During the craziness that was the early summer, it was sometimes hard to get motivated to do kitchen “projects” that might have taken a lot of time like canning. I honestly don’t find canning that difficult, but it can take some time. Having the time or taking the time can be a challenge. Sometimes you need somebody else to push you to make the choice.
Jeff and Carri, my farmer friends and CSA farm, know that I am obsessed with fennel. They were thinning their rows of fennel plants and Jeff, for whatever reason, had the genius idea of actually gathering these thinnings fennel plants and tying them together with one of those wire marker flags like you sometimes see for installing sprinkler systems or marking pipes. When I went to pick up my veggies that night, he handed me this crazy looking mass of young fennel (think thick grass, some of the stems were so thin) and said ‘do you want this?’ I have to admit, I kind of wondered what it was at first. When he said it was fennel, there wasn’t really any way to say no but when I got home and unwrapped the wire flag, I have to admit I wasn’t sure what I had accepted. There were some small identifiable beginnings of fennel bulbs, but lots of it was really thin stems. Plus grass and weeds. I broke the mass in half, put each half in water in a jar, and decided that was not the day to deal with it.
A day or two later I wondered what I could do with mostly fennel stems. A quick google search brought up a pickle recipe that I found intriguing. First, it was mostly for stems. Secondly, I already had all of the needed spices (fennel seed, cumin seed, and whole coriander) in my kitchen and I had purchased an organic lemon that week by chance. It seemed an easy recipe: boil the pickling liquid, add in sliced lemon and the fennel, and let it cool in the liquid (the reason you kind of want an organic lemon since the outside skin is in contact with the liquid a long time), pull out the lemon slices, and then put in jars and refrigerate.
I did make it and it was easy and delicious. The hardest part was going through the fennel masses and deciding what was large enough to use and what really did need to go into the compost. I trimmed off dried bits. I pulled out grass and weeds. It was a bit tedious, but when the pickles were made, I was so happy to have made the effort. I had one large jar of very tiny/thin pickles that already tasted good to me. The spices were great and the lemon added a certain sophisticated element to the fennel flavor. When I served it to them a week or so later, my fennel loving friends also liked them.
Flash forward a few weeks and we received a “proper” amount of fennel as part of our CSA share. By proper I mean fully developed bulbs, stems, and fronds. Again, folks don’t always like fennel so a lot of it gets put into the trade box. I take all I can get and Jeff and Carri gifted me with an armful. I knew I was going to make those pickles again. At the same time, we had these big bags of juicy sugar snap peas. I love eating them raw and sautéed, but this week we had a lot of them and I was wondering what I could do to possibly preserve some. Luckily, Carri had put a link which I nearly missed in our weekly CSA newsletter. That link was for a sugar snap pea pickle. Again, not canned and super simple and it contained tarragon, one of my favorite herbs which I happily have growing in a pot in my yard.
So, armed with fennel and sugar snap pea abundance, I hit the kitchen. Here’s the genius part of this duo. Both have a lot of passive time so while I was waiting for one to rest, I could work on the other. I started with the fennel. The fennel pickle recipe begins with toasting the spices in a dry pot. You have to be very careful with this step. If you step away or try to do something else like chop the fennel, you’re likely to burn the spices. I did this. One second it’s a nice smell and in a second it’s a burnt smell. I had to throw out those spices, wash the pot, and start again. In my case, it also meant an extra trip to the store to get more fennel seeds since the last of what I had went into the garbage…
Armed to try a second time, I prepped the fennel first: chopping off the root ends and then setting most of the fronds aside for other uses (some did go in the jars). With the remaining bulbs and stems, you chop into a size that you can manageably get into jars and would want to eat — maybe the length of a thumb or finger. Once that was done, I went back to starting the pickling liquid and kept my eye on the spices. After toasting them, I added in the liquid (water and apple cider vinegar), sugar, and salt and brought the mixture to a boil. The original recipe calls for half a lemon, but both times I’ve made it I’ve used a whole lemon, cut into pretty thin slices to maximize lemon flavor. Once the mixture boils, you take it off the heat, add in your lemon slices and fennel, and then just let it sit there to cool. It can take a couple of hours. Once cooled, you remove the lemon slices (they’d encourage bacteria, I think, if you left them in the pickles) and stuff the fennel into jars. This time, I got three large jars worth of pickles. You want to maximize the pickle flavor so I strained the pickling liquid to retrieve the spices that sink to the bottom of the pan. I then distributed those spices to each of the jars and then poured in enough liquid to cover the fennel. There’s more liquid than will fit in the jars so you do need to fish out the spices in some way.
I did try a pickle warm. Because the fennel was larger now, the fennel pickle retained a bit more fennel flavor which was nice. The first batch had been so tiny or thin that the flavor was covered a bit by the pickling liquid. I was very happy to put these jars in my refrigerator to eat over the next weeks and months of summer
At the point the fennel and lemon went into the hot pickling liquid to cool and pickle, I set to making the sugar snap pea pickles. This recipe was also easy and it gave me something to do (chuckle, chuckle) while the fennel-lemon mixture was cooling. I prepped the peas by removing the ends and strings and washing them. In this recipe, you do very little “processing” and instead just put all ingredients, cold, into jars and pour over the boiled-and-then-slightly-cooled pickling liquid, so the only time is getting your ingredients ready and into jars. I did make a variation to the original recipe to up the garlic flavor and to help my dried chilis which were a bit on the old side: I put them in the pickling liquid to warm and better infuse their flavor. Otherwise, I did it as directed.
In two pint jars, I divided up my tarragon (two sprigs at the bottom of each jar since I really love tarragon) and stuffed in my sugar snap peas. I didn’t boil my jars to sterilize them, but they had just come out of a hot dishwasher so they were very clean. For refrigerator pickles, I think you still want to be careful and keep things as clean as you can so your efforts don’t spoil before you can enjoy them.
Because you need to boil and then cool the pickling liquid, I made it before I prepped my peas. The pickling liquid is just white wine vinegar, water, salt sugar, my garlic, and the dried chills. Before filling the jars, I fished out the chilis and garlic and split them between the two jars. I then used the liquid and filled each jar to the top to cover the peas. Again, I tried one of them warmish and could tell it was going to be good. The recipe says to wait two weeks to eat. My friends and I were eating them less than a week later. That was weeks ago and I still have one jar left in my fridge. They’re still terrific.
By the time I got the snap peas done, it was just a little more waiting before I was ready to jar the fennel. By the end of the evening (only a couple of hours — made longer by my need to go to the store after I burnt my spices), I had 5 jars of quick pickles in my fridge — no canning necessary — and the satisfaction of knowing that produce wasn’t going to go to waste and we’d have lots of yummy things to eat with barbecues, on salami/cheese trays, and in salads.