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2021 puts conservatives and anyone right of Jane Fonda in a pickle. Some very bad old ideas are back in new and far more weaponized forms. Yet, the future does not ultimately belong to the left, nor need the next few years. We can bend the arc of history with time and effort. Speaking of time and effort, let’s talk pickles.
I grew up in a family that had a large vegetable garden every year, yard space provided. This necessarily led to freezing and canning. For whatever reason, cucumbers were never, to my memory, a part of my mother’s garden. We had plenty of squash, and tomatoes in places where they would ripen. Zucchini squash was shredded and packed into small freezer containers for use all through the winter months, hopefully used up just about when the next season’s crop was small, tender squash. Tomatoes went into larger Mason jars as stewed tomatoes, or chutney or governor’s sauce for meat. It took me a few decades to follow the family canning tradition.
I started canning about three years ago, driven by a surplus of lemons from a friend’s lemon tree and a desire to reproduce a tomato jelly recipe I had discovered at a microbrewery. I like good beer and started home brewing after my initial Army tour in West Germany, when it was West Germany. Put a pin in the home brewing. Accordingly, I also like trying new small breweries’ products. The Sleepy Dog Brewery had a tasting room at the front end of their brewery and food trucks on high volume nights. This included a pizza oven trailer, supplemented with pretzel dough buns topped with cream cheese and tomato jelly. So, a great deal on the right kind of tomatoes merged with a recipe search, generating my first batch of tomato jelly.
At the same time, I turned lemons into lemon marmalade. The first batch was far too dark and included the seeds, that failed to soften. I solved that issue with a second run that used packaged pectin instead of relying on the seeds and rind. In a similar vein, I turned a friend’s oranges into cranberry-orange marmalade, getting the fresh cranberries from a large farmers’ market. That same market naturally has a variety of cucumbers, which brings us to pickles.
I could not quite bring myself to generating a whole batch of canned pickles, but wanted homemade pickles. The easiest, quickest single jar solution is refrigerator pickles. Cut up Persian, English, or Kirby (traditional pickling) cucumbers. Put them in a jar with mustard seeds, fresh dill, garlic, and any other spice you fancy. Add water, two tablespoons of vinegar, and non-iodized salt (roughly two tablespoons per quart). Refrigerate for 24-48 hours and enjoy. This was quite satisfactory and worked for other vegetables as well. However, it is only good for about a week or so.
So, there I was with a larger batch of Kirby cucumbers bought on a smoking deal. They were going to go bad before I could possibly eat the first batch of refrigerator pickles. So, I went looking for a longer-lasting pickle recipe that still would not require a larger canning operation. Suddenly, beer and pickles came together.
There is another, older process for pickling that does not involve vinegar. Instead, the natural yeasts that surround us are used, in a mildly salty brine, to produce a sour flavor through fermentation. Put the spices you like into a jar/container. Cut up the same sort of cucumbers as you like and pack them into the container or containers. Heat non-chlorinated water and salt at around four cups to two tablespoons, creating a brine. Pour this over the cucumbers.
Now, add a weight of some sort on top to keep cucumbers from floating to the surface and possibly growing mold. I used some decorative glass marbles/stones I had from some project, wrapped in cheesecloth. Set the container aside at room temperature for two to seven days, being careful to allow venting, off-gassing, from the fermentation without exposing the batch to more contaminants from the environment. I just lightly closed a Nalgene jar lid, testing it to ensure it was slightly loose.
After about 48 hours, you should see clear evidence of bubbling and a gradual clouding of the brine. This is how fermentation appears. The primary fermentation should end, temperature-dependent, after about five days. There should be a pickle smell, not an off odor, and the cucumber pieces should taste sour, like a pickle, but with a different flavor than vinegar acid imparts. Place in the refrigerator. It should last for up to a year.
I was already familiar with fermentation and the issue of venting the CO2 byproduct of yeast, while protecting the batch from undesirable additions through the air. This is basic to producing beer or wine. You need yeast, a sort of contaminant, to produce the alcohol that preserves the grain or grape ingredients for months or more. You need to plan and tend to the process so that you get a desirable result rather than a foul, possibly toxic mess. So it has been since olden days, proven by finds of ancient beer and wine, so it is with the newest fermentation equipment. Actually, that applies to life more generally, and certainly to the time in which we now live.Published in