This summer, my sister's boyfriend invited her to go work, for one week, at his summer camp. He'd gone every year since he could remember, first as a camper and now as a counselor, and it was a very important place, he said. She agreed, sent in the necessary paperwork, and the plan was set.
As summer wore on and the August week got closer, he started to tell her little things about what to expect. She would be leading a trip, he said, overnight, and she should bring two sleeping bags to camp in case the one on the trip got wet. She would have a cabin with campers, and every day would be so choc-a-bloc full it would just zoom by, and she would be very tired at the end, so it might be a good idea to get a day or two off afterward.
Oh, and she should be ready to let her freak flag fly.
That's right. When she called me to tell me this, we decided on the spot that this was without a doubt the most brilliant phrase of all times. It might explain things to tell you that, as a family, I am fairly sure we have been letting our freak flag fly since day one. (Maybe even before, since on the day my father met my mother, which I believe, in the life of a family, is technically the start, he was wearing an outfit composed of a maroon corduroy shirt, purple corduroy pants, leather cowboy boots, and a red bandanna. They hadn't even had their first kiss, and already things were showing some dangerous potential.)
At any rate, the expression stuck. And apparently, word has gotten out that the Pierson girls are not afraid of a little weirdness, particularly when it comes to strange vegetables, because every time I've been to the farmers' market recently, someone has called me over to point one out. This week, it was these:
For size reference, in case you can't tell from the picture up there, those little vegetable halves are about the size of your thumb. When I first saw them, I thought maybe they were watermelons that had been put through a version of Honey I Shrunk the Kids, but as it turns out, they're cucumbers. Tiny, watermelon-shaped and watermelon-looking cucumbers, Mexican Gherkin cucumbers that for the most part taste like any other cucumbers, but on the outside are very, very crisp. Inside, they sort of lack the translucent body bulk, and instead are mostly rind and seeds and a little bit of juice. In short, they are the most readily pickle-able cucumbers of all times.
Unfortunately, I picked the wrong recipe the first time around and botched an entire batch. For the record, these are not dill pickle cucumbers—these are meant to be sweet pickles, bread and butter style.
I didn't realize that. I put them in a salt water brine, left them overnight to crisp in the fridge, and returned to find them far, far too salty for my taste. I tried to wash them, to counteract the mistake, but the deed was already done. The next time around, I followed a recipe passed down from my grandmother-in-law-to-be (!), and things turned out much more splendidly. On Saturday, bright and early, I will be lined up at Gretel Norgeot's stand at the Orleans Farmers' Market for more. Maybe, just maybe, I'll see you there.
BRAD'S BREAD AND BUTTER PICKLES
The original of this recipe calls for English cucumbers and white onions, but for these sweet little Gherkins, I tweaked it a bit. The miniature cucumbers pickle best cut in half the long way (otherwise, when they hit the hot water bath, they shrivel), but I'm willing to bet that if you left them whole and poked a few holes in them that might do the trick as well. Also, I used shallots instead of onions, both for their color and because you can use fewer bulbs to achieve the same strength of flavor, which after cutting all those tiny Gherkins in half is awfully nice.
Makes 6 to 8 pint jars
6 to 8 pounds, or roughly one gallon, Mexican Gherkins, cleaned and halved
4 shallots, thinly sliced
1/3 cup pickling salt
two trays ice cubes
5 cups granulated sugar
3 cups white vinegar
1 and 1/2 tablespoons celery seed
1 and 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
2 tablespoons mustard seed
In a large bowl, toss the Gherkins and the shallots with the pickling salt and crack the two trays of ice cubes over top. Let this sit out on the counter for three hours, and then drain off the water.
In a large, non-reactive pot, mix the sugar, vinegar, and spices with the drained cucumbers and shallots. Bring the mixture to a rolling boil, and turn the heat down to a simmer. While the liquid is kept hot, pack the vegetables into the hot pint jars to about 1/2 inch below the lips. Pour the hot liquid over top and wipe the rims of the jars with a cloth dipped in boiling water to make sure they're clean. Seal with sterilized lids and screw tight. Return the jars to a boiling water bath for 15 minutes, and leave them on a dishcloth upside down overnight. In the morning, check the seals, label, and store in a cool, dark place for up to a year.