Yes, like everyone else, I’m falling under the spell of pickles. Ah, pickles- the latest fashion food to hit New York, one that rolls across the country like a vinegared wave of deliciousness that is salty like the sea, while when conditions are just right, can loft a surfboard made of cucumbers with a tiny beach bum made of garlic to a pedestal of freshness while we anxious eaters on the shore wring our napkins in anticipation of that perfect ride that culminates in throwing our arms around the well-seasoned rider, and getting a sloppy taste of a job well done right in the kisser.

Wow. That metaphor took a turn for the long-winded.

Moving on, I love pickles. I love pickles any time of day or night, and in any way. I love them on burgers, in a salad, with a beer, with delicious meats, and straight out of the jar. They add a snappy bit of pep to any spring or summer dish, and balance out a heavy meal with a pleasant bit of zest. Pickles are good for you, too. As someone who has never, and most likely will never subscribe to the Kombucha craze, pickles are the way of getting the health benefits of vinegar without having to fight through the “acquired taste” that people defend Kombucha of having. It is my own personal opinion that people fight through the taste and grow to an understandable level of palate acceptance in order to glean the homeopathic benefits of whatever it is that Kombucha has to offer. Knowing only marginal information about Kombucha, I make this claim knowing that it is factually inaccurate, but no amount of gentle prodding will get me to change my mind and try it. Why? Because food and drinks are supposed to taste good. You are supposed to enjoy your food. Savor it.

People will strive to acquire a great pickle. Friends have sent New York Half-Sours across the country longing for a taste of home. Japanese friends of mine have pickled everything from radishes to watermelon rinds. When I was younger, I read an article about the proprietor of a local hamburger joint who called the local newspaper in to publish a huge announcement. It turns out that after years of searching, our eccentric Burgermeister had found the greatest pickle to accompany his burgers, and he wanted a triumphant moment in the sun to tell the world that his dish was complete. He wanted to bask in the glory, and, yes, relish it.

Relish, you say? Why, what better to way to enjoy a food? You do know that there’s pickles in that there relish? (Seriously, there are.) Here is a list of things that I’ve pickled over the last few months:

Carrots
Beets
Escabeche (carrots, onions, jalapenos)
Cucumbers (baby English, Persian, Regular)
Garlic
and most recently,my own personal favorite- Ramps

Yes, Ramps. Wild garlic sprouts that appear only a few weeks out of the year. With the seasonal foods, (asparagus, ramps, morels, fiddleheads, berries of various derivations), I abuse my position as a Public Market employee to purchase as much of these as possible, and come up with every possible recipe for these items in the short window of availability that they give. In the last few weeks I’ve replaced garlic in all my recipes with ramps, putting them in risotto, making ravioli, tossing them with a coleslaw, flash searing the greens with morels and a hell of a lot of butter, wrapping halibut in the leaves, and a few other things that slip my mind, but recently, when I made my way through the Sunday crowd to my normal vegetable spot, I realized that I had become too overzealous with my spring culinary endeavour.

“You want ramps today?”

I had become that guy. Ramp Man. In the grand scheme of things, there are far worse things to be called than Ramp Man, but to have even the sight of me associated with one specific item, I had a market flashback back to my childhood, when I saw a customer of mine from the bakery on the street, and she called me out across the way as “Scone Boy”.

It’s a form of gentle ribbing, and I wanted to scream at them ‘I’m so much more than these ramps! Look at all the stuff that I’m creating! I’m not Scone Boy anymore!” It wouldn’t have done any good. Until the garlic spears came in, I’d be known as Ramp-Man. I could not be bothered to buy any until the moniker had all but washed away. I got a pear.

I went back to work, and a few hours later, a vendor walked by with two cases of vegetables. I craned my neck to see what was inside as they approached the counter.

“Can you send these to my folks in Leavenworth?”

“Sure.” I said. “What’s in the box?”

“Ramps.”

Crap. There were fifty bunches in total. Our vendor friend, it turns out, had grown up in Germany, where ramps were considered quite a treat. Now, as their parents had retired to the middle of Washington State, they were starting to have the craving for them, and had contacted the market to get some delivered. Being the dutiful market employee that I am, and wishing to help despite trying ever so (not that) hard to distance myself from the intoxicating plant, I agreed to help grant their parents their Springtime wish.

“Thank you so much. I can’t believe you know what to do with these. They’re so good, right? Do you want a few bunches to take home?”

How could I say no?

***

Fast forward to that night. I’ve loaded up my bag with all sorts of vegetables. We’re going to make a fresh pasta with some zucchini and pattypan squash, maybe throwing some fresh garbanzos in there. I don’t want to do ramps again. I really don’t. (Yes, yes I do.) There are four bunches in my backpack, and I can smell them through the zipper. Normally on the bus, I worry about the offending smell of my fishy sweatshirt, but ramps, as with truffles or durian, are one of those foods that have the unmistakeable aroma that drown out every other smell within a twenty foot radius. Thank God it wasn’t a durian.

