August 21, 2014

Summer Pickling in Maine, Continued

In researching my recent Portland Phoenix column, Preserve precious produce, I, as usual, gathered information that wouldn't fit into the column. I talked pickling at length with the chef at Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, a place that brings cocktails to mind before pickles. But Ricky Penatzer pickles a lot of produce (and even fish!) to serve on their Scandinavian-themed sandwiches and bords

The nitty-gritty of Penatzer's pickle process was left out of the column, but he has a lot of interesting techniques. Because of health code regulations and time constraints, Penatzer doesn't can his pickles, but instead makes batches of refrigerator pickles. Fridge pickles can last a few months (in the refrigerator, of course), due to the high acid content (i.e. added vinegar) and allow more freedom in your recipe creation. 

Penatzer creates brines based on the flavor profile of the produce he's pickling. Thinly sliced sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes) are pickled in a sweet "bread and butter" brine with caramelized onions, celery seed, mustard seed, peppercorns, and lots of turmeric. He blanches the sunchokes in the brine (they shouldn't be eaten raw, as they can cause stomach troubles) as he heats the brine to dissolve the sugar and salt. 

Conversely, he avoids heating delicate wild Maine blueberries when pickling them, since cooking them toughens their skins. Penatzer boils the brine, but then lets it cool to room temperature before adding the fruit. To add a more complex flavor without the added expense, Penatzer adds a little bit of aged white balsamic vinegar to the blueberries' brine. He uses ratio of equal parts white or cider vinegar and water to create the base for the brine, then adds a bit of flavored (i.e. more expensive) vinegars at the end, after heating and cooling the brine. 

The jar pictured above is pickled fennel, and I should have taken a page from Penatzer's book and blanched the fennel slices in the brine. Pickled raw, the resulting pieces are a bit tough. The brine is equal parts cider vinegar and water, with a tablespoon of salt, and a sprinkling of mustard seeds, peppercorns and red pepper flakes. 

You can pickle jalapeno slices (they stay nice and crunchy without any added heat), purple cabbage - both great for topping Mexican dishes - red onions, green tomatoes, cauliflower (blanch it), and green beans (again, blanch for fridge pickles). 

If you love dilly beans (pickled green beans), as much as I do though, you'll have to break out the boiling water bath canner to put up a year's worth of pickles. I made one batch resulting in 7 jars, and certainly need to at least double that volume to make it to next summer. There's a lot of Bloody Marys to be had during football season. 

Dilly Beans (Pickled Green Beans)

4 lbs. tender green or yellow beans 
8 to 16 heads fresh dill
8 cloves garlic
1/2 cup canning or pickling salt
5 cups white vinegar (5 percent acidity)
5 cups water
1 tsp hot red pepper flakes (optional)

Wash and trim ends from beans and cut to 4-inch lengths. In each sterile pint jar, place 1 to 2 dill heads and 1 clove of garlic. Place whole beans upright in jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Trim beans to ensure proper fit. 

Combine salt, vinegar water, and pepper flakes (if desired). Bring to a boil. Add hot solution to beans, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Add lids and apply screw bands until fingertip tight. Process for 5 minutes in a boiling water bath. Let cool, check for seals, and label and date.

Yield: About 8 pints

If you're into fermenting to get your pickles, I can't recommend this ceramic crock enough: the Harsch fermenting crock. It's not cheap, but it's doing a great job of keeping my cucumbers fully submerged in the brine. The water lock around the lid is keeping the mold out - my other batch of pickles fermenting in a 5-gallon plastic bucket has blue mold around the edges, whereas the crock has not a hint of mold (the spots you see in the photo below are scum from the fermentation process and floating spices). 

The 5-gallon pickles have been fermenting for about 3-1/2 weeks and the larger batch in the crock for almost 2 weeks. I sampled the smaller batch of pickles a week and a half ago, and deemed them to not taste like much more than salt. I diluted the brine and left them to ferment a bit more. Hopefully they'll have a tangy, acidic flavor the next time I dip in for a sample. 

For more information on fermenting, visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation's page on fermenting. Sandor Felix Katz is a great resource for fermentation as well, but more so his book Wild Fermentation and the Art of Fermentation than his website. Canadian bloggers at Well Preserved also do a great job explaining fermentation. But really, you've just got to get in there and start something fermenting. The produce is in, so start pickling!