Good luck pickles

I spent a sizeable portion of my childhood in the house my great-grandfather built, where my Nan lived through the Depression, where my father grew up on sardine sandwiches. When my sister and I were young we'd sit by the window in the entryway and watch as the cargo ships moved like slugs across the river. I haven't stepped foot in that house in years, but I remember the noise the wooden floorboards made against every step, the roar of the furnace, the sound of the off-key grand piano.

It's the place where I learned to paint with watercolours, ran amok through the cornfields with a few stray cats and picked wild apples, inspecting each one for worms. I grew my imagination on a large collection of old books with dusty hardcovers, listened to classical music and ate bologna sandwiches on white bread with yellow mustard and pickles. I snacked on sun-ripened rhubarb straight from the garden and observed as the Queen Ann's Lace came up annually, covering the estate in white flecks.

My Nan was not a good cook, but there's three things she made well: sausage rolls, which my father and I still mention nostalgically with a twinkle in our eyes; fruit salad; and, in my opinion, a combination of sliced field cucumbers and onions, gently pickled in a water, vinegar and sugar solution.

I can't say I was wild for onions, but those cucumbers were delicious. Perfectly crisp and tangy, they satisfied my deep-seated obsession for all things acidic. Perhaps you grew up on moist blueberry pancakes or peanut butter and jelly, but for me, among other notable things, it was pickles and fermented foods. A plate of olives at Christmastime. Someone's homemade pickled purple beets. Sweet pickled cucumbers, pickled cauliflower, pickled pearl onions. Tangy sauerkraut piled atop the crisp casings of a smoked bratwurst.

My adventures in pickling came about by accident, though in retrospect it hardly seems that way. While living in Tallahassee, my partner at the time and I would make the trek to Plant City every so often and stop at a stand with the best, most ridiculously inexpensive produce. I remember the ten pound bags of oranges and grapefruit, still green, and eating the first strawberries of the season one late February day, juice running down my face. And I remember the cucumbers -- field, English, mini -- abundant and cheap.

At first I pickled them as my Nan had done, sans sugar and onions, and snacked on them in the afternoons as I read novels, wrote articles, scanned through volumes about wine, and waited for work. I decided that if I was going to live south of the Mason-Dixon, I'd learn how to cook up a pot of cheesy grits, gorge on peel and eat shrimp slathered in melted butter, beach-comb for the prettiest shells while dodging the jelly fish, make sun tea, and figure out how to pickle cucumbers.

I first made this recipe a couple of years ago for Canadian Thanksgiving while I was living in the south. I put out a dish on a whim -- I liked them well enough, and having no other pickles, decided they'd work. Suffice to say, the dish vanished almost as if by magic. What I love is that I made them, and then a boyfriend of a good friend of mine made them, experimenting with hot peppers. I brought a jar to a dinner party I attended on New Year's Eve, where the host asked for the recipe.

I don't know that food is the great equalizer as they say -- I think it illustrates economic divide awfully powerfully, to be honest. But I do believe in the power of a recipe to connect us, in the practices that have the ability to unite us. In that recipe there's the girl who ran through cornfields at eight years old, who boarded a plane for another country, who moved to a city hoping for change. My recommendation for 2012: go with the gusto. Move to the rhythm of your own life, especially when it scares you. Keep your heart open: no one can enter a locked door. Don't try to own or control people; not much that's alive thrives in captivity. Be good to people, especially to those who are good to you. Make time for dinner, wine and conversation with loved ones. Try the recipes you've been handed. Visit your Nan. Laugh until your face hurts.

Happy New Year, dear readers.

Refrigerator Dills
Yields approximately 2 quarts, or 4 pint-jars

Headnote: I use a vinegar and water ratio of 1:1. This yields a pretty sour pickle. If you'd prefer less sour pickles, use 2 cups of vinegar and 4 cups of water here. Also, don't skip the steps leading up to the actual pickling; it's important you treat the cucumbers before you begin in order to end up with the best product.
You can serve these the day you make them, though I like them best after about 2-3 days in the refrigerator.

1.5lbs mini cucumbers
3 cups distilled white vinegar (5%)
3 cups water
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed with the back of a knife
4 tsp brown mustard seeds
2 tbsp dried dill
2 tsp kosher salt, or to taste, plus more for treating the cucumbers
1 medium-sized pot
Glass jars/containers with lids (I use mason jars)

1. Soak your cucumbers, whole, in an ice bath for at least three hours to overnight. This helps crisp them up, especially if you're using older cucumbers from the supermarket.
2. Drain and dry the cukes and cover generously with a thick layer of kosher salt. This will help draw out any additional moisture.
3. Shake the salt off the cucumbers and slice, lengthwise, into fours.
4. Prepare your brine by adding the vinegar, water, mustard seeds, dill, and salt to the pot and bringing it to a boil. Once it begins to boil, lower the heat and simmer for another 2-3 minutes, allowing the flavours to meld together.
5. Rinse the jars in warm water to prevent cracking.
6. Pack the jars with the cucumber spears, adding about two cloves of smashed garlic per quart jar.
7. Carefully pour the hot brine over the cucumbers. I like to do this over the sink for obvious reasons.
8. Allow the brine to cool, cap, and refrigerate for at least six hours before consuming. Consume within 30 days (if they make it that long!)


Kimbo said...

Yay for your pickles and Tallahassee remembrances :-)

S. said...

Kim, you are such a good sport. You are crazy busy between work and travelling, but still make time to read my blog -- such a good friend.

Wendy M said...

I am going to make these!! They look great, and I love that they are quick! Thanks:)

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