How to Freeze Artichokes

artichoke plants, smallLast winter we had plenty of freezing nights, but they were always followed by warmish days. As a result, none of the artichoke plants lining my short driveway died back at all, and this spring I’ve been harvesting artichokes by the bucketload. Last year’s harvest was only a little smaller. With our warming climate, the big, gray-green, edible-budded thistle so commonplace in California gardens seems to have become an ideal perennial vegetable for the Willamette Valley.

Last year I trimmed some of the artichokes down to their hearts and pickled them. Destroying the integrity of the beautiful buds before cooking them is painful—or at least it is if you’re accustomed to serving artichokes whole, peeling off the petals one by one, and scraping every petal across your teeth. But if you tear off those tough outer petals without mercy before you cook your artichoke, you end up with a fully edible, delicious nugget that can be added to any number of dishes.

This year I decided to freeze artichokes hearts instead of pickling them. I could always pickle some of them later, I reasoned, using the recipe in The Joy of Pickling (page 195 of the third edition).

As always, I harvested my artichokes when they were young, firm, and choke-free. Old artichokes are more trouble to prepare; you must hollow out the center to remove the choke.

Whether you’re freezing or pickling artichokes, you prepare them the same way:

Frozen Artichoke Hearts

 Rinse the artichokes one at a time, holding them upright under running water to wash out any earwigs. Turn the artichokes upside down in a colander to drain.

 Prepare a bowl of acidulated water, enough to cover all your artichoke hearts. I use vitamin C tablets—1,000 grams of vitamin C, ground in an electric coffee grinder, for each quart of cold water. Lemon water will do as well, if you happen to have a glut of lemons, as will a commercial product called Fruit Fresh. Vinegar or citric acid would be less effective.

 Begin heating a large pot of water to a boil.

artichoke, petals removed, smallPick up an artichoke, bend back the outer petals, and tear them off at the base. Keep pulling off the petals until you’re holding a cone that is yellow in its bottom half and light green at the top.

With a stainless-steel or ceramic knife, trim the stem. You don’t need to cut it away completely, since the stem of a young artichoke is tender and tasty.

artichoke heart, nearly ready, smallTrim away any green bits remaining at the base of the artichoke.

 Cut off the top of the cone, removing all of the tough green portion. Be unsparing, or you’ll regret not doing so when you find yourself spitting out fibrous bits. The petals of the finished heart should be so tightly wrapped that they are difficult to tear away.

artichoke, fully trimmed, smallTo keep the artichoke heart from browning, plunge it upside-down into the acidulated water. (It will promptly turn right-side up.)

 Prepare and submerge the rest of your artichoke hearts in the same way. As you work, occasionally dunk the hearts.

 

artichokes in acidulated water, smallDrain the artichoke hearts, and immediately drop them into a large pot of boiling water. Blanch them for about 10 minutes. If some of them are especially large, either cut them in half before blanching them or leave them in the water longer, about 15 minutes. Time the blanching period from when the hearts enter the pot. Keep the heat on high throughout. As the hearts cook, prepare a basin of ice water.

 Drain the hearts, and plunge them into the ice water.

artichokes ready for freezing, smallWhen they are cool, drain them again. Lay them on cookie sheets, and freeze them.

 Pack the frozen artichokes in freezer bags, and store them in the freezer.

After thawing frozen artichokes, steam or boil them until they are tender.

 

Preparing artichoke hearts for the freezer, or for pickling, will leave you with an enormous pile of outer petals. You don’t need to compost them, yet. You might instead boil or steam them and eat their tender inner flesh in the usual way, by dipping the base of each into mayonnaise, aioli, or garlicky olive oil and then scraping off the flesh with your teeth. Then the petals can go in the compost.

Fun to Watch, Fun to Eat: Mixed Vegetables Brined in Glass

mixed-pickle-4I love to ferment vegetables in gallon glass jars, which I leave on the kitchen counter so I can watch the colors mellow. I especially like to do this with mixed vegetables. A mixed vegetable pickle is not only a thing of beauty and an adventure to eat; it’s also a practical use for homegrown produce–in spring or fall, when your garden may provide you only a handful of this and a handful of that, or at any time of the year if your garden is small. What could be easier than combining these handfuls in a jar, adding some herbs and garlic, and pouring over some brine?

