Midori Fridge Pickles

As both this site and my instagram feed will prove, I’m a big fan of refrigerator pickles. Really, I’m a fan of pickles in general, and have been since childhood, up to and including my Nana’s pickled beets, which marked not only my willingness to eat almost anything, but also one of the first instances in which I became aware that my parents were not above lying to me. One of the few foods I would NOT eat, at the time of my affection for the aforementioned pickled beets, was onion, in any form. Nana’s beets, though, included onions – thinly sliced, limp circles dyed brilliant purple. My parents, in their wisdom, played on my extreme gullibility and, when asked what those other things in the jar were, those clearly not beet things, told me they were “string beets.” I was then quite content to eat them.*

ANYWAY, canny parental treachery aside: fridge pickles! Vinegar, salt, sugar, dried or fresh herbs and spices, brought to a boil, poured over a thinly sliced vegetable of your choice that has been packed into a sealable container. Refrigerate for a few days, and presto! You have a perfect sandwich topper, a bright sourness to add to salads, or something homemade to serve alongside a cheese platter and impress whoever is happy hour-ing with you. I change up the kind of vinegar I use, and I like to play with what flavoring additives I use – I’ve tried everything from cardamom to fennel, but I find I like black mustard seeds the best (though I recently finished off some carrots pickled with dill, coriander, and celery seeds that were fantastic). They add a little bit of floral spiciness to the brew, but at the same time they also get pickled by the hot vinegar and become surprising little flavor bombs I eat right along with whatever vegetable they are accenting.

This particular batch arose, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit, thanks to an overcrowded liquor cabinet (I mean, it’s not a very big cabinet, but still). Between a few essentials, N’s growing collection of scotch, and some red wines of mysterious origin, the bright green elixir in the mottled glass bottle that featured in my go-to college drink just sort of got pushed out. I realized I hadn’t used it in years. Aside from a syrupy cocktail, which I wasn’t really excited about, what could I do with it?

I’m not quite sure how I made the connection, but it made me think of Bobby Flay’s pickled red onions. Lately I’ve gotten hooked on his Food Network show “Beat Bobby Flay,” which requires contestants to face off against him with their own best dish, which they’ve perfected and he only learns about in the moment. He usually wins anyway. A favorite tactic of his, no matter what the dish, is to pickle red onions with a combination of red wine vinegar and grenadine. This makes a lot of sense – the syrup contributes sweetness to the pickling solution and gives the onions a brilliant color. Plus, then he doesn’t have to wait for the sugar in his pickling solution to dissolve. Maybe, I reasoned, a combination of Midori and rice vinegar would do the same!

I settled on cucumbers thanks to the cucumber-melon combination so popular in hand soaps and lotions, but added a few slivers of red onion as well for interest. Rice vinegar, with its tang, seemed like a good pairing for the melon liqueur, and I settled on coriander as well as my favorite mustard seeds for additional flavorings. I’d hoped the green of the liqueur would transfer to my vegetables, resulting in neon green dyed cucumbers, but no such luck. The red color from the onions was leached away, but the cucumbers’ color remained about the same. Despite that minor disappointment, the pickles have a subtle but very pleasing melon sweetness a few days in – there’s a complexity here you wouldn’t have if you had just used sugar and vinegar in the mixture. The cucumbers stay crunchy, too, which is perfect. Though above I’ve listed some more sophisticated ways you can eat these, my preference is honestly just a straight-from-the-jar snack, usually while poised just inside the refrigerator door while I look around for what dinner will be. We also had them on salmon sandwiches, a crunch and sweetness to contrast the heat of wasabi mayo spread liberally over a toasted bun.

* not to be outdone, my dad’s oldest sister, whose kids also liked pickled beets but not onions, told their oldest that those purple strings were “munions” and were also believed.

 

Midori Fridge Pickles
Makes ½ cup pickling liquid for about ½ a large cucumber
About 15 minutes, plus at least 2 days resting time
¼ cup rice vinegar
¼ cup Midori or other melon liqueur
1½ teaspoons salt
enough thin slices of cucumber to tightly pack a 6 ounce jar – for me, this was about ½ of a large cucumber
a few thin slices of red onion, if desired
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1 teaspoon whole black or yellow mustard seeds

 

  • In a small pot, bring the vinegar, Midori, and salt to a rolling boil. While you wait, pack the cucumbers, onions, and whole spices into a small jar with a lid that closes tightly.
  • When the liquid reaches a boil, stir briefly to dissolve the salt, then pour carefully over the vegetables to fill the jar. Put the lid on tightly, shake the jar to distribute (careful; if the lid isn’t on tightly, hot vinegar can seep out!), and store in the fridge for at least 2 days, shaking occasionally to distribute liquid and spices.
  • After at least 2 days, or when the cucumbers have soured to your liking, consume as desired!

