A Pickle’s Comeback

This is a short tale of how a humble, but spunky, pickle made a comeback, a bold emergence from obscurity to a prime supporting role.

I’m lucky to have a big lemon tree in my backyard in Berkeley, so I have plenty of lemons with which to experiment. In January 2005–over eighteen months ago–I made two batches of Indian lemon pickles, one from Dakshin by Chandra Padmanabhan (pictured), and one from Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni. The foundation of each recipe was whole lemons (sliced or quartered), oil, and salt. Ground red chilies, mustard seeds and other spices add exciting flavors.

The Dakshin pickles went into the refrigerator immediately after cooking for a few days of aging, but the Sahni pickles required a lot more patience. Fifteen days of patience. Fifteen days with a daily mixing ritual of sterilizing a metal spoon in boiling water, letting the spoon cool, and then carefully stirring the big jar of lemon, spice, salt and oil to redistribute the pickling and flavoring agents. The end result was an intensely fragrant mixture of lemon slices, chilies, spices, salt and oil, with a beautiful blend of colors.

Although they were a pleasure to the nose and eyes, I at first didn’t like eating either batch. The spice/oil/salt flavor was delicious, but the big chunks of lemon peel were a bit too much for me. So the pickles sat in the back of my refrigerator, mellowing and homogenizing.

About a month ago, the comeback began. I gave my neighbor a jar of the pickles and she repaid me a few days later with a valuable piece of advice: the lemon pickle is a great topping for cooked greens like kale, chard or collards. I tried it, and found that she was completely right–the sparkle and bite of the lemon is a perfect foil for the earthiness of the greens–and my pickles had been given another chance. Since the greens discovery, I put some chopped pickle on a rather plain pink lentil soup, and it created an bright contrast to the deep flavors of the lentils and vegetables. And a friend recently advised me that the pickle makes a great topping for baked tofu.

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