The Scoop on Pickle Crisp

Pickle CrispI’d never heard of Pickle Crisp until a couple of weeks ago, when I was giving a radio interview and a caller mentioned the product. Pickle Crisp, I learned, is a trade name for calcium chloride, a common additive in commercial canning. Calcium chloride is used for several purposes, but in pickles it is mainly a firming agent.

On searching the Web for more information, I learned that Pickle Crisp had been marketed by Jarden, the company that makes Ball jars, but was no longer available.

To find out more, I contacted Lauren Devine at Jarden. The company sold Pickle Crisp for about two years. It was intended to replace pickling lime, which home picklers, particularly in the South, have long used to firm such pickles as bread-and-butters and pickled figs. But lime is troublesome to use: You must first soak the fruit or vegetable pieces in a mixture of lime and water, and then rinse and soak them repeatedly until the water is clear and the lime won’t affect the pickle’s pH much. Calcium chloride is easier to use: You add 1/8 teaspoon along with the fruit or vegetable pieces and the pickling liquid to a pint jar, or 1/4 teaspoon to a quart jar. (Jarden has tested Pickle Crisp only with fresh pickles, not with fermented ones.)

Unfortunately for Jarden, sales of Pickle Crisp were slow, and only upon removing the product from the market did Jarden realize that there was much demand for it. Jarden decided to bring the product back, but in improved form. The old Pickle Crisp was a powder that tended to dissolve into steam. The new version will have bigger grains.

The new Pickle Crisp should be in the home-canning sections of supermarkets and farm-supply stores next March or April.

UPDATE 2022: Today Pickle Crisp is widely available in stores. Its firming effect is subtle, unlike that of lime. Some people object to the strong, sour taste of calcium chloride. See also “Testing Pickle Crisp.”

A Good Weed: Sheep Sorrel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A few days ago, while tearing up the sorrel that had invaded my rhubarb bed, I took care to separate the leaves from the creeping roots. The roots I left on the ground to rot; the leaves I took into the house for soup.

In past years I have grown French sorrel (Rumex scutatus), which has relatively large, shield-shaped leaves, but this Eurasian perennial has never survived our wet winters. I might one day try garden sorrel (R. acetosa), which has big leaves shaped like arrowheads and grows well in England. But for now I may as well enjoy my field sorrel, or sheep sorrel (R. acetosella), with its small, arrowhead-shaped leaves. Like rhubarb, its cousin, this spreading weed loves the bed I made by stacking newspapers and heaping mint pummy atop the native soil. If I let it, field sorrel will take over other half-shaded areas of the garden with rich, acidic soil.

Like rhubarb, all species of Rumex have abundant oxalic acid, which gives the leaves their sour, lemon-like flavor. These species are not to be confused, though, with Oxalis, trefoil wood sorrels, although Oxalis species, too, are edible. California children love to chew the stems of a yellow-flowered wood sorrel, which they call sour grass. According to Patience Gray (Honey from a Weed), the French once considered Oxalis the best sorrel for sorrel soup, or potage Germiny, which even today typically bears slivers of French sorrel in imitation of tiny wood sorrel stems, for the stems didn’t break down with pounding as the leaves did.

With a name that comes from the same root as sour, sorrel has a long history as both a medicinal and a culinary herb. It has been considered cooling and cleansing, a remedy for fever and for bladder, liver, kidney, and skin problems. The English have traditionally used garden sorrel in a sauce, called green sauce, to accompany meat. Other Europeans use sorrel as a stuffing for fish, as an addition to spinach soup, and, sauteed in butter, as a dressing for steamed potatoes. Sadly, in the United States sorrel hasn’t really caught on.

The cook preparing sorrel for the first time should remember three things: (1) You must use nonreactive cookware with this acidic vegetable. (2) Sorrel needs only very brief cooking. (3) Sorrel won’t keep its bright color. When cooked, the leaves turn gray-green.

