Pickle craft

Loaded with nostalgia, the humble nosh with crunch may be the ultimate comfort food

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By Devra First
Globe Staff / July 21, 2010

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If it were a Sunday morning in the ’70s, you might find my family bundled into our silver Dodge Dart, its formidable snout pointing us out of the New York suburbs and toward the city. I am sure the stated purpose of these trips was culture, but not in my mind. In my mind it was pickles. I was a kid obsessed with the half-sours fetched from a barrel on the street at Guss’ Pickles in the Lower East Side. (Guss’ recently relocated to Brooklyn, changing its name to Ess-a-Pickle due to a lawsuit. It was the end of an era.) The pickles’ green skins were just beginning to veer into olive. They were crisp, bright, sour without being puckery. The tub that contained them would inevitably leak in the trunk on the drive home, and wafts of garlic would be released each time we popped it open for weeks to come.

I’m still obsessed with pickles. I am not alone. There is a pickle of the month club. A Facebook page for pickles has 6,110 fans (some of whom make comments not suitable for work). If you Google “obsessed with pickles,’’ a) you are obsessed with pickles yourself, and b) you will find you are in good company. Not that you need Google to tell you this if you’ve eaten in a restaurant in the past few years. This humble food that reminds me of my grandfather is increasingly featured on the menus of restaurants catering to hipsters who dress like my grandfather.

What is the appeal?

“I think a lot goes back to the revival of comfort food,’’ says Mark Goldberg, chef at Woodward, the trendy lounge/restaurant in the Ames hotel. “We all grew up with some sort of pickles, so it’s a bit nostalgic.’’

Goldberg hasn’t had the monkey on his back for long. “It’s a relatively new pickling fetish,’’ he says. At Woodward, he features a so-called “pickling program.’’ This means pickled crudites on the table instead of bread — baby carrots, cauliflower, beets, grapes, pearl onions. He and his staff make pickled cherry peppers for their pizza, pickled garlic for their mussels, pickled figs for cheese plates.

Many enthusiasts say their love for pickles is as much about connection to family and culture as it is about crunch and big flavors.

Travis Grillo grew up eating the pickles his grandfather and father made with ingredients pulled fresh from the garden. He loved them so much he turned them into a business. His Grillo’s Pickles started out as a handmade pushcart by the Park Street T station. Now the dill spears are also sold at Whole Foods and smaller specialty markets including City Feed, Dave’s Fresh Pasta, and Sherman Market. Grillo recently started pickling green tomatoes, too.

“I’m a strict Italian,’’ he says. “Our family has always had a monster garden. I have memories of walking outside on a summer day and picking things, laying them out, washing everything by hand. We’d have grape leaves in one pile, dill in another, garlic in one pile. My dad would explain to me that you can’t put in too much vinegar, that you want to slice the garlic real thin. When I started Grillo’s, that was all in my mind.

“I knew I had the best pickle,’’ he says. “I wanted to share that with everybody I could.’’

I don’t know if it’s the best pickle, but it’s one of my favorites in Boston right now, super-crisp and tangy, with an alluring sweet note Grillo attributes to the freshness of his ingredients. He says he doesn’t add any sugar.

Chef Dante de Magistris, of Dante and Il Casale, also associates pickles with his Italian family. When he was young, he says, they often would snack on pickles with bread and prosciutto or mozzarella. Now he makes pickles for his restaurants, such as giardiniera, a mix of cippolini onions, fennel, cauliflower, carrots, and celery. If fiddleheads are available, they’ll pickle those. Ovoli mushrooms are one of his favorite ingredients to pickle, with their round caps nearly the color of cooked lobster. And Hungarian peppers become pepperoncini.

Tim Wiechmann of T.W. Foods, who pickles everything from okra to purple wax beans to multiple varieties of carrots, grew up eating “a lot of sausage and sauerkraut,’’ he says. His parents are German. Now he makes his own. “Sauerkraut we make all the time,’’ he says, both purple and green varieties. “One day I was like, why do I buy the store-bought cooked stuff? I learned about the health values of fermented. I’ve been doing it ever since.’’ (He recommends the book “Wild Fermentation,’’ by Sandor Ellix Katz, if anyone is interested in doing the same.)

“There’s a romance to pickles,’’ he says. “Look at this beautiful stuff — how can I preserve it? It appeals to craft-minded people who are into local food.’’

Phillip Tang of East by Northeast remembers his aunt making pickled cabbage and carrots and stowing the large jar in a corner of the kitchen. “Northern-style Chinese pickles are pretty vinegary and straightforward,’’ he says. “It wasn’t a special-occasion food, but making them was a special occasion for her.’’ At his restaurant, he offers a seasonal pickle plate. Recent house pickles have included curry-scented cauliflower, a bread-and-butter-style pickle made with summer squash, and the daikon and carrot pickles that are nearly always available.

