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Talking Tsukemono With Erik Aplin Of ICHI Sushi

Talking Tsukemono with Erik Aplin of ICHI Sushi

Photo: Alanna Hale

Japanese cuisine is perhaps my favorite, or at least certainly in my top three. If I were stranded on a desert island, I’d be just fine so long as there was ample seafood, rice paddies, and someone to turn it all into perfect sushi every day. Hands down our favorite sushi place in the city is ICHI Sushi, and its izakaya bar, NI, in the back. We’ve been fans since their early days, occupying a tiny and fairly charmless space that housed our previous favorite, Yo’s Sushi Club, on a nondescript corner of Mission Street in Bernal Heights.

The current space is airy and slick. As you enter the hallway covered with an Erik Marinovich mural outlining the practice of eating sushi, the staff collectively belts out an enthusiastic Irasshaimase!”

You’ll more often find us in the back at NI, ordering their deservedly famous yuzu chicken wings and whatever vegetable they’re turning into a goma ae with black sesame. It used to be that there was no sushi at NI, as the chefs at the front work at capacity to keep the sushi bar fed, but lately they’ve been offering rolls from the back kitchen, which they will also make as hand rolls. And we always, always order the tsukemono, or assorted pickles.

When ICHI was still at the old space, I once asked chef Erik Aplin whether they were doing any tsukemono; they didn’t list it on the menu. He gave me a knowing look, and promptly poked into the fridges. Moments later, he presented a dish with a small selection of pickles. They were just beginning to really delve into tsukemono, and at that time weren’t ready to list it on the menu. I don’t remember everything on the plate, but I’ll never forget a small dollop of creamy white stuff that could have passed as some kind of cheese. It was tofu that had been fermented in miso, and I had never had anything like it before, or since.

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Take that, Heinz

Mustard, relish, ketchup

Nearly every year, we give away some sort of hand-made food product for the holidays. In the past, we've given jams, chutneys and pasta sauce. This year, we decided to take on the holy trinity of American condiments: Ketchup, mustard and relish. After all, why pay less than two dollars in the grocery store for what you can make at nearly equivalent cost plus hours of back-breaking labor? 

Why? Because we can. Because there is more to this delicious life than the flavors served to us by the major food manufacturers. And because when you take the most basic things back into your own hands, you can apply your own stamp to them.

 

 

The genesis for this project was when I saw Sarah waxing rhapsodic on Twitter about a maple black pepper ketchup she made, the recipe for which she then shared at my behest (and which I of course had to tinker with). Meanwhile, we've been meaning to make mustard for some time now. What's left? Why, relish of course, and we had just made up a big batch of delicious sweet yellow squash pickles from a cookbook given to us by the lovely Amy. It's a small step to go from sweet pickles to sweet pickle relish. We availed ourselves of the final harvest of summer squash and set to work. (Sidenote: I tried, oh how I tried, to find locally harvested mustard seed, but evidently the much-vaunted mustard of Napa county is mainly for show. The seeds I got came from San Francisco Herb Co. So, that makes them locally sourced, right?)

And so the plan was hatched: Classic American flavors, each with a twist — Maple bourbon ketchup, tarragon Dijon mustard and sweet yellow squash relish. Sorry, hot dogs not included.

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Jane’s (sorta) Homemade Sweet Pickles

Jane’s (sorta) homemade sweet pickles

Sweet pickles are a staple at the Southern table, particularly the lightly sweet bread-and-butter variety. The recipe for these pickles came from my mother-in-law, Jane. During our last trip, she had a jar of these out on the table during one of our lunches. Ascertaining they were homemade, I asked how she made them. As it turns out, these homemade sweet pickles started out as a whole other creature: Store-bought dill pickles.

Jane explained how to take whole dill pickles, slice them down and immerse them in a vinegar syrup to create an instant version of bread-and-butter pickles. Of course the first question that flashed through my mind was, "why not just buy sweet pickles?" Then I tasted them.

