Pickled bites

SPICY BITES: The relish tray includes pickled radishes, peppers, zucchini and grapes. (Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times)

WHERE have all the pickles gone?

It wasn't so long ago that every well-dressed American dinner table was bejeweled with an assortment of them -- emerald green tomatoes, ruby red beets and opalescent pearl onions, as well as less glamorous (though certainly no less delicious) okra, mushrooms and watermelon rind. The pickle tray was a standard part of a Sunday supper.

Nowadays, almost the only pickle you'll find is cucumber. And while there's nothing wrong with your basic bread-and-butter, half-sour or dill, there are so many other possibilities to explore.

What about radishes, for example, pickled pink, with a refreshing sweet-tart bite to match their crisp texture? Or tangy peppers, yellow turmeric-stained zucchini or even surprisingly savory pickled grapes?

These are more than mere curiosities. They are perfect for the way we eat in the summertime. A bite of crisp tart pickle is as cooling as an evening breeze.

Their acidity cuts right through the smoke and richness of grilled meat, just as their sweetness and spiciness balance and complement it. Do you doubt it? Think about ketchup, which, when broken down to its basics, is really nothing more than a pureed pickle of ripe tomatoes.

Pickles also make great antipasti. Like olives (technically, yet another kind of pickle), their punchy flavors prime the palate for the bigger dishes to come.

But while many traditional pickles take weeks of aging to mellow and mature, there are very good pickles you can make in a single day.

You don't need fancy equipment or advanced cooking skills. If you can slice a vegetable and boil water, you can make a pickle.

The only gadget I used was a Japanese tsukemono-ki, a plastic pickle press that is available at Asian markets for around $20. It's a simple contraption: Put the salted vegetables in the bottom, then put on the lid and screw down the plate to press the vegetables flat against the bottom, expressing their moisture.

Using this seems to keep the finished pickles crisper, but even though a pickle press is a handy tool, it is by no means a necessity.

First, a little definition: A pickle is a fruit or a vegetable that is preserved through acidity. Because most harmful bacteria have a hard time surviving in a low-pH environment, pickling was an important part of preserving the harvest in the days before refrigeration.

There are two main ways of making a pickle. The first is by salting the food to draw out its moisture, which is rich in sugars that are fermented by naturally occurring bacteria to create lactic acid (the same acid that preserves so many of our favorite foods, including yogurt, cheeses and salumi).

This is how pickles as diverse as sauerkraut and olives are made. The flavors created are complex, but the time required is long -- weeks or even months.

A simpler form of pickle can be made simply by soaking food in an acid liquid, in most cases, a flavored vinegar mixture. All that's necessary is to first soften the fruit or vegetable. This can be done either by blanching it briefly in boiling water or by salting it for an hour or two.

The latter has the added benefit of slightly dehydrating the fruit or vegetable, which allows it to absorb more of the moisture from the vinegar mixture, saturating it with flavor. As you might expect, this technique allows plenty of room for the creative cook to mess around.

Vinegar choices

THOUGH ordinary, white distilled vinegar can be used for most pickles, you can get a different effect by substituting apple cider or Asian rice vinegar. Similarly, don't feel bound to the common pickling spices of mustard, peppercorns, dill and their brethren. Try using cloves, allspice or cinnamon, fresh ginger or dried chiles.

The two ingredients you'll want to include in some measure are a little salt to bring out the flavor of the vegetable, and some sugar to soften the harsh edges of the vinegar.