Years and years ago, I was a young college professor, fresh out of grad school, single, living near Kankakee, Illinois, thousands of miles away from my friends and family. And I had trouble meeting people and making friends when I first moved there because I was only 23. Most of my colleagues were decades older than I with young families to contend with, but I certainly wasn’t going to consort with fresh-out-of-high-school 18-year-olds, either (that five years makes a big difference!). Eventually, I ended up befriending some of the older students—seniors and some fifth-years—that were just about the same age as I was. Shout outs to John/GJ, Phil/Phulluxe, Tony/Twonky, Carl/Quakky, Padfoot, Wormtail (kidding...wanted to see if you were reading closely), and of course, my sweet friend, Karen/Karumz. Once in awhile, one of these dear people would take pity on me during major holidays and take me home with them to join their families so I wouldn’t be alone. One year, I went home for Thanksgiving with Johnny to Sullivan, Missouri, a teensy weensy little cowpoke town somewhere about an hour southwest of St. Louis. I had a lovely time visiting his large family (four brothers and one sister just in his family with all of the extendeds nearby), but the Thanksgiving meal was difficult. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there was great food and good company, but you had to WAIT for it! I can’t remember what time we were supposed to eat—seems like it was 1:00pm or some such. And people never let you eat before the big to-do, so we hadn’t even had breakfast. But Cousin So-and-So wasn’t there yet, and then we had to wait for Aunt What’s-Her-Face, and eventually, it became 3 or 4 in the afternoon, and we hadn’t eaten yet! At some point, they must have felt bad for us, and began putting out little tidbits to snack on. Someone made the grave error of putting a whole crystal boat full of dill pickle spears right in front of me and, God and the Volkmann Family forgive me, I think I ate the whole dish by myself! Not only was I starving, but they were the BEST pickles I have ever had in my life, and I am VERY picky when it comes to my dills! When I told John how much I enjoyed them (not that he couldn’t tell by the empty dish in front of me!), we staged a raid on Grandma Blesi’s larder before heading back to school in Illinois. I remember John taking a lot of preserves like the family’s famous apple butter that they make outside in a big open kettle every fall (some with anise, some without) and also something he calls pear honey that I think has canned pineapple in it (don’t ask!), but I myself made off with two prized quarts of dills. Thank you, Grandma Blesi! :-)
Flash forward about three years. I have left Illinois to begin work on my Ph.D. at University of Utah. John moved with me (which would make a long story much too long!), and we shared the middle floor of a small house in Salt Lake City. The house had a large, fenced-in back yard and a huge garden area. I was always a pale, bookish sort who would rather be inside in the AC watching a movie than helping my tanned, outdoorsy mother in the summer garden. But something happened to me in my 27th year, and I suddenly began engaging in what I can only assume were nesting behaviors. I began happily digging in the dirt and growing all kinds of vegetables, and Johnny designed a large, lovely herb garden for us as well. Then, at harvest time, I became obsessed with learning how to can. My mother, despite her age and being from the Deep South, never did any canning. She was a big-time freezer—it was all Seal-a-Meal and plastic freezer containers for her—and we always kept an upright freezer full of stuff, even though it was just the two of us (I still do this myself…must have come by it honest!). So when I decided to learn how to can, I knew the first thing I had to make was the Blessed Blesi Dills, and I knew just who to call—John’s mom, Carol, in Sullivan, MO. Of course, I scared her at first, and had to quickly reassure her that John was okay, and that wasn’t why I was calling. After her panic had subsided, she was happy to spend an hour or so on the phone with me, giving me my first canning lesson and pickle tutorial. I remember that my first efforts were flawed because I boiled the lids (a no-no, as it can soften the adhesive), and I also over-tightened the rings on the jars before putting them in the canner, and some of the lids ended up buckling. But I just left those in the back of the fridge for a month or so and ate them first. And BOY HOWDY, were they good—just as good as Grandma’s Blesi’s of beloved memory. In fact, I'll have you know that I went on to win the Utah State Fair with those pickles, leaving all those Mormon homemakers gnashing their teeth! Tee hee. This led me to pickle everything from green beans to beets then on to zucchini and corn relishes, salsas, chutneys, and finally, to jams, which is how you find me today, selling preserves each Saturday at the farmers market.