The love of pickles is universal. “You go to Japan, you go to a sushi restaurant and ask the dude for his pickles, and they’ll have them back there,’’ says Stew Golomb, the mastermind behind MoonBrine pickles, formerly of Boston. “All over the world. Those delicious canned ones that come from the Middle East, they’re [darn] delicious salty little . . .’’ he laughs giddily, caught up in the obsession.

Golomb moved to Portland, Ore., almost two months ago, taking his operation with him. He’ll be shipping his beloved Pretty Hot! and Super Dill! varieties back East; in his new city, he plans to have his own retail space for the first time. “I don’t apply ‘artisan’ or ‘gourmet’ or any of those stupid words,’’ he says. “I love pickles, I make them, I make them because they’re delicious. The salty deliciousness, that’s the bottom line for me.’’

He does like the word “pickle,’’ though — he believes it contributes to the product’s appeal. “Pickles are funny,’’ he says. “The word is funny. I really believe that. It’s fun.’’

Although this is perhaps the most far-fetched explanation for pickle obsession I’ve heard, Grillo voices the same belief. “I think people like pickles because it’s fun to say. People laugh anytime you say it.’’

Maybe that fun factor is why they lend themselves so well to cocktails. At Dante, pickles find their way into a drink called the Agave Diavolo. It’s made of pepperoncini-infused tequila, agave nectar, pineapple, and lime juice.

Sherri Brooks Vinton, author of “Put ’Em Up: A Comprehensive Home Preserving Guide for the Creative Cook,’’ recommends pickling ramps, then using the brine in martinis.

But perhaps the best possible combination of pickle and booze is the pickleback, a shot of whiskey with a pickle juice chaser. The smoky, sweet taste of the whiskey segues into the salt and sourness of the brine; the flavors complement each other, while the chaser cuts the heat of the shot. Popular in New York and other cities, it is starting to make an appearance here.

“I had a knee-jerk reaction when I first heard about such a thing,’’ says Hugh Reynolds, bar manager at Temple Bar. “It was so contradictory that I had to try it. I’m not even a whiskey or bourbon aficionado. I loved it.’’ He offers customers a shot of Buffalo Trace and a “back’’ of house-made brine. “As [chef] Michael Scelfo put it best, when he first tried a pickleback: ‘Oh my God, it’s like it never happened. In a delicious way.’ The idea is to clean the palate and take away the burn,’’ he says.

Highland Kitchen bar manager Joe McGuirk offers the drink, too, but calls it the Dirty Pickle or the Pickle Snifter. (The difference? With the latter, the brine is served in a snifter.) “People who are whiskey drinkers or adventuresome drinkers tend to order it,’’ he says.

If you need something to do with your leftover Grillo’s brine, it makes an excellent chaser for Jack Daniel’s. And consuming it rather than dumping it adheres to the pickle spirit: At bottom, pickling is about using what you have when you have it.

“People are growing their own produce, going to farmers’ markets, and joining CSAs,’’ Vinton says. “When people come home for the third week in a row with five pounds of beets, they need to find a way to work with them that they hadn’t considered before. Pickling is a great way to use up what you can’t eat up.’’

The progression from pickle love to pickle craft is natural. Getting started making your own can be intimidating, says Vinton, who comes to town this week. She’ll be teaching about home preserving Saturday at Brookline’s Allandale Farm. “A good point of entry for people if they’re a little intimidated is refrigerator pickles,’’ she says. “You can have a lot of creativity there and experiment with your recipe.’’

With the markets overflowing, this is a golden time of year for pickle makers. Refrigerator pickles satisfy today’s craving for something light, cool, and boldly flavored — they must be eaten quickly, but they don’t involve the heat and hassle of canning. An icebox pickle of cucumbers with rice vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and chilies lends interest to everything from burgers to cold poached chicken with rice. Full-fledged canning requires more effort, but it’s worth it. You’ll be awfully glad, come midwinter, for any summer produce you managed to put away.

With that in mind, on a recent afternoon, several friends and I meet up to make pickles together. They bring beautiful produce from the Copley market: tiny yellow carrots, turnips, beets of all hues, cucumbers, and peaches. I bring the world’s largest containers of white and cider vinegar, dill from Ward’s Berry Farm, and plenty of canning jars.

We spend a few merry hours together — peeling, slicing, stirring, and sweating over the boiling water bath in which we immerse the jars to seal them. We make crunchy dill pickles, beets, a mixture of baby carrots and turnips, and Vinton’s pickled ginger peaches (the leftover brine from which proves perfect in cocktails as well). The other recipes we use are passed down from a friend’s grandmother in Louisiana, who used to pickle okra, mirlitons (chayote), and other regional produce. Then we sit on the patio, drink cold white wine, and wait for the pickles — and ourselves — to cool.

A summer afternoon, preserved in the memory and in the jar. Another reason to love pickles.

Devra First can be reached at

Correction: An earlier version of this article said author Sherri Brooks Vinton will teach about home preserving at an event tomorrow with the group Moms Going Out. The event was canceled after the section, which was printed in advance, went to press.