When most people hear "pickle," they think "cucumber," but you can pickle just about any vegetable, including extra summer squash or zucchini (even the ones that got too big; just peel and trim out the seeds), extra green beans, asparagus, carrots, or cauliflower.
Pickled vegetables taste amazing, and they also introduce healthy probiotics into your diet, turning your healthy produce into superfoods. Eating more probiotic foods helps your digestion, and emerging research suggests these foods can fight weight gain and ward off heart disease. Probiotics live in raw, unfiltered vinegars, and although heating the vinegar to make some pickle recipes can kill off the healthy bugs, I've included a few recipes that don't require this step.
The quickest way to turn extra produce into something special is to make refrigerator pickles, which is essentially adding chopped veggies to a jar of vinegar and spices, and popping them in the fridge for a week or two (that's the best way to keep probiotics in your food, too). But with just a little extra work, you can make some extra-special treats from things you might never have considered—even the weeds growing in your front yard.
photo: (cc) katerha/flickr
Here are six weird and wonderful pickles to try.
Pickled Sliced Onions
Not the tiny pickled onions your maiden aunt swilled in her martinis, these savory condiments are classic British pub fare, perfect on a burger with a slice of robust cheddar cheese or on all sorts of hearty sandwiches.
2 pounds large organic onions (I especially like sweet onions, but red onions are good, too)
3 cups malt vinegar (or your choice of vinegar)
1 1/2 teaspoons whole peppercorns
1 1/2 teaspoons whole mustard seeds
1 bay leaf
1. Simmer the spices in the vinegar for 20 minutes and strain them out.
2. Peel and slice the onions very thinly, then separate the slices into rings and blanch them in a pot of boiling water for just 20 seconds. Strain.
3. When the onions are cool enough to handle, pack them firmly into clean glass jars. Add the warm strained vinegar, using enough to completely cover the onions. Put lids on the jars and store them in the refrigerator for at least a week to develop their flavor. They'll keep for at least a year as long as the onions are completely covered with vinegar.
Pickled Nasturtium Pods, aka Mock Capers
Nasturtiums are beautiful plants—and delicious, too. The spicy leaves add zip to salads, and the slightly milder flowers make cheerful garnishes or can be stuffed with savory fillings. But this workhorse of the edible garden has one more trick up its sleeve: If you don't pick the flowers, the young seedpods can be turned into a very close approximation of capers.
1/2 cup vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 handful young nasturtium pods
Put the salt and vinegar in a half-pint jar and add the buds (the liquid should cover them). Store in the fridge, adding more pods as you find them. Keep adding pods as long as there is room and enough vinegar to cover them. Scoop out as many pods as you need when a recipe calls for capers. These will store until next summer, when you can start a fresh batch.
Onion & nasturtium images: Rob Cardillo
Pickled Rhubarb Stalks
Rhubarb is a star of the early-spring garden or market, offering a fruity flavor before any actual fruits ripen. It often fades from view when other fruits take over, but rhubarb continues to grow all summer. Its tart, lemony flavor can stand in for lemons or lemon juice in beverages, sauces, and even stir-fries. And it also makes a very interesting sweet-tart pickle that goes well with cheese, beer, and spicy foods such as curries.
2 cups vinegar
1 1/2 cups organic sugar or 3/4 cup organic honey
1 Tablespoon sea salt
1 thumb-size piece of organic gingerroot, grated
8 whole cloves
1 teaspoon allspice berries
1 pound organic rhubarb stalks, leaves discarded
1. Combine the first six ingredients. Simmer for about 20 minutes and strain.
2. Cut the rhubarb stalks into 3- to 4-inch lengths, pack them into clean jars, and cover with the warm spiced vinegar, using enough to completely cover the stalks. Put lids on the jars and store in the fridge for at least a week to develop the pickles' flavor. As long as the chunks are completely covered with vinegar, they will keep for at least a year.
Spicy Pickled Chard Stems
If a recipe calls for just the green leafy parts of Swiss chard, don't waste the stalks! The crisp and often brightly colored stems are so good pickled you may find yourself looking for recipes to use up the leafy green parts. Crisp and spicy, these pickles have become a family favorite in my house.
1 bunch organic chard (brightly colored ones are pretty, but the white stems taste pretty much the same)
1 cup vinegar
2 cups water
3 Tablespoons organic sugar or 1 1/2 Tablespoons organic honey
3 Tablespoons Sriracha (a garlicky hot pepper chili sauce)
1. Trim all the green leafy parts off the chard and reserve for another use. Cut the stems into lengths up to an inch shorter than your jars are deep, and pack them tightly into the jars.
2. Combine the remaining ingredients and stir until the sugar or honey dissolves. Pour the mixture over the stalks, adding vinegar and water as needed to completely cover the stems.
3. Put lids on the jars and store them in the fridge for at least a week to develop the pickles' flavor. They'll keep for up to a year.
Image: Patrick Montero
Pickled Grape Leaves
Stuffed grape leaves are an exotic treat, but if you have a grapevine (even a wild one in your hedgerow), you can make your own grape leaf wrappers virtually for free.
30–40 young grape leaves about the size of your hand*
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 cup water
1/4 cup lemon juice
*They will be most tender in the late spring when they have just come up to size or from a shoot that is rapidly growing later in the season.
1. Bring a quart of water to a boil in a small pot and add the salt. Fill a large bowl with cold water.
2. Meanwhile, trim the grape leaf stems close to the leaves without tearing them and rinse the leaves if needed.
3. Dunk the grape leaves in the boiling water for 30 seconds, lift them out with a slotted spoon, and immediately submerge them in the cold water.
4. Take about six leaves at a time, make a stack, and roll up the stack edge-to-edge like a cigar. Stand it in a clean jar (a wide-mouth pint jar is good). Repeat for all leaves.
Combine 1 cup of water with the lemon juice, bring it to a boil, and pour it over the leaves, adding water as needed to cover the leaves. Cover the jar and store in the fridge for up to a week.
For the best flavor, eat these after a week, but if you want to store them for later, drain the rolls, freeze them, and store them in a tightly closed container in the freezer for up to a year.
Grapeleaves image: (cc) Wickenden/Flickr
As promised, here's the edible weed I mentioned earlier. Purslane leaves contain more omega-3 fatty acids than some fish oils and are rich in vitamin A, vitamin C, and a number of other antioxidants. The fleshy leaves and stems have a salty, lemony flavor, and pickles made from the weed are perfect on sandwiches.
1 pound purslane
1/2 cup vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 Tablespoons spices of your choice*
1 clove of garlic
*Try one or a combination of the following: dill seed, coriander seed, peppercorns, crushed red pepper, mustard seed, or allspice.
1. Fill a jar with your purslane.
2. Mix the seasonings with the vinegar and pour that over the purslane, adding water if needed to cover all your green weeds.
3. Cover the jar and store in the fridge for at least a week, chilling fat stems for at least a couple of weeks, to develop flavor. As long as the purslane is completely covered with vinegar, it will keep for at least a year.
Puslane imae: (cc) Bob Richmond/Flickr