Dragonbreath Pickles: Homemade Spicy Cucumber Quick-Pickled Goodness

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Here be dragons, as the old maps used to say. You have been warned: these pickles do not mess around. They are perfect for situations such as the long, intimate family gathering I just attended, particularly if others do not care for them, as they are a natural distancing mechanism.

Pickling is all the rage these days, and for good reason. Pickled foods are essential parts of most traditional food cultures, and help repopulate the microcosms of bacteria in the intestines, which it now seems is important for health. Check out Michael Pollan’s piece in the Times recently (which is essentially the last chapter of Cooked, his latest tome), and then take a gander at The American Gut Project, which will analyze your own intestinal output for a small fee and benchmark it against the general population’s microbiome.

More appetizingly, pickling is easy and fun. The below pickled cucumbers produce satisfying amounts of mouth excitement, and the jars belch clouds of sulfurous gas when opened. What could be better?

IMG_1199Like traditional kosher dills, these use salt brine rather than vinegar, and then rely on the natural bacterial process to kick off the ferment. The advantage of salt brined, or “lacto-fermented” pickles, as they are sometimes called, are far higher levels of beneficial microbes. These pickles can be made with many kinds of vegetables, including cucumbers, squash, garlic, carrots, green tomatoes, radishes, asparagus, and just about any other vegetable you can name. Should you be more naturally sociable than me, which is a low bar indeed, and thereby want them less dragon-y, just adjust spices to taste.

IMG_0853Be sure to keep the level of the pickles below the surface of the brine by leaving sufficient headspace and then topping it off with more brine. You can also use this handy tool I recently found for sealing, the Pickle-Pro Vegetable Fermenting Lid, for one jar at a time. When they are cloudish and bubbly, you can halt the fermentation activity by popping them into the fridge. They end up sour, fizzy, tangy, and hot. Delicious, basically.

IMG_0854On jars, be aware that most lids have BPA in them, which is another recent to leave headspace. As I wrote in my recent post on greening your kitchen, Weck, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars with rubber gaskets and metal clips, and the shapes are lovely. (I did these on vacation, so please excuse the hodge-podge of BPA-laden lids!)

The below directions are adapted with gratitude from this Cultures for Health Lacto-fermented Kosher dill recipe, but mine were sliced pickles, and I used many, many more spices per pickle.

IMG_0852What you’ll need:

  • 2.5 tablespoons Celtic sea salt or Kosher salt per quart of water to be used.
  • Chlorine-free water to fill your jars.
  • 4 to 6 grape, oak, mesquite or horseradish leaves (I used 2 oak leaves per small jar; one for the side and another below the lid).
  • 5 to 6 cloves of peeled garlic per small jar.
  • Several pieces of fresh dill per jar (with berries after bolting, if you have them, which is perfect for right now).
  • Ample spices for each jar of (use organic spices if you have them, of course): black peppercorns, red pepper flakes, mustard seeds, herbes de provence, dried dill, and cumin seeds (or dried cumin in a pinch).
  • Enough pickling cucumbers to fill each jar, freshly picked (best within 24 hours) and sliced.

pickle prepMaking the pickles:

  1. Measure the amount of water you will need by filling your jars and make a brine with 2.5 Tbls of Celtic sea salt per quart of chlorine-free water. If it is over 85 degrees in your kitchen, use one extra tablespoon of salt. Mix well, cover, and allow to cool to room temperature. This brine can be kept for days before using.
  2. In each of the small jars you are using, add one of the tannin-containing leaves, 3 or so cloves of garlic, the cuttings of dill, and generous helpings of each of the spices you plan to use.
  3. Pack half of your sliced cucumbers tightly on top of these spices. Repeat another layer of garlic, and spices. Add another tightly packed layer of cucumbers.
  4. Pour the brine over the pickles, leaving 1 to 2 inches of headspace. Place another tannin-containing leaf on top of the pickles as a cover between the pickles and the surface of the brine and push the whole thing into the jar with your fingers. Be sure the leaf and pickles are below the surface of the brine. You can also weight them with the lid I mentioned above, or with a clean, small stone or plate, as it will fit.
  5. Tightly cap the jar and place in a safe place at room temperature for 3 to 5 days. Alternatively, place in a root cellar or cool basement for up to two weeks. The warmer the fermenting temperature, the shorter the fermentation time, though a cooler fermentation temperature is desirable to keep the pickles crispy (less than 80°F). Put something under them to catch any bubbling brew, and burp them by lifting the lid and letting gas escape as needed. Be sure to let your toddler (or anyone young at heart) smell the burp.

