Whenever my grandmother saw my 7-year-old nose stuck in a book, she assumed I was bored and roped me into kitchen projects involving Ball jars, fruit, vinegar and sugar. We canned tomatoes, we made Concord grape jelly (the avalanche of sugar that went into this was horrifying) and we made pickles from my grandfather’s dimpled cucumbers.
Those were unpleasant afternoons. Except for making occasional quick-pickled onions, I’ve avoided canning or preserving since. Yet every August, witnessing the brief, explosive appearance of bounty at the market, I wonder: Shouldn’t I really be preserving?
What is old is hot again, especially when it comes to pickling. Pickled ramps were a fixture on many local menus this past spring; a jar of them adorned the counter (as well as some of the dishes) of the Southern Smoke food truck. Piquant pickled eggs — a fixture of 1950s bars — are cropping up everywhere, from Juniper at Hotel Vermont to Lost Nation Brewing in Morrisville.
Motivated to replicate those pickled eggs, which I’ve become sweet on, I recently carted home a case of Ball jars, pickling salt and gallons of vinegar. I bought a carton of eggs from the farm down my road and a wedge of watermelon from the supermarket, picked tomatoes and eggplant from my garden, and plunged in. I boiled vinegar and spices, sloppily cut the rind from the watermelon, boiled and peeled eggs and shoved them into jars. Long enamored of the punchy marinated eggplant my Italian neighbors used to make, I tried that, too, using some of my surplus oregano.
I knew I might fumble by not following a tried-and-true recipe specific to each ingredient, but I figured that, having looked at a few recipes, I’d be OK. What was the worst that could happen? Soon, I had a raft of what looked like food aquariums in jars: pickled eggs, tomatoes, onions, watermelon rind and that marinated eggplant, which resembled fingers suspended in amber.
As I waited for my pickling experiments to “mature,” I phoned an expert pickler for hindsight advice: Michele Carson of Vermont Pickle.
“My first advice to anybody starting out would be to read the Ball Blue Book,” she said. Oops. “That’s the industry bible, and that’s where I started,” she added. “They’ve been doing this for 100 years or so.”
The Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving put Carson on the road to canning 20 years ago. “I was unemployed, and we had a lot of stuff in the garden, so I did the farmers market for extra money,” she said. “I made jellies and pickles and found some really funky recipes. I did [pickles] for Christmas presents and kept doing the farmers market.”
Carson eventually found a job, but she also kept pickling, and now her line — which she sells at the Shelburne Farmers Market and in area stores — ranges from dill pickles and dilly beans to pickled garlic and fiddleheads. A seasoned pro, she now uses a pH meter and heat-processes the jars to give them a stable shelf life. Some of Carson’s recipes — such as pickled garlic and hot maple beets — have picked up awards at pickling festivals. “The most fun things that we do are the hot maple beets, the sweet beets with heat,” she said, adding that she plans to weave more hot peppers into her oeuvre next year.
Beyond the Blue Book, Carson suggested hitting the online USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning, which proffers advice on everything from making berry syrup to canning rabbit. Also, she advised, home picklers should know that certain vinegars work better with certain items. “White vinegar gives [a pickle] a bit more of an acidic taste, which you might want to use with sugars” such as fruit, Carson noted. “Cider vinegar gives your pickles a lighter flavor. But play with your food. Experiment!”
To a certain point, that is. Carson, who has tried pickling just about everything, can steer a beginning pickler away from one food with certainty: “Grapes. Don’t do it,” she said. “They’re horrible!”
I twisted open my experiments a few days later and found mixed results. As Carson predicted, the things I’d pickled with cider vinegar had a softer edge than those on which I’d used white vinegar. The eggs — pickled with white vinegar — were powerfully sharp and spicy (“Put them in potato salad,” suggested Carson). The watermelon rind was an intense, almost tropical mash-up of salty, sweet and tart. As a garnish for some grilled shrimp, though, it was amazing.
I did kick myself for not following tips on keeping the pickling process safe: Any type of canning or preserving comes with a risk for bacteria, including the organism responsible for botulism, which can grow in the absence of air. I sanitized my jars in the dishwasher, but it’s also key to keep your jars hot before you put fruits, vegetables or eggs in them. (Because I didn’t seal my jars in boiling water, I kept them in the refrigerator afterward.)
Lessons learned for next time — when the spring will bring a bumper crop of wild ramps.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Adventures in Pickling."
Before you begin pickling, sanitize your jars by running them through a dishwasher without soap, or by submerging them, on a wire rack, for 10 minutes in a pot of boiling water. If you don’t sanitize properly, you will risk bacteria growth in your jars.
Basic Dill Pickles
Adapted from the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving
Sanitize Ball jars with lids. Wash and drain cucumbers. Combine sugar, salt, vinegar and water in a large saucepot. Tie spices in a spice bag; add bag to vinegar mixture; simmer 15 minutes. Pack cucumbers into hot jars, leaving a quarter-inch headspace; put one head of dill in each jar. Ladle hot liquid over cucumbers, leaving a quarter-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles by gently pressing down on contents with the back of a wooden spoon. Adjust two-piece caps. Process pints and quarts for 15 minutes in a boiling-water canner. They’re ready to eat within a day or two and will keep for about a month in the refrigerator.
Clean, Nordic Pickled Eggs
Hard-boil eggs, then remove from heat, cool and peel. In another saucepan, bring remaining ingredients, except for dill, to a boil, simmer for three minutes and remove from heat. Place eggs and sprig of dill in a hot Ball jar, then ladle vinegar mixture into jar until almost at the lip. Seal tightly and place in the fridge. Eggs will be ready in five to eight days.
Pickled Watermelon Rind With Fennel
To prepare rind, remove the dark outer layer of the watermelon with a peeler, then use a knife to take off the next half inch of rind, leaving a sliver of flesh on the ends for color and flavor. Cut the rind into 1-by-2-inch slivers and boil in water with one teaspoon of salt until soft, about four minutes. Drain. In a separate saucepan, boil remaining ingredients except for fennel. Once they’re boiling, add rind and simmer for three minutes more. Remove from heat and cool for at least a half hour. Spoon rinds into a hot Ball jar, then add fennel. Ladle vinegar mixture into hot Ball jar until almost at the lip. Seal tightly and place in fridge. You can eat the rinds as early as the next day, though they’ll become tangier over time.
Trim and peel eggplant, halve it width-wise and cut into one-inch slivers. Place eggplant in a strainer and toss with salt to coat; leave for a half hour to remove bitterness. Rinse eggplant and gently squeeze to wring out remaining moisture. Bring the vinegar and water to a boil, then add eggplant and cook for three minutes. Drain eggplant and place in colander in sink covered with a small plate; weigh down plate with a heavy object — I used a growler. Let eggplant drain for one hour, then gently squeeze again to remove excess moisture.In a large bowl, toss eggplant with oil, garlic, oregano and red pepper and spoon into hot Ball jar. Dribble over more olive oil until it reaches within a quarter-inch of the jar’s top. Seal tightly and refrigerate (although my Italian relatives hot-sealed the jar and kept it on the shelf). Eggplant will be ready to sample within two days but tastes best after a few weeks.
From a recipe by Michele Carson of Vermont Pickle
Put ice in shaker; add vodka and syrup. Shake vigorously to combine. Strain vodka into chilled martini glass. Add one slice of Vermont Pickle Maple Sweets as garnish.
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