. And they taste great on cheese, chicken, and turkey sandwiches, too.
Choose a nonreactive container big enough to house all your pickles—a glass jar, a food grade plastic container, or pottery bowl. Use equal parts vinegar and water. The amount you need will depend on how many vegetables you plan to pickle. The brine should cover the pickles. Distilled white vinegar is the classic pickling vinegar but other vinegars add different flavors. For instance, Deborah Madison’s recipe recommends apple cider vinegar. I use whatever I’ve got, except balsamic and red wine vinegar. The former because it is too sweet and the latter because it would change the color of the pickle. If I were pickling beets (delicious done at home, perhaps not so terrific from a can if you were raised on them as I was), red wine vinegar would be fine and I’d add a strip of orange peel to the brine ingredients.
Use garlic. In spring, chop spring garlic very fine and add to the vinegar-water. The rest of the year, use whole, peeled garlic cloves. Crush them and then blanch them in boiling, salted water for about a minute. Garlic lovers will love to eat them. Add some thinly sliced red onion, too, with a teaspoon or so of salt and a good pinch of sugar. Stir to dissolve and add coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and whole black peppercorns. You might also add fennel and mustard seed and bay leaf. I don’t much worry about measuring, but I’m a the-more-the-merrier, all-of-the above type and lavish handfuls of herbs on nearly everything. You can toast the spices beforehand or not, your choice. Tear a dried hot chili into several pieces and add it. Or use a good pinch of chili flakes or you could slice a fresh hot pepper such as a jalapeno, dip it in boiling water, and then immediately sink it into the brine.
Prepare your veggies: peel a pound or more of carrots and cut them into matchsticks. Slice red onion, separate cauliflower and broccoli into florets, halve or quarter radishes, cut bell peppers into strips, green tomatoes into wedges, separate the tips from the asparagus (and save the stalks for soup). Blanch the vegetables briefly in boiling, salted water. You just want to take the raw edge off them, not cook them, in order to have crisp pickles. Depending on the size of your veggies, they may need as few as 10 seconds. Drain them immediately add them to the brine. If the brine does not cover the vegetables, add equal amounts of vinegar and water until it does.
The above method has become my habit with variations. For a batch of thinly sliced red onions, I use more sugar, about ¼ cup per pound, and use a cinnamon stick, allspice berries, coriander, and star anise for the brine. To extract the most flavor from the hard spices, simmer them in the brine for several minutes. Then add the raw onions to the hot brine.
When the CSA box included a several-pound bag of Kirby cucumbers (small, knobby, and meaty), the kind you pickle, I was necessarily introduced to homemade cucumber pickles. For these I combined and adapted two recipes from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. But the recipe is really just another variation of the method already outlined. For a pound or so of cucumbers, cut lengthwise into wedges, simmer together 1 ½ cups each vinegar and water with mustard, coriander, and fennel seeds; chili flakes; about 10 peppercorns; 4 allspice berries; 1 bay leaf; and 2 crushed garlic cloves. Put the cucumbers, a thinly sliced red onion, and a big handful of dill in a bowl and pour in the hot brine. Don’t have dill? No problem, substitute fennel fronds, chervil, mint, and/or tarragon. Stir and let the pickles cool on the counter. Then cover and refrigerate.
Make your pickles the day before you plan to serve them so they have a chance to develop flavor. Store them in the fridge and they’ll keep several weeks.