I had picked sorrel leaves from the rhubarb bed once this past summer to make potage Germiny, a soup that’s truly cooling when it’s served chilled, as it typically is. In early November, the sorrel leaves were so tender and succulent that looking at them made my mouth water, but I wanted a warming soup for dinner. And I didn’t want a gray purée.

So I decided to combine the sorrel with potato and, instead of white or yellow globe onions, the giant scallions so abundant in my fall garden (leeks would have worked as well). The soup turned out green–well, moss green, but at least you couldn’t call it gray. With nothing to accompany it but homemade bread, it made a warming, satisfying, and delicious autumn meal.

Autumn Sorrel Soup

3 tablespoons butter
5 cups chopped scallions or leeks
1 quart chicken stock
1 medium-large russet potato, peeled and diced
2 quarts sorrel leaves
1 cup cream
Salt to taste

Melt the butter in a nonreactive pot, and gently cook the scallions or leeks in the butter until they are tender.

Add the stock. When it has nearly begun to boil, add the potato. Cover the pot, and cook the mixture until the potato pieces are tender.

Stir in the sorrel leaves. As soon as they are wilted, whirl the mixture until smooth in a blender. Check for any strings (from the sorrel stems); if you find them, you should strain the soup.

Stir in the cream and some salt. If needed, reheat the soup before serving.

Serves two as a main dish, four as a starter

Last of Summer’s Bounty: Winter Squashes

sam in pumpkinsWhen sunlight streams through the red and yellow grape leaves as if they’re made of greased paper, when the walnut spreads a gold carpet of leaves across the driveway and pelts the roof with its black-husked nuts, when the new grass shimmers as green as in April and everything looks brighter in the clean air, it’s time to bring in the pumpkins and other winter squashes. They should be hard-shelled and full-colored now, dark green as the cedars, yellow and orange and red as the leaves dropping all around. The thick stems of the maximas should have turned corky, ready to separate from the dying vines. You need strong clippers for the bigger pepos; cut the stems to just an inch or two. Be careful not to break off a stem, or rot will set in early at the wound site.

A light frost or two will have done the squashes no harm. If you’ve let them sit out through weeks of rain, well, you probably should have got to them sooner. Scrub off the mud, and let the squashes dry. Set them in the sun or another warm place for at least a few hours; I put mine on a sunny deck on the south side of the house. In a wet autumn, a spray or wipe of bleach water may ward off fungus.

“Experts” will tell you to store your squashes at fifty degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re thinking of a damp shed or basement, though, think again. Dampness makes squashes rot before their time. A better choice is a cool room in a heated house. My squashes keep well in laundry baskets in the dining room until March, at least. This past August, in fact, I fed the ducks the last of last year’s harvest—a few spaghetti squashes and Jack-Be-Littles—although they showed no signs of decay. But I wanted to save my appetite for the new crop.

Maybe you have some really big squashes—say, the blue-gray ‘Sweet Meat’ (an Oregon heirloom) or the Cinderella-style ‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes’.  In Traditional Portuguese Cooking Maria de Lourdes advises, “Break the squash by hurling it to the ground.” But Maria is telling you how to make pumpkin jam; sometimes you need a cleaner cut. For that, you might strike with a cleaver once or twice before dropping the squash hard on a counter. Or you might gash the squash with a long knife—my husband bought me a 14-inch chef’s knife for this purpose—and then hit the back of the blade with a rubber mallet.

Maybe instead you’d like to cut off the top of your squash jack-o-lantern style. Then you can scoop out the seeds and bake the squash whole, so you can serve it with soup or stuffing inside. I do this with miniature pumpkins, which are delicious with just a little pat of butter or a custard filling.

Whatever sort of squash you’re cooking, don’t throw out the seeds without tasting them first. Sometimes the hulls are too tough. More often, though, squash seeds make an excellent snack when they tossed with a little salt and oil and roasted. Another Oregon heirloom variety, ‘Golden Delicious’, is today grown commercially just for its seeds. The flesh, though sweet and smooth (it was developed for baby food), is spit out by the harvest machine and tilled into the soil.

