My grandmother always kept a jar of pickled cucumbers and onions in the back of her fridge.
Now Grandmother wasn’t what you would call the cuddly type. For instance, at Sunday Mass, when it came time for the ‘peace-be-with-you-shake-hands’ part, she would tilt her head skyward and study the stained glass windows with arms glued to her sides. Grandmother preferred to receive her peace directly from above if you don’t mind. Touchy-feely she was not.
Never mind. God bless her, Grandmother knew her way around food. You could gaze into her empty refrigerator despairing of a meal, yet in a few minutes she would, tah dah!, set out a humble plate worthy of an honored guest: A few odd cold cuts, some liverwurst, stale rye bread resurrected in the toaster, maybe a bit of cheese and some fresh butter. And, of course, pickles from the deepest recesses of the icebox.
wondered how she made those pickles, but don’t think for a moment I could stand next to her in her kitchen hoping to learn something. Children nearby made Grandmother nervous. Too close for comfort. Anyway, for much of the time her own children were growing up, Grandmother had a cook, to whom she gave strict, rigid and arbitrary weekly menu instructions that varied only with the seasons. For someone who had such a magical way with ingredients that seemed like a terrible waste.
When she was older, after her children were grown and my grandfather died, Grandmother fended for herself. She was a petite, pretty woman, with enough vanity and self-respect to take care of her looks and watch her weight well into her nineties. On her eighty-eighth birthday she quipped, “ugh, so many wrinkles.” In fact she looked seventy-seven if a day. Her refrigerator was barer than ever by then, yet in her hands, a plate of something tantalizing would still emerge as if it were Aladdin’s cave. I attribute it to the pickles.
I finally was able to prise the secret of Grandmother’s famous pickles: Shake together 1/3 cup water, 1/3 cup sugar, 1/3 cup white vinegar in a large jar. Fill it with sliced cucumbers and onions and leave for a day or so in the refrigerator. It seems as if it should have been more complex than that.
I have followed my grandmother’s pickle habit, but changed it a bit. Sometimes I use both sweet and red onions, and I always tame their harshness with boiling water before adding them to the brine. Or maybe I’ll use beets, as I do here. Ah, the younger generation! They just can’t leave well enough alone.
Still, I think you will enjoy these and certainly they are easy to make. (I confess that my absolute favorite pickled onion recipe comes from Judy Rogers’
—a must have for your library—but they require a bit more time and members of my household complain of the reek of vinegar steam that clouds the windows.) I’ve devised a way to make the brine without cooking it on the stove to avoid filling the house with the offending
parfum de vinaigre.
Pickled beets and onions
Makes 2 quarts
You can vary the proportions here. Sometimes I use cucumbers, or add more onions than beets, depending on what I have around. The older the beets, the longer they take to roast. If you buy them with the tops on, they will probably take an hour in the oven. I found out the hard way, trying to roast some old topless specimens: it took an hour and a half, and in the end I finished them in the microwave with a little water in the bottom of the pan. You can always nuke them for a minute if they cool too much and the skins prove difficult to slip off.
I guarantee these will disappear quickly. They’re good alongside a sandwich, on top of a burger (onions only, but hey, maybe the beets would be good too), in a salad with some goat cheese, or even all by themselves on a piece of really good buttered rye bread for a snack. A jar of these would be welcome at a friend’s barbecue, too.
3 pounds beets (about 12 medium), tops removed
1 tablespoon olive oil
Herb sprigs like thyme or savory, optional
2 Vidalia onions (about 1 1/4 pounds), sliced into 1/4-inch thick rounds
2/3 cup natural cane sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
6 whole cloves
6 whole allspice berries
2 wide strips lemon zest made with a vegetable peeler
2 sprigs fresh dill
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking dish with a large enough piece of foil to enclose the beets. Place the beets in the dish and drizzle them with olive oil. Top with herb sprigs if you happen to have some. Fold and crimp the foil to make a packet. Roast for 1 to 1&1/2 hours, or until the beets are tender (pierce them with a sharp knife to test.) The older the beets, the longer they take to cook. Remove from the oven, open the packet and cool to lukewarm. They are easier to peel while still warm. Slip the skins off the warm beets and slice them in 3/8-inch thick rounds or wedges.
2. Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Separate the onions into rings and place them in a bowl. Cover them with boiling water. Let stand for 10 minutes; drain and cool to room temperature.
3. Stir the sugar, salt and 2 cups of boiling water together in a large measuring cup until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the vinegar, peppercorns, cloves, allspice, and lemon zest.
4. Layer the beets and onions into two 1-quart jars. Pour the brine over the pickles, top each jar with a sprig of dill, cover and refrigerate. Leave for a day before eating. They seem to last forever, though I haven’t tested that.