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Four Pickles and a Funeral

Fresh Cukes

Yes, I’ve been absent a while. All I’ll say for now is, I’ve been busy. Way too busy…

That doesn’t mean I’ve been out of the kitchen, though! Summertime means lots of peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers, among other tasty veggies. The garden’s been producing all sorts of chiles, from golden cayennes to bananas (hot and mild) and colored bell peppers. Habaneros, red Caribs, Gypsy and Cajun bells, with plenty of cayenne, kung pao and Cubanelles. Only the production of the serranos has been disappointing, likely due to the terrific heat and drought throughout August and September. (Or maybe I bought lazy plants; I dunno.)

Pickling StuffI dried both red and hot yellow peppers, in batches, and turned them into powders. I saved some dried reds and made pepper flakes too. I now have chile powders that are hot enough they need a special license from the fire department. (Not really, but don’t tell them, they might inspect.) I used small amounts of these powders to make some tasty burrito beef, for example.

Pepper jellies have been a big part of the summer’s production. Cherry ones, plum and apricot and peach varieties, and prickly pear tries as well. I’ll have more on all those in a later post.

I’ve also gone on a pickle-canning rampage. Okay, not a rampage, exactly, although PJ thinks that’s a reasonable assessment. The assortment of quality pickling cucumbers, at both the neighborhood groceries and the farmers markets, got me to thinking. Then I tasted a couple of specialty dills at some food events and I got moving.

I like a dill pickle with a bit of crunch. That’s actually harder to produce than you might think, in a canned pickle. There are some ideas out there, though, that improve the chances you’ll get a pickle that resists your teeth a bit better than some of those limp, wimpy ones you buy in the store. One I’d never heard of was placing grape leaves (or cherry leaves) in the jar with the canned pickles. The concept here is that the tannins leach out and make the cucumber crunchier. Of course, using little or no heat prevents cooking of the cukes, making them crunchier when you eat them; however, that requires cold-aging, and these pickles aren’t shelf-stable.

Another important part of making crunchy dills: Cut off the blossom end of the cucumber! There’s an enzyme in there which softens the fruit (yes, cukes are fruit), and if you leave that in there you’ll get very soft pickles. If you don’t know how to tell which end had the blossom, play safe and trim both ends, about 1/2 inch back.

There’s a DIY site I enjoy that shows complete steps for quick process dills, and these will have fair crispiness.

Market ProduceThe experimental scientist in me wanted to try some controlled conditions, but once I got going I simply canned and relied on my experience and the new information to guide me. I really like the flavors of lime and ginger together, and of course, these pickles had to have some kick to them. (After all, what else can I do with the ground mound of hot peppers that are taking over my counters and all of my fridge space?)

I tried the following sets: Ginger-Lime Cayenne Kosher Dills, as both spears and waffle-cut hamburger chips; Ginger-Lime Habanero Kosher Dills, ditto on the types. I also made a few jars without any peppers, as a control on the heat level, and I made a batch of Red Carib-Ginger-Lime Kosher Dills with the grape leaf trick, to see how much the crunch would be improved. I quick-processed at 4-5 minutes in the canner, to try to get added chewiness into these pickles.

4525306-1800x1197The brine was simple to make: 3 parts white vinegar (5% acidity, or 50 grain), two parts water, and about 3 tablespoons of salt per quart of brine. You can make this solution up in larger quantity and use whatever you need for a batch of pickles, saving back the rest. You can add sugar, but I prefer my kosher dills without; your choice. If you add sugar, I don’t recommend going beyond about 1/2 cup per quart of brine, and you should use any sweet brine fairly quickly; it doesn’t store as well as the other.

Other ingredients, besides a big mound of pickling cucumbers (I prefer the Kirby variety), include peeled garlic cloves, pickling spice, and plenty of fresh dill. I also had fresh-squeezed lime juice ready, and about a cup or so of fresh ginger pieces. Remember to peel the ginger; that skin makes the brine ugly and the taste very bitter.

I set up for canning and got some pint jars, flats and rings ready. For the spears I used the wide-mouth jars; hamburg chips go fine into regular pints. I had the brine heated to boiling, and when it was time to process I used these steps: Put lime juice in the brine, to taste (about 1/4 cup per quart of brine worked for me); place some ginger pieces in the bottom of the jars; stack in as many cucumber pieces as you can fit; lightly crush a couple cloves of garlic for each jar, and add a big sprig of dill to each one as well; put a good dose (I used a heaping tablespoon) of pickling spice into each container; pour in very hot brine, leaving the required headspace. At this point you simply seal finger-tight with flats and rings and process in the canner for 4-5 minutes.

Here’s a key point: Usually the food authorities say you should process at least 10 minutes to get shelf-stable, safe product. However, these pickles have lots of acid, so they’re not likely to go bad soon. If you’ve been diligent on sanitation leading up to processing, then a short time in the boiling bath, just enough to cause the jars to seal when taken out to cool, will work. Don’t try this on low-acid food! I don’t want to attend any more funerals soon, okay?

The end-product of a couple days of leisurely kitchen work led to a nice shelf full of tart, pungent pickles. A friend tried some, and he said he hadn’t had pickles this tasty since he left California years ago. He used to get them (hand-made ones, of course) at a small deli in Hayward, and he missed them. How much did he miss them? He ate a whole pint in one afternoon. (I’ve had to hide the rest for his protection.)

As for the funeral: It was a fine send-off for Dr. Bier, who I’ll miss dearly. RIP, old friend; you lived well…

Enjoy the (Pickles Galore) Heat!

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