Let me tell you about my great-aunt Esther. She had a tinkling laugh, wall-to-wall carpets of the purest ivory, and three children she raised to adulthood long before I came on the scene. Once a year, we’d go to her house for dinner, and she’d set out a cut-glass relish tray loaded with celery sticks, little pickles, black olives, and small radishes. The children were encouraged to play in the backyard or the basement and not drop black olives on the ivory carpets.
I didn’t really know her that well, but I’ve been thinking of her recently and recalling the wisdom of those humble all-American relish trays as I try to load every table that I sit down to with my own version.
There’s a good reason for nibbling a few radishes before a meal. They keep the 100 trillion microbial cells in your gut healthy and happy. And those microbiota are responsible, to some degree, for your overall well-being.
Our guts produce a great amount of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. They are how we get certain vitamins. They affect our weight and body composition (you can make thin mice fat simply by filling their tummies with the microbiota found in the tummies of their portly cousins).
I follow all the emerging science on the microbiome intently and have come to think of the little critters in our guts in the same way as the old saying about being good to your mama: If your gut-critters ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!
Radishes make our microbiomes happy. Well, not just radishes, but a whole bunch of prebiotic foods containing what we humans often think of as nondigestible elements.
These, it turns out, are important to the health and well-being of our gut bacteria. I’m talking about cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts, as well as endive, radishes, asparagus, scallions, onions, jicama, and tomatoes. All those good, crunchy things you might put on a relish tray.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: I am not a midcentury American relish-tray advocate. I am a dynamic 21st-century food hipster who eats chorizo tacos and eel sushi and embraces modernity!
But I’m here to tell you that you can have a cutting-edge relish tray and eat what’s on it, too. The secret? Quick pickles!
I am a total quick-pickling evangelist these days. The basic idea is that you mix vinegar, salt, and spices, and pour them over vegetables before putting them in the refrigerator. The next day, they’re pickles. They’ll usually last two or three weeks — a little less for something soft, like zucchini; a little longer for something tough, like cauliflower.
You can make these refrigerator pickles in any vessel you have handy: Mason jars are great, but a simple bowl covered with plastic wrap is fine, too. Once you learn the basic technique, your whole food life will get easier, fast.
Here are some ideas to get you started.
Basic kosher dills: Take 2 pounds of pickling cucumbers, the kind that are bumpy on the outside. Scrub them well. Make your brine by combining one-third cup of kosher salt with a cup of water, and heating till the salt dissolves. Let the liquid cool.
Smash five garlic cloves and add a teaspoon of dill seeds or a bunch of fresh dill. Pour the brine on the cukes, garlic, and dill. If they’re not covered completely by the brine, add cold water until they are. Store them in the fridge. They’ll be ready to eat in about 12 hours.
Sweet Swedish pickled carrots: Peel several green-top young carrots and cut off the tops. Put the carrots and one big onion sliced into rings into your jar. Combine three parts water, two parts sugar, and one part vinegar (either white wine or Champagne). Pour over the carrots and onions, and add five white peppercorns, two bay leaves, and 10 allspice berries. The carrots can be eaten immediately, though they’ll be good for a week.
Spicy pickled radishes: Wash some red radishes after trimming off the root end and tops. Select one pepper — a fresh pepperoncino, a Thai bird chili, or whatever seems right. Combine a half-cup of apple-cider vinegar, a half-cup of water, 2 tablespoons of honey, and a teaspoon of kosher salt. Pour the brine over the radishes and pepper. They will be ready to eat the next day.
Pickled mushrooms: Wash a pound of button mushrooms and slice off any tough stem ends. Combine 2 cups of water, a cup of apple-cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons of brown mustard, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and a tablespoon of salt. Heat until dissolved, then let cool. Add 10 black peppercorns, five cloves, five allspice berries, five garlic cloves (or more), and two bay leaves to the mushrooms. Pour the brine over the mushrooms and refrigerate. They will be ready to eat in eight hours and will last for up to a week.
Curried cauliflower pickles: Cut the florets from a head of cauliflower into bite-sized pieces. Wash well. Mix the florets with five or more garlic cloves and chopped, fresh hot peppers to taste (one to five banana peppers, three jalapeños, or two Thai bird chilies, for instance). Combine 3 cups of water, a cup of white vinegar, 3 tablespoons of sugar, 2 tablespoons of kosher salt, 2 tablespoons of tamari, and 1 to 2 tablespoons of fresh curry powder. Cover the cauliflower mixture with the brine, adding more water to cover if necessary. This is really good about three days after it’s made. For fun variations, try adding cinnamon sticks, coins of peeled fresh ginger, or star anise to the brine.
Intrigued? By the time you make your third batch of pickled vegetables, the process will be no more mystifying than that of making a salad. And you may find that your grandmothers and great-aunts knew a few things about life that we smartphone-wielding smarties would be well advised to learn: When your refrigerator is full of easy homemade treats to feed your guests and yourself, life is a little easier and healthier. It’s a little more connected, too, because having that relish tray ready to go means you can talk to your guests instead of standing in the kitchen cooking for them.
I’m not saying living life with a relish tray will make life so much easier and better that you’ll feel inspired to install ivory-colored wall-to-wall carpeting in a household with kids. But better nonetheless.