As I was weeding the garden yesterday afternoon, one ear attuned to the bedroom windows above me, listening for the sounds of Wylie getting up from his nap, I wondered what I might talk to you about, pickle-wise. I wondered how many of you, like me, throughout childhood knew pickles only as the dull, usually limp, green spears that came out of the jars lining the condiment aisle of the grocery store, sharing space with the mustard and barbeque sauce. And similarly, I wondered if any of you were shocked at the difference in flavor, texture, and aroma the first time you tried a true dill pickle, made by the mother of a friend, from cucumbers and dill straight out of the garden. Was it the first time you realized that dill was a real flavor, from an actual plant, and not just a word on a label? And that pickles were made from cucumbers? And did you then find yourself in the position of having to choose? Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to either like pickles or not. Whether or not you were a pickle person now had to be qualified, based on your feelings about the store-vs-homemade pickle issue — a divisive one, to be sure. (I was squarely in the store pickle camp. As a child, the homemade ones were, with their intense vinegariness, their crunchy-crisp texture, their unmistakable, unfamiliar dillness, too unnerving to one not raised on them.)
And later that evening, as I was making dinner (risotto, which, by the way, you don’t have to stir continually in order for it to work, regardless of what the cookbooks want you to believe. Life doesn’t need to come to a halt for risotto), I started thinking about my other childhood pickle experiences. They were few, to be honest. I liked sweet relish on my burgers and dogs (veggie burgers and tofu dogs, more often than not), but for the longest time I was oblivious to the fact that relish is just chopped up pickles. So not really an example of pickle awareness. My other formative pickle habit was as a component of sandwiches. Not the deli meat variety, but in peanut butter sandwiches. With mustard, preferably.
That sounds really weird, doesn’t it? Like maybe a person who loves peanut butter, pickle and mustard sandwiches is not be someone you necessarily want to take culinary advice from.
On the other hand, maybe it’s early evidence of a palate open to non-mainstream flavors, willing to eat — and enjoy! — foods that most would shun, a foodie in the making.
Anyway, for years that was pretty much it, in terms of my pickle education. In fact, it wasn’t until late college, when I finally tried sushi, that my eyes were opened to the variety of foods that could be pickled, and the range of flavors that are used. Pickled ginger? Carrots? Daikon? Plums? Bring it on! I loved everything I tried.
But still, pickles have remained around the periphery of my food life. I get a kick out of unusual pickles on antipasti plates, I devour the pink pickled onions Josh occasionally makes, but I myself never pickle anything. Not for any particular, definable reason, either. It just never crosses my mind to do so.
So I was excited and intrigued when, after the roaring success of Shauna’s first open-invitation, Internet "party," she announced another one. A Pickling Party. And here we are today, with people everywhere posting about their experiences making pickles! It feels sort of like a flash mob, only better — recipes are being shared, ensuring that this exuberant event has a lifespan longer than a few minutes. And the thing that I like best about it is how approachable it makes pickling seem. The message is that anything can be pickled, everything tastes great pickled, and pickling is an easy process. Pickles for all!
For all the options out there with pickles, I decided early on that I didn’t want to have to go shopping in order to participate in the party. If I was going to try my hand at pickling, I was going to take the anyone-can-do-it-with-whatever-you-have-on-hand message to heart and find something around the house to pickle.
I ended up with leek scapes. Before this summer, I didn’t even know leeks grew scapes; they don’t show up next to the garlic scapes everyone gets all swoony over at the farmer’s market. But the forlorn leeks that I had left in the garden last fall (completely unintentionally – I forgot to harvest them before we got frost and the ground firmed up), which to my surprise revived themselves this spring, also to my surprise sent up tall scapes this summer. I did a little research and discovered that (of course!) the scapes are edible and utterly delicious, in a leek-meets-asparagus sort of way. I also discovered that if you continue to neglect the plant (which fits right in with my overall gardening philosophy), the scapes will open up a great big pom-pom of a flower, which you can snip off and dry and collect the seeds from, for the next year’s planting. Done and done! I love learning how to make good use of a plant through the entirety of its life cycle.
But . . . hmm. Pickled leek scapes. I still didn’t know what I was actually going to do. The thing with pickling is that it’s only partly about that which is pickled; you also have to decide what flavors you want to impart to your pickle! Without any pickle-making personal history, I felt lost. But when I mentioned the Pickle Party to Josh, his immediate and urgent response was, "Make Asian pickles."
Of course. All the pickles I’ve loved the most have been Asian in some form or another, whether we’re talking the pickles that show up at our local sushi joint, or the ones that find their way into the dishes at our favorite Asian street food restaurant. So Asian pickled leek scapes it was.
Seasoned rice vinegar, fish sauce, garlic, lime, cilantro, chili peppers – just typing them all together makes my mouth water. I love these flavors. When I tasted the pickling brine I had concocted, I wanted to douse it on everything. Instead, I mixed it with just-harvested sliced leek scapes, and stuck it all in the fridge to mingle for a day or two. No canning for me this time, although I do love to can and am not at all intimidated by the process. But I wanted this pickle experience to be all about simplicity and ease and going with what you already have on hand, and I didn’t have any sterilized jars or new lids hanging around the house. It's wonderful that pickling can be such a hands-off process, if you need it to be.
Also, in the spirit of using all edible parts of the plant, I added a sliced leek bulb to the brine, in place of the shallot I had been planning on using. Leek bulbs, which look like albino shallots, form at the base of the leek plant after the flower has been snipped off (which I did several weeks ago); it’s the plants’ last-ditch effort at extending its life. And it tastes delicious, even when raw. I couldn’t think of anything bad that would come from adding them to the pickle jar.
Mostly, however, it’s the brine that’s the star here. I can’t tell you how much I love it. When the pickled scapes are gone, I’m saving the brine for another batch of refrigerator pickles, maybe carrots this time, or beets. I’ll have to see what’s ready in the garden. Or maybe I’ll just pour it over a bowl of rice and top it with a fried egg. Anything to extend its use in my kitchen. Which, as I understand it, is essentially what pickling is all about.
Asian Pickled Leek Scapes
Yields ½ a pint, recipe can be doubled or quadrupled
½ fluid cup seasoned rice vinegar (look for one containing sugar, not corn syrup)
Small splash of fish sauce (optional, but lends a wonderful depth of flavor)
Juice of 1 lime
1 leek bulb, thinly sliced (alternately, you can use a shallot)
½ to 1 whole hot chili pepper, sliced (use more or less depending on how spicy you want your pickles; I didn’t make any attempt to remove the membrane)
1 clove of garlic, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp chopped cilantro
¼ tsp salt
1 to 2 leek scapes, to total about 2½ feet in length, sliced thinly on the diagonal
Combine all but the sliced scapes in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Add the scapes and return to a simmer, then remove from heat and allow to steep for 20 minutes.
Pour everything into a clean half-pint jar, tightly seal it, and give it a good shake to make sure all the aromatics in the brine are well-distributed. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours to allow the flavors to develop.