Pickling days are here

We are a long way off from Nov. 14, the official National Pickle Day, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone at the Grand Rapids Farmers’ Market from picking up bushels of cucumbers along with fresh dill, garlic and the occasional hot pepper for homemade pickles.

As peak produce season continues, Farmers’ Market customers are also coming in for bulk orders of beans, cabbage and beets to put up pickles and kraut for the winter. It’s a given that our just-picked local veggies with their abundant natural sugars make the best pickles; that’s why folks wait until their favorite veggies are in season to buy them locally.

This tradition is one of our strongest points of culinary heritage. Like lemmings, we feel drawn to make these same batches of pickles to be savored later in the season, reminding us of our past with tastes and textures we’ve enjoyed since childhood with loved ones now passed on.

Have you ever tasted someone’s home made pickles only to be taken back to a forgotten specific place and time when you enjoyed the same flavor? I have; it’s both wonderful and a little eerie!

My late aunt Yvonne was a fantastic pickler, and I’ve included her refrigerator mustard pickles at the end of this article. For someone that always told me “Food is love”, I know Yvonne would be tickled pink to be remembered posthumously through her pickles.

Americans eat over 5.2 million pounds of pickles each year – most of them dill cucumber pickles. Indeed, that is what we instinctively think of when we hear the term pickle, and that has roots to the very beginning of pickles in India 4,000 years ago.

Cucumbers, native to southern India, were preserved for long trips at sea and for out of season eating. They expanded to both the middle and far east as a method of keeping food from spoiling and as a way to add flavor to fruits and vegetables.

Cleopatra is said to have attributed her diet of pickles to her good looks, and Julius Ceasar fed pickles to his troops to give them physical and mental strength. Personally, I think they were just pickleheads like you and me!

There isn’t an area on earth (well, maybe Antarctica) that doesn’t have it’s own variety of pickle, and many are quite a stretch from a kosher dill.

Pickled plums stuffed with sauerkraut from Hungary, pickled pig’s feet from Peru, pickled herring from Scandinavia, pickled eggs from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, pickled lemons from Morocco, pickled turnips from Romania, pickled mushrooms from Poland, pickled bamboo from Thailand, pickled mango from India, pickled tea leaves from Burma and fiery pickled cabbage or kimchi from Korea are but a brief overview of the tapestry of pickled foods from across the globe.

What is it about pickles that we love? Love is a many splendored thing, and if you look in many of our fridges and cupboards, you’re bound to see many preserved foods using a pickle-style process: olives, artichoke hearts, pickled jalapenos, sauerkraut, hot sauce, maybe a jar of beets or herring. Even ketchup is a kind of pickled sauce with it’s vinegar, salt, sugar and spice ingredients.

First off, pickles are salty. As home kraut and kimchi makers know, salt is the magic ingredient that draws liquid from the cabbage, thus starting the fermentation process that gives that wonderful tart acidity and healthy probiotics. That salt helps season the foods they’re paired with, and also help stave off food cravings.

Speaking of acidity, that tart sour flavor is another thing we love about pickles. The sometimes heavy foods that are a Northwoods staple like roasts, sausages, burgers, hams and fried fish need a little acidic zip to help cleanse the palate and make the last bite taste as good as the first.

Salty and sour are balanced by sweet and spice, whether aromatic or hot. Pickled beets may get cinnamon and allspice and a healthy dose of sugar, while bread-and-butters might get hot peppers and garlic along with their sweetness.

No wonder we like to put some form of pickles on sandwiches. An old American saying goes, ‘Bread and butter without a pickle is like an itch without a tickle.’

Folks make fermented pickles, hot-water-bath canned pickles and the simplest of all, refrigerator pickles.

But if cooking up big pots of spiced vinegar, firing up the pressure cooker, or sterilizing the old 80-pound stone crock aren’t in your summer itinerary, there’s no need to fret. Vendors are making pickles from their own produce too, and there’s a stunning array of options to choose from.

Indeed, we even have local pickled fish, along with dilly beans, pickled peppers, kosher dills and pickled garlic scapes. There’s plenty of sauerkraut too, made from local, sustainably grown cabbage just waiting to be heaped on a hand-made Market bratwurst.

Plan a visit to the Grand Rapids Farmers’ Market and keep our culinary traditions alive: get some fresh picked veggies and try an old family recipe. Expand your palate and try a new recipe like kimchi made with local napa cabbage. Or simplest yet, come down to our new location next to Glen’s Army/Navy and pick up a few jars of lovingly crafted local pickles and bring salty, sour, sweet and spicy flavors to your next meal. We’ll be waiting for you Wednesdays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Aunt Yvonne’s Deliciously Easy Mustard Pickles

4 quarts small (2-3 inch) cucumbers

2 quarts vinegar

½ cup salt

½ cup dry mustard

1 cup sugar

Optional additions: dill seed, chili peppers, garlic, onion, horseradish, peppercorns

1. Pack 4 quart jars with cucumbers. Or use any plastic tubs or containers you wish. If you have larger cukes, cut them into 3 inch pieces.

2. Mix all other ingredients together, heating gently in a saucepan, if necessary to dissolve sugar. Allow to cool.

3. Pour mixture over cukes, covering completely. Allow to rest in refrigerator for at least a week, stirring occasionally, for best flavor. Enjoy for up to six weeks.

Note: This recipe also works well in ½ batches

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