Thursday, March 21, 2013

Drunken cukes

I'm always in the mood for a new pickle to snazz up my meals. 

I mean, I just love having a few containers of homemade goodies ready and waiting to stuff alongside a grilled fish or roasted chicken and ratchet the meal up a couple of bars. But with the exception of such naturally fermented wonders as Traditional Fermented Sichuan-Style Pickles, almost every other version relies on vinegar to give the ingredients that delightful edge.

And so, it is with considerable delight that I introduce this heretofore hidden gem, Cucumbers Pickled with Fermented Rice. Most likely hailing from the Jiangsu region, today’s recipe takes Homemade Fermented Rice and puts it to wonderfully good use. The wine lees impart a slightly tartness, but that is all, making these winy rather than sour.
Cucumbers submerged in rice lees

What is nice about that, besides the alcohol, of course, is that the pickles thereby turn very subtle and tasty and downright refreshing, so much so that I've gotten accustomed to stashing a jar away in the fridge for boozy snacking alongside some sausages, say, or sliced on a plate to fill out a dinner table for surprise guests.

This unique way with the pungent wine and lees of Jiangsu is literally referred to in Chinese as “wine lees cucumbers,” but as you might be expecting by now, other names also float around among its small but discerning fan base, such as 酒糟泡茶 jiŭzāo pāocài. I’m sure there are even more handles hiding out there that are variations on this basic theme, and they all will be more or less descriptive of what’s going on here, with the jiuzao working away on the cucumbers (huanggua) or giving you pickles (paocai).

Another different characteristic of this type of pickle is that the cucumbers are sun dried for a day or two to shrivel them a bit and toughen up the skin. This makes them better able to withstand the onslaught of being drowned in raw rice wine for a couple of weeks.

You can fool around quite a bit with the basic recipe, adding less or more sugar, tossing in some freshly chopped red chilies just before serving, sprinkling on some Toasted Ground Sichuan Peppercorns or toasted sesame oil, or decorating the pickles with some shredded green onions or cilantro sprigs. The sky’s the limit, really…

Cucumbers pickled with fermented rice 
Jiŭzāo huángguā 酒糟黃瓜
Makes about 2 pounds 

2 pounds Japanese or Persian cucumbers
4 cups Homemade Fermented Rice
3½ tablespoons sea salt, divided
2 tablespoons sugar

Lightly shriveled by the sun
1. Rinse the cucumbers and pat them dry, and use only ones that are perfect with no bruises or bad spots. Place the cucumbers on a woven tray or some other flat container that allows air to flow around them easily. Cover the cucumbers lightly with a mesh or coarsely woven cloth to keep out the insects, and place the tray in the sun for a day during hot weather or 2 days during cooler weather; bring the cucumbers indoors during the evening, as you don’t want dew to get them wet again. When the cucumbers are slightly shriveled, they’re ready for the next step.

2. Place the cucumbers in a medium work bowl and rub them all over with 1½ tablespoons salt for a few minutes; really work that salt into the skin. Leave the cucumbers to sweat in a cool place like a kitchen counter (or in the fridge during hot weather) for 24 hours. Drain off the liquid and discard. Place the salted cucumbers on a plate so that they do not touch each other and let them dry in the sunshine for at least half a day during hot weather or a full day during cool.

Salt the shriveled cukes
3. Arrange the cucumbers in a resealable plastic container or clean glass jar that is at least as high as the cucumbers are long. Pour in the fermented rice (both lees and wine), the rest of the salt, and the sugar. Cover the container and shake it gently to distribute the salt and sugar. Refrigerate the cucumbers for at least 2 weeks, shaking the container now and then to keep the cucumbers submerged. After 2 weeks, taste one and see whether it is a) fermented enough and b) has enough seasoning. Keep the pickles in the fermented rice until you want to use them, and try to eat them all up within no more than a month, or before they start to get soft. 


Keep the pickling lees for another batch. It will stay tasty and healthy for a while if refrigerated, thanks to all of that alcohol and salt. Just taste it before you want to use it again to make sure the flavors are still balanced. 

Cucumbers rot easily; there's no two ways about it. What I do to slow Mother Nature down a bit is to place a paper towel in the plastic bag with the cukes (don't wash them until you are going to use them) and keep the bag open so that any moisture can escape. Keep an eye on them, and use them before they slime up.