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Instant Pickles, Hold the Salt

Fast-marinated cucumbers, half-sour kosher dill style

One of the things that kept me motivated for blogging SlowFoodFast after the first fine careless rapture was my indignation at how popular over-the-top salting was becoming in popular food magazines, cookbooks, blogs and TV shows as chefs became celebrities, and how dangerous I knew it was for most people to eat that way regularly. A large part of my career a couple of decades ago was exploring the history of dietary sodium in cardiovascular research and writing about the DASH Diet.

What I’ve missed the past few years is just how many people, particularly younger ones, are starting to take up the challenge of cooking low-sodium and blog about their trials and successes. There’s a whole community out there, and they’re cooking pretty well. It is definitely possible, and generally easy once you get past the “how do I read a label and cook from scratch” aspect.

I just ran into Sodium Girl (aka Jessica Goldman Foung)’s blog-based cookbook, “Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook”. Diagnosed with lupus and kidney failure in her early 20s, she turned around her diet by dropping her sodium intake drastically to give her kidneys a rest in the hope they’d regenerate, and it worked. She’s been innovating with low- and near-to-no-sodium versions of favorite foods ever since, working with the National Kidney Foundation and other organizations. Her book, like her blog, is attractively photographed, full of cheerful writing and surprise takes on favorite foods.

One of the substitutions she makes that I have to approve of is a molasses-and-vinegar-based “faux soy sauce”. So I wasn’t the only one!

Another of her successful experiments is pickles. She goes for sugar-and-vinegar-style pickles, which makes sense, since they have no added salt in them, but I can’t help it–I have always cringed at sweet pickled anything. If it’s supposed to be a pickle, for my money, it’s gotta be a half-sour kosher dill and nothing but (or else an Indian lime or mango achaar pickle, or Moroccan preserved lemons, but that’s another story and still pretty high-salt at this writing. I’m working on it, but not yet holding out a lot of hope…)

Anyway, looking through Foung’s book reminded me of a simple, hearty and low-to-very low sodium version of my favorite pickles in the world.

This an idea that’s been marinating since mid-summer when I was into salads with riotously ripe Fresno tomatoes and Persian cucumbers and fresh herbs and so on from my local Armenian greengrocers. Only I forgot to say anything much about it at the time except for how to blend the same ingredients into gazpacho.

Marinating cucumber slices for a salad isn’t the newest idea in the world–marinating in general is pretty old-school. And maybe in the middle of January perfect seasonal cucumbers aren’t really all that forthcoming at the grocery store where you are or you’re not craving summer vegetables that much–my timing is always at least a little off. I can admit it.

But it’s a pretty good idea if you crave half-sour kosher dill pickles but can’t find them where you are or–if, like me, you can’t really hack the salt level in actual pickles anymore. Plus pickles are winter food and when better to try this than when the tomatoes in the store are a poor pale grainy substitute for the real thing and you need some kind of pick-me-up in the fresh vegetable department, even if it means coopting those huge waxed cucumbers. This will work.

What I always liked as a child about the half-sour kosher dills my grandparents brought down from their local deli in New York was that they were real pickles, not factory ones. Full of garlic and dill, but they weren’t yellow-brown-olive and gelatinous and screaming with salt and vinegar. They wouldn’t stain your sandwich or burn your throat. The salt didn’t hit you over the head, and they came by their slight tinge of acidity naturally. Plus you could actually see the fronds of dill and the cloves of garlic and grains of coriander seed in the brine in the deli take-out container.

It was like a guarantee that whoever made them cared about how they were going to taste and had plucked them fresh from the pickle barrel, knees shaking under the greatest scrutiny known to deli-counterkind: my Grandma Thel, who would reject the first offer if she felt it didn’t live up to her standards.

They were also a million miles away from the unspeakable sweet pickles my southern classmates favored.  These half-sour deli pickles were still green as a wine bottle and firm and the insides were pale greenish and they still tasted like they had once–recently enough for folk music–been fresh raw cucumbers and most importantly, they crunched.

Anyway, these lightly marinated cucumber slices taste like most of what’s in a half-sour kosher dill, but without the huge salt load. And they take maybe 15 minutes, or whatever time you can give it before giving in and starting to nosh.

And no, they don’t last like real pickles, so eat them within a day or two at most if mixed with other salad vegetables, but preferably within a couple of hours. You want them still crunchy.

Once you marinate them and they’ve sat for a while, you can eat them on their own, of course, or add other salad greens–or red cabbage, arugula (from a bag, for shame–it’s all I’ve got), lettuces, maybe celery or peppers, a little chopped onion or scallions, and if you can hack it, an olive or two, some goat cheese or feta–these salty items, if you’re sparing, still won’t add up to pickle-strength salt because at most the cucumbers are still only lightly salted on the surface, where you can taste it, and most of their oomph comes from the garlic and dill, which is exactly the point. A little more oil and vinegar and you have a salad worth eating in winter.

Marinated cucumbers “half-sour kosher dill” style for winter salads

  • Cucumbers (firm)
  • small fresh clove of garlic, mashed or grated–garlic powder really won’t do it here
  • dill–fresh or dried, enough to sprinkle liberally
  • fresh-ground black pepper
  • splash of olive oil and red wine vinegar
  • very light sprinkle of salt, optional

Wash cucumber(s) for a salad (and peel, if you’ve got waxed-skin cukes). Slice them however you like (my current preference is longish diagonal crosswise ovals about an eighth of an inch thick, just for something different and substantial-looking but still marinatable in reasonable time). Stick them in a bowl with a small mashed or grated clove of garlic, a few good chopped sprigs or pinches of dill, an optional sprinkle of salt (note–one or two light shakes of the salt shaker, not a truckload, otherwise known as “a teaspoon” or any significant portion thereof.) Then a few grinds of black pepper, and a sprinkle of olive oil and red wine vinegar (not balsamic–my motto is always to stay away from sweet anything when dealing with pickles. Because I’m prejudiced that way, I admit it.)

Fresh dill is best but if what you have is dried, that’s actually okay too–dill is one of the dried herbs that’s fairly close to fresh in taste (couldn’t say the same for mint or garlic, unfortunately). Crush it a little before you sprinkle it on. Mix the slices in the oil, vinegar, garlic and herbs and let them sit about 15 minutes or a little longer, as you prefer, to absorb the flavors.

More pickles:

Pickled Green Tomatoes (with moderate salt, half-sour kosher dill/deli-style)

Moroccan Pickled Lemons (tons of salt–no big way around it; use sparingly and the jar will last for years though)

Marinated Artichoke Hearts (light on the salt, 5-minute microwave style)

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