Radish Pods, for Seeds and Pickles

radish bushTo replenish my stock of Candela di Fuoco radish seeds, I let a single plant go to seed. It grew into a lovely bush, about three feet tall and wide, with pretty pink blooms that continued to appear as seed pods matured and dried. Although I loved the look of the plant, it was taking up bed space that I needed for other things. So last week, as soon as I could collect a few handfuls of dried pods, I pulled up the plant.

radish pods & flowersBut most of the pods were still green and tender. I couldn’t let them go to waste. Although they were quite small—unlike the pods of “rat-tail” varieties, which are grown specifically for their pods—I collected enough to fill a pint jar. And now I have one more pickle, a jarful of tangy tidbits with a mild radishy bite, to bemuse my friends this summer.

 

pickled radishes

 

 

Pickled Radish Pods

1 pint fully formed but still tender radish pods, stems trimmed to ¼ inch
1 small hot pepper, fresh or dried
1 tarragon sprig
1 large garlic clove, sliced
½ cup cider vinegar
½ cup water
1 teaspoon pickling salt
1 tablespoon olive oil

Pack a pint jar with the radish pods, hot pepper, tarragon, and garlic. In a saucepan, bring to a boil the vinegar, water, and salt. Pour the hot liquid over the pods, covering them well and leaving only about 1/8 inch headspace. Cap the jar, and leave it at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours, turning it two or three times.

Add the olive oil to the jar, cap it tightly, and store it in the refrigerator, where the radish pods should keep well for months.

Makes 1 pint

Show Your Preserves at the Fair

Old pictures of some of my preserves (2)

If you’re proud of your home-preserved foods, why not show them off at your county or state fair? You probably won’t win big prizes—fair premiums are small these days, if they are available at all—but you’ll inspire your fellow preservers to aim higher, and you might even motivate some people to try preserving foods for the first time.

Of course, you’ll want your jars displayed with ribbons, preferably blue. To maximize your chances, check out these rules I’ve gleaned in judging preserves at county and state fairs:

 Be sure you’ve used a conventional recipe. This takes much of the fun out of showing off your preserves, but most fairs specify that the recipe must come from the USDA, Extension, or Ball or Kerr. You might try citing a Ball or USDA recipe that’s almost the same as yours and noting what you’ve changed. This way the judge will know that you haven’t done anything to jeopardize the safety of the product.

But don’t be too conventional! Your chances of winning for one of a dozen nearly identical jars of blackberry jam are pretty low. You might do better with a less common fruit, such as quince or red or black currant, or with preserves, jelly, or chutney instead of jam. “Fermented foods, dried foods, and meat and seafood are always underfilled classes,” says Carol Newton, an Oregon State Fair judge (at the Oregon State Fair, fermented foods don’t have to be pasteurized, if they’re submitted on ice or in a cooler). At my own county fair, I’d like to see more pickles, especially whole-cucumber pickles and properly packed dilly beans.

 Make sure you’ve used fresh produce, picked at the right time, and fresh spices. Even without tasting your entry, the judge may be able to spot inferior produce. Green beans bulging with their seeds were obviously picked too late. A cucumber held too long may look a bit shriveled, and cutting into it may expose a hollow center. Corn that looks brownish may be a supersweet variety—a type unsuitable for pressure canning because the sugars can caramelize.

Show off your knife skills. Canned bean and carrot pieces should be identical in size. Beets should be sliced as evenly as possible (while slicing, you might save ends and other small pieces for a salad).

In case you’re not so handy with a knife, using a mandoline probably won’t hurt your chances for a ribbon. Crinkle-cut carrots may well catch the judge’s eye.

Avoid floaters. Floating fruit is often inevitable, but choosing slightly underripe pears or peaches, for example, certainly helps, as does careful, tight packing. Choose your best-filled jar for submission to the fair.

