Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mixed Plate: We Can Portlandia That

One of the best things about visiting my family, (aside from visiting my family, which is quite good), is that they have cable. And I'm not talking Cable That Lets You Have the CW to Watch 'Gossip Girl' in Secret Shame, I'm talking more channels than you know what to do with, channels that have dumb names like "Cloo" or "Chiller" but I watch them anyways because they show Buffy reruns at midnight. The all-you-can-eat-buffet of channels also include IFC, which has the show Portlandia.  So get your bird on and get your brine ready... we're getting positively Oregonian on this shizzle.

An ode to Portlandia and the ability to pickle... well anything - Illustration by Wasabi Prime
I know it's not a big deal to have super-duper cable, it's easy enough to just catch Portlandia episodes on DVD or online. There's just something really special about completely bewildering my mom with the humor of Fred and Carrie's haplessly awkward misadventures. It's not the "ha-ha" funny, more like the "ooh, that's clever, I'm going to smirk self-knowingly" humor. So yeah, dry, snobbish, intellecutally elite humor, but whatever, sometimes it makes the milk come out of my nose, it's so funny. And that's not even when I'm drinking milk! Some of the best ones are with the Bryce and Lisa personas. They went viral with Put a Bird on it! And the last viral hit was for season two, which had the new catchphrase that we're all repeating ad nauseum: We Can Pickle That!

If that doesn't inspire you to pickle everything that isn't nailed to the floor, I don't know what will! Even though the skit is likely considered stale by internet meme/pop culture status, it was running in my mind when I really did take on that mentality of pickling... well, everything. I was a repeat offender and bought fruit from Costco, speficially lemons, thinking I'd use them all for some lemony-themed dishes. I went through a lion's share, don't get me wrong, but they don't sell lion's share-sizes at Costco, more like Jupiter's Great Red Spot-sized bags of produce. I got down to my last three or four yellow citrus footballs right before I had to leave town. I knew they wouldn't keep and the Mister wouldn't use them, but then the voices of Bryce and Lisa came into my head. We can pickle that. So I did. It's not so odd to salt and preserve lemons. I remember my dad pickling lemons, which we did every year when we used to live in Arizona. We had a big beautiful lemon tree that gave us grocery bags' full of marvelous scurvy-killing citrus. Granted, it's not something you'd bite a big hunk off, but my dad and I are sour fiends! I'd put fresh lemon juice in my cola, the sun tea was probably more lemon than tea, and with all the extras, my dad would shove into these huge glass jars, cover them with salt, and just let the Southwest sun do its worst. The salt would prevent anything from growing in there, while the lemons just melted and collapsted in the heat, weeping its precious liquid that mixed with the salt into a proper brine. They literally deflated and looked more like sad, flat football skins, but they were salty-sour amazing. My dad would slice them up into thin slivers and just eat them, basically like pickles. They made your face squinch up into all sorts of unattractive ways, but boy were they good and the acidity eating away our teeth probably made us look like meth addicts.

Red onions, lemons -- why yes, we CAN pickle that! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I didn't have the Arizona sun to help me, so I preserved our lemons by cutting them almost into quarters, but not all the way through -- it kind of looked like a wonky tulip, with the wedges like flower petals. It was just to give a space to pack the insides with salt. I did it to all the lemons and proceeded to shove-shove-shove them into a wide-mouth swingtop jar. It was skins, pulp and all. Sealed up and left in our pantry, I'd check every few days, sloshing the salty lemon juice around to make sure it was washing over everything. The liquid increases and eventually gets high enough to cover the fruit, since that will start to shrink a bit. I didn't pickle them to eat slices. Now that it's been a couple of weeks, I've been using the salted lemons to flavor soups and stews. I cut off a wedge of the salted lemon, usually remove the pulp, and just use the outer rind, which has that distinctive citrus freshness. Finely diced and added into foods, you totally pick up the brightness of the citrus, the same way as if you'd added zest. I'm still experimenting, but I almost want to say the preserved lemon is even better than zest, as you can add quite a bit, and even with cooking, you never totally lose the citrus flavor since you're putting a good amount in. It kind of perfumes the dish. I've been adding it to stir frys and I really like it.

I was struck with the same pre-vacation conundrum and CSA delivery pressure with a red onion and a random cucumber. I love red onions and I didn't want to waste it by using it like a regular white onion, buried in a stew or pot of chili, so I thought of one of my favorite places, Boat Street Cafe in Seattle. They make their own pickles, including one with red onion and it's a-ma-zing. My red onion pickle was nowhere near as good as theirs, but I was thinking of them when I brewed up an ad hoc brine of white vinegar, sugar, fennel seeds, red pepper flakes, peppercorns, mustard seeds and coriander seeds. Why those ingredients? I had them handy and they sounded good together. I sliced up the onion, shoved them into multiple jars and poured the brine over everything and capped them all tight before getting them refrigerated. True pickles shouldn't need refrigeration but since mine were quickie pickling without strict sterilization methods, I didn't want to risk anything. When in doubt, fridge it. So far, so good, no one's gone blind and the red onions have been great with salads and as a sour relish on meat. I did a similar brine with the lone cucumber. The skin was so thick and it wasn't as tender as a nice English cucumber, so pickling seemed the decent thing to do. For that brine, I used rice vinegar, sugar, coriander and pepper flakes, so that it was more of an Asian-inspired pickle.

Pickled. And no, I don't mean my liver - Photo by Wasabi Prime
As annoying as a Portlandia-themed meme can be, the hipster wisdom rings true -- putting birds on things makes it better, and when it comes to pickling: Yes We Can! And oh, FYI, they were pretty spot-on with the Battlestar skit, too. Just sayin'.


  1. Your lemon wedges may just induce me to start pickling things instead of just ordering Jim to "use these up while I'm out of town."

  2. My Liver? We can pickle that! Incidentally, I do have some long aged salted lemon I set aside years ago and haven't quite had the nerve to try. I guess I better bust that bad boy open and see if it's edible or is dust to dust.


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