You will know your pickles have fermented when the brine is cloudy and bubbling, the pickles have a fizzy sourness, and you can breathe fire after eating a few.

Eat immediately, or store in a refrigerator or basement and enjoy them for months, if you can stop yourself from eating them all right away.

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Other links you may like:

Let’s Get Pickled!

When Hurricane Sandy was still looming, I checked out the bottom of my veggie drawer and the more dubious corners of the fridge, and decided, then and there, to put up some lovely and super-easy vegetable pickles.

This simple preparation is actually a wonderful way to deal with the stubby tail-ends of veggies that are still hanging around (but not actually spoiled). You can also thinly slice and pickle stems, like those on broccoli or cauliflower, that you would otherwise throw away, which is a nice way to use the whole kaboodle.

As a side-benefit, they are surprisingly (and unduly) impressive to guests. I recently served them at a small brunch with friends, and they made a tasty giardiniera (or, less pompously, chow chow) to accompany our fritatta. Maya will occasionally eat them as well, though sour is still a taste category under acquisition.

Since most jars — including the Ball and Kerr jars (now all made by the same company) — evidently have BPA under the lids, I used wonderful Weck jars, which are nothing but glass with a rubber gasket and metal clamps. These are the 1-liter cylindrical jars, which come in a set of 6 (for $21) that is ideal for other kitchen storage, or even making canned goods into gifts. There are loads of other sizes and shapes available as well.

Sidebar: If you’re really into canning per se, about midway down this page is great information about BPA-free options, including how to source vintage glass lids and gaskets on Ebay. In addition to Weck’s jars, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars, though the shapes are more difficult to work with and the price is generally higher.

There are also reusable canning lids, here, that are BPA-free, but are still plastic, and even contain some formaldehyde that the company claims doesn’t get into the food. Er, no thanks! If you know of other options, please let me know!

Anyhoo, back to pickling. Fermented foods, because they contain digestion-friendly microbes and enzymes, are helpful to the health of the gut. There’s almost no limit to the health claims folks will make these days on behalf of ample gut flora, and it’s sometimes hard to sort it all out. Still, what seems indisputable is that most traditional cultures included pickles as a significant part of meals — think kimchi, sauerkraut, kosher condiments, kefir, even the mighty dill spear — yet pickled and fermented foods have largely now disappeared from the Western diet. It also appears that vinegar, when consumed as part of a meal, helps to lower blood sugar levels.

So, we’ve added probiotics (buy the refrigerated kind that boasts about containing millions of live bugs) to our diets, as well as plain kefir, kombucha, lots of yogurt (sometimes homemade), and, when we really put it together, pickles!

Sorry, but those sugary ball park pickles and relishes don’t count. You need fresh pickles without a ton of sugar or heat pasteurization. The good news is that these live foods are easy to make.

There are obviously many options for recipes, but my stand-by is from the always-incredible Jacques Pepin, whose minimal approach still retains the basics of what’s needed for healthy and delicious pickle-y goodness. As adapted from Pepin’s Simple and Healthy Cooking:

Ingredients:

Assorted vegetables, sliced thin as appropriate: this can include (organic) carrots, green beans, fennel (a favorite of mine), red bell pepper, cauliflower (love), turnips, zucchini, turnips, broccoli, and whole or half cloves of garlic, depending on size. Beets are also lovely of course, but will turn the whole thing pink, and so should really be pickled unto themselves.

Fresh dill is optional. (For my pickles, I just stuck the fennel fronds along the sides while layering the vegetables.)

1 cup distilled white vinegar to 2 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 Tablespoon salt

Generous pinch of sugar (optional)

1 Tablespoon Pickling Spice blend, or as much as you have on hand to make same of: cloves, allspice berries, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, dill seeds, and bay leaves.

Directions:

Figure out how much liquid you will need for your jars and the right ratio based on the above. But note that it’s not picky, really.

Pack the vegetables 1/3 of the way in, layering them in the jar.

Bring water, vinegar, salt, sugar, and spices, to a boil and boil gently for five minutes. Pour liquid to barely cover the vegetables in the jar, and, using a spoon or strainer, add a few of the spices floating about in the liquid. Add 1/3 more vegetables and more spices and liquid, packing it all down with the spoon. Repeat these steps one more time. (This slightly elaborate process is to address the issue I’ve found that if you pour the liquid all at once, the spices just sit on the top.)

