CAMBRIDGE -- Rick Field is the pickling alchemist behind Windy City Wasabeans, which are green beans pickled with soy sauce and wasabi; Smokra, or smoky paprika with okra; and Phat Beets, rosemary-scented pickled beets. These and other vinegary vegetables are part of the line called Rick's Picks, a psychedelic root cellar that puts the produce of spring and summer in jars, along with the sweet sensation of the seasons.
You might think that these old-fashioned pantry staples are just like Grandma's. If that were the case, Grandma wouldn't be afraid of combining green tomatoes with curry powder and Spanish onions, or adding enough cayenne pepper to her dilly beans to earn the name "Mean Beans."
These days Field's pickling is done in a New York commercial kitchen, but on this day the Boston-born entrepreneur is in Cambridge, in the stainless and wood dream kitchen of his childhood friend Matthew Berlin, with whom he is staying. Field may not be the ideal house guest. He's making the whole house smell like vinegar.
Field is playing around with recipes for a new asparagus pickle. He'll call it "WhupAsp." Even in a home kitchen, pickling can feel a lot like lab day in high school chemistry class. First Field sterilizes glass jars in the dishwasher. "If you're low-tech, you can boil them for 15 minutes," he says. The pickles start with two pots on the stove, one for the vinegary brine, which is the flavoring liquid for the vegetables, the other filled with boiling water to seal the filled jars later.
Before he starts pickling, Field lays down the law. "You shouldn't be scared of pickling at home," he says. "One, pickling in your kitchen is really fun, and you should be able to find your own way through it. And two, you will not die of botulism making pickles. Just follow the steps carefully and patiently."
Field, 43, looks the part of the tortured artist. He favors a jaunty straw hat and drives an old Subaru wagon, usually with his trusty old mutt Lefty riding shotgun. Shaggy-haired and wearing baggy cargo shorts and laid - back slip-on shoes, he could be mistaken for a roadie with one of the summer tour jam bands.
Rick's Picks is three years old ; Field formed it with business partner Lauren McGrath, a former caterer. They began with nine varieties, selling them in greenmarkets and specialty stores in New York. They've added one more, and now they're sold all over the country. Field still tests new recipes at his own stove, and at his family's summer house in Barnard, Vt. "I put on Beau Jocque and the Zydeco Hi-Rollers and put my head down," he says. "I love the heat, the steam, the music, the beer."
Field grew up in Cambridge, went to Shady Hill School and Phillips Academy in Andover, then majored in English at Yale. Summers, he pickled with his mother, Holly, in Vermont and says that he's still inspired by those times : " The summer nights, the family energy, the Red Sox on the radio, and the steamy pickling kitchen."
At his friend's house, he follows one of his own rules: He wants every jar of pickles to taste of three elements. For the WhupAsp, he's decided on tangerine juice, hot cherry peppers, and white peppercorns.
While the water comes to a boil, he slices the bright round chili peppers, trims asparagus with a Japanese knife, and adds white wine vinegar and fresh tangerine juice to the brine pot in equal proportions. He tastes the mixture with a spoon until it has the right balance of sweetness and acidity. When he's satisfied, he brings the brine to a boil.
Field began his career on a film crew. After college he moved to New York to make movies, doing sound for commercials for a few years, then working as a producer at VH1. Eventually he directed a bunch of "100 Greatest" shows like "100 Greatest Artists of Rock & Roll." Later, he produced segments about technology and culture for "Now With Bill Moyers."
He nurtured a hobby making pickles. He bought vegetables at the Grand Army Plaza greenmarket at Prospect Park in Brooklyn and experimented in his tiny kitchen. In 2001 he won best in show for his Windy City Wasabeans at the Rosedale International Pickle Festival in Upstate New York. He won again in 2002. Shortly thereafter, he and McGrath started the company.
Field has always bought produce locally and sold pickles at farmers' markets. "I knew that I could connect with people at the greenmarkets," he says. "I knew that I wanted the company to be about what was fresh and local." He buys his spices from Sahadi's Specialty and Fine Foods in Brooklyn, and he's a stickler for the freshest produce. "We have a beet guy, a green bean guy, an okra woman, a green tomato guy." he says. "If you want to see how exciting it is to work with local produce, try pickling with out-of-season stuff from far away."
Most of Rick's Picks are bottled between early July until the first hard frost. Workers fill 750 to 1 , 500 jars in one session in a rented commercial kitchen in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., about 80 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan. So, the pickles are still hand-packed, just not by Field and not in his home kitchen. "I still miss the smell of garlic on my fingers," he says.
Back in Cambridge, Field is stuffing glass canning jars with asparagus. Each contains a generous slice of chili pepper and lots of peppercorns. He pours boiling brine over the spices and spears, screws on the lids, which have plastisol on the underside so they seal in the boiling water, and with a jar lifter, lowers the jars one at a time into the kettle. "Complete immersion is mandatory," he says.
When the jars are settled in the water, Field slams down the lid and starts the timer. "These will boil for 6 minutes," he says. "Much more than that and they will start to turn to mush. With pickles, crispy should be the number one adjective."
Before they're ready to eat, the pickles need to sit on a shelf for a couple of weeks to absorb the flavors of the brine. Once opened, they're good for many months in the fridge, to use as a snack with sandwiches, or as a piquant mouthful beside a steak.
Not that they would ever last that long.
Rick's Picks are available at Concord Provisions, 73-75 Thoreau St., Concord, 978-369-5555; Darwin's Ltd., 1629 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-491-2999, and Whole Foods Markets, or go to rickspicksnyc.com.