Thursday, January 14, 2016

A fresh taste

mukhalal luft
In the picture a few spears of the last half-sour fermented cucumbers of the summer, pink pickled turnip, some queen olives and a sprig of celery leaf as garnish.
A trip to a Lebanese restaurant - Al-Shami in Oxford (they seem to be having problems with the web site at the time of writing) reminded me how much I adore middle-eastern pickles. They're cool, quick and crunchy and much less puckery than the classic British pickles even if both are equally delicious.

The other good point is that they are ridiculously easy to make at home. Simply prepare your vegetables and submerge in a boiling brine, close and leave to mature for a few days and then they're done. They will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks but no more. This isn't likely to be a problem.

The turnip pickles I had at Al-Shami were traditionally pink with beetroot juice, slightly sharp and salty. I ate all the ones on the salad plate and an extra side dish besides along with pickled chillies and olives. The other food was good but these were the best.

Getting turnips at this time of year wasn't terribly easy, the humble turnip seems to be way out of fashion and we had to try several places before tracking them down in Waitrose at a ridiculous price but my need had to be satisfied. A fresh white mooli would make a good substitute if that's all you can find.

For my recipe I mashed up the suggestions of two of my favourite authors on midde-eastern food, Claudia Roden and Arto de Haroutunian. Claudia tells me that in Egypt the pickles are made with no vinegar at all but she uses a very strong brine. I decided that would be too salty. Arto uses quite a lot of vinegar and other aromatics besides. I didn't want a very sharp pickle or to mask the turnip flavour too strongly so like Goldilocks I offer you a middle way but do adapt the recipe to your own taste as any good cook should.

750g peeled turnips
1 beetroot, cooked or raw
1 or 2 peeled cloves of garlic
900g water
100g cider vinegar (5%)
30g salt

Peel your turnips and cut them into pleasing shapes. I love the crinkle cutter for these but slices, wedges, finger shapes are all fine. Don't make them too thick in any direction, less than 1cm is good.

Slice the beetroot up. Raw beets should be quite thin, ready cooked ones a little thicker just to stop them breaking up too much.

Put the prepared turnip and beetroot into a very clean jar. Not much point in sterilising it as the turnip isn't sterile as it goes in but cleanliness is important. I used a square mason jar, about 2 ltrs capacity. This size jar would have taken a few more bits of turnip if you happened to have them. Mix the two vegetables as you go to equally distribute the beetroot throughout the turnips.  If you want other flavourings - celery leaf for example or a chilli then now is the time to pop them in.

A word on salt - any salt will do. It's much better to weigh it than use a volume measure like a tablespoon as the grain size varies so much. You get a much heavier weight of fine salt to large crystal sort in the same spoon. Unrefined sea salt will make the brine cloudy and iodised salt (table salt) will make the pickles darker so for this, where the colour is part of the charm, use cooking salt for preference.

Put the water, vinegar and salt into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the garlic in slices. I like to 'cook' the garlic like this because I once read an article on botulism but I'm sure it's not all that necessary. As soon as it's boiling and the salt is dissolved pour it over the turnips in the jar and seal the top. Spare brine will keep in a lidded jar in the fridge for a while or you can do as I did and roam the kitchen looking for spare veg that needed an unexpected salt bath.

Keep the sealed jar on the kitchen counter at warm room temperature for a few days - four or five is plenty. You can start eating them after that, taking out portions with a clean spoon each time and keeping the rest in the fridge.

Happy New Year