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When the Pickles are Pickled

Okay, over the past few weeks I have made a few pickle attempts, various veggies and stuff that I’d put up in jars and brine, to sit and, well, pickle.

Tonight I broke open all three to see how they turned out, and how they tasted; last week we tried one of the others.  In general, a fairly successful set of experiments–going three for four, anyway.

By far the most successful experiment was the spicy zucchini pickles.  Bright, spicy, sweet, absolutely lovely.  I wanted to just stand there with the jar and eat them all.  I want to go buy more zucchini to make more.  And more. (And wouldn’t this be the year my garden decided to be stingy and deny me any giant green behemoths? This would be the perfect recipe for the big tough suckers that have grown too much to just sort of eat.)  I altered the recipe a little, choosing not to peel or seed the zukes and making them in spears instead of chunks–but it worked just fine. It’s a sweet-spicy recipe that reminds me a lot of the spicy watermelon pickles my mom used to make every once in a long while.  Really lovely. (Beware using too many cloves…they will make your tongue numb.) But totally, totally, try these!

The caponata I made two weeks ago also had a little time to let the flavors blend and meld–and they blended into a really awesome condiment that didn’t really taste like any of the individual ingredients but had a lovely taste of its own. Verrry nice. I could get used to eggplant if it’s in stuff like this.

I also had made a very impulsive sweet pickle relish recipe from The Art of Preserving…or sort of .  With pickles I’m not as worried about following recipes exactly.  The recipe called for apple cider vinegar and bell peppers…I used white vinegar and carrots instead.  Chopped up a mixture of cucumbers, half an onion, and a few carrots, put them into a half pint jar.  Made a brine out of white vinegar, 1.5 times that amount sugar, 1/8 that amount salt. Into the jar with the veggies I put a teaspoon or so each celery seeds, mustard seeds, and half a teaspoon of allspice.  Poured the brine over it. Processed in a water bath. I had some on a hot dog tonight; it made a very creditable relish, a little crunchier and fresher than traditional relish, but that may be because it only pickled for a couple of weeks; I’ll try it again in a month or so. (Yeah, I know, the seal’s broken now, but it should still keep for ages.) It’s good. And I know exactly what went into it–no weird ingredients, none of that bizarre radioactive-looking dye that turns it such an improbable shade of green (or sometimes almost turquoise–is that only Chicago where that crazy blue-ish pickle relish turns up?)…just fresh nice veggies pickled in my own brine.

The least successful attempt was just ordinary pickles, in my own pickling spice and brine.  They aren’t bad, but they also aren’t anything to write home about.  Which goes to teach me that I really ought to stick with recipes someone else developed.

I never thought of myself as a pickle person…but I could get used to this.

In a Pickle

So when I went out to check the garden before we went out of town, in addition to the bumper crop of baby eggplant (delightfully ironic that the one veggie thriving in our garden is the one I don’t like very much), I also found a few stunted and sad cucumbers–they are weird, there is this sort of “bulb” of happy cucumberness on one end, and the other end looks like a stunted gherkin.  I also had about half an inch of white vinegar left in the old container which I wanted to get rid of.

So I figured, what the heck–Picked them, cut them into wedges, and made a small jar of pickles.  And chopped up another with some drying-out baby carrots and the remainder of an onion, changed the brine a little, and made some sweet pickle relish.  I know I’ll be the only one eating these,  since my family doesn’t like pickles, so the one tiny jar thing is probably pretty good.

Basically, pickles are much easier than I thought they were, and less scary in terms of bugs getting in. (After all, vinegar and water solution is what I use to scrub my toilet, so it stands to reason that the stuff is fairly bug-unfriendly!).  You heat vinegar and some salt (or vinegar, salt, and sugar) almost to boiling. While it’s heating, you pack your veggies and whatever “pickling spice” you’re using into clean jars (I sterilize them if I’m not planning to do the water bath, which I didn’t have time for this time), and then pour the vinegar solution into the jars and seal them. Really simple.  Explore the internet on your own for a gajillion varieties and possibilities–I’m still basically using the ones from The Art of Preserving, although I’m futzing a lot with the spice combos listed there.

Anyway, it’s cool to have something fairly easy to do with veggies that would otherwise be rotting in my crisper drawer!

Caponata!

Another recipe from The Art of Preservingfor which I’ll respect the copyright and not reprint it here.  But I still recommend the recipe (and the book!) and have fairly good faith that you can find an online caponata recipe online somewhere and doctor it to your liking.

Caponata, for the uninitiate and non-Sicilians who might read this (I’m not Sicilian either!) is an intense eggplanty relish-condiment-pasta-saucy-thing with capers and tomatoes and all kinds of good things.  We are going out of town soon and I needed something to do with my ready-to-pick eggplant harvest, and this seemed like a good bet.

