A PRETTY PICKLE
The art of pickling seems to encompass the widest range of experience of all of food preservation techniques. It has taught me how narrow is our cultural experience of delicious and savory.
Indian pickles seem the most extreme to me. Heavily-salted, spiced citrus peel, fruits, and vegetables are preserved in mustard oil. They are only eaten by the teaspoonful as a counterpoint to the complex flavored dishes of an Indian meal. I suspect these pickles inspired travelers and conquerors from Europe to concoct "Chow-Chow" of British infamy, and the more subtle and complex Mostarda di Cremona from Italy.
Other pickles such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and "Kosher Dills" gain their piquant character from a slow fermentation in a salt brine solution. Of course, we are all familiar with pickles that make substantial use of vinegar. These range from sweet pickles, such as pickled watermelon rind and sweet gherkins, to tart cornichons, jalapeños en escabeche, and oil-calmed conservas of Italy.
I am fascinated to explore my reaction to pickle recipes from my childhood. Some I still delight in. Others I hunger for with a love-hate embrace. My crave-shudder response is in relation to the proportion of sugar to vinegar and clove in the respective recipes. Watermelon rind pickle and a peach or pear pickle appeared at my mother's family celebrations, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and family reunions. Their flavor reminds me of happy, boisterous occasions. However, the cloying ratio of two-parts granulated sugar to one-part cider vinegar and frequently dominating clove also assert a queasy response.
Our favorite homemade pickles were my fatherís summer, salt-brined dills. His recipe, "Daddyís Quick Kosher-Style New Dill Pickles," is annotated in a margin of The Settlement Cook Book; The way to a manís heart, © 1941, a wedding present. They were ready in about a week and were crisp, "garlicky," and slightly fizzy from their fermentation. Because they did not keep well, except under refrigeration, we were allowed to eat them greedily. The five gallon crock-full was quickly gone. My mother's family recipe for "Bread and Butter Pickles" was also loved. Sliced cucumbers in a not-too-sweet, spicy cider vinegar solution were happy companions to lunchtime sandwiches.
My love of Mediterranean style cured olives reaches back to my days as a youthful volunteer in Israel. The kibbutz, Ashdot Jakov Ichud by the Jordon River, was known for its green olives that were cured in a brine flavored with a few olive leaves, chili, lemon slices, and garlic for savor. They accompanied every meal and were also sold or traded to others. I arrived just in time to pick them. On a wobbly orchard ladder with a heavy canvas sack strapped to my front, I pulled the olives from their branches. The olives were then dumped into large plywood bins to be taken to be washed, slit to expose the flesh, and soaked in successive changes of water, then to rest in brine. They were slightly bitter and firm and used only a little vinegar in the final preparation. I loved them at breakfast with the dense rye bread, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, a mild soft cheese, and walnut-sized onions that loaded the table. I now appreciate that olive preservation is an art that requires attention and patience. Encouraged by a friend who is more experienced, I attempted to brine olives last winter. I was coaxed into complacence by a seemingly successful beginning in which the green olives did actually lose their bitterness and remained firm. However, as my schedule became hectic and my focus less, I learned about the fatal error of inattention: mushy, salty, nasty.
For my taste, pickle art has become most developed with the Italian technique of oil preservation. Conservas are a welcome part of antipasti and the safest way to preserve wild mushrooms other than drying, or in modern time, freezing. A short bath in a vinegar-salt solution, augmented by spices and herbs, raises the acidity of the mushrooms to a level that makes them safe for prolonged storage. As they rest on towels, along with the aromatics from the vinegar bath, they lose moisture. This further enhances their keeping quality. Then they are finally mixed with oil and placed in sterile jars. The mushrooms' rest in their cloak of oil softens their piquant quality. Symbiotically, the mushrooms flavor the oil. Using this technique, I have explored a wide range of sensory experience from subtly, sweetly aromatic Candy Cap mushrooms with cider vinegar and walnut oil, to resinous Yellowfeet with red wine vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil, or Asian inspired, seafood-reminiscent clamshell mushrooms with rice vinegar and peanut oil. I appreciate the spectrum of flavor, aroma, and textural experience that this technique provides.
The art of pickling is a revealing lesson of our own tastes. With it, we confront our opinions of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, learn to contrast bland and piquant, broaden our range of experience, and consider our personal levels of comfort.
© Elissa Rubin-Mahon 2003