Prime Pickles!

Is it odd that the thing that most excited me about the first batch of pickles in 2012 is that we canned a prime number of cucumbers? (127, if you were curious!). Yeah, I think my mathly-inclined friends are rubbing off a bit…

Anyhow, the farmer’s market had fabulous looking itty bitty cucumbers (like the size of my pinky finger or smaller) for $15 a bucket (about $2.75/pound), so we decided to liberate a bunch and make pickles. Walking past the herbalist’s stall and smelling the fresh dill wafting on the hot breeze might have played an important role, too…I always love the different smells at the market, but sometimes I do get a bit carried away!

So we acquired fresh dill and a short ton of baby cukes, picked up some vinegar and jars on our way home (seriously, where do all the jars go?) and got down to business. I should also say, this was the day we decided to make currant jelly and shrub, so it’s not like our afternoon docket was empty. But there’s always room for pickles, no?

I washed the little cukes and sliced off both ends…I started out doing this with a paring knife, but then I remembered I have a small microplane blade on the side of my box grater that would do them much faster (and at much less peril to my fingertips!). Stroke of genius, that.

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Once the cukes were washed, it was time to make the brine and pack the jars. The brine was a simple 1:1 ratio of water and white vinegar with a bit of salt and sugar added. Once that was all in the pan and heating up, I started filling the jars.  One head of very fragrant dill apiece, plus a half-teaspoon of pickling spice (Penzey’s blend…it’s quite tasty), plus half a teaspoon of dill seeds (not all the dill heads were seedy yet, and I wanted DILL pickles!).  A few jars also got dried peppers added just to see how they’d come out!

Once the spices were in, John & I packed the cukes in as best we could.  We had slightly more cukes than the recipe called for (OK, about 2.5 times by weight), so we got 10 pint jars and one half pint once all was said and done.  We poured the brine over them (we’d done a triple batch figuring we’d need it, but I bet we could have gotten by with a double batch b/c we ended up throwing quite a bit out that didn’t get used).

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Once the jars were packed and brined, we popped them into the water canner to process for 10 minutes and poof! Done!  I’m really excited to see how these turn out (I think we’ll crack the half pint in a few weeks just to see, though we do need to finish up a few jars of last year’s pickles before we go crazy and make a bunch more.  That, or annex more storage space somehow…)

We missed out on the baby cukes last year, so this was the first time we pickled whole cucumbers…I’m curious to see if anything is different (texture/flavor-wise) compared to slices!)

And, of course Herbie the cat likes to be part of what’s going on.  Or oversee his human underlings…we’re never quite sure which it is…

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Currant Projects!

A friend of a friend hooked me up last week and I got to pick just a little over 3 pounds of currants!  And I suddenly had all sorts of plans for currant projects at my fingertips!  The first use was scones, which got snapped up so fast I didn’t get  a picture (sorry!).

The second project was currant jelly!  I’ve never made jelly before (jam, yes, but that’s different!) so this was a little new.  I used the recipe from the River Cottage Preserves Handbook (lovely recipes, and the few I’ve made turn out so well!) for this batch.  Reading through the steps, it became immediately apparent that I would need to rig up some sort of jelly-straining apparatus…I had to get jars anyhow, so I thought I’d check out the hardware store’s options for this (there is apparently a proper “jelly strainer” setup available for purchase)…however, the hardware store wanted $13 dollars (thirteen!) for what was essentially a hemmed bit of cheesecloth and a rickety wire stand with hooks for holding the cheesecloth in the center (ostensibly then the juices would drip into a bowl below).  I foresaw it becoming a very messy cat toy and said nothankyou.

So I rigged up my own (much sturdier) setup…a big piece of cheesecloth tied into a bundle of hot juicy fruit (doesn’t that sound fun!) suspended from a 20 pound magnetic hook with a bowl in the sink below to catch the drips.  Can I just say, I love my metal cabinets?

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But before I got to the straining/hanging point, I had to boil down my fruit with a little water and let it cook for 45 minutes to extract the juices.  Once I had the pulp in the strainer, it dripped for about 3 hours, which netted me almost 3 cups of juice.  To that juice, I added a bit of sugar and proceeded to boil it down (or up…turns out when you boil jellly, it foams and climbs the sides of the pan a LOT!).  So glad I had opted to use my giant roaster pan for this!

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From here, I checked to see if the jelly had “gelled” by dribbling a bit on a cold saucer and seeing if it acted, well, gel-y.  I wasn’t satisfied the first time I checked, so I cooked it for another couple minutes and checked again, and I’m afraid it got very gel-y.  Oh well.  Better than ending up with syrup, right?

