Cucumbers are what's going on in my garden right now. Vining and climbing, curling their delicate, pale-green tendrils around strings we've tied between bamboo poles. They adore the recent wet and coolish weather and the plants are full of yellow flowers.
Nature once again is a genius with her flavor combinations and timing. Just as the cucumbers ripen, the tall dill plants are forming flower heads with seeds. You can add snipped dill fronds to cucumber, sour cream and onion salads or put the whole flowering heads into pickles brining in a crock.
It's pickling time. You can't stop me.
I've got a fridge's worth of jars filled with tasty pickle slices and wedges. You may find me around 11 p.m., fork in hand, snacking right from the jar.
Like most everything else this year, my cukes got off to a slow start. So since I needed to make pickles for this story and for a Slow Food Pittsburgh demo, I bought a bushel of them from Rick Zang at the Farmers’ Market Cooperative of East Liberty. A bushel is a lot of cucumbers. No one ever needs that many.
I shared some with a new young friend, David, who was visiting with his parents. So many cukes, I implored him to share them with his Pittsburgh pickling buddies. He also snipped some horseradish leaves from our rangy patch in order to keep the pickles crisp, a technique that was new to me. I know that you can cover the surface of a crock of pickles with grape leaves to keep them crunchy. My trick is to ice the cukes before adding them to brine or pickling liquid. Sometimes I ice them overnight in the fridge but one day I'll have to try the horseradish leaves. I can't think of another use for them, in any case.
As part of my pickling frenzy, I made a delightfully easy recipe from a New York friend, Bambe Levine. These quick pickles are great because you can make them at any time of year, using a hothouse seedless cuke from the store, and the recipe is easily cut in half. They'd be wonderful with a platter of smoked fish, adding a crunchy, fresh contrast.
From a new book, "Pickles and Preserves" by Andrea Weigl, I made what has become a house favorite, her Spicy and Sour Refrigerator Pickles. They were especially good prepared with the sweet onions we've got in abundance right now. I'm working up another batch (recipe at post-gazette.com/food).
Andrea is a Pittsburgher from West View; her mom still lives here, but she's transplanted to Raleigh, N.C., where she lives with her husband and daughter. She's a food writer for the Raleigh News & Observer.
Andrea says that she wrote the book because she became "an avid canner." Her canning obsession started with strawberry jam and then she moved on to peach preserves and Jean Anderson's yellow squash pickles. She got hooked.
"Finally," she said, "I started stalking the fig trees in my neighborhood because no one was picking the fruit. I ended up making fig preserves. Soon enough, I discovered my year was defined by canning seasons. Whatever was in season I was canning it."
I love the range of recipes in her book. Enticing flavors such as Spiced Grapes and Peach-Orange Marmalade. Classics such as Watermelon Rind Pickles and newer ideas such as Jerusalem Artichoke Relish. Maybe I'll dig up some of those from my garden instead of leaving them to the deer.
She also offers great tips. She says to remember to trim any stems or blossoms from the cucumber ends or you could end up with soft pickles, due to an enzyme in the blossoms. She writes, "The reason older recipes added oak or grape leaves to a recipe was to inhibit the enzyme." The tannin in those leaves did the trick.
I wonder if my friend David's horseradish leaves will do the same thing? There's always something new to learn and to pickle. For instance, at the pickle demo, I learned that some in Budapest like to create faces on their pickles, entering them in competitions.
Miriam Rubin: email@example.com and on Twitter @mmmrubin.
BAMBE’S NOVELLO DELI PICKLES
This recipe was the prize-winner at a potluck for the New York Women's Culinary Alliance, a group I've long been a member of. Salt-free, crunchy and addictive, these pickles were created by Bambe Levine. She developed the ad campaign for "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter." For a time, she traveled around with the long-haired Fabio, spokesperson for the product.
I tested these with a long, curvy, homegrown slicing cucumber I begged off my neighbor Dave. It seems many of the men around here are named Dave, making it very easy for me, married to one, yet confusing at the same time. Like which Dave will answer when I am calling for my husband?
2 pounds English
hothouse or long,
Armenian or Japanese
cucumbers, cut in thin rounds (if skins are tough, peel the cukes)
1 small sweet onion,
attractively cut in paper thin slices (I would use more onion, maybe 1 large)
⅔ cup small, fresh dill sprigs
2 cups cider or distilled white vinegar
1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
In a very large bowl, mix cucumbers, onion and dill. Put vinegar, water and sugar in a medium saucepan. Place over medium-high heat and cook, stirring to dissolve the sugar, until very hot but not boiling. Pour over the cucumbers.
Transfer vegetables and liquid to 4 clean pint jars or 2 quart jars. Cover with lids and refrigerate for at least 12 hours, or until flavors have blended and cucumbers are softened.
— Bambe Levine
SPICY AND SOUR REFRIGERATOR PICKLES
These terrific pickles come from a new book by Pittsburgh native Andrea Weigl.
She writes: "I don’t think my husband and I could survive without a jar or two of pickles in the refrigerator to serve with hamburgers, hot dogs and pulled-pork sandwiches. So it really says something that this recipe has become our go-to recipe for cucumber pickles. I’ve even used the same brine to pickle jalapeno slices. I first tasted these pickles while judging a cooking contest at Burt’s Bees corporate headquarters in Durham, North Carolina. The recipe is adapted from Beth Ritter’s winning entry. Ritter says it appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram years ago and was attributed to Dock and Opal Everett, who used to own a produce stand in Waco, Texas. I use a mandoline to make quick work of slicing the cucumbers, jalapeno and onion."
2 pounds pickling cucumbers, such as Kirby, cut into ¼-inch slices (scant 8 cups)
1 jalapeno, seeded and sliced (my pepper was huge and I left some of the seeds in)
1 onion, sliced (I used a large sweet white onion from the garden)
4 cups white vinegar (I used cider vinegar)
¼ cup pickling salt (I used kosher salt)
3½ cups granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons celery seeds
1½ teaspoons turmeric
1½ teaspoons mustard seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
Combine the cucumbers, jalapeno and onion in a large bowl.
Heat the vinegar, salt, sugar, celery seeds, turmeric, mustard seeds and peppercorns in a large stainless-steel saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved and the mixture boils, about 10 minutes.
Pack the vegetables evenly into hot, sterilized pint or quart jars. Ladle the brine over the pickles, leaving ½ inch of headspace. Seal the jars with 2-piece lids.
Let the pickles sit in the refrigerator for 5 days before eating. These pickles are good for 1 year but best within 3 months. They won't last that long.
Makes about 5 pints.
— Adapted from "Pickles and Preserves: A Savor the South Cookbook" by Andrea Weigl (University of North Carolina Press, 2014, $19)