I was pleased to find outside the front door yesterday a package from Gwen Schock Cowherd, my cherished advisor on all foods German-from-Russia. Gwen had sent a jar of her prize-winning unfermented watermelon pickles, made in the tradition of Midwestern prairie dwellers whose German ancestors once lived beside the Black Sea in Russia.
Gwen’s fresh-pickled watermelon tastes much likemine, but with a strong, fresh dilliness and a striking, appealing saltiness. I especially like the bit of crunch provided by the sliver of white rind showing on one edge of each watermelon piece. And notice how pretty Gwen’s pickle jar looks, with the dill heads and the sliced green pepper.
Gwen kindly sent me her recipe to share with you:
Gwen’s Watermelon Pickles
BRINE: 12 cups water 2½ cups sugar 2½ cups white vinegar ¾ cup salt 1 ounce Schilling pickling spice mix
Bring all ingredients to a boil. Simmer for a couple of hours, covered. Stir occasionally to distribute the flavor of the spices.
1 large seedless watermelon, any variety (better underripe than overripe) 2 small heads fresh dill per jar 1 slivered garlic cove per jar 1 small dried red pepper per jar (optional) 1 or 2 thin green pepper slices per jar
Peel the watermelon, leaving a thin amount of white rind. Cut the watermelon into 1-by-1/2-inch chunks. Try to leave some white rind on each chunk; this will help to keep it from disintegrating. Drain the chunks in colanders for several hours—overnight is best.
Pour off the watermelon juice. If you want to use the juice in your brine, that is OK.
Into each sterilized quart jar, put a dill head, and add watermelon to fill half the jar. Shake the jar so the pieces settle. Then add one small dried red pepper (if you like your pickles hot) and half the garlic slivers. Distribute the garlic among the watermelon chunks. Add more watermelon chunks, again shaking the jar so they settle. Add the strip(s) of green pepper and the rest of the garlic slivers, distributing them in the jar. Put another dill head at the top of the jar.
Pour the brine, boiling and strained, into the jars. (Save the extra brine for another batch. It will keep in the refrigerator indefinitely.) Add lids and rings, and put the jars in a hot water bath. Bring the water to a boil, and boil it for 5 minutes, no longer.
Remove the jars from the bath and let them cool undisturbed for several hours. Check to see that they are sealed. Store them in a cool place.
Makes 7 quarts
Gwen says her pickles improve with age. As you can see in the picture, the ones she sent me were made in 2012. Keep in mind, though, that she stores her sealed jars in an especially cool place: a refrigerator reserved just for pickles.
As the fermentation fad spreads, some people are saying that pickles aren’t true pickles unless the solids as well as the liquid components have been fermented. Gwen’s unfermented watermelon pickles, and my slightly sweeter ones, are very different from brine-pickled watermelon, and if you try all three recipes you may well prefer one over another. But I can’t predict which you’ll like best. All of them are real pickles, and all of them are really good.
I love discovering in my garage “pantry” a forgotten jar of something unusual—a one-time experiment, most often, that I’ve neglected to taste. Sometimes the contents are unremarkable, and I search my paper and computer files for the recipe just to note that information. But once in a while the contents are fabulous, and I think, I should make this every year!
Such is the case with the watermelon pickle that I recently happened upon. Jarred up in 2011, it isn’t a rind pickle but is made entirely of red watermelon flesh. Unlike a typical rind pickle, this one isn’t syrupy; it’s only mildly sweet, and mildly sour, too. The melon pieces lack the crispness of fresh watermelon, of course, but they have a bite, almost a chewiness, and a pleasant, soft spiciness. They seem to demand a partnership with cured meat or fish of some kind—perhaps look-alike cold-smoked salmon.
I’ve written before on this blog about fermenting whole watermelons, as I learned to do through the help of Gwen Schock Cowherd, a proud descendant of Germans from Russia. I thank Gwen, too, for telling me that Midwesterners whose grandparents brined their watermelons in barrels now often pickle their melon in pieces, with vinegar.
