July 01, 2014

Instinct for Preservation

For many Americans, the words “pickles and preserves” conjure up images of state fairs. But these conserved fruits and vegetables resonate much more deeply with Russians, for whom the preservation of summer’s bounty is crucial to surviving the long winter.

Traditional Russian preserving techniques, especially for pickles, differ from American practice. The most common American pickles are cucumbers packed in a vinegar solution flavored with dill. Other vegetables are pickled, too, such as okra and sweet mixes, like the relishes and chowchows that originated from Indian chutneys. Fruits can get similar treatment, as in pickled watermelon rind or spiced pickled peaches. As for jam, most American grocery-store brands contain so much sugar that the flavor of the fruit becomes secondary; and the fruit itself is boiled down into a smooth jam or jelly rather than being left whole.

By contrast, although vinegar- packed pickles can be found, the age-old Russian method calls for brining the cucumbers in a salt solution to activate malolactic fermentation – a process with many health benefits, which the Russian peasantry instinctively knew when insisting on something sour with each meal. As the Russian word for “pickles” – solyonnye [salted] ogurtsy) – reveals, simple cucumbers, ogurtsy, become pickles once they are salted. Mushrooms are also frequently salted, which is how they taste best. As with cucumbers, they are placed upright rather than on their sides in a crock or barrel, layered with coarse salt, heads of dill, garlic, peppercorns, and black currant leaves – aromatics that lend excellent flavor. A little hot water is poured over all, and the mushrooms or cucumbers are left to ferment (alternatively, a brine can be made and poured over the vegetables). The salt draws out the moisture, thereby preserving the foodstuff. Russians prize the brine (rassol) nearly as much as they do the finished pickle. It is an important element in several Russian soups, especially the famous rassolnik, a mixture of chopped meats for which the brine provides a wonderfully sour tang.

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