CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There are a few types of food that show up in nearly every culture around the world, foods that developed to satisfy a crucial need in a simple way.
Bread, for example, uses water, whatever grain is available, a leavening agent and maybe a pinch of flavoring (usually salt, maybe sugar or fat) to make the foundation of a meal. Call it a baguette, challah, injera or Wonder, it's all the same basic formula.
Dumplings show up in every culture, too. They might be called ravioli, empanadas, pot stickers or pierogis, but they all serve the same need. They disguise leftovers.
And every culture pickles things. Vegetables tend to become ripe all in the same three or four months of the year, so there's a need to save some of that bounty for leaner times.
So cultures around the world salted and added vinegar and citrus to their produce to make it last through the winter.
Almost any vegetable can be pickled. Some work better than others (leafy greens don't work so well).
It's no accident that the generic noun "pickle" has come to mean pickled cucumber. Cucumbers are America's go-to pickle because they pickle beautifully. They stay crisp in brines and their subtle (or bland, if you will) flavor provides a blank canvas for whatever flavors you want to add.
Now is the time to pickle cucumbers. They're showing up in huge bountiful mounds at the produce stands at Capitol Market and they're absurdly, delightfully, inexpensive. Depending on the stand, they're four for a $1 or $1.29 a pound.
Small, sturdy Kirby cucumbers are better for pickling than the big ones that are most often sliced into salads. If you can find these (and they're available now), you don't have to bother peeling as the skin is neither too tough nor too bitter.
Here are a handful of pickle recipes, representing a few different cultures, and ranging from ridiculously easy to slightly more involved.
Reach David Gutman at david.gut...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.
Cucumbers, sugar, salt
Slice a few cucumbers into thin rounds. Toss the slices in a bowl with a large pinch of sugar and a small pinch of salt (you're looking for, ballpark, a 3-to-1 sugar to salt ratio. Maybe a tablespoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt, but who's counting). Let them sit about 15 minutes. They'll leach out a little water, creating their own brine.
That's it, they're done.
They'll soften a little but will still be fresh, crisp and lightly seasoned.
For a slightly more complicated recipe, with a more traditional pickle flavor, splash them with a little vinegar (any kind will do) after the 15 minute rest and let them sit at least another 15 minutes.
Classic Dill Pickles
These are traditional pickles, Vlassic's platonic ideal. If your cucumbers are small enough, leave them whole; otherwise cut them into spears.
Cucumbers, water, vinegar, sugar, salt, assorted herbs and spices
PACK cucumbers into heat-proof storage containers (Mason jars look pretty but any heat-proof Tupperware type thing will do). Don't crush them, but the tighter you pack them, the less brine you will need to make.
PLACE whatever supplemental flavors you want to use in each of your pickle containers. Dill is traditional. Garlic cloves are nice. Put a couple in each jar. Peppercorns, red pepper flakes, dried chilies, anise, cloves, coriander, juniper berries and almost any kind of herb work well. None is required. Use what you feel like or what you have on hand. Play around.
ESTIMATE the amount of brine to prepare. It will depend on how many cucumbers you're pickling. You want to cover the cucumbers completely. Here's the basic ratio, adjust accordingly:
1 cup vinegar (cider vinegar is cheap and works well)
2 cups water