Quick Bite-Size Chunk Pickles


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

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

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

Sweet, Hot Chunk Pickles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kreibich Nectarine Revisited


When I wrote about my first little crop of Kreibich nectarines, about this time last year, my daughter had cut up all the fruits for a tart before I had a chance to play with them. This year the crop of small, white-fleshed fruits was much bigger, and I was able to make both lumpy and puréed nectarine jams, a nectarine-fig jam, and pickled nectarines. I’d like to pass on a few things I learned about this new cultivar.

First, the thin, bitter skins don’t slide off easily with a brief dip in boiling water, as peach skins normally do. I ended up peeling the fruits with a paring knife. For pickled nectarines, I wouldn’t bother with peeling at all next time. This would not only save time and trouble, but the hint of bitterness might pleasantly balance the sweetness and tartness of the pickles.

I made the puréed jam when I got fed up with peeling. After slicing the fruits and cooking them until they were tender, I passed them through the fine screen of a food mill before reheating it with sugar. This worked to eliminate the skins, but the puréed nectarine jam, like my beloved puréed pear jam, spattered furiously as I cooked it.

Fortunately, jam made from these nectarines, even when they’re puréed, becomes quite thick with just a minute or two of boiling. Are other nectarines so dense-fleshed? I’ve always assumed nectarines were as juicy as peaches. Because the Kreibich fruit was so sweet and dense, I reduced the amount of sugar in both the lumpy and puréed jams.

Something else remarkable about these nectarines is their color when cooked—neither  white like the nectarine’s flesh nor peachy orange, but rosy. The color comes from the red pigment that’s around the freestone pit and just under as well as in the skins.

There’s one more thing gardeners should know about this leaf-curl-resistant cultivar: It can get leaf curl. My tree did, during this year’s wet spring. I will have to spray with lime-sulfur this coming fall and winter if I’m to ensure the tree’s good health. And maybe I’ll try neem in early summer to ward off the cucumber beetles, who once again marred the nectarines’ skins.

Here’s my recipe for—

Lumpy Nectarine Jam

 2½ pounds peeled, pitted, and sliced Kreibich nectarines (see instructions)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
½ cup water
3¼ cups sugar

To keep the nectarines from browning, mix them with the lemon juice as you peel and slice them. I do this in a bowl, checking the weight occasionally with a kitchen scale. Stop cutting nectarines when you have 2½ pounds.

In a preserving pan, combine the nectarines and water. Cover the pan, and simmer the nectarines for 5 minutes. Crush them a bit with a potato masher or other tool, and then cover the pan again and simmer them a bit more, until they are quite tender. Remove the pan from the heat.

Add the sugar to the pan, place the pan over medium heat, and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Raise the heat to medium high, and briefly boil the jam, stirring, until it mounds in a chilled bowl.

Ladle the jam into three pint or six half-pint jars, and process them as usual.

You could make a fancier jam by flavoring it with, say, ginger, cinnamon, or rum, but the heavenly aroma of Kreibich nectarines needs no adornment.

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.

Glass Weights for Small-Batch Pickling

When you’re making fermented pickles, you must usually weight the food, because until it is well acidified it can easily spoil on exposure to air. Vegetables or fruits fermenting in a crock or plastic bucket are typically weighted with a water-filled jar placed over a plate. The best crocks, in my opinion, come with stoneware weights made to fit, so no plate is needed.

But when you’re fermenting only a small quantity—say, a pint of garlic cloves or a quart of turnip chunks—you need a weight that fits a small jar. For pickling in jars up to a gallon in size, I often recommend freezer-weight polyethylene zipper bags, such as the Zip-loc brand, filled with brine. (Plain water works as well, unless the bag happens to spring a leak or spill out the top when it’s not fully zippered). A brine-filled freezer bag not only makes a good weight; if it’s properly filled and set in the jar it also seals out yeast and mold. These bags contain no phthalates or BPA; they don’t “outgas” any chemicals; and neither acid nor salt degrades the plastic.

The small rock here presses against the lid to keep pork submerged in brine in a plastic bin.

But the bags are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable and ever more dear resource—and that’s reason enough for many home picklers to avoid them. So I sometimes suggest, as an alternative to brine bags, rocks—hard, smooth, well-scrubbed rocks. If you want to ensure the cleanliness of the rocks from your garden or neighborhood creek, you can boil them before using them. Mentioning rocks, though, seems to immediately transform me in others’ eyes. I can almost feel my arms lengthening, my jar and forehead thickening, dense hair growing all over my body.

What sort of weight, then, can we trust through our senses and experience to always wash up pure and clean and civilized? It must be glass, I concluded. So last summer I went looking for small glass weights for pickling. And where else would I start my search but the dollar store?

And there I found just what I wanted. For a dollar I bought two glass candleholders, heavy, thick glass discs that just fit inside a standard wide-mouth mason jar. At first I regretted the hollow, intended for a candle, in the center of each disc, but then I noticed that the hollow made a good gripping point for my fingers.

I had a chance to put one of my weights to use the other day after my friend Ruth presented me with a few lemons from her hothouse. When I get my hands on unwaxed lemons, I usually pickle them whole. Ruth’s lemons were too big to fit neatly in a standard wide-mouth jar, so I put them into a globe-shaped Weck jar. Although the Weck jar has a much wider mouth than the standard mason jar, the candleholder is broad enough to keep the lemons well submerged in their brine.

In case you’ve never brined whole lemons, here’s how to do it: Mix a brine of 1 tablespoon salt to each cup of water. Put the lemons in a jar, cover them well with the brine, and weight them. Cap the jar loosely, or cover it with a cloth. Leave the jar on your kitchen counter for about three weeks.

Russian cooks slice these lemons thin and serve them with fish and game. I like them best in a Moroccan-style chicken stew with spices and home-cured green olives.

 

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.

East Coast New Pickles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Coast “New Pickles”

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

The Polish Fermentation Pot

I’ve recently finished my first batch of sauerkraut in my handsome, chocolate-brown crock from Boleslawiec, Poland. Like the Harsch Gärtopf crock, the Polish crock has fitted weights and a trough in which the lid rests. If you keep water in the trough through the fermentation, no yeast or mold gets inside, so you don’t have to skim scum from the surface of the kraut.

The stoneware weights

Carbon dioxide produced during fermentation escapes through the water in the trough. You know this is happening by the occasional  burp that the crock emits (it’s a puzzling sound to hear in the middle of the night at first, but you get used to it). You can tell how active the fermentation is by the frequency of the burps.

I was attracted to this crock partially because of the rotund shape of the 10-liter size (the 20-liter crock is straight-sided). But the roundness is a little impractical if you frequently fill the crock only about halfway. In this case the weights rest in the broadest part of the crock, where they don’t come close to covering the surface. I guess the Poles can’t imagine anyone making less than 15 pounds of kraut at a time.

Even if you fill the crock completely, you’ll want to cover your kraut with two or three uncut outer cabbage leaves before adding the weights. This will keep little bits of cabbage from floating.

The Polish crocks are available from the Sausage Maker, Canning Supply, and Simply Natural.

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.