While at Cafe Aion, one of my favorite things to make and snack on was our seasonally changing assortment of house-made pickles. Watermelon Rind in the Summer and hardier Winter veggies like cauliflower as the days got shorter and colder, the fresh crunch and volley between salty and sweet was always exactly what I felt like after a long sweaty night cranking out paellas – usually piled on top of some homemade hummus on our homemade baguette.
Before I was in the habit of making them at a restaurant, I looked at pickles as a bit of a project – a doable one, certainly, but one that probably was best saved for a weekend or day when I had more in me than just collapsing on the couch to watch hours of GIRLS on demand.
(Sidenote: how awesome is GIRLS?! I am recently [very late to the game] obsessed.)
Not so. Pickles, as it is, are just about the easiest and most impressive things you can do with five minutes of active time and a couple of hours of free time. I’m not talking about a full-on canning operation, what with heating and sterilizing jars, but rather about whipping up ‘quick pickles,’ which require little more than some sugar, salt, vinegar, and seasonings and the patience to give them a little bit of time to do their thang.
Pickles are the butterflies of the food world. An ugly, bumpy, caterpillar-cuke ducks into a cocoon of sugar, salt, vinegar, and some herbs and spices, and emerges hours later as something beautiful and entirely different. The once stiff and flavorless cucumbers transform into tender-crisp pickles, with a slightly sour/slightly sweet bite that is absolutely addictive. If you’ve only had the mass-canned, store bought variety of dill pickles – you’re in for a treat, and I think you’ll find it hard to ever go back.
In this easy adaptation (of which, I should mention, there are infinite), gently crushed cloves of whole garlic mingle in a jar with strands of fresh dill and coins of bright green cucumber, and a hot solution of sugar, salt, vinegar, bayleaf, and whole black peppercorns is poured over the top. After that, you simply wait.
The solution works it’s magic, encouraging the stiff slices to relax, and permeates them with an intense but pleasing dill and garlic flavor. After even just a minute, if you taste a slice, you’ll see where things are headed. Two hours later and you have your pickle butterfly – crisp yet tender, and laden with the juicy brine. I think the pickles get even better as they sit in the briny bath in the fridge, and they keep at least a few weeks, covered and refrigerated – if they even last that long.
Since this recipe requires very few ingredients, it will make all the difference in the end product if you source the best that you can. I love my cheapo mandolin (a Benreiner) for slicing the cucumbers, and recommend you track down California Bay Leaves, if at all possible – they are larger and so much more intense and fresh in flavor than the usual kind. I buy mine at Savory Spice Shop here in Boulder, but you could easily order them off Amazon.
The best cucumbers to use are anything but those gargantuan watery specimens that we so often associate with cucumbers; look for the smaller ‘pickling’ variety which are compact and sweet, and contain much less seeds (they are sometimes sold grouped in small bags at Whole Foods, and be sure to check your farmer’s market). If you can’t find them go for an ‘English Cucumber,’ the long spindly guy that usually comes wrapped up tight in plastic. They are perfect on a cheese platter, stacked up on a cuban sandwich, or, my favorite, eaten straight out of the jar, ice cold from the fridge.
Simple Cucumber Pickles with Garlic and Fresh Dill
7-8 small pickling cucumbers (about 2lb)
2 cups (500 mL) white vinegar
2 cups (500 mL) water
1 California Bay Leaf
2 tablespoons (25 mL) kosher salt
1 Tbsp sugar
3-4 sprigs of fresh dill
4 small peeled cloves garlic, crushed and cracked with the side of your knife
small handful black peppercorns
Using a mandolin (or a very sharp knife), carefully slice your cucumbers into rounds that are about 1/8″ thick (no thinner than that). Place the cucumbers into a large jar or bowl with the garlic and fresh dill. In a nonreactive saucepan, bring the vinegar, water, bay leaf, salt, sugar, and peppercorns just to a boil, stirring to make sure that the sugar and salt dissolves well. When the mixture is just boiling and the sugar and salt dissolved, remove the saucepan from the heat, and gently (and carefully) pour the hot brine over the cucumbers.
Let the mixture sit for 2 hours at room temperature, and then transfer to the fridge. After 2 hours your pickles will be ready, but they will improve over the following hours/days as they sit, chilled, in the brine.