Saturday, August 11, 2012

Make Classic Crock Pickles

 Cucumbers are sneaky, secretive. We had a plant, just one, growing beside our back steps this summer and at first it was a lazy little vine that made blossoms but no fruit. The flowers shriveled and dropped. Turned out the blossoms needing pollinating. There weren’t enough bees around to do the job. Anita showed me how to take a tiny paint brush, dip it into a male blossom and then pass the goodness into a female. She told me how to tell the difference between them, but I didn’t get it, so I stabbed every one I found for the week she was gone. Apparently they figured out their chemistry because this little vine has grown big. Big enough to cover the oregano, wrap around the sedum and climb the bee balm. Meanwhile it is producing handfuls of sweet, crisp cucumbers.

A few manage to hide behind a leaf for an extra day or two until you find them grown to the size of a man’s tube sock. I swear they can do this overnight. Grow that big. What  to do with them?
Make crock pickles.

I often crave pickles, and as I handled these big ones, I though of the old wooden pickle barrels that used to sit beside the cash register of every general store in America. What I didn’t realize is that they required no refrigeration because the natural fermentation process preserved them.
You can make your own crock pickles quite easily and the recipe can be tweaked a little to get it how you them.

This is a method of preserving food that is being recovered. Cucumbers are especially well adapted to this kind of fermentation, though other vegetables like onions, carrots pepper are good, too. If you’ve had to do a course of antibiotics lately, more doctors are now suggesting you replace all that good bacteria in your gut with probiotics. Millions, billions of those teeny, tiny seething little organisms that help us digest food and fight off evil are now dead along with all the bad ones. Our American diets do not include enough of the beneficial bacteria found in yogurt and pickles and fermented foods. This could be a start.

So, if you have a few extra cucumbers, now is the time. You can make a small batch, enough for two quarts. Whet your appetite, pass one of these to a friend, a kid, a spouse and you may be rewarded with more than just a little help for the bacteria farm growing in your gut.

Classic Crock Pickles
(makes 2 Quarts)

2 lbs. pickling cucumbers or spears
1 quart water
3 TBSP pickling salt
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 fronds of fresh seeded dill (or 1 TBSP seed)
1 T mustard seed (optional)
1 tsp celery seed (optional)
1 head of garlic
Oak or grape leaves (preserves crispness)
Soak the cucumbers overnight in cold water.
Sterilize 2 glass quart jars. Add 2 oak or grape leaves, a frond of dill seed, and several cloves of garlic to each jar.
Combine the water, salt, garlic, mustard and celery seeds in a bowl and stir to dissolve the salt. This is your pickling brine.
Pack each jar with spears or whole pickling cucumbers, leaving at least 2 inches of room at the top of each jar.
Pour brine into each jar, filling to the top. All the cucumbers need to be covered in at least 1” of brine.  If you need more liquid, mix 1 TBSP pickling salt in 1 cup water and add it to the brine to reach the desired volume.

The cucumbers, whether whole or cut in spears, will float and you need to invent a way to keep them submerged. We found a small round river rock, sent it through the dishwasher to sterilize it and placed that in the top of our jars. If you have a small enough plate or seal a bag of dry beans, anything that will rest on top of the jar to keep them down.

Leave jars at room temp out of direct sunlight. It’s a good idea to set the jar in a bowl because as the brine works it will bubble and overflow a little. Check the jars every day. As the fermentation process gets going, bubbles will rise in the brine and you will see seeds being ferried up and down the pickling liquid.  This is a good sign!  It means the cucumbers are getting pickled.
A scum will form on the top of the brine every day (also a good sign!). Skim it off and discard it and clean the rim of the jar so mold does not form.
When the bubbles stop rising (after a week or so), take out a pickle and sample it.  If it is pickled to its center, it is done. If it isn’t sour enough or pickled throughout, leave the jar to sit out another day or two to complete the fermentation.  The taste should be sour and salty and if you speared the cucumbers, the skin should still be crunchy. 
Refrigerate the jars when the pickles taste like you want them to.  Refrigeration slows the fermentation process, but the scum will still form on top of the liquid. Remove it regularly. They’ll keep for 4-6 months in the refrigerator.

This recipe was tweaked, but originated from Put 'em Up by Sherri Brooks Vinton

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