The Pickle Throwdown

I had the honor yesterday of serving among the judges at the first annual Kenny and Zuke’s Pickle Throwdown, at Kenny and Zuke’s Sandwichworks inNorthwest Portland. Eleven restaurants presented a total of thirty pickles, categorized as classic, sweet, non-cucumber, and “Portlandweird.” Five hundred people came to taste them.

My own clear favorite among the classics was Biwa’s, a brined cucumber with just the right levels of salt and tang and loads of garlic. The sweet category included some good cucumber bread-and-butters, but I was most impressed by Toro Bravo’s zucchini b&bs—unusual in that they were neither too sweet nor too spicy, so that you could actually taste the delicate flavor of the zucchini. (Oddly, Biwa is a Japanese restaurant and Toro Bravo is Spanish.) It was hard to choose a single favorite in the non-cucumber category, which included cherries, strawberries, bourbon-pickled apples, cauliflower, rhubarb, asparagus, jalapeños, kimchee, and giardiniera. Sunshine Tavern’s pickled eggs were interesting in their mild acidity and their semi-cooked yolks, but I most liked Olympic Provision’s pickled roasted red peppers. The weird category included Grüner’s delicious but ordinary pickled mushrooms and Kenny and Zuke’s just-too-weird Koolickles, cucumber pickles soaked in cherry-flavored Kool-Aid, according to a Mississippi Delta tradition. Most imaginative were Spints Alehouse’s pickled duck tongues with longan halves (don’t you wonder where somebody found five hundred duck tongues—and how those ducks are feeling now?). The judges’ favorite, though, was cuttlefish caponata, an elaborate treat prepared by Garden State Cart—yes, a food cart, whose proprietor also makes his own pancetta and barbecue sauce and hand-cuts his own shoestring potatoes.

Here are a few photos of the Throwdown pickles:


My First Dandelion Wine

The last day of March dawned clear and breezy, and the grass all around was spotted yellow. The day was perfect for picking dandelions.

Ever since I was twelve years old, when I read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, I’d thought about making the mysterious brew. Dandelions barely smell, to my nose, and what aroma they have seems more grassy than floral. The flower petals fortunately lack the bitterness of the rest of the plant, but they also lack much flavor at all. Yet apparently dandelion wine was once quite popular, at least among British and North American writers on country life in the early to mid-twentieth century.

Dandelion wine—“the words were summer on the tongue,” Bradbury says. But what does the stuff taste like? One writer says sherry; another says the wine resembles whiskey, especially if you include the green parts of the flower and age the wine well. A North Dakota everything-but-grape winery says its dandelion wine is like “a cross between a light chardonnay and corn on the cob.” I could order the wine from North Dakota, but I wouldn’t know how it was made. I needed to make my own from a traditional recipe to know how dandelion wine ought to taste.

Often I’d been inspired to make dandelion wine too late in the year, when the yellow flowers spotting the grass weren’t dandelions at all but their less edible look-alikes, catsear and sowthistle. One year my husband and I started picking those flowers and stopped only when our small daughter pointed out the leaves. Dandelion leaves really do look like dents de lion, or as least as you might imagine lion’s teeth to look, if lions had green teeth. And the leaves aren’t the least bit prickly or furry; they’re smooth and thin, and they look good to eat–as they are, if you like very bitter greens. In late March, though, I didn’t need to check the foliage; all the yellow flowers in the orchard and vegetable garden were dandelions.

I harvested the flowers as instructed by several old books: With one hand, snap off a head. With the other hand, pinch off the bracts along with any remains of the stem, which will be oozing bitter white sap, and as much of the base of the flower and the green calyx as come away easily. Drop the rest into a bucket. With the biggest flowers, I was sometimes able to pull away all the petals in one pinch and leave the rest of the flower behind.

Before I could pick the flower, though, I’d often have to pick off a bug. A spotted cucumber beetle, looking like a slightly elongated lady bug spotted black on yellow or yellow-green instead of red, rested on every third to fourth dandelion. Gluttons for bitterness, the beetles were enjoying dandelions as a starter course while waiting to feast on my cucumbers, melons, squash, and beans come summer. I pinched each beetle that didn’t get away—fortunately, they’re slow in cool weather–and wiped my fingers on the damp grass to avoid adding bitter beetle juice to my brew.

