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.

 

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…

 

Kale, again?

I thought I had settled the whole kale issue in the fall with The Trouble with Kale.

Turns out, I didn’t because last week, on the eleventh of February, I walked down to check out the garden. I discovered both spinach and kale cheerfully surviving the Pennsylvania winter with just a light layer of straw mulch. Today, February 18th, I went down with my scissors and harvested both kale and spinach for a salad. The kale had new growth; there were a few larger frost bitten leaves around the edges, but the inside of the plant was actually growing.

Now admittedly we have had a very mild winter. But the temperatures have dropped to 8-10 degrees several times and one week in particular it was that cold all week.

The best thing about this is Fresh Greens. In. February. So for those of you who live in a year round warm climate, excuse me while I SHOUT IN JOY!


I’ve been trying an experiment this winter in trying to cook as much as I can with what’s on hand. (Note the word trying used twice…) That means potatoes, onions, garlic, beef, eggs, frozen peppers, canned green beans, beets, frozen squash/pumpkin, applesauce, salsa, frozen okra, canned and stewed tomatoes, and pickles/relish/ketchup.

The only vegetables I’ve been buying are mushrooms and carrots and an occasional red pepper. I had beautiful peppers last year, but none of them turned red (even though one variety was specifically a red bell pepper). I hope to remedy that this year — the frozen peppers are very acceptable.

But not in salads. I used the last of our onions two weeks ago. I’ve got ten potatoes left and two of them look like this:

We haven’t been having many salads this winter. So it was particularly exciting to discover the growing kale and spinach. If you remember the one drawback to kale was the cabbage worms. But guess what? There’s NO cabbage worms in winter.

So I’m rethinking the kale issue. If I plant it in September, I could have some greens in the fall and winter with no worries about cabbage worms. And this mild winter has me thinking of a hoop house to extend the season on both sides. Just a small one, maybe?

You Tube Video from BuddyClub Gardening. Click on the photo and it will take you to the DIY cheap hoop house video

Hoop House or not, I planted another row of spinach today and threw in some radishes for good measure. (They were just short rows…) It only took me ten minutes; it was last year’s leftover seeds and it still could snow in April;  but I couldn’t resist planting something on Feb. 18th. Just because I could!

And since I only harvested enough for two kale and spinach salads, I’ll just have to give you one of my favorite salad dressing recipes.

Tomato Vinaigrette (The basic recipe is from the Hay Day Country Market Cookbook, but I changed it a bit.)

6 sun-dried tomatoes soaked in 1/3 cup almost boiling water for about a half-hour.
Drain the tomatoes, save the liquid, and coarsely chop the tomatoes.
Mix the tomatoes with 3 T. mixed vinegars–balsamic, red wine, white wine, cider, or lemon juice.
Add a clove of minced or pressed garlic and 1 T. whatever fresh herbs you have. Basil is good, Rosemary is good, Thyme is good, Dill is wonderful in the summer…
Add 1/2 t. salt and some fresh pepper.
Put all the above in a blender or small food processor and pulse five or six times.
While the blender is still running, add the liquid from the tomatoes, and then 1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil in a thin slow stream and blend until all the oil is mixed in.

This is a thick, spoonable dressing. Dress it up with capers or chopped olives if you are serving it immediately; or you can add a tablespoon or two of mayonnaise or Greek yogurt to make it creamier.

(We had our spinach and kale salads with cheeseburgers from the grill. Outside. In February. Really.)