Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Decadent Craft

It's spring and I'm craving pickles.

Wait, let me rephrase that.

It's spring, and my heart, awakened by the promise of produce, is turning lightly to thoughts of pickling.

To whether my stock of white sugar and pickling spice and cider vinegar (5% guaranteed acidity) is adequate. To the clouds of pungent steam that arise from heating these three things together. To the spirits of departed relatives arising with said steam, relatives whose pickling talents are the stuff of family legend.

I'm talking about "fresh" pickling, as opposed to the high cult of fermented pickling, which relies not on added vinegar and sugar, but on salt and the naturally produced acids that result. Temples of fermented pickling include the Pickle Guys store on New York's Lower East Side, the sauerkraut-making regions of Germany, and the Kimchi Museum in Seoul, South Korea. I am a novice in that cult; I've done decent batches of sauerkraut, but the Diners can tell stories of experiments gone disgustingly wrong. Fresh pickling, the results of which I grew up eating, is much easier and takes less time---and there are no fresh pickles quite as outrageous as my late uncle Kib's sweet watermelon-rind pickles.

Uncle Kib was born on a farm in central Illinois (by now you're beginning to think, who wasn't?) and went on to become a chemical engineer. He is known in family lore for his financial acumen and his cooking wizardry. He didn't invent the notion of pickling watermelon rinds, but he did refine it such that, well, people are blogging about it years after his passing---and even trying to improve upon it.

Neither my mother nor I can find Uncle Kib's written recipe, but the method is seared into our memories. You start, of course, with watermelon rind. A medium watermelon will yield about 8 cups, or 2 quarts, of rind. You scrub the outside of the watermelon---yes, with soap and hot water, rinsing thoroughly. Then you cut the rind away from the pink flesh, remove the green peel (this is best done not with a peeler, but a paring knife), and cut the rind up into chunks. You boil it in a nonreactive pot with vinegar, white sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. You drain off the liquid and boil that with more sugar before adding it back to the pickles.

You repeat this last step every day for two weeks.

The final total of sugar is four cups for every cup of rind.

The decadent quality of home pickling has the Diners baffled. So much sugar, so much time and effort lavished on something with so little nutritional value! And why would anyone make pickles at home when Stop and Shop has a perfectly good pickle section? Yes, I admit it: I have spent hours, days, weeks of cooking energy on something that the Diners won't eat. When I told my mother that I was blogging about these pickles, however, there was an awed silence on the other end of the phone. Then my mother swallowed audibly and said, "Well, if they won't eat them, I certainly will."

Since I can't bring myself to use that much sugar and since I like pickles crunchy rather than gelatinous (for such was Uncle Kib's finished product), I've taken liberties. My version of his recipe calls for somewhat less sugar, a limewater bath, a much more diverse pickling-spice mixture, and far less time. Here is how I make them.

You will need a nonreactive container big enough to hold the watermelon rind and limewater. Aluminum will not do; the best containers are stainless steel, glass, or glazed earthenware. I like to use the earthenware crocks that I found at the Korean supermarket Super H Mart. The big one (which is not the biggest available by a long shot) is very good for sauerkraut and big batches of pickles. The smaller one works well for smaller pickle batches, hot sauce, and so forth.

You'll also need about 1/2 cup of pickling spice. You can buy this, of course, or mix your own:

My homemade mix, the one I generally use for sweet-and-sour pickles such as these, contains the following, in no particular order. Play with the proportions to suit your taste.

Cinnamon sticks, coarsely crushed. In my opinion, cinnamon is overused, so I add only a little.

Peppercorns of all flavors. You can even throw in a few Szechuan peppercorns (which aren't really peppercorns at all) if you have them.

Whole dried red peppers to taste, which may be none, but I really like their heat in this watermelon-rind recipe.

Celery seed. This spice is so tiny that it will sneak out of your spice bag and into the pickle. Don't worry. This is visual reassurance that your pickles were not made in a factory.

Caraway seed. This is another spice of which I'm not a huge fan, but a little is good.

Fennel seed
Dill seed
Coriander seed
Aniseed or star anise
Mustard seed (both brown and yellow)
Cardamom seed (not the green pods but the interior brown seed)
Bay leaves
Whole cloves
Whole allspice

You'll also need pickling lime. This is available (the packaging looks different than on my somewhat older container, below) at


Here I have cleaned, peeled, and cut up 2 quarts (8 cups) of watermelon rind:

Next, the rind gets an overnight soak in 2 quarts of water mixed with a scant 1/4 cup of pickling lime.

The next morning, I drain the rind, rinse it, and soak it for an hour in clean, cold water, then drain that off and soak it in more clean, cold water.

Then you need to combine 3 cups of apple-cider vinegar with 4 cups of white sugar and 1 tablespoon salt and bring the mixture to a boil in a large stainless-steel pot. Add a spice bag containing 1/2 cup of pickling spice and several slices of fresh ginger. Then add the rind, stir, and bring again to a boil. Reduce the heat so that the mixture simmers for about 30 minutes. At the end of this time, the rind should be partly translucent.

Cover the pot and allow the rind to sit in this mixture overnight.

Remove the spice bag and discard it; with a slotted spoon, remove the rind to a bowl. Then add another 1/2 cup of sugar to the liquid and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and put the rind back into the pot. Allow to sit overnight.

The next morning is a good time to begin tasting.

Sometimes I am happy with the pickle at this point and sometimes I give in to the temptation to repeat the boiling-the-liquid-with-more-sugar step. Personal judgment is key, don't you know, when one is immersed in decadence.

This pickle can be chopped finely and used as a chutney. It is excellent with any kind of roasted or grilled meat.

Or perhaps you may prefer to do as a friend did when presented with a jar of these pickles and simply eat them all.

At once.

Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen