Oak Leaf Lettuce

Here’s an old gardener’s springtime favorite that you won’t find in an ordinary supermarket. As tender as butter lettuce, this lobed-leaf variety stands up better to heat and so can thrive into early summer without turning bitter. We’re eating it every day, sometimes twice a day, knowing that if really hot weather ever comes this year we’ll eat no more lettuce until fall.

Dress a bowl of this lettuce lightly, with a dash of vinegar, a couple of dashes of oil, and a little salt and pepper. A bit of minced fresh tarragon is nice, too.

Quince in Bloom

Before the blossoms have all fallen, I want to share these pictures of my Pineapple quince trees. Like other quince varieties, they grow no more than fifteen feet high, and each forms an umbrella-like canopy. The trees blossom profusely, with pale pink flowers that are bigger than the blooms of all my apples and pears. The quince trees’ springtime appearance is outdone only by their glory of autumn, when their hundreds of big, golden, pear-shaped fruits perfume the garden with their tart fragrance.

Prior to the invention of packaged pectin, nearly every American farmstead or garden had a tree like this, if the climate allowed, because quince is an excellent source of pectin. The tart, light-colored juice combines well with other fruits and juices and with spices such as ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The fruit is hard and mildly astringent, but when cooked it mellows and softens, without losing its shape, and with long cooking it turns from white to a startling ruby red. You can poach quinces in wine and honey, stew them with meat (as do cooks in the quince’s Caucasian homeland), and add them to apple pies and applesauce. You can make quinces into jelly, preserves, wine, syrup, membrillo, and liqueur. And you can probably do all this with the harvest of one mature tree.

Even if you’re not sure you like the fruit, consider planting a quince tree. You need only one, because it will self-pollinate. You won’t have to spray it; the hard fruit resists both apple maggots and coddling moths. You can think of your quince tree, if you like, as an easy-care ornamental.

But do try using the fruits. Here’s a very simple recipe for an aromatic syrup that’s delicious in either hot tea or iced water.

Raw Quince-Honey Syrup

Use a sturdy knife to slice the quinces. For coring, a tool that looks like a thick, sharpened little spoon works best.

1 pound peeled and cored quinces, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

2 cups honey

Layer the quince cubes and honey in a quart jar. Cap the jar tightly, and let it stand at room temperature for two weeks.

After two weeks, drain off the syrup and pour it into sterilized jars. Cap the jars, and store them in the refrigerator or another cool place. The syrup should keep well for months.

Eat the shriveled quince cubes as candy, if you like, or simmer them in white or rosé wine and serve them with roast poultry or pork.


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.

Testing Pickle Crisp

More than a year ago I wrote here about Pickle Crisp, a granulated form of calcium chloride that Jarden, the company that makes Ball jars, was planning to sell for home canners (after taking a powdered form of the same chemical off the market, because it tended to dissolve in steam). The new Pickle Crisp came out last spring, but it never appeared in stores in my area, despite the nearly universal popularity of home canning hereabouts. In October, I finally gave up looking in stores and ordered a jar of Pickle Crisp directly from Jarden, so I could try it in pickling the last of my jalapeños. The 5.5-ounce jar cost $5.99 plus shipping.

The directions on the container called for adding a rounded ¼ teaspoon to a quart jar or a rounded 1/8 teaspoon to a pint jar, along with the vegetable or fruit pieces and the pickling liquid. Because I was testing Pickle Crisp in just one half-pint jar of jalapeño rings, I used only a good pinch. Then I let the jar of jalapeños sit on the shelf for a few weeks before trying them, to give the calcium chloride plenty of time to do its work.

Old-fashioned pickling lime, most popular in the South, is used in much larger quantities and mixed with water. You soak the fruit or vegetable pieces in the mixture, and then you rinse and soak them repeatedly in fresh water to remove the excess lime. In comparison with pickling lime, Pickle Crisp seemed incredibly easy to use. But it also struck me as being, like lime, an unnecessary additive, however harmless.

