Salt-Cured Pickles: Part 1

September 15, 2009 at 12:21 AM (apples and crab-apples, dishes by cuisine, dishes by main ingredient, India, Konkani, vegetables/ fruits)

I wanted to think well about what this post should convey, and the reasons for writing it in the first place. This has taken me some time, and I feel very thankful that I still have a following of patient, fellow foodie-bloggers that haven’t given up their hopes for this post, for it is the first in a series of posts that deal exclusively with pickles. But I think they, and any far-future readers, will find the information contained herein and in those future posts informative, and, hopefully, handy.

SALT-CURED PICKLES, PART 1

This past summer, I was pointedly-reminded of the main reason for my writing: I was busy outside, pruning a pair of Japanese yews in our front yard, when a large, dark-blue, pick-up truck pulled into the driveway. In the passenger-seat was an old, old friend that I haven’t seen in at least two years, excitedly waving and shouting to me. Her friend in the driver-seat just sat there, smiling sweetly. Eileen my friend’s name is, and she and I worked together for about nine years, and in that time I brought many, many containers of food from various lands to dine upon during our lunch-breaks (of which, it might be said, we had several during an 8-hour shift). Often I shared what I brought with her (I’m that kind of guy, despite what some might say), sometimes eagerly waiting in anticipation to stimulate her curiosity and to see her reaction to food that most, in our neck of the woods, would consider “out-of-the-box”.

She was a good sport, and already well-acquainted with some perky flavours from her Italian-infused home-town of Kenosha, Wisconsin: giardiniera and peperoncini, anchovies and sun-dried tomatoes. “Here, try this…” was all it usually took on my part, and over time we realized our mutual fondness for anything hot-sour-salty. Certainly, I will never forget discovering the girl who could be happy eating a plain grapefruit, peeling and eating it like an orange. “One grapefruit is too much for one you know, but just right for two…”, and so it went, one or the other of us bringing in a gorgeous specimen, plucked from the grocer’s pile at the height of their sweet-sour, highly-aromatic season- a welcome, sun-like orb in the dreary winter months that we endure- sheer delight! And I’d tear the peel into small pieces to better scent the room; she is a girl who burns incense in her home, after all!

So, of course, on this surprise visit, when all of the catching up and gossip was out of the way, our conversation turned to food. Well…I shouldn’t play it as innocent as that. She asked: “So…what have you been up to lately?”

“Pickling,” I said with a grin. And I divulged my long-meaning intent to drop off a jar or two of my experimenting on her doorstep.

She was more-than-happy with this choice of topic: “I tried some of that “mixed pickle” they serve at Taste of India,” she offered. (Taste of India is the one and only Desi-restaurant in our city, but there are two more- but similar- choices in neighboring Appleton)

“And?” said I with a raised eyebrow.

“Oh! I just had to give some to my sister…it was wonderful: very hot, very sour, salty, and a little sweet; it made my taste-buds wonder what I was doing to them…”

And I think that’s a good way to explain why those who love pickles such as these adore them so much: they are works of gastronomic art in a jar, ready to wake up the taste-buds, teasing and eluding them while they try to discern the subtle flavours present amidst an ocean of salty-sour-and-often-hotly-spicedness. Bliss for those forever seeking new sensations, who often discover fascinating strangers in their gastro-wanderings that become time-honored, comfortable friends that are offered a seat of honour at their tables.

I begin my pickle-prattling with those pickles which I consider salt-cured, drawing your attention to some great recipes that I’ve discovered, and sharing some that I’ve re-worked around new, locally-available ingredients. But first things first: the how and the why:

Salt has been produced and used since ancient times as a food-preservative, and continues to be so highly-revered that it has often found a place in religious rituals. While I have no wish to expound further in detail upon its virtues or history here, it is interesting to note that salt was once the greatest commodity in the formation and relation of world economies, which in turn was a driving force that shaped the world as we know it today.