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Vegetable pickles, three kinds

Food Blog April 2015-0565Not long ago, I finished Cooked, Michael Pollan’s latest, in which he seeks to elucidate the magic of our kitchens. He looks at the transformative power of each of the four elements when applied to ingredients, and works to understand the connections we draw from and through what we eat as it ceases to be raw materials and becomes food. I couldn’t put it down. I tore through it like a fluffy bedtime novel, as my friend S. probably knew I would when she sent me a copy.

Food Blog April 2015-0548In a number of ways, Pollan’s investigation reminded me of my own scholarly work a few years ago when I was a graduate student. Though I was focused on medieval literature, I was intensely interested in what we could learn about human – and not-so-human – beings by examining the literary depictions of how and what they ate. Dietary habits, I thought, along with sexual practices, might be what determines humanness within this field of literature. Too much, too little, or too weird, and your food habits moved you outside what we think of as human, and into something else.

Food Blog April 2015-0546Unsurprisingly, as anyone who has researched food and its cultural impacts deeply knows, this led me to anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and The Raw and the Cooked, the first volume of his elaborate, complex exploration of human myth and culture. Without getting too academic, I’ll just say that Levi-Strauss thinks a great deal of the development of culture happens as – and as a result of – foodstuffs transforming from raw to cooked. His analogy equates the wild to the raw, and the civilized to the cooked.

Food Blog April 2015-0549Pollan pulls on and plays with this idea, considering that if indeed cooked food represents culture or civilization, then there must be something about the cooking process itself that is civilizing and bridging. The four elements he examines are aligned with four types of cooking methods: fire explores the tradition of barbecue; water looks at stews and braising; air relates his adventures in the magic/science of bread baking; and earth digs into fermentation, the weird, marginally repulsive transformation of fresh food into pickles, or beer, or cheese – food that is prized and yet impacted by earth and death and rot.

Food Blog April 2015-0552This, too, reminded me of my own work (and don’t worry, we’re getting to the recipe part here soon), particularly an article I ran across as I was working on the Chaucer chapter of my dissertation. Subtitled “The Raw, the Cooked, and the Rotten,” the article took on Levi-Strauss’s nature/culture formulation and added a step to accommodate one of the characters in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. If raw food is wild and cooked food is civilized, what happens when that cooked food goes bad? This seemed to equate to my idea of people who had exceeded the limits of humanness through their eating habits, turning food into waste.

Food Blog April 2015-0557But I was looking at food habits from a perspective of too little as well as too much. What about superhuman beings who survived without eating, or whose bodies remained impenetrable, and un-penetrated, by the eventual corruption of food? I hypothesized making this triangle a square: adding preservation as a fourth corner. Suspended in limbo by sealing oneself against the external corruption consumption and digestion can bring, you remain preserved. This is not humanly possible, but it is not considered with disgust in medieval literature. Rather, such individuals hang closer to the divine than to the monstrous or subhuman.

Food Blog April 2015-0551Though this is not quite the four-some Pollan presents, I think fermentation and preservation have some similarities. In being preserved by their “cooking” process, fermented foods and preserved foods are mysterious blends of human and natural magic. Jams and jellies, preserved by being cooked with sugar, are the sweet side of this equation. Pollan opts to explore sauerkraut and cheese and beer. Today, I’m taking on pickles: simple raw, sliced vegetables transformed, “cooked,” and held in briny limbo by vinegar, sometimes sugar, and salt.

Food Blog April 2015-0559When N. and I got serious, we started using pickles as a metaphor for our relationship. In most refrigerators, there is a jar of pickles shoved way in the back, often on the top shelf, getting in the way of the orange juice and the milk and the mayonnaise. When you finally pull that jar out and peer inside, it’s almost never full. There are one or two pickles in there, floating around in the dill-and-peppercorn-laced brine, warty and sour and beautiful. The ubiquity of that pickle jar became our metaphor. As long as there were pickles in our fridge, we would be okay.

