Here is a twenty pound box of organic pickling cucumbers from Willie Greens Organic Farm, right here in our little Tualco Valley.
Unpeeled Horseradish Root
So I spent all day Monday on the hunt for all the ingredients I use to make these lacto-fermented pickles each year. It wasn't an easy feat. I went to no less than 5 stores and 2 towns trying to track down whole root horseradish, pickling spices, garlic, peppers, grape leaves, onions, etc. Every year I think I will have my sources secured before the next pickling season and not have to go thru the rigamaroll of "the finding."
Washed Grape Leaves
I see how it happens though. I know why I get waylayed at the beginning, each time. It's because I always suddenly realize that the cukes are on and I scurry like a mouse before winter to track down all the bits and pieces I need to hurry up and ensure that we will indeed have enough of my pickles to last until the next go round. I never think ahead quite enough to go into it easy and smooth. It's always a rush, drop everything, make it happen, kind of project. I wish I knew for certain that I could get all these ingredients at my local farmers market but since there is always this time crunch, I am never sure if I will find horseradish and grape leaves the day I need them.
Peeled Horseradish Root
Which leads me to what I have been meditating on the last two days of gathering and making. Our ancestors, our moms, grandmas, great grandmas and beyond. How did they do it?! I am currently fascinated by this. How did they put up preserves without our modern conveniences? Was it easier then because they grew every bit they knew they would need? Was life slow enough that they had time to think ahead, even by a month, and remind themselves, "oh yes, I will need pickling spices next month to make pickles. Might as well pick those up now....." I can't get it out of my mind. I am not complaining here, just observing and genuinely wondering what it must have been like.
Hand Peeled Garlic
Were pickles a common preserve? Before the war? Or more so after? I presume families were much more self reliant back in the day and they probably did grow horseradish and grapes for the fruit and the leaves, if they wanted to store lacto-fermented fruit and veggies. How did they keep them preserved before refrigeration? Lacto-fermentation must have existed, obviously, but how?
Variety of Sweet and Hot Peppers
How do we, today, bridge the gap of time, to take care of our families the way we wish to and with the time we have. How do we straddle two worlds, the rushed one we live in and the other one I want to stay in where I dress and live like Tasha Tudor (my hero) and make, create, and live very close to the earth in a slow dance of mutual love and respect?!!? Where I do garden all day, make all my own food for my family, bake bread, tend the animals, milk goats, collect eggs from the chickens, make all our clothes, use my herbal knowledge to heal us and ride my horse into town when I have to. Its a hard straddle! Physically, emotionally, mentally, culturally. Where do I fit in? These are the things I keep pondering as I wait for my pickles to kickass and lacto-ferment.
Variety of Sliced Onions
Back to the pickles. I have been making versions of this pickle for many seasons now. I have had the honor and privilege of attending two full weekends of Artisan Food Camp at RavenCroft Gardens when I was doing my Community Centered Herbalist apprenticeship. One year I was a student and the next year I helped out behind the scenes. We learned pickling, including kimchee, sauerkraut, and lacto-fermentation in general. We also learned cheesemaking and wine, mead and beverage making, and yogurt making. Basically we were taught how to culture and ferment foods in general. It was awesome!
I have two books I refer to most often. Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz and Quick Pickles by Schlesinger, Willoughby and George. Quick Pickles has a fermented pickles section and it is here that many years ago I layed eyes on the base recipe I have used ever since.
Dill and My Trusty Green Pickling Bucket
Many people say they make pickles. I always have to ask how they make them. Are they fresh or fermented? I have never made hot water bath, vinegar laden, "fresh pickles." For me, nothing beats the good lacto-fermented, make your gut happy, tasty goodness that is a lacto-fermented pickle.
The Stool my Bucket sits on during Pickle Curing
To lacto-ferment, you need a pickle fridge. I have one. Its in the garage. It also holds beer. So sometimes we call it the "bickle" fridge. A little beer, a lot of pickles! Lacto-fermentation requires you to ferment/cure your pickles for 4-7 days or so, in a brine, on the counter, and then to halt the fermentation where you want it, where it tastes good and tangy to you, they have to go into hibernation so to speak. They need to get and stay cold but they don't lose their lacto goodness. Lovely!
