Pickles add punch to summertime meals
Russ Parsons' favorites include pickled radishes, peppers, zucchini -- and even grapes.
SPICY BITES: The relish tray includes pickled radishes, peppers, zucchini and grapes. (Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times)
However you flavor the pickle, there is likely to be a bit of a learning curve when you start experimenting. Soon, though, you'll develop a palate for tasting pickles early. What may initially seem a little dull and one-dimensional can develop into something very delicious as herbs and spices contribute their flavor and the pickle mellows and deepens.
The first couple of times you experiment, don't go overboard with the spicing. Give the pickles a day to develop and see how you like them before adjusting the recipe for the next attempt.
A good way to start pickling is by trying some reliable recipes from favorite cookbooks.
One classic on pickles, jams and jellies is "Fine Preserving," by Catherine Plagemann. Originally published in the 1960s, it was largely forgotten until it was reissued in the 1980s with annotation by none other than M.F.K. Fisher.
Though the idea of pickled grapes sounds unusual, Fisher said it was one of her favorite recipes in the book. Intrigued, I had to give it a try. It's spectacular. The addition of just the tablespoon of minced onion lends a surprising savory dimension to the brine. (Oddly, Fisher says she left out the onion when she made it. . . . Maybe she is fallible after all.)
MY NEXT attempt was just as successful. If you've ever eaten a hamburger at Zuni Café in San Francisco (or at Benicia's Union Hotel before that), you may well have tried the chartreuse zucchini pickles that come as a standard accompaniment.
And if you've tried them, you may well have asked the waitress to bring out a second helping. They couldn't be easier to make, and doing them yourself means never having to beg again.
Emboldened by these successes, I tried a couple of pickles of my own invention. I love torshi, the Middle Eastern turnip pickles, and I wondered whether you couldn't get the same texture from a radish, but with a slightly different flavor.
Turns out, radish pickles are every bit as crisp, but with a subtle spice underneath.
I tried these a number of different ways -- with white vinegar and rice vinegar, spiced with cloves and flavored with peppercorns and mustard seed -- before settling on this version, which will now become a standard part of my appetizer repertoire. They are absolutely delicious served with sliced salumi.
Finally, I wondered whether you couldn't pickle Japanese shishito peppers -- commercial pickled peppers are usually dull, and small wax peppers can be hard to find, even at farmers markets.
Hallelujah, it's a snap, one of the easiest pickles I made. Simply cut a couple of slits in each pepper to allow the heat and the brine to penetrate, blanch them in boiling water for about a minute, then cover them with warm vinegar spiced with dried chiles, oregano and onion. The pickles -- crisp, sweet and tart -- will be ready to eat in eight hours or so.
All of these pickles can be canned, if you like, following the standard instructions. But they'll keep their texture and flavor for weeks simply stored in the refrigerator.
Of course, delicious as they are, it's doubtful they'll be around anywhere near that long.