You can put what you like in your mixed pickle. In spring, replace the beans in my recipe with asparagus tips. In summer you might use whole tiny cucumbers or larger cucumbers, cut into chunks. Turnips, kohlrabi, cabbage, and radish are all good additions in the cooler months. If you want your pickles to stand out at a party, add a piece of raw beet to color them a shocking pink.

You don’t really need to weigh your vegetables. Just gather enough to fill your jar about three-quarters of the way to the top. This allows room for the brine to bubble and for a brine bag or other weight on top of the vegetables. For a gallon jar, you need about three quarts of prepared vegetables.

You can be creative with the aromatic ingredients as well with the main ones. I usually use licorice-like tarragon—except in the depths of winter, when my tarragon plant has died to the ground. Thyme and winter savory are always available in the pot on my deck, and they always go well in a mixed pickle. Sweet bay is a good addition, too. When I made a mixed fermented pickle last week, however, I passed over all of these for young dill that had grown from seeds I’d scattered in late summer, intending for them to sprout in spring. Dillweed has a fresher, less bitter flavor than fully or partially dried dill seed, so I was happy to find a use for the little plants before they froze.

Once fermentation gets under way, expect your brine to get cloudy. The cloudiness doesn’t mean your pickles are spoiling. Even the appearance of yeast or mold on top of the brine is little cause for concern, provided you keep the vegetables well immersed and skim off any scum promptly. If you use a brine bag as described in the recipe, no yeast or mold will be able to grow. (An airlock provides similar protection; it allows the bacteria in the pickle to release carbon dioxide while preventing airborne microbes from contaminating the brine. In the third edition of The Joy of Pickling you’ll find a list of companies that sell lids and jars with airlocks of various kinds.)

Mixed Fermented Pickle

What I call pickling salt (it’s usually labeled “canning and pickling salt”) is fine, pure sodium chloride. If you would prefer to substitute a coarser kind of salt, such as kosher, measure it by weight instead of by volume. But don’t substitute table salt, which has additives that could discolor your pickles.

1 pound cauliflower or broccoli florets
2 sweet green or red peppers, cut into squares or strips
1/2 pound whole young snap beans
1/2 pound shallots or pickling onions, peeled, or larger onions, cut into chunks or rings
1/4 pound tiny carrots, or larger carrots cut into rounds or thin sticks
3 garlic cloves, slivered
2 to 3 tarragon sprigs
2 to 3 thyme sprigs
1⁄2 cup (4.7 ounces) pickling salt
3 quarts water
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Toss all the vegetables together, and pack them into a gallon jar, distributing the garlic and herbs among them. Dissolve the salt in the water, and pour enough brine over the vegetables to cover them. Add the vinegar. Push a gallon-size freezer bag into the top of the jar, pour the remaining brine into the bag, and seal the bag. Make sure the bag presses against the glass all the way around. Set the jar in a bowl, to protect your counter and cabinets in case of a spillover. Store the jar at room temperature.

Within three days, if you look close, you should see tiny bubbles in the brine. After a week you might start tasting the vegetables. They should be fully fermented in two to three weeks, when the bubbling has stopped and they taste quite sour. At this point you should remove the brine bag, cap the jar, and store it in the refrigerator. The pickled vegetables should keep in the refrigerator for several months.

Makes about 3 quarts

Olive-Oil Pickles: Q&A

Before the routine use of mason jars or even paraffin in the home kitchen, olive oil was often used, in America as well as Europe, to seal air out of jars of vinegar-pickled vegetables. When you’re canning pickles in the modern way today, oil might seem a superfluous addition—if it didn’t make the vegetables look and taste so good after they’re drawn, unctuously gleaming, from the jar.

Once you’ve pried off the lid and stored the jar in the fridge, though, the oil can partially or totally solidify. That doesn’t make for such a pretty pickle. Here’s how Matt, one reader of The Joy of Pickling, encountered this problem: 

I’m a beginner to this experience, and have made a few pickle recipes from your Joy book. I have a question relating to a recipe I did of the olive oil pickles (page 98). I did as instructed, and opened around 4 weeks after pantry storage. They tasted amazing! After about a week in the fridge, however, the opened jar formed small, white beads at the top. They vary in diameter, but all quite smaller than the mustard seeds.  

