One thing that I've discovered about gardening is that it isn't a summer event. For those of us who have moved from "hobby" into "obsession" find that it is a year round activity. As soon as the garden is put to bed in the fall, the next bucket of kitchen scraps starts the compost pile that will feed next year's garden. And then there are all of those gardening catalogs. Somehow they seem to hunt us down and find us. You'd know me by the flock of fluttering catalogs trailing behind me, rippling in the breeze. I can't seem to get away from them. So, of course, endless hours are spent poring over the endless choices that somehow must be crammed into a very limited space. It doesn't matter that I've doubled my garden size every year for the past three years. It's still a very limited space. When Tool Guy came home with that tiller, he thought he was buying me a piece of equipment. He didn't know he was buying me a license to kill....uh....till.
My local soul sister in food, who also is responsible for creating this typing gardening monster, laments along with me about the "so many seeds, so little space" dilemma and we agree with each other how difficult it is to resist the temptation to over plant. When there are yards and yards of dirt spread before you and gaping feet of space between each little dot of green, it is impossible to forebear from stuffing "just a little lettuce" or "a root crop that won't compete upwards for space" in there somewhere. And if I trellis my cucumbers upward, then I'll be able to put six plants in that space where I might otherwise only be able to fit two, right? Now, during the warmest part of the summer, my greenhouse looks like something from "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" and I only venture in with machete and pith helmet. The bees are so thick that a keeper's suit wouldn't be an illogical leap. I'm hoping this augurs well for a bumper year.
One of the things that keeps gardening interesting is that there are an infinite combination of variables every year. Weather, soil quality, and bugs are just some of the vaguarities. There's also seed quality and seed choices. This year I opted for a combination of heirloom and hybrid. The heirloom lettuce and radishes are definitely outperforming previous years of hybrids. My crunchy-granola alter ego is taking a bit of a punch, though, since the hybrid tomatoes are having a hard time supporting all of the fruit they are producing. My tenacious heirlooms are hanging in there, fighting the good fight against leaf fungus, and pluckily putting out some fruit. It's still early in the game, so they may catch up. I'm keeping careful tally to help my seed choices for next year. See? I'm already planning for next year. It's an obsession, I tell you.
And the cucumbers. Well, heirloom or hybrid, cukes are cukes and they are proliferate. It's a good thing because Bug and Tool Guy adore pickles. The very last of last year's harvest bob along the bottom of a mason jar in the refrigerator, carefully rationed out until this year's crop started coming in. Tool Guy asks nervously when the next batch of pickles will be ready.
And these pickles aren't just crunchy, tangy treats. They're medicine. Because lacto-fermented vegetables contain probiotic value. Like the probiotics that they charge $60 a bottle for. In digging around and reading, it seems that every culture and cuisine has their fermented foods, some sort of probiotic food that is eaten daily. Shortcuts, like marinating veggies in distilled or pasteurized vinegar, aren't going to get you there and canning them would kill all of the good guys anyway. The good news is that fermentation is how we used to preserve food before refrigeration and canning technology developed, so that kind of processing is redundant and unnecessary. Any dish that calls for vinegar used to be a probiotic food back before vinegar became the highly processed ingredient it is today.
Sandor Katz has a very user-friendly and excellent work on this subject called Wild Fermentation. His recipes succeed for me when others have flopped miserably and so I've drawn on his expertise for this pickle recipe. One of the reasons that his recipe is so successful is that he uses traditional methods and ingredients. Some people have suggested using kefir whey or commercial kefir powders to jump start the ferment "for insurance," but I find these yield a mushy pickle. Ew. Salt is really all that you need to hold the bad guys at bay until the good guys have had time to take hold. Bacteria can be eliminated by changing the pH of the environment, which is why vinegar is such a good cleaner and why many raw egg recipes also call for vinegar. Salt also keeps the pH hospitable to good flora, while killing off the bad.
This is one of those recipes that take time. The pickles need to ferment for 1-4 weeks before being ready. He calls for a crock with a plate that fits inside, a gallon jug of water for a weight, and cloth cover. I use a glass gallon jar and a very clean, thoroughly boiled rock. I'm in New England. We have lots of rocks. Ask my tiller.
3-4 pounds unwaxed cucumbers
3/8 cup sea salt (iodized salt will inhibit all bacterial growth, including good stuff)
3-4 heads fresh flowering dill
2-3 heads garlic, peeled
1 pinch peppercorns
1 handful fresh grape, cherry, oak, and/or horseradish leaves (if available)
I took the shortcut and used McCormick pickling spices. An obliging oak tree in my backyard supplied the leaves. These leaves have tannins in them which help keep the pickles crunchy.
1. Rinse cukes and remove blossom ends. Scrape off any remaining blossom end. The blossoms contain enzymes that will interfere with fermentation.
2. Dissolve salt in 1/2 gallon of water to create brine solution. Stir until thoroughly dissolved.
3. In a clean crock, measure out spices, garlic, and leaves.
4. Place cucumbers in crock. I slice mine, but these can be pickled whole.
5. Pour brine over cucumbers, cover with plate and weight. If the brine doesn't cover the weighed-down plate, add more brine mixed at the same ratio of just under 1 tablespoon salt to each cup of water.
6. Cover with cloth to keep out dust and flies and store in a cool place.
7. Check the crock daily, skimming any mold from the surface, but don't worry about not getting it all. Rinse the plate and weight if there is mold. Taste the pickles after a few days.
8. Checking the crock daily, between 1-4 weeks (depending on temperature), the pickles will be ready. Moving them to a cooler environment, such as the fridge will slow down the fermentation.