Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dear Pickles: I heart you. Love, me.

So, this posting is somewhat ceremonious. The really big pickling operation takes place back home on the farm. But since I'm not necessarily a kid anymore (don't tell my mom that) I figured I should try to do this completely on my own for once. I wasn't without calls to grandma (only three!) and I only panicked once when I didn't hear the third jar seal....but it was 2:00 a.m. I may have fallen asleep, dreams of pickles swimming in brine. It ended up sealing just fine :)

I love dill pickes. And sweet pickles. And bread-and-butter pickles. I've yet to meet a pickle I don't like and I think this gene runs in our family (yes, I'm looking at you, Noah). So its no surprise that dill is a staple of the garden. I was home in Buffalo last weekend for my little-est brother's 21st birthday when pickle season started rocking. With the lack of rain this year, many of the little green darlings were drying up on the vine! We needed to get whatever survived into jars as quickly as possible. Since they came off the vine monday morning and I was flying back to DC monday afternoon with a suitcase already dominated by a massive jar of webers mustard, I started the process for a few jars at home, packed it all up, and finished it at night in DC.

Pickling is really simple. You need pickles (these are the big dill-sized ones), dill, ingredients for brine, jars and lids. First, dump your pickles in a bath of cold water. Give them a good swish and then let them chill for about two hours. This is a good time to also clean out your jars- scrub them well in HOT water and set aside to fully dry.

Then find some sort of a brush with medium bristles to really clean your pickles. You can use a toothbrush, a mushroom brush, whatever. The dirt just needs to be totally gone. Rinse them thoroughly and let them fully dry on a towel.

Once your pickles are ready for their jars, start the brine. This recipe will fill 7 quart jars packed full with pickles. I halved this recipe and still had a little leftover.

3 quarts waters

1 quart white vinegar

3/4 cup canning salt

1/4 cup sugar

1 tsp (or more!) of turmeric

Put all ingredients in a saucepan and let it come to a boil for a moment. It should still be pretty warm or hot when you put it into the jars.

Next, pack your jars. At the bottom place about 3 marble-sized hunks of peeled garlic (3 whole cloves seems to be too much) and fold up one stem of dill and shove it into the jar kind of haphazardly so it bends and fits. I remember helping with this process as a child and falling in love with the smell of garlic and dill. One year I even taped a clove of garlic to the neck of my barbie doll and put some dill in her hair. I was so disappointed when her cheap plastic skin and synthetic hair never absorbed the smell! Perhaps I should pitch this idea to a perfumery...

You might have to slice a few pickles to make them fit. You can slice them all if you want; it makes do difference in their pickling. I generally start with the straightest, tallest pickle in the center of the jar and then pack around him. You can see we added strips of hot pepper to one jar to see what would happen. I'll let you know when we open it!

At this point, stick the lids (without the rings) in a hot saucepan and bring them to a simmer. You are making sure they are sterilized. Keep them nice and hot while you pack.

Once packed, use a funnel to add your hot brine to the jars. Don't add too quickly; give the brine a few minutes to trickle into the spaces between the pickles. Also, be sure to fill the jars all the way to the brim. Any pickles left sticking out of the brine will get soft...and that's ok, just don't eat that pickle or part of the pickle. It won't contaminate the rest of the jar.

CAREFULLY grab your hot lids and press them onto the tops of the jars. The heat will help create a seal. Put the clean rings on next and completely tighten them down to really batten the hatches.

Next, find the biggest pot with a lid you've got. I happen to have a 12 quart pot which was perfect...but you can find a cheap one anywhere, like here for example. Now, I don't know why but you're not supposed to place the jars directly on the bottom of the pot. A canning pot generally has a rack inside of it for all of your jars. I didn't have one of those, but I did have a stainless steel trivet that fit in the pot. I suppose this is to ensure that one part of the jar doesn't receive more heat than the rest of it.

