Pickles made easy
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There are a few types of food that show up in nearly every culture around the world, foods that developed to satisfy a crucial need in a simple way.
Bread, for example, uses water, whatever grain is available, a leavening agent and maybe a pinch of flavoring (usually salt, maybe sugar or fat) to make the foundation of a meal. Call it a baguette, challah, injera or Wonder, it's all the same basic formula.
Dumplings show up in every culture, too. They might be called ravioli, empanadas, pot stickers or pierogis, but they all serve the same need. They disguise leftovers.
And every culture pickles things. Vegetables tend to become ripe all in the same three or four months of the year, so there's a need to save some of that bounty for leaner times.
So cultures around the world salted and added vinegar and citrus to their produce to make it last through the winter.
Almost any vegetable can be pickled. Some work better than others (leafy greens don't work so well).
It's no accident that the generic noun "pickle" has come to mean pickled cucumber. Cucumbers are America's go-to pickle because they pickle beautifully. They stay crisp in brines and their subtle (or bland, if you will) flavor provides a blank canvas for whatever flavors you want to add.
Now is the time to pickle cucumbers. They're showing up in huge bountiful mounds at the produce stands at Capitol Market and they're absurdly, delightfully, inexpensive. Depending on the stand, they're four for a $1 or $1.29 a pound.
Small, sturdy Kirby cucumbers are better for pickling than the big ones that are most often sliced into salads. If you can find these (and they're available now), you don't have to bother peeling as the skin is neither too tough nor too bitter.
Here are a handful of pickle recipes, representing a few different cultures, and ranging from ridiculously easy to slightly more involved.
Reach David Gutman at email@example.com or 304-348-5119.
Cucumbers, sugar, salt
Slice a few cucumbers into thin rounds. Toss the slices in a bowl with a large pinch of sugar and a small pinch of salt (you're looking for, ballpark, a 3-to-1 sugar to salt ratio. Maybe a tablespoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt, but who's counting). Let them sit about 15 minutes. They'll leach out a little water, creating their own brine.
That's it, they're done.
They'll soften a little but will still be fresh, crisp and lightly seasoned.
For a slightly more complicated recipe, with a more traditional pickle flavor, splash them with a little vinegar (any kind will do) after the 15 minute rest and let them sit at least another 15 minutes.
Classic Dill Pickles
These are traditional pickles, Vlassic's platonic ideal. If your cucumbers are small enough, leave them whole; otherwise cut them into spears.
Cucumbers, water, vinegar, sugar, salt, assorted herbs and spices
PACK cucumbers into heat-proof storage containers (Mason jars look pretty but any heat-proof Tupperware type thing will do). Don't crush them, but the tighter you pack them, the less brine you will need to make.
PLACE whatever supplemental flavors you want to use in each of your pickle containers. Dill is traditional. Garlic cloves are nice. Put a couple in each jar. Peppercorns, red pepper flakes, dried chilies, anise, cloves, coriander, juniper berries and almost any kind of herb work well. None is required. Use what you feel like or what you have on hand. Play around.
ESTIMATE the amount of brine to prepare. It will depend on how many cucumbers you're pickling. You want to cover the cucumbers completely. Here's the basic ratio, adjust accordingly:
1 cup vinegar (cider vinegar is cheap and works well)
2 cups water
Small handful (a heaping palm-full) of sugar
Large pinch of salt.
PUT everything in a saucepan and bring to a boil. While still hot, pour it in the jars to cover the cucumbers. If you didn't make quite enough, you can heat up some more brine, or you can be lazy and just top off the jars with some vinegar and water. It won't make much difference either way.
STORE them in the fridge. You can eat them as soon as they're cool, but they'll be better after a few days and will keep for weeks.
They go great with sandwiches, especially ham and cheese.Soy-pickled cucumbers
These are my best attempt to imitate the cucumber salads that are served at Szechwan restaurants to give your mouth a cool respite from course after course of hot, chili-cloaked dishes.
Cucumbers, sugar, salt, soy sauce, rice vinegar, ginger, garlic, scallions, sesame oil, cilantro
CUT about a pound of cucumbers in half lengthwise. Then cut them, on a diagonal, into slices about 1/2 inch thick. Put them in a bowl and toss them with a big pinch of sugar and a small pinch of salt. Let them sit for about 30 minutes.
PEEL and finely chop a couple of cloves of garlic, about an inch-long knob of ginger and a few scallions while cucumbers are sitting.
DRAIN cucumbers. (The salt and sugar will cause them to leach some water.)
TOSS the drained cucumbers with the ginger, garlic, scallions, another pinch of sugar and a 50-50 mix of soy sauce and rice vinegar. The cucumbers don't need to be fully submerged, but you want them generously coated with soy and vinegar. Let them sit in the fridge for at least a few hours, preferably overnight, stirring occasionally if you remember.
SERVE cold, garnished with cilantro and a drizzle of sesame oil, preferably with Chinese food.
Kimchi is kind of like funky Korean sauerkraut. It's most often made with napa cabbage, but is frequently made with cucumbers, radishes and other vegetables.
Like sauerkraut, kimchi is fermented. But while sauerkraut is fermented only with salt, with kimchi the fermentation process is usually kick-started with some sort of preserved seafood.
This recipe uses Asian fish sauce (nuoc mam in Vietnam, nam pla in Thailand), which, despite its funky smell, is fairly tame compared to other kinds of salted, preserved seafood.
Cucumber kimchi is easier to make, less fermented and less of an acquired taste than cabbage kimchi.
Cucumbers, sugar, salt, ginger, garlic, scallions, Korean chili powder, soy sauce, fish sauce.
Cut about a pound of cucumbers into thin rounds.
Toss the cucumbers with a big pinch of sugar and a small pinch of salt. (You might be sensing a theme). Let them sit for about half an hour, then drain off any accumulated liquid.
PEEL and finely chop a few cloves of garlic and an inch-long knob of ginger.
MIX that with about a tablespoon of fish sauce, a tablespoon of soy sauce, a pinch of sugar and 2 tablespoons of Korean chili powder. (Korean chili powder is milder than American and Mexican versions, so don't be bashful. It's sold at International Groceries in Kanawha City. If you can't find it, substitute hot or smoked paprika with a pinch of cayenne.)
TOSS this "dressing" mixture with the cucumbers and a few chopped scallions.
You could eat this right now and call it a cucumber salad, but it's better if you wait a day or two to let it ripen a little bit in the fridge. It goes great with grilled meats and will last for a couple of weeks.