Mike Odette, chef and co-owner of Sycamore Restaurant in Columbia, Mo., is trolling the local farmer's market. He usually hunts for ingredients for his next menu, but today he's searching for veggies to take on a picnic.
A slaw using creamy mayonnaise might spoil in the summer heat. So Odette favors a simple summer vinaigrette that's equal parts cider vinegar and sugar. He recommends making it the night before.
"It benefits from sitting in the refrigerator overnight," he says, "so the flavors can develop, and you could even dress your slaw on your picnic."
He also adds cut apples, celery and onions. Odette says a slaw like this is the perfect foil for any kind of meat served at a picnic.
So are refrigerator pickles — and not just cucumbers. They could be other fruits or vegetables, chilled overnight in a brine of white vinegar, water, sugar, salt and spices.
"The bright acidity of pickles go perfect with pate, or even with fried chicken," Odette says.
Pickling predates picnics. Cucumbers were being pickled in Mesopotamia back in 2030 BC, according to the trade group Pickle Packers International. Perhaps one reason pickling has survived is because there are so many seasonal fruits and vegetables — from cherries to green tomatoes to okra to kohlrabi — that can be preserved this way.
Odette stops at a vegetable stand to marvel at a bunch of beets that look like jewels.
"Look at that. Isn't that something?" he says. "These look like bull's blood beets. They're bright, bright red, and they make great pickles. I see some little white Hakurei turnips, the Japanese turnips that pickle nicely, and some super fresh cucumbers."
He uses a standard brine in most of his recipes.
"It's nearly equal parts white vinegar and water, a little more sugar than salt and maybe a few spices depending on what it is you're pickling."
Odette says mustard seeds, dill, caraway, fennel and dried chilies all go well with pickled carrots. The carrots need to be blanched quickly before being brined so they taste crunchy and not raw.
"The texture of a refrigerator pickle is important," he says. "You want it to be crispy-crunchy and you want it to say even though I'm a pickle, I'm fresh, fresh, fresh."
Recipe: Napa Cabbage and Apple Slaw
1 cup cider vinegar
1 c sugar
In a small non-reactive saucepan, boil the vinegar and sugar together until it has reached the consistency of a thin syrup. Refrigerate.
1/2 large head Napa cabbage (about 1 1/2 pounds), finely shredded
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and cut into julienne
2 stalks celery, tiny dice
1/2 small red onion (about 1/3 cup), tiny dice
2 teaspoon celery seed
Cider gastrique from preceding recipe
Combine all ingredients and dress with 1/2 cup (or to taste) cider gastrique (reserve the remaining gastrique for another use). Refrigerate.
Recipe: Refrigerator (or Quick) Carrot Pickles
1 pound baby carrots, trimmed and peeled
1 1/3 cup distilled vinegar
1 cup water
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoon dill seed
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
In a small saucepan, combine all ingredients and bring to a boil. Simmer until the carrots are cooked, but with plenty of crunch left. Let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.
Feel free to adjust the sugar to taste. The acidity is about right in this recipe, but some cooks (and vegetables) may prefer a sweeter pickle.
Abbie Fentress Swanson is a reporter for Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production.