In my part of the U.S., the practice of salt-curing seasonal foods for year-long use has greatly diminished and is reserved only for certain specialty-foods- such as salt-fish, traditional brined meats, meats prepared for smoke-curing, and specific pickles. Gone are the days when extremely-large crocks- brimming with a years’ supply of salt-cured goodies- were mainstay in larders and cellars. Traces of these times still remain, however, if one were to look hard-enough, but already-decades-old warnings of the health-risks of a diet high in salt, coupled with the birth and subsequent waxing, waning and waxing again of the use of home-prepared, vacuum-sealed canning, as well as the widespread use of refrigeration and freezing devices, have pushed this once-venerated, millennia-spanning method of food preservation into a state of near-oblivion; I think I could walk around my city-block taking a survey, and be fortunate to find one person with the skills to salt-cure anything!

But, fortunately, this isn’t the case with the world as a whole: unreliable, expensive electricity- or lack entirely thereof- carries with it the mixed blessing of a non-reliance upon refrigerators and deep-freezers; the unavailability of factory-churned canning-lids (or rubber-rings) with matching mason-jars makes home-canning a luxury enjoyed by precious few. The old, time-tested methods of sun-drying, salt-curing, and fermenting, doused with oil or not, still work to keep that which is seasonal available for enjoyment throughout the year, and long-held tradition in food-preparation keeps these recipes alive and well. And honestly, these older methods are far-less taxing on the environment and energy-consumption on the whole, and are definitely deserving of the budding revival that I see happening in so-called “first-world” countries.

Personally, I have to admit that I have been mostly unaware of the methods of salt-curing for the greater part of my life. I had eaten and heard of some of these foods that, here, still remain popular, but it wasn’t until I was given a sample of a particular, extremely-delicious, Konkani-style, green-mango pickle, read its accompanying post and recipe, and decided to try it out at home that I realized: this pickle does not ferment- there are no escaping bubbles of gas from bacterial action, it is not cooked and therefore there is no reduction to increase the acidity, nor does it contain a potent acid such as vinegar. So then, how does it work?

And really all I had to do was to look at the Konkani word, nonche…which means that-which-is-salted, or perhaps: that-which-is-salt-preserved, or maybe, more simply: a salt-preserve. I see it translated usually as “pickle”, but, in reality, it refers to a specific type of pickle: one in which salt acts as the main preservative.

But how much salt is necessary? And, after that: how does one do it? So began my experimenting. I salt-cured nimbu/key limes and Persian limes, Eureka lemons and Meyer lemons, tangerines, oranges, grapefruits, minneolas and kumquats. And then moved on to fresh ginger. And sliced rhubarb. And then I hit upon a real beauty fairly recently: green crab-apples.

You might be scratching your head at that one, but you see, I love sour things. And sour things seem to be often salt-cured in India to become pickles. And “pickle” is beyond method, beyond texture, beyond qualification by anything other than function: world-wide, pickles are eaten in small amounts to enhance a larger meal. But then again, not always…

I have absolutely no complaints about sitting down (or giving a standing ovation) to a meal of pickles, rice and yoghurt. Or pickles with yoghurt-rice. Or sometimes pickles, yoghurt and roti. And sometimes a sandwich smeared with a fine-textured pickle and cream cheese. Variations on a theme: pickle, curdled milk, grains. Where was I? Oh yes, a recipe!

Early this past summer (I do tend to go on and on, don’t I?), about the first of July, I asked Danny, my other half, if he would mind my picking a few green crab-apples from the tree in his yard; of course he didn’t mind, and so I did. I took them home and set to work washing them and trimming the ends. I hadn’t thought ahead of time that “apples are apples” and apples turn brown when cut unless rubbed with a weak acid. Thankfully, I noticed this oversight right away, and dumped measured amounts of salt-cured lime juice into the bowl to halt any further browning (salt-cured lime juice?). And then I added measured amounts of salt to my best guess as to what the little apples would need, for, in salt-curing anything, it is the water-content that is the determining factor of how much salt to use, and this amount is different for different things; you can use more if you like, but there is always a minimum amount required to completely halt the growth of any spoilage-causing micro-organisms like bacteria and fungi. Salt, being a hygroscopic substance, pulls water from the cells of organic tissue by osmosis, rendering it unable to function, and it this action which renders anything salt-cured fairly immortal- if contained in a vessel to protect it from the weather of course. This is why it is very important to not let a single drop of water touch a stash of finished pickle: that one spot will be diluted in salt-content and thus might be able to support unwanted life in the pickle-jar.

