Fall has slipped in without fanfare, brisk nights, almost chilly enough for a fire, trailing warm days with brilliant blue skies. Pumpkins are everywhere. Mostly there are mountains of orange jack o’ lanterns, but then I’ll stumble onto heirloom types roosting like aliens among old friends. One of the most alluring is the French pumpkin, Rouge Vif d’Etampes, a ruddy, flattened orb that looks like Cinderella’s coach before the fairy godmother graced it with her wand. New this year are ghostly white Luminas which might gleam in the dark, and an anonymous, smooth, deeply lobed pumpkin the color of seawater.
A few weeks ago Andrea Reusing, chef and owner of Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill, fixed a trio of exotic housemade pickles using seasonal ingredients from our farmers’ market. My favorite was the lightly spiced sweet and sour pickled pumpkin. These toothsome golden half-moon slices are simmered in an Asian-style brine of rice vinegar and mirin infused with white peppercorns and fresh Thai chilies. They are easy to make and can be eaten almost immediately, although they are more flavorful after a few days in the refrigerator.
The next morning as I was looking for a small organic pumpkin to try Andrea’s recipe, I spied a basket of tiny, bright red crab apples and, next to it, a recipe for pickles. My mind flew at once to our own tree, so heavily laden with fruit this year that the groaning boughs are stretched almost to the ground. I could make pickles, I thought, and unburden the branches that have been sagging under the strain of such fecundity. (I’m sure I have the thrifty French housewife gene, for I’m never happier than using up what we have in the larder or garden.)
This is a more complicated pickle. Making it will occupy the better part of an afternoon. If you are plucking your own, choose only ripe apples that have turned completely red (or ones that are at least streaked with yellow rather than green). Look for unblemished fruit without bruises or too many insect spots. Make sure the birds have not already tasted them. This can be a very companionable way to spend an hour or two on a sunny fall day and my husband, who has lately become a pickle connoisseur, was only too happy to take a break from pruning a Japanese flowering plum and pick a few apples.
This is important: Whether you are buying crab apples or using your own, taste them first. A mealy apple is no good for eating or for pickling.
Because even the ripe fruit is quite tart, I made a brine of apple cider and white balsamic vinegars simmered with unrefined demerara sugar. The fun came in picking spices to add a little zing to all that sweetness. I decided to do a riff on Chinese five spice, using aromatic whole spices instead of ground ones. Into the pot went cassia sticks, star anise, fennel seed, cloves and black peppercorns–and for good measure, a knob of fresh ginger.
Although you can treat these as fresh pickles and eat them within a day or two, I’m keeping one jar in the refrigerator for a few weeks to see how the spices will permeate the fruit. Even after 24 hours, the flavors are starting to mellow. If the crab apples are as good as they were with last night’s caramelized pork chops, I know we’ll be enjoying them deep into the fall.
Recipe: Pickled Pumpkin with Thai Chiles and White Peppercorns
(from Andrea Reusing, Lantern Restaurant, Chapel Hill)
3 pounds small, organic edible pumpkins, cut into thin moons or chunks (see note)
For the brine:
5 fresh or dried Thai chilies (or to taste) (see note)
10 white peppercorns
2 quarts unseasoned rice wine vinegar (see note)
1-1/2 cups distilled white vinegar
1-1/2 cups mirin, or Japanese rice wine (see note)
2-1/2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup kosher salt
Combine brine ingredients in a non-reactive pan and bring to a simmer. When the sugar is dissolved, add pumpkin and simmer until al dente. Cool in liquid and refrigerate. Best after 2 or 3 days.
Note: I used a small Sugar Pie organic pumpkin. To prepare it for pickling, I peeled the rind, cut it in half, scooped out the seeds and pulp, and then sliced each half into very thin half moons. If the pieces seem large, you can cut them in half again on the diagonal. Or simply cut the pumpkin into bite-size chunks.
Rice vinegar, mirin or Japanese rice wine, and Thai chilies can be found at Asian food markets and in the international and produce sections of some supermarkets.
Recipe: Crab Apple Pickles with Star Anise, Cassia and Ginger
(Adapted from a recipe at Whole Foods)
2 quarts ripe, unblemished crab apples
For the brine:
2 cups white balsamic vinegar
3 cups apple cider vinegar
2 cups demerara, or light brown sugar (see note)
1 5-inch stick cassia (see note)
1 tablespoon star anise, whole or broken bits
1 tablespoon whole cloves
1 tablespoon whole fennel seed
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
3-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
For the jars:
2 quart jars or 4 pint jars, with lids
1. Wash the crab apples and discard any that are bruised or blemished. If desired, prick them with the tines of a fork. This will keep them from bursting when they are simmered in the hot brine.
2. Wash the jars and lids, or run them through the dishwasher, and put them in a large pot with water to cover. Bring to a rolling boil. Boil for 10 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave them in the hot water until you are ready to use them.
3. Place the spices in a 6-inch square of cheesecloth and tie up the ends to make a pouch. Put the spice bag in a large non-reactive pot with the vinegars and sugar. Bring to a gentle boil.
4. When the sugar has dissolved, add the crab apples. Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally until the apples are tender but still hold their shape. If overcooked, they will become mushy and disintegrate.
5. Remove the jars from the hot water and in each one, place a cassia stick, a few peppercorns and a whole star anise. Carefully ladle crab apples into each jar. Pour in the hot brine so that the fruit is completely covered. Put on the tops and let the pickles cool to room temperature.
6. Store either in a very cool dark pantry or in the refrigerator. For most flavorful pickles, wait 3 to 4 weeks before eating.
Note: Demarara sugar is natural unrefined cane sugar. If not available, substitute light brown sugar. In America, cassia sticks are usually sold as cinnamon sticks. Hard and tightly scrolled, they tend to break with a snap and have a vivid “cinnamon” flavor. (True cinnamon from Ceylon consists of crumbly layers of concentrically rolled bark; it has a softer, more nuanced taste.) For more on cinnamon and cassia, see SpiceLines Newsletter.