Salad in a Jar: A Quick, Light Sliced Cucumber Pickle

suyo pickleAs the sky turned grey and the rains commenced, I knew what I wanted to do with what might be the last of my suyo cucumbers. I wanted to fill a quart jar with thin crosswise slices, adorned with sliced red onion and yellow pepper and covered with vinegar diluted to the point that I could serve the mixture as a salad.

Had I created such a recipe before? I couldn’t find one in the Joy of Pickling. No problem—I would start from scratch.

Suyo, suhyo, or sooyow cucumbers are not a particular cultivar but a general type of Cucumis sativus. These long, slender cucumbers, said to have originated in northern China, have undergone a lot of breeding in Japan. At harvest they are at least 10 inches long. At 1 inch in diameter, some cultivars may reach 18 inches. If left to grow longer they may reach 2 feet or more, although they will be past their prime. The vines’ small tendrils make them good climbers, and when the vines climb they are more likely to produce straight rather than curled fruits. The skins of the fruits can be ridged or smooth, and they are fairly thin; for salads or pickles, you can peel these cucumbers partially, completely, or not at all. The best thing about suyo cucumbers is that they are seldom bitter (although the cultivar I planted this year had an inch or two of mild bitterness at the stem end).

mixed cukes
At the right and left here are two different suyo cultivars.

Suyo cucumbers’ uniform diameter and typically small seed cavity make them ideal for cutting into crosswise slices or chunks. If you like to make bread-and-butter pickles, you should definitely be growing suyos.

But bread-and-butters are too sweet and too sour for my taste. Instead I’ve made this light, pretty pickle.

Quick Suyo Pickle Chips

Feel free to change the spices to suit your whim.

1 ¼ pounds suyo cucumbers, unpeeled, sliced crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick rounds
1 small red onion, about 4 ounces, halved lengthwise and sliced thin crosswise
1 to 2 sweet yellow or red peppers, about 4 ounces, halved or quartered lengthwise and sliced thin crosswise
2 tablespoons pickling salt
1 teaspoon grated fresh turmeric
2 garlic cloves, sliced
2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly crushed
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
6 tablespoons cider vinegar
¾ cup water
2 teaspoons brown sugar

In a bowl, combine the cucumber, onion, and pepper slices. Add the salt, and toss the contents together. Drop the ice cubes from one full tray on top. Let the bowl stand at room temperature for 3 hours.

Drain the vegetables in a colander, rinse them, and drain them again. In a small bowl, mix together the turmeric, garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, and pepper flakes. Pack the vegetables into a quart jar, layering them with the mixed spices.

In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, and sugar. Cover the pan, and bring the mixture just to a boil. Pour the hot liquid into the jar of vegetables. Turn and tip the jar to release trapped air bubbles, and then cap the jar. When it has cooled, store it in the refrigerator.

Wait a day or two, at least, before serving the pickle.

Makes 1 quart

Quick Bite-Size Chunk Pickles


When Sharon Wiest suggested I teach students at the Culinary Center in Lincoln City how to make a sweet, hot cucumber chunk pickle, I had to think hard. Did I have any recipe in The Joy of Pickling for a pickle made from thick crosswise cucumber slices in vinegar? Nope. Did any of half a dozen other preserving books I quickly consulted have such a recipe? Not a one.

Nearly every general preserving book published from the 1960s on has a recipe for bread-and-butter pickles, made from cucumbers sliced very thin—1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. These sweet, spicy slices are most often served today with hamburgers. Wouldn’t bite-size, less intensely flavored pickles have more general appeal and usefulness? I dreamt up a simple recipe.

I’ve since found recipes for chunk pickles in a few older cookbooks, and perhaps one of them is closer to what Sharon had in mind. But with their mild sweetness, light spicing, and diluted vinegar, the pickles made as follows suit modern tastes for plenty of chile and garlic and less acid and sugar. At least my husband likes them—he devoured most of a jar in just a few minutes.

Sweet, Hot Chunk Pickles

3 pounds 3- to 4-inch pickling cucumbers, sliced crosswise ½ inch thick, ends
discarded
3 tablespoons pickling salt
2½ cups cider vinegar
2½ cups water
2/3 cup sugar
5 to 6 tablespoons diced fresh red hot peppers (such as Fresno, serrano, or jalapeño), or 2½ to 3 teaspoons hot pepper flakes
10 to 12 garlic cloves, sliced
2½ to 3 teaspoons yellow mustard seed

In a bowl, toss the sliced cucumbers with the salt. Empty two ice cube trays over the cucumbers. Let them stand for three to four hours.

Drain the cucumbers, discarding any ice cubes that haven’t melted. In a saucepan, bring the vinegar, water, and sugar to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.

