Ruth Mason McElvain, retired English teacher, blogger, gardener and writer, lives in upstate South Carolina, blissfully repatriated to her native South after 40 years in California.

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Alchemy In the Aromatic Jar
by Ruth Mason McElvain       #Edibles   #Recipes   #Vegetables

Pickles ready for a pickle tasting with my sisters. Three colorful ones are more Lee Brothers’ fresh pickles: watermelon and basil, radish and onion, and grapes with rosemary. The processed pickles are okra, green tomato, kosher dills, and crisp Squeaky Sweets.

Pickling is an ancient art, practiced around the globe for thousands of years to keep surplus harvests from spoilage, but flourishes now because of sheer adoration of pickles’ zip and zing. We Southerners slip into poetry over our mouthwatering pickles, as Thomas Jefferson did more than 200 years ago: “On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar.”

Perhaps your earliest memories are also of Southern tables whose pickled treasures travelled from hand to hand at nearly every meal: chowchow, bread and butter pickles, pickled plums and peaches studded with cloves, sweet watermelon rind, piccalilli, pepper sauce and other piquant concoctions that enliven our Southern cuisine. And who can forget the shadowy recesses of old stores on country highways. At the counter where you paid for your strawberry Nehi and Stage Plank cookies were giant jars of pickles – pig feet in murky liquid, huge pungent dills and perfectly smooth boiled eggs – like porcelain spheres floating in brine. Pickles are serious business to Southerners.

Don’t let the involved process of canning scare you away from the benefits of putting up your own condiments. Like any new skill, you soon find your rhythm and it becomes second nature. Here you see all you need for the final step of jarring and capping sweet pickles.

Gather Your Supplies
When I moved back to the South after 40 California years, I also planned to pickle the fruit of my Southern victory garden. As I was raising four sons in the ‘70s, I canned the wealth of San Jose’s fruit trees, disappearing remnants in our neighborhoods of once-vast orchards: pears, apricots, peaches, cherries, plums and apples, also making jams and pickles and sauces. I was raring to go.

While the new garden was growing, I dug up sweet pickle and kosher dill recipes my mother in law taught me in my twenties, trolled the Internet, library, cookbooks, and canvassed everyone, for pickling recipes. I unboxed my canner pot with its rack inside and the tongs for handling hot jars. I found canning jars in my mother’s basement, at thrift stores, and big box stores, also adding a new canning funnel, lids and bands, a magnet on a wand to retrieve lids from hot water, alum, spices, white and cider vinegar, pickling salt, and sugar. People I knew saved bottles for pepper sauce and I scouted for pouring spouts. No old crocks handy, I got a 3½-gallon glass jar at TJ Maxx for brining pickles, all on a mission to renew an old love.

A canner is convenient for water bath processing. It’s deep enough to allow boiling water action at the proper 1-inch depth over quart jars and comes with a rack for holding jars, necessary to prevent direct contact with pot bottom, thus avoiding breakage. I have another rack to fit a smaller pot just deep enough for half pints and smaller.

Practice Safe Handling
Canning demands safe kitchen practices or else you dump out a whole spoiled harvest. Jar manufacturers include pamphlets for correct canning procedures, and information is handy at myriad sources. My information and many recipes came from the website of the National Center for Home Food Preparation:

Canning steps are logical and easy to follow once you get your rhythm and organization down, with rewarding efforts. It’s gratifying to visit what our forebears considered routine in the past: the fragrant industry of a busy kitchen, jars gleaming from hot soapy water and boiling canner, spicy brews simmering in pots, sweet and pungent foods ladled into jars, and lids popping with a thrilling ping as filled jars cool.

These are what a local farmer called “Indian” peaches, which turned red in the pot as I pickled them and fell apart in the jar, not a success. You win some, you lose some is how I see it.

