In a Pickle

pickles.jpgWhat is it about vinegar plus ingredients that make me such a happy boy? Is it the complimentary tang of anything that's cured in brine brings? Is it that zippy puckerface that follows after chomping on a pickled cucumber? Or have I just encountered temporary culinary fatigue and needed something loud and strong to shock me out of my lull?

Perhaps it was D, all of the above.

To me, there are just some things that cannot and should not be enjoyed without their pickled counterpart. I refuse to enjoy paté and baguette without cornichon. I frown if a burger doesn't have pickles waiting for me under its bun. A ploughman's lunch isn't a ploughman's lunch without Branston pickle. Pickles, in whatever form, provide that sharp tangy balance that pairs beautifully with the smooth and savory. It's that last crash of a symbol in a symphony, that sparkling sour kick in a bite.

One of my favorite things to do in the pickling department is Zuni's red onion pickles. If you've eaten there and ordered a burger you know what I'm talking about: those zesty,hot pink rings that adorn the side of the burger, lending an intriguing spice flavor that lives between their savory and salty notes. I always ask for extra, will happily pick them off the plates of dining friends, and just about go crazy for them.

pickles2.jpgBesides, anything that bright in color has to be loved.

Zuni's red onion pickles are quite easy to make at home and don't require the weeks of resting in brine to achieve their flavor (although they do get better with age.) The process must be done in steps and it may seem elaborate, but it's not. Skipping the steps gives you an onion that isn't quite as flavorful and not the same texture. You want them soft but still crunchy, and the multiple cooking delivers just that.

Aside from their unusual hot pink color, the onions really shine in recipes. They're easily identifiable on a burger and don't get lost amidst sharp cheese and smoky patties. They're also equally delicious on sandwiches, with grilled fare, and served with cheese. I love them on grilled sausages, sort of a fancy hot dog, if you will. However you enjoy them, they're definitely worth the afternoon effort and bring a little Zuni home with every bite.

Red Onion Pickles adapted from the Zuni Cookbook

Cooking notes: You'll want to prepare these in a stainless steel pot and use stainless steel tongs or a wooden spoon. Aluminum cookware can leave the onions with an off color and deny you the gorgeous hot pink hue that you want.

Ingredients for about 2 pints
1 lb firm red onions (about 2 medium onions, although you can add more and increase quantity)

for the brine:
3 cups distilled white vinegar
1 1/2 cups sugar
a cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
a few whole cloves
a few allspice berries
a small dried chili
a star anise pod (Zuni recipe says it's optional, I wouldn't skip this part!)
2 bay leaves
a few whole black peppercorns

1. Combine the vinegar, sugar, and all the spices in the stainless steel pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and let stand to allow the spices to infuse the brine.

2. Peel the onions, trim the ends and slice 3/8 inch thick. Separate the slices into rings, discarding any skin and tough bits.

3. Uncover the brine and bring to a boil over high heat. Immediately add about 1/3 of the onion rings and stir them under. They will turn hot pink almost instantly (YAY! says Matt.) As soon as the bring begins to simmer around the edges, about 20 seconds, stir them under again and slide the pot off the heat. Immediately remove the onions with a slotted spoon, skimmer, or tongs and spread on a platter or cookie sheet to cool completely. The onions will still be firm. Repeat with the remaining onions, in two batches.

4. Once the onions have cooled (you can stick them in the fridge to cool them quickly), repeat the entire process, again in three batches, two more times, always adding the onions to boiling brine, pulling them promptly as the brine begins to simmer again, and cooling them completely after each bath. After the third round of blanching, thoroughly chill the brine, then add the pickled onions. This slightly tedious process saturates the onions with the fragrant brine without really cooking them, a process that leaves them crunchy. Zuni notes that without this process you're left with dull, regularly colored onion rings.

5. Place in jars, cover and store refrigerated. The cookbook says they will keep indefinitely, but I've never gone longer than 2 weeks before they're completely gone. Enjoy!


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