What’s a corned beef sandwich without a pickle? Dill pickles are the perfect accompaniment to a deli sandwich because they help clear the palate. With each bite, the flavors of the sandwich begin to fade as your taste buds get coated with fat and zapped by spices in the meat. Pickle to the rescue! It cuts through the residue in your mouth and helps cleanse your palate, allowing the full flavor of the food to emerge once again.
The history of pickles stretches back to antiquity, more than 4,000 years ago. Pickles first started out as cucumbers. Today’s modern cucumbers are descendants of a plant native to northwestern India. It is unknown when cucumbers actually arrived in Europe – perhaps as late as the 13th century.
In the mid-16th century, nomadic Tatars and Turks brought the Chinese method of pickling vegetables without the addition of vinegar to Eastern Europe – a process called lacto-fermentation. Once the cucumber was treated with this improved pickling technique, pickles emerged as a staple of Eastern European Jewish food.
For many generations, Eastern Ashkenazim prepared crocks or barrels of cucumbers and let them ferment in a warm place until they reached the desired degree of sourness. Then they were moved to the root cellar or another cool place to last through to the spring.
Eastern European Jews brought their love of pickles with them when they came to America. Within a short time, countless shops appeared, especially on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, offering a selection of pickles sold from big barrels. Very few of these shops still remain today – most pickles are produced by major food manufacturers.
In 1869, Henry J. Heinz began offering his “57 varieties” of pickles to stores in the Sharpsburg, PA area. Heinz later introduced the concept of a national brand of food that was under kosher supervision. Kosher-supervised pickles soon followed. Today, Heinz is one of America’s main producers of pickles and relishes.
True “kosher dills” do not contain vinegar. The addition of fresh garlic also identifies cucumbers as kosher dills. There are three basic types of pickles: full-sours, half sours, and sweet. Sour pickles are fully fermented in a brine solution, half sours are partially fermented in brine, and sweet pickles contain a fair amount of sugar which acts as a preservative.
My mother made homemade pickles each fall, turning our tiny kitchen into a miniature pickle factory. We scrubbed countless cucumbers and then soaked them in cold water to ensure the pickles would be firm and crisp. (Years later, a friend told my mom her time-saving trick: She soaked the cucumbers in cold water in the washing machine, drained the water and removed the clean cucumbers – no soap, no spinning allowed!)
Mom made brine using kosher salt and boiling water and while it cooled, she put fresh dill, pickling spices and fresh garlic into sterilized jars. She then added the scrubbed cucumbers, packing them in tightly. Next, she poured in the brine, added more dill and spices, put the lids on and then shook each jar to distribute the spices evenly. The pickles fermented and bubbled on the kitchen counter – four or five days for half-sours, ten days for full sours. Then they were stored on shelves in our cold cellar, hopefully lasting throughout most of the winter. (Doubtful – my father adored pickles!)
• One of the most popular ancient methods of preserving foods was pickling. Acid and salt were two of the most effective preservatives, used individually and in conjunction with each other. Vegetables were either mixed or cooked with a little salt, helping to preserve them for a few days, or brined with vinegar for a longer time to delay the growth of bacteria.
• America was named for Amerigo Vespucci, who was a pickle peddler in Spain before he became an explorer. He supplied ships with pickled vegetables, which prevented sailors from getting scurvy on long voyages because of the vitamin C content.
• Pickles were the only juicy green vegetable available for many months of the year so they were held in high esteem by America’s pioneers.
• In the early 1900’s, pickles were often sold from pushcarts on the Lower East Side in New York City. Big pickles might cost a nickel, little ones a penny or two.
• In the movie Crossing Delancey, a handsome Jewish pickle vendor gets rid of the pungent smell of pickles by washing his hands with vanilla and milk and wins the heart of his true love.
• Americans consume 26 billion pickles a year – that’s about nine pounds of pickles per person.
• More than half the cucumbers grown in the United States are turned into pickles.
• National Pickle Day is November 14 and National Pickle Week takes place in May.
• Pregnant women are said to have cravings for salty, crunchy pickles and ice cream, often at the same time.
• When my friend’s son was young, he declared, “A meal is not a meal without a pickle!”
IN A PICKLE?
• Add chopped pickles to potato salad, coleslaw or pasta salad to add some zing.
