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In a pickle

Pickled cherries
TRR photos by Laura Silverman

July 27, 2016

Summer is full of conundrums. Pool or lake? Grill or chill? Hike or hammock? Among the biggest is how to eat all the season’s bounty while also saving it for the future. The answer is preserving, of course, and among the easiest methods is pickling.

This ancient method of storing food—it dates back thousands of years—has had a recent resurgence. It’s about getting back to basics, but also about delicious flavor and health benefits. Naturally fermented foods are loaded with lactic acid bacteria, also known as probiotics, which are microorganisms that help support our digestive systems. Fermentation expert Sandor Katz, a leading authority on traditional techniques, has several books worth consulting, including “The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World” and “Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.” Both, but especially the latter, are worthy investments for interested picklers.

Making pickles can be as simple as combining vegetables with salt and letting nature do the rest. This natural process, known as lacto-fermentation, allows probiotics to convert raw food into more easily digestible and beneficial components. Barrel-fermented dill pickles are a classic example of this, as is kimchi, the spicy tangle of fermented vegetables that appears on the table at every Korean meal. This colorful mix of cabbage, radish, garlic, chile, ginger, scallions and fish sauce is brined and then left at room temperature to ferment, converting the vegetables’ sugars into lactic and acetic acids and carbon dioxide. The result is magical, with funky flavors as complex as those of the finest French cheeses.

Perhaps my favorite summer pickle is the classic bread & butter. My preferred cucumber for this is the stubby, spiny Kirby, launched in 1920. Its sweet, mild flavor and super crunchy texture make it ideal for pickling. After slicing the cucumbers, I give them a good soak in salted ice water, a step recommended to prime them for pickling. The final result is slightly sweet and judiciously spiced, delivering a subtle kick from red chile and a beautiful golden hue from turmeric. They go beautifully with a grilled cheese sandwich and are absolutely essential with pulled pork.