In a Pickle

Excert from October 2022 newsletter…

Apologies for moving onto something closer to a down note but, both physically and metaphorically, it could be a stormy winter. I’m not going to go into what’s happening in in Westminster. I think you all know what I think, but I would like to thank Hugo Rifkind on the Radio 4 News Quiz for explaining the downside of trickle-down economics. Imagine a rich man’s bath. It gets filled up until it starts overflowing and the rest of us might get some water. The problem is that the rich keep on getting bigger baths so it just doesn’t work. If Joe Biden gets it, why is it that we’re being governed by what appears to be the only two people left who don’t?

Anyway, as a money saving measure it probably doesn’t really cut the mustard but there is something enormously satisfying about preserving the harvest of garden and orchard and from general gleaning and foraging. Harvest seems to have arrived earlier than usual but there should still be plenty of fruit and vegetables left to fill the larder for the winter ahead. Preserving is a broad church. Drying, freezing and fermenting are all worthwhile tools but for most of us, it’s all about putting things in jars and bottles. Vinegar (acidity) and sugar, which lowers the ‘water activity’ that bugs need to do whatever they do, are the two main preserving mechanisms but heat is also a useful tool.

Using vinegar to make chutney or sugar for jam are pretty easy it’s getting your preserve off the bread and onto the plate is where the skill and innovation comes in. Personally, I’m not a massive consumer of chutney but I do like slightly acidic food such as caponata or the frittedda I’ve been banging on about all summer – and they become far more worthwhile because we eat so much more of them. Both can be preserved by jarring and pasteurising and they’ll keep all year. 

Fermentation is useful but probably best left for another newsletter although it can be used as an extra hurdle before your produce goes into the jar. Often, as with pickled cucumbers, you can salt and leave at ambient temperature to start the process. Not only will it add to the depth of flavour but also bring the pH down to far easier to preserve by bottling and pasteurizing.

Bottling (canning in America) fruit and vegetables seems to be sadly out of fashion but, as explained below, most fruit and some veg can be preserved by simply pasteurising in the jar. Using a syrup of appropriate sweetness generally improves the flavour and gives a few extra days life once opened but it’s the pasteurisation that does the hard miles. Pam Corbin gives pretty good instructions and method in her seminal River Cottage preserving handbook, which I expect many of you already have, so I won’t go into detail. It’s definitely not rocket science. What Pam doesn’t really go into are ways of preserving vegetables in a jar without adding so much vinegar that they become a condiment/chutney. The key is acidity but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Chutney is an easy place to start but by no means the only show in town.  Since Riverford stopped growing proper, full sized, tomatoes and concentrated on the cherry version, what was our best-selling Green Tomato chutney seems to have gone off the radar. Hopefully we’ll be able to source some full-sized fruit this year and make our own but, if not, the recipe on the Riverford website is pretty good. There’s a video of chef making a slightly different chutney which just goes to show that it’s open to personal tweaks. It’s about as easy as they come and a worthy starter for ten if you’re new to preserving. Hot filling, sugar to lower the water activity and good acidity from the vinegar, apples and green tomatoes are what makes it keep. If a chunky chutney is what you’re after, cut in 2cm dice and salt the vegetables overnight. Drawing off the liquid first will mean less cooking (saving money) allowing the veg to stay chunky.

If you’re clearing out your polytunnel, cucumber pickle is another easy winner (recipe) and if you have access to a Nutribullet, or similar, you can add a sprig or two of dill and blitz it into a ketchup. Our green ketchup is yet another of our WIP (work in progress) ideas that’s gone onto the back burner – but it will return.

In preparation for the final gasp of our fuel hungry Aga (planned some time before such Aga-cide became a financial necessity), I splashed out on an Instant Pot 9-In-1 Multi-Use Electric Pressure Cooker. I don’t think you’ll ever see one in the Design Museum. In fact I’d go as far as to say that it’s about the ugliest thing I’ve ever owned – but in functionality terms, it not only takes, but also cooks, the biscuit. It’s particularly good for pasteurizing – in fact in theory, using the pressure-cooking function, you could actually sterilise to 132ﹾC but it’s hard to validate and only really necessary for meat, which is best frozen uncooked anyway.

For most fruit and some vegetables pasteurisation to around 80ﹾC is all that’s needed. According to one of those ‘MAGA through home preserving’ websites, acidity is the key and a pH of less than 4.8 makes them safe to preserve by pasteurising in a water bath. Much fruit (most usefully tomatoes) are well below 4.8 – so adding a few, not too ripe, to the mix of whatever you’re cooking will make it preservable without having to turn it into a chutney by adding loads of vinegar. Gardening and brewing pH meters are available for just over a tenner. Other vegetable dishes, such as caponata, already have a little vinegar, but if you have the assurance of pasteurising, you can cut this right back to make it more of an extremely tasty ‘side’. I could eat it every day with anything from roast lamb to oily fish (such as boquerones or mackerel) to charcuterie.

A Spanish style sofrito of onions, celery, carrots, garlic, roast peppers and tomatoes, tempered with a tiny amount of red wine vinegar, will keep all year once given the water bath treatment and makes a good base / starting point for all manner of things from fish soup to bean casseroles. It speeds up the process to the extent that you can get something like a Fabada Asturiana on the table in an hour or so. To make sofrito; finely dice or julienne a large onion, a couple of sticks of celery, two carrots, a small bulb of fennel, and about four cloves of garlic. Gently fry in olive oil with a couple of bay leaves ) until soft and add four decent sized tomatoes (diced) and half a jar of roast red peppers (again diced). Add seasoning, a couple of tablespoons of tomato puree (if it doesn’t look red enough and a tablespoon of red wine vinegar. Continue to cook until everything is soft, quickly blitz, and spoon into clean jars – leaving at least 1½cm gap at the top. Lid and place in a large stockpot deep enough to cover the jar. Gently bring to the simmer (88ﹾC) and hold for five minutes. A probe/digital thermometer is a useful tool for all things preserving but, obviously, if you open the lid to take the temperature etc you’ll need to briefly pasteurise again. Once again, the River Cottage Preserving Handbook gives the method and times.

Years ago I was particularly taken with Ottolenghi’s Hainanese Chicken and Penang achar. Pam says Achar is the Hindi name for ‘pickle’ so turning this delicious piccalilli style vegetable dish into something with a longer life should be easy. I’ll work on it.

GO BACK TO THE OCTOBER NEWSLETTER HERE