Relish – The Post-Pickle Blitz

Chopped vegetables, for piccalilliThe following post is either going to blow your mind or convince you that I’m stupid.

I don’t eat a lot of relish, but every now and then it goes well with charcuterie, or maybe a steamed wiener on a sweet white bun.  For the past few years I’ve been trying to make relish and other condiments like piccalilli by chopping up a bunch of vegetables and canning them with a sweet and sour pickling liquid.  I haven’t been entirely happy with the results.  Maybe I chopped the cucumbers too coarsely, and the condiment didn’t have the semi-fluid, spreadable consistency I was looking for.  Or perhaps, since the chopped vegetables have to be completely submerged in the pickling liquid for safe canning, the relish was too soupy and had to be pressed before eating.

I’ve always thought of relish as chopped cucumbers that are pickled.  Then I realized – and this is the potentially “stupid” part – that it could just as easily be pickled cucumbers that are then chopped.  I love the idea of only pickling whole or mostly whole vegetables, then blitzing them in a food processor to make a spread.  Here are some of the benefits I see to this method:

  1. Whole or mostly whole vegetables retain better crunch through the canning process, so they make for a spread with more structure and texture.
  2. It’s much, much faster to can large pieces of veg.
  3. By blitzing the pickles at the last minute, condiments can be tailored to fit the dish.  If you put up some dill pickles, a few jars of pickled zucchini, some pickled peppers, onions, and garlic, then you can combine them into any number of piccalilli-masterpieces throughout the winter.

Maybe this is how everyone makes relish and I only just clued in.  At any rate, next year’s pickle pantry is going to look a lot different than this year’s.

Dill Pickles

Little cucumbers from Tipi CreekI’m getting closer to my ideal dill pickle.  The quest was especially feverish this fall because I had a bit of Montreal-style smoked meat in my fridge.

Year by year I’ve been making my pickling liquid more and more acidic.  I like a sour pickle.  This year, I used straight vinegar, without diluting with water.  This might sound crazy, but it works.  The pickles are a bit too sour immediately after jarring, but let them hang out in the cellar for a month, and they’re prefect.  For me, anyways.

I’ve also been engineering the crunch-factor.  We all want a very crisp pickle.  This year I doused the fresh cucumbers with 5% of their weight in kosher salt, and let them stand for an hour or two to draw excess moisture and stiffen.  This process yielded a 22% increase in crunchiness.

As for flavourings, year by year I’m adding less and less.  At one time I would have had black peppercorns and mustard seed and coriander in the mix.  This year there were only lightly crushed garlic cloves and whole heads of dill.

Following is the current version of my recipe.  All ingredients are expressed as a percent of the weight of cucumbers used.  (I don’t start out saying, “I’m going to pickle 5 pounds of cucumbers today,” but rather, “Holy Moses I have lots of cucumbers: I’m going to pickle about half of them.”)

The exact amount of liquid necessary will depend on your jars and how you fill them.  If I have one pound of cucumbers, I typically use one pound of vinegar.

Dill Pickles: A Working Recipe

  • 100% cucumbers, very fresh and firm, cut, if necessary, into pieces 3″-4″ long and at most 1″ wide
  • 5% kosher salt
  • 100% cider vinegar
  • 25% granulated sugar
  • 10% honey
  • 3 garlic cloves for each pint jar
  • 1 large head of dillweed for each pint jar

Procedure

  1. Toss the cucumbers and kosher salt in a large bowl.  Let the mixture stand until the cucumbers have released water, about one hour.  Gently press the cucumbers to release more liquid.
  2. Sterilize the jars and lids.  Add three cloves garlic and one large head of dillweed to each.  Stuff each jar with the lightly cured cucumbers to within a half inch of the top.
  3. Combine cider vinegar, sugar, and honey in a large pot on the stove.  Bring to a rapid boil.
  4. Pour the pickling liquid into the jars so that all contents are submerged.
  5. Lid the jars.  Let stand at least two weeks before opening.  Refrigerate after opening.  Once the pickles have been eaten, reserve the liquid for pickle soup.

Jars of dill pickles

Pickle Soup

Pickles!This is exactly the kind of delicious, hearty, ingenious, frugal dish I love.
While finely chopped condiments like relish, piccalilli, and jam can be canned on their own, larger slices of vegetables like cucumbers, beets, and carrots require an acidic liquid in which to be preserved.  The liquid prevents the growth of aerobic pathogens by keeping air away from the vegetables and filling the space with acid, salt, and sugar.  Once the vegetables are gone, this delicious liquid can be used in a number of applications.

