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A Can-Do Project: Make Your Own Pickles

When I was 7, I helped my Aunt Anne (I called her Antenna) make pickles. On a hot, sticky day in late August, my favorite cousin, Sis, and I were invited to help in the cool cellar.

There were baskets of pickling cucumbers, bunches of fresh dill, dill seeds, garlic, jugs of vinegar, boxes of mason jars, rubber rings and lids, enough supplies for a small factory. The cellar was primitive, with two large laundry sinks and two gas burners that were used exclusively for pickling or canning. Cucumbers floated in cold water in the deep sinks. I was the cucumber-sorter, a perfect job for a hot day. I stood on an upturned box, up to my elbows in cold water. After making sure each cucumber was clean and didn’t have any soft spots, I transferred it from the left sink to the right sink. Within 10 minutes I was wet from the waist up, delighted to be as cool as the cucumbers.

The jars jingled as they boiled in the enormous black pot. After Antenna pulled a jar from the pot with tongs, Sis’ job was to drop a garlic clove and a sprig of dill into each jar. As she measured ingredients, Antenna referred to her mother’s small notebook filled with small, scratchy hand-written notes that I couldn’t read. It wasn’t the handwriting I couldn’t read — it was the Polish. Bubba didn’t speak a word of English.

Antenna filled the jars with cucumbers and boiling pickling liquid after Sis and I did our important work. By lunchtime, the cellar was filled with steam and the floor was dangerously slippery with water splashed from the sinks. At the end of the day we proudly counted dozens of jars of pickles that would last our family until baskets of cucumbers reappeared at the market stand the next summer.

Inspired by this early food memory, I make pickles that flood my kitchen with the golden glow of the summer sun in the flat gray days of winter.

My methods have changed. Now I work alone in my kitchen, happy to be making small batches. And rather than buying pickling cucumbers by the bushel, I make pickles with squash from my garden.

Here’s how I do it:

Bread and Butter Pickles

2 pounds summer squash, thinly sliced

2 medium onions, thinly sliced

1/4 cup kosher salt

3 cups white vinegar

3/4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons celery seeds

2 teaspoons mustard seeds

2 teaspoons mixed pickling spices

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

I begin in the garden, gathering squash that is at least two inches in diameter. I wash and then cut two pounds of it into thin slices. I add the sliced onions to the squash, cover the vegetables with cold water, stir in a quarter of a cup of kosher salt and leave the vegetables to soak in the brine for two hours. This short brining extracts water from the vegetables and helps them absorb the flavors of the pickling liquid.

For the pickling liquid, I mix together the vinegar, sugar, celery seeds, mustard seeds and mixed pickling spices and turmeric, and boil this mixture for two minutes. I drain and rinse the brine from the vegetables before adding them to the pickling liquid. After the vegetables have steeped in the hot pickling liquid for two hours, I simmer them for five minutes, pack the pickles in hot jars and seal the jars by processing in boiling water for five minutes.

Quantities are flexible and this recipe can be adjusted to suit your harvest. Sugar can be increased and spices varied to suit your taste. I use patty pan squash but any variety of summer squash or cucumber make great pickles.

If the pickles are going to be eaten within a week or two, there is no need to vacuum seal the jars by boiling. Pickles are ready to eat in two days and keep for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator. Vacuum sealed jars of pickles will last until spring. Complete instructions on canning can be found in most general cookbooks or you can Google “Home Canning.”

Carol Egbert lives in Quechee, where she paints and cooks. Her food blog can be found at www.carolegbert.com