I’ll eat anything pickled. Take the woodiest, stringiest vegetable – hell, take shoe leather – and soak it in brine for a while, and I’m fine with it. And since we seem to produce a lot of woody, stringy vegetables around here, pickling is the natural solution.
First came the beets. While they weren’t the worst beets I’ve ever had, they didn’t have enough of that sweet earthiness that makes beets beets. Enter vinegar, sugar, and salt. I cooked the beets (in the pressure cooker, 25 minutes and they’re done), slipped them from their skins, and layered them in a big jar with their greens and some sweet onion. In went the brine (1.5 c. vinegar, 1 c. water, ¾ c. sugar, 2 T. pickling salt), and it was all over but the waiting.
Before I go on to the cucumbers, let me pause to complain about beet recipes. For starters, why do they always tell you to scrub the beets before you boil them? You’re going to take the skin off, and you’re going to pour the water down the sink, so you can save yourself the tsuris of trying to get dirt off a craggy root vegetable and just toss it in the pot as is. And then there’s the greens, which most beet recipes simply ignore, despite the fact that, if you have beets, you are very likely to have beet greens. Beets and chard are the same plant. Literally. Beta vulgaris. Eat the greens.
After the beets and their greens came the cucumbers. For the first batch, I used the flowers from my one anaemic dill plant, some sliced garlic, and a brine of vinegar and water in a 1:1 ratio, with one tablespoon of salt per cup of vinegar.
So far, everything was just refrigerator pickles. What’s the point of doing the whole sterilized jar thing when you know you’re going to eat them all this month anyway?
The point, of course, is that you’d like to have pickles in February. So, when I got the next batch of pickling cucumbers (which is probably the last, as our plants are succumbing to powdery mildew), I put a giant pot of water on the stove and prepared to pickle in earnest.
Besides the cucumbers, I had green tomatoes, jalapenos, and green beans. Some of our tomato plants are suffering from a mysterious and irreversible decline, and I harvested their green fruit so they wouldn’t be a total loss. The jalapenos had been over-ripening on their bushes because there are only so many jalapenos you can eat. The beans, I got from my neighbor, Mike.
I will, in the not too distant future, tell you all about Mike, but for now let’s just say he’s the kind of gardener you hate. The kind of gardener whose garden is so healthy and prolific that he has more vegetables than he can keep up with. He showed me his overgrown green beans, and lamented his lack of time. I told him I’d pick them, pickle them, and bring him half. He said bring him a quarter and it’s a deal.
I washed my produce, lined up my pickling herbs and spices, and rolled up my sleeves.
Let the pickling begin.
The more you read about home canning, the harder it is to bring yourself to try it. Responsible authorities warn, in the direst tone, of the risks of preserving your own food. Botulism data is cited (263 people from 1990-2000, 4% of whom died). You learn that microorganisms lurk in every nook and cranny of every fruit and vegetable, and those microorganisms are heat-tolerant and wily.
The only way to be safe, you’re told, is to wash your jars in warm soapy water, sterilize them by boiling them for ten minutes, fill them when they’re hot, and process them in a water bath for at least ten minutes.
Unless, of course, you live in England, in which case you’re told that Americans are ridiculously germ-phobic, and that there are some foods that are perfectly safe to can without a water bath.
I first encountered this continental divide last year, at about this time, when I wrote about making jelly. Here in the US, most canners use water baths even on those foods whose low pH makes them low risk. Microorganisms hate acidity.
In the UK, and down there in Australia, they just laugh, and can jellies and pickles with any old thing – used jars, wax lids, plastic wrap and rubber bands.
Because I have yet to read a specific and compelling reason for giving pickles a water bath, because most of the developed world seems to believe it isn’t necessary, and because, given the choice between doing and not doing a step that takes time and an unconscionable amount of propane, I choose not doing it, I didn’t water-bathe my pickles.
And here’s what else I didn’t do. I didn’t make sure every last air bubble was out; I gave the jars a quick shake, but a cucumber spear has lots of safe havens for air bubbles. I didn’t avoid touching the insides of the jars, because I don’t see how you can stuff the green beans in without coming in contact with glass. I also didn’t sterilize the dish towel I wiped the jar rims with. It was clean, but what passes for clean in my house is a microbiological minefield in places where “clean” is more rigorously defined.
I did wash and sterilize my jars and lids. I did boil my brine (a 1 cup:1 cup: 1 tablespoon vinegar:water:salt ratio for everything but the jalapenos, which was 2:1 vinegar:water, with no salt). I did try to work quickly. I did listen for the pops of the seals, although I didn’t count.
I ended with two quarts and four pints of green beans (flavored with pickling spice and red pepper), four pints of cucumbers (with garlic, dill and pickling spice), four pints of green tomatoes (with garlic, mustard and pickling spice), and five cups of jalapenos (with nothing at all). I’ll be tasting them in a couple of weeks.
If posts stop abruptly, let that be a message to water-bathe your pickles.