We last left our intrepid heroine (that would be me) fighting off Topsy-Turvy related anxiety while attempting to grow tomatoes. Alas, that tale did not end well; we got one lousy cherry tomato before the Topsy-Turvy succumbed to the lure of gravity (that sucker was heavy) and the experiment was declared finito. Let us never speak of it again.
Undaunted, I soldiered on and planted several cucumber plants. Now that tale is one of success (with some failure mixed in). The plants took off right away, and before I knew it were trailing vines all over the place, vines I awkwardly attempted to harness with stakes and some netting (to keep beasties out, though the little beasties that have gnawed on some of my other plants did not seem much interested in cucumber leaves). Before I knew it, tiny cucumbers sprouted out of little white flowers and grew, quickly, into hardy, pickable cucumbers. I will never get over actually seeing a vegetable grow from something I’ve planted. I mean, I’ve long known that vegetables, you know, grow in the ground and all, but considering that 99.999999% of all of the vegetables I’ve consumed have come from the grocery store, it’s still a novel experience.
We ate some of the cucumbers with hummus and some in salads, and they were delicious. Then I got the bright idea to take my domesticity even further and make pickles. My aunt used to make pickles when I was a child and there is nothing like a fresh pickle – really, it tastes about 100 times better than jarred pickles, and I generally like those. My aunt couldn’t remember the recipe; she’d gotten it from an older lady she knew (“a White Russian who was very nice unless the subject of Communists came up”), and hadn’t made them in probably 30 years. So I looked online and found a likely looking recipe, by Alton Brown. I wanted to avoid canning with the sterilizing jars, etc. because I have this idea that if I sterilize the jars incorrectly I’m going to give someone some deadly bacteria and they will DIE because of my pickles. As good as fresh pickles are, they probably aren’t worth deadly botulism.
Anyway, this recipe involved fermenting the pickles for a time in a “cool, dark place.” Unfortunately, my attempt coincided with one of our September heat waves, and there wasn’t really any “cool” space in the house. I’m not sure if that’s what did the pickles in, or if I did something else wrong. Whatever the case: days passed; bubbles were supposed to be forming and rising to the surface on my pickles. I finally had a few lazy bubbles one day, but after that, nothing. I waited extra days. I watched the pickles avidly. Finally, I decided to try one, to see if it had that wonderful, fresh cucumber taste I remembered.
It was awful. The pickles hadn’t gone bad in any identifiable way – the texture was okay and there was no obvious mold on them, the whole thing smelled (pretty much) okay. But when I tasted the pickle it had this indefinable OFF taste that I can only liken to tobacco. It was gross. It wasn’t totally inedible, but it wasn’t anything you would want to eat, either. With a heavy heart, I threw my first batch of pickles away.
By now the cucumber vines were waning – we could see only a few small cucumbers that seemed likely to grow out to a decent size. Time was running out, and I had to decide if I would sacrifice more cucumbers to the Great Pickle Experiment of 2010. Finally I decided to go for it. I found another recipe (this time one of Bobby Flay’s) for pickles that were really just more or less marinated cucumbers . They turned out to be delicious. I think the fact that they were sliced made the marinade/brine penetrate more easily. (For anyone interested in trying this particular recipe, I omitted the sugar – I didn’t have any on hand – and after tasting the pickles I added some salt. But I love salt.) These might not have quite been the fresh pickles of my childhood, but they were spicy, tangy and cucumber-y. I even unbent a bit from my fear of canning and poured the pickles and brine into a cleaned (but not sterilized) Mason jar. In the refrigerator, in a tightly closed jar, they did last longer than the week specified in the recipe – more like several weeks.
So, my attempts at pioneer-style domesticity go on, with just enough successes to keep me trying. I planted some radishes that I won’t even talk about, and a winter crop of brussel sprouts and broccoli that I suspect are going nowhere. But that’s a tale for another day.