Fun With Pickles

Pickled kohlrabi and turnip in an orange brine
Pickled kohlrabi and turnip. (Photo mine, July 2017)

It finally happened: I made pickles. It is such a Jewish category of food – and so tasty – and I had simply skipped it. No longer.

Jews have been preserving food since Jews have … been Jews. The pickles that we enjoy today are all ultimately related to methods of food preservation from ancient times. In the Ancient Near East, people Jewish and non-Jewish alike dried, salted, and fermented foods for long-term use. (Some ancient ferments like feseekh in Egypt are still with us today.) Cabbage has been fermented in Eastern Europe since ancient times, and foods have been preserved in vinegar or whey from Iceland to India to Ethiopia since at least the medieval era. As salt became cheaper because of colonialism and expanded trade networks, pickling in Europe and North Africa became far more affordable and thus common. New pickles often joined existing pickles and preserved foods – pickles eggplants alongside preserved lemons in Morocco, pickled radishes alongside sauerkraut in Eastern Europe, pickled herring alongside … other pickled herring in Germany. The invention of the boiling water bath certainly helped. By the early 19th century, a scepter was haunting Europe – the scepter of many preserved vegetables.

Even today, each Jewish community’s pickles have a strong toehold on Jewish tables around the world. In Ashkenazi communities, cucumber pickles are found seemingly everywhere – at Shabbat tables, in sandwiches, as snacks. In the United States, the “kosher dill” pickle has transcended ethnic boundaries to become something of a regional food in the Northeast. (I remember a Catholic friend from New Jersey who brought back a jar to the United Kingdom from a visit home.) In other countries, but especially France and Israel, meanwhile, many preserved Mizrahi foods are popular: pickled eggplants from Iraq, preserved lemons from Morocco, and preserved onions from everywhere among them. Today, in any food shop catering to Israeli expatriates, you can find cans of Kvutzat Yavne pickles for sale. At all stages of assimilation and cultural and culinary change, pickles have accompanied Jews for the ride – even if the pickles themselves have changed.

In an age of mass pickling and a stronger food supply (both of which are good things), fewer people are pickling. I do not hold by arguments that something is lost here: let’s not romanticize a past in which death by food poisoning was common and nutrition more lacking than today. This is a view that Rachel Laudan correctly described as ahistorical in her wonderful book Cuisine and Empire. What is true, though, is that pickling is a lot of fun. The work is satisfying, and a new generation of millennial picklers are bringing new flavors to the table. Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, for example, included not only classical Ashkenazi cucumber pickles and sauerkraut in their book The Gefilte Manifesto, but also kimchi-like sauerkraut and shallots in red wine. Not authentic at all, totally Jewish, and stunningly delicious. Other cultures, too, are playing with their pickles – I recently found a recipe for Iranian torshi that used Fuji apples!

In this recipe I used some pickling spices from South Africa. The blend includes turmeric and paprika, which lend the pickles I made a spicy undertone and a bright color. You, of course, can have your pickles as plain as possible. Remember to use the freshest vegetables for the best flavor. This recipe is very easy since the fermentation and preservation all take place in the refrigerator. This recipe is suitable for canning – remember to follow safe canning guidelines.

Happy Pickling!

Easy Refrigerator Pickles

Makes one quart

2 cups chopped and peeled vegetables (I used kohlrabi and turnips for one pickle, onions for another, cucumbers for another, and lettuce – yes, lettuce – for the last. The recipe is easily scalable.)

1 cup water

1 cup vinegar (any should do)

1 tablespoon coarse salt (do not use table salt)

1 tablespoon pickling spices of choice (optional)

  1. Wash thoroughly and dry a liter- or quart-sized container with a lid. This can be a jar, Tupperware, former peanut butter vessel… you name it.
  2. Stuff the chopped vegetables into the container, leaving room between them and at the top for the brine.
  3. In a saucepan, blend the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. This makes the brine.
  4. When the brine is boiling, stir again, then turn off the heat.
  5. Ladle the brine into the container with the vegetables until full, leaving a bit of space at the top. Close the container completely.
  6. Place the container in the back of the refrigerator for three days at least before eating. The pickles keep for up to six weeks.

Remember to can safely if you can!

Thank you to Evan Bialostozky and Jessie Thompson for selling me the vegetables used in this recipe.

Reader Contribution: German Potato Salad

We have a reader contribution! My friends Dalya and Adele Moss in Oxford sent their delicious recipe for a German Jewish potato salad with many fun photographs. (It was sent in early November; I apologize for tardiness.) I was fortunate enough to eat this recipe at a Passover seder at their house in 2015, and can vouch for its deliciousness. It is a family recipe with a long history – and perhaps I better leave it to Dalya:

My Grandma Marlie’s (z’ l’) talents were many, including solidly beating me in Scrabble with her mastery of English, her second language. I also used to look forward with great relish to Shabbat at hers. This potato salad is my favorite, and has got passed down our family with a few tweaks along the way. It is great for Shabbat, or even we have it at Pesach (don’t worry, still ages away!) with cooked salmon.

