7.14.2010

In a Pickle


Doreen and I will often chat as our respective blog deadlines grow near.  "I haven't the vaguest idea about what to cook or write!" one of us will say.  The other, always supportive, will respond, "It will come to you at just the right time."  Well, we both cook and write all week long, but often the two don't intersect.  And then comes the photography component of all this.  It can be exhausting just to think about!  It takes exquisite timing to make sure the food is perfectly coiffed, angled, lit and ready for its close up.  And, even then, it can be iffy.  Last weekend I photographed a steak sandwich, and no amount of styling was going to convince the camera that the sauce wasn't a brownish gelatinous ooze.

Two weeks ago I told Doreen I was "in a pickle" about what to do.  Then Mom's tomato soup came to mind and the proverbial pickle was consumed.  While at the market buying the tomatoes, I spied piles and piles of Kirby cucumbers – pickling cucumbers – and I had the idea to make one of my favorite summertime treats.  So we came home and started to make pickles.  But first, we needed some sustenance; we also bought additional heirloom tomatoes and some fresh mozzarella at the market and made ourselves a little Insalata Caprese.  With a little basil from our  garden, a drizzle of our best extra-virgin olive oil and a glass of wine, we had the perfect lunch.  Could anything be better?



Each type of pickle has its place – a dill spear alongside a sandwich, a slice atop a burger, chopped sweet pickle relish in tuna salad – but my favorites, just for their sweet and sour flavor, and fresh crunch, are bread and butter pickles.  They're an old-fashioned pickle and, according to some online sources I have seen, date back to the Depression.  Another source cited that they were as 'common on the table as bread and butter,' thus their name.  I am not sure about those "e-facts" concerning these pickles, but their popularity during that era rings true – they were the favorite pickle for both my parents in their youths, which would land these pickles smack-dab in the middle of the Depression.



Mom never made pickles, though – she wasn't much into canning, even though her mother canned everything.  Perhaps it was one aspect of the Depression she happily shed, or perhaps it was the fear of botulism?  Or was it the convenience of store bought?

I enjoy making my own pickles, chutneys and condiments - mustard, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce.  I love knowing the ingredients are fresh, and discovering how they work together to create amazing taste sensations.  And, besides, by making them fresh and excluding my one food allergy (that 'dare not breathe its name'), I can make sure I can eat all these things!

I found a wonderful history of pickles at the New York Food Museum – a wonderful read – that says pickles can be traced back to 2400 BC, a time when archaeologists and anthropologists believe the ancient Mesopotamians pickled vegetables.  Talk about tradition!

The recipe below was give to me by a man whose mother's name tops the recipe – and they are a tradition in his family.  Sadly, she is no longer with us so she won't see her name in lights here.

Oh, and although it was one of their traditions, this isn't an ancient family recipe: it is, in fact, rather modern.  It uses a microwave!  And the pickles can be made in 10 minutes or less!  I know some of you may frown on the use of a microwave for something as old-fashioned as a pickle, as a traditional quilter frowns upon using a machine to stitch a quilt.  But this is a good time to remember why these things were made in the first place.  Pickles and quilts are both functional items.  Yes, we can see the beauty in them but their first purpose is function.  Quilts provide warmth.  Pickles are food and provide sustenance.  Canning made their preservation possible and convenient.  Convenience was important.  And something that made the process faster and simpler was a good thing.

When raising four rambunctious boys, I imagine the real reason my mother didn't make and can pickles, vegetables and jams was because it would have been close to impossible when chasing after us four kids.  And, in the hot, humid Schuykill River Valley of Southeastern Pennsylvania, who wanted to heat up the kitchen still more than it already was?  Perhaps this recipe would have changed her mind.

– David

Minnie's Quick Bread and Butter Pickles

2 cups thinly sliced Kirby cucumbers (about 6)
3/4 cup thinly sliced onion
1 scant cup sugar
1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon celery seeds
1/4 teaspoon turmeric

Mix all ingredients in a large, microwave-safe glass bowl.  Cover and cook at high in the microwave for 4 minutes.  Uncover, stir and recover.  Cook an additional 4 minutes at high.  The recipe makes three 1/2-pint jars.  What could be easier?

Sometimes I'll finish with the traditional canning process if I am, for example, going to give the pickles as gifts.  If just for us, I put them in a clean jar or glass container and keep refrigerated – they will last for weeks in the fridge.  If you wish to can them, get new jars with unused lids.  Sterilize both jars and lids and, when hot, carefully ladle the pickles into the jars.  Wipe the rims of the jars with a clean, hot, wet cloth (to ensure a good seal) and place a lid on top.  Screw on the ring firmly.  Place a rack in a large pot of boiling water, deep enough to fully submerge the jars.  Place jars carefully in the water and boil for 10 minutes.  Let cool.  You will hear the lids "popping" as they cool.  That is the sound of a good seal.  If you can push the button on top of a jar and it clicks, you have not achieved a good seal and the pickles should be refrigerated.

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