Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Uncle Moyshe's Fresh Pickles

The headline for today's post is a bit deceptive, in that I don't have an Uncle Moyshe. But I imagine if I did have an Uncle Moyshe and he made pickles, they would be very much like these.

Because these are not canned pickles, but pickles that ferment in a salt brine. These would be the kind of pickles you would find floating around in a big barrel in an old-fashioned Jewish delicatessen. Or maybe sidling up next to your hot pastrami sandwich.

Some of the cucumber vines we planted are beginning to bear fruit. I specifically planted pickling cucumbers because, to be honest, we're not huge fans of slicing cucumbers. I enjoy Swedish-style cucumbers, the ones sliced incredibly thin and dressed simply with salt or perhaps a cream sauce. Otherwise I eat most of my cucumbers in some form of pickle.

Another important reason for making pickles is the chance to re-visit Sandor Ellix Katz and his book Wild Fermentation. Opening Katz' book is like going home again, with all the unusual recipes for fermenting one kind of vegetable or another using simple home brews. I never feel more liberated as a cook, or more self-sufficient as a human, as when I am following one of Katz's recipes. Fermentation has a way of making a connection with our deepest roots as cooks and eaters.

Another advantage: fermentation involves no cooking that might heat up the kitchen on an already hot July afternoon.

I cheated a little because I really only had three cucumbers ready for pickling, it's still that early in the season. But I couldn't see letting them go to waste while we wait for more cucumbers to grow on the vine. So I just buzzed down to the local Whole Foods and bought some more pickling cucumbers to augment my own. It's a nice feature, Whole Foods selling pickling cucumbers. (Those are the ones with the little bumps all over, as opposed to the smooth slicing cucumbers.)

I had to adjust the standard pickling recipe, which calls for covering the cucumbers with a brine of salt and water. Instead of measuring the water for the brine, I laid the cucumbers in the bottom of my pickling bucket (a 2 1/2-gallon plastic bucket purchased from the corner paint store), then covered the cucumbers with water, then measured the water.

What I had was 3 quarts of water, which, when adjusted according to Katz's formula, called for 4 1/2 tablespoons of pickling salt. I mixed the salt with the water. To the bucket I added several small dill seed heads from the garden, along with a fistful of dill stems with bushy leaves and the peeled cloves from two heads of garlic and several oak leaves. Yes, that's correct--oak leaves gathered from a tree in front of the house. They, or the tannins the leaves contain, help crisp the pickles.

Finally, I added about 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes for a little heat, then covered the pickles with a small plate that just fits inside the pickling bucket. On top of the plate I placed a plastic storage container filled with water. This will keep the cucumbers submerged in the brine.

The way fermentation works, a progression of different bacteria will colonize the brine, eventually creating lactic acid in which beneficial bacteria will thrive while keeping spoiling kinds of creatures out.

The process can take anywhere from a week to a month, depending on temperature. The higher the temperature, the faster the fermentation. I prefer a slow, gentle fermentation. The good bacteria like things around 70 degrees, but it's not easy finding a 70-degree spot in our house, since we don't crank up our air conditioning that high, even when it's pushing 100 degrees in the District of Columbia, as it is now.

I covered the pickling bucket with a clean dish towel and placed it in the stairwell leading down to our garage. It's cooler down there.

With any luck, I won't forget to check on our pickles periodically. When they reach that perfect, puckery peak of pickleness, I will remove the bucket from the stairwell and place the pickles in the refrigerator where they will keep for a good long while.

Now we just have to figure out how to make our own pastrami...


deliberately said...

That's what I call some seriously Slow pickles, eh? Looking forward to an update on the progress of the fermentation.

peter said...

What do you mean by "they will keep for a good long while"?
I plan on making pickles this year and am investigating different methods...


Ed Bruske said...

Deliberately, these are slow pickles. Not like what you buy off the shelf in the grocery. They need to be kept refrigerated.

Peter, I haven't made a study of shelf life for these pickles. They are a fermented product, and I have had them last many weeks/months, but not indefinitely, in the refrigerator. Refrigeration slows the fermentation down to a crawl. I still have cole slaw that I made last December, kept in the fridge. Just note that these are not preserved or "canned" in the traditional sense. They are a live product, which is half the fun...

Ed Bruske said...

Correction--not cole slaw, sauerkraut that I made last December is still "alive" in the fridge...

alice said...

hello..i am in the middle of some serious pickle making a la sandoz..

i went to the internet and googled, pickes, and oak leaves, because i cannot get any grape leaves.

were your pickles crunchy using the oak leaves.?
mine have not been crunchy yet.

many thanks

alice said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
alice said...
This comment has been removed by the author.