Check for appropriate headspace. A good judge knows that the proper headspace of ¼ or ½ inch may change after processing. But a jar with too much headspace appears only partially filled. Never enter a jar that has lost liquid in processing; sauerkraut, for example, should be completely covered with brine. (In boiling-water as well as pressure canning, you can usually keep liquid from leaking from jars by avoiding rapid changes in pressure. After processing canned fruits, tomatoes, or pickles, let the jars sit in their hot water bath for five minutes after you turn off the burner.)

 Use standard packaging. Submit a jar with a conventional size and shape, so the judges can tell that the processing time was appropriate. The jar should be sealed with a two-piece lid, because many judges are nervous about one-piece lids, and even more so about glass lids. Note that less common jar shapes may be accepted and even favored if they bear the Ball label; I watched one judge choose a “pretty” Ball jar for first place without tasting any of the entries. Tatler lids are also usually accepted.

Avoid rust. Many judges hate the sight of rust; some will remove a metal jar band just to check for any rust on the inside. So use a brand-new band, or at least one that looks brand-new.

Make sure the jar is clean. You washed the jar well before filling it, of course, but did you remove any residue from an old label? Take off the band and check for stickiness around the rim, because many judges will do exactly this.

Label the jar completely and neatly. Check the fair guidelines carefully to be sure you’re including all the information asked for and writing it in the right place. Usually you need to provide at least the name of the product, how it was processed (by a boiling-water bath or pressure canner), and for how long. You may have to add where you got the recipe and, for jam or jelly with added pectin, which brand and type of pectin you used. (Regardless of whether the fair requires it, I suggest noting if you made your jam or jelly without added pectin. Judges who always use commercial pectin themselves don’t seem to understand that strawberry or peach jam naturally turns out soft.) A decorative paper label, on the top or side of the jar, may win you points over entries labeled with black marker on the lid. You might even tie a handsome label around the jar rim, if the fair rules allow this.

No doubt you’ll feel let down if you don’t win a ribbon, especially if the judge didn’t even taste your entry. Be aware that most fairs forbid judges to taste low-acid canned goods, because of the risk of botulism, and some forbid any tasting at all. Also, since tasting is time-consuming, and ultimately can be sickening, the judges may prefer to rank entries by looks alone. “Unless I deem then unsafe,” says Carol Newton, “I taste jams and soft spreads, most specialty foods, and pickles.” But not all judges do.

If you don’t win, hopefully you’ll at least get an encouraging comment from the judge. Carol Newton always provides comments, she says, to allay disappointment and encourage entrants to come back. Other judges simply don’t have time to write comments. If there is something wrong with your entry, though, the judge will probably let you know, so you can do better next time.

If you garner neither ribbon nor comment, your entry may have been perfect and yet not outstanding. If the fair uses the “American system” of judging, which allows for only single first-, second-, and third-place ribbons in each class, the judge’s decision may have been arbitrary. Don’t let this upset you. Look around; see what your fellow preservers are failing to bring to the fair. Next year, bring that. And make sure it’s beautiful as well as delicious.

Brined Cherries, for a Change

brined cherriesPickled 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:

Brined Cherries

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.

 

A Beautiful Pantry . . .

Andrea's garage. . . 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.

Taking the Wind Out of Jerusalem Artichokes

jerusalem artichokes
Jerusalem artichokes look like thick, pale gingerroots.

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.

I thank Rose Marie Nichols McGee, of Nichols Garden Nursery, for asking the question I should have long ago asked myself: Can fermentation rid Jerusalem artichokes of their windiness?

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 rhizomes 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 rhizomes. So the results of our study were inconclusive.

In digging up my Jerusalem artichoke patch, however, I must have missed a little rhizome. 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 rhizomes, 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 rhizomes no harm.

I first assessed their windiness by simply roasting some with salt, pepper, and olive oil. The roasted rhizomes were delicious, but still gassy.

Inspired by Rose Marie’s example, I then pickled some of the Jerusalem artichokes in this way:

fermented jerusalem artichokesMellow 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.

