“We should totally try to make these at home.”

In a lot of cases, as frustration mounts and the joy of recreating something you’ve loved in a restaurant falls victim to repeat failures, this phrase soon turns into “Whose stupid idea was this anyway?”

But a helping hand from a pro like Alice Waters can go a long way toward preventing such disappointment, as I learned this weekend when raw-materialsI attempted to make pickled vegetables like the ones we enjoyed at The Spotted Pig in New York last month.

While looking for another recipe in Waters’ newest cookbook, The Art of Simple Food, I came across her oh-so-easy directions for making quick-pickled vegetables.  I knew I had to give it a shot, to see if it even came close to the tangy goodness of the green beans, beets and other veggies we had in New York.

Details on produce, prep, pickling and palate after the jump.

I knew I wanted to pickle a couple of different vegetables, partly for the variety and partly to see if each would react to the brine recipe in the same way.  So I headed to the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, eager to see what sorts of late-autumn produce would lend themselves to pickling.

shunkyo-radishes1     onions1     carrots-and-green-tomatoes2

At New Morning Farm’s stand, I found bunches of what seemed to be identified as “Skunky’s radishes” for $2 per bunch.  Having never heard of these particular radishes before, I asked the woman behind the counter if they would work for pickling.  She had no idea what I was talking about, so she finally asked me to show her the item in question.  At that point, she broke into a big grin and proceeded to tell me that these Shunkyo radishes would take to a vinegar brine quite well.  You can bet I won’t forget that name anytime soon…

The next stall over was occupied by Twin Springs Fruit Farm of Orrtanna, Pennsylvania.  Don’t let the name fool you – their vegetables were definitely the stars of the show this weekend, as they had loose carrots with the stems still attached for $2.99 a pound.  They also had a handful of green tomatoes left, which I snapped up for their color and a vague recollection of pickled tomatoes previously enjoyed.

I ended my shopping at Tree and Leaf Farm, where they always have a great selection of beautiful produce.  From season to season, I’ve found them to be a reliable source for everything from salad greens and garlic scapes to heirloom tomatoes and sweet and hot peppers.   This week, I was pleased to see their pint-sized containers of small onions.  At $3 a container, they were another great deal that fit right into my pickling plans.

prepped-veggiesWith all of the veggies selected, I returned home and started the ‘brine.’  Like the half-sour pickles I made this summer, these would not be intended for long storage so I wouldn’t have to worry about preparing a double-boiler or any sort of laborious canning process.  All I had to do was combine the ingredients called for in Alice Waters’ recipe, bring them to a boil and then cook the veggies in the brine “until they are cooked but still a little crisp.”

I washed and chopped the veggies to prepare them for their dip, but then the reality of the situation struck me: Waters gives no real directions for just how long to let the produce steep.  I would have to determine “done” on my own.

I started with the carrots, having cooked carrots in the past and knowing that they tend to be somewhat forgiving.  Six or seven minutes in the boiling brine, and their exteriors had softened while they stayed crisp throughout.  The radishes came next, cooking for almost as long as the carrots and holding up to the heat.  Sadly, both seemed to give up some of their vibrant color to the bath, resulting in paler versions sitting and cooling as I dropped quartered onions into the now-pink brine.  The onions required only 5 minutes to cook, but the decision to quarter them before boiling resulted in the layers separating while cooking (in the future I’ll leave the onions whole to avoid this). 

The last and most delicate item were the green tomatoes, which I also decided to quarter.  Of all the ingredients, I was least pleased with my approach to the tomatoes.  They immediately softened and started to peel away from their skins in the brine.  The flavor worked well, with the flesh of the tomatoes quickly picking up the tangy-sweet notes, but the texture was an absolute nightmare.  If I use tomatoes again next time, I’m thinking about cutting them up and adding them only after the brine has been allowed to cool.  That way, they can absorb the flavors without cooking through too quickly.

jarredAs the veggies came out of the bath, I placed them into a large glass bowl to cool to room temperature.  And when all of the veggies were cooked, I turned off the heat and allowed the brine itself to cool, as well.  Finally, I divided the vegetables between two Mason jars and poured the vinegar mixture over them evenly.  The jars went into the refrigerator to cool further, and the recipe suggests that they will keep for more than a week under refrigerator conditions.

Having tasted some of the pickled vegetables after allowing them to cool, I was pleased to note the sweet-and-sour flavor that comes through loud and clear.  The veggies were still crunchy, recreating that invigorating freshness that I enjoyed in New York.  But this recipe seemed to go a bit softer on the acidic notes I was looking for, and the muted colors of the finished product were a bit underwhelming, as well.  More than anything, they reminded me of the giardiniera or vinegar-based antipasto salads of my Italian upbringing. 

I fully intend to keep working with this recipe, trying to tweak it to find a tang that matches my memory.  But I can certainly recommend it as a terrific starting point for creating bright, mildly tangy pickled vegetables at home.  Serve them as a first course or as an accompaniment with a cheese and charcuterie plate to really impress your guests.  Or, if you want to get really creative, use them as a topping on a classic Italian sub!

Alice Waters’ vegetable-pickling brine (makes about 3 1/2 cups):

1 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1 3/4 cup water
2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 of a bay leaf
4 thyme sprigs
Half a dried cayenne pepper or a pinch of dried chile flakes
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 whole cloves
1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped in half
Pinch of salt

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.