Friday, July 6, 2012

In quite a pickle

One of the things that floods my memory banks during the summer is pickles.  Summer didn’t just mean fresh fruits and jam-making growing up.  It also meant pickles.

The excitement would begin that day during the summer when I would go out on the side porch and inhale the warm smell of fresh dill.  I’d look over and there would be a bucket filled with huge stems of dill, roots soaking in water to help keep it fresh until dad was ready for it. 

Somewhere nearby would be big bags of large pickling cukes.  Somewhere else there would be bags of small cucumbers for my mom’s 14-day sweet pickles, but I didn’t really get excited about that. 

I know many people who thought my mom made the best sweet pickles they’d ever tasted.  I remember taking a couple of jars to a drama club picnic in high school and the sweet pickles got devoured, having been dipped in cheese whiz first.  But I’ve never been a fan of sweet pickles, so I’m not a qualified judge of their quality. 

I will still discuss their process in a little bit.  But first, dad’s dill pickles.

He’d make them in those enormous quart jars, stuffed to the gills with cukes, whole cloves of garlic, pearl onions (if he was in the mood to indulge me…he hated peeling them, but he knew I loved them) and either a split jalapeno or a dried Thai chili. 

I’m not sure what he did to the vinegar…I don’t have the recipe.  I’m sure there was lots of salt (it is, after all, a brine) and, of course, the vinegar.  White vinegar, I think, but I couldn’t swear to it.  There were gallons of white and apple cider vinegar all over the kitchen when it was pickling season.  Some alum, too, I think, to keep the pickles crisp. 

Then came the weeks of torture.  The pickles were done, and yet they weren’t.  They had to, well, pickle.  Six or eight weeks they would have to sit, I think.  Dad might let us open a jar a little early to see how they were doing.  Maybe. 

So for entertainment, I’d watch Mom make her 14-day sweet pickles.  The name of the pickle was derived from the amount of time it took to make them. 

She’d use the pint jars for her pickles as well as the smaller pickling cukes.  She also used her grandmother’s pickling crock.  I’m not sure how big it was, but it was dark brown on the inside and light on the outside and it sat in a dark, out of the way corner of the kitchen during those two weeks. 

The first week of the process was soaking the pickles in a brine.  Seven days the wee little cucumbers would sit in the crock, soaking in heavily salted liquid, weighted down by a blue and white Currier and Ives plate and a can of tomatoes or baked beans. 

At the end of the week, Mom would skim off the mold (yes, you read that right. It didn’t’ always happen, but if it did, it didn’t stop the process), pour off the brine and rinse the pickles.  She’s wash the crock, put the pickles back in and then make the syrup. 

Pickling spice, vinegar (apple cider this time, I think), sugar, boiled and then poured over the pickles. 

Every day for seven days the syrup was poured off into a pot and reboiled, then poured hot back over the pickles.  The syrup concentrates as it gets its daily boil and the heat makes the cucumbers soak up more and more deliciousness each night. 

Even though I never cared to eat the pickles, I still loved watching the process.  It was a summer ritual to me and to my mom, too, I suppose.  It was something deeply important to her to recreate this part of her formative years annually for her family. 

And, of course, by the time she was done with the sweet pickles, that meant we were that much closer to getting to eat this year’s dills. 

In later years, they’d make dilled green beans, pickled beets (blech), bread and butter pickles.  One year my dad made a whole jar of pickled garlic so we didn’t have to fight over the garlic in the jars of pickles.  Which we used to do.  We’d fight over the garlic and the onions.  Dad would eat the jalapeno.  :o)

After all that, it probably won’t surprise you that I suddenly had the urge to pickle a bunch of radishes we had hanging around.  They were starting to go south, so I decided to try doing a quick pickle on them. 

Quick pickling is not necessarily to preserve food.  It’s more to add flavor.  And I picked some Asian flavors with which to pickle those radishes. Rice vinegar, a little soy, a little bit of sugar (just to take the edge off the acid) and a good squirt of sriracha. 

The fridge still has a bit of radish funk smell to it, but it was worth it.  They turned out very tasty.  Not bad for a complete and utter experiment. 

Perhaps the ability to pickle is genetic.  If that’s the case, I’ve got some good pickling skills in my DNA.  And my son loves dill pickles, so it might behoove me to learn to make them.