A vegetable gardener hates waste. Once you have grown it, one feels duty bound to eat it, but what to do when there’s just too much to go around?
Having previously written about preserving the harvest in alcohol, the next easiest preservation method is pickling. This uses an acid to stop food going bad – you can use vinegar, such as in pickled onions or you can use a lactic acid fermentation method, such as sauerkraut and kimchi. I am going to tell you about the former as I’ve only just begun experimenting with the latter.
Pickling has been used as a preservative since ancient times, with residues found in Egyptian jars from 3000 years BC. It is the low pH of the acid in the vinegar that kills bacteria, enabling vegetables to be available even in the lean period – very important before mass transit made year round fresh produce possible. One of the first English garden writers to really appreciate vegetables, John Evelyn in 1699, gives many recipes for pickling the harvest, including cucumbers, cauliflower, flowers and buds, artichokes, beans, walnuts and even radish seed pods.
The onions or shallots that come out too small and fiddly to be worth using in cooking are a great place to start. Spring onions that have been left too long in the ground and formed a bulb are also good to use. These won’t need peeling, but if you have large amounts of small onions or shallots, you can dunk them in boiling water for 30 seconds. Once cool, the skins come off much easier.
The next stage is to soak them for up to 1 day (but no longer) in salt water – this draws out any excess water and makes for a crisper pickled onion. Drain, wash, then pack into jars and pour over a flavoured vinegar. The flavouring is where you can add your own creative flair. Sometimes sugar is nice to counteract the sharpness of the vinegar and I always put some peppercorns, chilli flakes and a star anise in each jar. A different take is to replace 1/5th of the malt vinegar with balsamic vinegar – with some honey and cinnamon spice too these are great for Christmas gifts.
A similar principle applies to cucumbers. These are best picked as small as possible as the large ones have too high a water content to make a satisfying crunch. There’s usually one point over the summer that no-one can face eating more cucumbers so this is the time to strip the plants of all young cucumbers for a pickling batch. Either that or use the cucumbers formed right at the end of the season which are unlikely to mature. They still need salting for a day, and I would recommend cider or wine vinegar otherwise they turn a murky colour, but the rest of the process is the same. To keep to John Evelyn’s 1699 recipe, you would need to add mace, nutmeg and ginger to the vinegar and then layer the cucumbers with dill leaf and fennel.
The final pickled vegetable that is always in my cupboard is beetroot. I confess that I only really like beetroot raw and grated into a salad so anything that is too small to risk the skin on my fingers by grating, I save for pickling. You can save the tiddlers up over time too – once the leaves are removed, they will store in a plastic bag in the fridge for months. Once you have enough for a batch they can be boiled for 10 minutes whole. Once cool the skins rub off. These don’t need salting as they don’t need to be crunchy. Just pack into jars and pour over hot, spiced vinegar.
These are all best stored for a month at least before eating. Then they will be the perfect accompaniment to a good cheese, some peppery winter salad leaves and a fresh loaf of bread.