Pickle juice

Originally posted in July, 2015. 

It’s very satisfying to be gardening again.

I haven’t had a real vegetable garden in many years. Oh, we grew tomatoes and peppers and herbs (and an occasional zucchini) at the city house, but the deer there ruined my gardening efforts too. We were near a wild-ish park and had an apple tree in the side yard. The deer flocked to it.

But a real fenced in garden? Where I have to open the gate? Well I’ve never had one of those!

tomatoes and peppers in garden

The tomatoes are a jungle and we have only had cherry tomatoes so far. It’s been so rainy, they just aren’t ripening. We’ve had a few peppers; the squash are growing inches overnight; the beans are climbing on the corn; and the cucumbers! Oh my.

It’s a wet summer so far, and cucumbers love water, so we have an abundance. I just planted too many plants because… because…. I’m not sure why. But I think it might have to do with the pickle recipe I’m about to give you.

cucumbers in basket

So what do I do with this many cucumbers? Too few to make a giant batch of pickles and too many to eat all at once.

Get ready, cucumber recipes coming at you…

I am not a veteran pickle maker. I’ve made a few jars back in my old hippie homesteading days but, quite honestly, they tasted like salty cooked cucumbers. No crunch. And if you apply science to this, Of Course. I’ve cooked the cucumbers in boiling water, how could they be crisp? So… I did some research.

Lithuanian Half-Sour Dill Pickles, by the jar.

Those delicious Klaussen pickles? They are Lithuanian Half-Sours. But I had no clue how many jars the above photo of cucumbers would make. So I washed and sterilized several jars of different sizes, and started cutting. Before I give you the recipe, here are some tips:

  • Cut off the tip of the blossom end of the cucumber, or scrape it off with your fingernail or a peeler. Every recipe I’ve read says that if you don’t get rid of the blossom enzymes, the pickles will be more apt to get soggy.
  • Wash the cucumbers gently, but don’t scrub or scour them.
  • If you are using dill (are there other kinds of pickles?) use the flower of the dill plant — the bigger the better.

Slice the cucumbers in your favorite pickle style — slices, chunks, halves, quarters or leave those little ones whole.  

Make them jar by jar. To a quart jar, add a blossom of dill, two or three cloves of garlic, and some pickling spices. I put in some mustard seeds, whole allspice, coriander seeds, and a few shakes of crushed red pepper. I would have added celery seed, if I’d had any. I also had some baby onions, so I threw a few of those in too. Add some cucumbers — I filled about half the jar, and then I put in another dill flower and filled the jar with the rest of the cucumbers and a few more baby onions. (The onions are strictly optional, but I had them and thought they would be good. I was right.)

To each jar add 1/2 cup vinegar, a cup of water, and 4 t. kosher salt. I mixed up this solution first and stirred it around until the salt was dissolved, then poured into the jars. If it doesn’t cover the cucumbers, top off the jar with water until the cucumbers are completely covered. Put a sterilized lid on the jars and refrigerate. You can open the pickles in a week. Cloudy brine is ok. Fizziness is ok. Neither of my jars got fizzy… though I’ve read that is a problem. These are refrigerator pickles. And my basket of cucumbers (about 20 cukes — sized from small to medium) made two quart jars, with three little cucumbers left over. (And if you would like to make up a larger batch of brine, I’ve done the math for you —  1/4 c. salt, 1 and 1/2 c. vinegar, and 3 c. water. This makes enough for 4 pints or 2 quarts of pickles.)

Lithuanian half-sour pickles by the jar

In The Dill Crock (1984), John Thorne describes half-sours as “cucumbers still, not pickles — little cucumbers who [have] died and gone to heaven.”  One can find as many recipes for these as there are cooks, but all the recipes that I tried to conglomerate and follow said the little heavenly cucumbers would be ready in a week. I’ve been opening the jar every day and testing them. On Day 2, they simply tasted like the cucumbers in vinegar we used to have as a kid every summer for dinner. But today is Day 5 and I got them out to put on Mr. H.C.’s lunch sandwich, so I tried one for breakfast. They are delicious. Like Mr. Thorne says, not pickles, not quite cucumbers. Heavenly.

