Autumn’s bounty can be preserved for months.
Tishrei is the first month of the calendar year, which coincides with the peak of Michigan’s agricultural harvest,” Alex Rosenberg says, standing in front of the small blue sign that marked the beginning of the year.
Alex is the farm manager at the nearly 1-acre Farber Farm on the Tamarack Camps campus in Ortonville. We walk toward the next sign, while she tells me more about the farm’s Calendar Garden.
The Calendar Garden is a wheel-shaped garden exhibition of the Hebrew year, with different sections representing months of the Hebrew calendar. Each spoke grows crops that symbolize its unique holidays, the change of season and the emotions surrounding those times. Tishrei, which runs throughout October, is a time for harvest, reflection and repentance. Today, our attention is on the harvest.
Alex welcomes garden volunteers every Tuesday and Thursday to assist with farm labor. The compensation is taking home some of the most gorgeous flowers and produce you’ve ever seen. It’s such a joy to work on a farm with a talented farmer. As a chef, farm produce sparks my creativity and makes cooking exciting. There’s nothing better than vegetables picked at the peak of ripeness, still warm with sun.
The Farber Farm grows an array of fruits, herbs and vegetables during summer, including peppers, tomatoes, beans, corn, melons and zucchini, eggplant, fennel and more. During sessions, campers visit to learn about their Jewish roots and agriculture. The curriculum connects them to the land and their Jewish ancestors, thought to be the first shepherds. Working in groups with hands in dirt, campers enjoy the bounty together later in the cafeteria. A truly virtuous circle.
The Farm in Fall
Volunteers are especially valuable for the farm in fall, as the regular chores also include closing down the past growing season. Cool-weather crops, like kale, kohlrabi, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages are still growing, but most summer plants are no longer producing. We start early in the day to help Alex with closing down the spent beds for the year.
“We tie Tishrei to our own agricultural season, by collecting any of the ripe vegetables, taking out the finished plants and laying mulch over it,” Alex explains. We break off in groups to tackle different areas.
Once our crates are full, we bring them back to the table for Alex. We’ve made considerable progress, judging by the huge vegetable piles. I stare at the hills of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, beets, carrots, cabbage, eggplants and fennel. Observing the abundance, I recognize the predicament of our shepherd ancestors. How can you preserve all this perishable food without modern technology? These harvests need to last all winter.
Their answer lies in ancient food preservation techniques like drying, smoking, curing, sugaring, fermenting, canning and pickling. Still being used today, these methods keep foods safe, extend shelf life and create the advantage of making them portable.
The History of Pickling
People around the world have been pickling foods for thousands of years. Archaeologists from the New York Food Museum believe that it dates back as early as 2400 B.C.E., from the Mesopotamian era. Each region uses its unique set of ingredients to ferment fruits, vegetables and meats. For example, in Korea there’s kimchi; the Middle East has torshi, and Morocco preserves its lemons. Sauerkraut remains a German staple; France presents cornichons; and, in Italy, there’s giardiniera.
Ashkenazi shtetl communities began putting vegetables into large barrels to ferment in the sun, then would store them in cool locations. Easy to eat, inexpensive and available all year, they became a dietary staple throughout central and eastern Europe. According to The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden, immigrants from Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine and Russia brought their pickles and pickle recipes with them to New York. Merchants selling them out of barrels and pushcarts on city streets popularized them.
By the 1920s, the Lower East Side had close to 80 kosher pickle factories, creating the largest pickle industry in the world, according to Aish.com. The popular version, with dill, garlic, salt and spices, we know as the classic kosher dill. Today, no deli sandwich in America is complete without one.
Pickling can be done by one of two methods, either marinating foods in an acid, like a vinegar, or soaking them in a salty fluid or brine. The solutions ferment the vegetables over time, dropping the PH levels. A low PH allows for the growth of good nutritional bacteria and becomes inhospitable to the harmful species.
A variety of foods can be pickled, including fruits, meats and vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, onions, beets, asparagus and green beans. The flavors range between sweet, sour, salty, hot or a blend.
I consider different pickling spices as I place my Farber Farm volunteer bounty into the car. There’s plenty to cook with, but I have other ideas for them, too. Channeling our ancestors, I plan to pickle some. The quick pickle method, or refrigerator pickles, is the easiest to do. By simply pouring an acidic brine over the vegetables, cooling them and putting them in the fridge, I have pickles in a matter of hours. It has less steps than traditional canning, which requires boiling the jars to vacuum seal them.
At home, I unload the bags, then wash and cut the vegetables. After the jars are cleaned and dried, I add the spices, then the vegetables. On the stove, I prepare the brine and pour the liquid into the jars to cover the contents completely. Next, I tap out all the bubbles, seal the lids and let them cool before putting them in the fridge. After about 48 hours, they’re ours to enjoy for up to two months.
Regardless of which produce you select, pickling is a great way to create interesting flavors and extend the shelf life of the Tishrei harvest. What’s so amazing is that these ancient techniques have survived to make their way into modern cooking today. It’s a clever solution for anyone finding themselves in a pickle, with too many ripe vegetables on hand.
THE BASIC QUICK PICKLE RECIPE
Makes approximately 2 pints.
1 lb. fresh vegetables, cleaned and trimmed
2 to 3 sprigs fresh herbs, such as dill, thyme or rosemary
1 to 2 tsps. of whole spices, such as coriander, black peppercorns or mustard seeds
2 cloves of garlic, smashed or sliced
1 cup vinegar, such as white, red wine, cider or rice
1 cup water
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 Tbsp. sugar
1. Wash the jars with warm, soapy water, rinse well and dry thoroughly.
2. Divide the fresh herbs, spices and garlic and place into the jars. Put the fresh vegetables into the jars, leaving a half inch of space at the top.
3. Bring the vinegar, water, salt and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan, dissolving the salt and sugar. Pour the brine over the vegetables to cover them completely.
4. Gently tap the jars on the counter to release any air bubbles, adding more brine, if necessary. Place the lids on top, sealing them tightly. Allow to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate, unopened, for 48 hours. Enjoy for up to 2 months.
Adapted from thekitchn.com