In a pickle down at the farm

This weekend, I attended a great pickling class at Wild Willow Farms outside of San Diego, a lovely organic farm and educational center.  I learned many things and will list them in no particular order of importance:

1. ) Refrigerator pickles are quite literally the easiest thing you can ever make. Ever. Period. If you don’t need to seal it in a mason jar and store it on a cupboard shelf, that means you don’t need to worry about the acid/pH levels, and you can simply make what tastes good to you, put it in the fridge, and eat it at your convenience.

Before: Cut up veggies and herbs, arrange artfully. Use whatever fresh herbs and spices you like.

After: Brine is one quart of water to 2 tbsp. kosher salt. (You can also do this brine with vinegar if you prefer a vinegar-y pickle to a salty one.) Refrigerate and enjoy. Keep it refrigerated. No really. That's it.

2) Classes are not enough — if you want to learn how to preserve, pickle, can, etc., learn the basics of pressure canning vs. hot-water bath canning, as well as acid and pH-levels. It’s not complicated to learn and misunderstanding the essentials may cause people who eat your food to get sick or your food to spoil before its time.

I do not claim to be an expert at … well, anything …. but I will refer you to the experts who can educate you better than I ever could. You can read the USDA guidelines for safe canning here and a great summary here. Basically, if something is high in acid (say, pickles, jellies, jams), they can be safely sealed in a hot water bath, which is literally placing the filled mason jar into a pot of water and boiling it. Things like tomatoes, soups, sauces, and other foods that are low in acid MUST BE sealed in a pressure canner. If you are unsure about the pH levels, err on the side of caution and pressure-seal the jars. Better to be safe than sorry, that’s my motto.

3.) I like pickled things way more than I ever thought I would. Maybe it’s because as I get older and my tastes change, I eat better food also. I still don’t care for a store-bought pickle, but the pickled green beans and garlic-dill refrigerator pickles I have tried lately are killer.

Nom nom nom.

4.) You would be (or at least, I was) surprised at how many things there are to be pickled. If you think about it in a historical sense, you know that before there was refrigeration, pretty much everything was either fresh or fermented/pickled in some way. (Think about it, when you can only grow vegetables for a few months out of the year, if that, you rely on preserving and saving your crops.) My favorite recipe from this class is for pickled figs, which make a delicious and fragrant treat.

Pickled Figs

Recipe courtesy of Mariah Gayler at Wild Willow Farms.

  • 3-4 lbs. fresh figs
  • 3 cups balsamic vinegar
  • 6 cups water
  • 1 1/2 cup sage honey (sage has the best flavor, but any honey works)
  • 1 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 cup shelled and halved walnuts (optional)
  • 3 tbsp. peppercorns
  • sprigs of fresh thyme and rosemary
  • strips and/or pieces of orange zest

Cut the stem off of each fig, and prick each one with a fork or a toothpick (this helps the fruit to absorb the liquid and not float when you put it in a jar). Place figs in a large pot and cover with boiling water. Gently swish the figs around to clean, and drain the water out (note: sometimes homegrown figs can be extra sticky and may need two rinses). Combine vinegar, water, sugar and honey in a large nonreactive pot. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Carefully add the figs to the simmering syrup, and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes. Add walnuts.

And it smells delicious!

Arrange the figs in jars , and add the herbs and zest to the individual jars. (Make it look pretty.) Then carefully ladle the syrup into each jar, leaving about 1/2-inch of headroom. Seal the jars for 15 minutes in a hot water bath.

5.) Kimchi is a mystery to me. I learned from “The Joy of Pickling,” a great primer on pickles by my home-canning heroine Linda Ziedrich, that Koreans eat more pickles per capita than any other nationality, mostly because of their love for kimchi. I know that kimchi is cabbage as well as generally anything from the Brassiceae family (think cabbage, turnips, broccoli, cauliflower), and that the elements of the food in this family create a bacteria that pickles the vegetables after fermenting over time. The instructor at my class had a pot of cabbage, kale, and a myraid of other veggies, kosher salt and spices, but no liquid, and as it gets pushed down the liquid comes out of the vegetables and ferments.

Kimchi, fermenting away.

It’s hard to reconcile the act of letting something sit at room temperature for a couple of days while (good) bacteria swishes around and reacts in there, but the spicy tang of kimchi is worth it. I have never made it but plan to do some recon and investigate what spices and flavors I want in my kimchi, then I will try some recipes and make some for myself. Stay tuned to find out what delicious shenanigans I come up with next.

Teeny little eggplants. Aren't they cute?

6.) In order to maintain the crisp deliciousness of a carrot, cucumber or green bean, most pickles are made with fresh and uncooked produce. There are a few exceptions, though, like eggplant — whose bitterness would make an icky pickle indeed if it weren’t blanched before pickling.

I got some flatbread and tabbouleh with your NAME on it.

 Quick Pickled Eggplant with Basil

Recipe from Linda Ziedrich’s “The Joy of Pickling.” We used a lot of her recipes during this class. I highly recommend both of her books (she is also the author of “The Joys of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.”)

