On the Pickling Trail

In: Letting vegetables sit in a mason jar with herbs and spices—essentially, pickling.
Out: Leaving vegetables out—essentially to rot.

Pickles have come a long way from those old bread-and-butter chips in the back of your fridge. In New York City, there's a new breed of craftsmen thriving on the old tradition of pickling. Equipped with solid roots and reverence for the versatile snack, three picklers are creating bold twists on old recipes and find themselves crossing cultures and ingredients to whole new levels. Find sweet and salty confusing? Try smoky, tangy, herby, fresh, garlicky, acidic, and seaweedy for complex.

It may seem about time for home canning and pickling to become the next weekend DIY craft. After all, "the whole point of pickling," says Rick Field of Rick's Picks NYC, "is to preserve the harvest." Nearly every culture has its own version of them. But before this home cooking connoisseur gets herself into too much of a pickle, let us consult our authorities.

I first met Jon Oren at a basement bar gig for a country jug band called the Flanks. Everyone was calling him the pickle guy—it turns out these people had a half-brained theory that pickles and country music went together like mashed potatoes and gravy and were fond of throwing joint events where pickle brine ran as free as the beer on the tap. I learned that Jon had founded the up-and-coming Wheelhouse Pickles, based in Brooklyn, and later caught up with him on a weeknight at the commercial kitchen that he rents in Long Island City for some tips—and on this particular night, to see a batch of Irma's Pears get soaked.

While pears are the only fruit that Wheelhouse has yet sold, Jon is no stranger to attempting to pickle anything. He says his hobby began at an early age: His mother, frustrated by how quickly her son cleaned out jars of pickles when she bought them, told him to pickle his own with the leftover brine. Today, Jon is still pickling his own. In addition to a hardy assortment of pickled okra, beets, peppers, beans, turnips, and cucumbers, Wheelhouse features limited-run "Whims"—specialty seasonal pickles such as pears with burnt honey, tarragon, and Niagara grapes. What's the worst thing he's ever pickled? "Watermelon. It turned to mush."

Getting the fruit bit out of the way, I next headed over to Williamsburg for a crash course on pickling basics from Bob McClure. One fourth of the family-owned McClure's Pickles, Bob has been making hot garlic dills from a 50-year-old family recipe for as long as he can recall—mostly for friends, although the newly launched business has been getting local buzz. Though split between New York and Detroit, the pickling process is always done close to home—one of them. And like Wheelhouse, local ingredients are key and used almost exclusively as long as weather and supply permit.

I was promptly put to work in making a batch of garlic dills (just for friends), since chile peppers were out of season. In the process I jotted some of the do's and don'ts of home pickling. Don't, for instance, worry if your whole garlic cloves turn blue after the first few days of maturing; they'll turn back to their natural color. Do make sure that you chill your vegetables overnight before pickling; they will retain more crispiness. Bob emphasizes the fact that whatever you are pickling, each ingredient should stand on its own—a cucumber should still taste like a cucumber, the dill, like dill. What was the worst pickling "don't" that Bob ever pulled off himself? "Cucumbers with Scotch bonnet peppers that came out way too hot to eat."

If you've ever been to New York City's Union Square Greenmarket on a Wednesday or Saturday, chances are you've seen Rick Field of Rick's Picks NYC. Quite possibly you may have gotten to chat for as long as you pleased while he answered all your pickle queries. I had that chance myself, on an icy Saturday when nobody seemed in as chipper a mood as he.

Everyone from the New York Times to Food & Wine has been talking about Rick's Picks, the veteran pickling outfit of the three discussed in this story. Also founded on locally produced, small-batch principles, Rick's whimsical approach and inspired original recipes such as "Windy City Wasabeans" has secured his place in the pickling history book.

"Local produce is a huge part of my business," Rick says, echoing the tenets I've been hearing from the other picklers. And another: "I try to retain as much natural character of the vegetable as possible." It might be worth mentioning that these three folks are no mere Brooklyn pickling rivals—Jon Oren had worked for a time with Rick Field, and he and Bob McClure often exchange favors like taking a haul of one another's mason jars down from upstate. ("I think I still owe Jon shipping for something," Bob says.)

When asked why he prefers the hot-packing style of pickles, Rick tells me, "I'm a home canning guy. It's what I learned growing up." His family is as keen at swapping pickle recipes as they are at soup recipes, he explains, comparing the similarities of the two. The worst thing he's ever pickled? "Eggs." And that's three to check off my list.

20070223CEingreds.jpgThe basics of home pickling in the hot-packed style are not hard to pin down. You must use pickling salt or coarse salt that's free of the additives in regular table salt. You have to sterilize your materials—jars and lids, and, while you're at it, make sure your pickling ingredients are dirt free, too. Finally, choose local ingredients. It's no wonder that all the picklers I spoke to do the majority of their work in the summer and autumn months, traditionally to preserve the abundance of garden-ripe fruits and vegetables. With these rules in mind, I set about brining a vegetable that I've seen frequently this winter, being shucked off its thick fibrous branches at green markets all over the city: brussels sprouts. For an herb, I chose a something close to dill—fennel fronds. I played it fairly safe with the brine ingredients, screwed on a tight lid, and waited.

Instead of the months that some types of pickles require, I needed only wait at least two weeks for the hot-packed brussels sprouts to mature. A couple of blustery weeks went by. I went to work; celebrated my uncle's 50th birthday on one of the weekends. The wheel of life rotated a little bit. And the brussels sprouts too were evolving—into something much greater than Mother Nature had laid out for them. They were becoming pickles. At least, I hoped that mine were going to become something great.

I wasn't displeased. In two weeks' time, the brussels sprouts came out of the jar delightfully crisp, spicy, and sweet. Each crunchy, cabbagey leaf of the little bulbs held a reserve of juice, which made them especially irresistible to snack on.

About the author: Cathy Erway is no stranger to the kitchen. When not pickling brussels sprouts, she can be found on Not Eating Out in New York, where she writes about cooking affordable meals at home.

Pickled Brussels Sprouts with Fennel Fronds

Equipment
1 quart mason jar, sterilized

Ingredients
3 cups water
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 ½ teaspoons coarse or pickling salt
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon pickling spices: coriander, mustard seeds, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, black pepper, red pepper flakes
1 bunch fennel fronds
10 or so brussels sprouts, trimmed and steamed for about 10 minutes, then chilled

Procedure
1. In a pot large enough to submerge mason jar, sterilize jar and lid by boiling for at least 15 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, make the brining mixture by bringing the water, vinegar, salt, and sugar to a boil. Line up brussels sprouts, fennel, and pickling spices all within easy reach, and remove mason jar from water with tongs.

3. Fill jar with pickling spices, fennel, brussels sprouts. Pour boiling-hot brining mixture to within ½ inch of the lid's top, and seal immediately.

4. Place sealed jar upright in a large pot of boiling water for 10 minutes. Remove, and store jar in a cool, dark place for two weeks.

5. Make sure that the lid's safety seal pops up once you finally open them after two weeks, and enjoy a versatile snacking delight.

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