Despite the extra time devoted to pest control, in an hour and a half I’d harvested a gallon of dandelion blossoms. In the kitchen, I boiled a gallon of water in a stockpot and stirred in the flowers. Then I left the pot sitting on the kitchen counter for three days, and stirred the mixture once a day. It smelled mildly musty.

At this point old recipes vary somewhat. Since dandelion flowers aren’t sweet, the most important ingredient to add is sugar. Recipes often call for honey, Demerara sugar, malt sugar, raisins, or some combination of these. Reluctant to risk wasting expensive bought sugar or my home-produced honey or raisins, I added three pounds of ordinary white sugar. “To improve the flavor” (admits Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Herbs), you next add citrus, usually ginger, and often another spice or two. I was wary of overpowering whatever flavor the dandelions might prove to possess, so I used the thinly peeled rind and the juice of just one orange and one lemon, plus an ounce of grated fresh ginger.

I stirred the mixture together, brought it to a boil, and let it boil gently for 20 minutes. Then I let it cool to lukewarm and poured it into a scalded food-grade plastic bucket. The old books say to set a piece of rye bread on top and spread yeast of an unspecified sort on top. Instead I stirred half an envelope of wine yeast into a quarter-cup of warm water and stirred the mixture into the bucket. I set a lid loosely on top and put the bucket in a warm closet.

Yesterday my husband sniffed the wine and assured me that fermentation was under way, so today I strained the bubbling liquid through a coarsely woven nylon jelly bag, poured the wine into a gallon glass jug, and plugged the jug with a waterlock. Squeezing the bag turned the liquid yellow, though the color may settle out along with the fine solids. I had about a pint left over after I filled the jug, so I put it into the fridge for later, but first I had a little taste. The new wine isn’t bitter or medicinal at all, but pleasantly sweet, citrusy, and a little gingery.

When the wine in the jug has finished fermenting, I’ll bottle it. After that, Euell Gibbons tells me in Stalking the Wild Asparagus, I mustn’t touch it until Christmas. Then I’ll tell you what I think of dandelion wine. Will it uphold the dandelion’s reputation as a diuretic, as revealed by its modern French name, pissenlit (“piss in the bed”)? Will it fortify my blood, as dandelions are also supposed to do? Maybe one taste will make me exclaim, like the boy in Bradbury’s book, “I’m a fire-eater! Whoosh!”

I’ll let you know what happens.

 

Tools for Measuring Brine Strength

In making fermented pickles, brine strength is critical. A too-salty pickle can be entirely unpalatable, although what’s too salty for one person can be just right for another, and what’s too salty for a person one day can be perfect for the same person a day later. If salt raises your blood pressure, though, fermented pickles aren’t for you at all, because you can’t make them without salt. By regulating the growth of various microbes that are naturally present on the vegetables in the pickle crock, salt minimizes the risk of spoilage and maximizes your chance of producing firm and delicious pickles with a complex, sour taste.

Salt varies in density depending on its coarseness, so in mixing brine you can correctly measure salt by volume only if your salt has the same density as the recipe writer’s. This is why, in The Joy of Pickling, I always call for pickling salt—fine, pure sodium chloride. If you’re using another kind of salt—for example, kosher (which is generally less dense than pickling salt, no matter what the package says)—you may need to measure it by weight rather than by volume. Tables for translating between volume and weight are on pages 38 and 39 of The Joy of Pickling, revised edition.

Now, what if you’ve made up some brine and then wondered whether you’ve done it right? Maybe the salt looks fine to you, but it isn’t labeled as pickling salt, and your kitchen scale is broken. Maybe you’re not sure that you counted cups or tablespoons correctly, or that your scale is accurate. Can you check the brine strength?

You can, indeed, and my Husband the Chemist wanted to be sure I had the tools to do so. So he bought me a refractometer and a hydrometer, and I used them recently while making up brine for beef tongue.

