Right now, backyard beds and farmers market stalls are overflowing with ultra-fresh produce. But what do you do when you can’t gobble down a cascade of cukes or surplus of sweet peppers? Break out the brine and start pickling. This way, nothing goes to waste, and you can enjoy Mother Nature’s bounty for months to come.
Amy Troutmiller — general manager of Westend Bistro (1190 22 St. NW; 202-974-4900) and overseer of the restaurant’s beverage program — loves making and eating pickles. “I would rather sit down with a jar of pickles than a bag of potato chips,” she says. “Then I’ll eat the whole jar.”
Four years ago, she was looking for a new hobby and decided to try pickling. After getting some advice from her grandmother, a lifelong canner, Troutmiller prepared 13 different brines and preserved everything from cukes to cauliflower to Brussels sprouts. Now she pickles a colorful array of fruits and veggies for the restaurant’s cocktails, including tarragon pickled blueberries that float in the lavender soda Rickey.
Luckily, it’s not hard to do this yourself.
Start out with hearty produce that absorbs flavor easily. “Cucumbers, carrots, cauliflower, onions and zucchini all work well,” says Sarah Hood, author of “We Sure Can: How Jams and Pickles are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food” ($25, Arsenal Pulp Press). Save produce with thin skins and soft flesh (tomatoes, cherries) till you get more advanced, because they have a tendency to pop or get mushy. And always use the freshest produce possible. “Never woody, soft or wrinkled,” Hood says. “You want everything very crisp.”
Then, mix up your brine using four simple ingredients: water, vinegar, salt and sugar.
The water-to-vinegar ratio is a personal preference, but Troutmiller recommends never going beyond a 50-50 mix. “Any more vinegar than that and it just gets too astringent,” she says.
Cathy Barrow, a local food writer who teaches pickling classes, advises vinegar experimentation. “Apple cider is very fruity; sherry is very heavy,” she says. Other options include white, rice, balsamic and red wine vinegar. Just make sure the variety you choose has at least 5 percent acid (listed on labels), since it facilitates the pickling process.
Almost anything from the spice rack is good for jazzing up your brine. However, use everything in moderation so that the more delicate flavors aren’t sublimated by bolder spices, such as saffron and cloves. Hood prefers to use whole spices, such as star anise, cinnamon and all spice. “They add an interesting flavor, and they look pretty in the jar,” she says.
First-timers can buy pre-mixed pickling spices (available in the baking aisle from brands such as McCormick and Frontier). “Figure out which flavors in the mix you like,” Barrow says. Troutmiller suggests you add some alum (available in the spice section of the grocery store) to keep veggies crisp, so they taste just as crunchy next winter as they do this summer.
When it comes to canning your concoctions, make sure your jars are sterilized before they’re filled and that the produce is completely submerged in brine. Once the lids are on, the jars need to be boiled again. The times vary depending on what you’re canning and what elevation you’re at, so check out the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s website for full details.
And once you’ve sealed the lids, you can either crack open your creations or start dreaming of the pickled okra you’ll be enjoying come December.
Brine In No Time
If pickling and canning sound too time-consuming, you can make a batch of quickles, or quick pickles. Local food blogger Cathy Barrow likes quick-pickling red onion to put on tacos, sandwiches and salads. “Or I eat them when I’m standing at the refrigerator trying to figure out what I’m going to make for dinner,” she says. The fast method, also favored by Southern cooks such as the Lee Brothers, also works well with cucumbers and zucchini.
Fact: Quick pickles can be made in an hour.
To whip some up Barrow’s onion ones, thinly slice red onions into half-moons. Mix a half-water, half-vinegar brine flavored with salt, sugar and spices to taste. Bring the saline solution to a boil, pour it over the sliced vegetables, and then let them cool in the fridge. An hour later, you can bring them over to a friend’s barbecue party and pretend that you slaved over them all day.
Written by Express contributor Nevin Martell
Photo by Marge Ely