The unopened ones do not exhibit this, and I am concerned that there is something wrong. Perhaps this is some congealing of ingredients, but I wanted to see if you’ve encountered similar results. I haven’t eaten them since they’ve been in the fridge (e.g., formed the beads), so am only hoping that the refrigeration is the factor here, and that they are safe to eat.

And here are two photos that Matt sent me:

congealed olive oilcongealed olive oil 2

Sometimes chilled olive oil forms a solid whitish mass; other times it solidifies only partially. The “beads” Matt saw are solidified oil droplets.

The solution to this problem is simple: Take the jar out of the refrigerator a little before serving time, and let the oil melt in the warmer air outside the fridge. In Matt’s case the oil had only slightly solidified, so the melting probably took only ten minutes or so.

There’s something else to remember about oiled pickles: Oil on the rim of the jar or on the lid’s sealing compound can prevent a good seal. So be sure to leave adequate headspace in the jar, wipe any oil off the rim with a paper towel or clean cloth dampened with vinegar before placing the lid on top, and avoid tipping the jars or boiling the water hard during processing.

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 Handmade Pickle Weight, Pickle Seasoning, and a Cookbook Giveaway

kohlrabi kraut with pickle weight 2I want to share these photos of an excellent stoneware pickling weight for one- and two-quart mason jars. Note the cute little knob handle and the holes to let the brine through. The weight was designed and created by Ken Albala, a prolific author of culinary history books and a professor at the University of the Pacific who somehow finds time to putter in his pottery. Do you suppose we could convince Ken to quit his other gigs and devote himself to supplying the world with pickle weights?

kohlrabi kraut with pickle weightThe dark stuff on top of the kohlrabi, by the way, is red shiso, wilted with a little salt. I’m hoping that the shiso will prevent any yeast growth while also turning the kohlrabi pink. If the kraut turns out well, I’ll post another photo later.

When you visit Ken Albala’s blog, be sure to see the post on Funky Dust Pickle Powder. Ken simply shaved some brined cucumbers thin, dried them in a dehydrator, and ground them to a powder to use as a sour and spicy seasoning. I may have to try this myself.

Another of my favorite bloggers, Nadia Hassani of Spoonfuls of Germany, is giving away a copy of The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles. If you’d like a chance to win this cookbook, let her know before Friday, September 27.

Another Cause of Soft Pickles

cuke beetle scars on Agnes
Cucumber beetle scars on Agnes cucumbers

I threw out half of my first crock of brined cucumbers this year, because the cucumbers were strangely soft. Much more upsetting than the loss was the fact that I couldn’t explain it. I am supposed to understand such things!

Now I’ve figured it out. The spotted cucumber beetles have been more numerous than ever this summer. For a week or two, stepping into the vegetable garden was like entering a bee swarm, except that I could swat the yellow devils with impunity. Early in the season, many cucumbers were scarred from the beetles’ bites. These scars looked like scars, not open wounds, not rotten spots. I’d seen them many times before, though never in such quantity. As usual, I ignored the scars as I filled the first crock.

A cucumber beetle scar on another variety
A cucumber beetle scar on another variety

The most scarred cucumbers, it turned out, were of the Agnes variety. In fact, few other cucumbers had any scarring at all. Nearly all the cucumbers I ended up throwing out were Agnes. Their skins rubbed off at the scar sites. When I’d press on a scar, the soft flesh below would spurt out. Where a scar had touched the smooth skin of a neighboring cucumber in the crock, the second cucumber sometimes suffered a bit of softening, too.

Agnes, developed in Holland, is always bitter-free, so I doubt that the bitter-loving beetles are especially attracted by its flavor. I suspect that they like this variety, or at least can most easily injure it, because its skin is especially thin.

I’m still pickling Agnes cucumbers, but I’m taking care to cut away every bit of beetle damage. And I’ll do that in the future no matter what cucumber variety I’m pickling.

