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Cooking: Pickles & the Discovery of America
The Jewish contribution to pickling and preserving foods; Columbus’ voyages--with pickles--to the New World; and the history of New York City’s first commercial pickle district. Plus: recipes for Middle Eastern Cucumber Pickles, Thai Basil-Jalapeno Pesto, and Italian Marinated Roasted Red Bell Peppers.

by Tina Wasserman

Whether we live in a high-rise apartment with a three-by-four-foot terrace or on a two-acre plot of land, many of us relish harvesting our own vegetables and herbs. After prepping, planting the seeds, and watering diligently, there is nothing like the day when the little yellow or purple flower buds signal that a crop is on its way.

Fast-forward to August and--if you've been a prodigious planter--the panic sets in. What will you do with all this produce? Your fridge is overflowing and your neighbors have already exceeded their food pyramid guidelines.

Why not do what your ancestors did? Pickle, preserve, and put up.

Originally cultivated in India and later in Mesopotamia and the Tigris Valley, the cucumber goes back to biblical times (Numbers 11:5 and Isaiah 1:8). And so does the art of pickling. During the age of exploration, Christopher Columbus brought cucumber plants to the New World on his voyages, and the pickles aboard ship prevented the seamen from getting scurvy. For the Jews who lived in Eastern Europe before the great immigration to America, pickling served two purposes: it preserved the meager amounts of produce and fish that were available for future consumption and it enabled women of the shtetl to earn an extra few kopeks so that their husbands could spend more time studying Talmud.

Is it any surprise that pushcarts with pickles found their way to the New World?

In the early 1900s, Jewish immigrants began New York City's first commercial pickle district. Many vendors started out with a rented pushcart to haul homemade pickles. In the 1920s, there were more than eighty pickle vendors on the Lower East Side. One of the most successful, Izzy Guss, bought his own pickle store, which he named Guss' Pickles. Over time, with the decline in the economy and tougher immigration and pushcart laws, most of the picklemen went bust, but Guss' Pickles has survived to this day.

One of Izzy's protégés, Alan Kaufman, owns The Pickle Guys on Essex Street. After all these years, Kaufman continues to pickle by hand the old-fashioned way, using an ancient Eastern European recipe. He can tell you why it's preferable to use salt (the shtetl way) instead of vinegar--vinegar will brown the pickle faster and sour it more quickly. And if you ask him the difference between a Polish pickle and a kosher dill, he'll tell you that the Polish has more dill and the dill more garlic. Go figure.

For the home cook, there's more to pickling than pickles. All kinds of foods can be preserved through this process. Our Sephardi ancestors, for example, would roast vegetables and then preserve them in vinegar and olive oil. Caponata, the traditional Italian Sabbath eggplant dish featured in a previous column, is a perfect example: the vinegar in the recipe both flavors the Caponata and prolongs its shelf life. And as far back as Roman times, mushrooms and zucchini were seasoned and immersed in a vinegar/salt bath to both marinate and cure for future consumption. You'll be able to try these techniques yourself in the recipes that follow.

Eat in good health!

Middle Eastern Cucumber Pickles

If you follow the recipe in one popular cookbook, making pickles can consume countless hours. Instead, take Alan Kaufman's advice and try this recipe--the pickles take about twenty minutes to make and only two days of waiting time. And the addition of ginger, cardamon, and cinnamon gives the pickles a subtle Middle Eastern flavor.

12 to 16 small cucumbers, about 5 inches long
4 large cloves of garlic cut in half, green stem removed
1/8 teaspoon coriander seed
2 bay leaves, crushed
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon mustard seed
8 whole allspice berries
1 1-inch piece of crystallized ginger
1/2 stick cinnamon
6 cardamon pods
4 cups of water
1/2 cup distilled organic white vinegar
3 Tablespoons coarse, kosher salt
2 1-quart jars (Mason jars)

1. Slice the cucumbers into 1/4-inch pieces and discard the ends.

2. Place the cucumbers in two wide-mouthed quart jars.

3. Combine all of the spices and lightly crush with a mortar and pestle or the back of a spoon. (For a more Eastern European pickle, you can eliminate the allspice, ginger, cinnamon, and cardamon and replace with dried hot pepper, more garlic, and dill or dill seed.) Divide the spice mixture evenly between the two jars.

4. Bring the water to a boil in a stainless steel, glass, or enamel saucepan.

5. Add the vinegar and salt and stir with a rubber spatula until the salt dissolves.

6. Pour the hot liquid evenly into the jars.

7. Let the mixtures cool on your counter for about one hour and then seal them with the jar lids. Shake the jars upside down 2 times to combine the spices with the liquid.