My favorite way to cook winter squash is to bake halves cut-side down. A good dry, sweet squash will leak into the pan not water but a little thick, tasty syrup—the cook’s kitchen treat. Cut slices of the baked squash for dinner, or spoon out the flesh and mash it. Taste it before seasoning it; you may finds it needs no butter and maybe not even salt.

What do you do with the leftover flesh from a big squash? I purée it all. If the squash is a bit stringy, I use a food mill, but otherwise I use an electric mixer or blender. The purée goes into plastic containers in the freezer, where it’s ready to thaw for pie or bread or soup or ice cream or a dish of plain old puréed squash. I am embarrassed to write this—no respectable householder keeps any frozen food for more than twelve months—but pureed squash keeps well in the freezer for several years.

With your squashes serving as home décor and an occasional meal, you can put up your feet and wait for the seed catalogs to arrive. If you’re like me, you’ll pick out an old favorite squash or two for next year, and then you’ll choose a new one that promises to be sweeter, creamier, or prettier than any you’ve tried before.

Pickled Nasturtium Pods

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A low, sprawling annual plant, the nasturtium can enliven your salads all summer with its tender, round leaves and orange edible flowers. But don’t forget to pick the seeds. If they’re already brown, save them to plant next year. If they’re still green, plunk them into vinegar, so you can enjoy them in sauces and salads all winter. Pickled nasturtium seeds (or pods, or buds, as they are variously called) taste much like pickled capers, but they’re crunchier and a little peppery. As Euell Gibbons said, “Nasturtium buds make better capers than capers do.”

This year I had just a single pot of nasturtiums, and they were plagued by aphids both in spring and in late summer. But the plants flowered and produced seeds, and when I walked by the pot I’d pick the fat green ones. In The Joy of Pickling, I provide a variant of Eliza Smith’s rather complex recipe for pickled nasturtium pods, from her 1727 cookbook The Compleat Housewife. This year I decided to do something simpler: In early July, I combined 1/2 cup cider vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a small jar, and stirred to dissolve the salt. I covered the jar tightly and set it on a cupboard shelf. And then I added nasturtium pods, a few at a time over the next three months, until aphids and cold weather did in the plants.

That’s all you need for pickling nasturtium pods: vinegar and a little salt. Refrigeration isn’t necessary. If I don’t eat them all sooner, my pickled nasturtium pods will last in the cupboard until next summer, when the nasturtiums will be blooming again.

An Excellent Pickler

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My new favorite pickling cucumber has a name that’s a mouthful: ‘Vorgebirgstrauben’. It’s a European type, with abundant little prickles instead of scanty warts. This cucumber is thicker than skinny French cornichon types, but unlike most American pickling cucumbers it doesn’t tend to bloat; it makes an attractive pickle at any length from one inch to five inches. Although the fruits from my plants have been slightly bitter, the bitterness is lost in pickling, and the mostly dark green color is retained. The plants are very productive and, in comparison with the other varieties I planted this year, disease-resistant.

I bought Vorgebirgstrauben seeds from Harvest Moon Seed Company. I hope other U.S. seed companies will begin stocking this outstanding variety.

2022 update: Vorgebirstrauben is now available from Uprising Organic Seeds, High Desert Seeds, and Restoration Seeds.

 

Magic Beans from Spain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My neighbor Roxanne called to thank me for “the magic beans.” I was surprised; how did she know I called them magic beans? I hadn’t mentioned the beans at all when I’d handed her husband a brown bag that also contained cucumbers and tomatoes.

“They’re magic,” Roxanne explained, “because they’re the best beans we’ve ever eaten.” This was high praise from the wife of a man who grew green beans for eighty-five or so of his ninety-some years, though he doesn’t grow them anymore, now that he is permanently bent in a planting posture. I agreed with Roxanne that these beans were the best, and then I explained why I call them magic beans.