A hydrometer for measuring brine strength is also called, confusingly, a salinometer, a salimeter, a salometer, and a brinometer. My husband bought one at www.butcher-packer.com (search for “salinometer”). Priced at only $13.50, it’s a glass tube sealed at both ends. The swollen bottom end has a lump of lead enclosed at the tip, and the narrow top end has a precisely placed slip of paper printed with a scale. The hydrometer works by the same principle as the egg that picklers once floated to check brine strength, except that the hydrometer tells you not simply that your brine is quite strong but exactly how strong it is.

To use the hydrometer, float it in a tall container of brine. My hydrometer came in a thin, narrow plastic storage tube which is meant to double as a cylinder for floating the hydrometer, but my husband recommends buying a regular hydrometer cylinder, or “jar,” in the size of 500 milliliters. With your hydrometer floating in brine, look for the number at the top of the brine. What does the number mean? To find out, you need a table like the one at www.wedlinydomowe.com (an amazingly complete and authoritative source of information on meat curing); click on “Making Brine,” in the right column on the home page. In the Wedliny Domowe table, the column headed “Salometer Degrees” matches the scale on your hydrometer. Look down the column for your hydrometer reading, and then find the corresponding figure under “Pounds of Salt per Gallon of Water” or “Percent of Sodium Chloride (Salt) by Weight.” To adjust your brine, add salt or water until you get the hydrometer reading that matches the salt percentage or weight you’re aiming for.

Note that a salinity hydrometer is scaled for brine at a certain temperature—normally 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, my hydrometer came with a table of adjustments in case the brine is warmer or colder.

Note also that you can accurately measure brine strength only before you’ve added sugar (as is generally done for meat curing, though not for fermenting vegetables). Once you’ve added sugar, the hydrometer will measure the density of the solution, not the salinity of the brine.

A refractometer is fancier and more expensive than a hydrometer. The same basic instrument that grape growers use to determine the sugar content of their grapes, a refractometer looks like a little telescope. You drop a little brine onto the plate at one end and then look into the eyepiece at the other end, aiming the device toward a lighted window or other light source. You see the brine strength clearly indicated on a scale before your eye.

My husband got my refractometer at www.coleparmer.com, where “low-cost” salinity hydrometers range from $105 to $258. One model measures salt content in parts per thousand; others measure the percentage of salt by weight of the solution. You can translate percentage of salt to either weight or volume by using the tables on pages 38 and 39 of my book.

Like a hydrometer, a refractometer is temperature-specific (in this case it’s the temperature of the air, not the brine, that matters), but you can calibrate the instrument before performing your test.

Do home picklers really need either of these instruments? Generally no, in my opinion, but either one can be useful at times, and a hydrometer costs so little that you may want to have one on hand just in case you need it, as well as for science lessons for the kids or grandkids. A refractometer, of course, is a bigger investment. You may want one if you go into pickling as a business.

The Lucques Olive: A Langedoc Tradition Comes to America

Even as I was curing olives for the first time, in 2009, I knew I’d do it differently in 2010. Cured olives, like breads and wines, are wonderful partly for their variety. I love them green or black, big or little, salty and shriveled, bitter, sour, herbed, or oiled. Both ripeness and curing method, I knew, determined a cured olive’s look and taste. But how much difference did cultivar make? I wasn’t sure.

The olives I ordered in 2009, from M&CP Farms of Orland, California (www.greatolives.com), were green Sevillanos, which grow as large as an inch across and have firm flesh that you must chew off the pit. They were delicious both lye-cured and long-brined. But when M&CP offered another variety, Lucques, in 2010, I ordered them without hesitation.

As soon as I slit open the box the FedEx man brought me, I knew I’d never confuse Lucques olives with Sevillanos. Whereas the Sevillano olive is oval, the Lucques is long, slender, and slightly crescent-shaped, with a pointed tip. The unripe Sevillano is pale green, but the unripe Lucques is bright green like a Gravenstein apple.

Although the Lucques probably originated in Italy, the variety is an old favorite in Languedoc, especially around a village called St Jean de la Blaquière, where in the 1990s the local co-op cured two hundred tons per year. Although St Jean’s olives are now cured in nearby Clermont-l’Herault, St Jean still hosts the annual Fête de la Lucques.