8. Place the jars in a closet or another cool dark place for 2 days. During this time the pickles will soften and be preserved by the saline solution, and the flavors will all meld beautifully.

9. Serve and enjoy!

Tina's Tidbits:

  • Pickling in vinegar hastens the process of souring, but your vegetables will brown faster.
  • If fresh garlic turns blue/green in the pickling jar, the garlic is very fresh or there is not enough salt in the brine.
  • Placing the pickles in the refrigerator immediately without waiting the 2 days will yield bright green and crisper pickles.

Thai Basil-Jalapeño Pesto

I created the following pesto recipe out of necessity: I had a bumper crop of Thai basil in my garden and didn't want any of it to go to waste. The pesto contains no butter or cheese, is sharp and tangy, and has a subtle Asian flavor. Toss with pasta or a favorite vegetable. It's also a great spread on a turkey sandwich.

3/4 cup macadamia nuts or almonds (almonds if you're mixing by hand)
3 jalapeños, seeds and membrane removed
2 large cloves of garlic cut into quarters
2 cups firmly packed Thai basil leaves (Italian basil may be used)
3 Tablespoons unseasoned rice wine vinegar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Add the nuts to the processor workbowl and pulse the machine on and off until the nuts are fairly fine. Alternatively, if you do not own a processor, use a mortar and pestle to grind the nuts and basil into a paste and then add the liquid ingredients.

2. Add the jalapeño and garlic and pulse 5 times. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula.

3. Add the basil and pulse the processor another 10 times, until a coarse paste is formed.

4. Add the rice wine vinegar and pulse on and off a few times to combine.

5. Turn the machine on and slowly drizzle the olive oil into the pesto until the mixture looks creamy and fairly smooth.

6. Scrape into a bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Yield: 1 1/4 cups pesto

Tina's Tidbits:

  • The "heat" in a jalapeño derives mostly from the seeds and the white interior membrane. The more seeds and membrane you leave, the hotter your dish will be.
  • Pesto means "to pound." Traditionally, the basil leaves and nuts were pounded into a paste. Using a processor is much easier.
  • Be careful not to over-process green herbs--you'll bring out the chlorophyll in the leaf and your mixture will taste more like grass than basil.

Italian Marinated Roasted Red Bell Peppers

The following recipe is based on the technique described in Classic Italian Jewish Cooking by Edda Servi Machlin. My use of balsamic vinegar gives the peppers a sweet taste. Jewish cooks have been preparing peppers this way for centuries.

3 very large sweet red peppers
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
2 very large cloves of garlic, cut into quarters
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
About 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, enough to cover

1. Preheat the oven to 550°F.

2. Place the whole peppers on a baking sheet and roast them for 15 minutes or until the peel is blackened in spots.

3. Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with water and 8 ice cubes.

4. When the peppers are done, immediately plunge them into the bowl of ice water.

5. When the peppers are cool enough to handle, peel them under water. Remove the stem and seeds and any interior membrane.

6. Cut the peppers lengthwise into 1/2-inch strips. You may wish to cut the strips in half crosswise if the peppers are very long.

7. Bring the vinegar and salt to a boil in a stainless steel or enameled pan. Add the sliced peppers and cook for 3 minutes, stirring with a soft spoon or spatula.

8. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature.

9. Drain the peppers. Stir in the garlic and salt and pepper to taste.

10. Place the mixture in a 1-quart wide-mouthed glass jar. Pour olive oil over the peppers to cover. Bang the uncovered jar on the counter to force any air bubbles to the surface--this will prevent mold from forming on the peppers.

11. Close the lid tightly on the jar and refrigerate. The peppers may be eaten soon after, but for the best flavor wait 24 hours. Serve and enjoy.

Tina's Tidbits:

  • Roasting peppers in a hot oven causes the peppers to blister but the "meat" of the vegetable does not burn. You'll preserve the flesh of your peppers far better this way than roasting them on a grill.
  • By far the easiest way to peel peppers is immediately after water submersion.
  • Any time you are boiling vinegar and salt, it must be in a non-reactive pan. Stainless steel, glass, or enamel are all okay. Copper, brass, and aluminum will react with the liquid and ruin your recipe.
  • Balsamic vinegar will turn the peppers a dark mahogany color. If you want them to look more natural, use apple cider vinegar or white wine vinegar instead.

Tina D. Wasserman, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, has been teaching at her own cooking school for more than thirty years and writes a kosher cooking newsletter on the Internet.


Union for Reform Judaism.