Ensure that the vegetables are below the liquid and let the jars cool, and even sit out a bit. You can then store them in the back of the fridge. After a week or so, they will be somewhat pickled, and after two weeks, even more so. You can also reuse the pickling water, which becomes more flavorful with repeated use.

You like? Then here’s another post on pickling from me, and another from Men’s Journal:

And do tell, what do you pickle?

Fermenting Dissent (with Determination, Cabbages and Salt)

Later this week, I’ll post about the news on toxics out of the U.S. Senate, which last week passed the Safe Chemicals Act out of committee on a party-line vote. I’m scanning the testimony, much of which is worth a gander. Really, the Safe Chemicals Act is a bit of a no-brainer, so it’s terribly disappointing to see partisan political deadlock on something so common-sense and fundamental to health.

Andy Igrejas, Campaign Director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, wrote a great piece highlighting the problems for Republicans and the chemical industry if they continue obstructing progress on this issue. As he points out, educated consumer demand and our skepticism about the safety of products is a real threat to corporations when so many serious questions remain about the chemicals in our products and food. So keep asking questions, my friends, and letting the companies know we are all watching and taking names.

When life is such a mix of sweet and sour, that always feels like an invitation to pickle something. And over the weekend, a golden (or really purple) opportunity presented itself when my new pal Sharon offered to teach me how to make sauerkraut the old-fashioned way.

Here’s what the Nourishing Traditions cookbook says about the power of pickled cabbage:

Captain Cook loaded 60 barrels of sauerkraut onto his ship. After 27 months at sea, 15 days before returning to England, he opened the last barrel and offered some sauerkraut to some Portugese noblemen who had come on board….This last barrel was perfectly preserved after 27 months…and had also preserved sufficient quantities of vitamin C to protect the entire crew from scurvy.

Fermented foods are terrific for health, as they help to balance out the elaborate ecosystems in our gut. Traditional diets around the world use fermented foods far more frequently than we do in the Western diet, where half-limp dills tend to be the only sign of a once-robust spread of zingy condiments.

From kefir to kimchi to kombucha, miso to mango pickle, preserved lemons to pickled beets, fermented foodstuffs are commonplace in other cuisines, and are considered essential to good digestion. In my husband’s native India, meals typically included at least three kinds: intensely spiced pickles of many flavors, as well as fresh-made, live bacteria yogurt (or “curd”) and buttermilk.

Don’t tell the drug companies, but it turns out that making a high-powered new ecosystem to better service one’s digestive plumbing is simple, fun and deeply satisfying. Under Sharon’s expert tutelage, we drank some wine — fermented again! — and kneaded stringy pulpy cabbage pieces until they gave up their water and our hands were stinging from the salt. It was a wonderful and relaxing way to spend our daughters’ nap time on a summer afternoon. Below I provide all the details so that you, too, can share in the fun.

Sharon’s Easy Sauerkraut

Ingredients:

1 head (organic) cabbage

1 Tbl Celtic Sea Salt per head (you want pure, high-mineral salts for this)

Optional: Pickling spices

Optional: a small amount of whey, to jump-start the fermentation (more on homemade yogurt in a future post)

Directions:

Chop cabbage into chunks and then into fine strips and place in a large bowl.

Optional: Sip your wine. Laugh and talk. Discuss the cool new cookbook on fermentation that just made the Amazon bestseller list.

Wash your hands well and add 1 generous Tbl of sea salt per head of chopped cabbage.

Get your hands in there and squeeze and knead the salt into the cabbage. It will begin to give up its water and you’ll learn all about any small cuts and hangnails you may have. After about 12 minutes of kneading, it was limp and beautiful, and about half the volume.

If you like, add the pickling spices at this stage and knead them in a bit.

Stuff the proto-sauerkraut into a crock, glass jar or other non-toxic container (Note: Ball jar metal lids, and most other metal lids, have a coating of BPA on them!) and push it down so that the surface of the cabbage is below the water it has generated. Add the whey in this process if using it.

Leave some room for more water to develop at the top (mine started to leak violet juices after a day when not enough room was preserved).

Cover, put it somewhere where it will stay around 70 degrees F. Wait anxiously for 4 to 7 days before opening and sampling your creation.

After opening, store it in the refrigerator, where it will keep for a month or more. Makes about 3 and 1/2 cups of royal purple goodness. Serve over greens, next to sausage, in soups, or just as a nice condiment.

If you have variations on this recipe, other additions, or great ideas for how to use and serve sauerkraut, please share them in the comments!