Friday, May 16, 2008

A Most Unreasonable Season

My Mom grew up during the Great Depression. She had a deep aversion to wasting things, especially food. She passed this along to me and I dutifully yet unconsciously draped a special "wasting perfectly good food" shaped millstone around the necks of my own children.

This has added no small weight to my CSA Basket challenge this Spring. Using all the fabulously fresh veggies up before they begin that sometimes treacherously rapid transformation from plate-worthy to compost has not always been easy. In my inherited emotional landscape, allowing good food to go bad is a moral failing surely indicative of other, hidden, more serious character flaws.

Our familial scarring aside, this issue of preserving fruits and vegetables that cannot be immediately consumed has long been a problem for folks who grow their own food. In even my limited gardening experience I have noted three stages of harvesting. First, you have too few of whatever is ripening to do much more than snack and admire. Next, you have the "just right" stage with plenty enough of whatever it is to try several different preparation methods and feel pretty happy with your choice to grow your own.

Finally there is the floodgate stage, where you and your kitchen's storage spaces are all swamped by a rising tide of harvest bounty. Our loquat trees provided that first tsunami of fresh this year, and as I watch my little back yard vegetable plants flower and begin to set fruit, I have been anticipating what will be the next wave of "ready".

As part of that looking ahead, I knew at some point this year I'd be submitting something I'd done with my (hopeful overload of) home grown tomatoes to Andrea Meyer's fun monthly round-up "Grow Your Own".

I just hadn't figured on a chance to do it so soon.The unfortunately violent yet seasonable Spring weather had other plans.

Recently Central Texas played host to some pretty rough storms, even by our standards. We had hail ranging from golf ball to tennis ball sized, and the ice chunks sounded quite lively on our (now significantly dented) metal roof. Damage estimates for our area are hovering in the 30 million dollar range, although as insurance adjusters scramble, scheduling visits to assess what repairs will need to be made, those figures continue to climb.

The City has power crews working 16 hour shifts for the third straight day and a special curbside Saturday pick-up has been arranged for people to get rid of their power-outage related spoiled food. I was thinking about my Mom on Thursday as I kept careful track of how long my refrigerator/freezer was going without power, doing my dead level best to keep that door SHUT with the cold air trapped inside. I was very grateful not to have lost any of our food to the power outage.

Out in the garden however, I was not quite so fortunate. I have some significantly shredded chard, a broken off dill plant, and I lost fully half my tomato crop to the crashing balls of ice. OK, perhaps "crop" is a bit of an over statement. But the fact remains that two of my four earliest tomatoes were bashed. They were extremely green, still babies, and now that they had sustained significant breaks in the skin of the fruit, they had to be picked before insects discovered and took advantage of such an easy meal.

So here I found myself, with the power back on, our roof mostly intact (as long as it is not raining, anyway) and two smallish very firm green tomatoes sitting on the counter. What to do with this unexpected early harvest?

I like fried green tomatoes as much if not more than the next person. But these tomatoes are small, and I am trying to be a less frequent fryer. I looked at the tomatoes and the dill and it struck me. Pickles!

My son (the chef!) had told me previously that quick pickles were a snap to make, and are generally ready to eat in under 24 hours. We had talked of this while I had loads of loquats on hand, but I had plans for my loquats already, so I honestly had not paid adequate attention.

These two small green tomatoes seemed good candidates for a small batch of exploratory first run pickling. Rather than admit to my son that I paid anything short of rapt attention during his earlier attempt to teach me a new trick, I googled to see what recipes were out there and to get more detailed instructions. I was frustrated not to come up with anything that sounded like the process he'd described.

Admitting defeat, I called my oldest to explain my situation and get more specific directions. To his eternal credit he passed by the opening to parrot back to me any typically snarky comments I've doubtless dished out in years previous when the tables were turned. He even resisted prefacing his remarks with "If you'd been listening the FIRST time I told you....".

[Current moral high ground score: Son 1/Mom -549]He explained that, in contrast to the dire warnings featured on many canning sites, the technique for quick pickling is very approachable on a small scale, even for a novice such as myself. You have to be aware that the "quick" refers not only to how much time and energy and effort you will have to put into your pickles, but also to their shelf life. These pickles are not processed in a hot water bath and the acidity will vary greatly, so this is a "prepare and enjoy" situation, ideally suited to small portions geared towards an upcoming meal.Here are the bare bones:

Thin slice your potential pickles to determine the amount of pickling liquid you will need to cover. Set aside.

Prepare pickling liquid by combining equal amounts of vinegar and sugar, along with whole spices or herbs as desired in a small saucepan. Heat just to a low boil, then remove and allow liquid to steep for 20 minutes.

Place your sliced pickles to be in a clean container that has a tight fitting lid. Pour liquid through a fine strainer to remove solids over your prepared fruit or vegetables. Cover, and allow to macerate for 4 to 24 hours refrigerated. Then, enjoy!Some considerations: The type of vinegar and the kind of sugar you choose will produce varying balances of sweet/acid. In addition, the combinations of whole spices and/or herbs you steep in the pickling liquid will lend complexity to your finished product.

If your memory is spotty like mine, I suggest keeping a record of various combinations until you develop a "go to" recipe. I am beginning very simply, and as I go along I will experiment, adding in components as I get a feel for what we like and how various flavor profiles develop.

For this my First Ever Green Tomato Pickles, I used white wine vinegar, organic sugar, one star anise, a little of the homegrown dill also broken off by the hail, and a smattering of whole black peppercorns.

If you are wanting to accentuate the flavor of any whole spice, you can slightly smash them to release essential oils. If you choose to do so, you will have to exercise more care with the straining process later. You want to avoid teensy UFOs in your pickling liquid.

My pickles were deliciously ready to enjoy after about 5 hours in the refrigerator. I have plans to use the majority of them as part of a deconstructed tuna salad for today's lunch. The rest will go on the table as a side for balsamic braised beef short ribs for dinner tomorrow night. I think the pickles will be a great accent to the rich beef, the wonderful green color and crisp texture providing an interesting contrast to the deep brown glaze and falling apart on your fork texture of the meat.

I haven't yet determined what would be the "up" side of having a hail damaged roof or shredded and torn oak trees in the height of oak wilt season. On the other hand, everybody in my family is fine. The roof will be replaced in due time. The oak trees have survived for thousands of years despite everything humans could do. Today and tomorrow we will enjoy some early bounty from our garden. All in all, not a bad outcome.

5 comments:

Andrea said...

I haven't done pickling yet, but I'm going to try this year. I planted some pepperoncinis, which we loves, so I'll have to pickle them once they start coming in. Should be fun! Thanks for another great entry for Grow Your Own!

The Purloined Letter said...

Looks delicious!

FinnyKnits said...

Perfect, perfect! I always end every garden season with green tomatoes on the almost dead plants and haven't had the courage (or recipe) to pickle them.

This is the year.

Thanks!

Libby Tibbitts said...

Cool stuff huh? Who would have thought gardening skills can save money and lives! How about your roof? Good thing you have an insurance plan. You can probably use it to have your roof checked by a contractor. Better now than later. :)

Tiffany Larsen said...

Good thing only your garden was bothered by the storm. It would have been more costly if your house itself was damaged. Immediately repair the minor damages in your house. They could complicate things when another storm strikes. Stay safe! =)