If this sounds at all gross to you, think about what is in dill pickle juice: water, garlic, black pepper, mustard seed, coriander, bay, cider vinegar, salt, and sugar.  The liquid has been cooked out and over the course of a few weeks or months has had time to mellow and balance.  It really is fantastic stuff.

My day to day use of pickling liquid is in dressings.  Thinning out mayonnaise with a bit of dill pickle juice makes a great dressing for slaw.  Thinning crème fraîche with pickled beet and horseradish liquid makes an elegant accompaniment for smoked fish.

I recently came across a traditional Ukrainian dish called kvasivka selians’ka that uses the brine from the sauerkraut crock to make soup:

[The soup] makes a thrify use of the sauerkraut juice that would otherwise be left in the barrel.  It seems appropraite for Pentecost celebrations, since by late spring the supply of last year’s sauerkraut would probably have run low.[1]

It may only be November, but I’ve already gone through a few jars of preserves.  Today I had some dill pickles out, so I decided to make pickle soup.

For this particular version, I browned carrots, onions, and the garlic cloves from the pickle jar in butter.  Then I added all-purpose flour and cooked the roux until aromatic and starting to brown.  Then I poured in some of the pickling liquid and whole milk, which I cooked gently until the mixture thickened.  At this point I added some boiled, chopped, russet potatoes, and some of the pickles themselves.

Some notes:

  • Consume very hot, with a healthy dose of black pepper, and a drizzle of cold-pressed canola.  I don’t know why, but the flavour of cold-pressed canola goes extremely well with this soup.
  • The exact amount of pickling liquid you use will depend on how acidic the liquid is.
  • The starches (the roux and the potatoes) temper the acidity of the pickles.
  • Browning the onions and roux brings out their sweetness, which compliments the sweetness of the pickles.

Dill pickle soup finished with cold-pressed canola

1.  Pisetska Farley, Marta.  Festive Ukrainian Cooking.  ©1991 University of Toronto Press.  A very good read.

Lacto-Fermented Pickles

Cucumbers

Naturally fermented dill picklesI come from a land of “refrigerator pickles”: cucumbers steeped in syrupy vinegar and spices, and stored in the fridge through the fall. There is another type of pickle called a lacto-fermented pickle.  The idea of producing an acidic pickle with only brine was a revelation.

The procedure couldn’t be simpler. Make a brine of one cup salt in one gallon of water. Cover your chosen vegetables in the chilled brine (most vegetables want to float, so you’ll have to find a way to keep them submerged) and leave for a week at a cool room temperature. This is the only tricky part: the solution must stay below 23°C to prevent the proliferation of harmful bacteria. I don’t have any air-conditioning, so I wait for weeks like this, when it barely reaches 20°C outside, and then crack open the window in my “cold storage room” (also my office, where I am typing this post).

The familiar Lactobacillus bacteria consume something (lactose?) in the vegetables and create lactic acid. Lactobacillus can survive in the saline solution, while most undesirable bacteria can’t.

Once the vegetables have reached the desired balance of salty and sour, they are removed from the brine and placed in a new container. The brine is boiled to kill off any pathogens, then chilled and poured back over the vegetables. The pickles will keep indefinitely in your fridge.

That is my only misgiving about this preservation technique: the pickles are not properly canned, and so they tie up fridge space. The bulk of my cucumbers are cooked into syrupy relish, properly canned, and kept in the pantry. It’s worth saving a few vegetables for this natural pickling process. The taste is exquisite: delicate acidity and a high crunch-factor.

Cabbage

Naturally fermented sauerkrautWe’re starting to get 5lb heads of cabbage from Tipi Creek. While I have a gargantuan appetite for braised cabbage at this time year (apples come into season, I smoke pork, maybe there’s some kohlrabi kicking around…) there’s still plenty left over to make sauerkraut by the traditional brining method. This year I tried canning my sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is often cooked before eating anyways, so I figured it will hold up to the canning process nicely.

There’s still a nagging voice in the back of my mind, a voice insisting that canning without a recipe is dangerous.

I need a book that liberates me, the home-canner, from recipes. A book that says: “This is the pH, salinity, or sugar content required to safely jar food. This is how to measure the pH of your pickles. This is the approximate pH of common household pantry items. This is how to calculate the pH of your pickling solution.” That way, instead of working from a recipe, I could start with a set of ingredients or cured products like sauerkraut and salt pork and test and adjust them to make sure they’re safe to can.

Even though I didn’t have a recipe for the canned sauerkraut, there are plenty of forums and Youtube videos from the northern US that detail the jarring of traditional home-cured sauerkraut. All the folks in these videos have friendly, trustworthy faces, so I gave it a go.