Pickling's not a peck of trouble
by Russ Parsons - Sept. 10, 2008 12:00 AM
Los Angeles Times
Where have all the pickles gone?
It wasn't so long ago that every well-dressed American dinner table was bejeweled with an assortment of them: emerald-green tomatoes, ruby-red beets and opalescent pearl onions, as well as less glamorous (though certainly no less delicious) okra, mushrooms and watermelon rind. The pickle tray was a standard part of a Sunday supper.
Nowadays, almost the only pickle you'll find is cucumber. And while there's nothing wrong with your basic bread-and-butter, half-sour or dill, there are many other possibilities to explore. What about radishes, for example, pickled pink, with a refreshing sweet-tart bite to match their crisp texture? Or tangy peppers, yellow turmeric-stained zucchini and even surprisingly savory pickled grapes?
These are more than curiosities. They are perfect for the way we eat in the warmer months. A bite of crisp-tart pickle is as cooling as an evening breeze.
Their acidity cuts right through the smoke and richness of grilled meat, just as their sweetness and spiciness balance and complement it. Think about ketchup, which, when broken down to its basics, is really nothing more than a pureed pickle of ripe tomatoes.
Pickles also make great antipasti. Like olives (technically, a kind of pickle), their punchy flavors prime the palate for the bigger dishes to come.
But although many traditional pickles take weeks of aging to mellow and mature, you can make very good pickles in a day. You don't need fancy equipment or advanced cooking skills. If you can slice a vegetable and boil water, you can make a pickle.
First, a definition: A pickle is a fruit or vegetable that is preserved through acidity. Because most harmful bacteria have a hard time surviving in a low-pH, or acidic, environment, pickling was an important part of preserving the harvest in the days before refrigeration.
There are two main ways of making a pickle. The first is by salting the food to draw out its moisture. This is how pickles as diverse as sauerkraut and olives are made. The flavors created are complex, but the time required is long: weeks or even months.
A simpler form of pickle can be made by soaking food in an acid liquid, in most cases, a flavored vinegar mixture. All that's necessary is to first soften the fruit or vegetable. This can be done either by blanching it briefly in boiling water or by salting it for an hour or two.
The latter has the added benefit of slightly dehydrating the food, which allows it to absorb more moisture from the vinegar mixture, saturating it with flavor. This technique allows plenty of room for the creative cook to experiment.
Although ordinary, white distilled vinegar can be used for most pickles, you can get a different effect by substituting apple cider or Asian rice vinegar. Don't feel bound to the common pickling spices of mustard, peppercorns and dill. Try cloves, allspice or cinnamon, fresh ginger and dried chiles.
The two ingredients you'll want to include are a little salt to bring out the flavor and some sugar to soften the harsh edges of the vinegar.
Be sure that you use at least as much vinegar as other liquids (note that apple cider does not have the same acidity as apple cider-vinegar). Because commercial vinegar's standard acidity is 5 percent, that will ensure that the finished brine is at least a safe 2.5 percent.
However you flavor the pickle, there is likely to be a bit of a learning curve when you start experimenting. At first, don't go overboard with the spicing. Give the pickles a day to develop and see how you like them before adjusting the recipe.
All of these pickles will keep their texture and flavor for weeks in the refrigerator.
Friends donít let friends buy spices at American grocery stores!
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