Eating low-fat? get in a pickle

Pickled vegetables tend to be very low in fat and calories, but high in taste, so they’re a great addition to a healthful diet. Instead of drowning entrees in high-fat cream sauces, try flavorful pickled vegetable toppings, relishes or salsas instead.

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Pickling — whether it involves whole cucumbers or finely chopped vegetables — is one of the oldest methods for preserving food. In the days before refrigeration, it enabled cooks to enjoy summer’s bounty all year long. The combination of sugar, salt and vinegar virtually guarantees that bacteria can’t survive. When properly canned, pickled foods last indefinitely if stored unopened in a cool, dark place.

Two common techniques for making pickles.Pickles that you buy at the deli are often brined-steeped and fermented in a saltwater solution (brine) for several weeks. For home cooks, the preferred method for preparing relishes and pickles is simply to cover the vegetables with a simmering broth of vinegar, spices, salt, sugar and assorted garnish vegetables and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes. You then transfer the mixture to canning jars or refrigerate it for immediate use.

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Buy them bright. When making relishes and pickles, it’s important to start with the brightest, crispest items that you can find. Bruised, wilted or overripe vegetables and fruits deteriorate during the cooking (or curing) process. Further, the texture of a condiment is almost as important as the flavor, so a firm pickle with a loud snap is much more desirable than a limp, tepid specimen. When making pickles, use pickling cucumbers rather than the slicing kind that you use on salads. Pickling cukes are small and wide with a firm texture, stubbly skin and a slightly bitter taste. Slicing cucumbers aren’t as firm and crisp, so they become quite limp.

Use the right gear. The high acid content of relishes and pickles may react with aluminum, copper or cast-iron cookware, causing unsightly colors or an unpleasantly off flavor. It’s best to use pots and other utensils made from stainless steel, enamelware or food-grade plastic.

Use simple vinegar. Although you can use apple cider vinegar or red-wine vinegar for making relishes and pickles, they tend to darken the ingredients. They can also be somewhat expensive. If you want to preserve the original colors of light-colored ingredients and keep your costs down, distilled white vinegar is your best bet.

Try a spice combo. Many pickle and relish recipes call for a dozen or more spices. Rather than loading your pantry with ingredients that you’ll rarely use, you may want to buy a commercial blend. These typically include such spices as whole cloves, allspice berries, celery seeds, mustard seeds, bay leaves, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, dill seeds, mace, dried chilies and cinnamon sticks.

Choose your texture. Cooks who desire a rustic pickle usually sprinkle spices directly into the pan. Those who favor a clearer broth wrap the flavorings in cheesecloth before adding them to the pot. Both methods work well and are a matter of personal choice.

Choose your sweetener. Most pickles and relishes are made with granulated sugar, although honey can be used instead. You can replace 1 cup sugar with 3/4 cup honey. Replacing white sugar with an equal amount of brown sugar creates a darker hue.

Keep the crispness. To help vegetables maintain maximum crispness, some recipes call for adding 1/8 teaspoon alum per quart of liquid. If your ingredients are fresh, however, and you don’t overcook them, added alum really isn’t necessary.

Preserve them well. If you’re planning to eat the relishes or pickles within a few weeks, you can store them in the refrigerator. Otherwise, it’s important to pack them well to prevent spoilage.

An unopened jar of pickles that has been properly sterilized and sealed will last for at least a year when it’s stored in a cool, dark place. Once the jar has been opened, however, it should be refrigerated and used within several weeks.

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