I’ve always meant to make my own pickles, vinegars and relishes because I really do love a good pickle. The problem has been that I’m frankly scared to do it. The sterilizing and processing seem too labor intensive and technical for me: I tend to look at recipes as suggestions, and rarely measure- this is why I’m not a baker. And the warnings that if I don’t do it right that I run the risk of poisoning myself and my friends with spoiled vegetables has kept me from trying my hand at what must be a subtle and refined art.
But the alternative, to buy these all-important sundries in the store, is almost just as bad if you look at the ingredient list on the label. I can understand the need for a bit of sugar (although I hate the thought of it), but the list of polysyllabic chemical-sounding ingredients that inevitably comes next is a real turn-off.
So I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands and start experimenting with pickles, and since I’m in England and the squashes and tomatoes looked really great at Islington Farmer’s Market last weekend, I began with piccalilli- an English pickle if there ever was one.
Piccalilli is essentially a mix of crunchy vegetables – often including cauliflower, long beans and carrots- processed in a brine that is flavored with several spices, most importantly mustard and turmeric, which are responsible for its unmistakeable yellow-brown color. The word’s etymology is uncertain, but I suspect it has something to do with sounding similar to “pickle.”
I reviewed a lot of recipes for piccalilli and decided to use brown sugar sparingly for the brine and squash, beans, green tomatoes, onions and chilis for the vegetables. The great thing about it is that you can use whatever you have available, as long as you choose crunchy things.
I also chose to make it for immediate use rather than canning it. This is important because it will only last around a month this way, and so it isn’t true piccalilli, which should be processed and canned, and rest at least a month before use.
The result was, well, underwhelming. My piccalilli was definitely edible, but it had a slight potpourri taste that I personally don’t like in food. I imagine that the fault lies in the pickling-spice mixture I bought from the store. I wouldn’t usually advocate using pre-made spice mix, but since I’m only in London for the summer, it seemed like a waste to accumulate bottles of mustard seed, celery seed, turmeric, cumin seed etc. just for a dish or two. So much for frugality and ease.
I’m including the recipe as a suggestion, but I’d urge you to experiment with your own spice mixtures and to read up on other recipes as well. I liked what Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall had to say on the subject, and also point you to a list of recipes on the website for BBC Food. A site published by University of Georgia offers advice on preserving and pickling in general.
Around 1 pound of fresh summer vegetables in very good shape (unripe tomatoes, squash, pole-beans, carrots etc.)
5-6 hot chili peppers
1 small onion
2 cups of white or cider vinegar
About 1/3 cup fine sea salt
2 tbs of brown sugar
2 tbs of mustard powder
1 tbs of turmeric
1 tbs mixed pickling spices (use whole spices for this, e.g. cumin seed, celery seed, coriander seed)
1 tbs flour
Prepare the vegetables by chopping them coarsely into bite-sized chunks, including the onion and chili. Then place them in a non-reactive bowl and dust them with the salt, stirring the mixture so that all gets salted. Cover this and let it sit for 24 hours so that the water drains from the vegetables and they will remain crunchy during the cooking process.
After 24 hours has passed, drain the vegetables in a strainer and rinse them in cold water to remove some of the salt. Taste a piece or two and adjust accordingly by rinsing again or adding another pinch if too much of the salt has washed away. You want it to be salty because no more salt will be added after this, but not too salty.
Next, heat the vinegar, sugar and whole spices (e.g. cumin seeds and the like) in a non-reactive saucepan. Stir to dissolve the sugar and bring the mix to a boil. Meanwhile, mix a bit of the hot brine with the powdered spices (turmeric and mustard powder) and flower until it forms a smooth paste.
When boiling, add the vegetables to the brine and cook for around 10 minutes. Then remove the pot from the heat, add the paste and return the pot to a boil and cook for an additional 10 or so minutes. The result should be a chutney-like consistency.
If you intend to preserve the piccalilli for more than 2 weeks, at this point you need to process it in sterilized jars. Otherwise, the pickles will last for around 2 weeks in the fridge.