In the Garden:
Upper South
August, 2008
Regional Report

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Spicy pickled okra is just one of many foods that can be "put by" for enjoying this winter.

To Pickle or Not To Pickle

In case it ever comes up in conversation, no, I do not have a tattoo. Due to a deep-seated fear of commitment, the odds are that I will never have one, but if I did, one of my options would be "Normal people don't live like this." Without going into too much detail about my personal life, let's just say that few people would ignore the aspects of life that I do in order to freeze, preserve, and pickle the quantity of food that now resides in my pantry. That said, it still makes sense, especially in these times, to take the time and make the effort to do at least some old-fashioned "putting up."

Before You Start
If you haven't done much food preserving before, there are several ways to get up to speed. Most state Cooperative Extension services provide pamphlets with food preservation information, with many of these available online. Another way is to find a person with experience and get them to help you at first. In fact, working with someone is always fun, whether you're experienced or not. I have a canning buddy, and the time goes much faster and more enjoyably when we work together.

Even with help, many people who do a lot of food preservation have at least one, but usually more, books on the subject. These provide both basic details as well as recipes for other options. There are dozens on my bookshelves, but the following four get the most use: Ball Blue Book (Alltrista Consumer Products, 2004) is out of print but available from used booksellers; Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving: 400 Delicious and Creative Recipes for Today, edited by Judy Kingry and Lauren Devine (Robert Rose, 2006; $22.95); The Complete Book of Year-Round Small Batch Preserving: Over 300 Delicious Recipes, by Ellie Topp and Margaret Howard (Firefly Books, 2007; $19.95); and The Joy of Pickling: 200 Flavor-Packed Recipes for All Kinds of Produce from Garden or Market, by Linda Ziedrich (The Harvard Common Press, 1999; $19.95).

Finally, before you begin, have some food prepared for meals on canning day. More than once I've been surrounded by fresh, wonderful food all day only to collapse and eat some peanut butter. Much better to have some taboulleh or gazpacho on hand for a quick meal. Or, try a Greek pasta salad by combining some cooked rotini, farfalle, or rigatoni pasta with cucumber, tomatoes, onion, Kalamata olives, basil, oregano, and a vinaigrette dressing made with freshly squeezed lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil.

Some Favorites
Every year some tried-and-true favorites have to be made, but it's also fun to experiment with new recipes. Sometimes I'll buy artisinal preserves, pickles, etc., to compare with what I'm making or to get inspiration. This summer, Rick's Picks (http://www.rickspicksnyc.com) provided both. I still much prefer my version of pickled beets, but even if he is from Brooklyn, he sure knows how to make a mean pickled okra. Of course, it all comes down to personal preferences, so you may disagree with my versions.

Pickled Beets
For me the secret to great pickled beets is to use small, sweet beets, such as 'Kestrel' or 'Pacemaker III'. The other key is using brown sugar. My personal preference is to use organic sugars and white wine vinegar. The following recipe is adapted from The Joy of Pickling.

7 pounds beets, with the rootlets and 2 inches of tops
2 cinnamon sticks, broken
1 tablespoon allspice berries
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons pickling salt
4 cups cider or white wine vinegar
2 cups water
Several onions, peeled, halved or quartered, and thinly sliced

Scrub and cook the beets until just tender. Drain and rinse with cool water, then trim and slip off the skins. Slice into 1/4-inch-thick rounds.

Tie the spices in a spice bag or piece of cheesecloth. Combine the sugars, salt, vinegar, and water in a nonreactive pot, and add the spice bag. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat, and simmer the liquid, uncovered for 10 minutes.

While the liquid simmers, pack the beets and onions into prepared half-pint or pint canning jars, alternating layers. Pour the hot liquid over the beets and onions, leaving a half-inch of headspace. Close the jars with hot two-piece caps. Process for 30 minutes in a boiling-water bath.

Store the cooled jars in a cool, dry, dark place for at least three weeks before eating the beets. Makes about 8 pints.

Spicy Pickled Okra
Most people anxiously await the first corn or tomatoes of summer. Me? Okra, okra, and more okra. The core of most summer dinners for me is okra, simply sliced, dusted with flour, and fried in a skim of oil. Sad to say, no way of preservation can duplicate that. Pickled okra is an entirely different food, but quite satisfying in its own way. The basic recipe for pickled okra is very similar to that for the ubiquitous dilly beans.

Rick's Picks has created Smokra, which deleted the dill and used smoked paprika, curry powder, and mustard seed, but kept the garlic and hot chili peppers. I created my own riff on this idea, using bourbon-smoked paprika from Bourbon Barrel Foods (http://www.bourbonbarrelfoods.com).

For a week, I gathered okra every day, picking it at about 2 inches long, and refrigerating it until packing it into half-pint jars along with the spices. For each half-pint jar, I used 1 garlic clove, 1 whole green chili pepper (they aren't ripe yet), 1/2 teaspoon each of mild curry powder, whole mustard seed, and smoked paprika, and 1/4 teaspoon of dried Aleppo pepper (a Turkish hot pepper). A boiled mixture of 4 cups each white wine vinegar and water plus 2 tablespoons pickling salt was ladled over, leaving a half-inch of headspace.

After closing the jars with two-piece caps, I processed them for 15 minutes in a boiling-water bath. Tasting them after a two-week wait instead of the requisite three, I found them a bit sweet but still good.


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