Saturday, September 8, 2012

Pickling Cucumbers: Hope Burns Eternal

Lavender's blue, dilly dilly, 

We visited the food auction again, and it was a night of great significance.  

I have been searching for the last few months for any farm or farmer that produced pickling cucumbers, and most particularly looking for someone who had them in bulk.  At the farmer's market I'd seen several booths with little quart boxes of the cukes, but that wasn't going to suffice.  Quite truthfully, I'd given up all hope of ever finding any this year and confided to Mr H that we may need to be satisfied with pickled okra, instead. 

It wasn't that they couldn't be had in bulk at all - I had seen pickling cukes at the food auction, you see - but they were growing rubbery to the touch, and their skin was starting to shrink, indicating to me that they were already a day or two old; too old for my purposes, which were whole dill pickles.  

Pickling cucumbers contain less water in their flesh than slicing cucumbers, and are smaller and firmer.  A slicing cucumber would make a very soft, smooshy pickle, and not very appetizing.  Pickling cucumbers hold their firm texture even after brining, whole or sliced.  And they need to be pickled as quickly as possible after picking, or they will go soft in the jars.  Preferably within 24 hours - the sooner, the better.  

When I arrived at the food auction on Wednesday night, my second time going there, I saw a pallet with five boxes of pickling cucumbers that looked fresh, moist and crisp.  There were a few boxes on other pallets, but a brief glance told me they were too old for my perfect dill pickles.  I hoped I could possibly score at least a box of the fresh cucumbers - I jealously wished I could get them all! - but I didn't hold out a great deal of hope because I had seen a box go for $23 a week ago, and I knew that was too high for me.  
The night progressed very nicely, and I picked up a few different items: a half-bushel of peaches for a friend, a crate of long green snap beans to be canned, two flats of jalapenos to be sliced and canned in vinegar, two watermelons and two canary melons.  

The auction wore on and the crowd thinned.  Prices started dropping.  There was about a bushel's worth of chilies  divided into separate containers, on the same pallet as the pickling cucumbers.  My heart was thudding in my chest as the auctioneer approached the pallet.  First he offered up a container of the peppers. He started the bidding at a few dollars, and nobody made a move.  He put all the containers in a stack and said, "Seven dollars for the whole thing!"  I raised my card.  

"Eight dollars!" he called to the crowd.  Nobody moved; they were bored of peppers, had bid on a dozen boxes of them at least so far, and nobody wanted any more.  "Eight dollars - eight dollars -"  He looked at me and I didn't move. "Eight dollars - sold for seven dollars, number three-four-six."  He waved towards the peppers and I, concealing my pleasure, stacked them all on a separate pallet for Mr H to load into the Jeep. The chilies all got washed and set in the dehydrator as soon as we got home that night, to be crumbled and added to recipes at a later date.  

The auctioneer reached a box of small tomatoes, separated into clamshells.  Nobody bid on them for a long time, and finally somebody took them for $2.25 a clamshell.  The bidder only took two clamshells, and I raised my card and scored the remaining eight.  These will be turned into tomato jam, as suggested by the Mysterious Mrs S.  

The last item remaining was the cucumbers.  My heart was in my throat.  I had no idea where he would start the bidding - or how high it would go, as I had seen cukes, a popular item, skyrocket quickly when everybody started bidding fast and furious.  

To my shock, he started the bidding at $5 a box.  Nobody twitched.  He blared on and on, and nobody moved a muscle!  I cast my bid.  I won them for $5 apiece.

He asked, "Do you want them all?"

I said yes.  110 pounds of pickling cukes for thirty bucks!

One of the auction old-timers said to me, "You're learning too fast.  You're gonna take us all."

I essentially use two strategies for the auction.  One is in the interest of cashflow:  I purchase things which I know I will not be able to get at a later date, in order to control the flow of spending.  For instance, I'd love to stock up on butternut squash, and a lot was sold the other night for a very fair price.  But I know butternut squash will be available well into the winter, and I won't be able to get the pickling cucumbers in a few weeks.  So, I buy cucumbers now, squash later.  The second strategy is a very simple one, which I learned the first day:  When there are seven pallets that have zucchini on them, don't bid for zucchini until the seventh pallet.  Then you'll get the lowest price, because everybody will have gotten all they wanted already, and won't bid against you.  

I was giddy about the cucumbers.  Mr H, our friend The WalDorf, and the little Farm Boy were all watching me make the bids.  "Looks like you're staying up late," Mr H said.  Miss WalDorf was planning to spend the night at our house in anticipation of canning items from the food auction that night.  "I think we'll need to stop at the store for some more apple cider vinegar!" I told her.  We picked up some ice cream, as well.

A vat of relish
Bread and Butter Slices

And stay up late, we did!  We made sliced bread and butter pickles - ten quarts, and one pint.  Relish - ten and a half pints.  And dill pickles - sixty-seven quarts, packed as tightly as I could cram them, with every inch taken up by additional spears and chunks of cucumber.  We canned all night, until 6:30 AM.  We were ridiculous, laughing at everything, falling on the floor with hysteria, and processing jar after jar.  We didn't get it all done, and Mr H and I finished the next day; but it was a relief to have been able to do much of the hot work during the night, when it was cooler and the little Farm Boy was asleep.

Dill Pickles - both spears and whole.  Miz Carmen gave me the original recipe! 
Mr H will easily eat a pint a day of these dills! 
I refuse store-bought pickles - once you've made your own, nothing seems
to compare ... so this is a happy sight for me! 
I am frequently asked what the difference is between canning/pickling salt (they are the same thing) and regular table salt.  The difference is that canning/pickling salt has not been iodized, as table salt is.  Table salt also can include anti-caking agents.  The iodine oxidizes the product being canned or pickled, and turns it brown or softens it.  This is, of course, unappealing.  Iodine was first added to table salt in 1924, as a government directive in the hopes of decreasing incidences of mental retardation and other malaise by assuring everybody received their recommended daily amount of this element.

And now, on to the little crate of green beans!

In a pickle, as always,

Mrs H



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