In 2011 Gwen was planning to send me her vinegar-pickled watermelon recipe—an award-winner at the Minnesota State Fair—but she forgot, and in the meantime I found a similar-sounding recipe in a little Germans-from-Russia community cookbook, called Küche Kochen and published in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1973. From Esther Hoff’s sketchy instructions in Küche Kochen I developed the recipe that follows.
Red Watermelon Pickles in Sweetened Vinegar
A small, 3½-pound watermelon yielded the 2¼ pounds prepared pieces that I used to make 2½ pints of pickles. I’ve slightly adjusted the measurements here to fill three pint jars, for which you’ll need a melon of about 4¼ pounds. If your watermelon is bigger than that, you can either use just part of it or double or triple the recipe.
As you cut up your watermelon, be sure to reserve the excess juice. Chill the juice until you need it.
3 pounds watermelon pieces, about 2 inches square by ¾ inch thick and free of seeds and rind, including the white part (reserve the juice from the leftover seedy parts) 2 teaspoons pickling salt ¾ cup cider vinegar ¾ cup sugar 1 1-inch cinnamon stick, broken 1 small Mediterranean bay leaf Pinch of fennel seeds Pinch of coriander seeds 2 allspice berries 3 black peppercorns
Combine the watermelon pieces and salt in a bowl. Cover the bowl, and leave it at room temperature for 2 hours.
Drain the salty liquid from the melon, and measure the liquid. Add enough of the reserved juice to make 1½ cups.
Put the salty watermelon juice, the vinegar, the sugar, and the spices in a saucepan. Heat the mixture over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Add the watermelon pieces, bring the mixture to a boil, and reduce the heat. Simmer the mixture for 10 minutes.
Ladle the watermelon pieces and their liquid into pint or half-pint jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.
After several family members happily devoured my watermelon pickles, I wrote Gwen to ask about her recipe. Was it like this one?
Not exactly, Gwen said. In fact, she wondered if I’d mixed up a recipe for rind pickles with one for red watermelon pickles. Her watermelon pickles, Gwen explained, have proportionally more salt and much less sugar and vinegar than mine. She discards all the watermelon juice and replaces it with water, because she likes a clearer brine. She flavors her watermelon pickles as most people do fermented cucumber pickles, with dill heads, garlic, and a little hot pepper as well as mixed pickling spices. She tries to leave some white rind on each watermelon piece, to help keep it intact (mine held together well–perhaps the higher sugar content helped). And she likes the pieces small, no bigger than an inch by half an inch, so they are easy to eat without cutting.
I will certainly try Gwen’s recipe next summer, and if she lets me I’ll share it with you. As for my recipe, I can’t call it Esther’s, because Esther didn’t specify how much salt or exactly what mix of spices to use, and perhaps she meant to call for water and forgot. But I love the way my watermelon pickles turned out. I’ll definitely make them again—though perhaps I’ll leave on a little of the white rind. And maybe I’ll reduce their size a bit, too.
Pickled fruit? People often ask me that two-word question with a look of mixed astonishment and horror. But in the Anglo-American tradition fruits have commonly been preserved in strong vinegar, along with plenty of sugar, to make sour, sweet, and long-keeping accompaniments for meats. These pickles are similar to English-style fruit chutneys, though not as heavily spiced. Less common but also traditional in North America are lightly sweetened vinegar-picked fruits, such as cherry olives—that is, vinegar-pickled dark cherries that resemble olives more in appearance than taste.
These pickles all have their place. I love sweet pickled figs or plums on the Thanksgiving table, sour pickled grapes on a salad dressed with olive oil alone, and cherry olives with pâté. But for a milder-tasting fruit pickle that complements a wider range of foods and drinks, it’s worth considering leaving out vinegar altogether. Pickling fruits in brine, in the same way as cucumbers and other vegetables, can be another appealing way of extending the season.
