Put up with me: Pickled Asparagus
I never did use to like pickles. I don’t remember being a super picky eater, but pickles just never floated my boat. The saccharin chunks of relish in the condiment line turned my stomach, and we didn’t serve any kind at home.
When my Indian host family served me aam ka achaar (Hindi: unripe mango pickle), prior to my pickle awakening, I politely turned it down many times. When I finally gave it a shot one day, I shoved the whole little chunk of spicy pickled mango in my mouth, much to the amusement of my hosts. Turns out, you just rub your bread on the pickle to absorb flavor, not ingest the whole shebang. I came to appreciate the savory tang with lentils and rice, but never connected Indian pickles with cucumber pickles. Those were still gross. Right?
My view on pickles changed one day in high school when a friend took me to Kornblatt’s Deli in Portland and gently badgered me into eating a kosher half sour pickle. Crunch, snap, salt, vinegar – YES. This discovery launched a full-on experiment into all the varieties of cucumber pickles the local Safeway carried to see which others I liked, I believe involving four jars of pickles and a boy who lived in his car (who was probably trying to hit on me, in retrospect) that ended with me leaving all 4 jars of non-kosher-half-sour-dills behind. Along with the boy, of course.
It took many more years to open my eyes to the wider world that is pickling. Vinegar pickles, fridge pickles, fermented pickles — so many to choose from. When I saw a recipe in the NYTimes for pickled asparagus in 2009, I bookmarked it and forgot about it until I moved to California, where asparagus grows on trees. What? Not trees? You’re kidding me. Next you’ll be saying that pineapples grow on absurdly long stalks.
I’ve used this recipe to pickle asparagus twice since my first trial in April 2010, and if I wasn’t a pickle convert before, I am now. Even my vinegar-hating sweetie scarfs the salty spears down.
I adapted this from the NYTimes’ adaptation of “Well-Preserved” by Eugenia Bone (Clarkson Potter).
Makes 3 or 4 pint jars full (plus at least as much asparagus butts)
5 pounds asparagus, thin spears if you like (~ 5 bunches)
2 1/4 cups distilled white vinegar (at least 5% acidity)
1/4 cup salt
3-4 garlic cloves, slivered
1 tsp dill seed
1/4 tsp each: red pepper flakes, whole allspice, cumin seed, coriander seed
water bath canning set-up (big pot, smaller pot, rack, jars, lids, etc.)
3-4 wide mouth pint jars & lids
Wash the jars and lids. Get your water bath heating up so you can sterilize the jars in a bit. Put the lids & bands in a smaller saucepan and cover with water; bring to a boil and turn off the heat. Leave the pan covered and set it to the side.
Cut off an asparagus tip so that when placed in a jar it comes up to the bottom thread line (1/2″+ below the top). Use this spear as a guide to cut all the other spears.
Do something with the butts. Please. And don’t forget to cut off the woody parts at the end, whatever you do with them. Best option: cut them into chunks and pickle ‘em too.
Set up a water bath in the sink, and a place to put blanched spears.
Bring water in a large skillet to a boil and blanch the spears in batches like so: place in pan, let water come back to a gentle boil, skim out spears & plunge into ice-water bath. Remove spears from water & let drain. Repeat. And again until all the asparagus has been processed.
Heat the vinegar, salt, garlic, spices, and 2 1/4 cups water to boiling on the stove. Cover and turn off the heat. Don’t inhale the fumes unless you want to burn your nose taste buds.
Sanitize the jars by dipping them in boiling water.
Take the jars out of the water with a jar lifter (for reals, it helps so much), or whatever else you trust yourself to mess around in boiling water with — regular tongs can work, or in a pinch two wooden spoons.
Pack the blanched asparagus spears into the steaming jars. Fill them as tightly as possible without mangling the product. Don’t process any partially full jars – these can become fridge pickles instead, or be eaten plain.
Pour or ladle the hot vinegar solution over the asparagus just to cover. There should be 1/2 an inch of headroom in the jar. You’ll probably have left over vinegar solution; feel free to spoon divy up the left-over spices among the jars to be canned.
For each jar, dip a paper towel in boiling water and wipe off the rim. Then place a lid followed by a band on each jar and tighten firmly without going crazy on it. Too tight and too loose are both bad — find baby bear.
Put the jars into the water bath and add more water or remove some, whichever you need to make it be 2 inches over the top of the jars. Let the water come back to a strong boil, start a 10 minute timer, and reduce heat to maintain a gentle boil for the duration.
When the timer is up, turn off the heat and let the jars sit in the water for 5 minutes. Then remove the jars from the water, being careful not to tilt them. Place the hot jars on a towel if you need to protect your counter/table, and let the jars sit for at least 4 hours.
Check the seals on the jars the next day by removing the bands and lifting the jars by the lids. In properly sealed jars, the spears will be hovering at the top of the jar; in jars that didn’t seal, they will have fallen to the bottom of the jar.
Label the jars with the ingredients and date. Put them up in a cupboard where you can bear to leave them be for 4 weeks while the vinegar does its job.
Eat as a snack, side dish, hot-dog condiment, or cocktail garnish.