Maybe you’ve heard: pickles are the new bacon.
No, just kidding! Nothing will ever replace our beloved bacon. But you’ve undoubtedly noticed that the sour little suckers are everywhere these days, and taking on forms that are pretty far off from your classic Kosher. This put-it-on-everything food can vary from some quick-pickled onions on a pulled pork sandwich (Mighty Quinn’s at Smorgasburg, for instance) to more exotic ideas like smoked-paprika pickled okra (“Smokra,” cleverly titled by producer Rick’s Picks), cumin-pickled cauliflower (by best-name-ever producer Sourpuss Pickles), and even pickled cherries, which I’ve sampled at the (now-closed) restaurant Vandaag in the East Village.
Pickling is not a new concept: they are referenced in Shakespeare’s plays, the Bible, and Christopher Columbus was even a fan. 1600s-era Dutch farmers grew cucumbers all over the area of New York now known as Brooklyn, dunking them in brine and selling them in local markets. But in modern times the pickle became somewhat of a joke: a sad, limp, radioactive-green sidekick to diner and deli favorites. You either hated pickles, or asked your pickle-hating friend if he planned on eating his, hand already reaching across the plate (this is me). In recent years, however, like cupcakes, sandwiches and pie, pickling has had its own Renaissance, and has become like catnip to chefs and food-enthusiasts across the country.
Why? Ever tasted a dish and felt it was a little flat? Like it was missing something, or just not quite as exciting as you’d hoped? It probably lacked acid – that natural brightness that foods like citrus fruits, tomatoes, and, of course, vinegar bring to a dish. Pickles add a little acidic intregue, and their versatility has made them hugely popular across a variety of cuisines.
The best thing about pickles? That you can pickle ANYTHING, really, and that it’s really easy to do on your own. My favorite things to pickle – and arguably the most versatile – are onions, specifically shallots. Make some quick pickled shallots and your sandwiches will thank you. Salads will be equally as grateful; tacos are muy felices; I’ve even thrown some into a bowl of spaghetti alla chitarra, capers, extra virgin olive oil and chopped parsley for a quick and dirty dinner.
Recently, though, I tried my hand at pickling ramps. These garlicky shoots are a fleeting rite of spring, and the best way to make them last a little longer is to pickle them.
I used equal parts champagne vinegar and water to preserve their color, and added only a few basic flavorings (bay leaf, coriander, pink peppercorns, and a chili) to spice up their simple veggie lives.
I then boiled it all together with some sugar and salt, and poured the mixture over the cleaned, trimmed ramps in a sterilized mason jar, tightened the lid, and boom: Pickles!
I plan on waiting at least two weeks before sampling the pickled ramps, but you can let your pickles sit for as little as a few hours – a “quick pickle” – if you want to use them right away. Tip: the smaller and thinner the food is, the quicker it will take on the brine. And if you plan on canning and saving these pickles in the cupboard for a while or, say, giving them to Mom for Mother’s day, you should follow the NCHFP (National Center for Home Food Preservation) guidelines before starting because BOTULISM. But have no fear – quick pickles will last at least a few weeks in the refrigerator and there are no complicated steps involved, and they are quite safe. Follow the recipe below to make some pickled shallots or ramps, and soon you’ll be wondering just what you can’t turn into a pickle…
Pint or half-pint jars with removable screw lids
Large heavy pot
½ pound ramps or 2 large shallots
For the Brine:
1-cup champagne or white wine vinegar for ramps, or 1 cup apple cider vinegar for shallots
1/8-cup salt (use the finest grain you can find, so it dissolves quickly)
1 bay leaf
1-teaspoon coriander seeds
½-teaspoon pink peppercorns
1 small dried Arbol chili
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Take apart the jars and submerge each piece into the boiling water – sterilize for 10 minutes while preparing the food and brine. Remove carefully with tongs and place on a clean kitchen towel to dry.
For the shallots, remove the skin and keep the root intact; slice into rings about 1/8- inch thick. For the ramps, trim the green ends and gently rinse the white ends (save the green leaves for stirring into risotto, pasta, or sautéing). Carefully pack the ramps and/or shallots into the sterilized jars.
Combine the brine ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium heat, bringing to a boil and whisking until sugar and salt have completely dissolved. Pour the hot brining liquid over the ramps or shallots inside the jar, leaving a space of about 1/4-inch at the top. Tap the jars once to let out any air bubbles, replace the lid and screw on the top. Let the jars rest at room temperature and wait for the *pop!* of the lids – that’s when you know they’re sealed. When the jars are cooled, store in the refrigerator for at least a few hours or up to 2 weeks before consuming.