Miranda’s Lemon Pickle

South Indian Lemon Pickle
South Indian Lemon Pickle

We packed our first born off to college this past weekend.  Even though we are still here with our son, the house is eerily quiet.  My daughter was noisy enough to be twins, or even triplets.  No more loud music and singing her lungs out – she has practice rooms at college for that now.  Despite her devil-may-care attitude, and generally gregarious nature, she has never really been adventurous with food – except for chili sauces – which she puts on everything.  She never really showed an interest in any of the Silk Road foods that came across the family table, until a couple of weeks before she left, when she started to eat my South Indian Lemon Pickle by the spoonful.

Now, my South Indian Lemon Pickle is a wondrous thing.  A balanced salty and sweet citrus base flavored with roasted whole spices, and ground fenugreek.  It makes a great condiment in an Indian meal, or can even be spread on naan or a bagel with a bit of yogurt or labne to compliment the flavors.  Or like Miranda, you can eat it by the spoonful, if your tastebuds can take it.

The pickle is easy to make, but takes several weeks from start to finish.  First you have to salt-cure the lemons on a sunny window for at least two weeks.  Then you rinse the lemons and combine them with roasted spices.  Then, you have to wait another excruciating couple of weeks for the flavors to blend and the magic to happen.  I currently have a batch in the last stage, and will send it as part of a care package to my girl by the end of the month.

For those not already in the know: homemade chutneys and pickles are far superior to their commercial counterparts.  The ingredients for homemade are of course fresher than store-bought brands, but for me, the greatest difference is the lower amount of salt in condiments made at home.  That and the lack of preservatives like ascetic acid, which greatly change the flavor of these dishes.

In a Facebook thread recently, someone asked me for the recipe.  So Marlena, this one’s for you:

South Indian Lemon Pickle 

Ingredients
3 pounds lemons
½ – ¾ cup salt
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
1 tablespoon cilantro seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons red chili peppers
1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
½ cup mustard oil
¼ cup light sesame oil
¼ cup grape-seed oil
½ teaspoon asafetida
¾ cup lemon juice
½ cup sugar (demerara or jaggery)
A pinch or two of salt to make the flavors pop (optional)

Directions

  1. Start by placing about half of the salt into a deep bowl. Then, cut each of the lemons into eight pieces, and coat each piece in salt. Place slices into a jar and tamp down or squeeze as you go to release most of the juice in the lemons. Leave an inch or two at the top of the jar to allow space for lemons to shift.
  2. Cover and place on a sunny windowsill for 2 weeks. Shake daily for about 1 minute to mix the salt and the lemons. When the curing time has elapsed, the lemons will have softened significantly and reduced in volume. The lemons are ready when the peels are soft and pliable. Some lemons grown in drier climates may have very thick skins and may need a bit longer than two weeks to soften.
  3. Once the lemons have cured, remove them from the jar and rinse to help remove excess salt. Then soak in fresh water for about 15 minutes and strain.  As the lemons are draining, lightly roast each of the spices separately in a dry sauté pan. They should be fragrant and just beginning to color when done. Be careful not to burn them or your pickle will have a scorched flavor instead of a lightly roasted one. Set aside to cool.  When cool, grind the chili peppers and the fenugreek seeds.
  4. It is traditional to leave the lemons in large chunks, but I recommend slicing them into thin strips of about 1 by ¼-inch. It is also traditional to leave the pith on the lemons, but you can remove it if you desire.
  5. Heat the oils in a sauté pan. When warm but not sizzling hot, remove from the fire, add the asafetida. Stir and cover the pan. Let sit for 2 to 3 minutes. Then add the whole roasted seeds and the ground spices; mix well. Cool for another 30 minutes to 1 hour, so the mixture is barely warm.
  6. In a large bowl, mix the salted lemon slices, the lemon juice and the sugar until blended. Add the oil and spice mixture; mix well. Let sit covered for an hour or even overnight. When almost ready to bottle the pickle, spoon off the excess oil for a cleaner pickle.  Taste the pickle and add a pinch or two of salt if desired.
  7. Spoon the mixture into jars, cover, refrigerate 2 weeks before serving. Store opened jars in the refrigerator.

As a condiment or a spread, this pickle is delicious. Give it a try and let me know what you think!  (Words, recipe, and photograph by Laura Kelley.)

Sweet and Spicy Bhutanese Pickles

Sliced Bhutanese Pickled Cucumbers
Sliced Bhutanese Pickled Cucumbers

As the mercury in Baltimore and DC has recently approached or broken 100° Fahrenheit, many folks here have turned to an easier, cooler way to dine. A few small salads or appetizers, some fresh bread and a light dinner is served. A sort of a Central Atlantic, tapas-style meal if you will. Slaws and potato salads are standard offerings in this region, but for those who wish to try a dish which brings an exotic dash to the table, these Bhutanese pickles are a must. They are simple to make, need only sit for a week before using, and are possible to eat a bit earlier if a sweeter, thinner pickle is desired.

As part of our continuing exploration of the food of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, these delightful pickles are sweet and lightly hot at the same time, with occasional blasts of coriander or cumin seed, giving a lighter, spicier flavor to them as you eat. For those with heat-sensitive palates, the number of chilies can be reduced for a gentler pickle, but as written, the recipe is a nice balance of sweet, hot, and spicy flavors.

