Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: July, Week 3

There are many obvious advantages to preserving summer's bounty for winter, not the least of which is actually having food halfway prepared for a meal.

There is a slight disadvantage to preserving produce, however: preserved food does not taste as fresh and as pleasing as food straight from the garden or the farmers' market.

In any method of preserving food, some nutrients are lost, and with them, some flavor is lost, too. That's just what happens when food begins to break down at the structural level, whether it's rotting fresh fruit or thawed frozen vegetables.

Some methods of preserving, though, add other ingredients to enhance or change the flavor of the original produce, and they can also improve the staying quality of the preserves at the same time. Jam, for example, adds sugar to keep the fruit at the peak of ripe sweetness, and the sugar also helps to inhibit the growth of bacteria that would spoil the fruit.

Pickles offer the same solution. Whether you're talking about traditional pickles that use brine or vinegar to preserve fruits and vegetables, or chutneys and relishes that add sugar, spices, and usually a little vinegar or other acid, pickling imparts a sweet and sour (and sometimes hot and spicy) twist to the original produce.

It's a flavor combination that has taken me nearly my entire lifetime to date to appreciate.

Growing up, I watched the Chef Mother make large annual batches of the family hot kosher dill pickle recipe. This tradition, which she claims "burned many a mouth at the dinner table" but kept people coming back for more, involved making a salt brine, packing hot jars with dill, cucumbers, garlic, dried chiles, and allspice, filling the jars with brine, and processing the pickles in a boiling water bath. When the Chef Mother stopped making them, I took over, supplying the rest of the family and a new generation of friends who declared these to be the best pickles ever.

Still, I was unmoved by pickles. I came to appreciate chutneys the more I ate at Indian restaurants, and gifts from friends of homemade zucchini relish and dilled green beans gradually held more appeal for my taste buds.

But last year, when I found fresh cider vinegar at the local farmers' market, everything changed.

I trotted out the Chef Mother's watermelon pickle recipe -- the one at which I had turned up my nose throughout childhood -- and suddenly found I couldn't get enough. I experimented with chutneys, and I promised myself that I would try more recipes this year, leading me to try spiced cherries, a mixed vegetable pickle, and a red onion confit.

As always, when you're just starting to try pickle making, find a recipe that sounds good to you and follow it to the letter. Salt and vinegar may be prime preservation ingredients, but there are still some basics you'll need to follow to avoid problems with spoilage:

1. Make sure your jars are clean and free of cracks or missing chips that can deter the pickle from getting a good seal.
2. Use new lids (again, to ensure a proper seal).
3. Clean and sterilize the jars, lids, and rings in a boiling water bath.
4. Use the freshest possible produce, avoiding any fruits or vegetables that are moldy, bruised, or otherwise damaged.
5. Rinse (or scrub, if possible) the produce and dry it gently before use.
6. Follow the recipe.

Many pickle recipes start with salting the vegetables to draw out excess moisture, though this is not always the case. If you do use a recipe that requires this step, be sure you drain, rinse, and again drain the produce thoroughly.

If you are making a brined pickle, you will likely make the brine separately and pack the jars with the remaining ingredients before adding the brine. Pickles using vinegar, though, usually ask that you simmer vinegar with the spices -- preferably whole spices, to keep the liquid from getting cloudy -- before either adding the produce for a quick simmer or before pouring the vinegar over produce already in the jars.

Once you've packed the jars, follow the instructions for processing (often between 5 and 15 minutes in a boiling water bath). Remove the jars, set them on a cooling rack or a towel to cool, and wait for those satisfying pings and pops that tell you your jars have sealed.

For relishes or chutneys, you will mostly likely throw everything (or almost everything) together in a saucepan, heat it all to boiling, and then simmer the mixture until it has thickened.

Pickles, relishes, and chutneys won't solve the problem of the loss of nutrients that comes with preserving food. But with these savory delights, you're likely to use them in small quantities as condiments or garnishes, not as whole side dishes, and thus you'll be more inclined to appreciate the way their flavors enhance a meal.

And yes, you'll relish the easy additions they make to your pantry!

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At 7/17/2008 1:04 PM, Blogger Kelly said...

a most excellent primer! I sure hope I can make enough time to do some relishes and chutneys this year. And pickles. Definitely pickles. And salsa. My garden is so slooooow...and the summer is going so fast!

At 7/18/2008 12:34 PM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Same here, Kelly... so much catching up to do!


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