Pickles have never been easier, thanks to the resurgence of interest in pickling and preserving produce. Here, pickled zucchini is featured. - MCT photo

Pickling growing more popular, one peck at a time

Peter Piper notwithstanding, you don't have to pick an entire peck to produce pickled peppers — or sweetly tart red onions, dilly string beans or zucchini pickles, for that matter.

But pickling has become such a popular pursuit, you may end up wishing you'd picked a whole bunch more.

Grandmothers everywhere may roll their eyes over the notion that DIY pickles are trendy. But a new generation of home cooks has discovered — or rediscovered — the joys of canning and preserving in recent years. And what began as a fervor for jam-making has been joined by a passion for pickles.

Artisanal pickle vendors have begun popping up at farmers markets and even on Berkeley, Calif.'s fashionable Fourth Street, where the Cultured Pickle Shop holds sway. Swanky restaurants and tony delis tout the virtues of their house-made pickles. And home-canning product sales have risen 35 percent in the last three years, as hip 20-somethings and their older compatriots learn to put up, put by and preserve.

In short, pickles are hot — and Cynthia Sandberg, of Love Apple Farms, is having trouble keeping up with the demand for her pickle-making classes.

If Sandberg's name sounds familiar, it's because her organic farm, which supplies David Kinch's celebrated Los Gatos, Calif., restaurant, Manresa, was just splashed across the glossy pages of Bon Appetit magazine in a 10-page spread dubbed "The Michelin Garden." But Sandberg's Santa Cruz Mountains farm is also famous in local circles for another reason: its cooking and canning classes, which fill up at breakneck speed.

"We started creating these classes because of the huge resurgence we've seen in the last few years," Sandberg says. "The beginning of the wave was people wanting to be more aware of how things are grown, going organic. Then people wanted to know how to preserve their summer bounty — pickling, canning, salting and smoking are all methods of preserving food for future use."

For newbies to the home canning scene, pickling is the perfect "gateway food item," says San Francisco food writer Karen Solomon, author of "Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It" and the new "Can It, Bottle It, Smoke It" (both from Ten Speed Press, 160 pp., $24.99). It's easier than jam and less labor-intensive — and it's certainly less sticky.

"I prefer pickling, to tell you the truth," Solomon says. "Vinegar does all the work."

There's just one issue about which picklers are sticklers.

"The thing that most people are concerned about is if it's going to spoil or get the botulism toxin," Sandberg says. "As long as you maintain your high quantity of vinegar, you're going to be in good shape. It's only when people start to go a little rogue that there's trouble. Stick to the script."

We tend to think of pickles as the briny cucumber garnish adorning our burgers. But that's just the tip of the pickled relish iceberg, which includes every variety of fruit and vegetable, and a slew of slaws, chow-chows and krauts.

"In our pickling class, we don't even do cucumbers," Sandberg says. "We do a lot of lactic-acid fermentation — sauerkraut and kimchee — as well as standard pickles that go beyond cucumbers: radishes, green tomatoes, beans."

Her favorites, though, are the recipes passed down from her father, Gary.

"One of the things he showed me how to do when I was a kid was canning," Sandberg says. "There's a pickled pepper recipe I cherish. It's absolutely phenomenal. And he made incredible bread and butter zucchini pickles. Not a lot of people have the advanced chutzpah to grow pickling cukes, but everybody has an excess of zucchini."

Canning guru Sherri Brooks Vinton, author of "Put 'Em Up!" (Storey Publishing, 304 pp., $19.95), pickles everything from cantaloupe and rhubarb to asparagus, eggplant and fennel. Pickled fennel relish is fantastic with lox-topped bagels, she says, and the combination of cantaloupe and vinegar makes for "pitch-perfect pickles." They make wonderful accompaniments for roasted meats, and nice additions to a cheese platter.

"I really love recipes that sort of teeter on that edge between sweet and savory," Vinton says, "so pickled fruit really hits a home run in that regard. The sweetness of the fruit and the tart vinegar in the pickle — it's a little surprising to the palate. That makes it extra fun."

Vinton isn't the only devotee of pickled fruit, of course. So is Solomon, who pickles grapes and uses them to garnish cocktails or serve alongside chicken.

"It's that mix of sweet and savory," she says. "Grapes are these perfect little contained orbs, so you can put together pickled grapes in about 11 seconds."

Some wonderful, "really far out pickles" are out there too, Solomon says. When she judged San Francisco's Good Food Awards last year in the pickling category, she was smitten by a Brussels sprouts chow-chow, a vivid yellow — and very Southern — relish typically made with cabbage, cucumber and onion. And, she says, she's helpless to resist ploughman's pickle, a British pub-grub standby. It's a tangy, sweet mixture of pickled carrot, cauliflower, zucchini, onion and apple.

"It's in my fridge at all times," Solomon says. "I eat it in a cheddar cheese sandwich — or standing by the refrigerator, with a spoon."

In other words, by the peck.

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