Wednesday, May 25, 2011

PICKLING, A TREASURED WAY TO PROCESS VEGGIE ABUNDANCE

Some pickled dishes - What they are and why you should make them.
It's getting close to summer, officially. That means that a lot of us will soon have bumper crops of certain vegetables, and the question often comes up: "Is there something that I can do with all these cucumbers, beans, peppers, etc.? Even, for those of us without a super-garden production, we sometimes have too many vegetables left in the fridge at the end of week. No one wants to throw them out, of course.

Jonathan Bloom in his book, “American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food” (2010), estimates that a quarter of the food that’s brought into U.S. kitchens is scraped off plates, uneaten after meals or never even served up and sent directly to the trash. The idea of wasting so much food really troubles me, especially when current headlines are predicting a world of increasing food costs and shortages. So, this post is about something that you can do - when you don't know what to do - with all those extra veggies. In the spirit of: ‘When you have too many lemons, make lemonade”, there is this variation:” When you have too many vegetables, make pickles.”

Pickles and relishes are briny and vinegary, seasoned vegetables. Vinegar is the miracle ingredient that acts as a preservative. Olive oil does the same thing. Pickling has been a means of preserving and flavoring vegetables, surely dating back to prehistoric times. Archeological evidence indicates the ancient Mesopotamians pickled, and pickles are mentioned in the Old Testament. And history books tell that European explorers to America carried pickles with them on the ships. Pickled vegetables were the means by which 15th-century sailors saved themselves from scurvy and, in the early colonies, they were among the first food items to be produced commercially.

In some other countries, they’re known as giardiniera, ensalada de legumbres en escabeche, chutneys, misodzuke, etc. While there may be variation and even disagreement over procedures, all of these dishes are about the same - a mix of marinated vegetables.  Served traditionally as embellishments for roast meats and beans, nowadays, pickled vegetables  are considered to be great combined with salad greens, side dishes in themselves, or healthy snacks when served up with a few crackers. When pickled as as colorful vegetable medleys, they are decorative, too, and are well accepted on buffet tables along with more “elegant” foods.

So, now we come to two topics that are worthy of note: piccalilli and chow-chow. These are regional names, at least in Appalachia, for vinegary vegetables with spices.  Both chow chow and piccalilli are vegetable mixtures that can include a mix of cauliflower, peppers, onion, cabbage, green beans, etc., along with spices, all depending on the cook’s preference or veggie surplus at the moment. WV, my home state, has long had its own regional food variety – Appalachian or Southern Mountain style. To the best of my memory, the WV choice among garnishes was piccalilli. It's made with several different coarsely chopped veggies and almost always has cauliflower or cabbage. On the other hand, what we called chow-chow was certainly known, but seems, at least in my experience, to have been more popular in the Deep South. Chow chow is a relish with a base of chopped green tomatoes. It may also include onions, bell peppers, and other vegetables, and is usually more finely chopped than piccalilli. While not exactly similar, the terms, piccalilli and chow-chow, are sometimes used interchangeably.

My early memories of eating pickled veggies
Now, my close family was all city folk, and the veggies to make our pickled dishes – and a lot of our prepared garnishes, too - were “imported" from farms where my great uncles and aunts continued to live on. And we sometimes had pickled veggies, usually piccalilli, on the table. It was served on the side of a plate. But as a small child, I found pickled foods to be too vinegary for me. Some years later, entering preadolescence, I developed a taste for piccalilli. Actually, I liked it a lot and could have eaten it with every meal, but that didn't happen, at least not for more than a day or so, because my family also liked and ate quantities of it. (For whatever reasons, I never really liked the versions of chow-chow that I was served, with all due apologies to chow-chow fans.)

Also back then, when I was growing up, we usually had the Sunday family dinner at my Dad’s mother’s house. We called her Mawmaw. As often as not, at these meals, Mawmaw served the family - with 10 or more "regulars" in attendance - two or more different meats and four or more side dishes, including pickled dishes, besides rolls, cornbread, several desserts, etc. (It was an eating marathon, and most of the adults, at least, had the expanded waistlines to show for it.) I believe she made most of the pickled dishes herself, but maybe she also had a supply of jars from our “still on the farm” relatives. Piccalilli, chow-chow, pickled beets and pickled eggs were all highly praised traditions at her house.

