Salty, Spicy, Sometimes Sweet: Pickling is the perfect process for summer’s bounty

No pickled garlic in my car” is one of those rules I thought I’d never have to make, but a few years ago, my husband broke this then-unspoken rule during a drive home from Eckert’s Farm in Grafton. A lover of all things pickled, he was in pickled heaven with his pungent quart, but from the driver’s seat, I was in something more like garlic hell.

When given the proper space to breathe, salty, spicy and even sometimes sweet pickled foods create a diverse culinary landscape. While “pickled” brings to mind the common pickled cucumber, many other foods can be processed according to this ancient preservation method.

Pickling is simple enough to do at home, as long as one follows the recipes closely. Watermelon rinds, Korean kimchi, bread-and-butter slices and even pickled bar eggs are just some of the possibilities.

Pickling is one of the oldest food-preservation techniques, and it’s still popular worldwide, often the preferred method for dealing with an overabundance of garden vegetables and fruits. Pickled foods are nearly necessary accompaniments to many popular foods, such as the pickled ginger that tames the heat of wasabi-enhanced sushi. Other foods, such as olives and capers, are rarely, if ever, eaten in their prepickled state.

Pickling involves a perishable food and liquid brine containing salt or vinegar. Salt controls the speed of fermentation (a process in which safe bacteria already in food break apart sugars to create acids) and leads to a sour flavor. Salt also helps keep pickled food firm, by drawing out excess liquid.

Foods pickled in vinegar have high acidity but do not usually ferment. The vinegar limits the growth of harmful bacteria and adds flavor.

Many families have a legacy of pickling recipes. I recall delicious pickled banana peppers my parents made from a recipe passed down from my great-aunt Geneva, a woman who was noted for, besides her recipes, an extensive vocabulary of expletives.

At Wm. D. Alandale Brewing Co. in Kirkwood, former executive chef Stephen Ellis made several in-house pickled foods, including sour dill pickles, giardiniera (a type of mixed vegetable pickle) and asparagus for Bloody Marys. Why in-house pickling? “Just to be different,” Ellis said.

Pickle rounds sliced the long way, which come with sandwich platters and even on one sandwich (the Cuban), are big and crispy, with a mild flavor. Ellis made the pickles in 50-gallon barrels, and he had to make at least a couple of barrels a week. “They take about a week to make, so you have to keep ahead of yourself,” he said. “I am going through a ton of pickles. Everybody seems to ask for them.”

“When you pickle in the size that [I did],” Ellis said, “you have to maintain the pickles under the brine.” This process, which Ellis called “skimming,” involved removing a white layer that forms at the top of the barrel. “It’s just the way the process is,” Ellis said. “Just like anything else, you really have to nurture and baby it.” The pickles also had to be kept in a cool, dark area, away from extremes of temperature.

Alandale’s giardiniera, which means “from the garden” in Italian, is a combination of peppers, onions, cauliflower and garlic, all pickled together. It’s served on the Italian beef sandwich, as well as with a sausage platter. “We puréed some and kept some whole,” Ellis said. “It has a different taste to it.”
“I think the trend right now is going back to that home food, the comfort food,” he said.

One example is kimchi made by Chong Monroe and sold at Chong’s Oriental Market in Fairview Heights. Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish that more and more Americans are beginning to enjoy. The most common kimchi (baechu) is based on napa cabbage, but it can also be made with radishes, green papaya or cucumbers.

The base vegetable is washed, salted with sea salt and left to sit for five hours. Then it’s drained, rinsed, chopped and mixed with a seasoning sauce comprised of garlic, ginger, green onion, red peppers and sugar. Other foods, such as shrimp or fish sauce, may be added for taste. The finished dish, which can be eaten right away or left to ferment for a couple of weeks, tastes spicy, crispy and flavorful.

Monroe said Koreans eat kimchi at every meal – “they live on it” – and even rinse off the spices and feed it to babies. She also said that contrary to popular belief, Koreans no longer bury their kimchi. Before refrigeration, they did store the jars underground to keep them cool. “Now,” she said, “they have separate refrigerators for kimchi.” Every family? “Every family.”

Monroe makes five kinds of kimchi. She said there are 10 common kinds, but, “Every town makes it different,” based on what they have and what they like. Chong’s green-papaya kimchi, for instance, is made with Thai spices.

Kimchi can be used as a side dish, an ingredient in cooking or, as my husband prefers, out of the jar while standing in front of the refrigerator. However, Monroe recommended eating kimchi with rice.

Whether you make or buy pickled foods, they offer a wide realm of historically important, tasty foodstuffs for the adventurous palate. Dig up an old family recipe, pickle some of your garden’s end-of-summer bounty and spend the winter enjoying homemade pickled foods at home, or in the car. Just not in my car.