Strangely, it has been SEVEN YEARS since I have made the Blesi Dills, as I made a TON of them before I left Salt Lake City and brought boxes and boxes of them across country when I moved. They lasted a really long time when my SLC friends weren’t always coming over and stealing them (as I did from Grandma Blesi—karma's a bitch). But I used up the last jar this past winter, and since then, I have been—GASP—buying pickles! Oh, the horror, the humanity! So when Kurt e-mailed me for the recipe, I was inspired to get off my duff and make some for myself, or maybe it was that he shamed me by pointing out that the recipe should have been posted to my blog ages ago! It’s true, but you see, I was always concerned that I wouldn’t be able to source key ingredients here. The recipe called for four-inch pickling cukes, but I have never pickled anything over three inches in my life (stop that giggling, Beavis), and I prefer them to be two inches or smaller, like cornichons. I had a source of teeny cukes in Ogden when I lived in Utah, but I wasn’t sure I could find them here (someone willing to pick them small, which is more labor-intensive). But my favorite produce guy at the farmers’/flea market in St. Chrysostome, QC had me covered! The other problem was where to find fresh grape leaves. Lots of people have grapevines, I suppose, but how would you know who does and where to find them? But a few weeks ago, I spied a new sign just up the road from me that said “Vineyard/Wine Tasting” on it. I can’t even imagine what kind of wine can be made in Chazy, New York, but I am happy to report that the vintner is a very nice man who has granted me unlimited access to his vines and a perpetual supply of grape leaves (which may inspire me to make some stuffed grape leaves like I learned to make in a Lebanese cooking class, but that’s for another post another day). With the help of my local suppliers and Cyd, who is a mean pickle-packer, we put up 13 quarts and one leftover pint this past weekend! And I’m not sure I’m done yet. I may have the strength for one more pickling session next weekend, as the man at St. Chrysostome said he’d have more cukes of the miniature, cornichon-size. That might be too tempting to pass up! If you want to try making some of your own (because NYS law forbids their sale at market for no good reason, plus, I’m not sure I could be persuaded to part with my preciouses anyway!), the recipe follows:
The Blessed Blesi Dill Pickles
20-25 (4-inch) cukes, blossom removed, washed and (preferably) soaked overnight in the fridge for crispness
Brine (brought to a boil then kept hot while you pack the jars):
1 cup pickling salt
3 quarts (12 cups) water*
1 quart (4 cups) cider vinegar *
For each quart jar (packed tightly with cukes, as they will shrink in cooking) add:
1/8 teaspoon powdered/granulated alum
1 clove garlic (or two!)
1 small hot red pepper (or a serrano)
2 heads fresh dill (or 1 tablespoon dill seed)
1 grape leaf, washed and stemmed (place on top after covering the cukes with brine, leaving 1/4 to 1/2-inch headspace)
Once the jars are filled and capped (fingertip tighten only!), process 20 minutes from cold**. Store in a cool, dark place, and don't eat them for at least a month to reach full flavor.
*It would seem that these old, grandma-style recipes were developed back in the day when vinegar was much stronger, and thus, had to be diluted more. When using 5% vinegar these days, the safe ratio for brine is 1:1. Mind you, I have been making these pickles with the weaker brine for many years without incident, but I think it would be a wise move to amend the recipe to two quarts each of water and vinegar.
**I have another concern with Grandma Blesi's recipe (blasphemy!). It's the part about processing 20 minutes "from cold." What does that mean? Is the water in the canner cold? If so, it wouldn't even reach a full boil by 20 minutes. Are the jars cold when you put them in? Cold jars would break in hot water, but that's besides the point, as they would have hot brine in them anyway. But if you boil the jars for a full twenty minutes, you'll get overcooked, wrinkled pickles. I consulted my faithful Ball Blue Book, and all of the pickle recipes call for 15 minutes of processing for quarts (10 or 15 for pints). So that's what I did, processed them at a full boil for 15 minutes, but I still had a few pickles here and there that had some unattractive wrinkling on the ends. So when I do my next batch, I am going to throw caution and USDA regulations to the wind and try processing them for just 10 minutes at a full boil. I think that will do the trick! (I will report back on my results.)
Follow-up: Thanks to Cyd's legendary pickle-packing skills (that she is not the least bit humble about!), we managed to put up another six quarts of pickles taking the season's total to 20 (plus a pint)! And this time, I tried processing the jars for ten minutes instead of fifteen. Well, that seems to have done it, as the pickles appear fully cooked with barely any wrinkling. Of course, we won't really know the outcome until a tasting a month or so from now, but I think ten minutes is the way to go. FYI...