My wife likes to remind me of a day way back when we had first met. We were still sussing each other out for relationship potential, trying to flag possible major personality flaws, etc. I had been kind of depressed the day before so she called and asked how I was doing. I said “much better, I’m making pickles.”
I think she probably classified this at the time under “possible major personality flaw.” I’m not sure she understood or believed that the simple act of pickling, brining or preserving something can lift depression, but it can, and it does. That doesn’t mean you have to be depressed to make pickles, of course. And if you’re me, it’s best not to be too attached to the outcome of making pickles, because sometimes the garlic turns blue and the guanciale gets moldy and the sourdough starter turns into a fruit fly farm, all of which happened to me in the last couple of weeks. But damn, it was a fun ride.
Let’s start with the guanciale and get it over with. Guanciale is a form of unsmoked bacon traditionally used to make carbonara. It has a strong flavour and a delicate texture, or so I’m told, because after I got my pig cheek, packed it in sea salt and organic sugar, seasoned it with thyme, garlic salt, bay leaves and allspice, let it brine for a week, then wrapped it in muslin and hung it in my cupboard… it went moldy. I am very tempted to try again, but the problem is, I don’t know enough. I’m a pickle dilettante. I don’t even own any pickling apparatus beyond a few mason jars. I am totally ignorant about why each step is performed when and which steps are okay to leave out (i.e. any step I can’t be bothered doing or seems too difficult), which is exactly what makes it so much fun. So instead I’m making lardo, which is just the same thing but done with back fat. I bet it will work this time.
Next: sourdough. I’ve never been a baker, for much the same reasons I’ve never been great at pickling. I’m a “little bit of this, a little bit of that” cook, which most emphatically does not work with baking. If you want really good bread, you follow the recipe to the letter. Now where’s the fun in adhering to some kind of heavy fascist mind control like that? Unless… (I told myself)… unless I got a really detailed book on baking, and followed it so absolutely exactly it drove me and everyone else around me mad? That would be fun.
So, I began my sourdough starter. A sourdough starter, if you didn’t know, has no yeast added but instead makes use of the wild yeasts in the air. The reason there is no sourdough quite like San Francisco sourdough is because of the yeast Lactobacillus sanfrancisco, a microorganism found only in the Bay Area (see how much I’m learning from my detailed bread book?). I was going to find out what happened to flour and water left to ferment with Lactobacillus dansapartment.
Turns out, it was a mistake to cover my starter with cling wrap, because the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster is not bothered by cling wrap, and fruit flies eat yeast. Looking at my starter, I recalled my semester of genetics in college, where we performed demonic experiments in cross breeding drosophila. To keep the students supplied with flies, fat test-tubes were filled with yeast mixture, which were soon filled with drosophila. And here I had replicated the experiment. Sourdough starter one went into the trash.
I began sourdough starter two in a square tupperware with a tight lid. Well, it worked. Boy did it work. Expecting a waiting time of about two weeks, during which I would “feed the bitch” (as professionals say) by regularly tossing half of my starter and feeding it with more flour and water (this is necessary so that the acid produced by fermentation doesn’t overwhelm the yeast, boy, am I learning stuff!), after only a day it was frothing. Then it started foaming. Then I couldn’t toss half of it often enough. It burst the lid of the container and foamed over the counter.
However, the bread turned out pretty good. It was an awful lot of work for a loaf of bread, but if anyone wants any sourdough starter, I’ve got plenty.
I also made baguettes. There are a lot easier to make, contrary to what you may have heard. Now, most people assume the baguette is the traditional loaf of France dating back centuries, and they’re wrong. Baguettes were invented around 1920 because a French labour law prevented bakers from getting to work earlier than 4am, and they needed a loaf that would be ready in time for breakfast (man, am I dazzling you with facts). And it’s true – they can be made, start to finish, in four hours. If you want to make baguettes, however, follow this tip: don’t assume greaseproof paper is the same as parchment paper. My second lot of baguettes turned out quite nicely, thank you.
Did you know eggs can be preserved, and they taste pretty damn good? I didn’t. I’d heard of the infamous Thousand Year Egg, and I may even have eaten it in China, but it was probably on a dare. I’m all for new experiences, but, I’m sorry, yolks should not be green and albumen should not be brown jelly. Your standard salted egg, however, is a much simpler procedure – simply pack the eggs in brine for two to four weeks, depending on how salty you like them. I like them very salty – four weeks for me. You can scale up this recipe to any amount, but this suits a standard 2-cup mason jar.
3 eggs (duck or chicken)
1/2 cup sea salt
2 cups water
1. Combine salt and water and bring to a boil. Dissolve salt and cool completely.
2. Put eggs in mason jar. Pour brine over the top. Make sure the eggs are completely covered – to keep them underwater, I used a small plastic cork between them and the lid, which was loosely screwed on.
3. Make a note of the date (important) and leave them in a dark place for 2-4 weeks.
4. Place the eggs in a saucepan (discarding brine), cover with cold water, and bring to a simmer. Boil for ten minutes then cool the eggs under running water. They will now keep in the refrigerator for a month.
But what do you do with a salted egg? I’m glad you asked. Salted eggs have a lovely intense flavour, a bit like egg crossed with sausage. They work perfectly as a condiment to congee. Boil some rice in plenty of water or stock for at least an hour, until you have rice soup. Then garnish with anything: shredded pork, green onions, cucumber pickles, and of course, salted eggs.
This isn’t exactly pickling, but I like the photo. About a year’s supply of chillies, all for five bucks. Gotta love that farmer’s market.