Rise and Brine
Pickles have been around my restaurant a long time. In my pizzeria, the staff frequently requests that we revive some sort of pickle recipe. Therefore, three months ago, Reuben, my operations manager, introduced our “Death Pickle for Cutie” pizza again. (The title of which came from a national band who played a festival nearby.) With almost no advertising or fanfare, this pizza has become one of our top sellers with the young folks in town. The ultra-thin crust, Asiago cream sauce, mozzarella, provolone, cheddar, roasted potatoes, ranch dressing and plenty of pickles is a beauty to behold! But, to some, it is a culinary abomination. Until they sink their pompous teeth into its crunchy crust and cream, and their flavor receptors dodge from ranch to potato to pickle to cheese. If I must take a ribbing from the occasional culinary elitists, so be it. I’ll just throw out my best defensive term for these types of pizzas: “But it’s Disgustalicious!”
The Greeks and Romans were very adept at building out elaborate infrastructure with rocks and boulders, but many people don’t know that they were prolific picklers also, especially in the lower classes. These poor peasants had no choice but to forage to keep themselves fed. Pickling recipes of the Greeks and Romans abound with beets, turnips, mushrooms, olives, scallions, onions, radishes and cabbages. Of course, a lot of this pickling depended upon the curing mixture. The Romans were esteemed picklers and considered the vinegar of Egypt the best at pickling flowers, herbs, roots and even small pieces of meat which were kept in large cylinders with wide mouths.
Quit Gherkin my Chain
Today, you can go to any restaurant and find pickles everywhere even though some of the public is clueless of what a pickle cure can consist of. The many clay pickling jars sitting on antiques store shelves here in Ohio attest to the pickling abilities of the first settlers from Germany, where sauerkraut was king. Just cutting the cabbage and mixing it with salt enabled these people to eat great, digestible and flavorful food without the use of refrigeration. These days there are many different pickle varieties and methods. Here are some different pickles and uses in your pizzeria.
- Cucumbers. Most farmers have either the small compact seeded cucumbers or large, sloppy-seeded cukes that are better for salad. Just slice the smaller, pickling cukes thin, adding salt and sugar in a bowl for just 10 minutes and the cukes will go limp. You can then add lemon or lime juice, a touch of vinegar or more salt and spices for a great addition to salads, sandwiches or even pizzas. The cooked method usually requires heating up vinegar and sugar with salt and cloves, mustard seed, garlic, onion, etc. until nearly boiling, then just pouring it on the cucumbers. This method does take some of the natural taste away from the cucumber, but these will last longer in the fridge. (Remember, always follow your health standards for cleaning jars and keeping pickles.)
- Daikon, turnips and/or kohlrabi. These fabulous dense roots, except kohlrabi which grows above ground, come in many sizes and colors that can bring a pizza some eye-popping exposure. I use a Japanese mandolin to slice all three super-thin, then a quick pickle with salt and sugar, tossing them in their own extruded juices. These then can last for a week under refrigeration. If you use vinegar or citrus to further flavor the colored daikon, they will lose their flavor. For the turnips, you may store with rehydrated kombu for more umami.
- Pickled Mushrooms. Perfect for appetizers or pizza toppings. There are numerous variations for these, but I like the simplicity of quickly roasting one pound of the smallest fresh mushrooms with extra virgin olive oil and a touch of salt in a 355 F oven for only 8 to 10 minutes. Fill a large bowl with a half-lemon squeeze, tablespoons of chopped garlic, parsley, sugar and basil. Then a teaspoon each of garlic powder, onion powder, salt, black pepper and chopped rosemary. Place this into a clean jar and it will store for 3 to 4 weeks.
- Preserved Lemons. This Moroccan fave is great for adding a sharp, acidic balance to a pizza or calzone or even ground into a cream sauce to achieve a remarkable flavor level. Just cut the lemons into quarters and toss with sea salt into a wide-mouthed jar, add some lemon juice from another lemon and store for 3 to 4 weeks without refrigeration, turning every so often.
- Giardiniera. Being from Chicago, I love giardiniera, especially with our Italian beef sandwiches. This is best made in the middle of summer when all the veggies are popping. Cut two pounds total of all these vegetables — cauliflower, carrot, bell pepper, celery, serrano or jalapeños, small cucumbers, (if you can find them) turnips and radishes. In a large pot, place 5 cups vinegar, 1 cup water, 1 chopped onion, 3 garlic cloves, tablespoons each of salt, chopped rosemary, black peppercorns, coriander and oregano. Bring to almost boiling, stirring the vegetables occasionally for 2 minutes, then drain. Strain the veggies and place into a large bowl and pour ½ cup of extra virgin olive oil on them and toss. Place the giardiniera into clean jars then pour the now-cooled pickling liquid into them and seal tight.
Like actors, pickles have their starring and co-starring roles. Pickles are some of the best partners for cheese. Not because they taste alike but because they are the opposite flavor profiles. This is what is known as a “foil” and their acidity cuts through any cheesy creaminess in your mouth, refreshing the palate for another bite. Here are some great combinations for pickles.
- Cheeses: Cheddar is perfect for dill pickles, but pickled cherries are best with gorgonzola or big blue cheeses. Pickled onions are perfect with Gruyere, Swiss and other alpine cheeses. Pickled blueberries or strawberries go best with Brie and fromage blanc. Strong, salty cheeses, like aged provolone, are perfect for kimchi. In my opinion, cream cheese goes well with every pickle!
- Meats: Italian sausage is wonderful with pickled onion, banana peppers and pickled jalapeño. Pork belly is very fatty and is very tasty with sauerkraut and a sweet balsamic glaze. Chicken pizzas are wonderful with cream sauces, pickled daikon and cashews. Pepperoni benefits from a sweeter pickle like small gherkins. Buffalo chicken wings are surprisingly great with teriyaki and pickled beets.
Death Pickle for Cutie
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.