Adventures in Pickling

A year or two ago I picked up The Joy of Pickling at a book store clearance sale. I don't salivate at the thought of pickles, but I'm down with the cheapness. I'm looking for recipes that allow me to preserve food cheaply, with methods that are presumably more healthy and less damaging to the environment than store-bought processed foods. Fantasies of survivalism also motivate me, as they have since I was twelve and imagined what kind of bunker/home our family should build. If the economy tanks, or if Gamma World was a prediction instead of a game, or if oil production peaks and demand for oil skyrockets, or if for some mundane reason I just can't maintain my current level of income, then it may become not only healthy and green and cheap to preserve foods at home, but necessary.

My mom used to preserve strawberry-rhubarb jam, apple sauce, veggies, way back around 1982, probably before she started working, although I can't remember precisely. And there's a family legend about my father around age five or six threatening to run away from home and take all the green beans with him. He might have been talking about home-canned beans. (For my next trick I'll try to pencil a little tiny Mason Jar on my family crest.)

So I started off slowly and I've been picking up steam lately. (Pickling up steam?) I made a quart of sauerkraut about a year ago, but the process scared me so much that I never ate any of it. Do you realize how they make it? If you dump the right amount of salt on some sliced cabbage and let it sit in the right conditions, the cabbage will release some juice and begin to ferment. That's the "sauer" part. It's literally going sour, but the fermentation process somehow kills the bacteria that would give you food poisoning. As long as you know what point to stop the fermenting process, then you'll end up with something edible that will last a lot longer than fresh cabbage, while retaining a lot of vitamins. (You actually get higher levels of vitamin B from cabbage kimchi than from unfermented Chinese cabbage, according to The Joy of Pickling.)

The other weird thing is that you don't keep it tightly sealed in a container while it's fermenting. It produces bubbles which need to escape. So you keep some kind of weight on top of the cabbage. As long as it is submerged in the "brine" (the salty water), it will ferment properly. If some of it is sticking out of the brine and exposed to air, that part will rot within a few days. And sauerkraut takes up to four weeks before it's finished.

I don't care how many generations of Germans and others have survived on this stuff, leaving any food out for fourteen days sounds like something your mother warned you about. I ended up sealing it in a big quart jar and sticking it in the back of the fridge, where I never touched the stuff. I may have tasted just a tiny bit when it was "finished," but I can't remember. The idea of this stuff was even scarier than the 14 year old jar of peach preserves I opened and tasted (and survived).

I finally dumped out that untouched jar of sauerkraut last week, so I could try some other pickles in it. And I don't mean cucumbers. The word "pickle" in modern usage has come to mean a cucumber preserved in vinegar, but it originally applied to lots of different vegetables either soaked in vinegar or fermented through some process.

Why do so many people hate sauerkraut? I've noticed a few dishes that are hated almost universally, and this isn't just a matter of regionalism. I'm guessing that people started making sauerkraut because they could preserve the stuff longer, in times before refrigerators existed, or before refrigerators were common. Some people grew up on the stuff and developed a taste for it. The same goes for "lutefisk". Listen to Prairie Home Companion or any given Norwegian descendant for a while. Lutefisk is fish preserved in lye. Once it's preserved that way, you can stack them up on your porch like cordwood. No living creature or microscopic organism will bother them until you boil it for a few days, discarding the nasty water and adding fresh water occasionally. I hear it'll make your kitchen and your whole house stink in the process.

It made good sense back in the day when the only way to keep cabbage or fish or fresh vegetables from rotting was to soak it in vinegar or lye or let it ferment. But it's not a taste that anyone usually seeks, and nobody today with refrigeration and freezers and War-Malt on every corner needs to preserve foods in that way. So the only people who continue it are people who associate the taste with good old days, or kids who had the misfortune of growing up with those people who wanted to taste the good old days.

A few months ago, I learned about some audio files on the web of Vincent Price reading recipes, one of which was Pickled Mushrooms, and had to try it. After that, I dug out the pickling book for some other variations, and now's when you have to read my list of other recipes I've tried so far:

* Polish Pickled Mushrooms
* Pickled Mushrooms with Red Wine and Ginger
* Sweet Pickled Pumpkin
* Spicy Pickled Broccoli
* Russian Soured Cabbage
* Kimchi
* Zydeco Beans
* Kimuchi

The last two are recipes I've started but haven't tasted because they need to ferment or age a little longer. I canned three pints of Zydeco green beans. They're sealed fine and I trust that they won't spoil, but the recipe says not to open them for a month, so the hot peppers and peppercorns and garlic and mustard seed flavors will mingle adequately.

I've made some kimchi that turned out okay, although I think it was bok choy that I used instead of Napa cabbage (a.k.a. Chinese cabbage). The package I grabbed was wrapped in plastic on a cart of reduced price vegetables on the verge of going bad. Thirty cents for a pound of the stuff, but the label just said "Misc. Produce." I'm trying it again with Napa cabbage, which is currently soaking in saltwater. I have to take it out at midnight, mix in the other ingredients, and then let it ferment for three to six days.

Also at midnight, I have two pounds of salted cabbage that I'll try turning into Kimuchi, which is a Japanese variation on Kimchi.

The first fermented cabbage recipe I survived with enough confidence to try more was Russian Soured Cabbage. I chose that because it only has to sit out for three or four days, instead of six or twenty-eight. It's not a flavor I can imagine anyone wanting to make. I can be excused because I didn't know any better. Maybe leaving out the caraway seeds was a mistake.

But if I'm shivering in front of a jury-rigged fireplace next winter, after electricity and well-stocked grocery stores are nothing but fond memories, I'll gladly eat tons of Russian Soured Cabbage while my neighbors get scurvy from lack of fresh or preserved veggies. No, I'm not that heartless. I'll be selling them my home-preserved stuff. Maybe dandelion wine too. I suspect alcoholics will create plenty of demand for cheap homebrew if we have that kind of Long Emergency or deep depression.


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