I opened two jars of jalapeños at the same time, one with Pickle Crisp and one without. The Pickle Crisp peppers were noticeably firmer, but not brittle in the way that cucumbers treated with lime can be (I’ve never tried treating peppers with lime). I actually liked the firmer texture.

Although I bought the Pickle Crisp just to try it once, I think I’ll experiment with it more in the months to come.

Honey from a Watermelon

I didn’t invent watermelon molasses, Sara Bir informed me. At least I wasn’t the first to invent it.

I’d cooked twenty pounds of watermelon into a cup of syrup because I and the rest of the family were tired of eating watermelon and the melon was overripe anyway. Besides, I’d had grape molasses (arrope, mostillo, mostarda, saba, pekmez) on my mind. I’d been thinking about life before cheap cane sugar, especially in Europe. Honey was a cherished sweetener then, but it wasn’t always available. Before the word molasses and its cognates referred to cane syrup, they were applied to honey-like fruit or vegetable syrups. Molasses derives from the Latin word for “must”—grape juice—and the word for “must” comes from the Latin word for “honey.” The oldest reference to molasses in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1582, defines it as “a certeine kinde of Sugar made of Palmes or Date trees”; the second, from 1588, calls it “Sirrope of sugar, beanes [etc.].” When you had more fruit—even beans!—than you could eat, you might preserve its essence by boiling down the juice.

Fruit molasses hasn’t gone entirely out of style. Grape molasses, fig molasses, and pomegranate molasses are still imported to the United States from the Mediterranean region and sold at high prices in specialty stores. These products provide a mellow sweetening in sauces, dressings, and desserts, and grape molasses is the sweetener in cheaper kinds of balsamic vinegar.

Why not make molasses from watermelon? I’d decided to try it. The result, as I described in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves, was remarkably like grape molasses. With so much boiling, fruit juice darkens and loses its volatile flavors. In the finished syrup, you taste mostly sweetness and minerals.

When Sara came upon my recipe for watermelon molasses, she’d already made a version herself—an experience she describes in entertaining detail at www.metroactive.com/papers/sonoma/09.04.03/dining-0336.html. Sara had come upon a little cookbook, Our Favorite Recipes, compiled by the Friendly Aid Society of Free Evangelical Lutheran Cross Church of Fresno, California, and published in 1979. In the book were some distinctly American dishes, such as Jello salads, but there were also foods with exotic-sounding names, like grebbles and berrocks. What interested Sara most were the three coffeecake recipes calling for watermelon molasses, and the recipe for watermelon molasses itself.

Sara wrote me to ask what I knew about watermelon molasses. I didn’t know much; I certainly didn’t know it was a popular ingredient in the kitchens of Fresno Lutherans. I wondered where these people had come from. I pondered the word berrocks, which didn’t sound as if it had ever been German.

On the Web, I found numerous recipes for bierocks—yeast buns stuffed with ground beef and cabbage—and at least one was attributed to the Volga Germans. These were people from southwest Germany, mostly, who at the invitation of Catherine the Great in 1763 settled along the Volga River in Russia, where they were allowed to maintain their language, culture, and various religious traditions (Lutheran, Catholic, Reformed, and Mennonite; Jews weren’t welcome). Although the Volga Germans mainly kept to themselves, they must have learned a few things from the locals. Their bierocks or berrocks—the accent is on the second syllable—were pirogi.

A century after the Germans began migrating to Russia, they lost some of their special privileges, including exemption from military service. When other countries beckoned new settlers, whole Volga villages moved themselves to North and South America. In 1886 and 1887, I discovered, Evangelical Lutherans from several villages on the eastern side of the Volga, near Saratov, settled in Fresno County.

Fresno is a good place to grow watermelons. So is the Lower Volga, a Russian culinary dictionary assured me. Watermelons grow so abundantly from Kamyshin to Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea, that until recently much of the crop was either brined or boiled into nardek—watermelon molasses! Modern transport allows the shipping of fresh watermelon today, so nardek is produced in only small amounts. It’s a lot of trouble to make, after all, and refined sugar is cheap. For Fresno Lutherans, however, the tradition lives on, or at least it was still alive in 1979. Nearly a century after their ancestors had come to Fresno from Russia, the Friendly Aid Society members still required watermelon molasses to make a proper coffeecake.

