Photo by Judith Hausman
Everything old is, as they say, new again. This weekend, in a traditional Russian deli in Brookline, Mass., I saw pickled everything: apples, veal tongues, herring, tomatoes, turnips and so on. But now the farmers’ markets are filled with pickles, too. Are you seeing pickle festivals wherever you look in your region? They’re making artisanal, hand-packed, small-batch pickles in the Hudson Valley, in Vermont and in Brooklyn like they are going out of style.
If preserving produce with sugar, salt and vinegar is the international, almost primal way to keep and add interest to foods, the New Picklers take on beets, root vegetables, okra, green beans, hot peppers and Korean-style kimchi, no holds barred. Original and kick-ass pickles seem to be the value-added, locally-sourced farm food of choice these days, more so than jams.
It doesn’t stop with half-sour cucumber pickles, dill gherkins, garlic dill, new pickles or bread ’n’ butter slices. These pickles are light years beyond the pale and floppy spears apologetically leaking into the chips next to your sandwich. Rather, they are lively, crunchy and pucker-y. They have true-blue (or shall we say true-green?) vegetable flavor besides the salt and vinegar. What’s more, they are as creative in name as in taste.
Rick’s Picks makes Smokra: pickled okra with Spanish smoked paprika. Divine Brine makes wasabi dills and Mike’s Grenades are garlic dills. Friedle’s wins prizes for Pickled Fennel with Orange, as does Spacey Tracy’s for her Hudson Valley’s Sweet Summer Mixed Veggies. Second Stretch’s Hot Bread and Butter Pickles and Vermont Pickles’ maple-sweetened bread ’n’ butter slices are a different animal from the sweetly chemical slices, smooshed into your fast food burger. Look also for First Pucker, Pickle-icious, Katchie Farms, Thunder Pickles and Sour Puss pickles, as well as the venerable Guss’s Pickles, now moved out of the big wooden barrels and from the Lower Eastside to Brooklyn.
I’ve always been scared off kosher dills or gherkins by tales of a slippery mess of cucumbers. I did make easy sweet slices years ago, but now I stick mostly to relishes; this year’s crop yielded corn, tomatillo and hot pepper. Relishes are easy-to-make (especially when the food processor chops everything for you) and put up, eclectic and versatile. The homemade kind doesn’t have that weird, super-green color but yes, it’s still yummy on hot dogs and hamburgers.
But relish goes far beyond the barbecue. I mix a heaping tablespoon into tuna fish, spread some as a base layer under cheese and make sure to set out a few different kinds with wintery meat meals. A selection of vinegary condiments offsets braised meats or roasted poultry beautifully. The roast lamb and mango chutney of the Raj certainly knew that. In fact, curry, hot peppers, fennel and smoked paprika make internationally seasoned versions of the more familiar dill and garlic. Curious? Buy some now; grow and make some next summer.