Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Notes from the Underground (Week 11): Pickling Turnips and Ruminating on Lists
Her face is whiter than the inside of a turnip. (Lebanese saying)
For the past two weeks, I've watched as list after list after list of all of the "best of 2012" movies, cookbooks, books, gadgets, tv shows, etc. have come out. There's a part of me that loves this kind of listing; I relish the urgency that comes with it, as well as the fact that the entire practice hinges on the need to whittle down thousands of things to a bare bones list of ten (give or take a few). The very task seems impossible; in the world of cookbooks, how do you really compare a compendium on root vegetables with a collection of vintage cakes? Or books by bloggers vs. books by chefs? In a way, it's a fool's errand, one that strives to be objective, yet clearly has all the markings of strong subjective preference. But even though I realize the shortcomings that these lists contain, I always feel that they inevitably introduce me to things I otherwise never would have heard of (and I love them for that very reason), and also bolster my convictions about certain things; after reading these lists and finding something I've perused in bookstores, I'll mutter to myself, "I knew that was a great cookbook" and feel 100% committed to buying it. I've decided that, as humans, we like to be told what to do, but only in subtle and and unobtrusive ways. And even more, we like to be told that we were right about something.
This is how I felt when I saw Diana Henry's Salt Sugar Smoke in the New York Times' list of best cookbooks of the year. I had first flipped through this beauty one night when, while waiting for a deep-dish pizza, two friends and I (naturally) found ourselves in a bookstore. I was immediately attracted to its pictures and recipes, as well as its premise. I was even more hooked when I saw that there was a section devoted to Greek Spoon Sweets and Russian zakuski (pickled vegetables/appetizers; really, they're what you eat when drinking vodka). But, even though you rarely find spoon sweets and zakuski side by side, not to mention that both preserving and pickling have fascinated me since I attended a pickling/jam making class almost two years ago, I resisted the urge to purchase (yes, even though a rarity, I do practice restraint occasionally).
During last week's student-inflicted depression, however, I found myself again in a bookstore with this book in my hands. For the sake of rewarding myself for completing a semester full of office hours, complaints and grey hair-inducing meetings, this time I decided to go for it. My reasoning was simple: what, if not gravlax, chutneys and pickles, can bring a girl out of her funk?
Preserving, I've decided, makes you feel not only practical, but ready for anything. There's something really virtuous about the whole process. If you take the time to chop and boil fruits and vegetables or simply to chop and layer the ingredients carefully in jars, in a matter of weeks or a month--sometimes even mere hours--you can reap the benefits of a few hours' worth of labor. It's also a way of safeguarding future meals; if something turns out bland, condiments are there to save the day. This is part of the reason I've always loved them. When faced with a bad sandwich or an unfortunate selection of sushi, a quality pickle or a nose-tingling gob of wasabi can elevate the meal. Maybe neither will end up being all that memorable, but, frankly speaking, both could have been a lot worse.
With this philosophy in mind, I busied myself on Sunday morning, chopping turnips, cleaning celery leaves and cloves of garlic and cutting a small chunk of fresh beet into purply-magenta slivers to try my hand at Middle Eastern Pickled Turnips. Since we leave tomorrow for Pennsylvania and won't be back until after the new year, it seemed a good idea to begin to empty out the fridge, as well as to think of ways to make sure that I'm ready for any challenges the new year might bring. And, as far as I can tell, there will be challenges galore. But I really am ready to face them; I've had two positive dissertation meetings in the last week. The general consensus seems to be that I'm ready to finish and that, although I may have to be creative about the how, I can finish in the next six months. Even better, I've also been encouraged to consider (re)entering the real world, to go beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower in which I've spent the past twenty three and a half years of my life (yes, I'm counting K-12). Strangely, given everything my adviser was telling me, I had a brief moment when I wanted to ask if she had somehow found my blog and was speaking to me armed with the knowledge that she had discovered here. But since I know that this really can't be the case (or can it?), I realize the conversation must have simply been the product of two practical minds that perhaps spend too much time thinking about the strangeness of academia.
You could say that I started the week off as pale as the brine in the first photo (or as a turnip), but, when I say that my mood is now as rosy as the final (and most recent) picture of my two triumphant and vibrant jars of pickled turnips (watching them transform has been like watching a dreary world become bright), believe that I speak the truth.
P.S. Once I return from break and open a jar of these pickles, I'll update this post with a description of their taste. I have the feeling that they'll be crunchy and sweet, but, thanks to the garlic and celery leaves, with an earthy kick.
Middle Eastern Pickled Turnips (Torshi left)
Slightly adapted from Salt Sugar Smoke
Yields 1 small 10-ounce jar and 1 large (1 pint-sized) Mason jar
The original recipe calls for 2 1/4 pounds small turnips, but I had only two large ones (1.3 pounds), which I chopped into 1 - 2-inch sized pieces. If you use really small turnips, after washing and peeling them, there's no need to cut them into halves or quarters.
Also, even though I had less turnips than called for, since I ended up dividing my vegetables into two jars, I used more than the suggested 1 small wedge of raw beet-1 for the smaller jar and 3 for the larger one. I similarly changed the 4 suggested cloves of garlic into 3--1 for the smaller jar and 2 for the larger.
I also decided, based on previous pickling experience, to replace pickling salt with kosher salt. Because both are free of iodine and are similar in weight, this is a good substitution.
About 1 1/2 pounds white turnips, washed, peeled and cut into 1 - 2-inch sized pieces
handful of celery leaves
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 small wedge raw beet, peeled and cut into 3-4 slivers
3/4 cup white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons kosher salt
2 1/4 cups water
-Once sterilized, remove your jars from the oven and begin filling them with the chopped turnips, celery leaves, garlic and beet slivers. I arranged mine in layers (not that it matters, since the next step will erase any attempts at artistic arrangement).
-In a small bowl, stir together the vinegar and salt until the salt has dissolved. Add the water to the vinegar mixture and pour over the turnips.
-If you're uncertain about whether your jars have vinegar-proof lids, place plastic wrap over the top of the jar to prevent rusting. Then, seal with the lid.
-Store jars in a warm place (preferably by a window) and leave for 10 days before refrigerating. The pickles should last for six weeks.