Small, Good Things: Transforming the Ordinary

By Joe Dizney

“It is not sufficient, he emphasized, to color the mind with wisdom; it must be pickled in it, as it were, soaked in it, and entirely transformed by it.” Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life

OK, maybe it’s counterintuitive to consider pickled vegetables just as local markets are about to be flooded by the spring’s fresh bounty. But when it comes to actually eating, the pickle is one of those simple culinary tricks that transforms the simplest meal into something special.

Consider the humble sandwich: bread, some protein (meat or fish or vegetable), perhaps a little dairy (cheese) and more vegetables for crunch and so you can feel good about yourself — about as basic as it gets.

But add a bit of chopped pickled vegetables and it takes on a completely different character.

For example: In Chicago, a roll layered with sliced roast beef au jus topped with giardiniera (a spicy vegetable pickle) becomes Italian Beef.

In New Orleans, a crusty cannonball-sized loaf is stuffed with cold cuts (ham, mortadella, salami) and cheese (provolone, Swiss). Add a healthy topping of what the locals call “olive salad” (a quick pickle of chopped green olives, celery, cauliflower and carrot, seasoned with oregano and garlic), and this behemoth becomes a Muffuletta. (Quartered it will feed four, unless someone’s really hungry.)

Pickles take center stage in this pork tenderloin sandwich with a quick-pickled, roasted giardiniera. (Photo by J. Dizney)

Both examples are Italian-American by birth, but every culture has its own pickled condiment. The list is long and includes: Indian chutneys or achar, Korean kimchi, Chinese and Japanese pickled vegetables, meso-American curtido and then some. The point is all can be used to the same end.

What end is that? The pickling process, in addition to providing an acidic brightness, adds a major dose of flavor, sweetness and even texture. Choosing from an infinite palette of spices and vegetables can be either as subtle or assertive as the chef desires.

This quick pickle recipe is based on the Italian giardiniera. The classic Italian mix is cauliflower, carrots, green beans, celery and onions. I’ve altered it to a heavier mix of onions, 86’ed the carrots and added fennel. I roasted everything for a bit more depth of flavor. I used white wine vinegar for a little additional punch but distilled white vinegar is fine. Just make sure whatever you use has at least 5 percent acidity.

The relish is pictured at upper right on a pork tenderloin sandwich. (The focaccia is available at Stephano’s and Rascal, a raw cow milk cheese, is available at Marbled Meats. Both are on Route 9 in Philipstown.) Fresh watercress or arugula with shaved fennel added some crunch. The giardiniera was drained and chopped roughly before layering it on the sandwich. You can just as easily do this with a chicken cutlet, even a grilled or roasted Portobello mushroom. Try it sans cheese with oil-cured sardines — Ortiz brand is a great choice — or even with cheese alone for a compact take on the ploughman’s lunch.

Don’t think this is merely about building a better sandwich. Add your relish of choice to any grain or bean bowl for a flavor boost. Add a big bowl to the table at any alfresco barbecue to enjoy with any grilled food. Think of it as a secret weapon to transform an ordinary meal into an extraordinary one.

Quick-Pickled, Roasted Giardiniera

Makes about 6 cups

Olive oil
1 head cauliflower, cut into small florets
3 medium bulbs fennel, sliced thin
1/2 to 3/4 pound green beans, bias sliced 1½ to 2-inch lengths
1 medium red onion, peeled and quartered
2 bunches scallions, root ends trimmed, cut to 2-inch lengths
4 to 5 shallots, peeled and quartered
1½ cups white wine vinegar (of at least 5 percent acidity)
½ cup water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup raw sugar
½ teaspoon fennel seed
½ teaspoon coriander seed
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seed
2 to 3 bay leaves
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 to 3 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1/4 cup fresh oregano leaves, chopped roughly

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a medium bowl, toss cauliflower, fennel and green beans with a splash of olive oil to coat, a pinch of salt and grind of black pepper. In another bowl, do the same for the red onions, shallots and scallions.
  2. Place cauliflower, fennel and green beans on a parchment-lined baking sheet and roast in preheated oven for 20 to 30 minutes until lightly caramelized. When done, remove from oven and return to the bowl. Replace parchment and spread onion mixture on the sheet and roast 20 to 30 minutes until caramelized. Remove from oven, transfer to a cutting board and chop roughly. Add to bowl with vegetables and toss until just mixed. Set aside.
  3. In a small skillet over medium heat, toast the fennel, coriander and mustard seed until fragrant. In a small saucepan, heat water, vinegar, sugar, salt, bay leaves, garlic, red pepper flakes and toasted fennel, coriander and mustard seeds to a simmer and remove from heat. Add oregano leaves, stir to incorporate and set aside.
  4. Spoon vegetables evenly into three sterilized 16-ounce Mason jars. Pour vinegar solution over vegetables, leaving about ¼ inch of headspace. Lightly screw on lids, let cool to room temperature, tighten lids and refrigerate — shaking the jars lightly and occasionally while they chill — for at least 24 hours before using (two to three days is optimal). Keep sealed for up to two weeks, unsealed for one.

What Do You Think?

The Current welcomes comments on its coverage and local issues. Submissions are selected by the editor to provide a variety of opinions and voices, and all are subject to editing for accuracy, clarity and length. We ask that writers remain civil and avoid personal attacks. Submissions must include your first and last name (no pseudonyms), as well as a valid email address. Please allow up to 24 hours for an approved submission to be posted. All online comments may also appear in print.

Your email address will not be published.