Sweet and salty berries, cherries and plums are the pickles you never knew you needed.
Summer is here and with it a lot of fresh fruit. Grocery stores, farmers markets and fruit stands are chock full of the best seasonal offerings, from cherries and berries to plums and peaches. I’m always tempted to buy whole slices of fruit only to take them home and wonder how I’m going to consume several pounds of peaches that are likely all ripening at exactly the same moment. The most common way to preserve these summer fruits is to make them into jams and jellies, but this summer I turned to pickling instead.
When you hear the word cucumber, you might think of cucumbers, asparagus, or onions, but fruit dipped in brine is just as delicious — and I dare say they’re even more versatile. Think savory Japanese pickled plums known as umeboshi, sweet Russian pickled cherries, and pickled watermelon rinds from the American South.
Jams rely on sugar for preservation, but I sometimes find that their sweetness is too dominant. It’s easy to imagine the strong flavor of vinegar overpowering and even overpowering the sweetness and deliciousness of perfectly ripe fruit, yet somehow it does the opposite. Pickling brings out the best qualities of the fruit, using acid, salt and a touch of sugar to make the fruit sharper, brighter and noticeably juicier.
Pickled fruits give every dish a special touch. Serve pickled cherries with grilled pork chops, pickled nectarines on a rich green salad, or pickled plums in a ham sandwich with all the trimmings. But don’t reserve these pickles just for savory dishes. Try tangy pickled blueberries on your next stack of buttermilk pancakes or serve them with a creamy yogurt panna cotta. It might sound a bit odd, but it absolutely works, and it even feels a little fancy — like something you might find on the menu at a fancy New American brunch joint.
When you’re done with your pickles, don’t throw away the brine! Use it for salad dressings or even drinks. One of the coolest things to do with pickled fruit is to use it in some kind of shrub — a drink usually made with fruit, sugar, and vinegar. Since the sour base of a shrub is usually a little sweeter than my pickle, I like to add an extra spoonful of sugar or simple syrup to my glass before drinking. My recipe for a shrub combines a few pickled cherries or plums with a splash of brine and a generous splash of sparkling water for a refreshing non-alcoholic drink that’s way more interesting than your average soda or juice.
Since canning at home makes me nervous, I prefer to use a quick pickling method for my fruit. The brine ingredients are simply mixed together in a saucepan, brought to a boil, and poured over the prepared jar-packed fruit. To avoid a mushy texture, be sure to use ripe but still firm fruit, as the fruit will soften as it soaks in the brine. The pickles are ready in a matter of hours (and of course they get better the longer they sit) and will keep in the fridge for up to a month. Mine never seem to have a long shelf life though and always find their way into sandwiches and salads or as a garnish for a cocktail. When I added pickled cherries to my last BLT, it tasted like a $20 sandwich — and that’s pretty much an unbeatable value.