I’m editing this post in July of 2017: Last year these refrigerator half-sours were the only pickles I made — 2 dozen quarts. They kept in the fridge all year. I still have 3 jars left and they are still delicious– crisp and clear.  I’ve given away several jars, and everyone I’ve given them to has asked me for the recipe. So I’m reposting this now because it’s another wet summer — and there are more cucumbers coming every day. The only drawback to these pickles is that you need refrigerator space. I’m thinking of getting a small dorm-room type fridge just for 24 jars of these pickles…

And so with three cucumbers left over, and more ripe in the garden today, I’ve got another simple recipe for you as well. I can’t take any credit for this one either. It is from Foodie with Family — my favorite food blog — although like any recipe, I added and took away.

Asian Cucumber Salad

This salad is so easy and so delicious, you won’t believe you’ve ever lived without it. It’s great with any summer grilled food, or any Oriental themed meal. And though it’s fine in the winter with store-bought cucumbers, it is really a summer recipe made with the freshest cucumbers you can find. We keep a bowl of these in the fridge during cucumber season so we can have it with every meal.

Asian cucumber salad

If you have a mandoline, use it for this recipe. If you don’t have one, use your sharpest knife and slice one large or two or three medium cucumbers into Very Thin Slices. Also slice a quarter to a half of a sweet onion — depending on how much you like sweet onions.  Again, slice them as thinly as you can without getting blood in the salad. (I have sometimes used scallions instead of a sweet onion.) Stir together in a small bowl:

  • 1/3 cup rice vinegar
  • 1 T. toasted sesame seeds
  • 1 T. minced fresh dill
  • 1/2 to 1 t. salt
  • 1/2 to 1 t. sugar
  • 1/2 to 1 t. toasted sesame oil
  • a few grinds of red pepper flakes (This is the only optional ingredient. Just recently I put my never-used red pepper flakes into a grinder, and now I’m discovering that I use them all the time. And Mr. H.C. — a guy who likes his hot pepper rating at 0 — hasn’t complained yet.)

Stir gently. You can eat it now, or you can eat it later, but I guarantee that it won’t sit in your fridge for very long. Ten minutes to make, five minutes to eat. Yum. Try it on pulled pork. Or with a stir-fry. Or with anything.

cucumber blossoms

And we’ve discovered lots of honeybees on the cucumber flowers. Go bees! More cucumbers! Yay for summer.

 

Eat Two Things

Supper, or dinner — no matter how many people are in your family, or how elegant or plain the fare, the evening meal is important in the life of your family.

Sociologists have long told us that. We get to converse with those we love most about our days and share laughter. Families bond over meals. The modern family that doesn’t sit down together for dinner loses out on an eating-together-relationship that can’t be replaced by other activities.

Yet how do we make time for cooking dinner when we work and get home tired and unorganized; or have to pick up the kids and take them to practice; or have evening meetings, classes, or homework; or…fill in the blank here.

Maybe our standards are just too high… Where is it written and how did it come to be that a good dinner includes salad, meat, potatoes, another vegetable, bread, and dessert? Restaurants who are trying to make money? Oh yes, throw in an appetizer there too. Few of us cook meals like that at home for family. And we shouldn’t. It’s wasteful; it’s too much food; and we’re all too fat anyway…But that’s the ideal, isn’t it? Little feasts as everyday dinners. More is better.

Lately I’ve been reading about the Rule of St. Benedict — medieval rules for monastery life. Not because I want to become a monk and not because I believe rules are inherently good for us, but because I’m interested in simplicity. I’ve been trying to simplify my life for at least five years now, and I’ve only partially succeeded. One of the intriguing rules of simplicity from the Benedictines is Eat Two Things. Bread and soup. Soup and salad. Rice and vegetables. Oatmeal and fruit. Cheese and fruit. Eggs and vegetable. Rice and beans. They are lovely duos, aren’t they? (Surely salad and dessert fits in here somewhere too?)

This intrigued me because I had just been considering the fact that when I made three things for dinner, I felt that I could call it a Nice Dinner. But just two? I was usually mildly guilty — as if I could have done better. Not that we were still hungry. We weren’t. But call it what you like — American society, Western food habits, Restaurant-itis, Foodie culture — two dishes didn’t look like a real meal to me. My go-to thoughts were not of gratitude, but guilt — that I didn’t make that salad, or those brownies, or the extra vegetable. And can I just say that we don’t usually go hungry at the cottage?