You Win Some, You Lose Some
My pantry shelves soon sported various sized jars and bottles of condiments, including chowchow, pepper sauce, kosher dills, sweet pickles, pickled peaches and pickled okra. The sweet and zippy chowchow only had a fan or two. I pickled what a local farmer calls Indian peaches that turned a deep red and fell apart in the jars, disappointingly nothing like the tangy golden orbs my grandma made. Others were major successes, though. My sister pops the sweet pickles like candy, relishing the crisp crunch straight from our childhood. The dills make great potato salad and hamburger accents. Some recipients of my pepper sauce use it at nearly every meal, including the best cook you ever met. Most popular of all, surprising in a family who nearly all shun okra unless it’s fried, the pickled okra was the most acclaimed and clamored for. Pickling eliminates the viscous okra texture and highlights its satisfying flavor. A pod or two is perfect with pimiento cheese or chicken salad sandwiches. It’s one I’ll do again this season.

All you need to make kosher dills: cucumbers, pickling salt, spices, garlic, grape leaf, brine. • As my okra plants may give enough fruit for just a jar at a time, I often process one jar alone: Easy! Pack ‘em, season ‘em, process ‘em in a small pot on the back burner while I surf on my nearby computer! • Pickled grapes with rosemary are the surprisingly delicious inspiration of The Lee brothers. These fresh pickles are quick and simple, the crisp, sweet grape amazingly complemented by salty brine and hints of garlic and rosemary. Google the recipe, or buy their book Simple Fresh Southern, chock-full of other fresh takes on Southern cuisine.

Fresh Pickles
Southerners also enjoy fresh pickled dishes like sliced cucumber onions that marinate in equal parts water and cider vinegar, a little sugar, and generous salt and pepper; tastier made an hour or so before dinner is served, or better yet, a day ahead. The onions get sweet and tangy. My father always insisted on finely diced onions doused in cider vinegar near him at the table to eat with greens or peas.

The big guns of brining pickles or the ambitious process of home canning is not for everyone, but you can enjoy much simpler refrigerator pickles, easy recipes to make a dish or two at a time with any leftovers good in the refrigerator for a week. These pickles are like the bowl of cucumbers and onions, made fresh when needed.

Classic Pepper Sauce
Wash and sterilize several saved bottles such as those for soy sauce, beer, small wine bottles, soft drinks, vinegar, Worcestershire and other appropriate bottles saved or bought for pepper sauce. Preferably have pouring spouts with caps, one for each jar. Lids, corks and wine spouts also work.

• 2-3 pounds fresh picked hot peppers like tabasco (my choice) ‘Poinsettia’ and ‘Cayenne’ peppers, washed, stem popped off, and a slit cut into each pepper (Note: Wear gloves for this step!)
• Cider vinegar

Drop peppers into a bottle in a uniform direction, shaking down as you go until the bottle is filled halfway to the bottle neck, then add ½ teaspoon pickling salt and 1 small peeled garlic clove.

Pour boiling undiluted cider vinegar into the bottle with 1 inch of space left, cap, cool, store; best after a few weeks of curing. Delicious on peas, greens, beans, eggs, tacos, soups, and any food that


The Brave New World of Pickles
A must-try are the fresh pickles that Charleston’s Lee brothers introduce in their book Simple Fresh Southern. Their inspired inventions mix carrot sticks and dill, watermelon cubes with basil; grapes and rosemary; zucchini and onion; radishes and garlic; beets with ginger; lemon and cucumber. The most surprising and delicious are the grapes pickled with rosemary, garlic and chili flakes. Google the recipe and taste grapes crisp and sweet when freshly made, deliciously complemented by salt and sour with hints of garlic, heat and rosemary – great as impromptu party food with cheeses and crusty bread or for Thanksgiving’s relish tray. Chef Hugh Acheson’s A New Turn in the South has a chapter “Pickles, Put-ups, and Pantry Items” that is equally fun to read and try. His spicy pickled tomatoes using tiny cherry 100s are great with roast chicken, and his green tomato relish hankers for crispy fish or hot dogs.

That famous quip, that God is in the details, relegates pickles to a sacred culinary category, giving new dimensions of detail to dishes they grace. If your life brings generous garden delights to your kitchen, you too can venture into the old art and alchemy of vinegar, salt and spices, either in the long haul of canning, or just one dish made fresh. Whatever you do, when you’re setting your table, don’t forget the pickles.


A version of this article appeared in a print version of Carolina Gardener Volume 26 Number 9.
Photography courtesy of Ruth Mason McElvain.


Posted: 10/27/17   RSS | Print


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