Sorry for the radio silence. I have been off gallivanting in New York, kayaking down the Hudson River, eating too many "must-eat" burgers and buns, and having too many late nights (working! Though there were a few parties...).
But I am back! And itching for my kitchen. You know when you eat too many rich and salty and fatty and delicious things, and all you crave after is a bowl of something white and light and plain? God, I felt so happy with my boring bowl of congee. Topped with some fried shallots, spring onions, and pickled lettuce hearts. Forget bread and butter; in Asia, it's rice and pickle that forms the most basic, most ordinary but most essential of meals.
Pickles aren't difficult to make at all. It sounds complicated but it really isn't. At the risk of over-simplifying things (I probably am), let me try to give you a rundown. First, there are the salty pickles and they take a little bit more time (days to months, depending on the pickle and how pickled you like it) but they keep for a lot longer and you hardly move a finger in that time. You use salt, a lot of it. Then, there are the sweet pickles and they take almost no time at all (hours to days, or even minutes if you are that pressed for time), and you still hardly move a finger. You use sugar and vinegar, and you do still need quite a bit of salt at the start. If you vary the seasonings/ spices/ herbs you use– soy sauce, fish sauce, chillies, garlic, cumin, whatever– you get different flavours.
I'll talk about sweet pickles today because no one likes waiting more than a few minutes these days. The main ingredient(s) is whatever crunchy seasonal vegetable you fancy. The example here is of some ugly cucumbers and gorgeous radishes I got from the farmer's market. (The cucumbers that look like studded fat green slugs seem frightening, but are crunchier and less juicy and seedy than the smooth ridged ones I'd reserve for nibbling raw).
SWEET ASIAN PICKLED VEGETABLES
1 large cucumber (200g)
1 bunch of radishes (100g)
1 tsp kosher salt
(basically 1:1 ratio but you can adjust slightly to taste)
1 cup sugar (I prefer unrefined)
1 cup white rice vinegar
(you can skip this)
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
1. Slice cucumbers and radishes into rounds (or whatever shape you fancy, really). Sprinkle generously with the salt and massage into the vegetables. Leave for 10 minutes or so to 'sweat'; you want it to lose about 1/4 its volume.
2. Meanwhile, bring the sugar and rice vinegar to a simmer and stir till the sugar dissolves. Toast the cumin seeds in a hot pan if using, then add to the pickling liquid. Remove from heat and let cool completely.
3. Drain the cucumbers and radishes, and rinse 3 times. I also press them gently to squeeze out any salty water.
4. Place vegetables in a glass container or jar of sorts. Pour pickling liquid over vegetables* and let chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour. These should keep for 2 weeks*, sometimes 3 weeks, but beyond that they start looking a little tired.
*Post-pickle disclaimer: I would not pickle my radishes for more than half a day because they lose their lovely pink. And I would not pickle them together with the cucumbers because then the cucumbers turn sort of pinkish-green, which is not very attractive...
*If you want to use vegetables like cauliflower, I would lightly blanch the florets first.
I told you it's easy. The vegetables are wonderfully crisp and I love how each munch yields a satisfying burst of sweet, sharp pickling juice and earthy cumin fragrance. You can get as creative as you like; I'll chuck some ideas at the end of this post. I love sweet pickles in a banh mi-style baguette maybe with torn roast chicken or slices of roast pork; tossed with boring/ non-pickled vegetables to add zing to a salad; maybe rolled with rice into bastardised sushi; or really, just eaten straight out of the jar with a (clean) pair of chopsticks.
Carrot and daikon (classic)
Sliced red onions (turn pin and loses its sharpness, gorgeous)
Thinly sliced young ginger (to make sushi gari, the rice vinegar naturally turns the ginger pink omfg)
Other pickles on the blog:
Nonya Achar (my aunt's recipe, stupidly simple but stunning)
Better Homemade Kimchi
In case you wanted congee after all that talk:
Leftover turkey/ chicken congee
Teochew porridge (and preserved turnip omelette)
Read more about how pickles are incredibly healthy (the salt- fermented ones though, to be precise)