August 5, 2005
The Good Wife

pickled%20onions.jpgAs longtime readers of this site will know, I was heavily scarred influenced in my formative years by the writer Louisa May Alcott. Oh yeah, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, too. And I have that Midwestern farm girl (okay, far west suburbs girl) background. The house I grew up in was built in the orchard of an old disused farm. All this is to say that preserving fruits and vegetables is part of my concept of what a Good Wife is supposed to do. My mother made the best plum jam from the trees in our back yard and I made my first forays into jam-making at the tender age of about nine. My modern-day incarnation of the Good Wife scoffs at these old-fashioned notions most of the time. But every once in a while she like to play the farm girl role again and boil jars and fill them.

I haven't made jam in many many years, mainly because my Midwestern born and bred family members give me some for Christmas every year. However, I do have a specialty that earns me complete and total Good Wife Status according to the Critic: Pickled Onions.

When I first raised the idea of making home made pickled onions with the Critic he was skeptical. First, he told me "Whatever you do, don't use cider vinegar; my mother did when I was little and it's awful." Check. Second, he told me, "Don't bother. It'll never be as good as the store-bought stuff."

Luckily for him, this good wife disobeys her husband from time to time. I scanned a few recipes on the web, consulted the trusty Fannie Farmer cookbook and Mrs. Beeton. And I winged it. And he LOVED it.

So the following is a compilation of several recipes. I used the Fannie Farmer for general tips on canning and the proportions of vinegar to sugar but the spice mix is all my own. They are slightly hot and if you get really fresh onions and don't pickle them too long in the salt water they are satisfyingly crunchy. They go perfectly with a sharp cheddar cheese. Cheese and onions - who would have thought? (They also can contribute to a mean Gibson cocktail.)

Spicy Pickled Onions

Take four bunches of small white onions. Mine added up to about a kilo of onions, ranging in size from the size of the end of my thumb to twice that size. You don't want them too small (too fiddly) or too large (too difficult to fit neatly in the jar). Wash them, peel them, tip and top them (i.e. cut off the green bits and the roots on the end). Put them in a large bowl and sprinkle them with 1 cup coarse (kosher, for example) salt and cover them with water. Cover them with plastic wrap or a plate and leave them for 6-9 hours or overnight. In an ideal world, you'll be able to put them in jars the next morning. In my less than ideal world I usually end up putting them in the brine on a Sunday evening and canning on Monday night. They are still good, but a shorter brining process will leave them a little crunchier. Mmmmm.

When they have finished brining, rinse the onions and set them aside. Immerse four large jars in boiling water and leave them for at least five minutes. In the meantime, bring to a boil 1 liter of plain unflavored white vinegar to which you have added one cup of sugar. You can also add a few tablespoons of mustard seed and a few sticks of cinnamon but it's not essential. It does give the vinegar a little kick-start in the spicing up process.

While the jars are boiling and the vinegar is getting hot, assemble your dried spices. I use:

juniper berries
mixed peppercorns (white, black, etc.)
sticks of cinnamon
star anise
mustard seeds
fennel seeds
coriander seeds or cardamom pods
dried hot peppers of your choice (I used small red bird's eye ones)

Pull a jar from the boiling water and quickly drain it. Fill it halfway with onions and then add (for example) one stick of cinnamon, a couple of star anise pieces, a few hot peppers, a teaspoon of peppercorns, a teaspoon of mustard seeds and fennel seeds and a couple of coriander seeds. Add more onions, leaving about an inch (2 1/2 cm) space at the top of the jar. Pour hot vinegar over the onions to cover completely, leaving only half an inch space at the top of the jar. You want to make sure you put in more vinegar than it takes to just cover the onions as they will absorb some of the vinegar over the coming months and you don't want them to dry out. Seal the jars according to your own methods.

A word on food hygiene: most cookbooks strongly recommend you process your jars in a hot bath after filling them to be absolutely sure you don't poison anyone. I don't usually bother with this for several reasons. Firstly, it takes away some of the crunch of the onions. Secondly, no jar ever lasts long in our kitchen. And thirdly, I know that vinegar is mildly antesceptic so I feel like we are not running a huge risk. But follow my steps with caution. If you want to be absolutely sure the pickled onions are safe you really should process them in a hot bath. And, of course, refrigerate after opening.

The jars: I used 1/2 liter glass jars with a rubber ring and a clasp. I discussed them for a long time with the woman in the drogerie and she told me that they are perfect for preserving and the only precaution I should take in re-using the jars would be to use new rubber rings on them. I bought a package of 10 extra rings for 2.75 euros.

This is a small batch. The advantage is that aside from the overnight pickling in brine, it only takes about half an hour to make four large jars of onions. If you double it, you'll have enough for yourself AND a few cherished friends. But taste them first before giving any away, as you may not want to part with them after all!

And one last word of warning for any English speaking Paris resident picklers out there (though you probably know this) do not use the word préservatifs when referring to preserving food...

Posted by Meg in Sussex at August 5, 2005 12:14 PM | TrackBack Print-friendly version

The jars are beautiful.

In my mind, where free time is infinite, I will be making these so soon.

In case reality rears its ugly birthday is in October :)

Posted by Alisa on August 5, 2005 at 2:08 PM

I'm pretty sure that given my wife's attitude towards pickled anything that preservatif might be an appropriate word after all.

Posted by barrett on August 5, 2005 at 3:33 PM

Oooh, pretty!

Meg--you are not the only one who was influenced strongly by Louisa and Laura. I don't know how many times I read those books as a young girl, but they fit very well in my upbringing on my grandparents' farm and in a small city in West Virginia.

You know that "Good Wife" thing actually has a name--scholars call it the 19th century "Cult of True Womanhood." I learned about that in my Women in American History class, way, way WAY back in the day, and had an aha! moment and said to the professor--"You mean, it all about all the values Ma tried to instill in Laura in the Little House books!"

I ended up writing a paper about it.

The prof loved it.

Posted by Barbara on August 7, 2005 at 4:14 PM

Funny you should post about pickling. I just made 3 jars of pickels, and I scoured every supermarket in Paris for white wine vinegar (you know how it's always the one thing you need, you can't find? that was my 'white wine vinegar' search in the supermarkets, although I did find white whine, I mean, wine vinegar...but it was walnut-flavored!)
So I used cider vinegar. Am in going to be in a pickel when I try them? I will try using white vinegar like you recommended. You're pickels looks pickel-icious!

Posted by David on August 8, 2005 at 1:40 PM

How long should you wait before eating them?

Posted by Rob on August 8, 2005 at 2:38 PM

Barbara, I know exactly what you mean! I'm sure it made a fascinating paper!

David, I found the vinegar in Monoprix. It was on the lowest shelf, where I often find the strange things I want. Let me know how the pickles turn out - I'm sure they'll be great! My dear Critic just has a few (!) prejudices!

Rob, thanks for pointing out the missing piece of information. You can eat them right away but they will develop flavor over time. I would recommend waiting at least a couple of weeks!

Posted by Meg in Paris (but currently in Chicago) on August 8, 2005 at 3:37 PM

Just reporting back on the hot water bath issue. Last year, I followed the instructions in my book on preserving and processed a few jars of pickled onions. As I expected, they turned out to have no crunch whatsoever. So this year, I am taking advantage of the fact that we now have to refrigerators and simply putting all the jars in the fridge, unprocessed. I know from experience that they will keep perfectly fine - and stay crunchy!

Posted by Meg in Sussex on August 16, 2010 at 3:02 AM
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