I poured the jelly into jars and discovered a downside of cooking it a bit more than specified…I got 2.5 pints instead of 4.  Oopsies!  And here, too, I got a bit confused.  The recipe simply said to “seal and store” the jars, and the book’s instructions for “sealing” jars consisted of pouring hot stuff into hot jars and slapping a lid on it asap.  No mention of wax or water bath or pressure canner…so I stuck the jars in my water canner for 10 minutes to seal (following sealing instructions from a jelly recipe in a different book).  I hope that works…I think we’ll open one this fall to check.  I also wonder if those ten minutes in the canner will make my jelly even more gel-y?  One way to find out, I guess!

But, even with the ambiguous sealing instructions, I’m really happy with how it all turned out.  Such pretty jars!  I was surprised it was so dark, though…the pictures I always see are a bright happy red!

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So jelly was use #2, and use #3 is a shrub!  A recipe that is also from the River Cottage book, this time it’s a currant/brandy concoction.  I took the pulp that remained after the juice dripped through and wrung it out into a separate bowl.  I got just over a cup (which couldn’t be used for jelly or the jelly would be cloudy, apparently, from stuff getting forced thru the cheesecloth with the wringing).  But with my second-wrung juice, I had just enough to make the shrub.  I combined the juice with some nutmeg and the zest of a lemon and a whole (175ml) bottle of Calvados apple brandy.  Right now it is hanging out in a cool, dark place, percolating.  I promise to show pictures once it’s done (right now it’s just a quart jar full of goopy pink liquid since I still need to add the sugar and some heat to finish it in about a week!)

Heirloom Pickles

Growing up, there was always a pickle jar in the fridge.  And quite frequently it was my grandmother’s amazing cherry dill pickle recipe filling that jar (while they lasted!).  Since moving away form home (oh, gosh, a decade ago, already?!) my supply of cherry dill pickles has been rather scant.  Mournfully scant, if I do say so myself.  So this year (since I’ve been pickling/canning like a crazy person) I decided to make my own batch.  And it has been an adventure from the start.

A couple weeks ago, I started gathering equipment/ingredients.  First on the list were cherry leaves.  Now, living in an apartment surrounded by ginkos and oaks and the odd spruce, and not having the hottest botany skillz around, I am not really sure I’d recognize a cherry tree even if it bit me.  But I happened to be on the phone with my mom, who was headed over to my uncle’s place to pick cherries for freezing.  “Picking cherries, you say?!” I said, “Well perhaps you could pick some leaves and overnight them to me, too?”…and she agreed!  So early next week, I had cherry leaves in my hot little hands!  The proper cherry leaves even! (since I’m sure the cherry leaves of MT taste much better than MN cherry leaves…yup…for sure!)

Of course, as luck would have it, I was out of cucumbers for the first time in a month.  I know, right?  How can I, who complained so vociferously about being inundated by cukes for months, be out of cucumbers?  Hard to believe, but true…I gave a bunch away to coworkers thinking I wouldn’t have time to pickle them, just before discovering I could order cherry leaves air-mail from home.  Drat.  So I froze the cherry leaves (much like I do with lime leaves for Asian-style soups) so they wouldn’t get all funky before I could get my act together.

The next step in this process was to acquire a pickling venue.  You see, this particular recipe makes enough pickles for an army (OK, as armies go, they would probably only feed a small, pickle-hating army…but for just two folks, it’s a lot of pickles!).  My mother and aunts and grandma use 5 gallon pickling crocks, which I did not have, so my brilliant plan B was a plastic bucket from my friendly local hardware store.  I also decided to scale back the recipe so I would only end up with 3 gallons of pickles, since they were out of 5-gallon buckets.  I make executive decisions like that.

Next I solved the problem of cucumbers, via my friendly veggie vendor at the local farmer’s market.  So one bucket of cukes later, I was ready to pickle.  Which at this stage involved washing the cucumbers, layering them in the bucket with the cherry leaves and a bunch of dill seed, and pouring room-temp brine over them.  And waiting two weeks to move on to the next step.  So this is what’s been sitting on my counter for the past two weeks:

I panicked a bit when I saw some mold forming on the top, but I consulted my mom and aunt conventional wisdom, and was reassured that the pickles would probably be fine if left alone, and it was probably because I froze the leaves first and they were breaking down faster than expected.  So I covered it with foil to keep it from killing us (mold is dangerous, no?!) and made a concentrated effort to not worry about it.  This is what it looked like when we opened it.  Gross, I know.

My hubby was prepared though…

…and gasmask in hand, he gallantly de-brined the cukes for me while I oversaw the proceedings from a location staunchly upwind…

Don’t try this in your home, kids…take it outside–it reeked!