Food Blog April 2015-0560As with most Americans, I would wager, the pickles I was accustomed to when I was younger were always cucumber based, and usually dill (though I am a fiend for bread and butter pickles). I had no real sense that other sorts of vegetables could be pickled (aside from beets, thanks to my Nana) until I started frequenting the McMenamins pubs, an Oregon and Southern Washington chain of sorts featuring decent beer, good burgers, and remarkably slow service. Our little graduate crew went often – there were three different locations in the city of Eugene alone. Their hummus platter, ever present on the appetizer menu, came with a variety of vegetables along with triangles of pita, and often the spears of green bean and carrot, and the occasional nub of cauliflower, were pickled. Of course I had little thought of doing this myself until, chasing after an elusive potato salad that included pickled green beans, I started noticing how expensive these various vegetable pickles were in the grocery store. Recreating that potato salad required pickled green beans, dammit, and as a poor graduate student I was both unable and morally opposed to spending $7.99 on a slender little jar.

Food Blog April 2015-0561Fortunately, vegetable pickles are easy and fall within even a humanities graduate student’s budget. Vinegar, sugar, and a healthy shower of salt, heated to a simmer to dissolve the crystals. Jam as many vegetables as you can into a jar, shove in some flavoring agents: bay leaf, mustard seeds, dill, fennel, and pour on the vinegar. Cap, relocate to the fridge, and remember them a few days later when they’ve had a chance to sour up.

Food Blog April 2015-0562Vegetable pickles seem entirely suitable for the season. Fresh, young vegetables are great for pickling, especially while they are still small in size, so the vinegar can penetrate faster. Slender carrots, or plump radishes, or the tiny lanterns of young peppers, are a sign of spring that is often gone too fast. Pickles, though, hold that spring forever, jarred and capped and safe on the top shelf lurking behind the orange juice. Though they are not unaltered – the raw crispness is indeed transformed – in that way too they are like a spring gone by, or perhaps the memories of that spring that remain. It’s not that perfect, warm day anymore, but you remember its brightness – you need only uncap the jar and fish out a crisp briny souvenir.

Food blog April 2015-0616I’ve done three types of pickle here: onion, carrot, and radish. Each is seasoned with a different combination of spices, and because I like to be fancy, I’ve used a different variety of vinegar. The radishes, I must admit, are my favorite. To play on their peppery flavor, I’ve added mustard seeds and a dried chili, but teased them as well with a heaping helping of sugar for the sweet-hot kick.

Food blog April 2015-0634While these are lovely in salads, as part of a cheese or hummus plate, or just bright and sour on a fork, they are dynamite on a sandwich. And as the above photo suggests, it is on a sandwich that they found their sprightly home for us. Specifically, on a banh mi sandwich, that fresh, crisp Vietnamese invention. Even more specifically, on the idea that spawned my whole 2015 project: a banh mi-tball. There are essentially three components to this sandwich. These pickles are the first. Next week we’ll look at the bread (the true banh mi), and in the third and final installment, pork meatballs awash in aromatics, simmered in a miso-spiked broth I wanted to drink all on its own.

But for the moment, let’s just revel in the transformative magic of pickles. You’ll need the week for them to get good and sour before you can properly enjoy the sandwich anyway.
Food blog April 2015-0619

Refrigerator Vegetable Pickles
My jars held 6 ounces (¾ cup), so these measurements are keyed to that.
Carrots:
carrot ribbons from 1 carrot to fill jar (use a vegetable peeler to create long strips)
⅔ cup white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons celery seed
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
Sweet/hot Radishes:
thinly sliced radishes to fill jar
1 small dried chili pepper
scant ⅔ cup rice wine vinegar (unseasoned)
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons sugar (¼ cup)
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
Onions:
thinly sliced red onion to fill jar
1 bay leaf
⅔ cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon fennel seed
  • For each: fill a heat-safe, lidded jar with vegetable slices (add chili or bay leaf, in the radish or onion case, respectively).
  • In a small pot, combine vinegar, salt, sugar, and other spices. Heat over medium-high, stirring occasionally, until liquid reaches a rolling boil and salt and sugar have completely dissolved.
  • Carefully, pour vinegar mixture over vegetables in jar until full. Gently push vegetables into liquid if needed – they will want to float.
  • Close jars tightly and refrigerate until vegetables are pickled to your liking – at least 2-3 days.