September 2011

I grew up eating my Mom’s sweet pickles and have always wanted to make my own. This summer I planted 7 cucumber plants in our garden, hoping I would get a big enough batch of cucumbers to make pickles at some point. The truth is, I’ve had a few big cucumber harvests that would have worked well for a round of pickles, but I was so excited about eating the cucumbers that I never really got the chance. However, now that it’s mid-September, I think I’ve eaten about as many cucumber salads as I can stomach and I was delighted when I finally got another big cucumber harvest from the garden that I could make pickles out of.

I called my mom up last weekend to ask for her “secret” pickle recipe, only to learn that it was the recipe printed on the back of the Mrs. Wages pickle lime package. As it turns out, they sell the very same pickling lime here in Davis, so I was in luck.

I suppose this post isn’t so much about sharing a recipe as it is about sharing the wonderful feeling I get from growing and preserving my own food. In a world and economy that seems so unpredictable, it is comforting to know that I can at least grow the vegetables I would need to sustain myself and maybe a family one day. I like to think that maybe my parents had the same thoughts when they planted their first garden as a young couple.

I still have pretty vivid memories of my dad coming home for lunch during the summer when my mom, sister, and I were all out of school. We would gather around the messy kitchen table, moving aside art supplies, dishes, and other things that had accumulated since breakfast, make sandwiches, and eat as a family. My dad always had a jar of these pickles out and after putting them on his sandwich, he would stack a few extras on his plate to eat between bites of sandwich. These memories are what really made me want to make these.

As far as I’m concerned, the pickles themselves are really delicious. They are the perfect crisp and tangy accompaniment to any sandwich and my dad would give you a big list of what else they belong on. I guess I’m just happy to be carrying on a few of the family food traditions I grew up with. It makes the distance between California and home seem just a little smaller even if the 5 hour plane ride inevitably reminds me otherwise.

“Old South Cucumber Lime Pickles”
from my mom, slightly modified from the Mrs. Wages Pickling Lime package

7 lbs slicing cucumbers, sliced to about 3/16-inch thickness (if you plant your own, Burpless cucumbers work well)
1 cup pickling lime
2 gallons water
8 cups white vinegar (5% acidity)
8 cups sugar
1 Tbsp salt
2 tsp pickling spice

Prepare and process home canning jars and lids to sterilize jars.

Wash cucumbers; drain. Mix water and pickling lime in a large non-reactive pot. Do not use aluminum (you can use enameled pots). Let cucumbers soak in mixture for 2 hours or overnight. Remove pickles and discard lime water. Rinse 3 times in fresh cold water. Soak 3 hours in fresh ice water.

Wrap pickling spice in cheese cloth and tie with cotton string or thread. Combine vinegar, sugar, salt, and pickling spice packet in a large non-reactive pot (again–no aluminum). Bring mixture to a low boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove syrup from heat and add cucumbers. Soak 5-6 hours or over night. Boil in the syrup for 35 minutes.

Pack hot cucmbers into sterilized jars, leaving 1/2-inch of headspace. Remove air bubbles and cap each jar as it is filled.

Process pints 10* minutes, quarts 15* minutes, in a boiling water bath canner. Test jars for airtight seals according to manufacturer’s directions. If jars do not completely seal, refrigerate and consumer within two weeks.

Ready to eat in 24 hours. Chill before serving to enhance flavor and crispness.


Tomatoes have been the main star in our kitchen since the beginning of August. I’ve been getting pounds of tomatoes every week from the garden, so we’ve been doing everything we can to keep up with them before they go bad. Aside from breakfast, almost every meal has had a tomato squeezed into it in some way. Just in case it sounds like I’m complaining, let me assure you that I’m not. I spent my entire life, up until a couple summers ago, HATING tomatoes, so the way I see it I’m happily making up for a 26-year tomato void in my life.

I like to think I was a decent eater as a kid (definitely not the kind who refuses all colorful or healthy foods), but I would NOT BUDGE on tomatoes. Every summer my parents grew tomatoes in our garden and every year my dad would try so hard to get me to eat them. I think he was convinced that some evil friend had fed me a grocery store tomato (gasp!) at some point and that experience had formed my opinion. But every few years I would break down and agree to try a bite of his fresh, ripe, homegrown tomato and I would absolutely hate it.