First step once the cukes had been de-brined was to wash them…thoroughly.  See  above if questions.  So I washed the cukes, scrubbing them pretty well with my trusty veggie brush.  Once they were very well washed, I tested them.  After brining, if all was OK, we should have fairly crisp cukes (though they wouldn’t taste like proper pickles yet since the syrup is added later).  So we sliced into one to check it out:

The verdict: crisp and crunchety for the win!  I was so on the fence about these pickles.  Right up until that bite, I was about 60% convinced we should just scrap the whole lot as there’s no way anything that lurked under that scummy surface should be remotely edible…and yet…I held onto this beacon of hope that all would be well, because, well, I wanted cherry dill pickles, dammit!

Once we knew we were home free, the real work began.  I started slicing cukes into 3/4″ to 1″ slices, while John poured vinegar and sugar together and got it boiling for the syrup.  We also lit a fire under the canning kettle (it takes forever to boil, so we start it first most of the time).

Once the water in the canning kettle came up to a boil, we sanitized the jars, added 1/2 tsp. pickling spice to them, and then started packing the slices in.

John has mad pickle packing skillz.  Seriously, I hate packing stuff into jars because I know if I just take my time, more will fit in, but I’m lazy and want to be done already, so I usually end up with one more jar than I planned to make.  But not John!  He packed 10 pints of pickles neatly in to 10 pint jars!  Excellent!

Once the pickles were packed, we poured the syrup over them.

The syrup in the recipe is just a 2:1 ratio of sugar:vinegar, so we started with 2 cups sugar and a cup of vinegar and realized that would fill about 3 jars, max…so we made a couple more batches as we ran out a few times.  Then we tapped the air bubbles out of the jars, wiped the rims clean, screwed down the lids, and into the water bath they went! Exciting!

When all was said and done, our kitchen table was a sticky sticky mess and we had 10 jars of processed pickles!  We had a few odds and ends left that didn’t quite fill a jar, so we poured the last of the syrup over those and tossed it in the fridge to have this week.  A test jar, so to speak!

So it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be (at any and all stages!), but it was definitely more work and anxiety than I bargained for, too!  For any hearty souls that want to try this recipe, here it is (at least you’ll know approximately what you’re in for!):

Cherry Dill Pickles

Equipment:

  • 1 3-gallon plastic bucket or other pickling venue/crock
  • 10-11 pint jars
  • canning kettle/rack/jar lifter
  • large saucepan (for making brine & syrup)

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 bushel of smallish whole cukes (4-6″ in length, no more than 1-1/2″ in diameter)
  • 1 large bunch cherry leaves, washed (I’d say about 2 cups total)
  • 1/3 cup dill seed
  • 1 cup canning salt
  • 5 quarts water
  • 6 cups sugar (approx.)
  • 3 cups cider vinegar (approx.)

Scrub the cucumbers well and drain. Layer cucumbers and cherry leaves in your bucket/pickling crock, sprinkling each layer with a tablespoon or two of dill seeds.  Use the entire 1/3 cup over the course of all the layers.

Bring water and salt to a boil and stir till dissolved.  Pour (GENTLY!) over cucumbers/seeds/leaves.  Try not to displace the seasonings too much!

Set bucket in cool location (room temp or just below) out of direct sunlight.  Pick a place that the bucket can sit unmolested for two weeks–you don’t want to be moving it if you can help it.  Cover the top loosely with foil to keep dust/bugs out.

Let sit for two weeks.  Check every couple of days.  If mold forms, skim it off.  If a skin forms, that’s normal, just leave it be.

When cukes have brined for two weeks, remove from brine.  Wash thoroughly and slice into 3/4″ to 1″ wide pieces.  Discard brine.

Pack slices into sterilized jars. Make syrup by boiling sugar and cider vinegar till well dissolved.  Make more syrup using a 2:1 ratio of sugar to vinegar if needed.  Pour syrup into jars, leaving about 1/2″ headspace.  Tap air bubbles out.  Seal jars and process in water bath for 12 minutes.

Let processed jars cool overnight (don’t mess with them!).  Store sealed jars for up to 1 year, any jars that don’t seal, put in the fridge and eat within 3 months.

Pickle-o-rama

Also known as “Biting off more than you can chew”…

I had grand, grand plans for Saturday. I had a box of cucumbers and zucchini to despatch, and I was armed to the teeth (to the teeth!) with awesome canning recipes thanks to my friendly local librarians, who had suggested The Complete Book of Year Round Small Batch Preserving. I was planning to can some beer mustard, zucchini lemon marmalade, lemon cuke pickles, cuke & ginger pickles, and a “winter salad pickle” (which is basically a combo of summer veggies in a sweet-ish brine). Big, big plans!

