(Makes a half-pound of pickles. Recipe courtesy of Chef Blaine Wetzel, The Willows Inn, from his book: Sea and Smoke)
Blaine Wetzel is an extraordinary chef specializing in the indigenous flavors of the upper-leftmost corner of the continental United States, but his advice and techniques work well in Appalachia, New England, the Southwest, wherever. I find the back of Blaine Wetzel’s cookbook especially useful. He provides all sorts of tips, many quite simple, to create amazing condiments using fantastically unique flavors; the sorts of condiments that transform a plate of familiar food into something exotic and exciting. He offers How To’s on fermenting green garlic, for example, or making capers out of seeds and underripe fruits, curing salmon roe, and simmering a stock using the local clams, mussels, and fish.
But my favorite is Blaine’s recipe to make pickled wild things. I love this recipe because it is a delicious, easy introduction to the myriad flavors native to wherever you live in America, and it succinctly reveals Blaine’s culinary approach: hyperlocal flavors, simply prepared. “One of the most enjoyable parts of our job,” Blaine says, “is foraging for sprouts, leaves, and berries. It is a perfect change of pace and scenery after a few hours in front of the stove. In the middle of the day, I usually run out for a quick walk, either down to the beach or along one of the forest trails to collect what’s needed.”
Whatever Blaine forages—fiddleheads, jelly mushrooms, green strawberries, pine shoots—he can turn into a snappy, tangy pickle. But my personal favorite are ramps. These preserved wild leeks are the perfect nibbler to enjoy with a good cracker and a stiff cocktail.
2 cups / 450 grams high-quality cider vinegar
1 cup / 200 grams granulated sugar
½ cup / 25 grams chopped fresh woodruff leaves and stems
1 tablespoon / 5 grams parsley leaves
1 fresh bay leaf
1 frond fresh dill (about 4 grams)
¼ teaspoon / 1 gram dill seeds
¾ teaspoon / 3 grams juniper seeds
½ teaspoon / 1½ grams whole black peppercorns
8 ounces / 225 grams ramps, tops trimmed (or fiddleheads, mushrooms, green strawberries, pine shoots
– whatever you forage and fancy)
In a large saucepan, bring 2 cups / 475 grams of water, the vinegar and the sugar to a boil, then simmer until the sugar has dissolved.
Place the woodruff, parsley, bay leaf, fresh dill, dill seeds, juniper seeds, and peppercorns in a large, nonreactive container and pour the hot brine over the top. Cover the container and refrigerate overnight.
Run the brine through a fine-mesh strainer and discard the solids. Bring about 1 gallon / 4 liters of water to a boil in a stockpot. While it heats, clean the ramps (or whatever wild things you are using) of any brown or discolored or woody bits. Blanch in the boiling water for about 30 seconds, then drain and immediately plunge into an ice-water bath to halt the cooking. Once the ramps are cold, drain again and place them into the bottom of a large, plastic, nonreactive container.
Heat the brine to a simmer, pour it over the ramps, cover the container, and leave it in the refrigerator for about a week. The pickles are done when they’ve softened some, but still have a bit of snap to them.