Pickles take on global accents, fresh from the farm

August 9, 2011

Growing up in Georgia in the 1980s, I knew one kind of pickle. It was a cucumber pickle, the color of jade and intensely sweet, something you put in potato salad and not much else. It lined my grandmother’s cabinets in quart jars, along with preserved figs and hot pepper vinegar, and whenever I heard talk of pickles, that’s what came to mind.

Grace Lichaa’s childhood pickles were different. Lichaa, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Egypt in the late ’60s, recalls a Gaithersburg household in which her mother was always pickling some vegetable or another. Jars of torshi — vinegar-packed cauliflower, celery and carrot with a look of Italian giardiniera — weren’t just lovely, but tempting. “I can remember reaching my whole arm into the jar — it sounds gross — and just eating it straight out of my hand,” she said. “It was that good.”

Because Lichaa, 33, works weekend farmers markets for Pennsylvania’s New Morning Farm, she runs into harvest excess that doesn’t always have obvious applications. Recently, with several bunches of beets on her hands and an equal number of questions, she answered with pickled beets, using an Egyptian recipe from her mother. They are piquant, bright with acidity but earthy with cumin, the sort you might pile next to a plate of long-cooked green beans or simply eat from the jar with a fork.

A week or so later she put together a batch of her mom’s eggplant pickles, made with fairy-tale eggplants the size of fingerling potatoes that are halved and rubbed liberally with cilantro and garlic. Drinking the pungent olive oil-vinegar brine is worth any social cost.

It makes sense that some of the most imaginative recipes for putting food up (or putting it by, depending on where you’re from) come from farmers and the staff members helping to sell their produce. After all, they have abundance close at hand. Often they’re putting up a lot of food, and they’re not always sticking to the recipes they grew up with. Now that canning isn’t much of a contemporary novelty anymore, a younger, globally minded generation is turning to spices and seasonings more common in kitchens half a world away.

Such a modern approach seems particularly well suited to pickling, which I think of as canning’s kinky cousin, not only preserving food but transforming it into something almost provocative, more intensely flavored and more curiously textured than it was to begin with. Pickles ask for your attention. When they’re seasoned in ways unexpected or culturally unconventional, they come right out and grab it.

Casey Gustowarow, 29, farm manager at Potomac Vegetable Farms West in Purcellville and one of the creators of the White House Organic Farm Project, makes a Cambodian-style refrigerated pickle with frilly-leaved Napa cabbage that carries the funky, complex appeal of kimchi. Lemon grass, turmeric, ginger and a hot-sour-salty-sweet brine remind him of his stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines; to anyone else, it’s an arresting profile for a usually demure vegetable.

It was Lichaa who turned me on to the idea that mustard greens make a keen showing as pickles. Her method is meant to replicate the sour mustard greens served at the Burmese restaurant Mandalay in Silver Spring, but the homespun version, made with New Morning’s Asian mustard greens (the red ones bleed a hibiscus pink), is more nuanced, with a mellowed bite and nutty undertones.

At Zach Lester and Georgia O’Neal’s Tree and Leaf Farm in Unionville, Va., pickling is farm manager Katherine Stewart’s answer to overabundance and threats of lost harvests. Working on a farm convinced her that anything could be pickled (or fermented; she has also made a habit of kimchi, kombucha and grain-fermented sodas), and should be.

“I started experimenting with anything we had in excess,” said Stewart, 33. “At one point we had all of these adorable pearl onions that were going to go to waste, and you just can’t throw those away.”

Summers in Virginia, eggplant starts in July and carries on until October; at the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, Tree and Leaf’s tables carry cascades of heirloom varieties, fat lavender Sicilian ones and slender Asian ones among them. On the farm, the production can seem endless. Stewart’s response is eggplant pickles, an Italian take bathed in vinegar and packed in olive oil. They’re nearly decadent, creamy-textured and slightly sweet, with the faintest fire of red chili. Adding whole coriander seeds suggests Tunisia, and sometimes she goes that route instead.

Usually she makes enough for two seasons beyond the harvest, which prompts a culinary query, Stewart says: “How will I actually eat this once I pickle it?” She finds a place for it on pizza, in pasta or stir-fries, with cheese and crackers. In Italy, where the dish is called melanzane sott’olio, it might just be eaten from a plate, without fuss of companionship.

After all, pickles are just another way to eat vegetables, which makes particular sense in cold-weather months when in-season pickings are slimmer and when what’s available — root vegetables and leafy greens, for the most part — could make good use of lively accompaniment. The trick is keeping them around that long.

RECIPES:

Cambodian-Style Cabbage Pickle

Burmese-Style Pickled Mustard Greens

Egyptian Pickled Beets

Italian Eggplant Pickles

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