We're in a Pickle

It's a jungle out there! Yes, every time you enter the garden - vines, vines and more vines entangle your feet. Trying not to step on anything green and growing, you lift the leaves of the plants to see what lies beneath. This is when you start going a little crazy and say to yourself, "I think I may have planted too many cucumbers this year!"

As you start filling up your bushel baskets, you begin to wonder if there is another use for these succulent cylindrical shapes other than eating. Perhaps you could set up a carnival game called "Toss the cucumber into the basket" or a contest of "How far can you throw the cucumber?" Even if you brought in the whole neighborhood, you still would have cucumbers left over.

Don't despair, you are not alone. Cucumbers are extensively grown worldwide and in fact, China leads in production of this versatile fresh vegetable. All across the world, gardeners are wondering how to enjoy these crisp, mild vegetables in a new way. For you, this is a good year to start making pickles!

There are essentially two types of cucumbers -those for slicing and those for pickling.

Slicing cucumbers generally have a smooth, thick, dark green skin with few seeds. These are to be served fresh in salads, sandwiches, or soups. On a hot summer day cool cucumber soup or gazpacho is a nice refreshing lunch and a great way to use those extra cucumbers.

For a quick, easy cucumber salad combine 2-3 cucumbers with a couple of small fresh garden onions, sliced into rings. Add 3/4 to 1-cup sour cream, a Tbsp of cider vinegar, some fresh-snipped dill weed and sugar, salt and pepper to taste. In summer, creamy cucumbers are a must around our house.

For these first days of school fix cucumber/sour cream sandwiches to cool off the kids when they get home. Cocktail rye or pumpernickel party size loaves work well and make the kids think they are getting something special. Soften cream cheese and spread on top of slices of the bread, top each with a cucumber slice and sprinkle with dill. For an added attraction use dinosaur cookie cutters to cut sandwich into a devouring fun shape.

For pickling purposes choose cucumber varieties that are relatively small and have knobby dark green skin. When pickling, you want to choose the correct size for your gleaming jars of dill and sweet gherkins. Select young, or slightly immature produce without blemishes or soft spots and pick early in the day while still cool. Select 1" to 1-1/2" cucumbers for sweet gherkins and 4" produce for dill pickles. If you won't be using them immediately, do not wash but refrigerate or store in cool place. The tastiest pickles are made within 24 hours of picking from the garden. Just before using, remove the blossoms and slice ends and wash well, scrubbing off the loose spines. Odd shaped and more mature cucumbers can be used for relishes and bread and butter pickles.

There are hosts of pickling recipes available from simple to 2-weeks, from sweet to very sour dills. You can add your own touch by using different herbs and spices. Don't limit yourself to dill and garlic and mixed pickling spices. Try blends of fennel, caraway seeds, oregano, and basil. If your Grandmother did not pass along her famous dill pickle recipe, start your own pickle traditions with a recipe from books like "Pickles and Relishes" or the "Joy of Pickling." Both books offer basics on pickling and a wide selection in tastes for recipes - from very sweet to very sour.

Whether you use Mom's, Aunt Dorothy's or a brand new recipe, always be sure to follow the directions completely - especially when it comes to vinegar. Never use homemade vinegar for pickling. You need a product that is 5% acidity. Distilled white vinegar brings a sharp taste to the pickles and won't discolor the product. Cider vinegar produces a more mellow taste but will darken the pickles. Never reduce the amount of vinegar in the recipe. A rule to follow is 1/4 cup of vinegar per pint jar or 1/2 cup of vinegar per quart is needed for great pickling results!

Some other general pickling tips:

  • Hard water minerals may interfere when you are letting the cucumbers sit in brine. Use soft water if possible.
  • Salts and acids used in pickles react with certain types of metal. Use stainless steel, glass or ceramic pans, bowls, and utensils when pickling - never zinc, copper, tin, brass, galvanized steel or iron.
  • Using too much salt, sugar or vinegar can cause pickles to shrivel so follow approved recipe exactly. Be sure to use canning or pickling salt instead of regular table salt.
  • Be prepared with all the equipment you need before cucumbers are ready for pickling. A starter canning set provides the basic tools needed to begin this new adventure. Also have several measuring cups, colanders, stainless steel ladles, and spoons within reach during the process.
  • A large stainless steel funnel works best when pouring hot syrup into jars.
  • Use a bubble freer spatula to take out all the air bubbles, and wipe rims of jars before putting on caps.
  • Widemouth jars are easier to use when packing whole pickles. You may want to use special decorative lids like savory caps to show off your creation when completed. With a decorative cap, a jar of pickles makes a nice gift.

Whether you like them cold and fresh, or a little salty and sour, cucumbers are universal. Families from all over the world - from Russia to China and from Michigan to Florida - enjoy the crisp snap of cucumbers and pickles at the dinner table. ...Can you imagine world leaders gathering to solve conflicts and disputes with a gleaming jar of your dill pickles in the middle of the peace table? .... Yes, you are right... that is just a dream and you need to bring your mind back to the real world and the vines in your garden.

So what are you waiting for? Beat back the jungle and start pickling!