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Flash in the Pan

Pick your pickle

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Here we are at midsummer, rolling in produce. But as we speak, the Earth is tilting toward winter, and soon it will be butt-cold again. Time to pack fresh veggie goodness into jars before it’s too late. Right on schedule, Canning Whore showed up at my door with an armload of cucumbers.

We agreed that these cucumbers were not destined for crispness, because first of all, they were, as Canning Whore pointed out, rather well hung. Honkers won’t stay crispy like the little guys—plus, you have to cut them up into little pieces just to get them into the jars, further reducing the crisp factor. Finally, these particular specimens had been picked the day before. Most veggies, especially cucumbers, should be canned immediately after picking.

“Fa crap’s sake,” said Canning Whore, “this ain’t no bowl of cornflakes. So what if they’re a little soft? Bread and Butter pickle slices are all about the sweet and spicy flavor. They’re never crispy.”

Indeed. And more people roll their eyes at the mention of the B&B than at any other kind of pickle. They go great with lots of stuff, but most people inhale them straight from the jar. Nonetheless, there are other options for the day-old honkers if the B&B ain’t your thang. A quick search of my two canning books reveals oil cucumber slices, crosscut slices, sweet crock rainwater pickles, quick chilled cucumber slices, sweet pickles, tongue pickles and elephant ears. So many recipes, so little time…

“You can do it, put your back into it,” said Canning Whore.

In general, I’m not big on recipes, preferring to feel my way through the kitchen. However, with canning it pays to follow established procedures, because trial and error can lead to huge amounts of wasted work, wasted food, foul taste, sickness and even death.

Don Guido Ashkinazi called the other day to ask about some unlabeled pickled peppers in a resealable beer bottle. He didn’t know where they came from. When he opened the bottle, the contents fizzed like Alka Seltzer.

“But they smell OK,” he said.

I said, “Well, I suppose the fizz could be from lactic acid fermentation, which is a valid way of preserving things, like kim chi. But I’ve never heard of fermented peppers. And the fizz could be botulism, which causes a buildup in pressure. Botulism is odorless and deadly.”

The lack of a label on that jar increases the sketchiness factor. I recommend writing the date on every lid, and keeping a journal that details exactly what went into each batch. And I use only mason jars.

Following a recipe ensures the proper quantities of salt and vinegar, which prevent spoiling. Once you have the safety angle cornered, you can play with other flavors to find what works for you.

Canning Whore and I followed a recipe from Stocking Up, published by Rodale Press. I also have a copy of Pickled, by Lucy Norris, which is glossy and cute but doesn’t have the same depth and breadth as Stocking Up. Both cover many important technical essentials of the canning process that I don’t have space to go into here.

We washed and sliced the cucumbers into 1/4-inch rounds, and mixed them with sliced onions, sprinkling them with salt (1 tablespoon per pound of cucumber) as we mixed.

After letting them sit for two hours, we drained the water, and then we used CBA’s special canning trick to calculate how much liquid we’d need. After sterilizing the jars, we packed them full of the sliced veggies—not too tight, not too loose, no higher than an inch below the rim. Then we added water to one of the jars, so that it covered the top of the cukes by about 1/4 inch, leaving a good 3/4 inch of “head space” between the liquid and the rim—this head space is essential for a tight seal. Then we poured the liquid out, into a measuring cup, and multiplied that quantity by the number of packed jars, adding an extra cup to be safe.

I like cider vinegar because of its flavor. Some people prefer white vinegar because it keeps everything bright white, but I don’t mind the brown hue of cider vinegar. For each cup of vinegar, we added 1/2 teaspoon each of celery seed, ground ginger and mustard seeds, plus 1/4 teaspoon of tumeric and 1/2 cup of honey. We heated this to a simmer, poured it into the packed jars, and processed it for 20 minutes in a boiling water bath.

Now they are sitting on the shelf. In about two weeks, they’ll be ready to crack. In the meantime, Chef Boy Ari and Canning Whore are plotting our next pickle.

“Definitely hot peppers,” she said.

And while I agree that hotties are probably the ultimate in pickle technology (see Flash in the Pan, Aug. 22, 2002), I’d like to put my back into imitating the bewilderingly tasty pickled sweet peppers in the antipasto bar at the Good Food Store.

E-mail Chef Boy Ari: flash@missoulanews.com

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