Pickling Mexican Sour Gherkins


Mexican sour gherkin is a rather new name for a cute little fruit that native people of Mexico and Central America have enjoyed since pre-Columbian times.  Melothria scabra, as botanists know it, is often called sandita, “little watermelon,” in Spanish and “mouse melon” in various languages.* These are better names, I think, because although a Mexican sour gherkin is only about an inch long, it looks like a classic watermelon–oval, smooth-skinned, vine-borne, with dark green lengthwise stripes on a pale green background. The taste, though lacking sweetness, is mildly tart, like a watermelon’s, with the aroma of cucumber. As the fruit matures, the stripes fade and the flesh becomes remarkably sour.

Although the Mexican sour gherkin . . . Wait. Can we scrap that awkward name for one that’s easier to say? Although the sandita is in the family Cucurbitaceae, it’s only a distant relative of the watermelon and the cucumber. Some anglo starting calling the sandita a gherkin because you can use it as a gherkin—that is, as a small cucumber. You can pickle it whole.

The compact sandita vine makes a fine ornamental. You can grow it in a pot, though you’ll want the plant at a level at which you can easily hunt under the foliage for the fruits. The leaves are light green, ivy-like, rough to the touch (hence the species name scabra) but not nearly as rough as cucumber leaves, and much less disease-prone, in my experience so far, than are cucumber and melon leaves.

I’ve just pickled my first sanditas. Because I have only one plant, collecting enough fruit to fill a jar took several days. Fortunately, the fruits kept well in the refrigerator, with no sign of deterioration. When I was ready to fill my jar, I didn’t mar the fruit by cutting away the blossom ends; instead I lightly scraped them away with a fingernail.

As the main flavoring for the sanditas I chose tarragon, which is typically used in pickling cornichons. If you dislike licorice-like flavors, you might substitute herbs such as thyme, savory, and bay, or you might use traditional gherkin flavorings such as mustard and dill. I added honey because I thought it would complement the sanditas’ flavor, though the honey slightly darkened the pickling liquid.  You might prefer to use white sugar or no sweetening at all. For very sour pickles—to complement, say, pâté or cocktails—use straight vinegar instead of cutting it with water.

Pickled Sanditas

4 allspice berries
8 black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon coriander seeds
1 1/3 cups white wine vinegar
2/3 cup water
1½ teaspoon pickling salt
3 tablespoons honey
1 quart sanditas (Melothria scabra), blossom ends scraped clean
1 large sprig tarragon

In a mortar, lightly crush the allspice, black pepper, and coriander seeds. In a small saucepan, combine the crushed spices with the vinegar, water, salt, and honey. Bring the liquid to a boil, and then let it cool for 5 minutes.

Pack the sanditas into a quart jar along with the tarragon. Pour the hot liquid over them, right to the top of the jar (add a little more vinegar if you don’t have enough liquid to fill the jar to the top). Screw on a lid; if it’s metal, put a piece of plastic wrap in between. Let the jar sit at room temperature for at least three days before tasting the pickles. After that they should keep well at room temperature, but you may prefer to eat them chilled.

After three days of pickling the sanditas make a crisp, mildly tart snack; you may find yourself downing them by the dozen. Over time they’ll get more sour and more suitable as an accompaniment to fatty foods.

With my next batch of pickled sanditas, I plan to stab each fruit with a fork before packing the jar. This way the sanditas will have less tendency to float in the jar, and the pickles will be ready sooner.

*Note that this is a different species from Melothria pendula, which grows wild from the southeastern United States to Argentina and bears some of the same popular names. Though many people use the unripe fruits of Melothria pendula in pickles and salads, others consider the whole plant toxic. When the fruit ripens to nearly black, apparently, it becomes an extremely effective remedy for constipation.

Rice Vinegar for Home Canning

Tom Reynolds, director of food service and industrial marketing for Marukan, wants to sell the company’s rice vinegar to home canners. Apparently he has a ready market; more than three hundred home canners “liked” Marukan rice vinegar on the company’s Facebook page, Tom told me. “They prefer the flavor of our rice vinegar,” he said, “to that of white or apple cider vinegars for delicate vegetables, herbs, chutneys, salsas, pickles, etc.”

