The last time I hit up my beloved Second Ave. Deli back home, a corned beef on a club roll cost something like $20. Twenty bucks! Granted, it’s bigger than my head and I’d be walking out with leftovers, but even so. Jeez.
Every year I feel more like my mother, who loves to tell me how when she was a kid, she could buy two candy bars and see a movie for a quarter.
“At least the pickles are free,” my daughter said, snatching a half-sour from the bowl on the table.
“Truth,” I said, joining her, and together we snapped into a taste of my childhood.
There are a zillion things that make the traditional Jewish-deli experience amazing, of course, but every single one of them comes after you’ve already eaten a mound of slaw and at least one entire half-sour pickle. My favorite pickle of all.
Trapped midtransformation, the half-sour pickle is enjoyably imbued with all the delicious, invigorating herbaceousness of its deeper, funkier cousin while retaining its youthful emerald-green color and — most importantly, snap.
It’s a cucumber. It’s a pickle. It’s both. I love them.
But then, I love all kinds of pickled things: green beans, carrots, peppers, beets. I like spicy kimchi and funky sauerkraut and pickled herring and onions in wine sauce (Mixed with sour cream and piled onto a fresh bagel? Heaven!).
Pickling has been around for millennia, so long that a precise date can’t be pinpointed, but historians seem to agree on something like 4,000 years. Cleopatra espoused the benefits of pickles as a beauty supplement. Generals fed them to soldiers for strength. Sailors carried them along on epic journeys. Pickles are exceedingly shelf-stable.
And while the Dutch began growing and pickling cukes in Manhattan in the 1600s, it was the wave of Jewish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who brought to America the garlicky “Kosher” dill pickle that’s among the best known and loved in the nation.
“Pickles are something of a catch-all,” says Eliot Hillis, chef/co-owner of Orlando Meats and founder of the Salt Forge, a local fermentation collective. “They can add acid, salt, tang, funk, sweet. They last forever and they, in turn, can preserve things. And I love them for their ability to throw a dish out of balance for just a second — a micro palate-cleanser in the middle of everything else on a plate.”
I don’t much care for the sweet ones, but they have legions of adoring fans just the same. Hillis agrees, “Most bread and butter pickles are just so cloyingly sweet that it covers any other flavor,” but he makes an exception for Orlando Meats head chef Seth Parker’s variant.
“They have a certain astringent quality that pushes the sweetness into the middle of your tongue. It’s a lot more balanced.”
You can taste them at their Orlando shop. They’ll even sell pints by request, but you may just want to try your hand at Parker’s recipe, included here.
You can also go sweet by pickling fruit instead of veggies.
“Right now, in Central Florida, we’re having a wonderful fruit season,” says Kevin Fonzo, former owner of K Restaurant and chef of La Tavola, a five-course Italian dinner that has been a special way for Orlando’s foodies to congregate for dinner and conversation at the table (tavola means “table” in Italian) … “but of course, we can’t do that right now,” he jokes.
What we can do, however, is plan ahead (I mean, did you think you’d be hoarding toilet paper six months ago?) and learn some neat, new culinary skills with which to do so.
“I just picked up peaches and blueberries at Southern Hill Farms and they are so darn sweet!” says Fonzo. “Often, we make preserves and jellies and they are great, but what you can also do is pickle them.”
There’s a basic recipe that’s easy to remember.
“It’s 3-2-1,” says Fonzo, “which means three cups vinegar, two cups water, one cup sugar. And then you can always expand upon that, adding jalapenos for spicy peaches or a cinnamon stick for something sweeter and more traditional.”
Fonzo has added all kinds of things to complement fruits in the pickling process, bay leaves, lemon thyme and cardamom among them. “You can even add garlic and onions to peaches for something super savory,” he suggests.
Once pickled, these fruits are exceptional tossed in a salad, alongside other treats on a cheese board or atop toasty bruschetta, paired with creamy ricotta cheese.
What’s more, says Fonzo, you can’t mess it up.
“If it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted, either can be pureed into a really good vinaigrette,” he says. “Does it need more sweetness? More vinegar? Figure that out, add the missing element, some herbs, garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and toss it with greens.”
Say no to flavorless iceberg, he advises. “For blueberries or peaches, you need a good lettuce. I like arugula because there’s a lovely peppery note that complements the sweetness and tartness of the fruits.”
