Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A peck of pickles

One of the main problems with allotment gardening is keeping up with the vegetables. I've started planting more flowers, but it is still a struggle to consume everything we grow. Obviously the best way around this is to store things for winter. I'm growing pumpkins and beans for drying, and I'm also doing as much pickling as possible.

Pickles in the UK are nothing like pickles in the US. British pickles usually refer to a sickly sweet concoction of chopped vegetables and/or fruit, usually eaten on a sandwich with cheddar cheese. Their pickled cucumbers are equally sweet and sickly.

The quintessential British pickle
When I first moved to the UK I had to go without proper dill pickles until enough Poles migrated over and started opening deli shops. This migration also led to the introduction of sauerkraut, keilbasa sausage and pierogi. And, possibly, to the recent introduction of New York deli pastrami sandwiches at M&S. Complete with sauerkraut and REAL non-sweet dill pickles. I imagine some people are blaming these new sandwiches on the Americanisation of the British diet, but I'm just happy to be able to eat more of my favourite foods.

Actually, I should also acknowledge my gratitude to migrants from the Middle East, because you can also usually find non-sweet Persian pickled cucumbers in Halal shops (though they are apparently produced in Israel, for an interesting twist). I would encourage you to check out the hot pepper variety for a flavour explosion!

After spending a year in France enjoying their superior (like most French food) pickled cornichons, I became more attached than ever to pickles. So when we got an allotment the first priority was to grow gherkins and French beans for pickling (called dilly beans). Last year's attempt was a reasonable success, and this year I've expanded into beets and chili peppers.

I flavour the gherkins and dilly beans with dill seed heads grown in my garden.

I also learned that you can pickle in the fridge, without all the fuss of boiling water baths. The pickles are ready in about a week, and they keep in the fridge for up to 6 months. I'm doing my overgrown gherkins this way, and they are very tasty. Another advantage is that you can keep topping up the jar, replacing the slices you've eaten. You know they are ready when the skin yellows.

The jar in the middle contains nastertium seeds, which supposedly taste like capers when pickled.

There are lots of pickling recipes online, but one source I use for all kinds of canning recipes and ideas is the blog Food in Jars. I'm using their easy peasy refrigerator pickles recipe. But the best thing about refrigerator pickles is that you don't have to slavishly follow a recipe. The vinegar (ideally in 1:1 proportion to the water) and refrigeration will ensure that no nasty bacteria grow, and you can try any combination of spices and vegetables that take your fancy. 

I don't think the 1:1 proportion works with beets - they require more vinegar, possibly to counteract the effect of all the sugar. Here is a really easy recipe from my mother for pickling raw beets:
Scrub, trim and peel 2 red or golden beets.  Slice thinly, and transfer to a jar.  Split 1 fresh Thai chili in half.  Bring chili, 1 cup rice vinegar, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 fresh bay leaf, and 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns to a boil in a small saucepan.  Pour hot mixture over beets.  Seal jar, and refrigerate.  Beets will keep for six months in refrigerator.
I left out the sugar and spices and put in a couple of star anise instead. They are amazing!

Fridge beets and beans (flavoured with white wine and home grown coriander seed)
So, now that I pretty much have pickling down, my next step should be fermentation, so I can make my very own sauerkraut. Except I fear I'll never manage to grow my own cabbage.