A lot of cooks find that rice vinegar has a milder flavor than either cider vinegar or distilled vinegar. This shouldn’t be surprising, because the rice vinegar sold in stores contains less of the main component of all vinegar, acetic acid. Formulated for making sushi, Marukan rice vinegar has an acetic acid level of 4.3 percent. Other Japanese-style rice vinegars have acid levels as low as 4.0 percent.* In the United States, distilled and cider vinegars are always sold at 5.0 percent acidity. Wine vinegar has acid levels as high as 7.0.

The milder flavor of rice vinegar may result not only from its lower acidity but also from its balanced complexity. This complexity may stem from its biologically complicated manufacture: Aspergillus oryzae, a kind of mold, is added to steamed rice and water to convert the starch in the rice to sugar. As in wine and beer making, sugar-loving yeast in the genus Saccharomyces converts the sugar to alcohol. The product is sake, but this sake isn’t for drinking. Over a period of thirty days, in the traditional method to which Marukan adheres, Acetobacter bacteria turn the sake to vinegar. Through this carefully controlled process, rice vinegar ends up containing not only acetic acid but also amino acids, citric acid, and other minor components.

Tom Reynolds knew that USDA pickling recipes, and other pickling recipes written to USDA standards, called for 5.0-percent vinegar. He wondered if Marukan should produce 5.0-percent rice vinegar specifically for home canners. To explore this possibility, he sent sample gallons of 5.0-percent rice vinegar to me and a few other people who write about pickling.

My package arrived in February, when I had little garden produce to work with. I decided to make canned pickled carrots, one jar each with distilled vinegar, 5.0-percent white wine vinegar (Four Monks brand), and 5.0-percent Marukan rice vinegar.

In my experiments for The Joy of Pickling I had used carrots only in refrigerator and freezer pickles. I’d been so repelled by the USDA recipe for canned pickle carrots, which calls for one part water to two parts sugar and five and a half parts distilled vinegar, that I hadn’t even tried it. But if rice vinegar really tastes so mild, I now figured, perhaps it could make a tolerable pickle with such a slight dilution as the USDA allowed. And I could cut the shocking amount of sugar in the USDA recipe; as Extension agents explain, the purpose of the sugar in such recipes isn’t to ensure safety but to balance the sharpness of the vinegar.

I made a few other alternations to the USDA recipe. The half-inch carrot chunks called for looked silly to me–too small for finger food and too big for relish–so I sliced the carrots ¼ inch thick. The mustard and celery seed in the recipe might overwhelm the flavor of the vinegar, so I decided to use just a little ginger and hot pepper instead. Boiling the pickling liquid for three minutes before adding the carrots seemed pointless, so I didn’t do it.

This, then, was my recipe:

Canned Carrots Pickled in 5.0-percent Rice Vinegar (by the pint)

 1¼ cup 5.0-percent vinegar
¼ cup water
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon pickling salt
1 pinch pepper flakes
1 quarter-size slice fresh ginger
11 ounces peeled and trimmed carrots, sliced crosswise ¼ inch thick

In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, and salt. Bring the liquid to a boil, and immediately add the carrots. Simmer them for 5 minutes, uncovered. While the carrots simmer, put the pepper flakes and ginger into a clean pint mason jar.

Add the carrots to the jar, leaving ½ inch headspace. Pour the hot liquid over, maintaining the ½ inch headspace. Screw on a two-piece cap, and process the jar for 15 minutes in a boiling-water bath.

A couple of weeks later, during a family party, I put some of the carrots into bowls for a blind tasting. Here’s what my tasters concluded: The distilled vinegar seemed to heighten both the sweetness of the sugar and the heat of the pepper and ginger. The wine vinegar contributed a little fruitiness and covered up some of the carrot flavor. The rice vinegar tasted most mild. With a slightly earthy note, it let the flavor of the carrots shine through. The pickles in all three jars were tasty, but the carrots in rice vinegar were just a bit more to everyone’s liking.

