I’ve been cooking and baking since I could crawl up on a stool next to the counter where my Grandmother would often be spread out making cookies, quick breads, or even that staple of traditional Southern cooking, fried chicken.
But, there was another staple of good Southern cooking that I have ignored for years now, and it was one of Grandma’s favorite things to do. But age and time slip by as we get into our busy lives thinking that we don’t have enough hours in the day for those simple, old-fashioned recipes or our Grandparents. Recently, however, I have turned back to this wonderful kitchen staple that a part of me had forgotten, and that is pickling.
For almost a year now I have been working on managing my overall health and there is one snack I have found myself turning to time, and time again, the tomato and cucumber salad. Those of you that have either grown up in the South or been around family members from there should know what it is I am talking about, that wonderful concoction of fresh, ripe summer tomatoes, bright green crunchy cucumbers, and sweet and sharp red onions all roughly chopped and stuffed into a mason jar with vinegar, salt, a pinch of sugar, and black and pink peppercorns. This was something that could be made in the early morning after picking the vegetables right from the garden, then enjoyed with dinner. Grandma’s favorite was to have it with chicken fried steaks, long-simmered mixed greens that had garlic and onions to enhance the flavors, just blanched green beans and on the side that wonderful tomato salad.
Thinking about that iconic salad brought back a bit of nostalgia for me. Even though we lived in a suburb on the outskirts of Los Angeles, our house boasted a rather large lot. Both of the front sides of the house were dedicated to homegrown goodness. Vegetable and lettuces of every variety, from iceberg to romaine, green beans, and cucumbers, to eggplant. Carrots, potatoes, onions, and rutabagas. You name it she grew it.
Now the backyard, that was where her pride and joy grew, tall strong stalks in neat rows of beefsteak tomatoes that got the full benefit of the sun. Sweet and slightly tangy I have yet to have tomatoes as good as the ones Grandma grew. She was so good at growing them we always had a plethora of the fresh, ripe fruit right up until the first dew drops of fall. And if we were really good, she would pluck a few of those tomatoes when they were still green and we would have the most amazing fried green tomatoes served next to her stuffed and smothered thick cut pork chops. Oh, and yes, she would pickle a few of those green tomatoes to use in salads, or cook up in her trusty cast iron skillet with some garlic and spices.
Well, as you can tell my Grandma could cook, and she passed her love of good cooking onto me. So, how does all that tie into my rediscovery of pickling and my health? After a few weeks of research, I found ways to take my favorite recipes that I grew up with and make them with almost no salt, but without losing all those amazing flavors.
It wasn’t the tomato and cucumber salad that set me on my journey of a new, fun passion, no it was actually that wonderful Mediterranean staple, pickled turnips. The bright purple colored sticks of mildly sweet and sharp flavors that marry well with my favorite exotic dishes That’s right, the humble, crunchy, mildly radish tasking cruciferous vegetable is perfect for pickling. I had found out that turnips are very high in nutrients, vitamins, and low in calories, and carbohydrates. It is an almost perfect snack.
I sought out ways to make one of my favorite accompaniments to grilled chicken, hummus, and roasted vegetables. I found many recipes with varying degrees of authenticity to what I have experienced in those warm and welcoming Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants I fell in love with when my husband and I lived in Glendale, California. However, most, if not all, had sodium amounts that would make anyone’s heart flip around in their chest. I wondered if I could adapt one of these recipes to ease up on the salt and add a little more of one or more of the other ingredients without losing that pickled taste. So, that is when I experimented. Luckily my very first batch came out delicious, and my husband almost devoured half the jar in two days! That right there told me I was on to something. The second batch was even more successful than the first. I knew then I was really on to something.
After my couple of success with the turnips, I then decided it was time to try my hand at some more adventurous pickling. I took to marinated mushrooms, Japanese inspired
pickled cucumbers, that ubiquitous tomato, cucumber, and red onion salad, and my recent most adventurous pickling, the Italian relish, hot and spicy Giardiniera. There is nothing like a good Italian sub sandwich with some spicy Giardiniera chopped up on top, or thrown on an antipasti plate, or even a good lettuce salad. Or, grinding it down and mixing in an olive salad to make a topping for my take on a Muffaletta. The results were even better than I expected. Spicy, crunchy, tangy, it hit all the right notes. My husband even proclaimed that I shouldn’t ever make it again because he’s tempted to eat the whole jar’s worth.
I want to branch out and try more vegetables, like green beans, okra, or even a version of that other Southern staple, chow-chow. Pickling can be a wonderful addition to anyone’s culinary adventure, and with some careful thought and planning, it is easy to keep the sodium content down.
Pinterest, Instagram, foodie blogs, and even Facebook are full of recipes and pictures of people trying their own hand at homemade pickling. There seems to be a new food revolution with many people learning to pickle and can their own fresh vegetable and fruits. Yes, believe it or not, pickled strawberries are a thing, and if done right they can be a wonderful addition to a bowl of fresh churned vanilla custard ice cream. The vinegar in this instance is some balsamic vinegar, which can be a nice twist on some old favorites, like the tomato, cucumber, and red onion salad like I had grown up with. I encourage anyone to try their hand at pickling, you would be very surprised at how easy, and delicious an adventure it can be.
Here are just a couple of my personal favorite pickling recipes. You can adjust the salt and spices to your own liking.
Japanese Inspired Pickled Cucumbers
8 – 10 small Persian Cucumbers (You can use English as well, but the Persian are milder
in flavor and crunchier in texture.)
1 cup no sodium Rice Vinegar
1/4 cup Sesame Oil
1/3 cup no or low sodium and low sugar Mirin (This is a Japanese Rice Cooking wine.)
3 – 4 cloves of garlic roughly chopped
1/2 Small red onion roughly chopped
1 Tlbs Pink Peppercorns
1 Tlbs Black Peppercorns
1/4 tsp kosher salt (Believe me I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but you will be surprised)
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (Optional)
Slice the cucumbers in 1/8th-inch slices and add them to a clean and sterilized clamp jar. In a separate bowl add the vinegar, oil, mirin, salt, peppercorns, and red pepper flakes if using, With a whisk mix all ingredients thoroughly then add to the pickles. Clamp the lid and set inside the refrigerator for two to three days. You can use these right away, but they are best left to really marry those flavors. These can be enjoyed with a nice stir-fry, a bowl of Ramen soup, or even plucked right out of the jar and eaten as a snack.
Four medium sized turnips washed, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch thick sticks
1 small beet washed, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch thick sticks
3 – 4 cloves of garlic roughly chopped
4 cups of water
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 cup white vinegar
2 Tbs kosher salt
In a large bowl toss the turnips, beet, and garlic together then layer into a clean, sterilized clamp jar, pack as tightly as you can. In a medium saucepan add the water, bay leaves, and salt, bring to a simmer and cook till the salt completely dissolves. Take the pan off the stove and let cool completely. When ready add the vinegar to the water then carefully pour into the jar with the turnips. This will be where you must have restraint, the pickles need to sit in a cool, dry place, but not the refrigerator, for 5 to 7 days. Try them after 5 days, they should be crunchy, slightly sweet, with a good bite of vinegar to them. If not let them sit for another couple of days, then pop them into the fridge.