Pickles and Other Things

July 14, 2012

Cucumber Vine

The garden struggles on in near drought conditions, seemingly in spite of anything I do to it. I’ve had several nice batches of beets and carrots, which I promptly ate for supper thinking that, next month, I’d haul out the gardening notebook and plant a fall garden of the “early” crops I like for winter eating.

I’ve snacked on the little cherry tomatoes for the last week or so and they show no signs of abating, so far. The Arkansas Travelers are not large, but they, too, hold promise of producing enough to eat this summer and freeze for winter. I’ve diced and frozen green peppers, onions and several bags of rhubarb. The okra plants have blossomed into tiny okras and the corn is about ready to pollinate. I had a couple of meals’ worth of green beans before they quit producing, but they are blooming again, so I may yet get enough to freeze some for this winter.

When I went out last March to trim back the grape vines, I found them already brimming with sap in the surprising warmth, so I left them alone. They have gone quite rogue on me and I’ve already stemmed and frozen a couple of gallon bags full, with more to come. I’ve snacked on them, given several batches to the tenant to snack on and that’s only the ones on my side of the fence. There seems to be an equal amount on the neighbor’s side, for their picking. The birds usually take their share, too, but the tenant’s three dogs – out in the yard several times a day, now that the yard is fenced – seem to have discouraged the birds from overindulging this year, though there remain enough for them to take their share while the dogs are inside.

The cantaloupe vines are in flower and I expect to see tiny melons nestling in the grass any day now. And the cucumbers are … well … being cucumbers.

I love fresh cucumbers, though I only keep a couple of vines of the prodigious little producers. I love them sliced or diced with tomatoes and onions in vinegar. I love them sliced into sour cream flavored with dill. I love to snack on lightly salted slices while I’m working on the computer. I’ve even turned them into batches of freezer pickles. (The last batch, consisting of six quarts, lasted me all that winter and well into the next batch of cucumbers.) In good years, I’ve even taken a bag or two, along with squash and tomatoes, to the food bank.

Last year, in desperation, I even peeled the last of them, turned them into pulp in the food processor and froze the pulp in bags, hoping to turn them into a creamy dilled cucumber soup last winter. My advice? Don’t try this at home. Alas, instead of the creamy, refreshing soup of my dreams, I wound up with a mushy- tasting mess that, in spite of every remediation I could think of, was a waste of good cream.

The obvious answer, of course, would be to can some pickles, but I have never learned the secret of crisp canned pickles, do not like mushy canned pickles any more than I like mushy cucumber soup and, frankly, am not at all enthusiastic about canning anything in my small apartment during the extreme heat of this summer.

For the first week of cucumber production this year, I managed to keep up by slicing, dicing and eating them in all the usual ways. By the second week, they were beginning to line up on the kitchen cabinet in a very smug and accusatory manner.

Determined to keep up, I even offered one to my vegetable hating tenant, hoping he would discover cucumbers were a delicious exception to his dislikes. He did not.

So, last week, I cut the accusatory cucumbers into wedges, thin-sliced an onion, boiled a vinegar and salt brine seasoned with dill and garlic and made a batch of refrigerator pickles. The next evening, in an act of purest charity, I decided to take a couple of the wedges down to my tenant, to see if he liked them.

After scarfing them down and proclaiming them delicious, he rushed into his kitchen and came back bearing the cucumber I’d given him the day before as if he were a miner who’d suddenly discovered that what he thought was fool’s gold had turned out to be the real thing.

“Can you do that to this one?” he asked.

“Sure, I can,” I said, smiling like a cat who’d just discover a mouse.

He returned the empty container the other day and, though he didn’t hold it out and say, “More, please,” I’m pretty sure he would not be adverse to my presenting him with another batch or two this season.

So, I think I may have solved the cucumber problem, for now. And who knows, if the weather cools off a little toward the end of cucumber season, I would not be adverse to canning some pickles for winter eating and sharing – if I can just discover the secret to keeping them crisp.

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18 Responses to Pickles and Other Things

  1. tim says:

    I’ve been told that a grape leaf in the bottom of the jar will keep pickles crisp. Since you have grape vines it might be worth a try. Just found your blog last week and I love your writing.

    • theozarker says:

      Hi Tim, welcome to the blog. Well, that grape leaf tip is convenient. Thanks, I’ll have to try that. I certainly don’t have any dearth of grape leaves right now.
      And I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. Thank you.

  2. witsendnj says:

    Are you using pickling cucumbers or regular? It took a few days to extract my mother’s recipe (she’s a bit slow!) but her pickles were always crisp.

    Pack fresh cukes into hot/sanitized quart jars
    add to each jar
    1teasp dill seed or fresh dill weed
    ” ” mustard seed
    ” ” pinch alum
    ” ” clove garlic
    ” ” pinch sugar
    fill with brine, process 5 minutes
    (Brine: 1 qt. vinegar, 1 cup salt; 3 quarts water)

    • theozarker says:

      Hi witsend, yes I only grow pickling cucumbers. Don’t care for the others, even in salads. Thank you for “extracting” your mom’s recipe from her (I hope it was a gentle extraction ;D ). The recipe is very similar to one I found in an old book of mine, except it used a grape leaf – thank you, Tim – instead of alum.

