I may be behind by about 6 months as I write this, but I think pickles are the next big thing. That came out wrong. I think pickling is the next ancient craft to be “rediscovered” by my generation. It’s like knitting ten years ago, just before Stitch ‘N Bitch came out. Someday there will be a funky little book with a title like, Can It! Homemade pickles are everywhere, including the tables of hip, urban eateries across the nation. Even my local fancy-pants sandwich shop offers a homemade selection of delicious “house sweet pickles” on the appetizer section of the menu (which, to me, is simply un-American; pickles should be free).
Starting in late September, I began tackling my own pickle project. The idea of canning has appealed to me for a long time. As a kid, we’d make strawberry jam every summer, but that was the extent of my experience with preserving. A few years ago, I purchased the Ball Blue Book along with some supplies, but I was so intimidated by the technical side of it all. And the thought of having 8 quarts of a tomato sauce I might not even like paralyzed me with fear. Then, for my birthday this year, my sister got be a copy of the Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, which includes several recipes for small batch pickles and relishes that are stored in the refrigerator, and don’t need to be “processed” to be shelf-stable. Thus began a several week long project involving pickle research, mass procurement of vinegar and stinking up my whole house with the smell of brine on a regular basis.
By Thanksgiving last week, I had produced four varieties of pickles for a pre-dinner pickle plate: spiced peaches, pickled Jerusalem artichokes, red onion pickles and zucchini pickles. The spiced whole peaches are barely a pickle — the whole fruit suspended in a sweet syrup, studded with candied ginger, the vinegar providing a subtle heat. The pickled Jerusalem artichokes are crunchy and bright. The red onion pickles are so heart-breakingly lovely, crisp and spicy that I immediately forgot about the tedious process of repeatedly blanching cold onions in hot brine required to produce them. But judging by the quantity consumed, the zucchini pickles were the winner (although, I love both the red onion pickles and the spiced whole peaches). They are tender but substantial; assertive from the mustard seed, but with an underlying sweetness that mellows them out. These pickles are very simple to make, but they require the use of a mandoline to produce thin, long ribbons of zucchini.
Zucchini Pickles, Adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers
1 lb zucchini
1 small yellow onion
2 tablespoons salt
2 cups cider vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons crushed yellow or brown mustard seeds
scant 1 teaspoon tumeric
Wash and trim the zucchini and, with a mandoline, slice into 1/16″ thick ribbons. Slice the onion very thinly and combine with the zucchini in a large, shallow bowl. Add the salt and toss the vegetables. Cover the zucchini and onions with cold water and a few ice cubes and stir to dissolve the salt. Let the vegetables sit for 1 hour.
Drain the vegetables and dry completely, either using a salad spinner or clean kitchen towels. Rinse and dry the bowl and replace the now dry vegetables. In a saucepan, combine the remaining ingredients for the brine and bring to a simmer. Cook for 3 minutes. Set the brine aside until it is just warm to the touch (if it’s too hot, it will cook the zucchini and you’ll end up with a soggy pickle).
Cover the vegetables with the cooled brine and stir to dissolve the spices. Transfer the vegetables and brine to clean pickle jars (either one quart-sized jar or two pint-sized jars). Cover and refrigerate at least two days before serving. The pickles will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.