Then, a year or two after moving to California and being immersed in a produce-loving, potluck-crazy grad student community where people just wouldn’t stop talking about their stupid, delicious heirloom tomatoes, I got jealous. For the first time I was no longer proud of my tomato hatred. Instead, I began to wonder if I really was missing out, and I vowed to put an honest effort into learning to like tomatoes.

I’d always liked ketchup, tomato sauce, etc, but anything resembling a raw tomato had been off limits. So I decided to start small with tomato juice. It was actually pretty easy to start liking that, which gave me hope! Then I moved on to sweet yellow and orange tomato varieties like pineapple heirloom tomatoes and sungolds. The yucky tomato texture was still there, but the relative lack of acidity made them possible to stomach. It took another summer or two to get used to raw red tomatoes, but at some point it just clicked and I became a full-fledged tomato eater!

In the last month or so I’ve made dozens of caprese salads, cucumber tomato salads, fresh tomato sauces, roasted tomato soup, and gazpacho. And when we still couldn’t keep up with the tomatoes, I started slow-roasting them to use in sandwiches and salads. This, I’ve discovered, is my favorite way to eat tomatoes. Most of the water of the tomatoes evaporates away, concentrating and perfecting the tomato flavor in a more compact little slice. A couple of weeks ago when we we were trying to use up homemade pesto in the fridge, I had the idea for this pizza. To me, it’s the quintessential summer pizza. If you have an abundance of basil and tomatoes, this is a great way to use them. Store bought tomatoes and pesto would work as well, but the better quality tomatoes you can get (from a farmers market or farm stand), the better it will be.

Vicken’s dad, who is an English professor, was visiting us last week in the middle of a tomato onslaught, and was reminded of a Pablo Neruda poem that he shared with me: Ode to tomatoes. It’s a wonderful toast to the perfect summer fruit and his imagery might even make you salivate a little! Give it a read if you have a chance. And then make this pizza or anything else involving a tomato before the summer warmth fades and the last of these “stars of the earth” is gone!

Roasted tomato and pesto pizza
Makes one large pizza

Pizza crust (slightly modified from Cook’s Illustrated’s Best Recipe)
1/2 cup warm water
pinch sugar
1/2 envelope yeast
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup bread flour (or all-purpose flour)
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp salt

6 medium tomatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1/4 to 1/3 cup basil pesto (this recipe is pretty good)
1 cup shredded mozzarella

1. Preheat oven to 225 degrees F. Core the tomatoes and then slice into 3/8 to 1/2 inch slices. This will seem thick, but they shrink a lot, trust me. Arrange on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 2 hours.

2. To prepare pizza dough, measure 1/2 cup warm water in a 1-cup measuring cup, stir in sugar, and sprinkle with the yeast. Let it sit until the yeast dissolves and bubbles form, about 5 minutes.

3. Combine flour and salt into a food processor and pulse until mixed well. Continue pulsing as you pour the olive oil and then yeast mixture through the feed tube of food processor. If the dough does not readily form a ball, add additional water and continue pulsing until a ball forms. Process until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 30 seconds longer.

4. Turn dough out onto a floured surface, knead by hand a few strokes to form a smooth, round ball. Put the dough into a deep oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Put in a warm place and let dough rise for 1-2 hours.

5. When tomatoes look shriveled and have turned a deeper shade of red, they are done. Remove them from the oven and set aside to cool. Turn the oven up to 450.

6. When dough has risen remove plastic wrap and punch the dough down. Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured surface and pat all sides with flour. **I find this step to be really important, especially if the dough seems very sticky. If this is the case, then add even more flour to the surface.** Cover with a damp towel and let the dough relax for at least 10 minutes, but no longer than 30 minutes.

7. Spread dough on a pizza stone or baking sheet (I use a 15 inch round baking stone, but cookie sheets work just fine). Spread a thin layer of pesto over the pizza, followed by roasted tomatoes*, and then mozzarella. Bake at 450 for about 15 minutes, or until crust and cheese are golden.

*If you have leftover roasted tomatoes you can store them in an air-tight container in the fridge for several days. They are great on sandwiches, pasta, or for snacking.