Add fat to balance the acidity. “Ricotta salata (the dried, salted variety of ricotta cheese) or goat cheese are fantastic choices,” Fonzo says.
Zellwood sweet corn (conveniently available at Long & Scott Farms, where pickle cukes are a specialty) makes an ideal pickled side for barbecue. Recipe below.
“The kernels pop and provide beautiful snap and acidic contrast to the meat,” Fonzo says.
Above all, he says, do what you like. “You’re the chef in your own kitchen.”
Pickled Roasted Beets
Recipe courtesy of Eliot Hillis
Medium-sized raw beets
Herbs (fresh bay leaf, thyme)
Spices (coriander, peppercorn, clove, allspice, caraway and fennel seeds)
Salt and pepper
Olive oil (grapeseed oil is fine, too)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a mixing bowl, toss whole, raw beets in oil, salt and pepper to coat. No need to peel or cut.
Place the beets in a baking dish with herbs, garlic and enough vinegar to cover beets by about ⅓. Cover with foil and roast 45-60 minutes, checking for tenderness. Beets are done when fork-tender to center.
Cool completely. Peel and discard skin. Slice (optional) and place beets in jar(s) along with the liquid and spices, top off with water if necessary.
Leave in jar(s) for a minimum of two days. These will last in the fridge for pretty close to forever.
Bread & Butter Pickles
Recipe courtesy of Seth Parker
1 quart apple cider vinegar
1 quart white vinegar
1 pint sugar
1/2 pint salt
6 cloves garlic, shaved
1 tablespoon coriander seed
1 tablespoon celery seed
1 tablespoon peppercorn
1 tablespoon fennel seed
1 teaspoon caraway seed
Small bunch of thyme
3 bay leaves
1/2 gallon cucumbers, sliced
Bring all ingredients to boil.
Add 1 pint of ice to cool.
Strain and pour warm over cucumbers.
Place in jars and store.
Recipe courtesy Kevin Fonzo
1½ cups cider vinegar
1½ cups water
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 cinnamon stick, broken into small pieces
4 large, slightly firm peaches, peeled
Combine first five ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook two minutes, stirring until sugar dissolves.
Remove from heat, let stand 10 minutes.
Cut each peach into 12 wedges.
Add peaches to vinegar mixture, let stand 20 minutes.
Remove peaches with slotted spoon for a lightly pickled peach or keep in liquid, refrigerated, for as long as you like. The longer you leave in the stronger the pickled flavor.
To make these savory, Fonzo suggests including black pepper, bay leaves, clove or hot peppers.
Pickled Peach Salad, Burrata Cheese, Arugula and Pistachio
Serves four. Recipe courtesy Kevin Fonzo
1 pickled peach
4 cups arugula
8 ounces burrata cheese (can substitute fresh mozzarella)
1 cup pistachios
8 basil leaves, torn
2 lemons, juiced
Good olive oil to taste
Cracked black pepper
On four separate dinner plates or one big serving platter, gently lay down the arugula leaves.
Lay cheese atop arugula (divide equally if plating separately).
Drizzle lemon juice all over greens and cheese then do the same for olive oil.
Gently place pickled peaches (divide equally if plating separately) atop cheese while drizzling some pickling liquid over greens.
Toss torn basil leaves (divide equally if plating separately) and pistachio atop peaches.
Season with sea salt and cracked black pepper to your liking.
Pickled Zellwood Sweet Corn
Recipe courtesy Kevin Fonzo
11/2 cups fresh corn, cut from the cob and cleaned of silky bits
1 jalapeno, sliced (optional)
1 fresh bay leaf
3/4 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
In a medium saucepot, bring first six ingredients to a boil.
Place corn, pepper, and bay leaf in large mason jar or other heat-resistant container.
Allow liquid to boil until sugar is dissolved.
Gently pour over corn mix and allow to cool.
Once cool, wrap and refrigerate overnight.
For corn salsa: Add to 1/2 cup small-diced tomatoes, tablespoon olive oil. Other suggested adds: diced peppers (hot or sweet), 1/2 cup shredded cabbage (for cole slaw style), tablespoon chopped cilantro, salt and pepper to taste. It’s great on pulled pork or brisket!