The last time I hit up my beloved Second Ave. Deli back home, a corned beef on a club roll cost something like $20. Twenty bucks! Granted, it’s bigger than my head and I’d be walking out with leftovers, but even so. Jeez.
Every year I feel more like my mother, who loves to tell me how when she was a kid, she could buy two candy bars and see a movie for a quarter.
“At least the pickles are free,” my daughter said, snatching a half-sour from the bowl on the table.
“Truth,” I said, joining her, and together we snapped into a taste of my childhood.
There are a zillion things that make the traditional Jewish deli experience amazing, of course, but every single one of them comes after you’ve already eaten a mound of slaw and at least one entire half-sour pickle. My favorite pickle of all.
Trapped mid-transformation, the half-sour pickle is enjoyably imbued with all the delicious, invigorating herbaceousness of its deeper, funkier cousin while retaining its youthful emerald-green color and—most importantly, snap.
It’s a cucumber. It’s a pickle. It’s both. I love them.
But then, I love all kinds of pickled things: green beans, carrots, peppers, beets. I like spicy kimchi and funky sauerkraut and pickled herring and onions in wine sauce (Mixed with sour cream and piled onto a fresh bagel? Heaven!).
Pickling has been around for millennia, so long that a precise date can’t be pinpointed, but historians seem to agree on something like 4,000 years. Cleopatra espoused the benefits of pickles as a beauty supplement. Generals fed them to soldiers for strength. Sailors carried them along on epic journeys. Pickles are exceedingly shelf-stable.
And while the Dutch began growing and pickling cukes in Manhattan in the 1600s, it was the wave of Jewish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century who brought to America the garlicky “Kosher” dill pickle that’s among the best known and loved in the nation.
“Pickles are something of a catch-all,” says Eliot Hillis, chef/co-owner of Orlando Meats and founder of the Salt Forge, a local fermentation collective. “They can add acid, salt, tang, funk, sweet. They last forever and they, in turn, can preserve things. And I love them for their ability to throw a dish out of balance for just a second—a micro palate-cleanser in the middle of everything else on a plate.”
I don’t much care for the sweet ones, but they have legions of adoring fans just the same. Hillis agrees, “Most bread and butter pickles are just so cloyingly sweet that it covers any other flavor,” but he makes an exception for Orlando Meats head chef Seth Parker’s variant.
“They have a certain astringent quality that pushes the sweetness into the middle of your tongue. It’s a lot more balanced.”
You can taste them at their Orlando shop. They’ll even sell pints by request, but you may just want to try your hand at Parker’s recipe, included here.
You can also go sweet by pickling fruit instead of veggies.
“Right now, in Central Florida, we’re having a wonderful fruit season,” says Kevin Fonzo, former owner of K Restaurant and chef of La Tavola
What we can do, however, is plan ahead (I mean, did you think you’d be hoarding toilet paper six months ago?) and learn some neat, new culinary skills with which to do so.
“I just picked up peaches and blueberries at Southern Hill
There’s a basic recipe that’s easy to remember.
“It’s 3-2-1,” says Fonzo, “which means three cups vinegar, two cups water, one cup sugar. And then you can always expand upon that, adding jalapeños for spicy peaches or a cinnamon stick for something sweeter and more traditional.”
Fonzo has added all kinds of things to complement fruits in the pickling process, bay leaves, lemon thyme and cardamom among them. “You can even add garlic and onions to peaches for something super savory,” he suggests.
Once pickled, these fruits are exceptional tossed in a salad, alongside other treats on a cheese board or atop toasty bruschetta, paired with creamy ricotta cheese.
What’s more, says Fonzo, you can’t mess it up.
“If it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted, either can be pureed into a really good vinaigrette,” he says. “Does it need more sweetness? More vinegar? Figure that out, add the missing element, some herbs, garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and toss it with greens.”
Say no to flavorless iceberg, he advises. “For blueberries or peaches, you need a good lettuce. I like arugula because there’s a lovely peppery note that complements the sweetness and tartness of the fruits.”
Add fat to balance the acidity. “Ricotta salata (the dried, salted variety of ricotta cheese) or goat cheese are fantastic choices,” Fonzo says.
Zellwood sweet corn (conveniently available at Long & Scott Farms, where pickle cukes are a specialty) makes an ideal pickled side for barbecue.
“The kernels pop and provide beautiful snap and acidic contrast to the meat,” Fonzo says.
Above all, he says, do what you like. “You’re the chef in your own kitchen.”