I recently applied this method to my favorite wild cherries, which are slightly bitter, too small to pit, and nearly black when ripe. To ensure that the cherries wouldn’t soften too much with fermentation, I picked them when they were not quite ripe but still dark red. And then I devised this recipe:
1 pint (about ¾ pound) small, slightly underripe cherries, stems trimmed to 1 inch or removed 2 small dried hot peppers, slit lengthwise 4 garlic cloves, sliced 2 to 3 sprigs thyme ¼ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns (or substitute black peppercorns) 1 Mediterranean bay leaf 2½ teaspoon pickling salt 1½ cups water
Rinse the cherries well, and put them into a clean quart jar along with the peppers, garlic, thyme, Sichuan peppercorns, and bay leaf. In another container, dissolve the salt in the water. Pour the brine over the cherries. They won’t float—at least mine don’t—so you shouldn’t need to weight them.
Cover the jar loosely, and let it stand at room temperature for about a week. Check occasionally for yeast or mold, and promptly skim off any that appears. When the cherries taste at once briny, tart, and a little spicy, cap the jar and refrigerate it. Serve the cherries cold.
I like brined cherries as a small, slow, thoughtful snack, because even for me they are strange and hard to categorize. They are good with drinks before dinner; upon first tasting them my son Ben immediately wanted to try one in a martini. Use a gin with plenty of juniper, he recommends, but light on other botanicals.
. . . or, actually, a beautiful corner of a garage, at the home of Julie Barnett of Salem, Oregon. Her mom, Andrea, who sent me this photo, says that Julie is “always on the quest for the perfect pickle.” The picture of Julie’s bounty was too good to keep to myself. Thanks, Julie and Andrea, for letting me share it here.
Does your spouse refuse to eat Jerusalem artichokes because they’re too—err—windy? Have you yourself abandoned your Jerusalem artichoke patch to the weeds or the pigs, because no human of your acquaintance would eat the damn things again? If so, you have plenty of company.
If you can’t quite place this native North American vegetable, you may know it instead by a name invented by a California produce wholesaler in the 1960s: the sunchoke. The sun part of this moniker comes from sunflower, because the plant is closely related to the sunflower that provides us seeds for birds and snacks and oil. Jerusalem artichoke blooms look like small sunflowers, and they can grow just as tall.
The Jerusalem part of Jerusalem artichoke came about soon after the plants were first grown in Europe, in the early seventeenth century at the Farnese Garden in Rome. From there they were distributed to the rest of Europe as Girasole articiocco, “sunflower artichoke.” In the diet book that he published in 1620, an English doctor, Tobias Venner, translated Girasole as “Jerusalem”—a good first guess, perhaps, but unfortunately the name stuck. Soon inventive English cooks were making their Jerusalem artichokes into “Palestine soup.”
Sunroot would be a better name for the vegetable than sunchoke, because Jerusalem artichokes certainly are not artichokes, and they have nothing like the hairy, inedible part of an artichoke that is called the choke. Yet the two vegetables known as artichoke are discreetly similar in their chemical makeup and flavor. Samuel de Champlain noted this in 1605, when he found Indians on Cape Cod growing roots with “le goust d’artichaut,” the taste of artichokes. Both artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes, he may have observed, share a peculiar sweetness. This sweetness comes from inulin, a kind of soluble fiber that passes through the human digestive system intact until bacteria go to work on it in colon, releasing a lot of gas in the process. Artichokes are rich in inulin. Jerusalem artichokes have about half again as much, by percentage of fresh weight.
Rose Marie posed that question about a year ago, and the two of us promptly decided to conduct an experiment. After digging up the little patch of Jerusalem artichokes that I’d ignored for ten years, I brined a pint of the tubers according to the kakdooki (Korean fermented daikon) recipe on page 64 of The Joy of Pickling, with garlic and powdered chile. Rose Marie developed another recipe based on one of mine, she said, although nothing about it sounded the least familiar. With a stroke of brilliance, she added turmeric, so that her pickled Jerusalem artichokes turned out a brilliant yellow. We shared both pickles, hers and mine, at a Slow Food board meeting, and people seemed to find them both tasty. I requested follow-up digestive reports.
