I love pickles. Pickled anything, really (okay, maybe not pickled eggs).
The word pickle immediately brings to my mind the fat and nubby cucumber model. And well enough. The familiar pickle is everywhere, so silent and unassuming alongside a stage-stealer. Heaped on burgers, speared next to a smoked-meat sandwich, alongside curries or as part of a relish tray. (Does anyone else say that? Relish tray? Or is it just my grandma?)
With due respect to the humble cucumber-pickle, so delicious and crisp and briny: there is so much more.
Lots of things are made that much lovelier pickled. Sweet peppers and capers and giardiniera, that blend of cauliflower, celery, pepper, carrot and onion ubiquitous at Italian weddings. Pickles are delicious and heady, with a potent waft and they pucker the cheeks. But not-so-usual pickle candidates, like spindly spring carrots and crunchy red grapes, become positively addictive with a vinegar varnish, scented with toasted cumin or coriander or peppercorns.
Usually, pickling amounts to a protracted kitchen experience, what with the cooking, sterilizing, jarring, sealing and cooling. Last week, armed with a gorgeous handful of ruby beets, I wanted pickles. Usually, I’d follow the model I ate often growing up in a Greek home – boiled and salted, packed with an inappropriate amount of garlic and white vinegar and left to sit until silken and delicious. But that night I wanted quick and simple pickles that wouldn’t leave my house reeking of boiled vinegar, ones that felt a little more like summer.
Which led to this raw number. Thinly sliced and covered just-so with toasty spices and a splosh of good red wine vinegar, they were ready in a snap. After a week in the fridge, these beets are all about contrast. At once crisp and pliant, warm from the ginger and allspice but cool on the tongue, sweet but punchy. Restrain long enough not to eat the whole jar in a go, standing at the sink, and they’re delicious in salads, alongside cooked fish, piled in sandwiches and atop croutons lightly smeared with some tart chevre.
This simple combination of vegetable + vinegar + spice + salt can be replicated for any sturdy, thinly sliced vegetable – carrots, green beans, cauliflower, onions. And I don’t know about you, but I need my pickle fix before late-summer’s bounty gives way to frost.
Raw pickled beets
(Makes two 500mL jars)
3 large beets
4Tbsp red wine vinegar
few allspice balls
large clove garlic
small knob ginger, about 1/2Tbsp (optional, for subtle heat)
1/2Tbsp kosher or sea salt
sage leaves, or other fresh herb (optional)
In a food processor, blend garlic, ginger and salt into a fine paste. Incorporate vinegar. Slice beets very thinly across (see photo) and pack into jars with cloves and allspice. Spoon pickling liquid overtop. Put on some summer tunes, and shake the heck out of those jars. (This tenderizes the vegetables and speeds up the pickling process.) Refrigerate. To keep the brine distributed, dance and shake whenever you feel compelled, preferably often.
These can be eaten straight-away, but are best after they rest for at least a few days, optimally a week. They keep for a couple weeks sealed tightly in the fridge.
I love markets. Inexplicably so and completely. When I visit a new city, forget monuments and museums: I carry a list of all the must-see markets. (Just ask Sameer, who saw me squeal with glee each time we found a new one in Barcelona, and who – accidentally – ended up buying me a kilo of figs from one of those markets. That’s a lot of figs.)
Of any market, though, I best-love my home market, and not just out of bias. May through October, every Tuesday, at the south edge of Cabbagetown in Riverdale Park West, vendors set up stalls. Riverdale Market is amazing for so many reasons. It’s a producer-only market. All vendors have to grow/raise or make their goods: there are no “farmers” who buy from large vendors and resell at a premium. Growers must follow [near or beyond]organic or wild/foraged and sustainable practices. I always encounter a happy mix of single-product vendors (the mushroom man, sprout growers, honey seller) and full-range farms with a variety of produce.
More importantly, at Riverdale I stock up on the best pickles ever. On crisp October days, I drink a steamy paper-cupful of just-ground cacao. Angelos sells my very favourite kefalograviera cheese and olive oil that tastes like home. Yesterday evening I was gleeful to find the season’s very first coronation grapes, and chatted with their farmer about how he cares for his vines.
Apart from production standards and yummy finds, the market just has a spirit of camaraderie and love of good food that’s infectious. Prices are reasonable, produce is handled with care, the old man selling beets always sneaks me an extra “for good measure”. In exchange for a crisp $20 bill each week, I walk home feeling positively abundant. Last night I scooped up everything pictured: a bag of pear tomatoes and striped baby heirlooms, two pounds of lacinato kale, a box of grapes, 14 peaches, six purple beets, a glut of summer squash and head of garlic – all organically grown, put in my hands by their growers, driven in from a few kilometres away.
We so often focus on the many costs and externalities of cheap food. Groundbreaking studies tell us organic isn’t any healthier than conventionally-grown produce. We spend on average only 10 percent of our incomes on what we eat as we bemoan rising food costs. I’m guilty of this over-analyzing, this urge to make my food functional. But really – I only need as antidote one glorious bite of a fleshy, warm-from-the-vine heirloom tomato in mid-August; the ritual of roasted sweet potatoes through Ontario’s long winter; June’s first snappy green beans. Beautiful food, food that’s grown with love, is best.