But back to the recipe: I placed apples, lime juice and salt in an opaque jar (clear glass will work, but because it lets light through, the colour of your pickle might be faded by light-bleaching. Ceramic jars or crocks with lead-free glaze are the best; not only do they keep light out: they also act as an insulator against fast temperature-changes; plastic tubs will work too, and I often resort to these when I’ve run out of available crockery), covered it with a tight-fitting lid, and set it in a warm place. Does it have to be in the sun? Nope, just warm. I made this pickle in the heat of summer in a room devoid of air-conditioning; in winter I place jars near the heating-vents; you could also set jars in an oven with just the inside light turned on. In times of wavering heat, setting it outside in the sun during the day and bringing it in at night could be the best option. But what is very important is that the pickle is stirred or shaken daily. In fact, I would suggest twice a day for the first week or so, especially if it is a “drier” fruit or vegetable that releases very little water.

There are ways around all of this, of course, by the very clever device of using a dry masala- mixed with salt and surrounding the vegetable or fruit- which simultaneously absorbs and salts the released moisture. With this method, it is best to keep any pieces of that-which-is-to-be-salted submerged beneath the suface, and I still think it’s a good idea to stir the pickle now and then.

Either way, when the vegetable or fruit is tender- some will be ready in as little 12 days, some take longer; much depends on the temperature- the pickle can then be seasoned to your liking (if it hasn’t been done so before), a tadke added if you like, and allowed to sit for a week or so for the flavours to blend, and then enjoyed for as long as it lasts…

But back to my experiment now: I ended up with beautifully-shriveled, little green apples which looked and had a texture very similar to tiny green mangoes. The flavour was different, of course: crab-apples have spice-like overtones which, if you have never had them, can be a treat! My grandmother made sweet pickles of ripe crab-apples yearly, and I was raised seeing a bowlful of them- stems kept intact for easy plucking- at certain meals that she judged worthy of their presence. Because they are a small fruit, there is a lot of work involved to produce a quartful, therefore, pickled by whatever method, they are a labour of love.

And then I thought: what better way to crown this success of mine than by referring back to that recipe which first enlightened me? I love its masala: it is chile-hot and hing-y, and has the subtle, lightly-roasted flavour of mustard-seeds, and an even-more-subtle touch of pleasant bitterness from a few methi-seeds. Simple, yes, but it has a special brightness and “ring” in its flavour of which I have become most fond!  So, I borrowed Mrs. Varada’s masala for kochle nonche and placed it here, with my gatherings of summer. But it doesn’t stop there.

Anita of A Mad tea Party was also quite helpful- in many ways- in my strive to prepare good pickles. She uses a special technique to roast the spices for her Rajasthani-style, green-chilli pickle- wherein she heats oil and adds it into a bowl of ground masala. I have found that by adjusting the amount of hot oil that you add, one can also control the roast of the spices: more oil=more heat=darker roast. And I have also discovered that it is not a good idea to do the vice-versa: never add a large amount of dry masala to a large amount of oil (for larger batches of pickles); apparantly, it can froth and foam and escape your pan onto your stovetop! :-) For this pickle, a very light roast is indicated, retaining a hint of the brightness of the raw spices and yet subdued and gilded.

Varadian Salt-Cured Crab-Apples

5 C green crab-apples (pick when plump, but seeds are undeveloped- July 1st for my area)

1 1/2 C lime juice

3/4 C salt (this is 5t per cup of green crab-apples, 7 t per cup of lime juice; use more if you like, but not less)

1/4 C oil (raw sesame/gingelly oil preferred, but any mild-flavoured oil is fine)

5 T mustard seeds

3 3/4 t methi seeds

5 pea-size pieces of pure hing

1 1/4 C red chile powder

1) Wash and trim ends (and any spots) of the crab-apples and place in a jar along with the salt and lime juice; mix once-in-a-while as you go.  Cover the jar tightly, and place in a warm spot for about 12-14 days; stir or shake the contents of the jar twice daily until the crab-apples are shriveled and tender.