What am I going to do with them?

I get home, check out what’s happening in my cupboards, make the pasta Mario Batali style (mound of flour, crack eggs until it looks like enough, stir, knead), and let it rest. I go to Google. I know ramps go well with pasta, and that Mario Batali has a great recipe for it (He did a good looking presentation at one of his restaurants for EarthDay with a ramp inspired pasta), but I want to do something different.

I read an article a couple weeks ago about Gramercy Tavern in New York, and the lengths they go to for great pickles.
I had nodded and bobbed my head in approval as I scrolled the article initially, and remembered something that Michael Anthony, their chef, had said:

“Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve made a couple simple vinegar pickles,” he said. “The last few years we’ve pickled an astounding number of ramps.

I went back and read it once more. I figured I didn’t have the time or money to invest in the Japanese nukazuke pots and accoutrements for the fermented überpickeln prevalent in kaiseki cuisine. Someday. What i did notice about the article was that he name-checked the number one name in pickles:

“We’re not trying to challenge Dave Chang for the best pickle plate in New York,” Anthony told me as we nibbled through more than a dozen pickles in the kitchen at Gramercy. “We’re trying to figure out how many cool pickles we can make, exploring how to introduce acidity to dishes in new ways. And finding discreet ways — and maybe not even all that discreet ways — to add them into dishes.”

Dave Chang. Dave Chang of Momofuku fame- the tiny restaurant in NYC that only served twelve people at a time, but left them with a fantastic experience? The same Dave Chang who actually put (and trademarked) cereal milk on his menu?

I’m getting his pickles.

There they are. The pickled ramps. The recipe is so simple- Trimmed ramps, salt, sugar, water, rice vinegar, seven spice powder? I’ve got this. Everything goes into the pot except the ramps. I throw some whole garlic cloves in there, and crank it up to a boil.

I wash, rinse, and dry my mason jars, the ones that I always have on hand for pickling, and put the trimmed ramps with about an inch of leaf at the end into the jar. I made the mistake of loading the jars too full with beets once before, and as a result, they stayed crispy and didn’t get quite so pickled. However, with the ramps, they’re quite wiltable, so I don’t mind too much if I overfill. I know they’ll get pickled somehow, even if I have to shake it like a paint can to get all that briney goodness to infuse itself into the tender stalks.

Wow. Four bunches of ramps (about 8 oz. of vegetable), fit in one jar. And there’s still room for the brine. It’s going to be spicy and good.

As a side note, when I first started jarring things, I wanted to start with a ginger peach butter. I called my mom to ask how to do it, as we’d always pickled stuff when I was younger, and like a boy, I never paid attention. We had row upon row, stack upon stack of beans, piccalilly, tomatoes, and corn relish in our basement pantry.

She told me over the phone, in no uncertain terms, that canning was dangerous unless you had the proper tools available for the job. It was a festering breeding ground for botulism and worse. She made me swear that I was going to do it the right way, and not wanting to have my stomach pumped over Peach Butter, I agreed.

I didn’t have a canning pot, but I used a regular one. Other than that, (Mom, if you’re reading, pay close attention to the next few words) I did it by the book. Wash, rinse, sanitize, sterilize, dry, can, rest, pray that it all turns out right. After three to four hours of work, I got four jars of peach butter. Yippee.

From that, I realized I probably wasn’t going to steambath any more peach butter or jarred vegetables. All that canning nonsense and noise is too much work. Here’s the big thing I learned about pickling that day: Pickles don’t have to be that complicated. When I pickle stuff now, I just want to eat it over the next couple of weeks. I don’t care if it can sit on my shelf, unopened and unrefrigerated for a year. That is the ultimate in efficient storage, but it certainly isn’t convenient when you’re boiling your hands in a steam bath trying to pick the last jar out of your spaghetti sauce pot without fear of it shattering because your mom has instilled the Midwestern fear of God in you.

If you’re going to eat pickles, or make your own pickles, it’s far more simple than that. You need a base (vegetable of your choice), a preservative (vinegar works great), and a way to hold them. The hot water canner is not the only way. As I said, I use a mason jar. Or, if I’m not feeling it, tupperware. If they’re just grab and go pickles that you’ll eat in a week, there’s no need for long term preservation. The combination of refrigerator chill and old timey vinegar, killing anything that would want to hurt your stomach, makes for a perfect foil for food spoilage.

***

Now, I’m sitting at home, wondering what to do in a month when my pickled ramps are at their full potency. It’s going to be picnic season soon, and I might just take them up to the beach on the shores of Puget Sound and enjoy them on a crisp summer day, watching the windsurfers sail on by.

Peter Meehan’s Article on Gramercy Pickles: http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/15/grass-fed-relishing-gramercys-pickles/

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