Most Saturdays, Chef Mike Odette, who is co-owner of Sycamore Restaurant in Columbia, Mo., is talking to farmers and customers at the farmers market and searching for food to work into his next menu. Odette makes a point of getting the best local, seasonal food that he can for Sycamore, which is one of the most popular restaurants in town. But today, his mission is a little different.
“We're looking for some veggies that would make good slaw to take on a picnic, and some veggies that would make good refrigerator pickles,” he says.
To that end, Odette’s visiting his favorite farmers in the hopes of finding produce to shred for slaw, like bok choy and Napa cabbage.
“We can make slaw from just about any leafy vegetable that will hold up and maintain its integrity after being dressed for several hours,” he says.
In lieu of a creamy mayonnaise dressing that might spoil in the summer heat, Odette favors a simple dressing that is equal parts cider vinegar and sugar. The cider gastrique, as he calls it, can be made the night before.
“It benefits from sitting in the refrigerator overnight so the flavors can develop,” Odette says. “And you could even dress your slaw on your picnic.”
Odette also adds julienned apples to the dish, along with chopped celery and onions. He says a slaw like this is the perfect foil to any kind of meat served on a picnic. So are refrigerator pickles, which are fruits or vegetables chilled overnight in a brine of white vinegar, water, sugar, salt and spices.
“If you bring pate along on your picnic, which I would recommend, the bright acidity of pickles go perfect with pate, or even with the oily coating of fried chicken,” Odette says.
As NPR reported at the beginning of the summer, the word ‘picnic’ first appeared in dictionaries in the 18th century. But pickling pre-dates picnics. Cucumbers were being pickled in Mesopotamia back in 2030 BC, according to the trade group Pickle Packers International Inc. Perhaps one reason pickling has survived is because there are so many seasonal fruits and vegetables -- from cherries to green tomatoes to okra to kohlrabi – that can be preserved this way.
“That’s part of the idea behind pickling and preserving. Because you want to be able to enjoy those items that are only available for a few weeks or even a few days out of the year. With proper planning and a little bit of effort, you can enjoy them throughout the year,” Odette says.
Refrigerator pickles, which are also called quick pickles, will keep for about a month in the fridge. Odette uses a standard brine in most of his recipes and prefers them on the sweet, rather than savory, side.
“It’s nearly equal parts white vinegar and water, a little more sugar than salt. But basically, just those four ingredients and maybe a few spices depending on what it is you're pickling,” he says.
Odette says mustard seeds, dill, caraway, fennel and dried chilies all go well with pickled carrots. Like other hard vegetables, the carrots need to be blanched quickly in the brine before being chilled overnight so they taste crunchy but not raw.
“The texture of a refrigerator pickle is important. You want it to be crispy, crunchy, and you want it to say, ‘Even though I’m a pickle, I'm fresh, fresh, fresh,’” Odette says.
Here are two of Odette's favorite recipes for refrigerator pickles and slaw:
Napa Cabbage and Apple Slaw
For the cider gastrique:
1 c Cider vinegar
1 c Sugar
In a small non-reactive saucepan, boil the vinegar and sugar together until it has reached the consistency of a thin syrup. Refrigerate.
For the slaw
½ large head Napa cabbage (about 1 ½ lbs), finely shredded
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and cut into julienne
2 stalks celery, tiny dice
½ small red onion (about 1/3 c), tiny dice
2 t celery seed
Cider gastrique from preceding recipe
Combine all ingredients and dress with ½ c (or to taste) cider gastrique (reserve the remaining gastrique for another use). Refrigerate.
Refrigerator, or Quick, Carrot Pickles
1 lb baby carrots, trimmed and peeled
1 1/3 c distilled vinegar
1 c water
3 T sugar
1 T Kosher salt
2 t dill seed
1 t red pepper flakes
In a small saucepan, combine all ingredients and bring to a boil. Simmer until the carrots are cooked, but with plenty of crunch left. Let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.
Feel free to adjust the sugar to taste. The acidity is about right in this recipe, but some cooks (and vegetables) may prefer a sweeter pickle.