It begins with finding cucumbers on special in the Co-op.
Six cucumbers. Well, five actually, marked down – the sixth is there, and I grab it, whether it’s the same price or not.
A little maths late in the (almost finished) summer term:
- 3 whole cucumbers +
- 2 large onions +
- 1 green pepper (if I remember) +
- Most of a bottle of vinegar (white, if you can – but half and half with the malt vinegar at the back of the cupboard works just fine too) +
- Half a bag of brown sugar +
- Some seeds and spices
= an evening of deep satisfaction.
There is something about bread and butter pickles. That’s what they’re called. They have cucumbers, yes, but they’re not the cornichons or even medium-sized ones that come laced with dill and travel memories.
These are big cucumbers, chopped up – and made to taste wonderful. That’s not pride, that’s the recipe, and a certain reverence on my part. It’s also the opinion of two foodie friends who demanded the recipe fairly immediately after sampling them.
So, to get that part in, it’s Rose Elliott’s bread and butter pickles recipe. Mine comes from her book which is part encyclopedia of vegetarian ingredients, part cookbook.
In fact, I might as well jump in and say enthusiastic things about her other books, because I have a couple of them.
They are accessible, straight forward, and inexpensive. And the vegan chocolate cake (in the same book as the pickles) is also really worth your while. Particularly if you want to recreate a Black Forest Gateau now and then.
There is something about cooking when the house is quiet. When you are not rushing to get the meal on the table by the appointed hour.
It’s peaceful. It’s meditative. The chopping that can take so much time at the end of a busy afternoon is now a task for your hands; a way to disconnect your over-active brain.
Three cucumbers. Two onions (with pauses for wiping eyes, and putting the offending bits in the food recycling bin before starting on some more). One green pepper.
Back at the weekend, I started the first batch. Junior Chef joined me, and I finally did the thing I’ve been meaning to do and showed how to do chopping With A Sharp Knife.
And it went well. I was alongside, watching like a hawk, and making sure it was easy stuff to cut, to get used to the feel of the knife. It went just fine – and we sped through our ingredients.
Claudia Roden, in her book of Jewish cooking, writes about the delicacies prepared by Sephardi communities – lots of vegetables, lots of stuffed items.
Part of what has stayed with me is her description of the companionship of women, working together, preparing the feasts to come. Working together takes some of the drudge out of all the chopping for the pickles – and gives me some fun time with Junior Chef.
As with so many things, I rediscover them through the teaching: how cutting with a sharp knife is partly push down, and partly saw, but both made so much easier by the knife being sharp now. We are both excited at the new skill.
Three cucumbers, two onions and one green pepper = five jars of pickles. I look at them. It’s not really enough. Hence my swoop on the cucumbers on offer, and my evening preparations of batch two.
I discover that you can do the pickles in stages – but that it probably isn’t best to do the chopping in the evening and let the veg sit overnight. Unless you like to have the equivalent of a raw onion room spray, that is.
But pickles are easier than jam: you let them go cold before you bottle them. This means you can delay the bottling until the house is quiet again, and you don’t have to worry about Junior Chefs being underfoot before you start heating the jars.
I wore myself out this week. It’s the last week of term. The remaining three cucumbers are waiting for me. It’s OK, though. There’s space now for a further batch, where I keep my jars, because I cleaned them out at the weekend.
The preserving bug is definitely back.