But I got none. Was this good news? I couldn’t be sure. Apparently nobody’s bellyache was bad enough to prompt a complaint. But, then, the meeting attendees hadn’t actually agreed to tell me about their gas problems. Some of them may have felt they really didn’t know me well enough. And none of them had eaten more than a small handful of the pickled tubers. So the results of our study were inconclusive.
In digging up my Jerusalem artichoke patch, however, I must have missed a little tuber. Last summer, sans weeding and sans water, a single nine-foot sunflower stalk shot up. I could experiment some more!
I waited through most of the winter to dig up the tubers, because time alone has been said to convert much of the inulin in Jerusalem artichokes to fructose. In January, I harvested a crop just as big as the previous year’s, at least ten pounds. Several nights of temperatures around 0 degrees Fahrenheit had done the tubers no harm.
I first assessed their windiness by simply roasting some with salt, pepper, and olive oil. The roasted tubers were delicious, but still gassy.
Inspired by Rose Marie’s example, I then pickled some of the Jerusalem artichokes in this way:
Mellow Yellow Jerusalem Artichoke Pickle
1½ pounds Jerusalem artichokes, broken into nodes, thoroughly scrubbed, and cut into ½-inch dice 1 teaspoon ground dried turmeric 1 ounces garlic (about 8 cloves), chopped ½ ounce fresh ginger, minced (about 1 ½ tablespoons) 1 teaspoon cumin seeds 2 teaspoons pickling salt 2 teaspoons sugar 1½ cups water
Toss together the diced Jerusalem artichokes, the turmeric, the garlic, the ginger, and the cumin. Pack the mixture into a jar with a capacity of at least 6 cups. Dissolve the salt and sugar in the water. Pour the brine over the Jerusalem artichokes; it will not cover them at first. Add a brine bag (a gallon freezer-weight plastic bag containing 1 tablespoon salt dissolved in 3 cups water) or another suitable weight.
The next day the brine should cover the Jerusalem artichokes. If it doesn’t, add more brine mixed in the same proportions.
Wait several days before tasting the pickle. I found it perfect after a week: The brine was sour, and the Jerusalem artichokes pleasantly, mildly spicy and still crunchy.
When the pickle has fermented enough to suit your taste, store the jar in the refrigerator. Keep the Jerusalem artichokes weighted so they won’t take on a grayish cast.
Several people have now eaten this pickle in potentially distressing quantities. The test subjects remained on site this time, so that if reports didn’t come verbally they would emerge in another form. And nobody has suffered.
I hope that these results will be duplicated by other investigators. Let me know, OK? Don’t be shy.
When years ago my young Moldovan friend Cristina asked me if I’d ever fermented whole cabbages, I just looked at her dubiously. I’d never even heard of fermented whole cabbages. Could salt really penetrate through an intact cabbage before rot set in? I wondered if Moldovans simply tucked little second-crop cabbages into crocks of shredded cabbage while making sauerkraut. But I’d never heard of that practice, either.
So when my daughter sent me pictures of big fermented whole cabbages in a Moldovan market, I had to figure out how to make such things. I found an article that two Cornell researchers had published in 1961 with the help of their Yugoslav exchange student, Gordana Niketic. As Gordana had apparently explained to her mentors, “In Yugoslavia, particularly in the republic of Serbia, whole heads of white or red cabbage are packed in salt brine. Although sometimes the cabbage cores are scored crosswise before packing the heads in brine, more often the heads are packed with no alteration of the cores.” Just as in Moldovan, the fermented cabbage leaves were used to make meat-and-rice filled rolls, or sarma, an originally Turkish word for food wrapped in leaves; the Moldovan term is sarmale or galush. Yugoslavs also baked slices or chunks of the cabbage with turkey, goose, or pork and served the cabbage cold as a salad. After fermenting whole red cabbages, they would drink the pretty pink brine as an appetizer.