So for the rest of May, we will be trying this for our dinners. Two things. For the sake of intentional eating. Simplicity. Health. Gratitude.

*except for Saturday evening when we are having company for dinner and yes, we’re having appetizers, bread, salad, steaks, mushrooms, potatoes, and two desserts. Eight things. For hospitality’s sake…

**just in case you are interested, here are the appropriate words about food from the Rule: (notice the suggestion of vegetarianism for all but the weak and sick…and that indigestion is caused by excess…)
Making allowance for the infirmities of different persons, we believe that for the daily meal, both at the sixth and the ninth hour, two kinds of cooked food are sufficient at all meals; so that he who perchance cannot eat of one, may make his meal of the other. Let two kinds of cooked food, therefore, be sufficient for all the brethren. And if there be fruit or fresh vegetables, a third may be added….
If, however, the work hath been especially hard, it is left to the discretion and power of the Abbot to add something, if he think fit, barring above all things every excess, that a monk be not overtaken by indigestion. For nothing is so contrary to Christians as excess, as our Lord saith: “See that your hearts be not overcharged with surfeiting” (Lk 21:34).
Let the same quantity of food, however, not be served out to young children but less than to older ones, observing measure in all things.
But let all except the very weak and the sick abstain altogether from eating the flesh of four-footed animals.

the lazy person’s guide to growing spinach

Plant seed in the early days of lovely September
when you need a break from canning tomatoes.

Pinch off baby leaves in October, November, December
Stir them with lemon in buttered potatoes.

Mulch with straw and hope for a mild winter.

I have tons of favorite spinach recipes. I was the kid in elementary school who took everyone’s spinach. Remember in 3rd grade when you had to clean your plate and Mrs. Gray checked every tray to make sure it was empty of food? Hmm…. that might be proof that I’m old….

I would rather eat spanakopita than brownies.

I’m a sucker for any meal that ends in Florentine.

When forced to buy greens, whether for cooking or salads, I always choose spinach, because, raw or cooked, chopped or whole, in eggs, on sandwiches, in dips, or just sautéed with onions or mushrooms… It’s always delicious.

But the curly Bloomsdale spinach that you can only get these days by growing your own is far superior to grocery store flat-leaved spinach.

Tonight we are just having it sautéed in olive oil and drizzled with lemon saba and salt and pepper. Simplicity at its finest.

But since you already know how to sauté spinach, I will give you one of my favorite easy recipes to take along somewhere. A potluck, a mom who just had a baby, or an easy meal for everyday — company or not. The next time I make it I’ll be sure to come back and post some pictures; in the meantime you’ll just have to take my word for it: it’s one of the best most hassle-free dinners you can make. Here’s what you need:

  • Spinach
  • Chicken, boneless (I cut boneless breasts in half, thighs I leave whole)
  • some tomatoes (The real recipe calls for sliced Romas, but I have halved cherry tomatoes, sliced regular tomatoes, and even reconstituted and chopped dried tomatoes)
  • your favorite kind of vinaigrette or Italian dressing — not Ranch!
  • parmesan cheese

Fill a 9×13 baking dish with spinach (one bag usually works).

Place chicken pieces on top of spinach. Place tomato slices on top of chicken. Pour some vinaigrette over the whole thing. (The original recipe called for a bottle of dressing, but I never use that much. Just make sure the chicken is nicely slathered  with the vinaigrette.) Sprinkle grated fresh parmesan cheese over all. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 375 until the chicken is done. Uncover it for the last 5 minutes to brown up the cheese a bit. Depending on the size of the chicken cooking times vary — smaller pieces take less time to cook. (Mine usually takes 30-40 minutes, but I always use a meat thermometer to be sure.)

While the chicken is baking, make some rice or cook some pasta or egg noodles because it makes its own lovely sauce that is yummy over rice.

And just in case you get the wrong opinion from this post, I am not a master gardener. I have done Absolutely Nothing in the garden yet this spring, except pick some kale and pick some spinach, and throw in some radish seeds on an 80 degree day in February… Potatoes? Not planted. Onions? Still in bags. Greens? Still in the seed packets. Partly I can blame the rainy weather: we still have a small pond where the onions are supposed to grow. But I got my bales of mulch today, and I’m ready. As soon as it stops raining…