Dilly Umbels

dillPeople who don’t keep gardens often ask me what a dill head is. One of the copy editors for The Joy of Pickling didn’t know. I tried the word umbel on her. Its meaning seems obvious when you consider that the seed heads of all the plants in the carrot family—umbellifers all—look like small umbrellas. But she seemed uncomprehending. When a breeze blows through a field full of blooming Queen Anne’s lace, some of us see little lace parasols dancing all around. Others see only a field.

Perhaps the editor wasn’t dense but only distressed at my vagueness, because a dill head can be many things. It starts out covered with tiny yellow flowers. Soon small green seeds form, and the flowers fall. As the feathery leaves wither on the long, stiff stalks, the seeds grow bigger and take on a pinkish-purplish hue. Eventually they turn brown, and soon they, too, begin to fall to the ground. As the heads mature, so does their flavor. The flowers taste nearly as sweet and brightly dilly as the green foliage. The brown seeds take on a darker, more bitter tone.

For pickling and every other culinary use I can think of, I prefer young dill—the leaves, the flowers, the small green seeds. But any fresh dill is better than dried seeds that have sat in the cupboard for months or years.

dilly beans 1Although dill has naturalized in the gardens of friends who live in nearby hills, I’ve always had trouble growing it in my lowland garden. This year I succeeded well, by tossing seeds in February onto a bare patch of ground where I’d taken up a sheet of black plastic laid there last summer. Like other umbellifers, dill needs a long, cool, wet period for its slow germination. It needs light, too, and so prefers no covering of soil.

I’d planted the dill seed too early, I figured as I set out my cucumber seedlings in May. The dill would soon be in flower, and the sweet, ferny foliage would shrivel before the cukes were ready to pickle.

Thankfully, a dill plant takes its sweet time, opening one flower head after another, so that any plant sold for pickling is likely to have some heads in bloom, others in seed, some as small as a teacup and others as broad as a dinner plate, with a little green foliage still hanging on the stalks. When I suggest adding a dill head to a jar of beans, two tiny flower heads will do, as will half or a third of a giant head with its full-size seeds. To fit part of a giant head in a pint jar, you might even need to fold the umbel upward—the way umbrellas bend only when they break—and clip off the bottoms of what on an umbrella would be the stretchers.

My dill patch has held out for me through the peak of my summer pickling. Most of the heads are turning brown now, and enough seeds are loosening that I collected a pint the other day. But I’ve used heads at all stages of maturity in four crocks of cucumber pickles already, and made two small batches of dilly beans besides. And still I see some yellow flowers and green foliage in the dill patch.

It’s time to consider where to lay down a sheet of black plastic, or a board, or heavy mulch, perhaps, to create a bare patch for planting dill again this winter.

Summer Kraut in a Quart Mason Jar

Sauerkraut is traditionally made in autumn, when cabbages grow big, white, and sweet in the chilly air. The cold weather helps them develop a high water and sugar content, which in turn helps the cabbages to ferment well. But you can make kraut from early cabbage—that is, cabbage you’ve harvested in mid-summer. I did so recently, when I found my refrigerator drawers overstuffed with the little red and green cabbages I’d brought in from the garden. This was the perfect opportunity, I figured, to try out the airlock mason-jar cap that Richard Washburn of New Eden Farm had kindly sent me.

airlock capDevices like Richard’s have become popular among fermentation faddists, folks who will try fermenting just about anything, in small amounts. Many of these new breed of picklers are using little salt—so little that their pickles are prone to spoilage. Some people compensate for this by adding whey to boost the acidity of the brine or by using an airlock to keep out yeast and mold.

Richard makes his device with a standard little plastic airlock, available from home winemaking suppliers for a dollar or two. When the airlock is partially filled with water and inserted in an opening of a sealed container full of fermenting liquid or vegetables, the carbon dioxide produced by the fermentative microbes is released through the water, thus preventing the container from building up so much pressure that it explodes. By keeping air from entering the container, the airlock also serves as a barrier to airborne yeasts and molds that might otherwise contaminate the ferment. This is the same way that a crock with a water trough works.

