Along with all the fresh herbs that are showing up right now, gardens are overflowing and so are farmers markets. You get this feeling that you’ve got to preserve everything. That makes you think about hauling out the kettles and boiling the jars.
You do not have to do any of that if you make pickles. Food writer Karen Solomon has written two books on pickling and preserving, as well as a series of e-books on Asian pickles. Her latest e-book is Asian Pickles: Japan.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: How are Japanese pickles different from what we know?
Karen Solomon: In many ways they are very different, in many ways they are very challenging -- but in every way they are delicious. A lot of times people think of pickles as just cucumbers. Furthermore, a lot of Western palates think of pickles as just vinegar and some spices.
Japanese pickles incorporate a lot of other pickling substrates, a lot of other pickling mediums such as soy sauce; umezu, which is the liquor that comes from making pickled plums; miso; and rice bran. They use a lot of different foods and ingredients to add flavor and to preserve.
LRK: Are there really quick pickles that you can make? How do you use miso in pickling?
KS: Miso is a joy to use in pickling. I think if you are a cook, chances are you already have miso in your fridge.
LRK: It kind of lives there for about a year.
KS: You buy it, you use a couple of tablespoons and the rest of it gets pushed back behind the forgotten jar of olives. You take a little bit of that and you mix it with some crushed garlic and a little sake if you have it. If not, some dry sherry or some gin will work too -- just to add a little flavor and also to thin it out a little bit. There you have a pickling bed. From that you can take vegetables and simply submerge them into the miso.
If you wanted to stay a little cleaner and reuse that pickling bed, you can put some miso on the bottom of the container, lay a piece of cloth on top, put your vegetables down, put another piece of cloth on top and then add more miso paste on top -- then you have a clean, reusable way to make a whole bunch of miso pickles.
LRK: How long would they have to be in that mixture?
KS: Depending on the vegetable and how thin you are slicing it, 30 minutes is good. I know, it’s fast.
If you are doing cucumbers or carrots, you peel them, cut them into long sticks and just dunk them into the miso for 30 minutes. They come out salty, flavorful and full of enzymes. It really works.
LRK: You used the term “pickling bed.” I understand there is a method in Japan where you bury pickles in a mixture?
KS: That’s right. Again, when the Western mind thinks of pickles, we tend to think of a jar -- you put some vegetables in the jar, then you create a brine that you pour over the top and you eat those vegetables.
Another part of Japanese pickles that I absolutely love is that you create a pickling bed that can be reused several times. Then when you want pickles, you simply prepare your vegetables, dunk them into the bed and take them out. I always think of it as an organic farmer who says that he or she merely tends the soil and that the vegetables that result from it are kind of a happy side effect. It is kind of the same thing: You keep that bed alive and then you have pickles for life.
LRK: I’ve heard that there is also a bed that is done with rice bran?
KS: Yes, that is a wonderful thing. The main food in the Japanese diet is white rice. The nuka, the rice bran, are the hulls that are taken off that rice. You take that rice bran and you mix it with some water and some other ingredients and spices that not only add flavor, but also help that bed to ferment and help protect it from spoilage: garlic, chili, ginger, kombu (Japanese seaweed) and of course a generous amount of salt. You mix that together and it ferments, then you prime that nuka bucket with vegetable scraps for about 6 weeks. Then you can use it to immerse your vegetables.
The nuka bed is really like nothing else that any pickler has taken on. The flavor, the pickles that it creates are magnificent. They taste really meaty and really minerally, which are very unusual attributes for pickled vegetables. Also, this bed needs a lot of care. You have to tend to it daily, especially in the beginning. You have to mix it up from the bottom -- with clean hands you aerate the bed every day and then pat it back down.
LRK: You do this in a large, clean, plastic container and you can keep it at room temperature?
KS: Right, or a crock or a big glass container. I actually use a plastic bucket because I have these great buckets I buy from a supply store. I really like the size of them -- they are about 2 gallons. But know that anything you keep it in will retain the odor, so if you want to reuse the plastic for something else, that might not be the best thing.
LRK: I’m just thinking: Come home from the farmers market, slice the turnips, the green beans, or whatever it is, and in it goes into the bed. This is a great DIY project.
KS: It is -- it’s fun and a little conversation-starter. I always say too that my nuka bed is kind of like my pet or my boyfriend -- don’t tell my husband. But it requires that much effort. You really have to give it some love. If you go away or you grow tired of the pickles, you can store it in the refrigerator with a little less attention for several weeks at a time, but you really don’t want to forget about it or else you’re going to be out your nuka bucket and your time investment. The older it gets, the more complex the flavors become. It’s really a wonderful thing.