      I’ll try your mom’s recipe both ways. When it says “process 5 minutes”, are you talking water bath or pressure canner? (Just checking, since I’ve never used a pressure canner for pickles.)

      Thanks again (and thank your mother for me.)

      • witsendnj says:

        She never used a pressure canner, just a boiling water bath in the old enamel kettle. Let me know how they turn out! The alum seems slightly controversial although it’s been used for at least a hundred years to keep pickles crisp. It’s toxic in large doses but then, what isn’t? All things in moderation…

  3. theozarker says:

    I’ll need to get some alum and some mustard seeds, since I don’t use either in the refrigerator pickles. Which means August for trying the water bath canning. I want to can some corn and also, tomatoes this year if I have enough. I was gifted with a wonderful canner a couple of years ago, but need to get some jars and lids. I also want to try my hand at grape jelly and grape conserve this year, too. I honestly haven’t canned anything since I was a teenager, even in a water bath; freezing is so quick and easy. But I think this may turn out to be a harsh winter, economically, so I’d best get busy and relearn that old skill.

    Will let you know how the pickles turn out once I open them for eating.

    • witsendnj says:

      Well, a virtue of canning is that it still preserves food when the power goes out. I just learned the idea of freezing water in a couple of plastic jugs to put in the fridge when a big storm is expected, I can’t believe I lived this long and never thought of it! My mom did a lot of canning from the garden, we had shelves and shelves of bright tomatos, peaches, green beans, corn, carrots… Try to stay cool while you’re at it!

      • theozarker says:

        Yes, we had shelves full of vegetables we canned from my dad’s garden. I think people who went through the Great Depression, like my parents and grandparents, never forgot that virtue. And my ex and I did can from our garden when we lived out on the acreage.

        I keep the bottom of the freezer covered with soda bottles of water and add more as the freezer empties. I use them in my camp cooler since I don’t have a refrigerator. I just switch them out every day or two – depending on how hot it is in the house. They say that if you keep your freezer full, things will last several days in a power outage. So that’s why I do that. Also, extra water to drink if that goes out (though I’d add a few drops of bleach before I drank it, I think.)

  4. graveday says:

    Actually, witsendnj, you should leave the jugs in there if you have the room. They go into coolers for trips and picnics, but also you are covered if you are away or otherwise caught unexpectedly by a power outage. Keeps extra water around too.
    We can on an outside propane burner to keep the heat out of the house in summer.

    • theozarker says:

      My ex and I canned outside, too. People around here used to have those little box stoves to heat their cabins in the winter. In the summer, they’d just move the stove outside to the “canning kitchen” (usually just a small pole barn open to the breezes) and can there for the same reason – to keep the cabin cooler.

  5. graveday says:

    Well, that is just weird. It looks like I never read what you posted when I wrote my response, Linda, but I see I posted July 19 and you, July 20. I had thought all posts were linear in time.
    Cool is the word though, and mass in the freezer.
    I am thinking that is a brilliant strategy of not having a fridge, only a freezer, and moving containers. This practice is what you also have to do with long-term storage grain and legumes and other stocks, so it is good practice.
    One of the best fridges I ever saw was a box this old mountain man had outside his cabin window that was basically a swamp cooler without the fan. It was a frame covered with burlap and maybe excelsior that had a trickle of water diverted to it from a nearby spring. It dripped down the sides over a tin roof and kept the space inside cool. The guy swore milk would stay fresh in there twice as long as a fridge, not to mention veggies.

    • theozarker says:

      Hey Grave, no, usually the reply post will go under the post I’m replying to (unless I forget to hit the reply button under the post I’m replying to). So even though I replied to Wit after you posted, it went under her post.

      That old man’s “fridge” sounds like the same principle of the old timers covering the butter and milk with a wet towel and letting air from the open window keep it cool until the next meal. Sometimes they’d put it in the well bucket and lower it into the water to keep cool overnight. More’n one way to skin the cat, eh?

      And I really don’t miss not having a fridge. Most of the stuff in the cooler is vinegar based condiments anyway, or stuff I’m going to eat that day or the next. The rest I just freeze until I’m ready to cook it. Now, the freezer I will sorely miss. 😀

  6. graveday says:

    Then you should check out solar freezers and get your neighborhood to go in on one. Ain’t gonna happen here, but one has to have hope.

    • theozarker says:

      Actually, I’ve seen schematics for a small solar freezer/ice maker on the web, but it seems to require a pretty big parabolic solar thingy. I thought, when I read it, if you had someone in the neighborhood who could build several of those out of scavaged materials it would be pretty neat.

  7. graveday says:

    It would take some engineering, but what peace of mind. Ice from the sun.

    • theozarker says:

      It was an article by a couple of guys who’d made one for a village somewhere in Africa, I think, to keep medicines and vaccines cool until they could be given. I’ll look for it and, if I can find it again, post it in the heating and cooling section at the top of the blog.

    • theozarker says:

      Hey Grave, thanks. Yeah, the original article I read (probably seven or eight years ago)was a rough schematic and step by step explanation of how it was made, by the guys that made it. Looks like someone took it commercial. But any guy that works with refrigeration could probably figure it out and make one from salvage if TSHTF (and there’s always at least one refrigerator repair guy in a working class neighborhood. 😀 )

      I’ll put those links into the heating and cooling section, but it would be nice if I could find that original article. Thanks again.

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