Each autumn, all France awaits the cured green Lucques olives, beloved for their light, nutty, sweet taste; their meaty flesh, which comes away easily from the pit; and their color, which remains bright green even after curing. Most of the olives are available just a few weeks after the September picking, because they are treated with lye, which quickly eliminates all bitterness.

Unsure how best to cure my Lucques olives, I managed to track down two recipes from St. Jean de la Blaquière, one for the standard commercial cure, with lye, and one for the family-style long-brine method. I cured a gallon each way.

The lye-cured olives were ready less than three weeks later. They were indeed sweet and nutty and mild, and they were so good that they were gone in a month. I’d used no herbs or garlic, and nobody missed these embellishments. With only salt to enhance their flavor, the olives were irresistible.

A second gallon of Lucques olives got the slow cure—a fresh-water soak, with frequent changes, for fifteen days, followed by immersion in a light brine for four days and a medium-strong brine thereafter. These olives are still sitting in salt water, again without flavorings, in a warm closet. They are bitter, but every time I taste one it’s less bitter than the last. By the first of April, I predict, my family will start on our second Fête de la Lucques. I can hardly wait.

Cure Your Own Olives

olives close upTo my regret, I never got around to curing the fruit of the huge old olive trees on my parents’ California ranch, which they have long since sold. Like many other gardeners in the Pacific Northwest, I now have my own little olive tree, of the hardy Arbequina variety, and I await the first crop with greedy anticipation. Last year, though, I got to wondering: In the age of the Internet and overnight delivery, did I have to wait? Could I buy some fresh olives to cure at home?

In fact, I could. For less than thirty dollars, I had ten pounds of green Sevillanos delivered to my door in early September. I looked them over carefully; you don’t want to cure olives that are bruised or otherwise damaged. Nearly all were perfect. I grabbed my copy of the University of California’s Olives: Safe Methods for Home Pickling (ANR publication 8267) and began to study up.

There are many ways to cure olives. The best choice depends on the variety, whether the olives are green or ripe, how you want to store them, and how long you’re willing to wait before you eat them. I chose the method that Olives calls Sicilian-style—that is, simple brining—for most of the olives. For the rest, I chose a lye cure followed by a shorter brining.

For the Sicilian-style olives, I filled two glass jars, one gallon-size and one 3-quart-size, with olives, hot peppers, chopped garlic, bay leaves, and fennel umbels, and then I added a brine made of 1 cup pickling salt, 1 gallon water, and 1 pint red wine vinegar. The remaining 2 quarts of olives I treated with lye—Red Devil, which you might use to clean out a kitchen drain—mixed with water. The olives soaked in the lye water for about 12 hours, and then I repeatedly rinsed them and soaked them in pure water for about 30 hours, to remove the lye. At this point the olives had lost their natural bitterness, but they still needed to ferment to develop their flavor and texture. I mixed up a brine with the same ratio of salt to water as before, but this time I left out the vinegar. Presumably because lye kills the lactic-acid-forming bacteria on the olives, the recipe told me I needed to add a starter. I used a little brine from a jar of unpasteurized fermented cucumber pickles.

Two months later, the lye-treated olives were already tender, but they also tasted of dill and cucumbers from the pickle brine. So, though the recipe didn’t call for seasonings, I added hot pepper, garlic, bay, and thyme. A week or so later, these olives were delicious, and my husband and I started eating and sharing them.

Now we have finished off the lye-treated olives and are waiting for the Sicilian-style ones, which have lost most of their bitterness. I actually like the slight bitterness that remains, but the texture is still a little too chewy. We’ve just reached the minimum curing time for these olives—about four months. We’ll probably wait another two weeks or so before we start eating them.

Olives includes recipes for other curing methods, and none of these methods is more complicated than the two I tried. Curing olives, like making other sorts of pickles, is not only possible for people who don’t grow their own; it’s also easy.

Hot Pink Sauerkraut

hot-pink sauerkraut

When my friends Wendy and Greg handed me a gorgeous, huge red cabbage from their garden a couple of months ago, Greg told me he loves to make red-cabbage sauerkraut. The Pickle Lady was humbled; I’d never made or even tasted sauerkraut from red cabbages! Now I knew what I would do with my beautiful cabbage.