2) Grind the mustard seeds, methi-seeds and hing to a powder; place this in a small steel bowl; heat the oil smoking-hot, remove from heat and spoon/pour it carefully over the ground spices, and stir well with a steel spoon; allow to cool.(Using a stainless steel bowl allows the mixture to cool rapidly and maintain control over the roast. If you decide that you would like more oil in this pickle, heat all of the oil together to smoking, but use only 1/4 C to pour over the spices- allow the rest to cool and add afterward)

3) Mix well in a bowl the oily spices with the ground red chiles; mix this masala into the salt-cured crab-apples and allow to age at least another week before using (3 more weeks is best), stirring once every few days.

4) Enjoy in small amounts with rice and a little ghee, or, for a truly-memorable flavour, with curd-rice! And yes, I would even bring a bowl of this (pre-mixed) to a party! In fact, I think I will…

Thank you so much, Mrs. Varada and Shilpa, for sharing; and to Anita for all of your help and patience.

And, oh! Happy 3rd anniversary to AMTP! This will work I hope? All I have to do is make some rice and open a jar…

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29 Comments

  1. Anita said,

    Well…well…quite the treatise on nonche! Enlightening, I might add. I may have made a lot of pickles but I have to admit I did not quite have the science down.

    Most pickles from central-southern India pair so perfectly with curd-rice – made for each other! And that fiery hing-y minced-green-mango pickle on white bread – explosion in a mouthful!

    Indian pickles really awaken the taste buds which is what they are relied upon to do when the appetite sags with the peaking summers – can’t beat a good lime pickle for that. The older the lime pickle the better!

    So glad you decided to come to the party after all! It wouldn’t be the same without you! Or your pickle….

    • elaichietcetera said,

      Thank you thank you thank you! White bread Anita? Actually, if it’s good and chewy it sure is a treat… Are you making use of that high-gluten flour that you acquired?

      Happy 3rd- and well-deserved; yours is still one of my favorite blogs to visit!

      Cheers-
      The old lime pickle

  2. Manisha said,

    Epic post, Pel! I need to come back and re-read.
    Quick question about plastic tubs – always been told: only ceramic or glass. No plastic as the acids will eat into it.

    • elaichietcetera said,

      After reading some articles about different plastics, I now will only use or buy products in #1, #2, and #5….#1 is okay only for single-use- don’t re-use it. #2 and #5 are still considered safe to use as of my last reading, but stay away from the rest… I haven’t had a problem with acids eating #5 plastic tubs- used for dairy products and for food-storage.

      Glad you liked the post- it’s hard to find this info out there!

  3. musical said,

    Jai ho Pel baba acharwale ki :).

    Really, Pel, YOU ROCK! Thank you for writing this!

    And thanks to this post, i woke up too, after a year :).

    • elaichietcetera said,

      I just knew you would! We pickle-lovers must band together and conquer the world… :-D

  4. Cynthia said,

    I like that technique suggested by Anita of adding the warmed oil to the masala in a bowl.

    • elaichietcetera said,

      It doesn’t replace dry-roasting for most applications, but for a lot of pickles it makes them a snap! Gotta hand it to her for absorbing techniques of efficiency- thanks for stopping Cynthia.

  5. A&N said,

    Hi Pel, thanks a ton for coming over and commenting. Its a treat to discover your blog. I’ve often seen you participate in the banter between Manisha and Anita, but never thought of clicking further. My bad :)

    I wanted to write to you the other day itself when I came over to check your blog. Err.. so, I waited until now coz I saw the Mirchi Ka Salan and wanted to try it. May I say its the most authentic Salan I’ve tasted after eating it all over Hyderabad all the time for 4 years? :) I studied and worked in Hyd and no Salan I’ve tried so far comes close to the ones I’ve eaten at 2 am in Hyderabad. Yours did, and thanks so much for the recipe! Its a keeper and will be a regular now.

    I must say I haven’t read this post fully, and I promise to when I get the time. But pickles means I will be back :D

    And hopefully, my comment won’t be as long as this then ;)

    • A&N said,

      Am back! :)

      I love how you talk about yogurt rice with pickle. The ultimate in a South Indian’s life, and I got so so so happy when I read that here :D

      And you think gingelly/sesame oil is mildly flavored? :P

      • elaichietcetera said,

        Compared to mustard-oil, yah! :-D But you are correct: it does have it’s own character!

