Time to get pickled

Time to get pickled
Donna Hewett - 09/20/2018

Amid the beauty of the melons, fat tomatoes, vibrant eggplant and glowing beets, lies what we’ve come for: the small and ungainly pickling cuke. We’re in search of the snappy Calypso variety, perhaps a peck, that despite its unassuming appearance will soon pack a punch.

“I’ll take the box,” Laura tells the gentleman with silver hair and a slight stoop. We’ve arrived late to the Durango Farmers Market, but it doesn’t look as if we’ve missed a thing. The band is in full swing, the roasted green chiles’ heavenly scent still permeates. Laura, master pickle maker, hits the jackpot – she finds two more boxes for a total of 60 pounds of cucumbers, and lots of fresh dill. Her mission is to get them washed and in the fridge right away, where she’ll let them sit for a couple days.

“I found out by accident that if you keep the cukes cold for 48 hours, and then process them, they come out super crunchy,” she says.

And that, after all, is the very essence of a pickle. The palate-cleansing, silence-your-craving “snap!” It’s like a bite full of excitement and zest. “You should hear the crunch of a good pickle at 10 paces,” she says. (A theory to be tested in about six weeks.)

From July to September, you will find her sterilizing jars and simmering sauces. She says her “stubborn canning habit” comes from her native Midwestern roots. She loves to sweat away weekends filling jars with pickles to be split amongst relatives, clients and friends. What she doesn’t give away, she keeps for herself for dirty bloody Marys or shots of tequila with a pickleback. There’s nothing like a cold brine chaser down the hatch! Whew!

While most people think of cucumbers as vegetables, they’re actually a fruit, a member of the squash and melon family. Although it may not surprise you to learn they are America’s favorite pickled produce, just how much we consume might: 81⁄2 pounds per person, per year, according to the Department of Agriculture. Hundreds of varieties exist in dozens of colors, shapes and sizes. The edible types are classified as either the “slicing” or “pickling” kind. Common pickling varieties intended for the brine jar include: Royal, Calypso, Pioneer, Bounty, Regal, Duke and Bliss.

Archaeologists believe we’ve been pickling since as far back as 2400 BC, when the Mesopotamians realized that by immersing produce in a brine of vinegar, they could extend its life. When cucumbers were brought in from India around 2000 BC, it was a match made in pickling heaven.

Though most cucumbers are 95 percent water, they’re purported to be chock full of phytonutrients (plant chemicals that are protective or disease-preventive) with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer benefits.

And then there’s the byproduct of pickling and the new-old darling of the fitness set: pickle juice. Ideal for helping the body replenish fluids lost through exertion or overindulgence – Dr. Oz claims it helps alleviate hangovers and athletes swear by it to stop muscle cramps – pickle juice has 20 times the electrolytes of most sports drinks (and no sugar). In fact, it’s become so popular that you can now buy pickle juice by the gallon, in 2.5 oz. shooters and or even as frozen “pickle pops.”

But back to Laura’s pickle juice, which begins with a simple brine of vinegar, water and salt. Instead of pickling spices, she makes use of what’s in her garden to flavor her spears. Onions, garlic, banana peppers, hot red peppers, dill and mustard seed are all common additives.

If all you have is a packet of commercial pickling spices staring you down at the grocery store, you can go ahead and use it IF YOU PICK OUT ALL THE CINNAMON. Better yet, ditch the pre-fab stuff and follow this recipe:

New York Full Sour Pickle Spice

2 Tablespoons peppercorns
2 Tablespoons mustard seeds
2 Tablespoons coriander seeds
2 Tablespoons dill seeds
2 Tablespoons allspice berries
1 Tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes 10-12 bay leaves, crumbled
Add approximately 2 tablespoons of spice to each jar of brine.)

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