Thursday, August 02, 2007

Cucumbers, Tundra-grown and Home-pickled

I haven’t been so remiss since I waited months to tell you all about Puck’s appearance at the local dog show. I should be ashamed. Oh, dear friends, I’ve been sitting on wonderful epiphanies. I’ve meant to share them. I have. But I, sadly, have not. Until now. And so you should chastise me. Be tough. This is a lesson I want to learn. And learn well. I want to know that the next time I learn that there is a local, organic farm growing the sweetest of produce out on the tundra of Southwest Alaska, I’ll be clamoring as soon as I can to the top of the nearest rooftop to shout out the good news as far as I can.

Yes. Bethel has its own local, organic vegetable farm! Actually, Tim and his family have a local, organic vegetable farm – and the town of Bethel is lucky that they share its bounty.

I heard rumours about it. One person cancelled her weekly green'flighted box of organic vegetables from the Lower 48 because she liked the day-to-day interaction with Tim – the farmer - on her way home from work. She mentioned that it was an incredible operation. I even heard stories about the farm on our one radio station. Interviews! There were flyers around town announcing the expected dates of readiness for the various vegetables. A neighbor told me that a firefighter is living on the farm in exchange for help with the crops. I loved that story. But I never just leapt up to see it myself. I may have been shy or something. Not sure how to introduce myself. The bottom line is that it took me a month to get out there myself to see, in person, just how wonderful it is.

What was it, you ask, that finally overtook my well-honed talent of procrastination? How did I finally get around to learning that this mythological farm referenced on the radio was real….and better than I could have dreamed of? It was pickles, my friend. Pickles. I wanted to make pickles. And I wanted these pickles to be ready in time for an upcoming visit from J’s brother, Nate. It will be Nate’s first visit to this area. In 12 days, he’ll be here for 5 days. Rumour has it that he’s coming with a duffel bag full of sweet Iowa corn. I got this news (see, just like that, rumour can become news if you wish hard enough) and I swooned. Oh, yes. Full, giddy swoon. My mind filled with ideas for all that corn! For putting up corn relish. For freezing some corn. For corn puddings. For corn in the middle of winter. For making the corn ice cream I loved so when I lived in Brazil so many lives ago. Caught in a waltz of nostalgia, I thought back to the three particularly delicious jars of homemade salsa with fresh corn we brought back from an Iowa family reunion last summer. I could order some tomatoes and try to make that! I could make all of these wonderful things because Nate was coming to visit us with a whole duffel bag of Iowa corn! And then, with a sudden mental shift that makes sense (I hope) once you get to know me, I decided that I had to make sure that there would be homemade dill pickles waiting for Nate when he arrived. And ever since I’ve been searching for pickle'able cucumbers.

As of this morning, Full Circle Farms hasn’t shipped us out any such cucumbers. To the best of my knowledge, pickle'able cucumbers haven’t been one of the offered options. As of a few days ago, none had appeared at the A.C. On Saturday, with a whim and a prayer, we decided to see if maybe – just maybe – there would be something pickle’able at the summer craft fair at the Cultural Center.

And wouldn’t you know it – but there were the cucumbers I needed. Showcased at the Cultural Center; grown and raised and sold by Tim Meyers and his family on the other end of town. Such treasure! I bought them all. All the pickle’able cucumbers that they had. Yes, folks. I didn’t leave a single pickle’able cucumber behind. I loaded my treasured cache of 12 pickle’able cucmbers into a plastic bag, and with the excitement of a little girl who discovers both an E.T. doll and a Member’s Only coat under a Christmas tree, I raced home to scour my cookbooks for the perfect dill pickle recipe. I found that too. And feeling so lucky and loved by the Fates, I decided to see if I couldn’t find more pickle’able cucumbers. And that’s how - two days after buying out all the ones sold at the Cultural Center, I found myself making a personal appearance at the Meyers’ farm. And, lo and behold, it worked! There were more pickle’able cucumbers to be had! We bought 6 more pickle’able pickles – as well as some cauliflower, broccoli and turnips – all snipped from the plants or pulled out of the ground as we stood there watching.

Yes, folks. Our local, organic farm harvests as you order!