A note: the recipe in this book was developed to be acidic enough for water bath canning–as I’ve said before, unless you know you’re using high-acid foods or an established recipe, don’t improvise and assume your own variations are safe for this purpose!  I’m even a little leery of this recipe, because despite the half cup of vinegar and high proportion of tomatoes, it also has onions and lots of eggplant, so I will probably keep it in the fridge. (The danger is botulism, which grows in warm moist oxygen-free environments like the inside of vacuum-processed jars. Fridge temperatures should be low enough that it can’t multiply and, like, kill you. Unlike other contaminants, it’s odorless and tasteless, which is what makes it so scary. Usual disclaimer: do your own homework, don’t automatically trust anything I say and assume I know what I’m talking about.)

Anyway, I’ve seen all kinds of caponata recipes–eggplant and capers seem to be key in all of them, and most have some tomatoes, but after that they are all over the map.  Some have cinnamon and unsweetened cocoa (think mole), some have carrots and celery, some have zucchini (or use zucchini instead of eggplant), some have green or black olives.  This particular version includes eggplant, tomatoes, onions, pine nuts, capers, and kalamata olives–it’s intense and salty and I expect once the flavors have time to meld it’ll be amazing.  (It also, because of the water bath thing, may be a bit more sour and acidic than other recipes, because it has to be.)

I was also delighted to discover that this time (I came up short in the plum jam recipe in quantity, and it took much longer than the recipe suggested it should) I got exactly the yield the books said I should get (3 pints), and it took pretty much exactly the amount of time it said it should take.  I processed it in the water bath (but am storing it in the fridge just in case, because I’m paranoid and saw that episode of Criminal Minds where this woman died of an extreme case of chemically engineered botulism) and it vacuum sealed beautifully.  Got the head space thing right this time too. I hope this lives up to its promise…because it looks delicious.

What shall I preserve next?

Preserves, Pickles, and Sauce, Oh My!

This is the one where Jenn went a little crazy with her canner.

I stopped at a local produce market a friend has been trying to get me to for about a year, but I never quite managed it…and I am hooked.  For under ten bucks I got out of there with 6 pretty zucchinis, 4 lbs of beautiful firm Roma tomatoes, a bunch of nectarines, and a couple more things, I don’t remember…

All of the above are now preserved in Ball jars on my counter.

I made Tomato Basil sauce from The Art of Preserving, which I reviewed at The Green Phone Booth yesterday.  I made spiced zucchini pickles that were just too intriguing to pass up (and besides, I had the ingredients around–most pickle recipes require celery seed and turmeric, neither of which I had in the kitchen; cinnamon sticks and cloves I had.) I made a nectarine-raspberry preserve that’s a hybrid between a couple of other recipes; since fruits like that are high acid, I’m not worried about spoilage and botulism and stuff, so I felt okay messing with the recipe a bit.  And a special, today-only bonus: there was a whole lot of leftover syrup after making the preserves, so I canned a jar of that too. (And put the leftover half jar into the fridge.)

Verdicts so far: Despite my love for tomatoes and my new-to-me-ebay Foley food mill, I don’t see tomato sauce as something I’ll be knocking myself out to produce on a regular basis, BPA in commercial can linings or not.  It takes something like 45 lbs of tomatoes to produce maybe 7 quarts of product, and it’s just too damn much work.  All those who make this happen on a regular basis–I salute you.  But I don’t think it’ll be me.  I only got about a pint and a half of sauce out of my mini-recipe, and one of the jars didn’t seal–I think I need to start leaving more head space in the jars, I underestimate how much expanding room the food needs when it heats…

The pickles I won’t know for a week, since part of the deal with pickling is that, well, you have to let the food pickle.  They look and smell fairly amazing, though.  Got three little half pints and one bigger pint; the small ones may be gifts.  If I know anyone who likes spicy zucchini pickles. :-)

The preserves look lovely–they are this gorgeous swirl of orange and red, like some exotic sunrise.  I overfilled those too, but they sealed okay, I believe. (I’ll check it out tomorrow when they’ve cooled, to be sure. ) Got I think one pint and two half-pints out of that, and another half pint of syrup.

Still have the four jars of plum jam from last week.

None of these were huge batches; if I’m going to go all fubar on a new project, I’d rather do it on a smaller amount of produce, you know? Still, it was a very labor-intensive few hours, although I did find it helpful, as long as I paid attention, to move things in and out of the water bath without having to reheat the whole damn pot of water every time I had a new batch.  That part worked okay.

But this is so very cool…I love having a new skill, and I love knowing that even though 6 days before a 2 week vacation was probably not the best time to buy a buttload of produce, it will all survive till we return and beyond.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go eat some nectarine-raspberry syrup out of the jar and then go to bed…

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