Oh lovely pickle: Adventures on Can it Forward Day

When I first started training and following my Pickles and Preserves trap, the blogosphere was alive with chatter of soon-to-happen, Can it Forward Day. An ad hoc holiday encouraging folks to not let any of their garden bounty rot on the vine. The holiday fell this past Saturday and with it came the maturation of a couple of preservation projects and plans for more.

Can it Forward Day was dreamt up by a Seattle based collective, Canning Across America (CAA) and sponsored by Ball (yeah the jars). In the tradition of small town fruit festivals that celebrate the harvest and preservation of a particular species (like upcoming huckleberry festival) the day comes at a time when many backyard gardeners are dealing with a sudden, and fleeting, overabundance. The day featured demos and talks by the CAA and was streamed live out of Seattle’s Pike Place Market to an Internet audience participating in nationwide canning events, workshops, and parties.

The founding ladies of CAA are an impressive bunch. Their ranks Include former Washington Post journalist Kim O’donell and author Lucy Norris whose book, Pickled: Vegetables, Fruits, Roots, More–Preserving a World of Tastes and Traditions, was the culmination of a three-year oral history project with the New York Food Museum. Their mission to “promote safe food preservation and the joys of community building through food” is sure to resonate with many in a country where small businesses catering to the DIY slow food crowd are opening in a steady march (Portland Homestead Supply Co, Bee Thinking and Portland U-Brew and Pub are all recent additions to the slow food and drink scene in Oregon).

I started my own Can it Forward day by consuming my first homemade dill pickle made from a garden grown cuke. And oh what a pickle. I’ve made kraut, kimchi, and other veggie ferments before, but never a straight pickle. Maybe it was beginners luck but it turned out so well that I spent the remainder of my day bicycling through the outskirts of the Mount Hood forest composing pickle haikus (ala the Shi Jing which contains the first known reference to kimchi in one of its odes):

Oh lovely pickle,
spicy, crunchy, and sour
with fizz full of life.

I love fermentation and while my trap was and is full of varied and interesting recipes for refrigerator dills and other vinegar brined varieties, I knew wanted to do a fermented dill. I learned that you could make half sours or full sours by varying the salt concentration of your brine, and that half sours were less fermented and wouldn’t keep as long. My pickles aren’t bound to last long in my pickle happy house, but I decided to go the full sour route anyway. These are the pickles I know and love and that my uncle gives out at Christmas.

Vegetable fermentation is a surprisingly easy and very rewarding process. At base all you need to do is pack a clean, non-leaching container (glass or food grade plastic no metal or unknown plastic) full of the desired vegetable, cover with a salt water brine (avoid iodine! so use kosher, pickling, or sea), weight the veggies down with a glass jar or a smooth, boiled rock, cover, and wait for fermentation to begin. Taste testing/eyeballing the process will let you know when it’s done. If something goes wrong, it’s generally pretty obvious.

Fermented veggies will keep for months in the refrigerator (or in a cold cellar or clay pot buried in the ground), and the process historically was a way to preserve fresh textured produce for consumption during the winter months. In the days before you could put a cabbage on a plane your only options for winter veggies were dried or fermented. Dried cabbage is not a lot of fun.

Fermentation does some pretty nifty things beyond preservation. Fermented veggies can be more nutritious than their raw counterparts and easier to digest. Cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, bok choy, cauliflower, broccoli…) are such an example. These veggies suppress your thyroid when eaten raw. This can make you feel sluggish and even gain weight. Most people never notice these problems because the cruciferous family is rarely consumed raw in large quantities. Cooking or fermenting these veggies mitigates this effect and fermentation maintains (and sometimes creates!) nutrients that cooking can kill. Fermented veggies are also full of live microbes that may aid the body’s digestive and immune systems.

Depending on how hot it is where you are and the kind of veggies you’re using, the process can take days to weeks. My pickles took about a week, and my pickled green tomatoes are looking half done at a week and a half.

I decided to try fermented green tomatoes to help me deal with overloaded tomato plants that were taking down their cages and resisting all my efforts to stake them. I used the same process as my cucumber pickles and expected to wait longer for fermentation to run its course. If it works out it will help me make use of any tomatoes left green on the vine when the frost starts to approach (which given the state of this mild Portland summer, there are bound to be plenty). At a week and a half they look promising, slowly turning a paler, yellower green and bubbling readily.

Not all veggies ferment well or easily in a salt brine. Beans, for example, contain proteins that make this kind of fermentation difficult if not impossible. So while I vastly prefer my pickles “live” I decided to take a gander at dilly beans (wax, green, or string beans blanched and set in a slightly sweetened vinegar brine with lots of dill and other spices). I’ve had a bumper crop of yellow string beans this year.

The process was pretty straightforward. To keep things “lively,” I selected raw apple cider vinegar for my base (although I ended up bringing this to a boil, killing any microbes) and used some hot peppers I’d picked up at the farmers market. I’ve yet to taste my dilly’s, but they look good. I’ve got another week or so until they’re prime. The nice thing about dilly beans is you can re-use the brine nearly indefinitely. As more beans come in I can simply blanch and add them to the jar (eating a not quite done dilly bean is just like eating a slightly cooked bean and absolutely safe).

If I get enough tomatoes (or if I find them particularly cheap at the farmers market) I’m hoping to try out this recipe for bourbon and tomato jam and get my holiday gifts out of the way well in advance. There’s something ridiculously satisfying about eating something in winter that started out as a seedling in your backyard in the spring (and knowing exactly what it contains and how it was made).

Canning and pickling may be the “it” thing right now, but among the dallying hobbiests and first timers Can it Forward Day probably made some lifelong converts. I mean these are arts that have been with us for thousands or hundreds of years and their products beloved to the point where they can even form part of a nation’s identity. Pickles and jam are just that good.


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