I’d learned about these beans from my friend Teresa Barrenechea, when I was editing her book The Basque Table. In Spain, Teresa had explained, the typical green beans weren’t tubular but flat, and much, much tastier than the round kind. Ah, the Spanish grow Romanos, I had thought. I disliked Romanos because they were always in such a hurry to swell, and their seeds, to me, had an unpleasant beany flavor. But the Spanish beans, as Teresa described them, had no such faults.

A few years later, in 2001, I was traveling in Spain with my son Ben, who had just spent a year as an exchange student in Galicia. While walking in a public garden we came upon a small model vegetable plot with a few bush bean plants. Spying a dry pod, I pocketed it, slipped out the seeds, and dropped the empty pod to the ground.

The day Ben and I were to leave Spain I panicked. What if the agricultural police caught me with the bean seeds? What if they didn’t catch me, and my five seeds introduced some phylloxera-like bean pest into North America? I decided to leave the beans in the wastebasket of the pensiớn.

But where were they? I searched my jacket pocket, turned the jacket upside-down, shook it. The beans, to my relief and regret, were gone.

At home a few days later, I was sorting dirty laundry. I checked my jacket pocket and found a candy wrapper, a tiny tube of toothpaste . . . and the bean seeds—first one and then another, until I’d counted all five. Elated, I put them into a little envelope and labeled it “Magic beans 2001.”

The following spring I planted three of the seeds, but too late; early rains rotted most of the pods before they reached maturity, and I harvested only five more good seeds. More or less the same thing happened for the next several years, and some years I had nothing to plant except reserved two-year-old seed. But slowly I built my stock, and in 2008 I had enough to plant two long rows.

We started eating the beans. Teresa was right, we discovered; they were delicious, meaty and stringless with a flavor at once both rich and mild—“lacking the nasty part of the bean flavor profile,” as my husband put it. Unlike Romanos, the pods grew to full size and rested a bit before swelling and toughening.

This year, after pests ate my first and second plantings of Magic beans, I had plenty of seed for a third planting, and now I have beans to cook, freeze, share, and save for next year.

Can you grow beans like these? Spain has numerous varieties of flat, stringless judías, or green beans, of both pole and bush types. Renee’s Garden sells a Spanish variety that sounds very similar to mine, under the name ‘Musica’, but it is a pole bean. As far as I can find, no Spanish bush variety has been imported to the United States. Many American seed companies are selling a flat bean called Roma II, which looks similar to my bean, though shorter and broader, but I haven’t tried it. Other flat varieties pictured in the Vermont Bean Seed catalog look lumpy, swollen with bean seeds, rather than sleek like mine.

If you want true Magic beans, you can stop by my place for a few seeds. In trade, I would consider a cow.

UPDATE 2022: I still grow Magic beans, though not every year, and because my garden is small my seed stock is also. But I’ve shared my Magic beans with many people over the years, and I hope some of them have shared seed from their own harvests. If you’ve grown Magic beans repeatedly, I’d love to hear about your experience.

Territorial as well as Renee’s Garden is now selling the ‘Musica’ pole bean.

Tiny Bubbles in the Pickle Jar

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

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.

Fresh Lychees

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While in Beaverton yesterday to demonstrate pickling at the farmers’ market, I stopped in Uwajimaya, the Japanese supermarket. I always come upon something amazing in Uwajimaya’s produce section, and yesterday was no different: I found fresh lychees!

A tropical-to-subtropical fruit native to Asia, the lychee has a thin, knobbly, leathery red skin. Cut into it with a knife, fork, or fingernail, and easily peel away the skin to reveal white, fragrant flesh with a gently chewy texture like that of firm jelly. In the center of the flesh is a shiny, inedible seed approximately the size, shape, and color of a Kalamata olive.

