In a Pickle

Last night after work Teacherman and I went to a concert performed by Tafelmusik, a group that plays Baroque chamber music, one of my favorite things. The concert was at 8:00, I had to work until 5:30 and the (rush-hour) drive to the north-suburban park venue takes about an hour, so we had to come up with some way to eat a quick dinner in the half an hour between arriving at the park and the beginning of the concert. Enter one of my other favorite things: the picnic.

Teacherman and I go on a lot of picnics. We haven’t gone on as many as usual this year–unless you count our foraged lunches in Europe–but I’m hoping to get in a goodly number before the winter closes in. (Yes, I know it’s August, but the weather has been really weird these past few months). It’s rare, in spite of our love for picnics, that we eat our dinner en plein air: we tend, overwhelmingly, to have picnics at breakfast time, with occasional lunchtime forays. This meal, situated as it was at 7:00 pm, was definitely dinner.

Last week, back when I was planning the menu, I had been struck by a (none-too-original) brain-wave: why not match the food to the concert itself? The music was Baroque, so 18th century food was in order. I immediately consulted my history-of-cookery books (and yes, I do have a plurality of these), but, short of descriptions of huge haunches of meat and myriad custardy desserts, they didn’t yield much information.

In any case, haunch of meat? Check. I would buy some lovely peppered eye of round at the deli and make a horseradish-scallion sauce to go with it. Custardy dessert? Check. I had made a big butterscotch cheesecake for Teacherman’s welcome home dinner, and we’d only eaten a third of it by that point. (Admittedly, the two of us consumed this third at one meal, but this is not an entry about gluttony, so that’s beside the point). Dessert and protein were covered, but what about side dishes and vegetables? Surely 18th century gentlemen and ladies ate more than JUST meat and dairy products? I’m fairly certain that not every citizen of the western world had gout.

Eventually, while working on a different project, I stumbled across a very interesting piece of information: when tomatoes were introduced to Europe after their discovery in the New World, the citizenry were much more accepting of yellow tomatoes than they were of red. Further, they were much more accepting of pickled tomatoes than they were of fresh. Pickled tomatoes? Pickled yellow tomatoes? This sounded like an excellent side dish to roast beef with horseradish sauce.

I’ve made pickled tomatoes before, but always from full-sized, rock-hard green ones. I could have bought full-sized yellow tomatoes, but I when I visited my favorite organic vegetable stall at the farmer’s market Saturday morning, I was seduced by the fairy delicacy of yellow cherry and grape tomatoes. I bought a pint of each and took them home.

I pulled out all of my pickling cookbooks and scanned the recipes for quick pickled tomatoes (quick pickles are more like intensely marinated salads than fermented pickles, but excellent nonetheless). One recipe, for red-but-not-yet-ripe tomatoes included fresh ginger juice as well as huge quantites of ground coriander, with wine vinegar as the sole pickling medium. Ginger and coriander sounded like perfect matches for the flavor of yellow tomatoes, but I may have only thought so because of my visualization of a jar full of golden orbs floating in equally golden juices. That recipe was definitely the one.

I washed all of my glowing sun-drops, then halved them and tumbled them into a bowl. I sprinkled on a prodigious amount of salt, then let the mixture sit all day in the fridge, shaking the bowl occasionally, whenever I walked by. After the hours of salting were up, I rinsed the tomatoes off, drained them well, and funnelled them into a large mason jar, layering the halves with aromatic shakes of coriander. Over the top went several squeezes of ginger juice and white wine vinegar (rather than the red in the original recipe). I capped the jar, shook it a couple of times, and then stashed it in the fridge for the next 48 hours.

On Monday night, we opened the jar at our picnic table and were immediately overtaken by the wafting smell of coriander, backed with a warm and, yes, golden tomato scent. The tomatoes were firm, even after their two-day soak in vinegar (thanks to the earlier hydroscopic salting), and the coriander and ginger had blended perfectly with the vinegar. Tasting the brine, I immediately thought of vinegar-based shrubs–sprightly, refreshing drink syrups meant to be mixed into still or sparkling water. Even though the brine had no sweetener in it, the innate sweetness of the tomatoes and ginger made one long to drink the liquid straight. Wonderfully, that compelling flavor had completely infused the tomatoes themselves, and each bite was a mix of the earthy coriander, zippy ginger, tingling vinegar, and round, warm tomato.

As I suspected, the pickles were a refreshing side dish paired with the deep-flavored beef and horseradish sauce, and a perfect palate cleanser before the richness of the cheesecake. Teacherman and I consumed the entirety of the tomatoes, leaving only the cup of brine left in the bottom of the jar. Though leftover On The Night, the brine has not been discarded. The nearly empty jar now lives in the fridge, awaiting sparkling water and the desire for a tongue-tingling beverage.

Published in: on August 14, 2007 at 8:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

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