Since methods of fermenting whole cabbages varied from one Yugoslav household to another, Gordana and the Cornell researchers decided to experiment. The first year they packed whole cored cabbages tightly into barrels and added brine at three different strengths. The second year, they packed a barrel the same way, at the highest brine strength from the year before, but with uncored cabbages. The third year they packed a barrel as I’d imagined, by mixing dry-salted shredded cabbage with whole small cabbages placed among the shreds.
The best whole-cabbage kraut from the first year, the three concluded, was made with the strongest brine, 3.5 percent, “calculated from the combined weight of brine and cabbage.”* Whereas the least salty cabbages were soft throughout, and the medium-salty cabbages were soft at the core, the saltiest cabbages “showed only slightly soft cores and their leaves were firm and flavorful,” with “an enjoyable blend of taste and mellowness.” When the leaves were used for sarma, their taste perfectly complemented the meat filling.
Far superior than even the saltiest version from the first year, at least in the judgment of “a former native of Yugoslavia” (Gordana? Someone else?), was the whole-cabbage kraut made in the second year, from uncored cabbage. So, coring turned out to be unnecessary and possibly also detrimental to flavor. The researchers concluded that the best whole-cabbage kraut was made from uncored cabbages pickled at a brine strength of 3.0 to 3.5 percent—calculated, again, as the weight of the salt to the weight of cabbage and brine.
The third-year kraut, made from small whole cabbages packed with shredded cabbage and dry salt, proved a disappointment. The quicker fermentation that resulted made this kraut more pungent and sour—like ordinary dry-salted, shredded sauerkraut, I suppose.
I began my own whole-cabbage pickling experiment late last fall. Because most of my fall cabbages had been damaged by freezing weather, I used the second growth from spring cabbage plants, seven very small heads harvested before the weather turned very cold. I sliced each stem at the base of the head, leaving the core intact, and half-filled a 10-liter crock with the cabbages. I added 10 tablespoons pickling salt dissolved in 5 quarts water, to make an approximately 3.5-percent brine, calculated—because I’d read the Cornell study too carelessly—in the way that’s familiar to me, as the weight of salt as a percentage of the weight of brine. In other words, my brine was weak, perhaps half the strength recommended by the Cornell team. I weighted the cabbages, and, a week or so later, I skimmed the brine once. The small amount of yeast growth didn’t continue.
A little more than two months after immersing the cabbages in their brine, I took them all out and examined them. Some of them showed a little softening around the edge of the core, and the largest one, 4½ inches across, had softened at the center of the leaves as well. If I’d used bigger cabbages, they might have rotted. Perhaps I could have prevented the softening by ending the fermentation sooner. But I simply cut away the soft parts, and all that remained tasted sweet, mellow, and very mildly tart and salty—really much nicer than typical shredded sauerkraut.
Last night one of the fermented cabbages made an excellent dinner salad, sliced and mixed with toasted walnuts, black pepper, and unrefined sunflower oil. No vinegar was called for; the cabbage was already tart. Walnut oil or roasted hazelnut oil might be nice in place of sunflower oil, Robert suggest, and maybe next time we’ll add some smoked meat.
The rest of the cabbages are resting in their brine in a gallon jar in the refrigerator. My next challenge will be to make some of them into sarma, or sarmale. Or maybe I should say golabki (in Polish), golubtsy (in Russian), malfoof (in Arabic),kohlrouladen or krautwickel (in German), or töltött káposzta (in Hungarian). There are a lot of other names, too, because cabbage rolls—made from fermented, briefly brined, or simply blanched cabbage—are eaten throughout much of the world. Every region has favorite ingredients, and every cook seems to have a unique recipe. I guess it’s time for me to develop my own.
