Sunday, February 8, 2015

Find your Crock Now so You'll be Ready for High Summer Pickling Season

Gut health is an important topic these days.  As we are learning, you can't truly be healthy if you don't have a healthy gut.

Eating fermented foods helps to restore a balance of beneficial bacteria into the gut.  

Fermenting is just about as old as cooking.  Fermenting developed as an early way for people to store and preserve foods.  Our grandparents ate fermented foods with many of their meals and those fermented foods helped to keep them healthy, lean and energetic.

Now that we've become a culture of "fast", packaged, processed and microwaved meal consumers, most of us rarely eat any fermented or cultured foods at all.   This change has put us at health risk, creating digestive systems which are out of whack.  Good health starts in the gut, which is why many of us are suffering from modern diseases.

Throughout the world, different cultures have developed different types of fermented foods.  The Japanese eat miso and tempeh, the Koreans eat kimchi, Germans sauerkraut, and so on.  Many European cultures developed yogurts, kefir and cultured cheeses.  Of course, eating homemade yogurt from raw milk cultures is one of the best sources of beneficial bacterias.  (see here for information about homemade yogurt and here for instructions on how to make it).

However, there are lots of other delicious fermented foods.  Pickles are a fermented food.  In fact, pickles are a very American source of healthy bacterial cultures.  I remember visiting my grandfather on his farm late in his life and seeing his pantry stocked floor to ceiling full of homemade pickled vegetables of every sort.  All the vegetables were home-grown in his own garden.

Today we've lost sight of these important cooking methods but there are many working to bring them back into our homes.  After all, our good health is at stake.

I've owned a wonderful book for many years called "Fancy Pantry" by Helen Witty.  It's filled with delicious recipes for homemade pickles, relishes, canning, drying etc.  Below is Helen Witty's recipe for Grapeleaf Dills.

Witty's recipe is a lot of fun to read, but if you want to make the dills, you'll probably need to collect some equipment, like a crock or large pickling jar, which is why I am publishing it now.  If you want to be ready by summer, start looking now for the perfect pickling container.

When the pickles are out at my local farmer's market, I'll be ready!  By the way, that's Lake Tahoe in the background.

Although I've made this recipe in the past, I no longer have a pickling jar.  I'm planning to spend the spring searching my favorite flea market, hunting down the perfect crock.  Then, when my farmers market is brimming with fresh pickling cukes and dill, I'll be at the ready.

Grapeleaf Dill Pickles by Helen Witty

"Seize the moment when fine, fresh pickling cucumbers and dill with young but fully formed seedheads are available and lay down a crock full of pickled bliss for eating straight from the crock or put up in jars for longer storage.  Either way, this is a project worth tackling, especially as classic crock pickling involves little labor.  Be aware, however, that the pickle crock must be skimmed daily for the 2 or 3 weeks fermentation will take, so don't plan to start dill-pickling just before you 're due to go on vacation.  The time required will depend on the ambient temperature--and who knows, maybe the temperament of your cucumbers?

A word about ingredients:  Only fresh, not too large pickling cucumbers should be used--don't use the kinds meant for salads--and they should not have spent more than a day or two off the vine when they go into the crock.  Of course cucumbers that have been waxed are out of the question.

Try to include the grape leaves (it doesn't matter if they are from cultivated or wild vines): after shoulder-to-shoulder crock tests in several seasons, I'm satisfied that they do indeed increase the crispness of dill pickles.

If the dill you can get lacks seed heads, use it anyway and add a teaspoonful of dried dill seed from the spice shelf.  When you find dill that's just right, you can freeze the stalks for later use, too.  They keep well for several weeks."

24 very fresh pickling cucumbers 4-6 inches long
8 large fresh grape leaves, optional
Large bunch of fresh dill with seed heads (use a bunch as large as one hand can encircle)
8-12 cloves garlic, to taste, unpeeled but slightly flattened
6 quarts water
1 cup less 2 tablespoons (7/8 cup) pickling salt or other fine non-oxidized salt
3 tablespoons mixed pickling spice

     1)  Wash the cucumbers well and drain them thoroughly.  Rinse and drain the grape leaves.  Trim the roots and any wilted leaflets from the dill, rinse the sprigs well, and drain them on a towel.
     2)  Line the bottom of a 2-gallon crock or other deep wide-mouthed glass or ceramic container with 3 of the grape leaves and some of the dill.  Pack the cucumbers loosely in the crock, interspersing them with dill and grape leaves and sprinkling the garlic cloves here and there; save 2 grape leaves and a little dill for the top.   Be sure to leave at least 3 inches of room at the top of the crock; if your cucumbers are strapping specimens and the crock is too full, transfer some of the contents to another container (2-quart canning or storage jars work well).
     3)  Combine the water, salt and pickling spice in a large pot, brint it to a boil, and simmer it, covered 5 minutes.  Set the pot, uncovered, in a sink and cool the brine quickly by surrounding the pot with cold water.  (Or let it cool naturally.)
     4)  Ladle the cooled brine over the contents of the crock covering the cucumbers by at least 2 inches (more brine than that will be fine).  Add the reserved grape leaves and dill.  Set a plate on top to hold everything under the surface.  Fill a pint jar with water and weight the plate with it; the brine should cover the plate.  Cover the whole works loosely with a towel or a double layer of cheesecloth and leave it in a reasonably cool spot, one where the temperature won't go over about 70 degrees.
     5)  Every day (or even twice a day if the scum forms rapidly), uncover the crock, remove the jar and the plate and rinse them.  Carefully skim all the whitish film from the brine (this skinning is essential for proper fermentation).  Wipe the inner rim of the crock; return the plate, jar and cloth.  Let fermentation continue until the pickles are uniformly olive green throughout.  When you think they may be ready--in 2 weeks or so--halve one to check.  After a few days fermentation, you may wish to taste the brine and add more pickling spice, being careful not to overwhelm the dill and garlic, which should predominate.  If the brine depth should drop to less than 2 inches over the pickles, make more brine (1/4 cup salt to each quart of water, boiled and cooled) and add it.
     6)  When they are pickled to suit, your cucumbers, now "full sours," may be devoured straight from the crock (continue to skim the brine whenever necessary), or they may be refrigerated for longer storage.

Refrigerator storage:  Drain the pickles, reserving the brine, and pack them into jars, adding 1-2 sprigs of fresh dill, 1 or 2 cloves of fresh garlic, and 1 or 2 tiny dried red peppers to each jar, if you wish.  Strain the brine and fill the jars with it.  (Disregard any whitish sediment, it is a harmless product of fermentation, and will settle to the bottom of the jars.)  Cap the jars and refrigerate them; the pickles will keep for several months.

Pickling Crock from Williams Sonoma.  About $60.

Pickling Jar from Libby.  My last one looked something like this.  About $30.

"The fermentation doesn't just preserve the foods and make them rich in healthy microbes," says Julie O'Brien, owner of Seattle Firefly Kitchens, "it also makes the nutrients in the food more bioavailable and creates crazy-good flavors.
Our creative ancestors found a way to transform a perishable abundance of food into products such as sauerkraut and miso that could nourish through the lean times. Now, current research continues to reveal a need to return to these food practices to help heal our poorly functioning flora. Eating live, fermented foods must be the tastiest way imaginable to start trusting our gut again.
Cynthia Lair is an assistant professor at Bastyr University, author of two cookbooks and host of Cookus Interruptus 

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