August 17, 2009

Embrace Pickles

I want to clarify any ambiguity in the word pickle. Most of us know pickles to be “pickled cucumbers”, traditionally served as a condiment with sandwiches, but a pickle actually refers to any food that is preserved in a brine or acid solution.

Pickling is a long-standing and simple means of preserving foods. Food preservation was essential to cultures around the world to ensure a source of food during unfavorable weather conditions and long journeys. In fact, pickles spared the lives of many sailors aboard explorer ships by providing a source of vitamin C to prevent scurvy. Pickled foods are preserved by fermentation or by the direct addition of acid to inhibit the growth of spoilage microbes.

Fermentation is the oldest method of pickling, and although it can take up to several weeks, the product will last for years. The fruit or vegetable is allowed to sit in a salt brine to draw out water and limit exposure to oxygen. Under favorable conditions, the naturally occurring microbes flourish and break down the food’s starch and sugar, producing lactic acid. In turn, the acidic environment inhibits the growth of spoilage bacteria. What a concept!

The process of fermentation is really an art, and many cultures have perfected the process, using specific salt concentrations and temperatures to yield a complex tart, sour or salty flavor. The product all depends on what microbes dominate and how much lactic acid, alcohol and carbon dioxide are produced.

German sauerkraut and Korean kimchi are two examples of fermented pickled cabbage that have very distinct tastes. Kosher dill pickles are a type of fermented pickle, made in the traditional manner of Jewish producers in New York City. The pickles are processed in large vats and dill weed and garlic are added during the last stages of fermentation. Polish pickles are also prepared by fermentation and are traditionally served as a side to vodka in Poland. In the United States, we prefer to find them in delis alongside kosher dills.

Lately, there has been an increased interest in home-canning and fermented products. People are coming to find that fermentation does much more than simply preserve. The fermented product’s digestibility and amino acid bioavailability are increased. In addition, the vitamin content is enhanced, particularly vitamins C and A and certain B vitamins.

A much quicker pickling process involves the addition of acid, like vinegar, which inhibits the growth of spoilage microbes. The result is a crisp, crunchy, mild-flavored pickle, which is controlled by the amounts of acid, sugar and other spices added. These pickles do not boast some of the benefits of fermented products, but they are worthy in their own right. Bread-and-butter, Swedish and Danish pickles are examples of non-fermented pickles. Home-pickling typically entails packing the food in a sterilized jar, adding a hot vinegar solution and then processing with heat to prevent spoilage.

I would like to provide you with a simple and delicious bread-and-butter pickle recipe that I adapted from Saveur magazine. I took a jar with me to a recent family beachhouse vacation and the pickles were devoured the first night (okay, we did grill up some hamburgers). I have come to find that home-pickling is really quite easy and fun.

To me, pickling represents the preservation of unique tastes and traditions: every cuisine has its pickle, passed down from generation to generation. The U.S., being the melting pot that it is, is host to a variety of pickled products and home-pickling opportunities. Embrace pickles and the unique stories behind them.

Not-too-sweet Bread & Butter Pickles

Adapted from Judy Rogers' zucchini pickles recipe as seen in Saveur magazine.

Makes about 4 cups.

1 lb organic pickles (about 4-5), washed, trimmed and thickly sliced
1 small yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
1 teaspoon celery seeds
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

1. Put pickles, onions, and salt into a large bowl and toss well. Add 3 cups ice cubes, cover bowl with plastic wrap, and let sit for 1 hour. Drain and pat dry.

2. Combine remaining ingredients in a saucepan and stir well. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 3 minutes.

3. Pack pickles and onions into 2 large (pint-sized) sterilized jars. Pour hot vinegar mixture over vegetables (it is okay to add spices) to within 1/2 inch of rim. Process 10 minutes in boiling water; set aside to cool.

August 7, 2009

Homemade Creamy & Thick Greek Yogurt

Once I had my first Greek yogurt, there was no turning back. I am now a lifelong Greek yogurt devotee. How can one resist the luxuriously creamy and thick texture and the rich, tart taste? Well the secret is out, and many yogurt companies have met rising consumer demands with Greek yogurt options.

In my opinion, Fage, the pioneering Greek yogurt brand, is definitely the best out there. The ingredients are simple, consisting of milk and live active cultures, and the amazing texture is due to the straining process, not by stabilizers, thickeners and other preservatives. I usually opt for the low-fat version, and let me assure you, the deliciously rich consistency and taste are not compromised.

Greek yogurt is incredibly versatile and is a healthy alternative to dairy foods like cream cheese, sour cream, and ice cream. Sometimes I even put a dollop on a Mediterranean salad of cucumbers, tomatoes and fresh herbs, dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. My absolute favorite way to enjoy Greek yogurt is for breakfast, with a natural sweetener like honey or homemade jam, and toppings such as fresh and dried fruits and nuts. Over the years I have developed my absolute favorite topping and mix-in combinations (see below).

The single drawback of my obsession with Greek yogurt is that eating it on a regular basis can get pricey. This is why, I have developed my own way to make homemade Fage-style yogurt. I start with good quality, store-bought plain yogurt and strain it to remove the excess liquid whey from the yogurt. The result is a thick, rich, high-protein yogurt whose culinary uses are endless. In fact, I almost always have a batch stored in my refrigerator. At some point, I would like to make homemade plain yogurt with good-quality organic milk, and then strain the product to make thick yogurt. That could just be the ultimate Greek yogurt experience. But for now, an easy, simple Greek yogurt recipe with great, varied flavor ideas.

Home-made Greek Yogurt

1 large 32-oz carton of plain natural yogurt

Optional topping/mix-in combinations:

  • Fig jam + banana slices + chopped walnuts + wheat germ
  • Lemon marmalade + fresh blueberries + wheat germ
  • Strawberry jam + strawberry slices + chopped almonds + cinnamon
  • Honey + banana slices + chopped walnuts + chopped dates
  • Honey + chopped dried apricots + chopped unsalted pistachios
  • Honey + peach slices + chopped ginger + chopped pecans or walnuts

Place a very fine medium strainer over a large bowl. Place yogurt in strainer until full (yogurt volume will decrease as whey is strained out). Cover loosely with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator for 1-3 hours (the longer it strains, the thicker the yogurt). Store thickened yogurt in an airtight container. Enjoy with recommended topping and mix-in combinations.