I reported to Tom that a motley assortment of my relatives had joined his rice-vinegar fan club. Now, when would that 5.0-percent rice vinegar be available in stores? Probably not any time soon, Tom said; assuming that stores would want to carry it, the vinegar couldn’t be economically priced at less than ten dollars per gallon. If it were sold by mail order, the price might be as high as twenty dollars per gallon.

As Tom had considered, though, nearly all the USDA pickle recipes call for diluting 5.0-percent vinegar with water. So, why couldn’t you convert the quantities to use 4.3-percent vinegar? This was a matter of simple arithmetic, I said. For those with rusty sixth-grade math skills, Marukan could provide recipes for canned pickles using 4.3-percent rice vinegar.

Realizing that I’m rusty with my sixth-grade grade math skills, I turned to the guy I call Doctor Science. He came up with these rules for converting a recipe using 5.0-percent vinegar to one using 4.3-percent vinegar:

● Multiply the volume of 5-percent vinegar in the original recipe by 1.16 (because 5.0 divided by 4.3 equals 1.1627906). The result is the volume of 4.3-percent vinegar in your revised recipe.

● Subtract the volume of 5-percent vinegar in the original recipe from the volume of 4.3-percent vinegar in your revised recipe. Reduce the volume of water in the revised recipe by this amount.

Here’s the pickled-carrot recipe revised for a bigger batch using 4.3-percent vinegar. Because I had liquid left over in the single-jar recipe, I increased the liquid volume four times but the weight of the carrots five times, for a yield of five pints.

Canned Carrots Pickled in 4.3-percent Rice Vinegar (to make 5 pints)

If you like a lot of ginger and chile, increase their amounts. Or use different spices, if you prefer. And consider cutting the carrots into sticks or diagonal pieces rather than rounds.

5 ¾ cups 4.3-percent vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons pickling salt
5 pinches pepper flakes
5 quarter-size slices fresh ginger
3 1/2 pounds peeled and trimmed carrots, sliced crosswise ¼ inch thick

In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, and salt. Bring the liquid to a boil, and immediately add the carrots. Simmer them for 5 minutes, uncovered. While the carrots simmer, put the pepper flakes and ginger into five clean pint mason jars.

Add the carrots to the jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Pour the hot liquid over, maintaining the ½ inch headspace. Screw on two-piece caps, and process the jars for 15 minutes in a boiling-water bath.

A final note: When you’re buying rice vinegar for pickling, make sure that it’s unseasoned. Rice vinegar is often sold with sugar and salt added, in the proportions that the manufacturer considers appropriate for sushi rice. In some supermarkets the only rice vinegar available is the seasoned kind. Even if you’re buying rice vinegar for sushi, you may prefer to season it to suit your own taste.

*Beware: Some “Japanese rice vinegar” is actually made in China. This labeling isn’t entirely dishonest; Chinese rice vinegar is traditionally red or black, not clear. Marukan has been making its rice vinegar in Japan since 1649. For the American market, the company has made vinegar in California, from U.S. grown rice, since 1975.

A Handmade Crock Weight

If you have access to potter’s clay and a kiln, why not fashion a weight to fit your crock and your taste? That’s what Rose Jaress did for her mom, Monica, at the suggestion of her dad, Gene, and with the help of her pottery teacher, Syd Shera of Seattle. About an inch thick, the weight has half-inch holes and a lovely handle in the form of a pickle.

Thanks, Monica, for sharing this photo.

Chard Stems for Winter Pickling

The rain is back today, but we’ve just been through a spate of icy weather here in the Willamette Valley. All that I’ve been able to harvest from the garden, besides half-frozen parsley, are vegetables growing under plastic sheeting. Even under the plastic the lettuce has frozen. The lone survivors are kale, turnips, mizuna, arugula, peas, and Swiss chard.

Though in summer I always have some chard growing, this hardy plant, from which you can harvest continually for months, is much more valuable to me in cooler seasons. I happily use the leaves in many of the same ways I use spinach.

But I have never quite known what to do with the stems. Spaniards boil them, roll them in flour and egg, and fry them, but the results, to my mind, fail to justify the mess. Italians boil the stalks nearly to mush—for thirty minutes, according to Marcella Hazan—and then sauté them with garlic or bake them with butter and cheese. In parts of France, says Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning, chard stems are traditionally fermented in a weak brine without seasonings. After trying the recipe, though, I made a one-word marginal note: “Yuck.”

I do like chard stems raw. They’re crisp like celery but juicier, and pleasantly sweet. Even more than celery, though, they’re stringy, especially if they’re big. To avoid ending up chewing on a wad of string, you have to string each stem before you eat it, by loosening the outer fibers at one cut end and gently stripping them down the length. Fortunately, this is a quick and easy task.

If chard stems are this good raw, they ought to be good pickled in vinegar, right? I had overlooked this possibility in developing recipes for The Joy of Pickling. So a few weeks ago I tried a quick chard pickle, using a minimal quantity of good, mild wine vinegar to enhance rather than overwhelm the delicate flavor of the vegetable. Here’s my recipe:

Pickled Chard Stems

 ¼ teaspoon fennel seeds
¼ teaspoon coriander seeds
1 large garlic clove, sliced
1 Mediterranean bay leaf
1 pinch of hot pepper flakes
1 teaspoon pickling salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
2/3 cup water
About ¾ pound chard stems, cut into lengths of about 4 inches, sliced lengthwise if they’re broad, and strung*

Combine all of the ingredients except the chard in a small saucepan, and cover the pan. Bring the mixture to a boil, remove the pan from the heat, and let the mixture cool.

While the pickling liquid cools, pack the chard sticks in the pint jar. Trim them, if necessary, to allow about ½ inch headspace. Pour the cooled liquid and spices over the chard, covering it completely. Close the jar, and store it in the refrigerator.

The pickled chard is delicious after twelve hours and even better after a week or two. It will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator.

*Note that stringing chard stems is even more important when you’re pickling them than when you’re eating them raw, because the strings tend to separate from the flesh during pickling and become immediately noticeable in the mouth.

After developing this recipe I checked the Web to see if other people are pickling chard. They are indeed. I found one recipe with a heavy use of vinegar, and another with large proportions of sugar and hot sauce as well as vinegar. I also found one, from Jennifer Burns Levin, that’s more moderately flavored, with the 1:1 ratio of vinegar to water that the USDA recommends for canning. Although the USDA hasn’t developed its own chard pickle recipe or suggested a processing time for such a pickle, Jennifer’s recipe would be a good starting point if you’re determined to can your pickled chard.

Both Jennifer’s and Kaela’s recipes are worth looking at if only for the photos, because the chard is so beautifully colored. My chard pickles, made from white-stemmed chard, look so plain that I didn’t bother to photograph them. Next spring I’ll plant some red-stemmed chard—or maybe Bright Lights, a 1998 AAS winner with mixed yellow, orange, and pink stems—just so I can make chard pickles that look as lovely as they taste.

Sauerkraut Tips

If you mostly eat your kraut cold, don’t can it; just store it in the refrigerator or another cool place. A cellar, outbuilding, or porch may suffice, depending on the time of year and on your climate. Uncooked kraut retains its vitamin C and live microbes that can aid digestion.

If you can your kraut, use the low-temperature pasteurization method. Put the covered jars into a canner of water heated to between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and continue to heat the water until it reaches 180 degrees. Maintain the temperature between 180 and 185 degrees for 30 minutes, and then remove the jars. This method helps keep the kraut from softening and also helps prevent the loss of liquid that’s so common with boiling-water processing as well as pressure canning.

Always thoroughly dry your washed crock, and especially the stoneware weights, in the sun.