From Quick Pickles: "Fermented pickles are the aristocrats of the pickle world. As such, they require a bit more time, attention, and fussing over than fresh pickles. But they are fascinating to make, they really aren't difficult, and they have many subtle nuances of flavor. It's not at all surprising that fermented pickles have complex, nuanced flavors. They share this trait with other products of fermentaion, such as wine, soy sauce, sourdough bread and cheese. Although it produces complicated flavors, fermentation is a pretty straightforward process. Basically, what you are doing is creating an environment in which certain beneficial microbes found in the atmosphere multiply, while others - the ones that cause spoiling- are kept at bay. In the case of pickles, the microbes we are looking for are bacteria (as opposed to, for example, yeast). As these bacteria go to work, they create many flavorful by-products, one of which is lactic acid. Like the vinegar in fresh pickles, the lactic acid helps preserve the fruit or vegetable. Salt is the agent responsible for keeping unwanted microbes out of the action as fermentation takes off. So these pickles start off by being either mixed with salt or immersed in a salt brine."
The Horseradish and Grape Leaves are very important. Not only does the horseradish add flavor and heat, it acts as a "crisper!" Along with the tannin-rich grape leaves, horseradish helps to keep your lacto-fermented pickles crisp during storage. I was taught to use a lot of grape or oak leaves and I keep my pickles for a year in the "bickle" fridge. They never get soft or mushy.
4.5 pounds pickling cucumbers, 3 to 5 inches long, blossom end removed
1 or 2 handfuls small fresh chiles of your choice, stabbed or slit twice
1 large head garlic, cloves peeled and minced
1 cup peeled, grated fresh horseradish
1 large onion, peeled and sliced into disks about 1/2 inch thick
1 handful dill fronds (optional)
2 tbsp yellow mustard seed
2 tbsp coriander seed, cracked
1 tbsp black peppercorns
4 bay leaves crumbled
1 handful grape, sour cherry, or oak leaves, well washed (optional)
8 cups water
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
5 tbsp kosher or other course salt
In a giant bowl, combine all ingredients except the water, vinegar and salt. Pack this mixture into a crock, jar or bucket.
In a large, separate nonreactive bowl or pitcher, combine the water, vinegar and salt to make the brine, stirring until the salt dissolves.
Cover the cucumbers with a plate, then weight the plate down with a clean stone, a brick, or whatever you have available; the idea is to keep the cukes and everything else completely submerged as they pickle. Add enough brine to cover the cukes by 2 inches or more.
Cover with a clean cloth and store at room temp for 4-7 days, taking care to keep the contents submerged at all times and to skim any foam that may form on the brine's surface every day or two.
These pickles are done when their pale green color is mostly the same inside and out-or when they just taste so good your discipline falls apart. They will keep, covered and refrigerated, for a month, but they start to soften around then unless you have plenty of grape, cherry, or oak leaves. To freshen the flavor of the brine you can strain the solids out of the liquid, bring the brine to a boil, cool it to room temp, and re-immerse the cukes and other veggies in it, discarding the original flavorings and freshening the flavor with more of those same flavorings.
First Layer of Grape Leaves
Here is how I make my pickles and what I do different from the basic recipe:
I always layer everything. I do not mix it all together and dump it in.
I always make at least 20 pounds so I effectively quadruple the recipe.
I always use a skewer and poke a hole through the pickle, end to end, so the brine can get in.
I touch every aspect of this recipe in that I pick and hand wash every grape leaf, I hand peel every garlic clove, I wash, chop and peel every ingredient by hand except for the horseradish. I use my food processor to grate it, and I do hand chop the onions right after to get all the massive tears from both onions and horseradish, over and done with!
You could use already peeled garlic, but the rest needs to be hand done.
I use a variety of pickling spices, already premixed, and I like that I never know if my pickles will taste the same from year to year. They never do taste the same and I love that!
I use as many grape leaves as I can get my hands on. You cant use too much and I want my pickles to last and stay crisp.
I always use organic unpasteurized apple cider vinegar, not white wine vinegar. This is a hold over from RavenCroft for me and I am sticking to it!
I keep notes every year so I know what I have tried in the past, what worked, where I got ingredients, etc.
I use my trusty green pickle bucket to ferment and cure my pickles then after 7 days or so I hand pack everything into half gallon glass jars to store in the "bickle" fridge.
Let the layering begin!
Getting toward the Top
Last Layer of Grape Leaves before Brine
I always use this Fiesta plate because it fits perfectly inside. And I always use a gallon of water to weigh the plate down.
Draped in Cheesecloth so no little buggies get in.
So what are you waiting for?! Go make some pickles!
I have had enough people ask me about my pickles that I am considering offering a class next year. Everyone would go home with a small bucket of pickles. What do you think? Any locals out there interested in this? I will start to keep a list of interested folks. I would send you home with recipes for sauerkraut and kimchee too.
Off to continue researching Sayulita! Surfing Christmas and Birthday, here I come!
xox - Jennette