Testing out a Happy Girls Kitchen class proves pickling can be (very) powerful.
Thursday, March 3, 2011
Behold the power of the pickle. It provides a snapshot of seasonal flavor, a moment preserved in time – and a jar – and the delicious promise of future enjoyment.
That preservationist power doubles as the mission of Happy Girl Kitchens, the colorful storefront on Central Avenue where about a year ago Todd Champagne and his wife Jordan set up shop. Their multifaceted approach – kombuchas, espresso, soups and sandwiches in the cafe, housemade preserves and pickled goods and other local items (think dried heirloom beans and chilies from Rancho Gordo) in the cute retail section – clicked with the local community, and turned heads beyond: Their apricot chili jam just won a national Good Food award, a foodie Oscar of sorts.
It’s their classes, though, that may reflect their purpose most purely: The Champagnes didn’t come to the trade as business people in pursuit of a profit, but as a family that learned to preserve their way through cold winters on their family fjord in Norway and instinctively applied their skills to the bounty of local farms when they moved to Big Sur.
“We have this overwhelming abundance,” Todd said. “It just makes sense to save it from being tilled into the soil.”
And they want to share how they help farms extend the harvest glory past spoil dates. A recent beet pickling workshop, which sold out its roughly 12 spots despite its $135 cost, boded well for upcoming classes that range from marmalade-making (March 12) to jam (June 11) and pickles (July 16).
Our preservation push started at 10am on a rainy Sunday, summoning DIY foodies, armed with aprons and knives, from as far away as San Francisco, each eager to acquire the skills to produce the “perfect pickle.”
“There is no bigger downer than a mushy pickle,” Champagne said.
We gathered around tables next to the open teaching kitchen and dedicated the first hour to introductions. Taking a fifth of our precious workshop for this touchy-feeliness seemed excessive, but as we took turns sharing mini-narratives, pickling horror stories and light-hearted laughter, its underlying purpose became clear: Happy Girl genuinely hopes to preserve not just local produce, but connections that make up the fabric of a sustainable community – people to the earth and their food, but also people to one other.
As Champagne philosophized on the history of food preservation, his delight with leading classes was obvious. “Books don’t talk back,” he said, “but I do!”
Soon talk turned to the dreaded B-word (botulism) and the type of canning we were focusing on: a “high-acid” method, which has two mechanisms to ensure pathogens are neutralized. The first safeguard: That the jars, after being packed with veggie delights and spiced brine, spend time in boiling water for a minimum of 15 minutes, sterilizing them from the inside out. Tiny bubbles escaping from the loosely tightened lids assure canners it’s working.
Introducing the oxymoronic technique of “loosely tightening” was one of many places where Todd seized the opportunity to ham it up, mimicking riding on a bucking horse. “Only tighten the lids finger-tips tight!” he said. “Use one hand to do it. Rodeo style!”
The second safeguard: That the contents themselves must be high in acidity. Todd deploys a three-to-two water-to-vinegar brine to pour over future pickles – while there are many wonderful wacky ways to get creative with pickle making (we foraged herbs from the beds outside, tossed in special HGK spices and stirred in raw honey), messing with the brine ratio is never recommended.
After getting the facts down, it was onto to the fun stuff, creating the different recipes for the day: pickled beets, “taqueria-style” spicy carrots and then a self-selected seasonal “garden bouquet.”
We were left to our own creative devices, falling into comfortable conversations while we assembled two jars of each recipe. After the jars were packed with chopped lime-green, fractal-shaped Romanesco cauliflower, brussels sprout florets, baby carrot fingers, golden beets and red beets and beautiful watermelon radishes, we then took turns filling them with brine, submerging them into the boiling water bath and setting the timer to the appropriate length. (The denser the goods, the longer they go in.)
The session passed quickly, highlighted by a fantastic lunch of breads and cheeses, vegetarian chili and organic salad (included in workshop price) and, before we knew it, our jars emerged to cool on the stainless countertop.
As we were leaving Champagne had a closing thought: “These pickles could be eaten tomorrow, if you can’t help yourself, but the longer you wait the better they’ll become as the flavors infuse.”
I gathered up my six jars and returned home, lining up my colorful companions on my counter. A few weeks passed, then a gathering prompted their debut. The results were met with “ooohs” and “ahhhs”; more satisfyingly, though, they were also met with inquiries about prep. We agreed to gather over some seasonal abundance soon.
While this democratized dissemination of canning cunning may not lead to more people into HGK, I think Champagne would smile at a snapshot of his pickle protegee out in the urban wilderness seeding a preservationist community of her own, gathering people around a table to share a primary connection with the promise of a delicious future.
HAPPY GIRL KITCHENS, open 8am-3pm daily, is located at 173 Central Ave. in Pacific Grove. For more about workshops ($135 each), including marmalade-making (March 12), jam-making (June 11) and pickling (July 16), visit www.happygirlkitchen.com or call 373-GIRL (4475).