Winter Pickles

Cooking in Common: Winter pickles are cooler than a cucumber

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Mild Bay Area winters don't force us into food preservation as a dietary necessity, but the ancient craft of pickling can often bring snap and bite to the table.

Typically it is summer's bounty that gets brined and bottled. But many local food artisans, restaurants and home chefs have now begun to pay attention to pickling winter's cabbages, root vegetables and citrus fruits.

Whether under vacuum-sealed lids and on restaurant menus, the winter pickle has become a staple that is both classic and totally en vogue. And its ability to bring backbone to a variety of dishes makes pickling a worthwhile project for the home enthusiast of puckery vinegar, salt and spice.

"I just like to use what's seasonal and what's fresh," says Lizzie Binder, chef of Bar Bambino in San Francisco. Her pickles have included green beans, gypsy peppers and shallots, and now, in winter, carrots, cauliflower, razor-thin red onion and baby fennel.

"I read the vegetables," she says, blanching them if necessary, and tossing in a bit of extra cinnamon bark here, or a stray piece of ginger there. Her menu, with its house-cured salumi, began featuring pickles late last year to offset the charcuterie's fatty, meaty flavors, adding not only a vibrant palate cleanser, but also some color and texture to the plate.

"Pickles aren't that complicated, and they're a good way to keep some of the seasonal freshness when freshness isn't here," Binder says.

Classic winter pickles include pickled beets, a sweet and colorful sidekick to the hearty meat and potatoes of Eastern European cuisine; pickled cocktail onions that are the welcome bite to balance any self-respecting Gibson martin; and pickled cabbage like sauerkraut or kimchi, usually fermented and aged rather than simply brined.

Italian pickle medleys of winter vegetables such as cauliflower, onion, carrot and celery, similar to what's served at Bar Bambino, are another classic winter preserve, and are often called antipasti, giardiniera or sotto aceti.

And in the realm of Asian pickles – particularly the copious spread set out with Korean barbecue or the tiny dashes of color that enhance Japanese fried foods – winter pickles can mean anything from ginger to plum, or turnip to daikon.

Bay Area artisans have stretched the flavor possibilities even beyond these choices.

"When it's gray outside, citrus is the brightest color of all the fruits, and it's really amazing," says Casey Havre, founder of LouLou's Garden, maker of pickles and jams from an organic farm near Stockton. The products will also be available at the Fatted Calf shop in Napa's Oxbow Public Market when it opens later this week.

Havre blends the citrus flavors of marmalade into savory pickles, like Meyer lemon with paprika and sea salt, and makes traditional Moroccan preserved lemons to flavor soups, stews and meats, flavored with cinnamon and bay.

Also in her cauldron this winter: a radicchio, cabbage, onion and olive pickle mix, and a tangy, savory blend of dried figs and pears macerated with red wine, honey and balsamic vinegar flavored with garlic and cinnamon designed to pair with roast chicken.

Todd Champagne of Happy Girl Kitchen, a regular fixture at farmers' markets and the provider of pickled carrots and green beans served at the bar of the Slanted Door, has already sold out of his cumin carrots, and is considering putting up another 50 cases. "People come out of the woodwork for our carrots and start ordering cases. During winter, you can only eat so much fresh kale, chard and cabbage, you know?"

Perfect pickles

Start with a hot liquid brine to partially blanch hearty winter vegetables. The brine will break down their tough flesh, allow other flavors to penetrate them and help preserve them. Here are some tips for making winter pickles:

— Use only quality fruits and vegetables; inferior produce yields inferior results.

— Keep all food containers and kitchen gear very clean, and always use a clean utensil – never your hand – to stir or procure pickles from the container. Intrusive bacteria can make pickles go fizzy or turn to mush. Sterilizing the containers is best.

— The type of vinegar is a matter of preference. Some prefer white vinegar's snap and color-preserving qualities, while Happy Girl's Champagne prefers apple cider vinegar for its "ripe fruit taste." What's far more important is the right amount of acidity for preservation – usually 5 percent vinegar is sufficient.

— Salt is necessary for flavor and as a preservative. Sea salt results in a crunchier finished product, but kosher salt is a fine alternative. You can also use iodized table salt, but it might cloud the pickling liquid.

— Additional spices like garlic, chile pepper, mustard seed, star anise, dill seed, cumin, turmeric or whatever else strikes your fancy should be fresh, flavorful, and whole so as not to cloud the brine.

– Karen Solomon

Pickled purveyors

Bar Bambino. 2931 16th St. (at Capp Street), San Francisco; (415) 701-8466 or

Happy Girl Kitchen.

LouLou's Garden. Loulou's products are sold at Fatted Calf, in the Oxbow Public Market, 610 First St., Napa; (707) 256-3684, and also at Fatted Calf's booths at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco and Berkeley Farmers' Market (Center Street at Martin Luther King Jr. Way) on Saturdays. (510) 301-9279. More information: (209) 982-5618 or

Quick Pickled Daikon with Lemon

Makes 2 cups


  • 1 1/2 pounds daikon peeled and very thinly sliced (use a mandolin if you have one)
  • 1/4 cup kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon seasoned rice vinegar
  • 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 3 two-inch pieces of lemon zest

Instructions: Toss the daikon with the salt and pour into a colander. Let it rest for 15 minutes over a bowl or in the sink.

Meanwhile, whisk together sesame oil, honey, rice vinegar, lemon juice and garlic in a large bowl.

Rinse the daikon well under running water, and then spread it out to dry in a clean dish towel, rolling it up gently so as to extract as much moisture as possible from the radish. Add the daikon to the brine along with the zest and coat well, letting it marinate for one hour. Eat immediately or refrigerate for up to 1 month.

The calories and other nutrients absorbed from pickling solutions vary and are difficult to estimate. Variables include the type of food, pickling time and amount of surface area. Therefore, this recipe contains no analysis.


Bar Bambino's Pickled Carrots

Makes 2 1/2-3 quarts


  • 4 bunches (2 to 2-1/2 pounds) of baby carrots washed, dried, tops trimmed, and unless the skins are very thin, peeled
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 cinnamon stick
  • 1 dried chile
  • 1 clove
  • — Pinch of black peppercorns
  • — Pinch of yellow mustard seed
  • 1 1/4 cups white wine vinegar
  • 1 cup cider vinegar
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • — Pinch of kosher salt

Instructions: Place carrots in a clean, nonreactive, sealable 4-quart storage container, along with bay leaf, cinnamon, chile, clove, peppercorns and mustard seed.

Place 1 quart water, the vinegars, sugar and salt in a saucepan, bring to a hard boil, and stir to dissolve the sugar and salt. Pour hot liquid over carrots.

Fold a piece of parchment paper to cover the top of the carrots in brine. Place a weight (like a small plate) over the paper to ensure that the carrots are completely submerged in the liquid. Cool to room temperature – about 4 hours. Cover and store in the refrigerator 3-5 days to mature flavor and texture. They will keep up to 1 month.