Richard attaches the airlock to a plastic wide-mouth Ball storage cap with a silicone grommet. The cap fits both a wide-mouth quart jar and a wide-mouth two-quart jar.

One of my 1¼-pound cabbages, grated, would easily fit in a quart jar. I could even add some carrot or apple or both, as Russians often do to boost the sugar content of early cabbage. Since none of my apples were ripe yet, I chose carrots. I cut the cabbage quickly on my inexpensive little Kyocera mandoline, whose secret is its ever-sharp ceramic blade. I grated the carrots on an ordinary box grater.

Because the word sauerkraut usually applies to long-fermented cabbage, and because I intended to ferment my cabbage for only a few days, I will call it—

Russian krautRussian Pickled Cabbage, by the Quart

1¼ pounds grated cabbage (about 1 small) and grated carrot (about 2)
2 teaspoons pickling salt
1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds

Mix the cabbage, salt, and caraway. Pack the mixture firmly into a quart jar, and weight the mixture. If it isn’t covered well by brine within a day, stir ½ teaspoon salt into ½ cup water, and add enough of this brine to cover the cabbage well. Let the cabbage ferment at room temperature for 3 to 5 days, and then serve it immediately or store it in the refrigerator.
 

Using an airlock doesn’t erase the need to weight the vegetables; they must stay under the surface of their brine. So I added a glass candle holder, and then a second, and a third. The third ended up pressing against the airlock cap. A freezer-weight plastic bag filled with brine would have worked as well.

By the third day the sauerkraut was bubbly, and after four days it was lightly sour. There was no sign of yeast or mold in the jar, so I can attest that Richard’s airlock cap did not fail me. I replaced it with an unaltered plastic cap and stored the jar in the refrigerator.

Russians often serve pickled cabbage as a salad, dressed with a little sugar and unrefined sunflower oil. Adding sugar may sound strange, but the sweetness balances the sourness of the vegetables and the bitterness of the caraway (which you can of course leave out, if you prefer). Sunflower oil has a strong taste that takes getting used to, but it’s worth trying if you have a Russian market in your area. Otherwise, you can dress your salad with olive, walnut, or hazelnut oil. Or use your pickled cabbage in any way you might use long-fermented sauerkraut.

Other airlock devices for small-batch pickling include the Fermenta Lock Airlock , the Pickl-It system, and the ReCAP Fermenting Set. Have you tried any of these? Do you know of others? I would be grateful if you’d share your experiences.

A Fool for Pickled Chard

I finally got around to pickling chard stems again last week, when I needed to dig out several big Swiss chard plants so I could start next year’s garlic crop in a raised bed. These plants were of the Bright Lights variety, with its assortment of beautiful yellows, pinks, and reds.

Bright Lights first proved me a fool me last spring, when the plants had grown about two inches tall. I had expected to find all the various colors on a single plant, as with a capsicum plant whose fruits change according to individual timetables from green to yellow to orange. Not so with the chard. I found some seedlings with yellow stems, and others with pale pink, beet-red, or white stems. Obviously, a farmer sells a multicolored bunch of chard by banding together stems from various plants. Someone with a very small garden who wants multicolored chard may have to choose one color for herself and share other seeds or seedlings among her friends, with the hope that they can trade full-grown stems later on.

Bright Lights turned out to be just as stringy as plain old white-stemmed chard. I was fooled again in the kitchen as I pulled off the strings; as with most rhubarb varieties, the color on those pink, yellow, and red stems is only skin deep, and much of it comes off with stringing. My Bright Lights had dimmed before the pickling began.

I made the pickle as in my prior post on this topic, except in a quart jar this time. The next day I thought I would take a picture of the pretty jar, but now, strangely, the contents appeared uniformly pink. Tipping the jar, I saw that the top ends of the chard stems were all the same color, a very pale pink. Fooled again! The chard had given up its color to its pickling liquid. I might as well have pickled a jar full of white-stemmed chard and slipped in a small slice of beet.

Bright Lights chard in all its lovely colors is still growing strong in the main garden. Until the rains drown the plants or the cold rots them, I’ll search for other ways to bring their beauty to the table.