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Piquant Pleasures - by Ron Skaar - September 2015

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Piquant Pleasures

Preserving Food as Pickled Vegetables

by Ron Skaar

Preserving food in brine began 4,000 years ago, around 2030 B.C. A cucumber native to India, was first pickled by agrarians living in the Tigris Valley. Later on, down the Nile River, Cleopatra coveted pickles as a prized beauty secret. Mentioned twice in the Bible the brined cucumber accompanied travelers on long journeys, especially at sea.  

In 850 B.C. Aristotle is praising the healing effects of cured cucumbers. Roman emperors believed eating pickles lent physical and spiritual strength to their troops. By the Middle Ages pickles are a prized snack and condiment. Sixteenth century Dutch fine food fanciers cultivated pickles as a delicacy. The word stems from their “pekel” and the German “pokel”, meaning salt or brine. 

Amerigo Vespucci was a pickle peddler in Seville, Spain and understood their nutrient values. The barrels of pickled vegetables he packed on that fateful trip to the New World, kept his sailors safe from scurvy. Cartier discovered cucumbers growing in Canada in 1535. American colonists were preserving produce by the early 1600’s. During his youth, Thomas Jefferson lamented “On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a spiced pickle from Aunt Sally’s cellar.”

Pickling vegetables was a dietary stable of the Jewish people who immigrated from the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Russia. The sharp flavor of pickles spiced up the bland bread and potato diet of these cold weather countries. Filled barrels of cucumbers, beets

and shredded cabbage were left to ferment in a warm place for three weeks. Then they were placed in cool, dark cellars and enjoyed throughout the winter.

A heavy influx of Eastern European Jews came to New York City during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. They introduced the “kosher pickle” to America. Washed cucumbers immersed in wood barrels with dill, garlic, spices and kosher salt were sold from push carts in the tenement district. Soon, pickle carts were a sensation throughout the city.

Home canning relies on a few essential canning tools invented during the 19th century. First, a French confectioner figured out that removing air from a bottle before boiling it prevented spoilage. Second, a Scottish chemist created paraffin wax which provided a seal for preserving food in jars. Then John Mason patented the first “Mason Jar”, made from heavy weight glass able to tolerate high heat. The first metal sealing canning tops came along, soon after.

Unlike the canning process, pickling (which includes fermentation) does not require that the food be completely sterile before it is sealed. Food is preserved by immersion in brine or a strong acid such as vinegar. Brines encourage fermentation which generates the substance’s preservative acids. Inadequate or excessive salt concentration or temperatures, and exposure to air can be disastrous. Vegetables need to be kept beneath the surface of the brine which needs to be tightly covered. 

The British pickle onions and eggs, Italians pickle eggplants and peppers, Japanese pickle plums and daikon and the Koreans have their kimchi. Locally, Sonoma Brinery makes Manhattan style barrel fermented half-sour pickles and traditional raw sauerkraut that is incredible. The recipe below incorporates turmeric, adding a visual highlight and additional health benefits to the piquant process.

Ron Skaar is a Wine Country Caterer and can be reached at ronskaar@comcast.net


Pickled Cauliflower, Carrots and Red Pepper

2 cups water
1 cup white vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 bay leaves
¾ teaspoon turmeric
¾ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
1 small head cauliflower, cut into flowerets
1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced
½ red bell pepper, cut into strips

Combine first 8 ingredients in sauce pan on high heat until incorporated. Steam carrots, cauliflower and peppers until al dente. Place vegetables in a stainless steel bowl, pour hot brine on top and use a plate to weight down vegetables under the brine. Chill in fridge, pack in jars, covering with brine and lid.