Along with its relatives the small longan and the beautiful, hairy rambutan, the lychee has long been treasured in Asia. According to Alan Davidson (The Oxford Companion to Food), during the first century a Pony Express-style courier service began bringing fresh lychees from Canton north to the imperial court of China. Later, during the Ming dynasty, clubs of lychee lovers met in temples and gardens to consume hundreds of the fruits at a sitting.

I don’t know where Uwajimaya got the lychees, but they were quite fresh; if they hadn’t been, they would have been brown rather than red. Lychees grow in Florida and Hawaii as well as Asia, so perhaps we’ll see them in Oregon more often in the future. And maybe, if I’m very lucky, someday while traveling I’ll be able to pluck a ripe lychee from a tree.

What did I do with the lychees? I did not preserve them. Canned lychees, easy to find in Asian markets, are bland in comparison with the fresh fruit. So I put the lychees into a bowl and sat down with my husband and son. Then we slowly unwrapped and ate our perfumed treasures one at a time until they were all gone, all the while trying to fix their look, flavor, and texture in our memories. It may be a long time before we encounter fresh lychees again.

Harvesting Love in a Mist

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Friends of the Library are coming tomorrow for a potluck. Tidy gardeners all, they are sure to frown on that patch of dried-out nigella stalks by the blueberries. This gives me extra incentive to harvest the seeds today.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANigella damascena, or love-in-a-mist, is an annual beloved by less-tidy gardeners for its lovely little blue, white, pink, and violet flowers surrounded by delicate, lacy foliage. The flowers develop into pods rather like those of opium poppies. When the pale green pods have turned golden and their little black seeds rattle inside, many gardeners cut the stalks and save them for winter arrangements.

This is what I had in mind, too, the first year I grew love-in-a-mist. But my small daughter, an incorrigible browser then and now, told me they had a more practical use. “Taste the seeds, Mama! They’re good!”

I chided her, as I always did, for eating whatever plants lay in her path. But my curiosity got the better of me, and so I asked what the seeds tasted like. Raised on natural foods, she couldn’t place the flavor. But I could, as soon as I gingerly bit into one of the black, teardrop-shaped seeds: Grape Kool-Aid!

N. damascena is closely related to N. sativa, which in India, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East is beloved at least as much for its culinary and medicinal purposes as for its ornamental value. The seeds are used in and on breads, like sesame seeds and poppy seeds. In India, where nigella seeds are called kalonji or onion seeds (for their appearance, not their flavor), they are briefly fried or toasted and added to pickles, chutneys, and sauces. The seeds are believed to ameliorate digestive, respiratory, rheumatic, and skin problems, and some of these medicinal benefits have been scientifically confirmed.

I harvest nigella by pulling the stalks from the ground and turning them upside-down into a paper grocery bag. Because I’ve waited a bit too long to harvest, as many as half the seeds scatter to the ground in the process. That’s fine with me; they will grow into next year’s crop.

However hard I shake them, the pods will hang on to some of their seeds, so on a windy day I’ll scatter the stalks where I want more love-in-a-mist to grow. Then I’ll winnow the seeds left in the bottom of the paper bags. I’ll store the clean seeds in a jar, and I’ll take some out now and then to sprinkle on top of bread just before baking it.

If I serve the bread to company, I’ll wait for my guests to ask what the strange black seeds are. Before I tell them, I’ll ask what the seeds taste like. Grape Kool-Aid, anyone?

UPDATES

August 20, 2009: Joanne from Lake Oswego tells me that N. sativa is available from Penzey’s as charnushka. Russians and Poles sprinkle charnushka (chernushka, czarnuszka) on top of rye bread before baking it.

November 29, 2009: I recently bought some seeds of N. sativa from the San Francisco Herb Company. They look like N. damascena, but their flavor is not at all foxy. I can best describe it as bitter–though less bitter than, say, celery seeds–and complex, dark, almost smoky. I hope I like them better on bread.

December 4, 2020: I still harvest Nigella damascena seeds and eat them year around. I still love their fragrance and flavor. And I still don’t know anyone else who eats them!