I remember laughing while watching early seasons of Top Chef because it felt that the constant comment of the judges was, “needs more acid.” At some point, it almost felt that the phrase was used when tasters couldn’t think of anything else to say. But, as I’ve aged and my tastes have definitely changed, I now find myself on an almost constant lookout for acidity in dishes to balance fatty foods and rich sauces.
The Japanese, of course, have long known how important this is. They use sharp acidic sauces to lighten heavy ingredients and masterfully use pickles to both perk up dishes and also keep one from feeling too over-indulgent (or in the extreme, slightly ill from too much rich food). When I was in the US last winter, I noticed that several of the restaurants I went to featured pickle menus — which I am assuming is indicative of a major food trend over there.
At home, my wife and I enjoy making pickles, but as lazy working professionals, we tend to prefer quick pickling methods that basically involve boiling up a pickling solution and pouring it over whatever veggies we’re keen to experiment on. And while we do have a couple pickle books — almost all Japanese — I’ve honestly tested only 2-3 recipes, and all of them the easiest ones.
Below is my current favourite quick pickling method. All of the pickles (save for the Japanese parsley which was simply blanched and then tossed in a bag with chopped wakame and green tea salt) pictured above were made using this method. I sometimes add a bit more flavour by tossing things into the pickle jars with the ingredients (for example, in the above, I added some shio konbu to the beetroot). I made these pickles to serve alongside a nice konbu-dusted, grilled wagyu steak with a pinot noir reduction and bowl of rice course that I served at a recent dinner party. The balance was perfect. And while a decade ago I might have served something rich and fatty with the beef, these days I need the acid.
Quick pickle – pickling liquid
250g Japanese rice vinegar
100g Champagne vinegar
100g shiro soy sauce
250g granulated sugar
25g yellow mustard seeds
5g brown mustard seeds
25g cumin seeds
12 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
Combine the first 6 ingredients in a saucepan/pot and bring to the boil. Then add the rest of the ingredients and take off the heat. Let steep for 30 minutes.
Strain the liquid into another saucepan.
Prepare the veggies you want to pickle but cutting them into your preferred shapes. For this amount of liquid, as an example, I was able to pickle 2 parsnips, 2 carrots, one beetroot and one long Japanese cucumber. Place vegetables in heatproof containers. We use jars that can be sealed.
For vegetables that don’t need to be boiled to become tender, bring the liquid back up to boil and then pour the hot pickling solution over the veggies, until just covered. Let the veggies (and liquid) come to room temperature, then seal, and store in the fridge.
For veggies like carrots that need to be cooked a bit, bring the liquid to a boil and then add the veggies. Bring the heat down until the liquid is simmering and cook to your preferred tenderness. For carrots and parsnips, I cook them for 15-20 minutes. Then transfer to a container, cool, seal and place in the fridge.
Let the pickles sit in the fridge for a few hours before eating.