I happen to like sweet pickles, but I know many people who do not. For some, the sweetness itself is the problem; they are too cloying and sugary. For others, it’s a texture violation, as sweet pickles tend to be mushier and sometimes even mealy. By starting out with crisp, sour dills, this quick recipe turns out refreshingly balanced sweet-sour and crunchy pickles. My friend Matthew, who is among the clan of sweet-pickle haters, asked, "why would you ruin a perfectly good dill pickle?" Ultimately, he capitulated and said that these were the best sweet pickles ever.

Jane quick-cans these by simply putting heated lids on the jars. I’m a little paranoid about such things, so I did the full-on canning thing, ten minutes in a boiling water bath and all, just to be safe. But she’s been doing it her way for decades, and no one has reported any problems so far, so I may cave in just yet. I imagine the high acidity of the vinegar as well as the high sugar content will keep most pathogens at bay.

Simple though this recipe is, and using store-bought foods besides, it has actually been handed down a couple of generations so far, and anything that has stood the test of time that long is good enough for me. And anyway, they’re your pickles in your jars, so that fully qualifies as homemade. Sorta.

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Super-sweet Clove-scented Watermelon Rind Pickles

Super-sweet Clove-scented Watermelon Rind Pickles

Whew, that’s a mouthful.

So lest you think I’ve gone pickle-crazy (and I’m not saying I haven’t), remember: I have something of a surplus of watermelon in the house. And as I abhor waste (unless I’m feeling lazy, which is almost always), I just had to do something with all that rind after removing the top inch or so of juicy watermelon flesh. Luckily, my new-old favorite pickle book has a recipe for just such a thing.

Mind you, I used only the deepest red parts of the watermelon for the infusions, and the pickled rind recipe calls for no red, no green. So that left me with rather a copious amount of the in-between bits — the pinkish flesh that is not so sweet, yet still watery. What does one do with all that? Suffice to say I was well hydrated yesterday.

This recipe is a little more labor-intensive than the one before, as it involves salting, resting, boiling, steeping and cooling. And after all that, the product won’t really be ready for a week! But at first pale, it seems promising. It is definitely sweet, and I am intrigued to see whether the sweetness will subside during its resting period. I still have yet another quarter of the melon left (that’s almost 4 lbs, people!) — and one quarter was sufficient to create this batch — so there may be another round with a slight modification of the sugar-to-vinegar ratio next time around.

On the bright side, the pickles will coincidentally be ready on July 4, just in time to dole out to the various hosts of Independence Day fĂȘtes that we’ll see. Now, where’s my red-white-and-blue grosgrain ribbon?

You know the drill. After the jump. (Oh, there’s pictures!)

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Quick Italian-Style Garden Pickles, part 1

Quickpickles1I like pickles. I like all things pickled. I’m an equal-opportunity pickle lover, too. Tart, zingy dill pickles? Great. Sweet-sour bread-and-butter pickles? Ideal. Salty garlic pickles? Yum! And so now, with the Zojirushi equation looming over our heads, I have a yen to make pickles so as to have some variety at our fingers.

A couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of Quick Pickles on impulse. The promise of making bright, colorful folk pickles was too much to pass up. I promptly set it on the shelf and more or less forgot about it. But one of the joys of having too many cookbooks is the rediscovery of one that’s been lurking in a dark corner, or hiding behind a bigger book, or that you look at flat out hundreds of times and simply stop seeing.

I picked the recipe for Italian-Style Garden Pickles for its simplicity and its familiarity. But of course, I didn’t follow it exactly to the T. (Do I ever?) Rather, the vinegar is mostly apple cider vinegar with some white wine and red wine vinegars thrown in to make up the balance (it’s what I had in the house), and I tossed in some extra dry herbs to pump it up a bit.

The flavor will develop over the next few days. I’ll report back accordingly. The recipe, as usual, after the jump.

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