A Very Delicata Matter

Perusing the always incredible selection of spices at World Spice, I came upon a book called My Rice Bowl by Rachel Yang. I pawed through it to see what value it could impart to me while standing in the middle of a spice shop. Luckily, I found a section detailing a variety of pickles. The one that caught my eye was Delicata Sour Pickles. I surreptitiously snapped a picture of the page with my phone, I am slightly ashamed to say. But science requires certain things of me, and who am I to say no to science? Nobody, that’s who.

My Rice Bowl, a cookbook by Rachel Yang

Having this knowledge now traveling in my pocket, my next pickling experiment was decided. I had never thought of fermenting something like squash. It didn’t seem a thing worth pickling. I was soon to find out whether that was true or not. A week or so had passed before I was ready to attempt the simple experiment. I grabbed a delicata squash and some spices I was missing. The ingredients required were thus:

Spice Mixture (1 teaspoon of the result is used here):

  • 1 bay leaf (I decided against this)
  • 1 dried Thai chili (I used red chili flakes instead)
  • 1/4 cinnamon stick
  • 1 tablespoon coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves (I decided to leave this out too)
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice

For Fermenting:

  • 3 cups ice water, divided (this is confusing which I will later explain)
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 large delicata squash (about 1 1/4 lbs), peeled, halved, seeded, and cut into 1/16 inch slices with a mandoline

With the exceptions mentioned above, I blended the spices together in an old coffee grinder I relegated to this purpose. I usually stay away from cinnamon for anything I cook, but I was being a good boy by following directions (or at least most of them). I took 1 teaspoon of this mix, threw it in a freshly cleaned mason jar (1 quart, as is the volume container called for) and saved the rest for god knows what.

The recipe did not mention using spring water, which I always do for ferments (because of the chlorine in tap water), so I used tap water. With ice, it was 3 cups, which I put aside in a bowl. From that, I took 1/4 cup and heated it with the salt in a saucepan. Presumably, this is to dissolve the salt in the water and the ice is to keep the entire amount of water from being overhot. I don’t think this is necessary, as you can just dissolve salt in room temperature water by stirring. After heating the water, dissolving the salt, and pouring the result into the rest of the water, I still had ice water and a lot of it.

Delicata Squash, peeled, halved, and deseeded

Next, I went after the squash. To the best of my ability, I peeled off the skin with a vegetable peeler after cutting off the ends. Then cut in half, de-seeded, and to the mandoline at the thinnest setting (not certain if that is 1/16th inch though).

Delicata Squash, sliced

And into the mason jar it goes. This was a difficult matter, as the quantity of squash was quite larger than expected. Eventually, I managed to jam the entirety of the deconstructed delicata into the jar. Then there was the water, of which there was a confusingly large amount. I poured as much water as possible into the jar, leaving a lot of excess water. This is a major miscalculation on the part of the recipe writer. These measurements should be done via weight anyway, especially where salinity is concerned. But, a little wasted water is not a huge deal. I screwed the lid on and shook the thing like one of those wonderful bearded hipster bartenders, getting those spices mixed thoroughly into the brine and covering the veggies.

Jar filled with delicata squash and brine

In the recipe, they instruct that plastic wrap should be pushed down over the brine and vegetables. This is essentially attempting to keep the squash from coming in contact with air, a hallmark of this fermentation process. There are better ways.

I wandered my kitchen, poking my head into cabinets, making that self-reflective thinking face, until I found the perfect thing: a ceramic sake cup. I vigorously cleansed the cup in hot water and placed it gingerly atop the squash and pushed down. There is a little bit of displacement that takes place here, so you let some brine out until you can screw the lid on without incident.

I let this sit in a bowl (for any overflow caused by burping) for three days (as was suggested by the recipe). I should mention that I keep the lid slightly unscrewed during this time of fermentation, so to allow gas to release from the inset lid. Over these three days, there was some bubbling and burping, the gas displacing some brine into the bowl and a distinct cinnamon smell emanating. It seemed promising enough.

After three days elapsed, I tried a couple pieces. It didn’t seem finished, so I closed it back up and let it wait a couple more days. The three-day pickles became five-day pickles. I again pulled out some pieces, this time arranging them on a small cute plate, and tasted the resulting ferment.

Five-day delicata ferment

The smell is sour and cinnamony, as one would expect from a ferment spiced with cinnamon. These qualities did not translate to the flavor though. There is a little juiciness and some sour notes, but overall it still tastes raw. The spice didn’t embed itself into the squash and it needs more heat, which could have been better with the Thai chili I am sure. I don’t think that the missing clove or bay leaf would have helped anything. The process is a bit flawed, in my opinion. Likely, after adding more chili flakes, more time would cure this underwhelming result. In this case, I am going to let it chill out and slow-ferment in the fridge. Hopefully, time can solve what everything else failed to.

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