I decided to take as my model a low-salt red-cabbage sauerkraut recipe from an odd little Canadian cookbook, Making Sauerkraut and Pickled Vegetables at Home. I cut the head fine, using a mandoline, and mixed the shredded cabbage with some apple and onion slices, a bay leaf, caraway seeds, and juniper berries. As always  in making sauerkraut, I tossed the mixture with salt and packed it firmly into a crock. But several hours later the cabbage had released almost no juice. This was problematic; when you’re making sauerkraut, the cabbage must be well covered with liquid to keep from rotting. The Canadian authors, warning that red cabbage is “a very hard vegetable,” suggested pressing “thoroughly with a potato masher,” but this didn’t work for me. I could have added some brine from one of the big jars of fermented pickles in my garage refrigerator, following another suggestion from the Canadian authors, but then the sauerkraut would have tasted of dill and garlic. A final suggestion from the Canadians was to add whey, strained out of buttermilk or kefir, which they said would jump-start the fermentation. That sounded to me like an unnecessary bother. So I decided to add fresh brine–that is, salted water.

Two weeks later, I pulled from my crock heaps of gloriously hot-pink, tart, delicious sauerkraut. Here’s the recipe. You can add more spices or leave them out, as you prefer.

4 pounds finely shredded red cabbage, plus a few whole outer leaves
1 large apple, cored and sliced thin
1 medium-large onion, sliced thin
1 Mediterranean bay leaf
Pinch of caraway seeds
3 juniper berries
3 tablespoons pickling salt (fine, pure salt)
1 quart water

In a large bowl or stockpot, thoroughly mix the shredded cabbage, apple, onion, bay, caraway, juniper berries, and 1 ½ tablespoons salt. Pack the mixture firmly in a crock or gallon jar. Wait an hour or two for the salt to dissolve.

Stir the remaining 1 ½ tablespoons salt into the water, and keep stirring until the liquid is clear. Pour the brine over the cabbage mixture. Lay the whole cabbage leaves on top, and add weights. (I used the weights that come with a Harsch pickling crock. With an ordinary crock, cover the cabbage with a plate that just fits inside the crock, and weight the plate with a capped, water-filled glass jar. If you’re using a gallon glass jar, weight the cabbage with a freezer-weight plastic bag filled with brine in the proportion of 1 ½ tablespoons salt to 1 quart water.) The cabbage mixture should be well covered with liquid. If it isn’t, add more brine in the same proportion. Keep the crock or jar at warm room temperature for two to three days, until fermentation gets underway, and then set it in a cooler place. If you’re using an ordinary crock, you’ll need to skim the brine occasionally.

Begin tasting the sauerkraut after two weeks. When it’s as sour as you like, transfer it to a clean jar, and store the jar in the refrigerator. If you like, you can freeze some of your kraut in plastic bags, rigid plastic containers, or glass jars. I don’t recommend canning it. Although with the addition of brine my recipe is saltier than the Canadians’ version, the sauerkraut will still be less salty than the USDA approves for canning.

Tiny Bubbles in the Pickle Jar

 

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In the past couple of weeks two people have told me that they never see little bubbles rising in their containers of fermenting cucumbers. Usually bubbles start appearing after three or four days of brining. I explained that the bubbles may be hard to see because they’re very small. Their movement is most noticeable if the pickles are in a clear glass jar and the jar is moved. The bubbles are usually easy to see at the top of the brine, where they collect. If the brine spills over the top of the jar, you know it’s because gas has bubbled up inside and expanded the volume of the brine.

In the picture above, the cucumbers have been brining for about four days. You can see the bubbles at the top of the brine and a little further down in the gallon jar, just above the point where the jar begins narrowing.

Notice that I’m not using a plastic brine bag to hold down the cucumbers; instead I’ve laid the biggest cucumbers crosswise across the top to hold down the rest. Some of the dry spices are floating; that’s okay. But the brine is pushing grapes leaves too close to the surface, where they might attract the wrong microbes. After taking this picture, I tucked the grape leaves down around the cucumbers.

Approximately a day after I took this picture, a yeast scum began forming at the top of the jar. The yeast isn’t essential to the brining process, but it’s a sign that all is well. I skim off the scum when it gets heavy.