Monday, June 30, 2008

Just Call Me Granny, Y'all

Whatever personal conflicts I may have with my heritage, deep down, I'm ever so glad that I'm southern. True, I start shivering when the mercury drops below 50. Yes, I insert "y'all" in my emails and conversations with reckless abandon. But let's remember--y'all--just why the south, for all its peccadilloes, is a glorious place to call home: the symphonic evening swell of cicadas from April through August, torrential afternoon thunderstorms that leave the asphalt steaming, a literary legacy of characters so three dimensional you'd swear that they were your neighbors, and of course SOUTHERN FOOD. Watermelons, peaches, grits, fried chicken, pot likker, biscuits, pecan pie, and my new obsession, pickled everything.

My curiosity for pickling and canning was piqued last Thanksgiving. For the first time in recorded history, we celebrated that most delicious of days in Atlanta, rather than in Alabama, where my grandmother lives. Left to her own devices, my mother was suddenly free to tweak the menu to suit her tastes. She immediately began rummaging in our fridge (notorious for harboring quantities of food that make Mary Poppins' traveling bag seem amateurish) and making noises along the lines of "back in my day." I wandered into the kitchen shortly thereafter to discover an appetizer plate populated by several unfamiliar but aromatic items: pickled okra and pickled watermelon rind, she informed me. Having never been a huge fan of sweet "bread and butter" pickles, I was skeptical.

"These were from your great-grandmother Bess," my mother recalled fondly as she munched.

"You mean this was her recipe?" I volunteered.

"No, no," mom corrected me, "she used to can these and give them away."

"This being before she passed away nine years ago?" I queried, eying the plate with even greater distrust.

My mother airily dismissed my concerns. If it was pickled and canned, she insisted, I had nothing to fear.

I took a cautious nibble, and was immediately overwhelmed by the desire to buy pickling vinegar in bulk quantities.

Since Thanksgiving, I've become ever-more intrigued by the idea of preserving the harvest: jamming, saucing, freezing, drying, and especially pickling. The summertime glut of produce brings out the hoarding hibernator in me, and all I want to do is put up the surplus for the coming lean times. (Never mind that I am yet to experience truly lean times--ever--I need to find ways to save it all!) Unsurprisingly for those of you who've been reading since March, my first pickling experiment involved our bountiful beets. They were a smashing purple success, though as I didn't can them, I was forced to consume them in a matter of days. The harvest continued to roll in, and two weekends ago I stepped it up a notch with two gallons of dill pickles, one small jar of dilly beans, summer peach and caramelized onion jam, and several pints of zucchini relish. Finally, this weekend, Nature obliged me when a barely ripe watermelon split in the field. We retrieved the wounded soldier, set the flesh aside for watermelon lemonade (best new beverage of the year, by the way), and I set to work brewing up a brine for the rind.

Later, when I lined up my various conquests to admire them, Turtle couldn't help but laugh, "You're turning into a grandmother!"

Left to right: pickled watermelon rind, summer peach and caramelized onion jam, zucchini relish, dilly beans, and dill pickles in the back

Pickled Watermelon Rind
The best watermelons for pickling are the not yet fully ripe ones, which still have a good inch or so of white between the outer skin and the pink flesh. They can be hard to find at your local grocery--you may have better luck at a farmer's market if you ask around. As for the multiple straining steps recommended by Epicurious (source of this delightful recipe), I only strained and boiled the brine once, before I poured everything into jars to be processed in a water bath.

1 4-pound piece watermelon, quartered
8 cups water
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons coarse salt

2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups apple cider vinegar
8 whole cloves
8 whole black peppercorns
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 teaspoon pickling spice
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

Cut watermelon pulp from rind, leaving thin layer of pink on rind (reserve pulp for another use, like watermelon lemonade). Cut green outer skin from rind; discard. Cut enough rind into 1 x 1/2-inch pieces to measure 4 cups (I had closer to 6 cups, and there was plenty of brine to cover it all). Combine 8 cups water and 2 tablespoons salt in large pot; bring to boil. Add rind pieces and boil until tender, about 5 minutes. Strain. Transfer rinds to large metal bowl.

Combine remaining 2 teaspoons salt, sugar and next 7 ingredients in heavy large saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Pour over watermelon rinds in bowl. Place plate atop rinds to keep rinds submerged in pickling liquid. Cover and refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight.

Strain liquid from rinds into saucepan; bring to boil. Pour over rinds. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Repeat straining and boiling of liquid and pour over rinds 1 more time. Pack the pickles into jam jars and pour the brine over them so that the rinds are covered. Close the jars tightly and process them in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.

1 comment:

Kate said...

Doesn't canning and preserving just bring out the WONDERFUL in you? I grew up canning - mostly green beans and applesauce, but also tomatoes, potatoes, hominy, you name it - with my mom and Mrs. Oliver in the mountains. To this day, I always make sure I have a stash of mom's applesauce and beans on hand.

Your array of jars is just lovely. As for watermelon rind - I think it's one of those foods I've been saving. I've tried any number of pickled things - some of which I don't care to remember - but pickled watermelon rinds, which I know I will like, I think I've subconsciously been saving for a day when I haven't tried anything new for awhile. Sometimes I get to missing that experience - but right now, when that feeling strikes, I can mosey on down to Chinatown and buy a durian...or a rambutan...or some crazy unidentifiable handful of roots from an unmarked barrel... but later on, I know only the warped shelves of some general store in North Carolina, or maybe just your pantry, will be able to fulfill my thirst. With pickled watermelon!