There’s been a little bit of a pickling craze in New York restaurants the last couple of years. Chefs love to pickle, I think, because the results bring a touch of extravagant, high-intensity flavor to a meal, and can be intensely personal. Case in point: the two batches of ramps (wild leeks) I pickled in early June. One was from a recipe by pickle whisperer David Chang, which used mellow rice wine vinegar and fiery Japanese shichimi togarashi to make a sweet-hot pickle I could eat by the fistful. The other came from Michael Anthony, chef at the upscale Gramercy Tavern. Mike likes a much sharper brine (9 parts white vinegar, 3 parts each sugar and water, and 1/2 part salt) and, for the ramps, sharp spices (ginger, star anise, coriander, and white pepper) too. His pickles, unsurprisingly, were profoundly zingy and made a great pre-dinner snack or a complement to a cold roast. Either of those brines would work, I bet, with fresh garlic or sweet mid-summer onions.
A good pickle is a party—crisp, flavorful vegetables, acidity, saltiness, sweetness, with the aromatics as the interesting guest from out of town. Quick pickles are fast, too: combine vinegar, water, salt, sugar, and spices in a pan, bring them to a simmer for a few minutes to infuse the brine with flavor, then dump the hot liquid over clean, cut-up vegetables and stick everything in the fridge for a day. In summer I make bread and butter cucumber pickles (brown sugar, turmeric, mustard seed, and allspice) once a month or so to eat with hamburgers or as part of a ploughman’s lunch. I knew these were a hit when a batch of kids aged 3 to 9 pronounced them “triple delicious.” For long, hot weekends with family I usually make a batch of mixed-vegetable giardinera with oregano, bay leaves, fennel, and black pepper. A crowd can go through a surprising amount of these at lunch. (Both recipes came from my favorite pickle cookbook, which was co-authored by Gourmet’s executive editor.)
Quick pickles are one answer to the conundrum of what to do with all that magnificent produce when it’s too disgustingly hot to cook much. Man can’t live on pickles alone, I suppose, but they’re awfully handy to have around.