I don't know why I chose late July of all times to start a biscuit-baking, cannelés-experimenting week, but I did. The temperature in my non air-conditioned apartment must have been eighty-something degrees, and my steadily simmering pot of menudo worsened the situation. I labored in the kitchen with the sort of awful, sticky perspiration that never quite leaves despite repeated showers and cool drinks. Still, with visions of crusty cannelés and buttery biscuits dancing in my head, I slogged forth until the evening, when something truly awful happened.
After hours of cooking, I realized to my great horror that I was no longer hungry.
This was something of a dilemma. If I cannot eat, then I cannot be happy. And now, I was angry to boot: angry at the heat for taking away my appetite but mostly mad at myself for being so bothered in the first place. Regaining some of my composure, I knew what I had to do.
Pickling is my answer to intolerable heat.
Pickling is my answer to intolerable heat and loss of appetite. Not gelato, not sorbet, but Asian pickled fare, which cools me down better than anything else. On a truly hot summer's night, all I want is a bowl of rice, one or two pickled vegetables dishes, and a tiny piece of fish. Best of all, on those scorching days when applying heat to one's food seems abominable, pickling is an ideal treatment for your cache of vegetables. Cucumbers, radishes, daikon, turnips, carrots, and cabbage all take well to pickling, as do about a dozen or so other vegetables.
Pickling requires no culinary prowess whatsoever; it's simply a matter of getting everything lined up in one bowl. Furthermore, pickling can be as easy or as elaborate as one wishes. A pickling procedure may involve salting and then draining a thinly sliced vegetable, or it can be a full immersion of the vegetables in a brining liquid--or some combination of the aforementioned. As long as you're drawing out moisture and adding in flavor, then you're pickling.
The versatility of the techniques makes pickling well-suited for experimentation. Taste your brine or the amount of salt as you're going along, so that you can gauge somewhat immediately whether or not your pickling will be successful. From the beginning, the pickling solution should taste powerful but balanced in terms of sour, sweet, and salty. Experiment with different types of vinegars to see what you like. For Asian pickling methods, I prefer to use rice vinegar, which is subtle but suggestive. Sometimes, I will add some apple cider, red wine, or sherry vinegar to the mix if I'm so inclined. A pot filled with water, or a heavy tin of canned food, makes a good weight to press the vegetables into the brine.
This week, I've chosen to highlight a trio of recipes in order to demonstrate the flexibility of the process. In the first recipe from Shizuo Tsuji, a simple salt cure is applied to cucumbers or radishes; a piece of kelp and citrus rind are thrown into the bowl for a hint of brininess and zest. Within one hour, you'll have crispy and refreshing slices that will keep for days in the refrigerator.
In the second recipe from Susanna Foo, napa cabbage, carrots, and daikon are immersed in a brining solution of vinegar, sugar, and salt. Jalapeno peppers are added for just a touch of spiciness. Though the vegetables must be soaked in the brine for at least a day, the mixture will hold for two weeks. Crunchy and juicy, the julienned vegetables are pleasantly sweet and sour.
The third recipe, from Hiroko Shimbo's excellent book The Japanese Kitchen, is my favorite pickling recipe of all time. Shimbo's technique is a hybrid process, involving an initial salting followed by a soak in a brining liquid of mirin and rice vinegar. The mirin imbues the vegetables with a winey sweetness that surpasses the abilities of plain sugar. During the summer, I try to have a bag of Shimbo's pickled daikon and carrots on hand, for any overheating emergencies involving baked goods and tripe.
Quick Pickled Cucumber
adapted from Japanese Cuisine: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji
- 3 medium to large sized cucumbers
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2-inch piece of kelp
- 1-inch square of yuzu citron or lemon rind
- 3 cups water
- 1 cup white vinegar, or 1 ½ cups rice vinegar
- ¾ cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons coarse or kosher salt
- 1 napa cabbage
- 1 daikon
- 1 small carrot
- 2 jalapeño peppers
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 4 inches of daikon (3 inches in diameter), peeled and quartered lengthwise
- 1 medium carrot, halved lengthwise
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup mirin
- ¼ cup rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons sugar
Thinly slice the cucumbers. For large cucumbers, peel and de-seed before slicing.
Place the cucumbers into a bowl and sprinkle with the salt. Knead with your hands, mixing thoroughly to draw the water out of the vegetable. In a minute, a fair amount of the water will have been drawn out, leaving the cucumbers feeling slick and supple. Drain to discard the excess liquid.
Return the cucumbers to the bowl and add the kelp and citrus rind. Let stand, lidded with a light weight, for one hour at room temperature.
To serve, pick out a portion from the bowl and shake slightly to remove the excess liquid. Add a few drops of soy sauce or sesame oil, if desired.
Pickled Napa Cabbage, Daikon, and Carrots
adapted from Chinese Cuisine by Susanna Foo
Combine the water, vinegar, sugar and salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and let the mixture cool.
Cut off the leafy upper half of the cabbage and reserve for another use. You will only need the bottom ends with the thicker ribs. Cut each ribbed leaf in half lengthwise. Cut again into 1/8 inch strips.
Cut the daikon crosswise into thin, round slices, then cut each slice into a fine julienne. Soak in ice water for 5 minutes; drain.
Cut the carrot into a fine julienne.
Remove the stems from the peppers and slice crosswise into thin slices.
Place all of the vegetables into a large bowl and pour the vinegar mixture all over, mixing well. The brine should immerse most of the vegetables; if not, add a bit of water to cover.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and weight it down with a pot of water or a heavy can. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours, or preferably for a day before using. Immersed in the brine, the relish will keep for up to two weeks in the refrigerator. This recipe can also be halved or quartered.
Quick Pickled Daikon and Carrot
from The Japanese Kitchen by Hiroko Shimbo
In a bowl, toss the vegetables with the salt. Cover the vegetables with plastic wrap and weight it down with a pot of water or a heavy can. Let stand for five to six hours at room temperature.
Remove the vegetables from the bowl and place them into a sealable plastic bag, along with the mirin, sugar, and rice vinegar. Leave the vegetables in the bag at room temperature for three to four hours, shaking the bag every so often to distribute the liquid evenly.
Refrigerate the vegetables in the plastic bag overnight, or for up to 3 days.
To serve, cut the vegetable strips into 1/4-inch slices. Serve plain or drizzled with a bit of soy sauce.