Pickles and preserves

Pickles and preserves

Brad McDonald
19 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
978 1849497206
Andy Sewell

A note on canning and pickling

Home canning requires care and attention to ensure you destroy any undesirable bacteria, but it’s not something to be scared of. Just like anything else, practice makes perfect and you’ll soon learn the tips and tricks that make it simple and fun.

There are two methods of canning at home: water bath canning and pressure canning. Water bath canning requires no special equipment and is the easiest to start with. For pressure canning, you will need to invest in some equipment but it is still very easy to master. For the recipes in this book, you will only need to use water bath canning.

The two techniques cannot be used interchangeably – which one you go for will depend on the acidity of your ingredients. High-acidity foods, with a pH below 4.6 (tomatoes, pickles, relishes, jellies, jams, etc.) are completely safe to can by the more common water bath method, while lower-acidity food, with a pH of 4.6 or higher, and all meat and fish products should be processed by the pressure-canning method.

Obviously, one of the major benefits of canning is that it prolongs shelf life. Jam, for example, when properly preserved and stored unopened at 12–18°C, will keep for months.

Hot water bath canning is a simple process. All you need are some sterilised jars, a deep pan large enough to hold them and a rack, or some type of diffuser, that sits in the pan and lifts the jars off the bottom slightly. I have used an old enamel plate for this before and it works well.

Fill your jars to within 2cm of the rim. Put a folded towel on the work surface under your jars, then tap them as firmly as possible. This will help eliminate excess air trapped in the contents. Place the lids on and seal the jars in a way that will allow air to vacuum out, but not let water in. I like to feel for the first bit of resistance when turning the lid, with no more than a quarter turn more. Put the jars in the pan, making sure they aren’t touching each other as you need full heat circulation around them. Add enough water to cover them by at least 2.5cm, bring to a simmer and then simmer for the time specified in your recipe. It’s important to stick to the acidity level and cooking time in the recipe, otherwise the risk of the batch going off might increase. Once they are done, remove the jars from the water and allow to cool to room temperature.

Pickling is an amazing resource and a great trick to have up your sleeve for all manner of ingredients. Pickled peaches, okra, garlic scapes, chow chow and eggs are a few favourites of mine. There are many ways to pickle, but they fall broadly into two categories: pickling with vinegar, as for Pickled Ramp Bulbs and pickling by lacto-fermentation, for example, Cucumber Dill Pickles.

Pickling with vinegar, a relatively fast process, is the easiest and most common method. To make vinegar pickles, start by creating an acidic brine that will complement the flavour of your chosen ingredient. You may choose to balance the acidity with sugar, according to your taste. Common aromatic options for pickling liquids are ginger, peppercorns, mustard seeds, coriander seeds and fennel seeds, star anise and mace. Toast the spices lightly in a dry pan before infusing the liquid with them. I also highly recommend fresh or dried chilli peppers for this type of pickling.

To pickle, bring the pickling liquid to the boil and pour it over your chosen food in a sterilised jar. Seal it tightly and leave in the fridge for 24–48 hours, then store in a cool, dry place.

Salt pickling uses salt to control the natural bacteria that develops in food as it spoils. The natural presence of Lactobacilli bacteria on many vegetables provides the starter culture for this process and they react with oxygen in the air. The Lactobacilli are able to metabolise the sugars in the food into lactic acid, helping to give the finished product those desirable acidic flavours. Salt is a natural preservative and typical levels for these types of pickles can vary. It’s important to note that the less salt you use, the fewer bacteria you are ruling out. The rule of thumb for me is a volume somewhere around 3 per cent.

Although fermentation is a specific style of pickling, there are other fermented products that are not considering pickles, such as soy sauce and yoghurt.

Whatever preserving method you use, it’s important to sterilise the jars before you add the food. There are several methods for doing this. I favour covering them with water in a large pan and boiling for 3–5 minutes, then letting them dry on a sterilised rack. You can also wash them in hot, soapy water, rinse well, then place in a low oven to dry. Or you can simply put them through a hot dishwasher cycle.

On Southernness

There’s a moment when I step off the plane in Jackson, New Orleans, or Atlanta, when I’m still in an out-of-town ‘big city’ mode. When I’m still shoulders set, straight ahead, do this, at a pace, let’s GO GO GO. And somebody catches my eye, maybe a porter, a baggage handler, whoever, and smiles and greets me. And I think, ‘Oh yeah’, and breathe out and relax my shoulders.

