Sunday, July 8, 2012

Dill refrigerator pickles, and finding home

For a long time, I willingly let go of the feeling of home. When you move often, you give up things like knowing the lay of the land, knowing where to find specific things without resorting to big box stores, running into people you know everywhere, seeing your own history imprinted on the world around you. I had that feeling of home in Baltimore, where I lived from the age of 10 until the age of 23, and then not at all for a long time. I didn't really want to know most of the places I lived between Baltimore and Oakland. I passed through them, taking what I needed, then left. I never fit, and they never fit me.

Oakland -- the Bay Area in general, I suppose, but really mostly Oakland -- was always different. The first time I came here, when I still lived back east and came on vacation, I knew I belonged here somehow, that one day it would be my home. Still, it took a couple years of living here until the city imprinted itself into my memory, until I could go anywhere I needed without getting lost, until I found places that would ground me here: a trustworthy car repair place, my favorite coffee shop to be alone in, my favorite coffee shop to take other people, shortcut routes for when highways are backed up. Anyone can come to San Francisco to ooh and aah at the Golden Gate Bridge, but it takes time and trial and error to find a place that will reliably fix your car without ripping you off.

I feel at home here now. I run into people I know all the time in random places like grocery stores and BART trains. It's not an experience I've had for a while, ever since I left Baltimore, and it's a great feeling I hadn't realized I missed. As my roots grow deeper into this place, I relish it more and more.

Which brings me to homemade refrigerator pickles, made out of crispy fresh cucumbers from the weekly farmers market in my neighborhood. For a while, I made it a point to go every week, and buy all my produce there, structuring my meals around what the season had to offer. Then grad school insanity and budgetary restraints got in the way, and I had to stop going so often. Fast forward to this summer, when my schedule was suddenly freer and my wallet somewhat fuller, and I again resumed my weekly Saturday morning stroll to the Grand Lake farmers market. When I stopped at one of my favorite stands, the guy working it greeted me like an old friend, asking me why I hadn't been around for a while. It got me thinking about roots, and about how I finally feel like I have them after living out of suitcases for so many years. The produce guy and I talked for a bit, and I mentioned I wanted to try making pickles. He offered me a discount on cucumbers, so the following weekend I made plans with a friend to meet at the farmers market, get a ton of high-season cucumbers, and make a big batch of pickles. Seven pounds of cukes cost me $5 (they are normally $1.50/lb). Having roots pays off, it turns out.

In that week between the offered discount and the pickle party, I did a lot of research on pickling. I knew I was going for refrigerator pickles rather than properly canned ones, and didn't want sweet pickles. For that, I realized I needed to use plain white distilled vinegar instead of the oft-suggested apple cider vinegar, because the latter gives the pickles a sweeter taste even if you don't add sugar to the brine. These came out perfectly tangy and salty, just as I wanted.

The basic proportion for making the brine is to use equal parts vinegar to water, and a good amount of salt. Other add-ins can include herbs, whole spice seeds (cumin, coriander, dill, mustard), dried chilis, etc. But for my first shot at fridge pickles, I opted for a pretty basic recipe: white vinegar, salt, peppercorns, garlic, and plenty of fresh dill. They are crisp and delicious, and Boyfriend and I polished off the first (small) jar within 10 minutes of cracking it open.

Basic Dill Refrigerator Pickles
(adapted from Food in Jars, which also features lots of useful information about pickling things)

2 lbs kirby/pickling cucumbers
1 cup distilled white vinegar
1 cup water
1/4 cup salt
1 tsp whole black peppercorns for each jar you're making
several garlic cloves, peeled
several sprigs of fresh dill

Gather enough glass jars to fit all your pickles. Wash the jars. You don't need fancy self-sealing jars, though they're nice. Reused jelly/salsa/tomato sauce jars work perfectly well.

Wash cucumbers. Cut them however you want them -- I went with a mixture of spears and chips, mostly because it's hard to fit a whole bunch of spears into a jar without leaving a ton of awkward space. Pack the cucumbers, garlic, and dill tightly into the jars. Add about a teaspoon of peppercorns to each jar.

Bring vinegar, water, and salt to a boil, stir until salt dissolves. Pour brine into the jars, making sure to cover the cucumbers but still leaving about 1/4 inch of space at the top. Screw jar lids on tightly. Let the jars cool, then keep in the refrigerator.

Try to restrain yourself from eating the pickles for a week, or at least a few days.

Nutritional info: Pickles don't have very many calories. They do, however, have a lot of sodium. But as far as I'm concerned, they're guilt-free.