Sunday, July 14, 2013

Pickles in the Blue Ridge Rain Forest

The little plastic gizmo ($4.95 from Farmer's Hardware in Floyd) tells the story every morning.  Today it's another 2 inches of rain. Since returning from the beach on June 28 we've had 17 inches of rain on our deck here, about 1,000 feet or so from where the Blue Ridge Escarpment rises above the southwestern Virginia Piedmont not far from the N.C.-Va. border. 

We've had more than a year's worth of rain in the first 6 1/2 months of 2013, and the prospect is for more here in the Blue Ridge Rain Forest.  The garden once again is under water -- this time a sheet of water pouring out of every dry spring and seep and sieve of the southwestern-facing hillside below our house and across the creek that flows into the Smith River and eventually to the Atlantic via the Roanoke River.

But in the 4x8-foot raised-bed boxes, a few things are growing.  Some tomatoes are on the vine -- a long way from ripening.  We've had a few zukes and yellow squash.  And we've had a bunch of cucumbers.  So with time on our hands and little opportunity to get out and weed the garden or paint the new garden shed or stretch the wire on the new field fence, we made pickles the other morning.

This has been a bread-and-butter pickle-eating family since high school days half a century ago, when we'd drop by the Strickland home just a couple blocks from Page High at lunch and munch our way through Fran Strickland's crisp bread-and-butter pickles and her stock of Charles Chips. Made a fine lunch.

Fran made her pickles the old-fashioned way -- cooking the pickles in a process that seemed to require the same level of logistics as Operation Overlord and canning them in jars and carefully sealing the tops and putting them on the shelf to keep for years. They were just superb -- but a lot of hard work.

Then sometime in the 1970s or '80s while on a trip to Texas, Fran and Hal dropped in on a relative, and found the recipe we use today.  It's a lot easier and doesn't require the long time and complicated logistics the old recipe demanded. One reason is you just put the pickles in the refrigerator and as long as you keep 'em cold, they'll do just fine. We're told that they can last up to a year in the refrigerator.   We don't know if these pickles will last that long because we eat 'em up well before their expiration date. 

We do know that there are people in Idaho and France making pickles this way, because when they sampled the goods here last year, they got the recipe then and reported back on their own success making these pickles back home. 

Here's the basic recipe for the pickle juice:

4 cups sugar
4 cups white vinegar
Scant 1/2  cup kosher salt
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon mustard seed
1 teaspoon celery seed

Slice at least a dozen cukes into chips about 1/8 inch thick and slice four onions the same way.  It'll help to break or cut the onion slices up.  Have a dozen quart-sized Mason jars ready. (You can use smaller jars, but of course you'll need more of them.)  Pack the raw cuke slices and onion slices into the jars, alternating two or three handfuls of cukes with one handful of onion slices. Pack 'em tight. They'll float in the juice if you don't. 

Now mix the sugar, vinegar, salt, turmeric, mustard seed and celery seed and heat the ingredients in a large saucepan, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. When the juice is hot and the sugar dissolved, pour an equal amount over the cukes and onions in each of the jars.  We ran short of the brine with the first batch, so quickly made up a second batch so we could completely cover all of the pickle/onion concoction in each jar. Then we put on the tops and put them in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours before sampling the first bites.  They'll be good, and they'll get even better as they steep in the juice over time.  Enjoy.

But you'll have to find your own Charles Chips.  Haven't seen them since Lyndon Johnson was president, but Google can tell you where you can get them online.


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