This could seem ironic when you think of some of the history of the South but, for me, Southernness is about the very broadest respect for the people around you, and that is embodied in its reputation for defining the best of hospitality. Tied up in the comforting plate of soulful food is that emotional access to others. And all across the South, the acknowledgement of others around you is very present. There is a more delicate, deliberate pace to life, and most things have a different gait. The truck you don’t recognise driving past your front yard. The stranger you pass on the street. No matter where you are or who you are, there is always time and effort taken to acknowledge them.

These moments are about respecting the dignity of others’ presence in our daily lives. And I believe they define an ethos of simplicity that teems throughout the South, where a slower pace of life takes precedence more than in many of the places I’ve been blessed to visit or live. Taking the time to make that a daily habit is tough, particularly when everything around you seems to be speeding up. But the ability to hold on to that while giving time back to those around you is a trait that Southerners hold with great esteem.

Perhaps the thing that represents Southernness to its best advantage is the friendliness and that sincere politeness towards others. Formality for us is important, and we still preserve respect for those older than us by using ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’. It’s the way our parents raise us, and it might seem old fashioned but I challenge you to find the harm in it.

Hospitality runs in Southern blood. Fortunately, in order to be a great host you need to understand how to be a great guest, and this is where we excel. A good Southerner understands how to play both sides of the coin and can appreciate both roles equally. Southerners party with the best of them because we are seasoned pros. There’s a saying that goes around the tailgate parties at Southern college campuses: we might not win every game but we’ve never lost a party.

Southerners have a knack for respecting their own traditions. They adhere to the old adage, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And I agree. I don’t need change just for the sake of it. If it’s not made from a dark roux, it’s not gumbo any more. If it’s caramelised on the bottom, it’s paella, not jambalaya. And it’s not shrimp and grits if it’s made with polenta.

We have always been associated with a reluctance to accept change, a desire to remain in the past. Some of William Faulkner’s most appreciated writing is formed around the idea of a South where ‘the past is present’. I believe that speaks to all Southerners – the understanding, not that ‘the past is here with us’, but that we are always living with our past. There is reason to accept that, if only because we have a rich and colourful history that binds us together through great food and even better hospitality.

Southernness is my culture, and it’s what this book is all about – where I come from, how we eat and how we entertain our guests and ourselves. But defining it isn’t easy. It’s an incredibly complicated story. In the broadest sense, the ideal of ‘The South’ was largely absent when I was growing up. There were pieces of it, but the vision of the South as a post Civil War farming community where everything is homemade hardly existed then. By the 1980s, the farming community was very strong but it had become industrialised and moved largely into big agribusiness – the type that uses monikers for its products that are more suited to describing aliens than good old saved seed stock. I never heard the word ‘organic’ used in reference to food until I moved to New York City. Until recently I never visited a farmers’ market in the South like the ones I’ve seen in Europe. But the Southern landscape is changing. There is a new generation of farmers and preservationists excited at the prospect of digging up delicious relics of the past that are worth preserving, backed by an army of Southern chefs who care deeply about revival and preservation in the neo-Southern kitchen. We are slowly reclaiming forgotten Southern foods from the vantage point of what tastes delicious, rather than what makes the biggest profit.

Food is, of course, one of the most important aspects of Southernness. We are often stereotyped as possum-cooking, chitlin’- eating sister-lovers, or we’re admonished about the unimaginable awfulness of grits… The stuff we eat defines us. In truth, some of what we ate as grits when we were kids was so far from the original that even we needed to reclaim our own palates by tasting the real thing. I’ve eaten grits from the time I joined this world, but they were a far cry from the deep corn flavour of true stoneground grits made from heritage dent corn, which I didn’t taste until I was nearly 20.

The beauty of Southern food today is that it is no longer simply drawing on its story of poverty and an African cultural heritage in the way it has in the past. It is finally embracing its own story with pride and asking poignant questions about it. It’s also embracing other influences, such as Mexican, Chinese and Lebanese amongst many others. Our food culture has always been a direct connection to the land and to the people toiling on it. It is a connection to the food and farming culture of the United States before industrial times. Indeed, our past is present when it comes to the table, and that may be the number one reason it gets better and better.

Southernness, for me, is about falling in love with all this. It is not just about cooking our dishes because it is traditional to do so. Certainly, there are bad traditions, ones that should be kicked. But a word needs to be said about the biblical respect we hold for our elders and for others, and the birthright of hospitality, which is still a vital part of our culture.

Ultimately, there is a trait of reverence about the South that draws its kinfolk in and preserves a mystique quite apart from the outside world. This mystique comes by way of continuing life as we do, ever so gently, under the shade of the porch with a glass of iced tea, sweet as nectar, spinning stories and passing time while the cicadas sing their chorus and the lightning bugs pulse in and out across the yard.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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