A number of pickling recipes call for leaves of some sort in the brine--grape leaves, oak leaves, cherry leaves, black currant leaves--on the theory that the leaves make the pickles more crisp.
I have no reason to doubt this is true, so I include the leaves. For these fermented dill pickles, Helen Witty, in "Fancy Pantry," calls for grape leaves. I don't have any grape leaves. But I have an oak tree in front of my house. So I used oak leaves.
This is one of those very simple pickling operations where you cover cucumbers with a salt brine and let them sit in a bucket or a crock for a period of time until they've fermented to your preferred point of doneness. Witty calls these "full sours" because they ferment completely over a period of two or three weeks, depending on the ambient temperature. She recommends checking them daily and skimming away an scum that may form on top of the brine. Testing the pickles periodically is a good idea, because they can very quickly go south if you aren't watching.
Here's Witty's list of ingredients:
24 pickling cucumbers 4 to 6 inches long
8 large fresh grape leaves
large bunch of fresh dill with seeds heads
8 to 12 cloves garlic
6 quarts water
1 cup less 2 tablespoons pickling salt
3 tablespoons mixed pickling spice
I made half the recipe. In fact, I only had nine cucumbers on hand, but I went ahead and halved everything else. That would mean somewhat less than a half cup of salt (I used unadulterated sea salt) for three quarts of water, which is very close to my usual ratio.
Pickling spice? You might be surprised how many different recipes there are for pickling spice. McCormick makes a pickling blend. I decided to try my own:
2 teaspoons yellow mustard seed
1 teaspoon dill seed
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon allspice berries
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon cloves
2 bay leaves, broken in half
I used about half of this and saved the rest.
There is nothing complicated about these pickles. First, scrub the cucumbers and set aside. Prepare the brine by combining the water, salt and pickling spices in a large saucepan. Bring the mix to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Let the brine cool to room temperature (or chill the saucepan in an ice bath).
Layer the grape (or oak, or cherry) leaves, the cucumbers, dill and garlic cloves in a heavy plastic bucket or crock, then cover with the pickling brine. The brine should cover the cucumbers by at least a couple of inches. Cover the cucumbers with a ceramic plate that just fits inside the container and weigh it down with a smaller plastic container filled with water. The cucumbers need to be submerged in the brine at all times to prevent spoilage.
After a few days, check on the cucumbers to make sure they are submerged. Thereafter, check on them daily, tasting occasionally and wiping away any scum that might form, until the pickles are completely sour to your liking.
Now you can eat the pickles straight from the crock or refrigerate them to slow any further fermentation. I'm making mine for canning. Put the cucumbers (whole or divided) with some of the garlic and dill into clean, wide-mouth canning jars. Strain the brine, bring it to a boil and simmer for 2 minutes. Then fill the jars, leaving about 1/4-inch head space. Remove any air bubbles, cover with new canning lids according to manufacturer's instructions and process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath.