I have always had a thing for pickles.
(When I taught high school English, I wrote a list on the blackboard at the start of every September, words that the students were not allowed to use: thing, stuff, get, very, nice, really, pretty, extremely, and cool. By the end of the first month, they could rattle them off like a chant. And by the end of the year, they had usually eliminated sentences such as “It was cool, because I got some very nice things” from their writing. But not always.
Now, whenever I write the word thing, I feel a little delicious thrill. Ha ha! I want to say. I’m breaking my own rules. But that was always the point, to teach them rules so they would know when to break them. There are times when thing is a really nice word.)
Pickles always worked for me.
There’s this audio tape my parents made for my grandparents, up in Washington, when we were sweltering in southern California heat. My brother and I answered questions from my father, talked about our favorite meals (“The drink I like, is lemonade!” my little brother nearly shouted in his four-year-old voice), and wondered what we would grow up to be some day. (Apparently, I was going to be a scientist.) One of the highlights albeit embarrassing is when I burst into song, in a key much too high for my tiny cracking voice, and sang the first verse of the theme song for a sitcom called Lotsa Luck:
“Oh, I used to buy a pickle
it only used to cost a nickel
the bus ride only used to cost a dime!
Now these days are long forgotten,
the world has gotten rotten,
lotsa luck. lotsa luck. lotsa luck!”
(And before you ask, I have no idea why a seven-year-old girl in LA loved this show about the manager of the New York City bus system’s lost and found department who lived with his mother. But I did. I’m pretty sure the late Dom DeLuise played his best friend.)
At Disneyland, which we visited twice a year, or three if we were lucky, I loved many rides with the fervency of a sunburned girl with pigtails wearing tube socks up to her knees. But I think there was another experience I loved even more. I’ve already written about how much I loved those sour pickles that floated in large wooden barrels at the General Store, so I won’t repeat myself. Just go read and see if you don’t want a pickle now.
Egg salad sandwiches, a saucer full of cherries, a glass of iced tea, and a fat green wedge of dill pickle on my plate. That was my favorite lunch, for years.
I cannot stand bread and butter pickles, however. Get that thing away from me. Pickles should be sour and mouth-puckering, briny and dripping, no hint of sweetness. I want pickles that make me sit up straight and suck in my breath. Pickles should be crisp and unexpected, a little quiver of green, slickness and then a hiss of ooohhhh what’s that? Or maybe pickles should just taste good.
Danny made pints and pints of dill pickles from scratch for the family party before our wedding. Our soon-to-be nephew, James, is still talking about them.
Less than two weeks later, I stood in the middle of a field, watching Molly and Brandon walk among their friends and family in summer-blue light. We were at a picnic together, disguised as their wedding rehearsal dinner, and we were all smiling. Tea and I talked about our dear friends, who would be married the next day, and our happiness at being part of this. We sat down at long tables dotted with mason jars filled with flowers that could have been picked from the field an hour before. Pulled chicken, roasted vegetables, tomatoes and basil, fingerling potato salad were banked on the buffet table, enticing us to come over. But I couldn’t leave, just yet. I had to eat two or three more pickled carrots, the ones that Molly and Brandon had pickled themselves. And if ever there had been a moment when no one was looking, I might have swiped one of the jars of pickled grapes with cinnamon (adapted from the Boat Street pickled grapes, which you can now buy). Damn, those were good.
Other than pickled ginger with sushi, I didn’t know until I was well into my 30s that I could eat any other pickled vegetables than cucumbers in briny liquid. Now, I can’t stop thinking of things I want to pickle. Danny made me pickled red cabbage for Valentine’s Day once. Brandon left a tall glass of pickled sunchokes on our front porch soon after he found out I was pregnant. (Those disappeared fast.) We have pickled parsnips with great success, and there are pickled white beans and pickled golden beets floating in liquid on the door of our refrigerator. We have so much rhubarb growing in the backyard that we’re thinking of pickling some this weekend mmm, so good with salmon. And this summer, I’m finally going to try pickling apricots, which I have been thinking about for three years. (maybe with allspice, and a bit of brandy?)
I can’t be stopped. I love pickles.
Last week, Little Bean sucked on a dill pickle for a few minutes, interested in the experience.
It looks like the cycle of pickles will continue.
PICKLED VEGETABLES FOR CARNITAS
Before I met Danny, I thought that pickles were the impossible dream, something far beyond my abilities. Not at all true. Find the right proportions of water to sugar and salt, some spices you like, and a touch of something with vinegar, and you’re on your way. And then you wait.
These pickled jalapenos and carrots are so easy to make that you might just keep replenishing them in your refrigerator after you make them the first time. Taco night just grew much more delicious around here.
And if you’d like to see Danny’s recipe for carnitas, please click here.
1 quart water
1 garlic clove
1/4 cup kosher salt
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons mustard seed
3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
pinch red pepper flakes
1/2 bunch thyme
2 jalapeno peppers, sliced
2 carrots, peeled and julienned
1/2 head green cabbage, thinly sliced
1 cucumber, sliced
Making the pickling liquid. Put the water, garlic, salt, sugar, 1 tablespoon of the mustard seed, the apple cider vinegar, red pepper flakes, and the thyme in a large saucepan. Bring the liquid to a boil and allow it to boil until both the sugar and salt have dissolved. (This is important.)
Pickling the vegetables. Pour the liquid, through a strainer, over the jalapeno peppers, carrots, and 1/2 the cabbage. (Choose a large bowl you don’t want the liquid spilling over.) Add the remaining mustard seed to the vegetables. Allow the liquid to come to room temperature before moving the vegetables into the refrigerator.
Refrigerate for at least 1 day (and no more than 3 days) before eating. Toss in the second half of the cabbage about an hour before eating the pickled vegetables.
These pickled vegetables would work well with any Mexican dish: carnitas, tacos, enchiladas. I also like them on top of plain white rice, frankly. Danny thinks they would work with cheese plates or pâté. Or, if you’re like me, you can eat them right out of the refrigerator.