Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Pickle In My Pocket

I really love pickles.

One of my favourite Far Side cartoons is the one where two gorillas are in a zoo cage, poised in front of a bunch of bananas. One says to the other (I'm paraphrasing here) "Y'know Phil, I really LOVE bananas. I mean, heck, we ALL do. But for me, it goes beyond that". That's kind of how I feel about pickles. I've been known to call out a cook from the kitchen in a restaurant and berate him mercilessly for not having the foresight to serve a proper dill pickle with a burger. I mean, really. It's just not done. You need something salty and acidic to balance out the sublime fatty juices from that grass-fed, hormone free, happy beef patty.

I've had strong picklish leanings ever since I was a boy. My mother, despite her shortcomings as a cook, actually made pretty good dill pickles for many years before she lost interest in making anything besides reservations. My favourite after school snack as a kid was one of them big salty and garlicky dills, along with a slice of nondescript orange cheddar cheese. I've tried to make dill pickles, but have never been able to duplicate her recipe. She passed away 3 years ago this week, and I suppose that my chances of having the recipe relayed to me are admittedly slim. Bugger...

The first time I visited New York was in 1991. I was a dreadlocked leather-jacketed keyboard player, recording an album ("Hey Stoopid") with Alice Cooper at Bearsville Studio in upstate Woodstock NY for several weeks. The guitar player in the band, one Stef Burns, and I decided to take a train into NYC for a day's adventure in the big city. We walked out of Grand Central Station, and the first thing I saw was a car driving past with its undercarriage emitting flames. When the car stopped at the light, a pedestrian tried to tell the driver that his car was on fire. The driver, still apparently unaware that he had perhaps minutes to vacate the car before being engulfed in flames, not only ignored the warning, but took the opportunity to yell a few choice words out the window and flip the pedestrian the finger. The flaming car took off when the light turned green for parts and fates unknown. Nobody else seemed to notice. Welcome To New Yawk.. Stef took me almost immediately to the Broadway Deli, where we ordered massive pastrami sandwiches. Waiting for the sandwiches to come, I tucked into the plate of pickles that was on the table. Half-sours! Sours! Pickled green tomatoes! A whole brave new world of pickles opened up for me right then and there. These weren't Mom's pickles at all. They were.....God's own pickles. Yahweh's own, to be more precise. Oi, such pickles.

Now I find myself quite a ways from New York City. Believe me, after 6 months here, a pastrami on rye with a little mustard would certainly go down a treat right about now. I'm in India, and while pastrami is scarce, pickles are indeed plentiful, although the pickles in India bear little resemblance to the cucumber-based Euro-pickle that we are accustomed to in North America. Pickles play a huge part in the cuisine of India, and the variations in their ingredients and preparation are as vast as the country itself. After documenting the preparation of pappadam for the traditional Sadya meal, the next thing we dove into was the creation of four different types of pickle that are used. Once again, our good friend and dedicated chef Chitra hosted us in her catering kitchen to show us how to prepare a few items. For her version of the Sadya, she made Ginger Pickle, Green Mango Pickle, Grapefruit Pickle, and Lime Pickle.

In a Sadya meal, it's important to have a variety of tastes and textures, and tradition dictates that the food items be consumed in a particular order in order to obtain maximum benefit from the meal. It is a complex mix, and sweet, sour, spicy hot, bland, cooling, and bitter items all have their prescribed place, and they all have equal importance. I use the word "prescribed" intentionally, as a proper Sadya meal is effectively an Ayurvedic prescription for well-being. The pickles play an important part. The Ginger Pickle has some heat from the ginger, but also is balanced by sweetness from the jaggery, or palm sugar. It's fantastic with rice, and frankly, this is one that I could eat right from the jar by the spoonful. The Grapefruit and Lime Pickles have a decidedly bitter taste. They are not so much meant to be eaten on their own, but as a complement to other foods. The Green Mango Pickle lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Redolent of chili and hing, also known as asafetida, this great pickle leans more towards the savory side of things. Although the Sadya is a pure vegetarian meal, the Mango Pickle goes great with fried fish. It's Chitra's mother's recipe, although she has tweaked it a bit.

After prepping all the ingredients, Chitra whipped through the assembly of all four pickles in short order. These things are not at all difficult to make, and once done, will sit in a jar in your fridge for weeks or months. A little salt goes a long way to preserve things. The exact recipes will once again follow in future posts once we review the tapes, but the general idea is incredibly simple: just to heat up the ingredients in a pan and put them in a jar once they are cool. It's very simple and also very rewarding. In the meantime, please enjoy the pictures we took of Chitra's masterpieces. I can't wait to get back into my own kitchen and make my own versions of these, especially the ginger and green mango. I really love pickles.... I mean, heck, we ALL do.

But for me, it goes beyond that...


Mark Gipson said...

Need recipes! Do you have to leave the pickles out in the sun? I have a few Indian pickle recipes that require a month in the sun to mature, I tried making them in the UK, not surprisingly with no real luck. I think the sun here in Thailand is strong enough though!

Rob Bailey said...

Hi Mark
No, these recipes are not left out in the sun, although I've seen that in other pickle recipes. The Ginger pickle is ready immediately, as is the green mango, although they do improve with age. The Lime and the Grapefruit definitely need time to "blesh". I will post up recipes as soon as we're able to go through the tapes methodically to transcribe them. We're going to attempt to do a cookbook!