You may think “cucumber,” when you hear “pickle,” but pretty near anything can be pickled, including eggs, beef, fish and cheese. Preserving food in a brine of salt, vinegar and spices is an age-old technique that imparts a tasty tang and allows crisp things to retain their fresh crunch. It’s an ingenious way to enjoy summer’s bounty all year long.
Julie Laing, a 1994 graduate of Battle Ground High School, really knows her pickles. She’s the creator of the Twice As Tasty food blog and the author of “The Complete Guide to Pickling: Pickle and Ferment Everything Your Garden or Market Has to Offer,” as well as “The Pickled Picnic,” a collection of recipes available only on her blog, which is packed with information about how to eat well year-round by preserving, pickling, freezing, dehydrating, fermenting and more.
Laing grew up near Dollars Corner and Daybreak Park, on a small parcel of land at the end of a gravel road where food preservation was more than just a trendy pastime. Much of what the family preserved was grown on their own property, which contained a large garden, fruit trees, berries and grapes. What they didn’t grow, they would get from local farms by the box. Every summer, Laing’s grandmother would join the family for marathon canning sessions and they’d eventually fill the “canning room” with row upon row of jewel-tone jars. The result was that they ate bountifully in every season.
“I was so fortunate when I grew up in Battle Ground that my parents did garden and grow fresh food and have an appreciation for that,” Laing said. “Some of that was an American mentality — they were saving money and things — and some of that was just an appreciation of what they were growing and feeding their family.”
Memories of delectable pickled and preserved foods often sprang to mind during her student days at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., where she studied music and journalism. She relished the academic opportunities but not the food.
“When I was forced to eat cafeteria food, living in dormitories, it was a huge shock to me that this is the way that people were eating most of the time,” Laing said.
During her senior year, she worked as a music critic for the Orange County Register, then returned to Washington for a copy editing internship at Spokane’s Spokesman-Review. From there, she got a six-month visa to work at the Daily Telegraph in London. She said British vegetables were “interesting” but preferred the vibrant flavors of the city’s famous Indian cuisine. As a vegetarian, she said, she was “intrigued with some of the processes.”
When her London assignment ended, she traveled around Europe, adding to the countries she’d already visited as a young oboist with Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony. She savored the freedom of independent travel, the ability to stop and eat whatever caught her eye or captured her curiosity. When she arrived in warmer climes she found something familiar: fresh vegetables.
“What I really fell in love with was when I was traveling in the Mediterranean,” Laing said. “The vegetables are so fresh and gorgeous and that felt more at home for me.”
After returning to the United States, Laing got a job in San Francisco as an editor at the technology website, cnetnews.com, and married a fellow travel enthusiast. Before settling down, the couple embarked on a global tour, including extended stays in Russia, Europe and northern Africa. There was so much to see — and eat — but eventually Laing felt the call of home-grown goodness. She put down permanent roots in a 500-square-foot cabin in northwest Montana, nestled in a woodsy plot reminiscent of her childhood in Battle Ground.
That was 17 years ago. Laing and her first husband parted ways, but she soon met George Michels, her partner-in-pickling who shares a devotion to down-to-earth eating. Laing launched her blog in 2016 so she could write about the flavorful and thrifty art of food preservation, sharing everything she’d learned from childhood on. To feed her need for fresh food, she also planted a large vegetable garden on a friend’s land, augmenting her recipes with fruits and veggies from local farms.
“Friends started encouraging me, ‘Oh, you should make that and sell it.’ I knew that I didn’t want to go into commercial manufacturing, but it was totally worth it to me to be doing it on a personal level, and I wanted to share it with people,” Laing said. “Since I am a writer and editor by both profession and passion, I decided that a blog was the ideal place to start doing that.”
Laing’s enthusiasm was evident in her lively writing, appetizing photographs and accessible recipes, and she soon had a cadre of loyal followers as well as an influx of requests for workshops, which she conducts in the kitchens of readers who live nearby. The pandemic has put a temporary pause on the workshops and, sadly for Clark County pickling fans, she doesn’t offer online classes.
That needn’t stop you from learning the techniques and trying the recipes in “The Complete Guide to Pickling,” or spending a delightful hour or two perusing Laing’s engaging blog, twiceastasty.com. She ventures far beyond pickles, exploring every imaginable way to preserve and enjoy food, from baking, grilling and smoking to dry storage, refrigeration and eating fresh.
Many of her recipes are informed by her travels, such as recipes for Russian kasha, a hearty, multigrain hot cereal, or the Moroccan bean soup called harira. If you’re looking for new holiday recipes, try Laing’s chocolate rum balls, sourdough cinnamon rolls or bourbon-infused smoked cherries.
If you just can’t wait to get pickling, try the accompanying recipe for pickled bell peppers, or order her book, available locally from Vintage Books, vintage-books.net, and Powell’s Books, www.powells.com, as well as Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
Bell Pepper Slices
Makes 4 pints. Prep time: 10 minutes, plus 30 minutes cooling time. Curing time: 2 hours
These pickles work well for a larger batch of freshly harvested sweet peppers. For the most colorful jars, pack blends of red, yellow, orange, and green slices. If you plan to eat the peppers after a couple of hours, you can add more colors, such as purple and brown. But these more unusual bell pepper varieties will revert to green the longer they sit in the brine, just like they do when cooked. Excerpt from “The Complete Guide to Pickling,” by Julie Laing, published by Rockridge Press. Copyright © 2020 by Callisto Media, Inc. All rights reserved.
2 cups white wine vinegar (5% acidity)
2 cups water
¼ cup sugar
2½ teaspoons Morton pickling salt
4 or 5 (2 pounds) large bell peppers, cut into strips (6 cups)
8 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup minced fresh oregano, or 3 tablespoons crumbled dried oregano
In a medium saucepan, bring the vinegar, water, sugar, and salt to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Remove the pan from the heat and let sit for about 30 minutes, until the brine has cooled to room temperature.
In a medium bowl, toss the pepper strips with the garlic and oregano and divide them among four clean wide-mouth pint jars, packing them in gently.
Ladle the brine over the peppers, ensuring they are submerged. Screw a nonreactive lid on each jar and let sit for at least 2 hours before eating. For longer storage, refrigerate submerged in brine for weeks.
Bell pepper slices fit vertically into wide-mouth pint jars almost perfectly, so I tend to pack them in more smaller jars rather than fewer quarts. The pints make excellent gifts. Just be sure your recipients know they haven’t been canned and need to be kept in the fridge.