One of the first big family events Alex took me to shortly after we began dating was a 55th birthday party for his father, no small affair, at a Russian restaurant. Course after course, platters arrived with pickled celery, lettuce and – I kid you not – watermelon to accompany the smoked fish, dumplings, caviar and all sorts of gamey meats. Do I need to mention the vodka? No, didn’t think so.
Nobody warns you that the food will not.stop.coming, thusly, don’t bother eating more than two bites of any course if you wish to make it to the end. I think its part of the fun for them, luring these newcomers in and watching them nod off at the table after too many sour cream-laden crepes and a misbegotten belief that they can handle their vodka like those from the old country. In fact, one of his family’s favorite stories to retell is when Alex brought home a friend from grad school and his mother laid out her typical 20-dish, 6-course feast (“I am worried I will not have enough food.”) including their favorite, pickled tomatoes. The friend had bragged that he couldn’t wait to try them, as they sounded delicious, but nearly spat his first bite across the table: “I didn’t know it was going to taste like a pickle!” he frantically tried to cover his tracks with while they laughed and laughed.
One of Alex’s favorite cured delights is giardiniera, which he buys in large jars and eats at a frightening pace, so when I saw a recipe for it in this month’s Gourmet (which has unintentionally become my muse of late), I promptly asked my husband what any eager-to-please-and-spoil wife would:
“What will you give me if I make this for you?”
“Alex, it looks like a lot of work.”
“I’ll do the dishes?”
“It’s going to take hours, Alex.”
“I’ll clean the nasty stains out of the microwave?”
I should have bargained higher, I mean, at least up to scrubbing the bathroom grout or a spa pedicure, because I had no idea that boiling vinegar would nearly cease my lungs’ operations. Irony of ironies, Alex’s 84 year-old Russian grandmother, in town for just another day, had chosen that morning to climb up to our fourth-floor penthouse (ha) so she could see where we lived (I was convinced she was actually looking for evidence of sloth, and demanded we clean for hours prior), and there I am, coughing my head off from a smell I’m certain is lodged deep in her sensory memory. Sadly, she speaks no English and I speak no Russian, so she was unable to impart any advice to me on what to do to not, well, die, when preparing your pickling liquids. (Though I suppose “Why don’t you open some goddamned windows in this here joint?” shouldn’t have been so hard to translate.) To note, in case you’ve missed everything up until now in this From Russia, With Love tale: steamy vinegar is no friend to lungs.
Alex waited like a good, patient boy for the whole day and a half of vegetable pickling, never so much a sneaking a nibble. It was like I didn’t know him at all. At the great giardiniera unveiling last night, he gave his wholehearted seal of briny approval, saying it tastes even better than the jarred stuff.
“Boo-ya! Success! Huzzah!” I exclaimed and proceeded in my victory lap around the kitchen.
“Now, about that microwave.”
Giardiniera (Pickled Vegetables)
Adapted from Gourmet, September 2006
Makes about 10 cups
For pickling liquid:
2 1/2 cups distilled white vinegar
3 cups water
3/4 cup sugar
5 tablespoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon dried hot red-pepper flakes
1 head cauliflower (2 lb), trimmed and broken into 1- to 1 1/2-inch florets (6 cups)
1 red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 yellow bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 carrots, cut diagonally into 1/2-inch-thick slices (2 cups)
4 celery ribs, cut into 1-inch-thick slices (3 cups)
1 cup drained bottled whole peperoncini (4 oz)
1 cup large brine-cured greens olives (preferably Sicilian; 6 oz)*
1/2 cup oil-cured black olives (6 oz)
Prepare pickling liquid: Bring pickling-liquid ingredients to a boil in a 3-quart nonreactive saucepan** over moderate head, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Transfer to a 4-quart nonreactive bowl and cool about 30 minutes.
Cook vegetables: Bring about 6 quarts unsalted water to a boil in an 8-quart pot. Have ready a large bowl of ice and cold water. Add cauliflower to pot and boil until crisp-tender, about 4 minutes, then transfer with a slotted spoon to ice bath to stop cooking. Cook remaining vegetables separately in same manner, allowing 4 minutes each for bell peppers*** and carrots and 2 minutes for celery. Drain vegetables in a colander and spread out on 2 large kitchen towls to dry. Add cooked vegetables, peperoncini, and olives to pickling liquid, Weight vegetables with a plate to keep them submerged, then chill, covered, at least 1 day.
Do ahead: Pickled vegetables keep, covered and chilled, 1 week.
* Omitted, as the Husband prefers his pickled vegetables sans olives, and we aim to please here.
** Stainless steel, glass, and enameled cast iron are nonreactive; avoid pure aluminum and uncoated iron, which can impart an unpleasant taste to recipes with acidic ingredients.
*** I’d probably only simmer the bell peppers for 3, instead of 4, minutes next time as they got soft very quickly.