*In other words, 3.5 percent was the strength not of the initial brine but of the finished pickle. Because the amount of brine needed to cover whole cabbages can vary greatly, depending on the relation between the size of the cabbages and the breadth of the barrel, the researchers controlled the salt content with a much more accurate measurement than that of initial brine strength (the weight of salt as a percentage of the weight of brine). To do as they did, put the cabbages into the container, weighing each and noting the weight, in metric if you have a digital scale. Cover the cabbages with water, measuring the water in liters as you add it and noting the volume. Then calculate how much the water weighs: Every liter weighs a kilogram. Add the weight of the water and cabbage, in kilograms. To determine how much salt to use, use the following formula:
Weight of salt = Weight of cabbage and water x x/100-x, where x is the desired brine strength. So, for a brine strength of 3.5 percent, your formula becomes
Weight of salt = Weight of cabbage and water x 3.5/96.5
Remove enough of the water from your container to dissolve the salt in, and pour this brine back over the cabbages.
If this calculation seems too much bother, I suggest simply fermenting your cabbages in a strong brine—say, about 1 cup fine salt per 1 gallon water. You’ll need at least half as much brine, by volume, as the volume of the cabbages. For example, if your cabbages rise three-quarters of the way up a 4-gallon crock—to the 3-gallon level—you’ll need at least 1½ gallons brine. Mix up more brine as needed so that the cabbages are well immersed.
Last Sunday I attended my first food swap, at an alpaca farm on Rodgers Mountain. In this first-time swap in a quiet corner of the Willamette Valley, only seven households participated, but we needed no more. I’d been afraid that we wouldn’t find foods we wanted and would go home packing nearly everything we came with. In fact, among the products of our seven homesteads (including one little rental apartment in town) we had plenty to pick from: eggs, honey, frozen meat, root vegetables, squashes, dried beans, grains, freshly-fermented pink sauerkraut, beer, liqueur, assortments of canned goods, and more. Robert and I chose alpaca sausage, homemade toffee, whole-wheat flour, and a heavenly scented herbal tea mix (rose petals, fennel, and mint). Nearly everybody exchanged something or other with everybody else in the room.
More important, everybody talked with everybody else, one on one, to negotiate specific trades. Then the twelve of us sat around one big table—actually three tables pushed into a square—and together discussed our common interests—gardening, farming, food, and cooking—over a potluck meal that included rabbit stew, sausage and kraut, marinated mussels, two kinds of home-baked bread, and homemade cider. We came away with full bellies and new acquaintances, potential new friends. I’m pretty sure that we’ll do it again.
For advice on holding a food swap in your own corner of the world, or to find an existing local swap group, check out the Food Swap Network.
While Robert and I were stocking up on sausage and smoked mackerel at International Meat, a Russian market in Portland, a group of jars in the pickle section caught my eye. Though among them the jars bore several different labels, they were all filled with shredded beets, preserved with vinegar and seasoned mainly with horseradish. I’d never made such a relish before, or even tasted it.
So I went home and did a little research. Called tsvikly, the relish comes from Ukraine, I found out. It’s easy to make. Here is the recipe I settled on:
Ukrainian Beet Relish
1 pound beets, with their rootlets and about 2 inches of their tops 1 ounce peeled horseradish 1 teaspoon dill seeds 1 teaspoon coriander seeds ½ teaspoons black peppercorns ½ cup cider vinegar 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon sugar
In a saucepan, cover the beets with water. Boil them until they are tender throughout. Drain them, and let them cool briefly.
Trim the beets, and rub off their skins. Grate the beets coarsely, using the large holes of a box grater. Grate the horseradish fine; you should have about ¼ cup. Mix the grated beets and horseradish together in a bowl, and then pack the mixture into a pint jar.
In a mortar, crush the dill, coriander, and peppercorns. Combine the spices in a small saucepan with the vinegar, salt, and sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil. Cover the pan, and simmer the liquid for 5 minutes.
Set a tea strainer over the jar of beets, and pour the vinegar mixture through the strainer. The liquid should barely cover the solids. Cap the jar, and let it cool to room temperature. Then put it into the refrigerator, and wait at least a day before sampling the relish.
Makes 1 pint
The horseradish in this relish tastes strong at first, but it mellows after a few days. Otherwise the relish is fairly mild in flavor, though you could of course add more sugar, salt, or spices, or incorporate the spices instead of straining them out. You might also substitute caraway or cumin for the dill.