  • 1 quart water
  • 1 tbsp. plus one tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 medium eggplants (about 3 1/4 lbs.), cut into cubes
  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. minced fresh basil (frozen or refrigerated pesto also works)
  • 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 2 crushed garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup olive oil

In a saucepan, bring the water and 1 tablespoon salt to a boil. Add half of the eggplant cubes and simmer them for about 5 minutes, until they are tender. Put them in a colander and cook the remaining eggplant cubes the same way. Add them to the colander and rinse and drain the eggplant. In a bowl, mix the cooked eggplant with the vinegar, basil, pepper, garlic, and remaining salt. Cover or place in jars and refrigerate at least 8 hours. Add the olive oil just before serving (although there will be some liquid in the mixture).

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Find your town’s hidden gems at the food swap

Have I mentioned how much I love swapping?

The idea of bartering items with your neighbors has always been an appealing one to me. I love barter fairs, swap meets, flea markets and potlucks, I even went to a CD burning party back when we used to burn CDs.  This rolls all of the best things about potlucks —  trying someone else’s special dish, learning about new recipes, techniques or ingredients — and all of the best things about bartering — like meeting new people, getting to go home with some of those delicious food items, and the overall satisfaction you get from knowing you got a great deal — into one incredibly rewarding afternoon.

It’s really simple.

Step 1: Decide what to make and make it. Nothing is off-limits. We’ve had breads, jams, sauces, chutneys, salts, dressings, desserts, cookies, empenadas, chile rellenos, several variations of pulled pork and BBQ pork or other meat, homemade beer, ice cream, roasted tomatoes, salsas and more. Many people also bring vegetables from their gardens or fruit from their trees. There are no rules.

Personally, I used some oldies but goodies to swap, my smoky plum BBQ sauce, apple cider jelly and spicy pickled veggies, as well as an extra jar of roasted berry/pepper jam.  It was a lot of work, but I walked away with at least one of everything. Score.

The idea is to walk away with one of everything. It feels so good to come home with all of this!

Step 2: Separate the food  — about 2-3 servings. Say, a jar of jam, a loaf of bread, a tupperware container of meat, a ziplock baggie with a few pastries or cookies — you get the idea. Again, there are no rules.

Step 3: Show up and swap it! I cannot really emphasize enough the extent to which There Really Are No Rules, except that everything is swapped. No money changes hands. Sometimes people have run out of a particular item, in which case they might trade someone an item for an IOU, or negotiate a co-swap with another participant. This is also why we recommend that if you bring something that may be prohibitive, that you also bring an alternative — for example, one swapper makes a simply phenomenal empenada recipe handed down from her father who is Argentinian. The Argentinian style is to stuff the delicious hand-sized pies with ground beef, green olives and hardboiled eggs with a ton of delicious spices, but since some people don’t eat beef or are vegetarians, she also made a second batch of empenadas with pepper jack cheese, jalepenos and roasted corn. Of course, you don’t have to bring a vegetarian alternative, but in the event that you want to swap with a vegetarian, the issue might come up.

These empenadas will knock your socks off.

Which brings me to the next best thing about a food swap: it’s a community event. It’s not a competition for the best item or the most sales, nor is it a money-making endeavor where you want to sell your wares and make sure you don’t get swindled.  Everyone seems to feel the good vibes and so far, I have done four of these events in San Diego and have never seen anyone leave unhappy. I’ve blogged about how great food swaps are before here and here, but honestly, I can’t say enough about how great they are. It’s hard to put into words the spirit of community and the feelings of good food that run rampant at each event. 

The feeling started before the swap even began. A woman contacted me and told me she couldn’t make it to the swap because she was volunteering somewhere else at the time, but had a veritible orchard in her backyard, consisting of wine grapes, fig trees, apple trees and countless other greens, herbs and vegetables. She brought me shopping two bags bursting with fresh fruits before the swap and insisted she didn’t want anything for it, and that she was just frustrated that she didn’t have enough recipes, especially for the figs.

As I was giving away the fruits on her behalf, I asked the swappers that took some fruits to email me the recipes they used. (If you also have a great recipe for figs, please post it as a comment and I will pass it along. She needs more.) Here’s my favorite so far:

Fig/Vanilla Jam

This is courtesty of swapper and baker extraordinare Peggy Spitz (she made an insanely tasty Kona Banana Bread for the August San Diego Food Swap, which I could eat for three meals a day).

  • About 14 figs, cut into into quarters
  • 2 cups of sugar
  • juice of 1/4 of one lemon
  • 1 tsp. vanilla or one vanilla bean

Simmer until the figs are tender, and puree the chunks through a food processor or blender and reheat, or use an immersion blender while cooking. Add a teaspoon of vanilla place them into mason jars (makes about 10 small jars).

Some of the food swap fixings don’t need mason jars or canning time. Swapper Elena Romero made a delicious post-swap pizza pie with her own homemade pizza dough (which she also swapped), my plum BBQ sauce, pulled pork from swapper Sandy D’Onofrio, and a few homegrown chile peppers.

Isn't that lovely?

The bottom line is, you can’t afford to NOT go to the food swap in your town. Check here for a list of the organized towns with food swaps I know of. If you don’t have one, start one like I did. The reward is so worth it!