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  • Make pickles without breaking a sweat

  • "Guess what my first act as a retired person was?" said beloved former Corvallis City Manager Jon Nelson as we chatted over glasses of wine at an event last summer.
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  • "Guess what my first act as a retired person was?" said beloved former Corvallis City Manager Jon Nelson as we chatted over glasses of wine at an event last summer.
    I couldn't. But I was pretty sure it was something quirky and food-related, or he wouldn't have brought it up.
    "I made my yearly batch of Jan's Bread-and-Butter Refrigerator Pickles."
    "Why Jon, I didn't even know you pickled!"
    He nodded, a big ol' Cheshire cat grin spreading across his face.
    "I made them on Aug. 5, which was literally 24 hours after walking out of City Hall. First, I bought 10 pounds of pickling cukes from Davis F. Farms, brought them home and got to work. Two and a half hours and a couple of gallons of cukes later, my fridge was loaded with pickling cukes, and I was good to go."
    Then he rattled off the list of lucky recipients slated to receive a portion of his treasured cache. It was quite impressive.
    Obviously, I agree with Jon wholeheartedly. Making refrigerator pickles is an amazing and simple thing. I don't know if it's the fact that you go from neutral veggie to potent condiment without breaking a sweat. Or the fact that homemade pickles, when appreciated by the right people, become the culinary equivalent of REI gift certificates. But the fact is, that for very little effort on your part — in the context of kitchen messes and psyche stresses that can occur with other forms of preserving — you can create a bona fide culinary treasure.
    Indeed, it's a great way to pickle. After scrubbing and trimming huge quantities of pickling cukes (working in 10-pound increments like Jon is not unheard of) I simply tumble them into large containers, throw in handfuls of sliced fresh garlic, fresh dill heads and red-pepper flakes, then pour on my spicy, salty, boiling-hot vinegar-and-water brine.
    The final stop? The refrigerator. No fussing with little canning jars and lids or boiling-water canners.
    The activity is so stress- and mess-free and produces such a marvelously flavored and textured pickle, I will never go back to processing — unless all refrigerator rights in my folks' garage refrigerator suddenly are revoked, which is unlikely because they, too, have become refrigerator-pickle fans. For every party, picnic and football tailgater throughout the year, Mom really loves dipping into "our" garage-pickle supply.
    Good thing I always figure on about 15 gallons.
    In case you haven't gone this route yet, here's my helpful-hints list, subtitled: "Variables to consider for dynamic refrigerator pickling."
    Containers — This is where refrigerator pickling shines. You don't have to worry about canning jars and two-piece lids. Plastic works just fine, as long as it's food-grade. Select whatever size and shape suits your refrigerator; the bigger, the better. I use Rubbermaid's 1.3 gallon-capacity "Servin' Saver" canisters because they're deep, so the cukes stay nicely submerged in the brine.
    If you do go with jars (they don't have to be "canning"), just make sure the lids seal well and that the undersides aren't reacting with the vinegar over time (if they are, just replace the lids with fresh ones). When it comes around to the gift-giving phase, you can always transfer portions from the big tubs or jars into pretty, little jars.
    In 1997, Ball and Kerr stopped making 2-quart canning jars, mainly because the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not provide guidelines for canning with this size jar. But a single, 2-quart jar is a convenient size for refrigerator storage. So if you encounter 2-quart canning jars at garage sales, or inherit them from a relative or friend, don't overlook their potential in this area.
    • Cucumber size — Obviously, the smaller the pickling cuke, the crisper the pickle will be. Plus, "baby garlic dills" look so cute and snazzy in their jars. But now that I'm into real high-volume refrigerator pickling, I have grown to appreciate the advantages of working with mid- to large-sized cukes as well, which is a good thing, because small cukes are much more difficult to find. I usually cut any cukes larger than 3 inches into rounds or mouth-sized chunks prior to packing them in their containers. When cut, a lot more cukes can be packed into each container, so there's much less wasted space.
    • Cucumber quality — The fresher the better. If you have access to a U-pick field, lucky you! If you can track down a supply of cukes that have been out of the field for 24 hours, you're off to a good start, even if you weren't in on the initial picking. Just nose around the farmers markets to get a line on who's producing pickling cukes. Also, local markets that support local growers typically stock pickling cucumbers this time of year. Make sure to rub off the blossom end of each cucumber when washing them. There's an enzyme lurking at the blossom's base that can lead to softening in the pickle.
    • Temperature and humidity — Cukes really are sensitive critters. Throw in a little heat or dryness, and they deteriorate in quality (texture and flavor mainly). If you must purchase pickling cukes from a supermarket, do so only if they're firm (no shrivelling at the tips) and you're positive that they've been under continuous refrigeration.
    • Vinegar selection — Of commercially prepared varieties, white distilled vinegar imparts the most robust flavor. Cider vinegar has a milder taste but may discolor your light-colored vegetables, such as onions and cauliflower. However, I consider it the vinegar of choice for my Damn Good Garlic Dills. Of course, any number of vinegar styles may be used, as long as they are at least 5-percent acidity. Just don't experiment with any of the trendy, homemade flavors because it would be difficult to verify acidity.
    • The Brine — While we're on the subject of vinegars, I'm going to pass along another great tip. I make up large batches of the brine (see "Jan's Damn Good Garlic Dills" recipe as an example) and store it in the refrigerator, so when I encounter a good supply of high-quality pickling cukes I can jump right into action. Stored in the fridge, the brine will keep indefinitely in a covered container. Simply pack the cukes into containers, reheat as much of the chilled brine as needed to make a batch of pickles and pour over the cucumbers. Figure on a ratio of 2 parts pickling cukes to 1 part brine.
    • The Salt — Although any food grade salt can be used, pickling/canning salt is recommended. Iodized table salt contains an anti-caking agent that yields a cloudy pickling solution, as well as iodine, which darkens vegetables as they pickle. Read the label of salt packages carefully; I've even encountered "canning" salt that contains an anti-caking agent, which undermines the reason for using it in the first place.
    • Recipes — Turn any "fresh pack" pickle recipe into refrigerator pickles simply by refrigerating them instead of processing them in a boiling-water canner. A fresh-pack pickle is defined as one that is pickled with vinegar instead of by fermentation.
    So that's just about it. Have I inspired you? Pickling season in the Northwest is underway and hopefully will continue through mid- to late September.
    Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.
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