No doubt the first pickles were a mistake. Somebody accidentally forgot about some raw vegetables in a pot with an acid and some salt. A week later, the vegetables weren’t moldy, no bugs had eaten them and, surprisingly, they had a nice crunch and tang.
In the 1920s, my great-grandfather made pickles on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Grandmother Caroline used to tell stories about working in their little grocery store as a child. When customers would want pickles, she would hop off the counter and go out front to the pickle barrels and fish out the ones they wanted.
I never knew her parents. I never ate their pickles, but I must have brine in my veins because wherever I travel, I am always on the look out for pickles.
Moroccan pickled veggies
Recently in Morocco at a cooking class in Marrakech at La Maison Arabe, Amaggie Wafa and Ayada Benijei taught us to make Berber bread, couscous with chicken and vegetables, chicken tagine with preserved lemons and clarified butter, tomato marmalade, eggplant-tomato salad and preserved vegetables.
The cooking class lasted four hours. The time it took to show us how to make preserved or pickled vegetables: five minutes.
To Wafa and Benijei, the process was so easy, there were no pickle recipes. A little of this, a little of that, throw the vegetables into a jar, shake it up, put it in a cupboard and in a week, voila, you have pickles.
Pickle recipes tip from Grandma
From my grandmother I learned that making kosher dill pickles was a little more complicated. In retrospect, I think that’s because pickling cukes are more prone to decay than are the carrots, parsnip, fennel and green beans used in Morocco.
For Thanksgiving I always make kosher dill pickles. This Thanksgiving I’m making both.
Pickles are very personal. What one person loves might be too salty or vinegary to another. It may take you several tries before you settle on the mix of salt, vinegar and spices that suits your palate.
Lower East Side Kosher Dill Pickles
When making kosher dill pickles keep in mind four very important steps:
1. Select pickling cukes, not salad cucumbers, and pick ones without blemishes or soft spots.
2. Taste the brine to confirm you like the balance of salt-to-vinegar. The flavor of the brine will approximate the flavor of the pickles.
3. Once the cukes are in the brine, they must be kept submerged in an open container.
4. When the pickles have achieved the degree of pickling you like, which could take three days to a week, store the pickles in the brine, seal and keep in a refrigerator where they will last for several weeks.
8 cups water
¼ cup kosher salt
1 cup white vinegar or yellow Iranian vinegar (my preference)
4 garlic cloves, skin removed, root end trimmed off, cut into thin strips
5 dried bay leaves
10 whole black peppercorns
10 whole mustard seeds
¼ teaspoon pepper flakes or 1 dried Sichuan pepper, split open
5 sprigs of fresh dill
5 pounds small cucumbers, washed, stems removed, dried
1. In a non-reactive pot, heat the water and vinegar on a medium flame. When the water gently simmers, add the salt and stir to dissolve. Do not allow the water to boil.
2. Dip your finger in the brine, taste and adjust the flavor with a bit more salt, water or vinegar.
3. Place the garlic and spices in the bottom of a gallon glass or plastic container. Arrange the cucumbers inside.
4. Pour in the hot brine being careful to cover the cucumbers. Reserve 1 cup of brine.
5. To keep the cucumbers submerged in the brine, find a plastic cup that is not as wide as the mouth of the container. Place the reserved cup of brine into the plastic cup and put into the container to press down on the cucumbers.
6. Place the container in a dark, cool corner of the kitchen. Check daily to make sure the cucumbers are submerged. If the brine evaporates, use the reserved brine in the plastic cup, replenishing the liquid in the cup with water to weigh down the cukes.
7. After three days, remove one cucumber and sample. If you like your pickles crisp, that may be enough time. If they aren’t pickled enough for you, let them stay on the counter another few days.
8. When you like how they taste, remove the cup and seal the top. Refrigerate the container.
Moroccan Style Preserved Vegetables
In Morocco, virtually any vegetable can be preserved. In the class, we were shown green beans, fennel, parsnips and carrots. Experiment and see what you like, including asparagus, zucchini, beets, daikon, eggplant, daikon and broccoli.
Whatever you try, prepare the vegetable by washing, peeling and cutting them into thick sticks (carrots, daikon, parsnips, zucchini, eggplant, broccoli), some cut thin (fennel, beets, parsnips) and others left whole but with the ends trimmed (green beans, asparagus).
You may prefer the vegetables cut into rounds rather than sticks. The fun thing about pickling is you can personalize your pickles, making them any way you like.
2 whole carrots, ends trimmed, washed, peeled, cut into pieces 4-5 inches long, ¼-inch thick
1 medium sized fennel bulb, washed, fronds removed, outer leaves and root end trimmed and discarded, cut into thin pieces 3-4 inches long, ⅛-inch thick
12 green beans, washed, ends trimmed, cut into pieces 4-5 inches long
4 parsnips, washed, ends and skins removed, cut into pieces 3-4 inches long, ¼-inch thick
1 medium yellow or red onion, washed, ends removed, thin sliced either into circles or slivers
4 bay leaves
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon pepper flakes or 1 dried Sichuan pepper, split open, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 garlic clove, skin removed, root end trimmed off, cut into thin strips
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1½ cups white or yellow Iranian vinegar
2 cups water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1. Sterilize two quart-sized glass or plastic containers. Carefully place the vegetables vertically in the containers. Divide the garlic, salt and dry spices and pour into the two containers.
2. Combine the water and vinegar. Mix well. Taste. If you find the mixture too acidic, slowly add water until you like the flavor.
3. Pour the water-vinegar mixture into the jars, making sure the liquid covers the vegetables.
4. Seal the jars and shake well to dissolve the salt and mix up the spices.
Refrigerate. Wait one week and taste. Wait longer if they aren’t pickled enough. They will keep in the refrigerator for months.
Photo: Jars of Moroccan preserved carrots, daikon, onions and fennel. Credit: David Latt