So I dropped the hubster off at work and ran to the farmers market to pick up peppers, cauliflower, long beans, red onions, and a few herbs. Epic fail. Apparently no one has successfully planted cauliflower this year, because there was not a head to be had that didn’t look like it had recently survived a nuclear blast. So no cauliflower. The long beans looked really dried out, so I subbed wax beans instead, and the only peppers I could find were “gypsy” peppers, light yellow bell-shaped peppers billed as mildly spicy. This might have been a sign. (On a side note, I ended up being really happy with the mysterious peppers, they were super crisp and fresh and had very good flavor!). So instead of getting everything at the farmer’s market, I detoured to the co-op for the rest of the stuff I still needed.

Then I headed home, where I realized that my plan to make the marmalade while the beer mustard was processing would not work. Because marmalade apparently takes 90 minutes of cooking before it sees the inside of a jar! Ooops! Reading comprehension was not up to par when I read that recipe! So I started the marmalade and put my giant pot of water on to heat (takes forever to boil that huge pot for processing…I’m sure my gas bill is going to be atrocious this summer!).

Then, as I set my 4oz. jars into the jar lifter to put into the hot water to sterilize, I made a horrifying discovery…they were too small for my jar lifter and slipped right out!! Eeeeek! That would not do! So I called around looking for an 11″ round rack to put in the bottom of my kettle (since everywhere I read said jars absolutely cannot sit on the bottom of your canning kettle or they’d break!). Finally I found a kitchen store that had a 9″ or a 12.5″ rack (apparently 11″ is not a standard size). So I ran out to pick those up (marmalade simmering happily away…so not cool, I know!) and was able to squeeze the 12.5″ one into the bottom of my kettle. I don’t think it’s coming out ever, but that’s OK.

Finally, the marmalade went into the jars and the jars went into the kettle and I started on the mustard. Basic beer mustard, a recipe I found via here. Tasted awesome and was super super simple to whip up and process.

I started to hope that things were turning around, and started gathering stuff for the lemon pickles, only to discover that in the two days since I’d inventoried my veggie box and decided what to make, most of the veggies in the box had grown fur coats…eeew. So out went the moldy icky stuff and I was left with one sad slicing cuke and 2 large-ish zucchini. So much for the lemon cuke pickles and the ginger pickles…sad. I still had lots of veggies for the winter salad pickle, so I threw the remaining zucchini on that pile and started on those next. They went pretty well…lots of veggies to clean, and I ended up getting 5 jars instead of the 4 I was expecting (I think there’s a knack to packing jars that I just don’t have down yet), so I had to make more brine–no biggie though, as I’d anticipated messing something up and had stocked up on vinegar last time I did pickles!

So for a solid 8 hours of effort, I had 17 jars of stuff! And aching feet. Canning is work! And after all the mess was cleared away and the jars were resting, I realized if I’d made two more batches I’d probably have fallen over out of exhaustion…so lesson learned. Max 3 canning projects in one day!

My hard-won results:

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In a pickle!

I had a project in mind tonight when I got home after work! Any guesses?

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I made my second ever foray into the art of pickling! I used a recipe for garlic dill pickles I found at Food in Jars (which appears to be a stellar blog re all things canning! I can’t wait to peruse it more thoroughly!)

First, I washed the ton of cucumbers that had accrued in my CSA box this week: 3 long curly ones, two ghosty white ones, and one Indian golden.

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Next, I sliced them. Pretty thickly, as I don’t like super thin pickles, and from leisurely research (yay Google!), I’d gleaned that thicker pickles are crisper pickles…we shall see! I had a solid 8 cups (2 quarts) by the time I got down to the last cuke, so I left one of the ghosty white ones in the pic out.

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Then I set my brine up and brought it to a simmer.

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While to brine took its own sweet time coming to a simmer, I quickly washed out my jars and then started adding spices…first the garlic, then some dill see, peppercorns, and red pepper flakes.

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And then the sliced cukes!!! It’s harder than it looks to pack them all in tightly in the jars. Kind of like playing tetris with round things…

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Then they were all ready to pour the brine in! Which I managed without spilling all over! FTW!

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Then into the water bath they went. Well, that’s not entirely true. First I had to wait  45 minutes for the GIANT kettle o’ water to come to a boil. Took. For. Ever. Seriously, we grilled chicken legs, made tzatziki, and were well underway with dessert by the time the water finally got around to boiling. THEN into the water bath they went! 7 pretty little jars (because my jar-holder racky thing only holds seven at a time…weird).

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It was like a scene out of MacBeth! Except with more pickles and less dire prophecy!

Now, here’s where I had to wing it a bit…the recipe said to process for 10 minutes, but I wasn’t sure if you were supposed to start the timer when you put the jars in, or when the water came back to a boil after you put the jars in. To be on the safe side (I think!), I went with the latter and waited to start the timer till the water was back to a healthy boil. Since all my jars sealed once I took them out of the water bath, I think I’ll be OK.

I think I’ll give them a few days (maybe a week) to let the flavors blend, but I seriously cannot wait to crack one of these jars and try them out!

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