A few pieces of advice before you embark. Firstly, I know it looks like a lot of onion in the dressing, but trust me, don’t skimp on it. It melts in beautifully and gives the essential gentle, piquant flavor. Secondly, leaving the potatoes to marinade for an hour makes all the difference. Lastly, don’t plan on doing anything after eating this potato salad. You will just want to “shluf” [sleep] in a satiated bliss!

I’ve rewritten the recipe for our American readers – mayonnaise is slightly sweeter in the United States. Enjoy!

The recipe in production by Dalya Moss. (Photos Dalya and Adele Moss, October 2016)

Potato Salad (Kartoffelsalat)

A recipe by Adele and Dalya Moss

2 lbs/1 kg new potatoes

¼ cup vegetable oil

½ medium white onion

1 tbsp white sugar

1 tbsp + ½ tsp apple cider vinegar

2 large or several small pickles, chopped

A handful of fresh cilantro (Adele’s innovation!)

A heaped tablespoon of mayonnaise

Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Boil potatoes till soft, but not falling apart. Drain and leave to cool a bit.
  2. Meanwhile, make marinade: grate onion as finely as possible. It should become a pulp. If you don’t want cathartic tears, I find wearing swimming googles works wonders!
  3. To complete the marinade: in a cup, put oil, the onion pulp, the sugar, vinegar, and a good bit of salt, and stir.
  4. Now chop up the potatoes, while still warm, into hearty chunks. I don’t bother taking the peel off. More flavor and goodness!
  5. Stir marinade gently into the warm potatoes and leave for an hour or so. It is fine to leave them to marinade overnight.
  6. Finally, just before you eat it, put it all together. Add your dollop of mayonnaise, ground pepper to taste and stir. Remember, you don’t need much of it, as the salad already has its marinade. Chop up the pickled cucumber, roughly chop or tear the coriander and then add. Stir again and it’s ready to eat!
Potato salad on a colored plate
The finished potato salad. (Photo mine, January 2017)

Beteyavon, Guten Apetit, Dalya.

Great Books: The Gefilte Manifesto

The cover for The Gefilte Manifesto.
The cover for The Gefilte Manifesto. (Photo Amazon)

Normally, I don’t tend to fall into cookbook or food book hype. Yes, I tell you about “Great Books” but that is because a lot of Jewish food books simply don’t live up to the hype promised to us by marketers, the media, and the priests and priestesses of the Cult of Authenticity. (Authenticity in cooking is bullshit.) So I was a bit nervous when I picked up a copy of The Gefilte Manifesto by Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, promising that Ashkenazi cuisine was “one of the world’s great cuisines…right under our noses.” Another well-publicized book, a historical one, on Ashkenazi cooking earlier this year did not live up to hype. The authors, essentially professional Ashkenazi chefs, were proclaimed to be revitalizing Eastern European Jewish cuisine itself. That is quite a lot of hype.

Thus I was more than pleasantly surprised when I opened the book to find a true gem. This is a cookbook that celebrates the wonders and underrated glory of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine: some of the classic dishes, but some of them with a new twist. The crisp, delightful flavors of Eastern Europe are rendered lovingly, but not cloyingly. As someone who grew up with these tastes, this book is delightful. It must be even more so for those who were not as exposed to traditional Ashkenazi cooking. And the hype, if hyperbolic, was appropriate for the book. You should all buy a copy of The Gefilte Manifesto as soon as you are able.

I will briefly state what the book is not before I go through all the things that it is. It is not a book on authenticity, it is not a book of manufactured memories, and it is not a book that makes demands of certain dishes for the reader’s Jewishness. Rather, it approaches Ashkenazi cuisine as a tradition embodied in methodology and memory, and for that alone it is valuable. As it happens, Yoskowitz and Alpern are excellent arbiters of memory and new taste. Recipes are preceded by and placed in the context of recollection – be they historical, personal, or somewhere in between. But the food that is remembered is not taken as a given – and homage is given to how memory in fact influences the way we eat.

The book is incredibly well-written, and practical too. Within the book’s contents, you have guides to dressing poultry, making kreplach, and braiding challah – and not to mention all types of pickling. Thus readers are taught at a variety of levels how to make all of the book’s tasty treats – and in language that is neither cloyingly saccharine nor sentimental.

And the recipes themselves? They are wonderful! Some of them are what are popularly called classics: matzah ball soup, savory blintzes, and the namesake gefilte fish. Others are inspired by the Ashkenazi tradition but are certainly welcome departures from the “canonical” dishes: Polish sour rye soup, kimchi-stuffed cabbage, or a gluten-free buckwheat bread. My current favorite new recipe is for a spiced blueberry soup, which promises all the tart-sweetness of yagdes and the creamy indulgence of dessert for dinner. In addition, many of the “basics” are covered – such as pickled cucumbers, farmer’s cheese, and bread. All are well-presented, and all have an eye not to the idol of authenticity in the past, but that Ashkenazi food is still in evolution.