Spinning higher and faster and the wind flings my hair in a million directions and I curse it but secretly love the tangled mess.
Higher I go and faster I spin and the the world is a blur of twinkle lights and dark. And for a few brilliant moments the incessant soundtrack of thought stops and the wind whooshes in my ears and my mind is so quiet.
I breathe: all crisp air and night sky. Eyes wide open and stillness and goosebumps as my nails dig into my palms squeezing the chains tight. Higher still and faster still and the world is buzzing, everything has evaporated but the concentric pastel circles at my feet.
The night is alive and I am alive and my heart is filled and it is so beautiful.
Peaches. Amongst summer fruits, their season is one of the most fleeting. In and out of the market, it seems, within weeks. So, when I can, I snatch them up. Which is how, at the weekly Sick Kids’ Market, I came to acquire a 3L basket containing 19 beautiful cling-stone specimens.
Peaches are the worst offender on the dirty dozen list of fruits and vegetables for pesticide exposure. And it’s near-impossible to find organically grown peaches locally. That said, I’d rather buy delicious Ontario Peaches than organic mealy ones imported from half-way across the world. It’s helpful to ask questions. Most farmers will be honest as to whether they spray their crops and what kinds of pesticides they use. Many small local farms just aren’t certified for reasons of economy and scale, but use near-organic practices. These peaches weren’t organic, but they were grown locally and un-sprayed. That’s good enough for me.
Now: for a family, 19 peaches is small change: they’re eaten up within a few days. One gal can only eat so many peaches out of hand, though, and I knew exactly how I wanted to use some of these – in a peach-ricotta pizza. Sweet from the peaches, salty and creamy from the ricotta, with a chewy crust and lively cilantro topping, it was a perfect summer meal.
Peach-ricotta pizza with cilantro salsa verde
(makes one small rectangular pizza)
2 ripe peaches, thinly sliced
1/4c ricotta cheese
1 ball (approx. 300g) pizza dough*
olive oil to coat
coarse or sea salt & black pepper to taste
*you can make pizza dough from scratch, but on weeknights for simplicity and lack of mess, I pick up a ball from my local pizza place. It’s a couple dollars and makes the whole process much simpler.
Preheat your oven to its hottest setting: most home ovens max out at 550 degrees F. A pizza stone isn’t required, but if you have one, you’ll want to heat it as well. If you’re using a sheet pan, grease it lightly with olive oil.
Stretch the dough out to fit the pan. I make a rectangular pie about 10 inches long and 6 across. It doesn’t have to be perfect – dough is forgiving – keep stretching until the thickness is roughly even. Let the dough rest while you prep your other ingredients.
Stone the peaches and slice them thinly across lengthwise. Arrange them on the pizza dough and scoop blobs of ricotta over the peaches. Sprinkle liberally with salt and ground pepper (if desired).
Pop into the oven and bake for approximately 12 minutes, until the crust is golden and puffy. Slice and serve.
Cilantro salsa verde
(makes one 500mL jar)
This is totally optional – the pizza is great without it – but it really makes the pie summery, as the grassy notes contrast with the sweet peaches. And this is really a bastardized version of a proper salsa verde, just so the purists don’t come after me.
1 small bunch cilantro
3 Tbsp cold water
1/2tsp sea salt
3Tbsp of your best olive oil
In a blender or food processor, pulse the cilantro, salt and water until you have a sauce (the water is there to get the whole lot moving, use less if you can). Pour into a sterile jar and gently mix in the olive oil. Keep in the fridge for up to a week. Unused quantities can be frozen in an ice cube tray and defrosted as needed.
Other delicious uses: as a bread dip, sauce for white fish of all types, salad dressing, alongside mellow cheeses, stirred into mashed avocado … and pretty much anywhere else you would use cilantro.
I’m not one for hyperbole, but this really is the best chocolate milk, ever. Smooth and frothy, creamy, just-sweet, freezing cold and without all the scary ingredients that hide in the corner store variety. I’d go so far as to say that having a blender is worth it for the sole purpose of making this drink.
Don’t skimp on the cocoa, as this is the key part, and you don’t use much. My old stand-by is Ghirardelli Unsweetened, but I also like Green & Black’s, which is easier to find in Toronto. (If you can get your hands on either, Valrhona and Scharffen Berger make the very best cocoa, so use some, and then please send me the leftovers.)
The best chocolate milk, ever
(Makes one tall glass)
I use unsweetened almond milk, as I love its creamy neutral flavour, but any milk works. If you use soy, hemp or rice milk, make sure it’s not pre-sweetened, or your finished drink will be much too sweet. For the banana-averse: you can’t taste any banana in this drink – it’s there for thickening and sweetening.
1 cup unsweetened almond milk
1 large very ripe banana
1 level Tbsp unsweetened cocoa
6 large ice cubes
In a blender, whiz the milk and cocoa until very frothy and combined, about 40 seconds. Add the banana and blend until smooth, about 60 more seconds. Add the ice and blend until there are no chunks and pour into a tall glass.