“This is an article about looking back and thinking ahead,” says Ris Lacoste, owner and executive chef of RIS in Foggy Bottom. “Pickling is such a great year-round practice, and now is the perfect time to start thinking about it. Think about everything that’s going to be coming your way—cucumbers, beans, okra, tomatoes, peppers, squash. You need to prep for it.”
Pickling, Ris explains, is something of a lost art. It wasn’t until around the time of WWII that processed and fast foods came about, and the practice of pickling, canning and preserving your own food became a peripheral afterthought of American home kitchens. “You used to just live on what was there,” she says. “You grew tomatoes and processed them for the winter in a root cellar. Canned food barely even existed at the market. But fast food and processing happened along with the expansion of the railroad system in the first third of the 20th century, and this age-old, wonderful art, born out of necessity, just dwindled.”
But as our food culture moves back toward tradition, and with consumers increasing demand for fresh ingredients, she sees hope for the future. “Everyone is trying to go back to what our grandmothers would recognized as real food,” she says. “And that is fabulous. But we’ve lost a little of the know-how, so we need to find our footing again.”
For those wanting to really get their hands dirty, Ris recommends the book “Putting Food By,” an old-world volume on canning, pickling, drying, curing, and preserving all types of foods, from vegetables and meats to jams and jellies.
But her personal go-to recipe for pickling is a quick process with simple ingredients, and it doesn’t take long. She brings to a boil equal parts cider vinegar, water and sugar, with some red pepper flakes, a bunch of tarragon and whole cloves of garlic for taste. After the mixture boils, she pours it over the vegetables (cucumbers and carrots are her favorites), adds a little salt and pepper, tightens the lid to the jar and puts it away.
“It’s ready in a few hours and lasts for months,” she says. In fact, it’s safe to say that pickling in general is quick and simple. And on top of everything else, it’s a great way to snack healthy.
You can preserve almost any vegetable or fruit, she says: cauliflower, radishes, beets, carrots, zucchinis, peppers and chilies, cucumbers, pearl onions, okra, mushrooms, asparagus, green tomatoes, corn, beans, and every sort of berry and crisp fruit—her kitchen has even pickled watermelon rind to use for dressing crab cakes, and it was delicious. And so many of these offerings are already here or approaching in the months ahead.
“There are going to be more pickles, beans, okra and tomatoes then you’ll know what to do with,” she says. “And if you can’t eat them today, think about how to process and store them for later.”
But pickling and jarring isn’t the only way to store food. Ris also recommends freezing, as long as it’s done right. If you freeze vegetables at its peak ripeness, for instance, they maintain their nutrients. “You can freeze tomatoes whole, you know. Or make a pasta sauce and freeze it for later. Dice peppers and freeze those. For berries, make sure to lay them flat and let them solidify separately in the freezer before you bag them together. It’s so great to be able to toss a handful of fresh, frozen raspberries in the microwave and mix them with yogurt for breakfast.”
Sarah Biglan, the head chef at RIS, walked me through the making of the kitchen’s signature pickled medley of cucumbers, red peppers and onions, which they serve on their burgers, sandwiches and chopped up in their Thousand Island dressing. The cucumbers are sliced thin, the red peppers and onions are julienned, and they’re put into a bath of ice water. “This hydrates them and helps them hold their crispness when you pour the hot liquid over them,” Sarah explains. It also neutralizes the pungency of the onions, which are by nature very sweet, and get their sharpness from oxidation. Hydrating them brings out their innate sweetness.
There are varying techniques for pickling different things, Sarah says. White onions and lighter colored vegetables should be pickled with champagne vinegar, a similarly colored liquid, while things like beets and red pearl onions go with red wine vinegar. With heartier vegetables like okra, carrots and string beans, a quick blanching would soften the vegetables and help them absorb the pickling liquid. Beets might even benefit from a light roasting in the oven, and mushrooms do well by a quick, light stir fry to bring out their flavors.
Removing the oxygen from the jar—called pressurizing—will prolong the shelf life whatever you pickle. Once you’ve added the pickles and the liquid to the jar, loosely tighten the lid and place it in a pot of shallow water on the stove. Turn the burner on and as the liquid heats up, the “button” on the top of the lid will be suctioned down.
The other great thing about pickling, says Ris, is that there’s no wrong way to flavor them. Boil up the mixture with rosemary, oregano or thyme, fennel seeds, cumin, mustard, anise or dill. Odds are, if you like the flavors, they’re going to taste great pickled.
“We’re just touching on a Pandora’s box of possibilities,” says Ris. “Ours is just one pickling method, but it’s absolutely something to think about as you approach the bounty of the season.”
That said, the house pickles at RIS are awfully good. I was eating them with a fork, and threw fresh cucumber slices into the leftover liquid for round two. Try this recipe to get you started.
Pickled Red Pearl Onion
1 bag (12-10 oz packs) of peeled Pearl Onions, red
2 qt water
2 qt red wine vinegar
2 qt sugar
½ cup Mustard Seed
2 Tbsp Coriander, whole
2 Tbsp Black peppercorn
6 whole cloves
Peel pearl onions and place in a large 2-gallon, plastic container. Combine all pickling ingredients in a large saucepot and bring to a boil, stirring frequently to dissolve all sugar. Remove from heat when mixture boils and immediately place pearl onions in hot liquid. Let simmer for five minutes, or until onions are tender. Refrigerate at least 24 hours before using.
RIS Bread and Butter Pickles
3 cups Champagne vinegar
3 cups water
5 cups sugar
1 ½ tsp turmeric
1 ½ tsp celery seed
2 tTbsp mustard seed
1 ½ Tbsp salt
6 thin slices Cucumbers
1 julienned Red Bell Pepper
1 julienned White Onion
Slice and soak all vegetables to be pickled in ice water for at least 1 hour.
Strain vegetables and remove all ice (any ice will melt and weaken the pickling solution). Before straining vegetables, combine all solution ingredients in a pot and whisk to dissolve sugar. When simmering, and once all the sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and pour over vegetables. Weight down pickles with 2 or 3 plates cover in plastic wrap so that they stay submerged in the pickling liquid, cool in the fridge. Once cool, distribute pickles into a jar or container.
Substitute thinly sliced watermelon rind for cucumber. Use on summer dishes like fish and crab cakes.