The Milkweed Diaries

Monday, July 21, 2008

Coming Home to Abundance

After a week of air and car travel and some wonderful time in Colorado, I returned to an avalanche of vegetables.

I felt like kissing the ground when my plane landed in Asheville after 12 hours of travel -- so grateful to come back to these lush, soft mountains after the rocky and dramatic landscape of the west.

In the garden, everything is exploding in flower and fruit. Zinnias, nasturtiums, bee balm, fennel, calendula, poppies, strawflowers, and sunflowers are in full bloom. Japanese Long Cucumbers are coming in hot and heavy, bi-color zephyr squash is everywhere you look, greens are still kicking, broccoli is producing a second crop, peppers are starting to come in, and tomatoes are just a few days away from ripe.

Above: Japanese Long Cucumber plants jumping the fence....

At left: Some of the food we brought in from the garden this morning...

This morning's harvest included cucumbers, cauliflower, beets, onions, purple jalepenos, cherry tomatoes, squash, edible gourds, okra, dill, and basil. Last night we feasted on food from the garden - a perfect welcome home.

Christopher reminded me of when I used to brine vegetables, making a mixed crock of pickled veggies, when we lived in town. Since we had so many cukes and squash today, along with plenty of other brine-able veggies, I started a crock this afternoon.

Pickling in salt water, or brine, is an ancient and easy way to preserve vegetables for later use. No electricity or heat is required, and you end up with delicious sour and salty pickled veggies that last for months.

For more information on brine pickling, see Sandor Katz's Wild Fermentation or Marilyn Kluger's Preserving Summer's Bounty.

Here's a summary of how brining works from Kluger: "Produce that has been properly cured in a 10 percent brine will keep almost indefinitely. The brine solution is strong enough to kill most of the bacteriathat are present when the vegetables are put into the salt water. Those that survive salt are destroyed in due time by the lactic acid that is produced by the bacteria themselves when they decompose the sugar drawn out of the cucumbers by the salt, through the process of fermentation. The lactic acid formed is responsible for much of the desirable flavor of fermented pickles."

A few years ago, when I was first getting way into brining vegetables in the summer for winter sour pickles, an old family friend told me that at her grandmother's house when she was a little girl, it was a special treat to get to go out behind the house to the underground root cellar and pull out pickled baby corn from a big crock to eat as a snack. She remembered the salty, sour taste of pickled corn as an old mountain tradition, one that had been lost in her family when root cellars and crocks were replaced by refrigeration and tupperware.

Packing cucumbers, squash, and okra into a crock today, I felt deeply connected to the long chain of food tradition that mostly women have stewarded for so many generations, handing down recipes, swapping techniques, and working together in families and communities to process and preserve food.

Here's a basic recipe for the mixed vegetable brine pickle I made today. I used the veggies that we happened to have in the garden today; you can use whatever is fresh and available.

Ingredients and Equipment:
  • Fresh vegetables and herbs: okra, squash, cucumbers, peppers, peeled garlic, small onions, cauliflower, basil, and dill
  • Sea salt and black peppercorns
  • Water
  • A large ceramic crock or (if you don't have a crock) a large wide-mouthed glass jar such as a cookie or apothecary jar (not a mason jar). You need a jar or crock with a mouth wide enough for a plate to fit inside. I used a 5 gallon ceramic crock, one of the best kitchen investments I've ever made, bought a few years ago from Lehman's.
  • A plate that fits inside the crock and something to weigh it down. An old-time method is to use a rock; I use a mason jar filled with water (with the lid on to prevent spills).
  1. Wash all of your vegetables and herbs thoroughly, and make sure the blossom-ends are scrubbed or cut off. You can cut up anything that's too large and unwieldy for the crock, and leave everything else whole. Put all of the veggies in the crock, and add pepper, dill, basil, and anything else you want to throw in for flavor.
  2. Dissolve salt in water at the ratio of 1 cup per 2 quarts of water.
  3. Pour the salt water over the vegetables until they're covered. You might have to keep making more brine until you have enough to completely cover the veggies. I used about 5 quarts of brine.
  4. Sit the plate inside the crock so that no air is trapped underneath it, and weigh it down with something heavy and press down.
  5. All of the veggies should be well underwater. If they are not, keep adding brine mixed at the same proportion until they are completely submerged.
  6. Throw on a little extra salt on top for good measure.
  7. Cover with a clean, lightweight cloth (I use a floursack dishtowel).
  8. Let the crock sit for 3-6 weeks, skimming off any scum that forms.
Brined vegetables can keep for a long time in the crock -- remember my friend's grandmother's pickled corn was stored, already pickled, in the crock in a cool place. Or, when the pickles reach your desired point of flavor, you can jar them up and refrigerate them, and they'll keep for a long time there, too. You can de-salt them before serving if you want by rinsing.

Some people desalt and process brined vegetables--Preserving Summer's Bounty has lots of recipes for pickle preparations using brined vegetables as an ingredient. I avoid heat-processing brined vegetables so that the beneficial bacteria that is created in the fermentation process is preserved.

At left: the beginning of today's mixed vegetable crock...


Heather said...

This is very interesting and a big help.
It's bittersweet that summer is over. There are so many new things that I want to try.

Luckily that gives me tons of time to buy things like pickling crocks and stuff :)

Oh and I totally get the connection to a long line of women thing. I feel it too.

Milkweed said...

I'm glad you found this post helpful! I just finished brine pickling the last of the summer squash and some okra and carrots - it's a great way to use the end of the summer harvest. I love my crocks!

I think I'll do a post just on crocks - what to look for in buying them and where to get them, what sizes, etc...

Long live the lineage of food-preserving women!