We sometimes had these same garnishes at our house, too, but other than pickled beets, I don't remember Mom making them. It was Dad who brought them in. I guess Mawmaw shared with us occasionally.  At home, sometimes pickled vegetables were served at breakfast time with biscuits and sausage or bacon gravy – what our family called “poor man’s” gravy.  At lunch or dinner, too, they were sometimes served with pinto beans and cornbread. While few of our home-served meals could be described as elegant, the presence of piccalilli or chow chow gave the meals a certain spirit of abundance - at least that’s what it seemed to me as a child.

Other early memories of eating pickled veggies were at large gatherings and picnics in the summer time. At least once a year, we traveled 20 or more miles, "up the river" to a park or church grounds where we met with 40 or more family members – most of whom I hardly knew. Also, back then, the best cooks were known for their “secret” recipes for piccalilli and chow-chow, and there were even competitions for these foods at county fairs. They also sold quart bottles of them at the fairgrounds and gave away samples to anyone who came by. I often reminisce about the large-scale picnics and county fairs of my childhood and, of course, the foods that we enjoyed at these events. It brings back some wonderful memories!

Would you like to make some piccalilli?
Now, maybe you remember those old-fashioned pickled vegetables from traditional recipes, and some of you probably still prepare them. But other people never really liked eating them because they were too vinegary - also, sometimes too salty. But here’s good news. There are other ways of making piccalilli, at least, that taste great and aren’t so acid or briny. So, if you still haven’t already learned to love pickled veggies, try out this recipe. I bet that you and your family will love this side dish as much as my husband and I do.

The pickled veggies recipe I’m talking about here is a “quickie” one that can be eaten after two days. Some people might argue that these aren't technically pickles because they aren’t particularly salty and don’t have a shelf life of an entire year. But, they are a version of the same that doesn’t call for the fuss of standard canning procedures. And this piccalilli is a nice balance of crunchy, sour and a touch of sweetness. And when salad greens would long be eaten up  - or heaven forbid, thrown out - these pickled vegetables are still at their best – lasting in the fridge for up to a month. These pickled veggies along with a slab of good bread, a bowl of beans (and maybe some farmers' cheese) make for a complete meal. 

Piccalilli, A Lighter Version
Veggies, chopped coarsely
2 carrots, peeled
1 celery stalk
3 c. cauliflower
1 sweet pepper, red or green
2 c. zucchini or yellow squashes
1 red onion (better sliced than chopped)

Pickling liquid
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 c. apple cider vinegar
1 c. dry white wine
¼ c. olive oil
1/2 c. water
3 tps brown sugar
2 tsp salt
4 peppercorns
1 tsp dry dill weed
½ tsp mustard seed
2 jalapenos (seeds removed) or 2 banana peppers

Place the pickling ingredients in a 1-gallon stainless steel or enameled pot and bring the pot to a boil. Boil for 15 minutes. Strain the liquid and return to pot. Keep the liquid boiling and add successively: carrots and celery, cauliflower, peppers, onion slices and squash, leaving 2-3 minutes between additions of each vegetable. When you consider all the veggies to be lightly cooked, - still crisp and crunchy, rather than limp and rubbery - remove them from liquid and let them cool at room temperature. Once cooled, put the vegetables in a sterilized, 1-gallon glass pickle or olive jar. Fill the jar with the - now also cooled - pickling liquid. Cover with a sterilized lid and refrigerate for 2 days before eating. Keep it refrigerated for up to a month -  I’m fairly sure that your prized piccalilli will disappear a lot faster than that.

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2 comments:

sherry hill said...

Loved reading this and since we are from the same gene pool, I know about this but my grandmother never fixed anything pickled other than eggs--which I wouldn't eat and still won't. It took me a long time to appreciate pickled vegetables but I love them as well as pickled beets!

GrandmaS said...

Sherry,
Well, I'm glad you learned to eat and enjoy piccalilli. Do you still find it somewhere or make it yourself? And did you know that hard boiled eggs are often pickled along with beets? The beets add a sweet spicy taste that makes this dish taste a lot better than regular pickled eggs.