In a pickle

Cleopatra attributed her good looks to a hearty diet of pickles.

“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”
That was Emerson’s claim, but in my case the opposite – or perhaps the inverse – is more accurate. The universe actually conspires to bring some matter to my attention, where it begs for action.

Most recently, my universe wanted pickled red onions.

It started one afternoon when Kid Two and his Buddy sat here after school and ate an entire jar of baby dill pickles and a one of cornichons for their snack.

Americans consume more than 9 pounds of pickles per person annually.

I hadn’t noticed because earlier that day I bought a copy of Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine was excited with the sea vegetables section – particularly the recipes with kelp. Kelp! We’ve decorated sand castles with kelp, fertilized tomatoes with kelp, stomped on kelp bulbs in the sand to listen for that satisfying crunch, and poked through piles of washed-up kelp looking to see what we could find. I was fairly sure Kid Two and Buddy, boys who take packets of nori in their school lunch sacks instead of chips, would share my enthusiasm. “Guys, look! We can make pickles out of kelp!” I said, raising my eyebrow at the empty jars.

“Can we do it now, Mom? We just ran out of pickles,” was Kid Two’s response.

A bit of the kelp forest at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

I told LL about the kelp pickles later that week while we had appetizers at Straits, a Singaporean resaturant on San Jose’s Santana Row. Our tiny pulled pork sliders came, served with some slender julienned pale magenta condiment. What was this, I asked? Pickled red onions, turns out. And mmmm . . . crunchy, tangy . . .  an inspired topping for the pork, a meat that’s pretty bland on its own.

And suddenly pickled vegetables were everywhere. LL randomly sliced some celery and carrots and stuck them in the pickle juice in Kid Two’s empty jars. The grocer featured Christopher Ranch pickled garlic on an endcap. I came across a section in a book in which a character carefully sliced and pickled turnips and onions as she did every day for their meals. One morning I woke craving those pork sliders with pickled red onion. And that afternoon I picked up an issue of Bon Appetit for the mac & cheese on the cover but – yes of course – the page I opened featured a pickled red onion recipe.

Roman emperors, among them Julius Caesar, fed pickles to their troops in the belief that they lent physical and spiritual strength.

The recipe was fabulously simple. I went right out and bought two pounds of organic red onions and a gallon of white vinegar.

Pickled Red Onions from Monica Bhide: combine 1-1/2 cups hot water with 1 cup white vinegar, 3 tablespoons sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a glass bow. Stir until sugar and salt dissolve, then add 1 thinly sliced red onion 2 serrano chilis halved lengthwise, and 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper. Stir, cover, and chill overnight. Use slotted spoon to transfer to plate. Keep chilled; can be made 1 week ahead of time.

I had been under the impression that pickling involved sterilizing jars and brining and controlling temperatures, but that’s the long-brine method, fermentation pickling, used to make dill pickles and sauerkraut. The Bon Appetit recipe was relatively quick and easy; it’s a short-brine method, or what my Fannie Farmer Cookbook calls “fresh-pack pickles.” Here, the vegetables are sliced, soaked in a salt solution for several hours to extract moisture, and then preserved in vinegar. They last a week or so in the fridge this way if you don’t eat them first, or you still have the option of preserving them to last even longer.

Amerigo Vespucci was a pickle peddler; he stocked ships with pickles to prevent sailors from contacting scurvy.

I’ve found that pickled red onions are not only good with barbecued pork – they’re great on top of steamed tilapia or stuffed in grilled cheese sandwiches and bean burritos, too.

My wonton filled with BBQ pork and pickled red onion ready to be folded and quick-fried in grapeseed oil

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. I’m not sure how he accomplished that, but pickled poblanos are going to go on my list of things to try – right after pickled kelp.

Shakespeare is credited with first using the phrase “in a pickle” to mean a difficult situation in his play The Tempest.

I’ll leave you with more pickle trivia here: 12 Pickle Facts Everyone Should Immediately Commit To Memory from Mental Floss magazine.

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