My reaction to the end of summer is always mixed. On one hand, like most people, I mourn the end of the long days and more relaxed pace that summer offers. On the other hand, late summer and early fall mean pickle-making and the like, as we put food by for the winter to come.
When I was a kid, my family spent part of each summer in and around Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, with my dad’s family. They were country people and did not have freezers, so any foods that were to be kept for the winter had to be dried, smoked, canned, pickled or jammed.
I well remember excursions with my two younger sisters to help my Uncle Lester and Aunt Nellie pick wild blueberries. Given that I was only five years old the first time we did this, I am not sure that we were much help, but we certainly had a good time, managing to get at least a few berries into our baskets rather than our mouths.
Later, at my Aunt Margaret’s house, the women all set to work making pies by the dozen as well as jar after jar of jam. I was deemed too young to be of any help in the kitchen so was relegated to the living room with my book. The house was redolent with the scent of blueberries and the joy of three generations of women (my grandmother, my mother, at least two aunts and a couple of older girl cousins), which I heard in their laughter and chatter, all of which I remember vividly to this day.
The old ways
This year, our pantry shelves are laden with pickles, and we are well on our way to filling one of our freezers with more of the summer’s bounty.
We have a few standards, starting with bread and butter pickles. I have made these for years, always using the recipe in the Joy of Cooking. However, in 2020, my partner, noticing that the copy I had had for at least three decades was in several rapidly disintegrating pieces, bought me a new one. A few times since, I have noticed that a favourite recipe either doesn’t appear in the current edition or has been changed, and I found the same thing when I turned to the bread and butter pickle recipe.
To my horror, I saw that the instructions were to cook the pickles in the microwave. This would require several batches to make the quantity I wanted, but that was not my main concern. Making pickles, for me, is not just about the finished product; it’s about the journey to get there. I admit that I use my food processor to slice the vegetables – pickling cucumbers, onions and red peppers — but after that, it’s all old school for me.
The magic of seeing the mound of vegetables melt to half its original size after being salted and left to sit overnight never fails to astonish me, and rinsing and rinsing those salted vegetables, ringing out as much liquid as possible after each rinse, is a soothing ritual.
The aroma of the pickling ingredients – vinegar, sugar, turmeric and mustard and celery seed – filling the kitchen as they come to a boil is an essential part of the experience that using the microwave just wouldn’t provide.
So, I stuck to my memory of stovetop cooking times, inhaled the intoxicating aromas, and the pickles turned out just fine.
Pickles, pickles and more pickles
Then I moved on to mustard pickles, which combine onions, green beans, cauliflower and red pepper in a mustardy vinegar, and are especially good with baked ham.
I had a yen for dilled beans, which I had not made for many years. The cookbook containing that recipe has been well stained, creased and marked up with minor recipe adjustments I have made over the years, and is unadulterated by notions of microwave pickle making. For the first time, I made these pickles with market-bought green beans rather beans from our own garden, but I am sure they will be at least almost as tasty.
A couple of years ago, a friend gave me her delicious recipe for pickled antipasto, so I cooked up a batch of that, too.
By this point, the large canning kettle had become a permanent fixture on our stove, and our kitchen was littered with mason jars, funnels, pickling salt and the like. Why stop now? My partner decided, after a two-year break, to make his famous crock dill pickles, long ago named Crock-a-dills by our oldest grandson, a master of the pun even at the age of three.
Partridges and pear trees
Soon after we moved into this house, my partner planted an Asian pear tree in the backyard. Every year, it is a contest to see whether we can beat the squirrels and birds to the harvest. Each year, my partner comes up with more elaborate protections for the ripening fruit. Last year, despite the complex netting system he built, we managed to enjoy only a handful of pears. This year, with no protections in place whatsoever, we got the largest harvest we have ever had – about half a bushel of unbitten-into pears. We’re not sure how we got ahead of the wildlife, but we are not complaining.
What to do with such riches? Canned pears are always delicious. Pear ginger preserve sounded tasty, as did pear jam. After much deliberation (and some sampling of the pears), we decided to make a spiced pear juice concentrate, which we would freeze. It was a relatively simple procedure. We borrowed my daughter’s juicer, which turned the whole, unpeeled pears into juice in the blink of an eye. We brought the juice to a boil, along with sliced fresh ginger, chopped candied ginger, honey, cinnamon sticks and crushed nutmeg, then let it simmer for about 15 minutes, after which we strained, cooled and bagged it for freezing, keeping enough out to sample. So far, we have enjoyed it mixed with sparkling water, white wine, beer and bourbon. I bet it would also be good in cold weather, mulled with red wine.
Last weekend, we froze six dozen cobs of corn, after parboiling them and removing the corn from the cobs. As I put the last bag of corn in the freezer, I couldn’t help but think of the Highwomen song “Crowded Table,” imagining dinner parties over the winter brightened by the fruits and vegetables of our August and September labours:
“I want a house with a crowded table/And room by the fire for everyone/Let us take on the world while we’re young and able/And bring us back together when the day is done.”