What's sweet and tart and trendy all over? • Why, quick pickles, of course, and not just those made with cucumbers. Carrots, green beans, okra, asparagus, cauliflower, kohlrabi, jalapenos, watermelon, even cherries, pears and plums, change their tune once allowed to ferment for a bit in vinegar-fueled brine. • Recently, after another insipid and ill-conceived side dish at a local restaurant (Sludgy black beans with a lobster roll? Really?), I got to thinking about quick pickles. Specifically, how nicely the snap of a few garlic-pickled green beans or maybe even the sweet pop of pickled cherries would have accompanied the creamy lobster salad. A sour spark is often the perfect foil for rich foods. • But I am a little late to the party. Chefs around the country, including those at more forward-thinking Tampa Bay area restaurants, have embraced the quick-pickle craze, serving them alongside all sorts of main dishes, but smoked meats especially. Cold, cured meats play nicely with the tang of brine. A dilled green bean is positively spritely as the swizzler in a Bloody Mary, too.
Chef Chad Johnson at SideBern's in Tampa often serves pickled veggies with his charcuterie selections. Holy Hog and the Refinery, both in Tampa, are also on the quick-pickle wagon. Refinery chef-owner Greg Baker has pickled turnips and parsnips in a lavender brine, green beans with cumin, and green tomatoes in a malt-style brine. He has even pickled quail eggs with a kimchi brine.
Baker says pickles bring a specific, controlled sweetness and acidity to whatever they are paired with and cut the richness in heavy dishes.
In Miami Beach, the popular Yardbird Southern Table & Bar has gone positively pickle punchy, playing with pumpkin and chiles, among other ingredients, and Cask & Larder in Winter Park is pickling eggplant and cauliflower with raisins. Chef Amy Murray at Revival Bar+Kitchen in Berkeley, Calif., serves pickled rhubarb with her duck confit.
These chefs know something that could help us home cooks jazz up what we serve the family: Pickled produce brightens dishes and adds texture and flavor contrasts. Imagine how much more interesting your burgers might be with a tangle of Kohlrabi Quick Pickles on top, or what a spoonful of Pickled Pears and Plums could do alongside pork chops grilled with lots of sauce.
Making quick pickles is an easy endeavor, less cumbersome than canning, which requires special equipment and curing time. For novice canners, there's always concern that jars won't seal properly and they'll send someone to the emergency room clutching their stomach in pain. And that's not a baseless worry because, traditionally, canned food is not refrigerated. There is a safety factor.
No such worries with quick pickles, which cure in the refrigerator and are meant to be eaten within a couple of weeks. They can be put into jars for fridge storage or prepared in well-sealed containers. Make a jar for yourself and a few for friends, making sure they know they are to be kept chilled. Such a nice gift, and one that looks like it took some super-special talent. You and I know differently.
For quick pickles, a boiled brine heavy on vinegar is poured over whatever produce you are using, and an overnight rest in the refrigerator is all that's needed to complete the transformation. The heat from the brine softens fruits and veggies but does not cook them completely, so they retain crunch and shape.
Of the recipes that accompany this story, the most time-consuming is Watermelon Rind Pickles, and that's simply because of the effort it takes to peel the big fruit. Yes, you must peel the watermelon and it is messy. You only want the white part of the rind, so you'll need to skim off the green outer layer with a sharp knife and then think of something else to do with the pink flesh. But pickled watermelon rind is one of those foods that elicits serious nostalgia. It's not something you see much anymore, and the clove-flavored, sweet brine is such an unexpected delight that you'll hardly be able to wait to eat the pickles straight from the jar or as an accompaniment to barbecued ribs. I'll take a couple of hunks with my tuna sandwich.
I was also quite pleased with the sweet-tart flavor of the Pickled Pears and Plums. Thin slices of lemon in the mix add acid and brightness, and they look lovely in the jar. The pieces are fairly large, so they are better as a sort-of side dish than a relish or salsa.
When you are thinking of what your quick pickles will complement, consider what the elements are usually eaten with in other forms. For instance, carrots are often served with corned beef and potatoes, so how about accompanying a corned beef sandwich with Spicy Pickled Carrots? Or how about as a partner with seafood tacos?
The trick is to match them with something that's rich and fatty, not tart or overly sweet. This is why pickled foods commonly mingle with cured meats, cheeses and nuts on platters. They wake up the senses and brighten the earthiness of those foods.
Besides, they are easy to make. And so cool.
Laura Reiley contributed to this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] and (727) 893-8586.