In a Pickle
by: Amanda C. Lydon
photography by: Amanda C. Lydon
When I called Marine Home Center looking for citric acid the other day, the voice on the other end of the line was kind, but firm.
“We do carry it,” she said, but added with emphasis, “but we stock it only in the autumn, in canning season.”
At the time, the distinction struck me as charmingly illogical. We’re not farmers, urgently preserving the harvest before a bad winter. As much as my kids like to imagine what would happen if the ferries stopped running, starvation is the least of my worries. Is there a single canning season anymore, really? If anything, the lack of urgency to “put food up” makes our entirely optional canning and pickling projects into a season-less, year-round affair.
Growing up, however, it was our Nantucket summer pantry that held the jelly jars and their labels, the pectin, the box of paraffin wax and the wobbly blue enamel double-boiler used only for melting it. Under our mother’s watchful eye, we kids were allowed to grasp the still-hot jars and gamely risk a burn from spilling the clear, melted wax. Carefully rotating the jars cooled the paraffin and sealed the blueberry jam or fox-grape jelly from the air. We knew by the careful way our mother worked that the alternative – hotwater canning big batches of jam or jelly – was something of a high-wire act, requiring concentration and vigilance.
M.F.K Fisher in her memoir, “The Gastronomical Me,” remembers “a series, every summer, of short but violently active cannings. All I knew then about the actual procedure was that we had delightful picnic meals while grandmother and mother and the cook worked with a kind of drugged concentration in our big dark kitchen, and were tired and cross and at the same time oddly triumphant in their race against summer heat and the processes of rot.”
Maybe in a sort of mild feminist revolt, I find that the idea of spending summer days in a hot kitchen making a winter’s worth of jam doesn’t hold the same allure that it used to. Who wouldn’t choose more “delightful picnic meals,” and less drudgery? I spent a sweltering July morning happily picking what Moors End Farm had assured me were the very last of their field’s strawberries. Each one was a deep garnet red, no bigger than my thumbnail, but instead of cooking them, it made me happier to watch my kids eat the whole quart out of hand, in one afternoon.
In my own kitchen, I’m inclined to skip the jars and the sterilizing hot-water baths and preserve small, manageable quantities of fruits and vegetables, so that my family will move through them quickly. I find these “refrigerator pickles” infinitely more appetizing than the versions processed in boiling water. Textures stay crisper, snappier and both fruits and vegetables retain their shockingly-bright colors. Pickled green tomatoes might be the one exception to this rule, since a thick slice benefits from a little gentle simmer before being jarred. They make a less photogenic but delicious version of the English Ploughman’s Lunch, a delightfully messy sandwich with smoked cheddar and sliced apple.
My refrigerator shelves are filled with small-batch quick pickles of all kinds: thinly-sliced shallots to bring winter salads to life, thicker-sliced jalapeños for spiking fish tacos, even red grapes or sour cherries for accompanying a roast chicken, cheese plate or brined pork chop. When David Chang of the Momofuku empire in New York City released his cookbook a few years ago, his pork-belly steamed buns with hoisin and quick cucumber pickles went into our special dinner rotation. His master brine recipe works on all manner of vegetables and doesn’t require even approaching the stove.
That is not to say that even these smallscale projects can’t occasionally feel urgent. I spotted an increasingly-rare elderflower bush on an early-morning drive out on Polpis Road. The pollen on each tiny flower has a fleeting, distinctive scent, a staple flavor in Austria and Sweden made familiar now in well-stocked bars under the brand name St. Germain.
Years ago I had watched my Scottish auntie steep our carefully-harvested elderflowers in a strong sugar syrup overnight before straining them out. All through the hot months that followed, we diluted the pale gold syrup with sparkling water and lemon to make a deliciously light, floral soda. Now, though, you can find a serviceable elderflower syrup at IKEA, of all places, but I wanted to recreate that sublime scent for my own kids.
After a morning picking the lacy, parasolshaped blooms, I kept inhaling them anxiously to see if they were fading. Even the St. Germain website describes the aroma as “maddeningly ephemeral,” since the elderflower pollen loses potency in a matter of hours, hence the citric acid which preserves it.
My conversion to the laziest-possible methods of preserving demands enough patience to play the long game. Alcohol and vinegar will keep fruit in the oldest and simplest of ways. In an ode to the 1980s “Silver Palate Cookbook’s” Chicken with Raspberry Vinegar, I found an empty gin bottle from last summer too pretty to throw away, gave my son a pint of black and red raspberries and a chopstick he could use to poke the berries through the bottle’s narrow neck. Then we poured a good white-wine vinegar over the berries. In two weeks, we’ll strain out the fruit and have an instant hostess gift.
For your dearest friends, poke summer’s finest stone fruits with a pin – another job that will hypnotize a child – then cover them with brandy, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla, or a few cardamom pods if you’ve got them. Leave the jar in a dark pantry for two to three months, then spoon the potent little fruit bombs and their boozy syrup over ice cream or a Dutch baby pancake. Summer meets Christmas morning in one glorious bite.
Amanda Lydon was a professional chef for 15 years in Boston and Nantucket. She is a regular contributor to Nantucket Today.