Pickling without all the fuss

New cookbook updates age-old process with quick and easy recipes for today.

Pickling. For most of us, the word conjures up images of Mason jars, tin lids, and those pesky rubber sealers. Like canning, the pickling process originated in the days before refrigeration, as a form of preservation for the late-summer harvest. But in today's world, it's more often considered an exercise in futility. Most cooks haven't the time or inclination to spend their last days of summer sanitizing glass jars in baths of boiling water.

But some people aren't so quick to throw out the pickles with the bath water. In their inviting new cookbook, "Quick Pickles: Easy Recipes With Big Flavor" (Chronicle Books, $18.95), Chris Schlesinger, John Willoughby, and Dan George update pickling with 50 recipes that can be made in a lot less time than it took Grandma.

Their grandmothers certainly didn't whip up batches of bread-and-butter pickles in two hours, as they do, but the magic those women performed with a basketful of garden-fresh vegetables left the authors with vivid memories they felt compelled to bring back.

Food writer John Willoughby's grandmother, who lived all her life on a farm in Iowa, was what he calls "a fiend for pickling." Chris Schlesinger, chef and owner of the East Coast Grill and Raw Bar in Cambridge, Mass., and The Back Eddy in Westport, Mass., recalls frequent arguments with his older sister over the last sweet pickle in their Grandmother Wetzler's canning jar. And Dan George, a lawyer in Westport, Mass., who also wears the hat of "pickle chef" at Schlesinger's waterfront restaurant here, had a Lebanese grandmother who would serve the neighbors Day-Glo-fuchsia pickled turnips on her "mezze," or appetizer, tray.

"Everyone has a pickle recipe from their grandmother," says Mr. George, nibbling on a plate of (what else?) pickled dishes at a gathering to celebrate publication of the cookbook. "There's a generation gap."

His grandmother's recipe for Pickled Grape Leaves appears in "Quick Pickles," and those flamboyant fuchsia turnips grace the front cover. But plenty of recipes were invented for the book by this wildly creative threesome.

"We free-associated for hours to come up with new ideas," says George. Out of that session were born such boldly flavored innovations as Oil-Pickled Mangoes With Horseradish and Chile Peppers Three Ways, Pickled Pineapple and Cranberries in Apple Juice, and Smoky Pickled Corn Circles With Coriander Seeds.

There's nothing subdued about the recipes in "Quick Pickles." The authors insist that the flavor of a pickle should be "tangy, bright, and forceful."

They include recipes made each of three ways: fresh, fermented, and oil-preserved. But most of them are fresh and simply pickled with salt and vinegar. These recipes, because they are quick and easy, are most likely to take cooks beyond the image of pickling as a complicated, risky process.

And this is just what the authors are after. As they put it: "It is our hope that this book will bring you back to the idea of home pickling, but without the work and fear of failure.

"In fact, after making just one recipe, we think you'll understand Dan's personal pickle motto: 'No heavy lifting, just bliss.' "

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Your Classic Bread-and-Butter Pickles

3 pounds pickling cucumbers (less than 5 inches long)

1 large or 2 medium onions (about 1 pound)

3 tablespoons kosher or other coarse salt

1 teaspoon celery seed

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 tablespoon yellow mustard seed

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves or allspice (optional)

3 cups cider vinegar

2-1/2 cups brown sugar

Trim and discard the blossom ends of the cucumbers, then peel the onions and cut both into rounds about 1/4-inch thick. In a nonreactive bowl, toss them with the salt, then cover and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours. Drain well, rinse, drain again, and then set the cucumbers and onions aside.

In a nonreactive pot, combine all the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring once or twice to dissolve the brown sugar. Reduce the heat to low, simmer for 3 minutes, and then pour the liquid over the cucumbers and onions. The cucumbers should be amply covered or slightly afloat.

Allow to cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate. These pickles have good flavor as soon as they are cool, but the flavor will deepen if you let them sit for 24 hours. They will keep, covered and refrigerated, for a month or more. Yields about 8 cups.

Mango Pickle With Scorched Mustard Seed

'This oil pickle is typical of India and those regions in southern Africa and Southeast Asia, where Indian culinary influences are strong. The oil serves both as a preservative and as a medium for distributing flavor. This recipe also works well with other slightly firm fruits such as peaches, nectarines, pineapple, or cantaloupe.'

3 firm, unripe mangoes, peeled, pitted, and cut into wedges 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick

Juice and grated zest of 2 limes

1/2 cup peeled, grated fresh ginger

3 tablespoons minced garlic

2 teaspoons grainy mustard

1 or 2 jalapeño peppers (or another chile of your choice), cut into thin slices

2 teaspoons kosher or other coarse salt

Dash or two of your favorite hot-pepper relish or hot sauce

Freshly cracked black pepper

3 tablespoons black mustard seed

1/2 cup canola or sunflower oil

In a medium nonreactive bowl, combine the mangoes with the lime juice and mix well. Set aside for 1 hour, tossing occasionally to coat. Drain the mangoes and add the lime zest, ginger, garlic, mustard, jalapeños, salt, hot pepper relish, and black pepper to taste, mixing well.

In a dry sauté pan over medium-high heat, cook the mustard seed, shaking the pan frequently, until the seeds begin to crackle and jump, and the color of the seeds fades to an ashen gray, about 2 to 3 minutes more. Add the oil to the pan and cook another minute. Remove from the heat, pour over the mangoes, and mix well.

Mango pickles are ready to eat immediately, but the flavors will deepen and mellow significantly after a few weeks. Store them for 3 to 4 months, covered, in the refrigerator. Yields 4 to 6 cups.

Famous Back Eddy House Pickles

'As soon as diners sit down at the Back Eddy, their server brings them a plate of these pickles. It is amazing how fast they disappear.' (photo above)

2 pounds pickling cucumbers (less than 5 inches)

3 tablespoons kosher or other coarse salt

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

5 cloves garlic, peeled and bruised

1 pound carrots, peeled and cut on the diagonal into 1/4-inch slices

1 red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 green bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

2 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced about 2 cups)

4 cups cider vinegar

2-1/4 cups brown sugar

1 teaspoon fennel seed

1 teaspoon ground cloves

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon yellow mustard seed

2 tablespoons prepared Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons whole allspice berries, cracked with the flat blade of a chef's knife

2 teaspoons coriander seed, toasted in a dry sauté pan over medium heat and cracked

Trim and discard the blossom ends of the cucumbers, then cut the cucumbers into rounds about 1/4- to 3/8-inch thick.

In a medium nonreactive bowl, combine the cucumbers and salt and toss to coat. Cover with ice cubes or crushed ice and let stand in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours.

Drain the cucumbers, rinse them well, then drain them again. In a medium sauté pan, combine the oil, garlic, carrots, bell pepper, and onions, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally to prevent browning, until the carrots "sweat" and soften a bit, 5 to 10 minutes.

Remove from heat and combine with cucumbers. In a nonreactive pan, combine the vinegar, brown sugar, and the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Continue to boil for 5 minutes to flavor the syrup with the spices. Pour the boiling syrup over the vegetables, allow to cool to room temperature, and then cover and refrigerate.

This pickle will keep, covered and refrigerated, for 1 month. Yields about 12 cups.

- Recipes from 'Quick Pickles'

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