One issue I had was that my jars were kind of sitting lopsided on the trivet. Once the water started to bubble, it could potentially move the hot jars around and perhaps crack one. I stuck the insert of my asparagus pot in there so all the jars fit snuggly. Fill the pot with water up to the neck of the jar and let it sit on medium heat JUST until it comes to a boil. The second it boils, shut it off. Let it sit for just a few minutes then using gloves, remove the jars and sit them gently on a towel to cool. Hot jars that meet cool air can crack easily if they bang on something. "Nice and Easy" is the appropriate method.

After about 3 hours the jars will seal with a "pop!" sound and the button on the lid will depress into the jar. I only had three jars to seal....but it brought back fond memories of 20-40 jars sitting on the kitchen table at home making a nice racket in the middle of the night. If your jar doesn't seal for some reason, its ok. Put that jar in the fridge, give the pickles a few days to process, and eat that jar within two months. Just keep it cold. The sealed jars will keep at room temperature or in a cool, dark cupboard for about a year with consistant quality. They'll be ready to eat within 3-4 weeks.

This brine is fairly versitile so you should feel free to introduce some variations that appeal to you! Increase the sugar and decrease the salt, or add some hot pepper flakes or peppercorns. The point is to have fun with it. The work will be worth it when one winter day you finally crack open that jar and smell the perfume of summer when you really need it most.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Eat your greens...with this dressing....

I know I've casually mentioned the new Whole Foods that opened literally right across the street from me in Friendship Heights but I've got to let the choir finally cry out on this: I'm thrilled to have Whole Foods in the neighborhood. Sure, I'll admit its not financially prudent to walk in there. And yes, I often go in for a pound of coffee and walk out $56 bucks later with a $6.00 yogurt that comes in a glass bottle with a $2.00 deposit on the bottle that I never actually return to get my $2.00 back because its also a pretty vase (what? Whole Foods also has lovely flowers. Just you try to walk out without peonies.)

But I'm a fast learner and quickly found that if I don't institute all kinds of rules and restrictions on my spending habits, there could be trouble. For instance: no emu eggs unless I'm having a party. Ok that's an easy one. A better rule is that I have to make a list ahead of time and am only allowed to be seduced by ONE off-list luxury product per visit. Good thing I let myself have that easement, otherwise I wouldn't have found my new favorite salad dressing.

A few sundays ago during high-pandemonium time at WF I was shopping for our Phish picnic when an all american, fresh-faced teenage boy with an agonizingly sweet smile and braces asked if I'd try his mom's salad dressing. Holy mom a marketing genius or what? Way to use your adorable 15 year old who probably plays lacrosse and has a girlfriend named Sally to hawk your wares. It really only took one bite and I was hooked. Really, the dressing is super simple: lemons, olive oil, salt and pepper. And at $5.99 a bottle, you're probably thinking "dude, you can make that at home".

You're right. You can make it at home. That's what this mama did. And then she figured out that most people who get home from work, workout, happy hour, etc at 9:00 at night aren't going to make their own. And that's how she got me. It's fresh and light and will entice me to eat salad at 9:00 a night even when I don't feel like slicing garlic or zesting lemons or engaging in any other dressing-making activies. I'll gladly pay the $5.99 for a bottle that lasts me two months to save me from eating tortilla chips and hummus because I have nothing healthy and delicious to eat on my salad.

Plus, as I checked out their website this morning I noticed that there are THREE fresh-faced teenage boys hustling salad dressing somewhere across the state of Maryland. Go find one and try a bottle. I swear you'll be hooked.

And really, that's kind of what WF is all about: getting you to spend a little extra on food you feel good about. They only work really well in cities because we're full of busy, young and single, career-minded, socially concious people who pay attention to how their consumer choices have an impact on the world around them. How many of you are guilty of buying a pound of WF curried chicken salad to take to work all week because (a) you didn't get a chance to make your own chicken salad this week and (b) you can trust that what you're eating is mostly natural, organic and anti-biotic free? For all of the cooking I do, I proudly raise my hand and say "I am!" That chicken salad is addictive.

Thanks to my new neighborhood store for turning me onto Tessamae's dressing, a local Maryland product!