In all honesty, can life get much better than that? I was doing cartwheels of glee! Even J. – this grounded man - was giddy with the extreme freshness and fortune of it all. Maybe it wasn't as giddy as if he'd just seen a grizzly, or just netted a king, or was planning all sorts of adventures for his little brother's first visit to our tundra island. But it was definitely a glee of noticeable proportions.

I made the pickles yesterday. Clearly, I procrastinated a bit. And, of course it will take at least 2 weeks for the flavours to ripen. But, if all goes well and the Fates keep sponsoring the endeavour, there shall be ready-to-eat, tundra-grown and home-pickled dill pickles when Nate arrives with his duffel bag full of fresh-picked Iowa sweet corn.

Wrap me in duct tape and label me a character, but I’m pretty confident that life doesn’t get much better than this. Except, maybe, for Puck. He wasn't quite ready to accept that the pickles were intended for Nate, not him.

Dill Pickles
Recipe is from Sacramental Magic in a Small-Town Café: Recipes and Stories from Brother Juniper’s Café, by Br. Peter Reinhart

  • Pickling cucumbers (there are many types), picked small or medium, not bruised or cut, and weighed

  • Pickling spice blend (1 tablespoon per pound of cucumbers): equal parts whole coriander seed, whole mustard seed, whole peppercorns, and whole dill seed

  • Fresh dill (1 cup, loosely packed, per 20 pounds of cucumbers)

  • Whole fresh cloves garlic (10 cloves per 20 pounds of cucumbers)

  • Whole bay leaves (10 per 20 pounds of cucumbers)

  • Salt (1 cup per gallon of water)

  • Water, at room temperature

  • Wash the cucumbers in cold water. Be careful not to bruise or cut the skins. Remove any dirt or extraneous matter. Fill the container(s) almost full (2 inches from the top) with cucumbers, packing tightly but not forcing. Add the spice blend, dill, bay leaves, and garlic. The amount depends on the weight of the cucumbers (see ingredients above). Mix the salt in the water until it dissolves. Cover the cucumbers and spices with the salt solution, filling the tubs until the brine is 2 inches from the top of the container. Allow the cucumbers to ferment for 2 to 4 weeks. Every day or two check to be sure no pickles are exposed to the air. After a few days a whitish scum will form on the surface. Skim this off and discard; if removed regularly, it will not harm the flavor. Add plain water, if necessary, to replace evaporated brine. Taste the brine periodically. The saltiness should give way to a sour flavor within 2 to 4 weeks, but it can happen earlier or later depending on the temperature and other conditions. If any pickles are exposed to the air for a few days they may begin to mold or rot. If so, discard the offenders immediately. When the brine begins to taste pickled, try one of the cucumbers. When the flavor is how you like it, jar up the pickles with enough brine to cover them, and refrigerate. These should keep for a few months with only a gradual change: Remember, the brine is still active so there will continue to be slow fermentation, even in the fridge.


    p.s. Despite all my intentions, I still haven't managed to pickle even one jam jar's worth of green beans. I haven’t entirely given up on the idea, but I am a little perplexed as to how best to overcome this rather frustrating bout of procrastination. Giving myself the benefit of the doubt, I ordered more. And I am therefore expecting 2 pounds of yellow wax beans in this week’s Green’flighted box of veggies from Full Circle Farms. I assure you I have only the best of intentions to pickle them before the weekend….or, well, maybe during the weekend. As one final side note: you should definitely try the turnips that grow under the midnight sun! Sweet as apples! No peeling required. Marion Cunningham has a recipe for turnip slaw that I can't wait to try. I would have already tried it, but I didn't do my research in time. I used our Bethel turnips in a bisque with carmelized shallots. Not bad, I suppose. But I couldn't help but notice that it wasn't all those turnips could have been. I'm pretty certain that Alaskan turnips as sweet as apples would be better in Marion Cunningham's turnip slaw.

    1 comment:

    your avid fan, PF said...

    Dear Aileen,
    Love your writing......
    and your photos
    helps me smile and smile and smile
    My friend's mother used to make pickle relish and called it Pickle Lily.
    It was so very good on ham sandwiches..
    I remember being embarrssed once by taking so much of the lily for my sandwich. Mu friend gently pointed out to me that I had taken too much for one person for one sandwich