The Friendly Aid Society members called their watermelon molasses by the English name, the same one I used. But I thank Sara for sending me on the trail of an old word—nardek—for my invention that truly wasn’t new at all.

The Oregon Grape

Wild Fruit for a Tart and Tasty Jelly

In the woods one day, my friend Jocelyn saw me eat an Oregon grape, tried one herself, and screamed. I was unfazed; just after my daughter, not yet two years old, had eaten her first Oregon grape, she had pantomimed death throes.

If you were to taste one of these little not-grapes—and I urge you to try one—you too might guess that they were poisonous, for they are very tart and a little bitter. But they are rich in pectin and make a fine jelly. Nearly black in color, the jelly has a grape-like but spicier flavor.

In either its tall or short form, Oregon grape, Mahonia, is an evergreen shrub with prickly, holly-like leaves and bright yellow blossoms. Though native only to the Pacific Northwest, from northern California to southern British Columbia, the plant is widely grown elsewhere for its beauty and its drought-resistance. I saw it growing in public beds all over Paris, often along with another Northwest native, red-flowering currant.

In summer, Mahonia’s yellow flowers turn to blue berries that hang on the plant for several weeks. The berries are ready to pick when they’re uniformly dark. For three half-pint jars of jelly, you’ll want to collect about three and a half pounds of berries. Just slide your fingers down each bunch, and the berries will fall into your basket.

It’s easy to extract the juice of Oregon grapes with a steam juicer. If you don’t have a steam juicer, simmer the berries, covered, with half their volume of water for fifteen minutes, mashing them after the first ten minutes. Drain the juice through a jelly bag—let the juice drip for several hours—and then boil it for ten minutes to reduce it a bit. From this point on, making jelly is quick and easy.

 

Oregon Grape Jelly

3 cups Oregon grape juice
2 ¼ cups sugar

Combine the juice and sugar in a wide, heavy-bottomed, nonreactive pan (that is, a pan with a stainless-steel or well-enameled interior surface). Place the pan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, and then raise the heat to medium high. Boil the syrup, skimming occasionally, until it begins to jell. This will take only a few minutes. You can test for jelling by scooping a little of the syrup with a metal spoon and then tipping the spoon high over the pan. You’ll see the drops thicken and slow, and then two drops will run together. That’s the point at which you remove the pan from the heat.

Skim any remaining foam from the surface of the syrup. Immediately pour the syrup into three sterilized half-pint mason jars. Add the jar lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for five minutes.

Remove the jars from the water bath, and let them cool on a rack or pad. Leave them alone until the next day, when the jelly should be firm.

Gooseberries in Syrup

gooseberries, topping & tailing

Before you eat or cook a gooseberry, you must top and tail it–that is, pull off the stem and the shriveled, dry blossom. These are my first harvest of Hinnomaki, a Finnish variety. They’re not only prettier than my green gooseberries (Oregon Champion, a nineteenth-century variety from Salem, Oregon); they’re also sweeter.

Because I’d never done it before, I decided to can the gooseberries in syrup. For a cup of fruit, I used 1/3 cup each sugar and water. That’s a heavy syrup, but not as heavy as recommended by the old preserving book I consulted, which also told me to pour some of the syrup into the jar before adding the berries. This is supposed to keep the berries from floating, as apparently is the Extension recommendation to dip the berries in syrup for 30 second and then drain them before putting them in the jar and pouring the syrup over.

After putting the berries in the jar, you pour the syrup over, leaving 1/2 inch headspace, and then process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.

Although I put some of the syrup in the jar before adding the berries, they floated. They’re beautiful anyway, though, and they should be delicious next winter, over ice cream, cheesecake, or pound cake.

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.