 Into each of five clean, hot pint mason jars, put 1 tablespoon diced hot peppers (or ½ teaspoon pepper flakes), 2 sliced garlic cloves, and ½ teaspoon mustard seed. Fill the jars loosely with the drained cucumber chunks. If you have plenty of extra chunks (as is likely if your cucumbers were chubby), fill a sixth jar in the same way. Pour the hot liquid over the cucumber pieces. Shake the jars a bit and press on the cucumbers to settle them, leaving ½ inch headspace. Release air bubbles by turning each jar and, if needed, pushing a pointed chopstick or similar tool down the inner surface of the jar.

Close the jars with two-piece caps. Process the jars for 5 minutes in a boiling-water bath, or immerse them in water heated to 180 to 185 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.

When I made this pickle at home, many of the cucumbers I used were too malformed for pickling whole; some were very thick at the stem end. These thick parts I halved lengthwise. If your cucumbers are large, you might cut them all lengthwise before cutting them crosswise.

If your cucumbers are particularly slender—or even if they’re not—you might prefer to cut your chunks thicker than ½ inch, as thick as 1 inch.

Finally, dill usually isn’t used to season sweet cucumber pickles, but this pickle really isn’t all that sweet, and it would look especially pretty with a dill head against the glass in each jar. If you love dill, please add it!

East Coast New Pickles

My son was bewildered by the cucumber “pickles” he was served all through his freshman year at his small college on Long Island, New York. “They aren’t sour at all,” he complained last summer. “There’s no taste of fermentation, no vinegar. I think they’re just cucumbers in salt water!”

I was puzzled, too. New Yorkers I know love to brag about their city’s traditional fermented pickles. How could a Long Island college serve unfermented cucumbers in salt water and call them pickles?

I forgot about this discussion until a few weeks later, when I got an email message from a woman named Sheila. Sheila told me about a small restaurant chain in Rhode Island, named Gregg’s, that for twenty years has served something “that’s not quite a pickle”—a cucumber that’s salty and dilly but not noticeably tart. Sheila’s husband wanted her to make some of these near-pickles, so in The Providence Journal she found a recipe, submitted by a reader, for “Taste Like Gregg’s Pickles.”

The recipe starts out like one for a small batch of traditionally brined pickles: You combine cucumbers, salt, spices, garlic, and water in a two-quart jar. But then you leave the jar out at room temperature for only an hour before refrigerating it for a week. At the end of the week the cucumbers aren’t fermented, but they’re ready to eat.

Ready to eat?  Could they be pickled at all, after just a week in the fridge?

Gregg’s wouldn’t talk about its recipe, so I consulted Mike, the sales guy at Pickle Guys, a business started by former employees of the famous Guss’ Pickles when, in 2002, Guss’ left its old site on Essex Street, on the once mostly Jewish Lower East Side of Manhattan. Pickle Guys—which makes truly kosher pickles, under the supervision of a rabbi—sells a product like Gregg’s, Mike said, as “new pickles.” Mike explained that new pickles “are pretty much the least pickled, more like a salty cucumber, pickled anywhere from one to ten days. After that they will become a half-sour pickle.” Pickle Guys sells a lot of new pickles, some of them heavily seasoned with chile.

I’d already started my own batch of new pickles, adapted from the “Taste Like Gregg’s” recipe. Here is my version of—

East Coast “New Pickles”

 2 quarts 3- to 5-inch pickling cucumbers, blossom ends trimmed
8 garlic cloves
1½ tablespoon mixed pickling spices
¼ teaspoon hot pepper flakes
2 tablespoons pickling salt
4 cups water

Pack a two-quart jar tightly with the cucumbers, interspersing among them the garlic, spices, and pepper flakes. Stir the salt into the water until the water clears. Cover the cucumbers with the brine. Tightly cap the jar, and store it in the refrigerator for at least a day and preferably a week.

After their first few days in the refrigerator, my son and I started tasting the new pickles. I found I actually liked these garlicky, salty, dilly cukes, despite their lack of acidity. My son liked them, too, much more than the ones he’d been served at college. They were a refreshing change from either fermented or vinegar dills. Over time they got stronger in flavor, but even after two months in the refrigerator the cucumbers showed no signs of fermentation—no graying of the skins, no bubbling or clouding of the brine. They neither soured nor spoiled before we ate them all.

While gardeners throughout the rest of the country drown in cucumbers, I wait for the first of mine to grow past cornichon stage. Never before this weirdly cool summer have I felt such a hunger for cucumbers. In a week or so, when I start bringing in cukes by the armload, I think I’ll make some new pickles. I doubt they’ll get as old as a week before we devour them all.

 

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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.