Eastern Europeans take their pickled foods very seriously. This is especially true for Russians. No self-respecting Russian would even think about sitting down to a dinner table if it did not have pickles, rye bread, butter, and fresh garlic on it. As someone who was born in Russia and lived there for the first seven years of her life, I am no exception. I am afraid to say that with all the home pickling that went on in my home as a child by my mom and grandmother, I have grown up to be somewhat of a pickle snob. Or perhaps such snobbery is genetic, since my kids were basically born with a discriminating pickle pallet – don’t try to offer a Claussen to my son without receiving a concerned look of pity in return.
Regardless of the level of pickled-good appreciation in your household, if your household is anything like mine, pickles are a high-value commodity (second only to stickers of dinosaurs). If I tell my kids that I will give them pickles with their dinner, they are likely to clean their plate without question. My husband is another matter altogether — he can practically smell when my pickles are ready and proceeds to ‘taste’ them to ‘make sure they are ready’ as soon as he can get his hands on a clean fork. Needless to say, a liter-sized jar does not last long around here and it is not uncommon to witness a multi-stage pickle station in my kitchen.
Homemade pickles are one of the best and easiest ways to introduce probiotics into your diet without having to go to extensive lengths of drinking tonics, kombuchas, or potions. Everyone (almost) loves pickles and when they are homemade, all the probiotic benefits of them are preserved in their highest capacity, since they are not at all processed. To make things even more appealing, my recipe is so easy that I challenge you not to memorize it by heart. My mom taught it to me and it is fool-proof. If I can do it, you can do it. Believe me. And the results are always phenomenal.
But of course, like all good things, these fancy pickles must start with fresh, beautiful ingredients.
Like most of my dishes, the inspiration begins with the ingredients at the market. This time it was at the Manhattan Beach Farmers Market and the source of inspiration was a cornucopia of perfect little organic cucumbers from Rodriguez Family Farms. These were not your average cucumber. These were gorgeous, perfectly green, and perfectly asymmetrical little beauties that basically leaped into my bag and begged for me to take them home and pickle them. So I did. I also picked up some dill and fresh young garlic. Believe it or not, these three ingredients (sans the kosher salt, organic sugar, and water) were the basic ingredients necessary for my homemade pickles.
2-3 pounds of cucumbers (rinsed, they must be on the smaller side — you can either use pickling cucumbers, Persian cucumbers, or any other that will fit nicely into the jar you are using)
1 large bunch of fresh dill (rinsed, untrimmed, uncut)
2 heads of fresh garlic, peeled and roughly chopped (young garlic is preferable, since it is more potent, but use whatever you can get)
2 tablespoons Kosher salt (if you do not use Kosher salt, your pickles may end up having a bitter aftertaste from the iodine present in other salts)
1 tablespoon of raw, organic sugar
1 liter of boiled water brought to room temperature
(NOTE: Because pickling cucumbers is a form of wild fermentation, it is essential that at least the cucumbers and dill are organic. This ensures that all the naturally-occurring elements that cultivate on the vegetables is present and that there are no chemicals or pesticides on them. Furthermore, when washing the cucumbers and dill, do not scrub them or use any kind of vegetable washing solution, as this may disrupt the naturally occurring elements that are present on the skin of the vegetables at the time of harvest. Since I use organic ingredients, I do not worry about scrubbing the vegetables, since I know they do not have any toxic pesticides or chemicals on them.)
By way of special equipment that is necessary for preparing these pickles, you will need:
1 2-liter glass jar (can be any kind of food-safe jar that has a lid — a large mason jar is a good option)
1 large piece of paper towel or light cotton piece of cloth (make sure it is small enough to only cover the opening of the jar and will not interfere with light entering through the glass)
1 large rubber band
(NOTE: Although sterilization of the jar is recommended for this recipe, I have found it is sufficient to wash the jar in very hot water with soap, rinse thoroughly and then rinse with plain vinegar.)
Step 1: Using half of the bunch of dill, line the bottom of the glass jar and sprinkle in half of the roughly-chopped garlic.
Step 2: Stack in as many cucumbers as you can into the jar on top of the bed of dill and garlic. I find that the best way to get in the largest number of cucumbers is to begin stacking them along the perimeter of the jar to make a circle of cucumbers and then jam a few into the center. Then proceed to make a ‘second floor’ using the same pattern. If your jar will not allow this, don’t worry and just stack them in as best you can to utilize most of the space in your jar. Then sprinkle half of the remaining garlic on top of the packed cucumbers. Place half of the remaining dill on top, sprinkle the rest of the garlic and place the remaining dill on top of the cucumbers like a nice cozy blanket. Compact it down lightly.
Step 3: Finally, dissolve the salt and sugar in the room-temperature liter of water and pour the mixture into the jar until it covers all the ingredients and no dill is sticking out of the top.
Step 4: Finally, without allowing it to touch the pickle brine solution inside the jar, carefully place your paper towel or cloth over the opening of the jar and secure tightly with the rubber band. Place the jar in a well-lit place (perhaps by a window) so that it is exposed to UV light during the day and allow it to sit undisturbed for three days.
On the third day or so, you will notice that the brine in your pickle jar as become cloudy. This is a good sign! This means the pickles are pickling away. You may open the jar and using a very clean fork, take out a cucumber to taste. The length of time you allow the cucumbers to pickle is a matter of personal taste. The longer they pickle, the more sour and pickled they will become. This is also true if you are experiencing very warm weather. The warmer the weather, the less time it will take for the pickles to mature. If you feel the pickles are not ‘pickled’ enough, let them sit undisturbed for a fourth day. Once you feel they taste right and are ready, remove the paper or cloth covering, replace it with an air-tight lid, and place into the fridge. These refrigerate well will last up to two weeks.
The official last step of the pickling process is to feed your delicious pickle to the nearest pickle monster. For me, this happens to be my son. My daughter, who is a year and half younger, is catching on quickly as well.