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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