        You got happy reading about curd-rice here? I get happy eating it! :-) I usually make a batch, choose a pickle…then I keep the remainder in the fridge and have another kind of pickle the next time I reach for some- that way all of the pickles get a turn eventually! ;-)

        Mirchi ka salan is something I’ve been intending to make lately- thanks for reminding me! And thank you for such kind words-

  6. Classic Shrikhand « A Mad Tea Party said,

    [...] – Hirvi Kobi Tava bhaji, and Tomato Halwa (Maharashtra) Pel (Elaichi Etcetera) – Crab-Apple Pickles! (Konkani style) Manisha (Indian Food Rocks – not quite Paan, even better! Jeera Goli [...]

  7. Srivalli said,

    OH Pel, this is lovely!..you really should get a standing ovation for this beautiful post…oh where was I?..yeah we eat our full meals sometimes with pickle or avakaya..the mango pickle from andhra..

    too much information in this..read it two times, will come back to read again ..:)..happy to note the part 1..looking fwd to the rest!

    • elaichietcetera said,

      Yeah…I know, it’s a long, long, wordy post… :-) I knew it right away when I looked at the preview and thought: egads, who wants to read all of this? :-D

      You are the second person in two months to mention avakaya to me! I’ve never tried it, but I did make dosavakaya last year. I’ve made ONE mango pickle here, but…the green ones we get are the same as the ripe ones: flavourless. So…I buy mango pickle now.

      Thanks for the kind words!

      • Srivalli said,

        hahah…but I am glad you did publish it!

        coming to Avakaya, you should try it. In all the pickling that gets done at your place, this should surely find its place..

        btw do update the blog!..:)

  8. kriatv said,

    Hi Pel,

    That was a lovely and encouraging message that you left for my blog post on the Amla pickle.

    I am so glad that your comment introduced me to your blog. Bieng a Konkani I felt so proud about this post since “nonche” is something that is so amazing to taste and seriously I have not tried to make this variety till now.. But now this encouragin post will definetely help me start with some help from “ma”. May be I will try and get some traditional recipes..

    Kriatv

    • elaichietcetera said,

      Oh, I hope you do! It seems these days that many young cooks rely on their elders for good pickles, and on shops for some “to get by”; though I think some of those mass-produced are very good, who can beat the variety and quality of home-made?!

      Even in my family, both of my grandmothers made several pickles, but my own mother only made one kind, and even now she has stopped doing that- people are too willing to sacrifice quality for the convenience of picking up a jar from a shop, so it is my hope that there are cooks out there who are willing to “carry the torch”- your post gave ME courage! :-)

  9. AJ said,

    Curd rice and pickles..mmm..is there another heaven on this earth! Thanks for a lovely post :-)

    • elaichietcetera said,

      And thank you for stopping by!

  10. Sheetal said,

    Pickle, yogurt and rice … just what my aaji and I enjoyed eating! I would have never thought of pickling apples … but I can see how the masala must compliment the fruit … thank you for the wonderful recipe, Pel!

    • elaichietcetera said,

      Regular apples would never be able to stand up to this masala, but the spicy, tart crab-apples, I can honestly say, do!

  11. bird's eye view said,

    Hi Pel,

    Have hardly had time for blogging or reading blogs but enjoyed this one. It brought back memories of my attempts at making my mom’s famous no-oil lime pickle back in Fontainebleau. How did your black carrot halwa turn out?

    • elaichietcetera said,

      Can you believe my urge to pickle overcame my urge for a sweet? :-) I made the lot into kanji

      • Anita said,

        I hope you stayed warm after that cooling kanji!

  12. sanjeeta kk said,

    Very interesting reads. First time to your blog. Nice.

  13. Raaga said,

    Have never pickled anything… would you believe that?

    • pelicano said,

      You aren’t alone! But I hope you try making pickles someday- it’s a lot of fun, and soooo many varieties to choose from!

  14. Blue cheese anyone? « A Mad Tea Party said,

    [...] am still not sure if it will keep…maybe Pel, who knows everything there is to know about the science and art of pickling, can shed some light? ▶ 2 Responses /* 0) { jQuery('#comments').show('', [...]

  15. Kalyan said,

    Just mouthwatering…looks so easy to prepare and delicious!

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