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Sweet and Spicy Bhutanese Pickled Cucumbers

Ingredients
4 Asian cucumbers or 1-2 large western ones
1 tablespoon sea salt
11/2 cups rice vinegar
1 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
4-5 finger-hot chili pepper or 4 hot, dried Thai chili peppers, diced

Method
Slice cucumbers to fit a sealable jar or container. Remove seeds, if desired.  You may cut the cucumber into chunks or spears; there is really no set way to shape the pickles.  In general, the thinner the slices or chunks, the less time required to pickle. Salt the cucumbers and let stand for a couple of hours, preferably in a warm place.

Warm rice vinegar and water in a small saucepan and stir in the sugar until dissolved. When done, remove from heat and let cool to warm or room temperature.

Transfer the cucumbers into the sealable container and add the crushed Szechuan peppercorns, the cumin and coriander seeds and the diced chili pepper into the jars being sure to divide them evenly. Then, pour the sweetened vinegar over them. Depending on how you sliced or diced the cucumbers, you may need a second batch of sweetened vinegar to cover the vegetables. Seal jar and give them a good shake or two. Set aside in a cold place for about a week before eating. For a sweeter pickle, it may be possible to enjoy after a few days.

After a week, the jars should be kept in a refrigerator or in another cold place, even if unopened, to avoid them becoming too sour. If a jar is forgotten and allowed to sour too much, the cucumbers can still be used to add a sour blast to stews, curries or soups – sort of like one might do with too sour kimchee – make kimchee jigaae.

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Szechuan Peppercorns
Szechuan Peppercorns

The magic ingredient that really sets these pickles apart is the Szechuan peppercorns. Related to both the rue and citrus families (not other types of peppercorns or chilies) Szechuan pepper imparts a distinct, zingy flavor to recipes, and can numb the lips and tongue in large quantities. It is also one of the cornerstone seasonings in Bhutanese cuisine and makes a deliciously, unique pickle.

In Bhutan, these pickles would probably be served over rice or with bread. Accompanying flavors would include fresh, cooked or pickled chili peppers and cheese or yogurt. Feel free to experiment with how they work on your table. Good recipes are made to be personalized and adapted for individual use.

Variations: Thinly sliced carrots can be added to the cucumbers, or the pickling recipe and method can be used to pickle other vegetables en seul or in a mix such as the popular asparagus and mushroom combination enjoyed in Bhutan.

(Words and recipe by Laura Kelley; Photos of Sliced Bhutanese Pickles and Szechuan Peppercorns by ZKruger@Dreamstime.com)

Autumn on the Silk Road Means . . . Pickles!

Mixed Pickles

Cucumbers, capers, ginger, garlic, peppers, beans, asparagus, onions: Any vegetable out there – and quite a few fruits as well make excellent pickles. All along the Silk Road, harvest time and the weeks and months that follow are a time when, in many traditional cultures, foods are salted or pickles or otherwise preserved to provide a bountiful table in the cold winter months that follow. Vinegars or souring agents of all types combine with spices and herbs to create new forms of familiar foods that are like but different from their fresh counterparts.

Some pickles take weeks or months to develop, others can be made ready in days or even hours to as a light accompaniment to meal of kabobs or other roast meats and vegetables. I have a few favorite recipes for pickles. One is for Pomegranate Pickled Garlic enjoyed in the Black Sea countries of Georgia and Armenia, another for Mint Onion Pickles from Iran and a third from Bhutan for cucumbers pickled in rice vinegar with coriander and cumin seeds a healthy dose of cracked Sichuan Pepper.

Of the three, the Pomegranate Pickled Garlic is probably my favorite, possibly because outside of Eastern European and Western Asian ethnic enclaves and such garlic-growing regions as the California’s Central Valley, we don’t enjoy pickled garlic as much as we could here in the US; but partly it is the use of the pomegranate juice as an alternative to vinegar as the pickling ground. A recipe follows:

2 large heads of garlic (about 60 cloves), peeled
3 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 cup of unsweetened pomegranate juice
¼ cup of white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, cracked or lightly crushed
3 hot, dried, red chili peppers
1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped

Place the peeled garlic in a sterile glass jar and add the salt and sugar. Cover and shake to mix. Let stand on the counter for 1–2 hours, shaking every now and then to get the garlic to start to break down and give off its liquid.

Heat the pomegranate juice and the vinegar in a small saucepan to bring to a boil. Add the peppercorns, the sliced or torn chili peppers, and the dill to the garlic and then top off with the pomegranate juice and vinegar mixture. Cover and shake well. Store refrigerated for at least 1 month before eating.

I give the jars and shake at least once a week while they are developing to ensure that the pickling process is happening evenly. And what a joy at the end to have such flavorful, sweet, sour and slightly spicy pickles to enjoy with a hearty piece of lavash or shoti bread to soak up the juices and a bowl of soup or small plate of hinkali dumplings, these pickles help make a wonderful meal.

So, you have a favorite pickle or pickle recipe?

(Word by Laura Kelley; photo of Mixed Pickles by Olgalis at Dreamstime.com)