I am sitting staring out the window. Night has fallen, but the dull orange glow of the sky is a reminder that clouds weigh heavily over the whole city. April can stop hosting this shifted wintry cold that refuses to leave. Today the weather was damp and cold, the wind winnowing in through the seams of clothing, wrapping icy fingers around the bones once thought to be hiding under warm flesh. My knuckles are staring at me, red and chapped, from where they sat earlier, exposed to the world as they clung viciously to an umbrella that proved ultimately useless. Even in the dark, you can feel the grey. And all I can think is… damn I want a pickle.
Yes. A pickle. A dill pickle. Why?
Do you see it? There? That light as it soaks so luxuriously through tiny cucumbers bathed in hot brine? That bright, bright light that could only be borne of a hot July afternoon? Those luminous slices have been quietly lying in wait for months, waiting for that time when the seal of their jars is cracked with a soft seductive hiss, so eager fingers can fish out bright, salty reminders that summer did exist, and it was bountiful and bright. It was a hot July afternoon. I know this because the date is written in red marker across the top of every jar. I know it was hot because it was July.
I was working too much last summer. I had one day off a week. My sacred season, the season of fresh piles of food stacked on rickety tables in parking lots near and far, the season of talking to the people who grew this food so graciously so I could buy it, this season was slipping away. I had to capture it. I had to preserve it. I had to pickle it. So one day I went to the farmer’s market. I talked to a man who sold me pound upon pound of “European” cucumbers. They were slightly sweeter. And more importantly, they were small enough. I took them home, sweating already in the morning heat. I boiled brine, packed jars full of heads of dill, garlic, and wedges of the jewel-like green treasure I had procured, I lowered whole jars into a large vat of simmering water, happy as the heat and steam curled up and around my sweaty brow.
After all that, the jars cooled. They were carefully labeled, and moved to a pantry shelf. And then left as work continued to overwhelm. A jar or two was opened over winter, one shared at Christmas, but still more waited in the pantry. And today, after arriving home chilled with icy damp jeans clinging to my shins, I craved the tangy sun canned that day.
I wanted a pickle.
And so I had one. It was not a ray of sunshine, warming me from the inside out. That’s what bourbon is for. But it was a reminder. A reminder that seasons change, this cold will leave, and soon, very soon, the season of hovering over steaming pots of brines and jams while the temperature climbs higher and higher will be upon us, and the sun will shine in voluptuous fat rays through my kitchen windows once again.
There are so many variations on pickling, ranging from the type where you let pickles ferment in crocks for weeks in dark mysterious corners, to simple brines and processing. When it comes to dills, I have been using the latter variety, mostly because I did not possess a pickling crock until this year. And this year that has to be dedicated to an attempt at my Grandma’s legendary sweet pickles. Have I mentioned how much I like pickles?
makes approximately 8 pints and a quart of dill pickles (did I mention I went a little nuts last year? I had to resort to a quart jar because I ran out of pints. You can scale this down.)
6-7 lbs. of pickling cucumbers
6 large garlic cloves, split (or 12 small ones, whatever you’ve got, the farmer’s market had giant garlic at the time)
9 dried red chile peppers (optional, it was not in the above batch)
4 c. white vinegar
4 c. water
4 Tbsp. + 2 1/2 tsp. Morton’s kosher salt (yes, this IS brand specific, it’s a translation from traditional pickling salt which I do not have, and there are different ratios dependent on brand)
1 1/4 Tbsp. sugar
8-12 heads of dill (if they are huge, you can break them up)
Clean and dry cucumbers. If they are too big to be pickles, quarter them. Or just quarter them because you like it.
Clean all of your jars, fresh lids, and rings for canning in hot, hot water. I like to fill the clean jars with boiling water while I wait as well, and throw all the lids and rings into another pan filled with more boiling water. And a knife to flip the lids out of the water, not being someone with a fancy magnet grabber for them. Bring a kettle of water big enough to hold the jars with an inch of water above the rims to a full boil.
In a large saucepan, bring vinegar, water, salt, and sugar to a boil. Empty your jars of their boiling water, if you are doing that. Distribute the heads of dill and garlic evenly in all of your jars. Add a single red chile pepper if you like (note: my Mom did this one year with her dill pickles, and I ate a jar seven months after they were pickled… that chile pepper had powered the whole thing up so the pickles almost blew my head off. So do it, just be aware… you may end up with a fiery dill pickle.) Pack your cucumbers in, making sure they stay below the top 1/2″ of the jar. Carefully pour the hot brine into the jars, filling to 1/2″ of the top. If you have never pickled before, you MUST go to 1/2″, too much or too little space between the liquid and the lid will cause the jar to not seal properly. Lid those puppies up according to the directions that come from the manufacturer, or if you’ve done this before, do it how you will. That giant boiling kettle you’ve had going? That is the final water bath. Process in batches, making sure the jars are fully submerged by about an inch and not touching, for ten minutes. Remove from kettle (I forgot to mention… you have jar grabbers, right? Yeah, you’re gonna need those…) and place on cooling rack. Wait for the lovely sound of the lids pinging as they suck down and seal. Let these beauties sit for at least a week before cracking them open. Refrigerate after opening. They are better cold, anyway.