• Add minced pickles to chopped egg, chicken, tuna or salmon salad as a sandwich filling.
• Mix chopped pickles, green onions, radishes and tomatoes with cottage cheese or Greek yogurt for a light lunch.
• Mix minced pickles and onions or shallots with mayonnaise, capers, lemon juice and seasonings to make tartar sauce and serve it with fried fish. You can also spread tartar sauce on sandwiches instead of mayonnaise.
• Israelis like to add thinly sliced pickles to deep-fried falafel balls stuffed into pita.
• For a flavor boost, drizzle (that is, apply in fine drops) a little pickle juice into your favorite salad dressing.
• Some delis feature deep-fried pickles on their menu, even adding pickle juice to the batter!
• Pickles are the perfect condiment to serve with grilled burgers, hot dogs, a juicy steak or a scoop of chopped liver.
• Pickles taste terrific with a grilled cheese sandwich or tuna melt.
• One of my friends loves to eat dill pickles with peanut butter. Another friend shared that her three year old loves pickles with whipped cream!
This pasta salad is terrific when you’re expecting a big crowd. Pickles add a special zing! Instead of adding all the dressing at once, add about three-quarters to the pasta initially and reserve the remaining dressing to add just before serving. This technique helps prevent too much of the dressing from being absorbed by the pasta.
1 Tbsp salt (or to taste)
1 package (12 oz) spiral pasta, penne or ziti
1 medium red onion, finely diced
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
1 green bell pepper, finely diced
2 or 3 dill pickles (or 6 sweet gherkin pickles), finely diced
1 cup mayonnaise (light or regular)
1 Tbsp pickle juice
1 Tbsp lemon juice
3 Tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley (or 1 Tbsp dried parsley)
3 Tbsp finely chopped fresh dill (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Add salt to a large pot of rapidly boiling water. Add pasta and cook just until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain well. Transfer to a large bowl.
2. Add onion, bell peppers and pickles to pasta and toss together.
3. For the dressing: In another bowl, combine mayonnaise, pickle juice, lemon juice, parsley and dill, if using.
4. Add most of dressing to pasta/vegetable mixture and mix well. (Reserve about one-quarter of dressing and mix it in just before serving.) Season with salt and pepper.
5. Chill 2 to 3 hours or overnight to allow flavors to blend.
6. Add reserved dressing and add more salt and pepper, if needed.
Yield: 8 servings. This keeps 2 or 3 days in the refrigerator. Do not freeze.
TUNA PASTA SALAD: Add 2 cups green peas, 1 cup chopped celery and 2 cans tuna, drained and flaked, to the pasta. Increase mayonnaise to 1 1/3 cups (or use 2/3 cup mayonnaise and 2/3 cup sour cream or yogurt). You can also add a little pickle juice!
BLACK BEAN ANTIPASTO:
Serve this scrumptious mixture on a bed of salad greens as an appetizer or use it as a spread on crackers or flatbread.
1 medium onion
2 medium carrots
1 red bell pepper
1 cup cauliflower florets
2 cans (7 oz each) solid white tuna, drained
1 cup stuffed green olives, drained
1/2 cup sliced black olives, drained
2 cups sweet mixed pickles, drained
1 can (19 oz) black beans, rinsed and drained
1 1/2 cups ketchup
1 1/2 cups bottled chili sauce
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1. Cut onion, celery, carrots and red pepper into 1/2-inch chunks. Break up cauliflower into bite-size pieces.
2. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add cut-up vegetables and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. They should still be somewhat crunchy.
3. Immediately transfer vegetables to a colander and rinse under cold running water to stop the cooking; drain well.
4. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix well. Don’t mash the tuna – it should be somewhat chunky in texture. Adjust seasonings to taste.
5. Store in tightly sealed containers in the refrigerator.
Yield: About 10 cups. This keeps about 2 weeks in the refrigerator. Freezes well.
Norene Gilletz of Toronto is a cookbook author and culinary consultant. She is the author of nine cookbooks, including Norene’s Healthy Kitchen (Whitecap). Her motto is “Food that’s good for you should taste good.” Norene’s world revolves around food and recipes. For more information, visit her website at http://www.gourmania.com, contact her ator call 416-226-2466. She includes as a reference for this piece, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” (Wiley, 2010) by Gil Marks, which is featured elsewhere in this issue.