Tsvikly, I’ve read, is traditionally served at Easter with ham or pork. I think it’s delicious with smoked mackerel, the product that draws me again and again to International Meat.
What makes a good fish taco? In San Diego, where Robert and I went last weekend, craving sun on our pale skin and warmth in our winter-chilled bones, people debate this question seriously. And so the two of us did some not-so-serious sampling. In each case, the local fish taco seemed a bastard child of a traditional Mexican taco and a plate of fish sticks. The tortilla was made from either corn masa or refined wheat. The filling was a chunk of unnamed white fish, breaded or not and fried, and then sauced with thinned mayonnaise (often called “white sauce”) and topped with sliced head cabbage and yellow and white cheese shreds. The cook might provide a sprinkle of diced tomatoes or a side of tomato salsa or both, but if we wanted chiles we had to reach for the bottle of hot sauce.
I enjoyed the two fish tacos I tried, especially the one scattered with black beans, though both tacos would have been better without the industrial cheese. But the dearth of traditional Mexican food in a city less than twenty miles from the border struck me as a little sad. The soldiers, sailors, and retirees from Wherever USA seem to spread white sauce all over their adopted city. We witnessed this at the outdoor Little Italy Mercato, where we heard no Italian spoken but watched vendors make filled crêpes that bore a striking resemblance to San Diego’s second-most-popular pseudo-Mexican menu item, the breakfast burrito, a big wheat tortilla rolled around fried potatoes, eggs, and cheese.
Still, we found excellent food in San Diego. We were duly impressed by the Mercato, with its lovely summer vegetables (even tomatoes and strawberries!), dozens of varieties of citrus, local olive oils, and fermented pickles.
In restaurants, the seafood always tasted fresh, though none on the menus we saw was local. We especially likedCafé Secret, a Peruvian restaurant in Del Mar that specializes in ceviche from sustainably harvested seafood, served on platters complete with choclo (tender hominy-like corn kernels) and canchitas (crunchy roasted and salted corn kernels). At Café Secret, the pale sauce on the fried potatoes and yucawas cheese-based huancaína, not runny mayonnaise. Though mayonnaise sauce would have been good, too, come to think of it.
If you listened to “America’s Test Kitchen” tonight, you heard Chris Kimball and Bridget Lancaster struggle with a listener’s question about mustard oil: Why is it labeled “for external use only,” and is the stuff safe to cook with? Bridget figured, rightly, that the oil was labeled that way to get around “some government regulation,” and that it was probably safe to use in small amounts. At this point I imagined readers of The Joy of Pickling waving their arms and shouting at their radios in their eagerness to supply a fuller answer.
For those of you who haven’t read The Joy of Pickling—or at least not cover to cover, yet—here’s the lowdown on mustard oil: In 1989 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned its sale for culinary use because some laboratory studies performed in the 1950s associated the oil with nutritional deficiencies and cardiac lesions in rats. Subsequent studies have shown that the results for rats don’t apply to people, and that mustard oil in human diets is in fact associated with a lowered risk of heart disease. In addition, a 1999 U.S. Department of Agriculture report says that mustard oil, like horseradish, contains the pungent antimicrobial chemical allyl isothiocyanate, and that for this reason mustard oil and horseradish “pack a punch against Listeria monocytogenes, E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus and other food pathogens you definitely don’t want in your sandwich.”
Throughout much of India, people have for centuries favored mustard oil for frying and for making oil-based pickles. The unrefined oil has a unique, strong flavor. Use something else—such as raw sesame oil—if you don’t like the taste, but don’t avoid mustard oil out of fear that it will hurt you. Remember that the oil is all in mustard seeds and prepared mustard, which you’ve probably been eating all your life.
You can buy mustard oil at any Indian grocery. Today it’s often combined with cheaper refined oil, so look for the pure stuff. If it’s too strong for you, you can cut it with other oil at home.
Because mustard oil is rich in antioxidants, it will keep for months in a tightly closed container at room temperature.