In a pickle

The recipe

One of my earliest food memories is a bottle of pickled onions. Made and served by my grandfather to go with his signature dish of broiled mutton and boiled potatoes. Not my favourite dish by any stretch of the imagination, but possibly one of my favourite food memories by far.

We humans have been pickling food for about 4000 years and most likely it started with the achars of northen India. The word “pickle” originated from the Dutch word “pekel” which means to brine.

Daikon and Carrot Pickles
Daikon and Carrot Pickles

The practice to pickle food stems from the need to preserve food, either to deal with excess food during the season, or to take on long journeys often by boat or foot. Other methods of preserving food include: drying, freeze-drying, fermentation, sugar preserving, and canning. Traditionally, these techniques formed part of home cooking, but these days are done (mostly) commercially.

When fruit and vegetables are preserved, the living tissue is killed making the food inhospitable for the microbes that cause spoilage. This is normally achieved by adding either a salt-based brine or an acetic acid (normally vinegar). When food is submerged in brine, fermentation occurs which in turn creates preservative acids, which pickles the food. Common examples of such foods include: olives, sauerkraut and kimchi. Truth is you can pickle just about any fruit or vegetable.

A much way to pickle food (fermentation can take months), is to add directly add the acid. If you intent to store such directly acidified pickles, the food has to be heat-treated first. Simply simmer them in the brine/acid solution at around 85°C for about 30 minutes to prevent spoilage. Flavours and textures improve over time, so most pickles require time to mature.

If the intent is to eat pickles for their flavour and texture, and not to preserve or store or future use, much less pickling time is required. Such pickles are normally flavoured with additional spices or herbs and are ready to eat within 24 hours, if covered and left to mature in the refrigerator.

Kabeljou with pickles
Kabeljou with pickles

Alternatively, the pickling time can be reduced by using (vacuum) pressure to do the pickling. Simply seal the fruit or vegetables with the pickling liquid and additional flavourings in a vacuum bag under full pressure of your vacuum machine and leave for 30 minutes or so for the flavours to develop. A more unconventional way to achieve similar results is to pressure infuse the pickles using a cream whipper charged with nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Both these methods rely on high pressure to “force-pickle”.

The texture and flavour of pickles depend very much on the method of pickling, the pickling time, the pickling liquid and additional flavour agents added. Typically, their textures are firm and crisp and their flavours salty, sour and sweet.

This week I provide recipes for pickled radishes. Both daikon (white Chinese or Japanese radish) and ordinary red radishes are currently available and are great for pickles. They are made best the night before you want to eat them so plan ahead. I have used them here to brighten up a simply grilled fresh kabeljou. With the pickling done this dish will be ready in less than 30 minutes.

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