In a Pickle
Stew’d in brine, Smarting in lingering pickle
—William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra
Most of us don’t give them much thought. Sure, we expect pickles to show up beside a sandwich, maybe on top of a burger, or perhaps chopped up in potato salad. Say “pickle.” and for most of us the first thing that comes to mind is a cucumber. But, just about every vegetable can be and is pickled, not to mention herring, eggs and even pigs feet.
Pickling is one of the oldest forms of preserving food. It’s accomplished in one of two ways: either by using salt and water to produce lactic acid or by storing in an acetic solution, usually vinegar. Pickled foods are prepared and popular the world over.
I can’t say I’m a big fan of pickles per se. I habitually top hamburgers with dill chips and hot dogs with sweet relish, but otherwise I can take ‘em or leave ‘em. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of cucumbers, either. I’m not sure why and it’s not because they make me burp.
Growing up, I remember that my grandmother and aunts seemed to have an endless mason jars in the cellar full of all kinds of cucumber pickles, as well as those made from watermelon and cantaloupe rind, and green tomatoes. I inherited both a pickle fork and pickle dish, but have never used either for its intended purposed. With the advent of modern food preservation and transportation, their omnipresence on the table faded. Today, buying something pickled at the supermarket is no longer a matter of necessity but of desirability. Pickling has become less a way to preserve food, and more a way to flavor it.
Technology and transportation have also globalized the market place. A century ago, few in this country would have tasted Mexican escabeche, Korean kimchi, Italian giardiniera, or dill pickles made in Poland.
Pickles and ice cream aside, for those who crave something pickled, here are a few piquant and noteworthy local options.
The Old Fashioned. Once upon a time, dinner at the supper club was sure to begin with a Lazy Susan that inevitably included pickled beets. This culinary contraption disappeared with the supremacy of the salad bar in the late 60s. However, the tradition survives at The Old Fashioned. Three different Lazy Susans come a la carte. The Number Seven not only includes excellent pickled beets, but also Polly’s (see below) dilly beans and crunchy dill pickles.
Graze. Both the lunch and dinner menu include two pickle appetizers. Fried pickles are a big favorite at BBQ joints and here come with the perfect dip, a dill ranch dressing. More ambitious and exotic are the house pickles—a colorful and tart mélange of daikon, kimchee, butternut squash, escabeche, beets and cucumber.
Stalzy’s Deli. This eastside delicatessen is on a mission to make as much as possible from scratch using local ingredients. That includes its corned beef and pastrami. Both are beef brisket, pickled in brine with spices. The big difference is corned beef is usually boiled while pastrami is coated in a spice rub, smoked, and then steamed. And, rarely is either house-made.
Forequarter. This restaurant and bar is the latest endeavor of the Underground Food Collective and an asset to the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood. Like at the Collective’s original restaurant, the charcuterie they make is a star on the menu and often served with some of the most unique pickles to be found anywhere. I’ve always discarded those white, unripe strawberries too often encountered when prepackaged. At Forequarter they’re treated with more respect. Pickling transforms both texture and taste, becoming an appealing caper-like condiment.
Polly Jane’s Pickles and Jam. These pickles taste just like grandma use to make because they’re homemade in small batches. Varieties include regular and hot garlic dills, several kinds of bread and butter pickles, candy beets, rosy radishes, and “Polly’s Pretty Pickles and Peppers.” She sells her products online, at the Northside and Hilldale Farmers’ Markets, and at The Old Fashioned.
Krrrrisp Kraut. Except as a topping for bratwurst, sauerkraut—pickled cabbage—isn’t as popular as it once was, though its health benefits are often touted. We think of kraut as inimitably German, but in fact it was invented by the Chinese. GLK Foods is the largest maker of sauerkraut in the country, started by Dave and Henry Flanagan in Bear Creek, Wisconsin in 1900. Their Krrrisp Kraut—sold refrigerated under three different brand names and in two styles, traditional and Bavarian—is so much better than the wimpy and smelly stuff in the can.
Pickled Red Onions
Onions as a condiment take on new character and subtlety when picked.
2 red onions
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
Peel the onions, cut each in half, and slice into very thin half-moon slices. Transfer the sliced onions to a Pyrex bowl and set aside.
Heat the vinegar and the sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly. When sugar dissolves, remove from the pan from the heat. Add salt and pour the vinegar mixture over the onions in the bowl. Cover with plastic. Put in the refrigerator and allow to stand overnight—approximately 8 to 12 hours. When cool, drain the onions and use to top sandwiches or in salads.