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Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012 09:34 am

Get pickled

Pickled cherry tomatoes.

“Eat what you can, can what you can’t.”
–Motto of Perennial Virant Restaurant
What’s old is new again.  

Chefs both haute and humble are making their own pickles, from homey classics such as dill or bread-and-butter pickles, to delicious innovations such as lemon-pickled turnips and smoked and pickled spring onions.

Home cooks are getting in on the act, too. Along with the pros, they’re discovering traditional pickles from around the globe: an astonishing array of Asian pickles, including Japanese pickled plums and oily, mouth-numbing Szechwan pickles of China, to pickled red onions from Mexico’s Yucatan pennisula, and ber-hot picklese, a slaw-like condiment found on Haitian tables, even when there’s not an actual table.  

One of the chefs most associated with – and lauded for – the resurgence of pickling and other time-honored preservation methods, is Paul Virant.  His new cookbook, The Preservation Kitchen, The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux [sweet-sour condiments], shows why.  

“It started as a hobby, but became something I explored in every aspect of food. I began incorporating preserved foods into my menus at the restaurants,” Virant tells me.  His restaurants, Vie in the Chicago suburb of Western Springs and Perennial Virant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, are among Chicago’s best.  

“The soul of my kitchen isn’t in my kitchen at all,” he writes in the book’s introduction.  “It hovers one floor above, contained within a narrow storage room…Packed with jars of pickles, jams, sauerkraut and other experiments in preserving, these shelves radiate possibilities.”    

The Preservation Kitchen provides lots more that a bunch of recipes and how-to instructions for beginners, although there are plenty of both.  Virant also includes seasonal menus and recipes that incorporate the preserved foods he details in the book.  

If you’d like to try your hand at making pickles, but don’t have the time or desire to get involved in large canning projects, quick (a.k.a. refrigerator) pickles are an ideal alternative.  Here are three – an adaptation of a Virant recipe, and two of my personal favorites.

Paul Virant’s Sweet Pickled Cherry Tomatoes
Chef Paul Virant
Virant says this pickle is reminiscent of his childhood spent just north of St. Louis:  “My grandmother made this tomato salad that she canned; I reproduced those flavors with this pickle.”  Virant uses the cherry tomatoes “as is” for garnishes and accompaniments, but also blends equal parts of the pickled tomatoes with their brine and olive oil in a food processor or blender to make a vinaigrette.
  • 8 c. cherry tomatoes, any variety or combination of varieties, stems removed.  
  • 5 tsp. dill seeds
  • 1 T. lightly crushed/cracked black peppercorns, or more or less to taste
  • 10 fresh dill or tarragon sprigs
  • 5 garlic cloves
  • 4 c. Champagne vinegar or other mild white wine vinegar, such as unseasoned rice wine vinegar
  • 1 1/4 c. water
  • 3/4 c. sugar
  • 1 T. Kosher salt
Wash the tomatoes well, then prick each a couple of times with a needle that’s been sterilized in boiling water for 15 minutes. (Pricking the tomatoes keeps them from floating to the top of the jars.) Set aside to drain.

Heat a dry (a.k.a. ungreased) small skillet, then add the dill seeds and peppercorns and toast just until they’re fragrant. This should only take a few seconds.  Remove from the heat and divide the spices equally between five clean wide-mouth pint jars, using approximately 1 1/2 tsp. per jar. Put two dill or tarragon sprigs in each jar, as well as one garlic clove, halved or quartered depending on their size.   

Pack the tomatoes evenly among the jars, equally distributing their various colors and shapes evenly between the jars.   

In a large wide-bottomed, non-reactive pot, bring the vinegar, water, sugar and salt to a boil, and cook a couple of minutes until the sugar and salt are dissolved.  Unless your pan has a spout, transfer to a heatproof pitcher.  Immediately pour over the tomatoes, leaving a half-inch space from the jars’ rims.  Check for air pockets; add more brine if necessary to fill in gaps.  Wipe the rims with a clean towel, and screw on the bands.  Let come to room temperature, then refrigerate. The tomatoes are ready to eat in two weeks, and will keep, refrigerated, for several months.

Makes 5 pints.

Adapted with permission from The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux by Paul Virant with Kate Leahy, copyright 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

Yucatan Pickled Red Onions
Pickled red onions are a common condiment throughout Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. A jar of these easy-to-make, beautifully pink onions can often be found in my refrigerator to use in sandwiches, tacos, omelets, salads and even as a garnish for Indian dishes.
  • 1 large red onion, sliced about 1/8-inch thickness (you should have at least two cups)
  • 1 1/2 tsp.  kosher salt, divided
  • 1/2 - 1 tsp. cracked peppercorns
  • 1 tsp. cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 2/3 c. cider vinegar
  • 6 T. sugar
Put the sliced onion in a saucepan, add a teaspoon of the salt and water to cover.  Bring to a boil and boil for a minute, then drain. 

Return the onion to the pan.  Add the remaining ingredients (including the additional salt). Add just enough water to barely cover the onions and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Boil for three minutes.  Remove from the heat and let stand several hours before serving.  Keeps indefinitely, refrigerated in a non-corrosive container.

Makes approximately 2 1/2 cups.

Zucchini Bread and Butter Pickles
These zucchini pickles have many applications, but perhaps their best is as a condiment for Cubanos, a Cuban signature sandwich, made with ham, roast pork, Swiss-style cheese, mustard and pickles on a crusty roll, often grilled panini-style.  Many commercial versions use astringent ballpark mustard, dill pickles and (too often) flavorless pork.  But when they’re made with garlicky pork marinated overnight with sour orange juice, Cuban oregano and other Caribbean spices; then slow-roasted for hours (worthy of a column all by itself), garnished with mellow Dijon mustard and pickles such as these zucchini bread-and-butter pickles, they become a sublime sandwich that has few equals.

These tasty pickles also have lots of other uses.  They perk up a salad, especially one tossed with Ranch-style dressing, and they’re an excellent accompaniment on a cheese platter. They also provide a boost of flavor for other sandwiches ranging from cheese and tomatoes, to chicken salad, and thinly sliced roast beef. 
  • 2 1/2 pounds young thin zucchini, no more than an inch and a half in diameter, ends trimmed, and cut crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick slices. (You can use somewhat bigger zucchini, but scrape out the seeds and pith surrounding them; you should have about 2 1/4 lbs. after trimming and seeding.)
  • 1 large white or red onion, NOT super-sweet, thinly sliced.  (At least 2 cups.)
  • 2 T. kosher or pickling salt
  • 2 c. Champagne vinegar, or other mild white vinegar such as unseasoned rice wine vinegar
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 two-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1/2 tsp. celery seeds
  • 1/4 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds
Toss first 3 ingredients in large colander. Place in sink and let drain 2 hours. Rinse vegetables; drain. Scatter the zucchini slices over a large lint-free towel. They don’t need to be in a single layer, but should be spread out so that there’s not more than a couple of layers.  If you don’t have a big enough lint-free towel, use two or more. Roll up the towel(s) and squeeze gently to remove as much moisture as possible. Place in 8-cup glass measuring cup or large bowl.

Bring vinegar and all remaining ingredients to boil in small saucepan, stirring to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat to medium and simmer 10 minutes. Pour vinegar mixture over zucchini mixture, pressing on vegetables to submerge. Cool to room temperature. Cover and chill overnight. Can be made 1 week ahead. Keep pickles chilled.

Makes about 6 cups.

Contact Julianne Glatz at
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