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Eating Great Britain, Part II: Pickling

Pickled onions are a staple on English dining tables
Pickles. Dill, spicy, sweet, you name it. Just typing the word makes my mouth pucker a bit. I’m not afraid to say I have long loved pickles. When I was little, I would drink the brine. Straight. And as a grown-up, I love that same brine mixed with a bit of vodka and a pickle spear (simply called a pickle martini or Rabbi). At around age six or seven, some neighborhood friends and I decided it was high time we left home to eke out a living in the woods. Surviving without adults would be difficult and the others determined toilet paper, flashlights, water, and peanut butter sandwiches were a must. What did I bring to our packing meeting? Pickles. I was that kid that contributed absolutely nothing but pickles. Because what else was there?

Needless to say, I was beyond thrilled to be introduced to pickled onions on my first visit to England last summer. According to the National Onion Association, onions actually have a fascinating history. Not only are they one of the earliest cultivated crops, perhaps even a staple in prehistoric diets, the circle-in-circle design of an onion symbolized eternity to the ancient Egyptians and thus became an object of worship and esteemed funeral offering. The Romans, one of the first to travel with their food in containers, carried onions on their journeys to England and Germany. Today, pickled onions are a traditional addition to English fare, my personal favorite being an appearance on a ploughman’s (hunk of crusty bread, butter, pickled onions, Branston pickle, bit of salad, tomato, and super sharp cheddar or Stilton…a simple lunch that can’t be beat!)

A crop of sadly small onions are perfect for pickling

Unfortunately, I’ve not been so brilliant with our own onion crop. We planted yellow and white onions as our first garden crops but tragically, failed to thin the rows. The result? Onions with beautiful tops but coming out of the ground very, very small. So right before leaving for last month’s visit to England, I pulled up our tiny onions after realizing they would be perfect for pickling. I let them set for two weeks while I was away and upon my return, already missing family and friends in my second home, I opened the jar and tried my first batch of pickled onions. I’m happy to report they taste just like in England. Crunchy, salty, refreshing.

Other than their irresistible taste, pickled onions are great because they can be done in the refrigerator (no need for a boiling water bath) and not give you botulism. My father-in-law pickles onions and his steps are simple: 1) peel the onions, 2) sprinkle with salt and let sit for 24 hours 3) rinse and place in jar with brine.

…But for my first attempt I didn’t yet have that not-so-secret English recipe, so I used the refrigerator pickle recipe from The Hip Girls’ Guide to Homemaking: 

My own pickled onions were as good as I hoped

Pickled Onions 

Ingredients: 

  • 1 cup vinegar (I used white, but the Brits I polled recommended malt)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tbsp. salt
  • Spices (I added 2 chopped garlic cloves and some peppercorns, but you can add whatever your pickle-loving heart desires!)

1. Wash and cut up your vegetables and pack them into a clean jar. *You don’t need to buy Ball jars, you can just save and reuse salsa jars, pasta sauce jars, etc. You can also opt to blanch your veggies, though I prefer the crunch of raw.

2. Add spices.

3. Combine in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil the vinegar, water, and salt. *Add sugar for sweet pickles.

4. Pour the boiled brine over the vegetables in the jar.

5. Seal your jar and let them sit in fridge for at least one week (the longer you wait, the better they’ll taste) and voila! Pickled onions!

Anyone else pickling vegetables this summer? What’s your favorite method?