The late summer gives us a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables at our local farmers' markets and grocery stores. And, if you're anything like me, seeing rock-bottom prices on summer produce means filling up your basket with a plethora of fruit and vegetables.
After my culinary inspiration has been exhausted and I've done just about everything one can do with a zucchini (edibly speaking, you dirty minds), I've still got more perishable fruit and vegetables than I know what to do with. Luckily, there's one last-ditch way to save the lives of this beautiful produce — pickling!
With no time, patience or pantry space for the canning route, I opt for a quick pickle. Just about any piece of produce can be pickled (say that five times fast), the result being tangy-sweet, cool and crisp fruits and veggies that make perfect accompaniments and condiments to any late summer meal — or are great eaten straight out of the jar.
Besides being incredibly easy to prepare, the pickling liquid, or brine, ingredients cost next to nothing, and you probably already have them in your cupboard. Vinegar, sugar, salt and spices, and you're in business. Distilled white and apple cider vinegars are the two types most recipes call for. Cider vinegar will produce a mellow, fruity flavor, but can darken over time and turn the food a different color. White vinegar can impart a sharper flavor but helps retain the food's colors. Alternately, you could just use an equal mix of both for a happy medium. As for amounts, most recipes call for a 1:1 (veg to liquid) or 1.5:1 ratio — enough to cover the items being pickled. If a sweeter end-product is desired, use a fair amount of sugar in the mix; if you're going for salty, add salt and just a touch of sugar for flavor balance.
If pickling larger pieces of produce (i.e.: cucumbers, regular tomatoes, asparagus, peaches, etc.), cut them into bite-sized pieces. If using smaller produce (baby tomatoes, cherries, jalapeños), feel free to leave them whole, but make small incisions with a toothpick or paring knife to allow the brine to penetrate the skin and pickle the insides. Some recipes call for blanching the foods before immersing them in the brining liquid, but if you desire a crisper end-product, skip this step.
As for spices, anything goes. Typically, whole spices — such as bay leaves, allspice, cinnamon sticks, cloves, etc. — are used, since ground spices will make the liquid cloudy (though this never stops me from using them). I've also seen fresh herbs in some recipes, as well as cilantro and parsley stems, which pack a lot of flavor. Play around with herb and spice combinations to get different results.
Let's get picklin'! Bring the prepared brine to a boil in a pot large enough for all ingredients, add the fruit or veg you desire to pickle, reduce to a simmer and let cook for a few minutes before removing the pot from the heat. Let the mixture cool, then pour it into glass or (food-safe) plastic containers, pop on the lids and let the pickles marinate in the fridge. Being impatient, I sometimes nibble on my creations as soon as they've cooled off, but letting them sit in the fridge for at least a day allows the foods to marinate and soak in all of those flavors. They'll keep in the fridge just fine for 2-3 weeks.
For an easy intro recipe, try this one for pink, pickled onions — fantastic on Mexican-style street tacos and on pulled pork. In a saucepan, combine 1 1/2 cups of white vinegar, 1/3 cup sugar, a cinnamon stick (or 1/2 tsp. ground), 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes and a bay leaf. Slice up a large red onion, bring the brine to a boil, toss in the onions, reduce to a simmer and let them do their thing for 3-4 minutes, until the onions become soft and slightly translucent. Remove pot from the heat, let cool to room temperature. Use immediately or store in the refrigerator for later use.