Monday, June 25, 2012

Those Bread and Butter Pickles

Of course summer is the season for enjoying in-the-moment the bounty of the garden & farm, but also the time to think ahead about how to extend the season. The abundance of fruits and vegetables available from produce stands, farmer's markets, and personal gardens can be a little overwhelming, but offers a great opportunity. Preservation methods like canning allow this bounty to be enjoyed long after the season has passed. Even if you don't have an economic need to put by stores for the winter, you can transform basic produce into tasty sides, condiments, and the like and enhance your enjoyment of the produce from your garden or your local farmer. You can even follow the same principles to make small-batch products with a shorter life; simply substitute the refrigerator for canning equipment.

The retro-hipster, slow-food, greener-living, domestic-arts-revivalist movement has made do-it-yourself scratch food production and preservation popular, even trendy. You can't crack open a cooking magazine or newspaper food section (or web site) in the summer the last few years without reading about people rediscovering how to put up preserves, make their own catsup, or whip up their own mixers for craft cocktails. The movement is just as strong in the restaurant world. Local restaurants sometimes seem to be in a veritable arms race to tout their house-cured or smoked meats, relishes, condiments, and the like. If they are not making such items themselves, they actively promote their use of local/regional artisan producers. You can't swing a cat in Nashville without hitting an indie restaurant that doesn't have a menu featuring Benton's bacon or Corsair liquor or Olive & Sinclair chocolate. It's a pretty exciting time if you care about good food made with care and passion.

But I digress ... I'm here to talk about pickles. I don't care for dill pickles -- my friends will testify that it's one of the few foods I actually abhor -- but I love sweeter types. Bread and butter pickles are a variety that strike the perfect balance between tart and sweet. They are great with bread and butter, as the name imples (a tasty artisan baguette and fresh butter are best, naturally). They are also terrific with a wide variety of cheese and the plainer sorts of crackers, and on sandwiches, burgers, and the like. I adore these on ham sandwiches in particular.

The basis for this recipe was suggested to me by a fellow member of a cooking bulletin board I frequent. A few years ago I was on the hunt for a clone of a commercial pickled Vidalia onion product G&R Farms used to produce, and this seemed to fit the bill. It does indeed work well as a pickled onion recipe, but I usually make it with the stated amount of cucumbers and onions. And yes, these are the pickles I referenced in that poem.

NOTE: I have only ever made these as refrigerator pickles. I follow all the guidelines for canned pickles, including sterilizing jars, using new lids, etc.; I just don't process the packed jars. Since I do not know the original source for this recipe, and I've tinkered with it a bit, I cannot vouch for it as a suitable recipe for canning. Canned foods must contain a certain pH, in addition to being prepared and processed properly, to be shelf-stable and safe. If you would like a reputable, tested recipe for canned Bread & Butter Pickles, check out the one in the University of Georgia Extension Service guide. While I have not made that recipe, it is very similar to this one. I also like the blog Food in Jars for additional canning information.

Bread & Butter Pickles

adapted from various sources

4 quarts well-scrubbed, thinly sliced (1/8"), unpeeled pickling (Kirby type) cucumbers
4 medium onions, sliced pole-to-pole and separated into slivers
1 well-scrubbed red bell pepper, cut into thin strips (optional)
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/3 cup pickling salt (do not use table salt, sea salt, kosher salt, etc.)
large quantity of ice
4 cups sugar
3 cups cider or white vinegar
2 Tbsp mustard seeds
1 1/2 tsp turmeric
1 1/2 tsp celery seeds

Combine cucumbers, onions, peppers, and salt in a very large crock or ceramic, glass, or stainless steel bowl. Cover the vegetables with ice and mix well. Cover with another layer of ice. Let stand for about 3 hours, adding more ice if needed to keep the mixture well-chilled.

Combine the remaining ingredients in a large non-reactive kettle or stock pot and stir until sugar is dissolved. Drain the vegetables and add to the pot. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally; remove from heat immediately.

Pack the pickles and liquid into hot, sterilized pint or quart jars, leaving 1/2 inch head space. Seal with sterilized, new jar lids. Allow to cool until then refrigerate immediately and keep refrigerated.

4 pounds of pickling cucumbers from Ashland City, TN by way of the Nashville Farmer's Market
The blossom end of the cucumber has enzymes that can soften the pickle; it's important to trim that off
I used my OXO V-Slicer (kin to a mandolin) to quickly reduce a pile of produce to slices of perfectly even thickness
The same 4 pounds of cucumbers, sliced. This came to a bit less than 4 quarts called for in the recipe, so I had some pickling syrup left over when all was said and done.
Vidalia onions, of course, for this Georgia girl
Cukes & onions mixed, ready for salt & ice
Salted & iced and left to crisp for 3 hours
Pretty little maids, all in a row

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