Another Red Watermelon Pickle

Gwen's watermelon pickleI 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 watermelon pickle 2Gwen’s fresh-pickled watermelon tastes much like mine, 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.

Fresh-Pickled Watermelon

pickled watermelon 2I 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 juice from the melon, and measure the juice. Add enough of the reserved juice to make 1½ cups.

Put the vinegar, sugar, and 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.

Pickling Watermelons Whole

In my blog post about Moldova I shared my daughter’s photo of watermelons that had been brined intact, and I promised to write about how to pickle watermelons in this way. Before watermelon season passes again, I want to share my own photos and a recipe.

I first tasted brined watermelon some fifteen years ago, when I bought a few slices from Guss’ Pickles, whose retail shop was a sidewalk stand on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. If you liked your pickles crisp, fuggetaboudit! The brined watermelon was soft and slimy. It seemed more tomato than melon. But its sweet and sour brininess grew on me.

Much later, I sought advice about pickling watermelons from Gwen Schock Cowherd, a descendant of Germans from Russia—that is, Germans who went to live in Russia after Catherine the Great, in 1763, invited foreigners to immigrate without having to give up their language or religious traditions, pay taxes, or serve in the military. The first of these German immigrants settled along the Volga River, where watermelons were a major crop (later, other Germans settled on the north shore of the Black Sea). A century after their migration began, Germans in Russia lost their special privileges, and whole villages picked themselves up and moved to the Americas—Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and the United States. Today the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those immigrants still celebrate their Russian-flavored German heritage.

I wanted to know how Germans from Russia pickled whole watermelons. Were the melons fermented or pickled in vinegar? Was sugar added, and were spices included? Were holes poked in the melons to let the brine penetrate?

The melons were of small, firm varieties, Gwen told me, and they ranged from green to ripe. They were always fermented intact. “Do not poke holes in the melons, or the juice will run out,” she warned. With no poking, “the salt water will penetrate the rind and thus preserve the melon. The sweet comes from the melons themselves.” As Gwen remembered, less ripe melons turned out more salty and sour than sweet. Each melon tasted different, because “with the rind intact you didn’t know what you were brining.”

Gwen sent me Mrs. Henry Lindemann’s recipe for “sour watermelons,” from the German Russian Pioneer Cookbook, published in Eureka, South Dakota, in 1975 (Germans from Russia and their American descendants have published hundreds of community cookbooks). Mrs. Lindeman would line the bottom of a 30-gallon barrel with dill, fill the barrel with melons, top them with more dill, and add 1½ cups sugar, 1 cup vinegar, 6 pounds salt, “lots of red peppers,” and garlic. Then she would fill the barrel with water and weight the melons with a board and a rock.

In Sei Unser Gast (“Be Our Guest”), a cookbook published by the North Star Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia in Minneapolis in 1996, a writer left the sugar, vinegar, peppers, and garlic out of her watermelon pickle but added grape leaves. According to Küchen Kochen, published by the Lincoln, Nebraska, branch of the same organization in 1973, some cooks scattered cherry rather than grape leaves throughout the barrel, along with hunks of ripe melon flesh.Gwen’s own grandma left out all of those extras but added pickling spices. “I guess you can spice them anyway you want,” Gwen said. As with cucumber pickles, there is no single right way to season a watermelon pickle.

Golden Midget watermelons
Golden Midget watermelons

In the fall of 2010, I decided to try pickling Golden Midget, a 3-pound watermelon variety that had been developed at the University of New Hampshire in the mid-twentieth century. Borne on yellow-leaved vines, the little fruits tell you when they’re ripe by turning from light green to lemon-yellow. I figured their size would make them perfect for pickling. I used two of them to make my own version of—

Whole Pickled Watermelons

2 3-pound watermelons
2 tablespoons dill seed
8 peeled garlic cloves
6 small dry hot peppers, slit lengthwise
10 tablespoons pickling salt
5 quarts water

Put the melons into a large crock or food-grade plastic pail with the dill, garlic, and peppers. Stir the salt into the water until it dissolves, and pour the brine over the melons. Weight them with a clean rock or a plate or board topped with a water-filled jar. Be sure the watermelons remain well immersed in the brine. Cover the crock with a cloth, and let the crock stand at room temperature.

Check the crock daily, and skim off any yeast or mold. Wait at least four weeks before cutting open a watermelon. At this point you might move the crock to a cellar, where the remaining melons should keep all winter.

pickled whole watermelonOn New Year’s Eve of the same year, I cut open one of the melons. The flesh was glistening, tender, and red throughout. The melon smelled and tasted like a strong fermented cucumber pickle, with extra sweetness and the slimy texture I remembered from the pickled watermelon I’d tasted in New York. I took the melon to a New Year’s Eve party, and people tasted it with interest. For some a little taste was enough, but others ate big slices with gusto.

The next time I pickle watermelon, I’ll do a few things differently. Because I had to skim mold off the brine for an extended period, I’ll use a crock with a water lock. I might add a little vinegar to curb mold growth or some cucumber pickle brine to speed the fermentation. And I’ll add a little sugar, just to see what difference it makes.

The collapsed side of a pickled Golden MidgetMy single complaint about Golden Midget is that its thin rind caved in a bit with brining, so that the pickled melons looked like partially deflated playground balls. But an icebox melon with a thicker rind might collapse this way, too, according to my Moldovan friend Cristina. Still, next year I may try a variety that Germans from Russia might have chosen generations ago, such as Astrakhanski, Melitopolski, or the white-fleshed Cream of Saskatchewan.

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.