Pickled Vegetables

Paocai

Preparation info

    Appears in

    Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook

    By Ellen Schrecker

    Published 1976

    • About

    Meal: Easy, Cold

    “My mother knew dozens of ways to salt, dry, or pickle the fresh vegetables we grew,” recalls Mrs. Chiang. “In the summer she festooned our house with strings of drying cabbages and turnips; whatever other vegetables we couldn’t eat fresh were laid down in big earthenware jars with brine and aromatic spices. In the winter the jars would be opened and we ate pickled vegetables every day. For breakfast we had rice or congee (rice gruel) sprinkled with dried, pickled, or salted vegetables, and pickled vegetables were often served at lunch and dinner as well. We ate pickles for snacks, and my mother added them to some dishes, like soups, for pungent flavoring.”

    This recipe produces the most easily made as well as the most common Szechwanese pickled vegetable. Every traditional Szechwanese restaurant in Taiwan had huge bowls of the stuff, from which the waiters would fill little plates to bring to your table when they came for your order. As Szechwanese pickles go, these are mild. Western pickle connoisseurs would probably call them “half-sour.” They consist of a variety of such vegetables as cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, turnips, and string beans in a brine containing vinegar, wine, Szechwan peppercorns, and red peppers. Once you have prepared the brine and made a batch of pickles, you can continue to use the brine over and over again, adding new vegetables to replace the ones you eat. Mrs. Chiang serves these pickles either as an appetizer or as a regular vegetable dish. Either way they are a convenient method for stretching a menu without making extra work for yourself.

    For this recipe, you will need a large, wide-mouthed jar or crock with a lid. The one we use for making pickles holds about 2 quarts of ingredients, but you can use a larger one if you want. Mrs. Chiang remembers that when she was a child, her mother used to put up pickles in vats that were considerably larger than she was.

    Method

    Preparation

    3 inch piece fresh ginger Don’t peel the ginger. Cut it lengthwise into slices about ¼ inch thick. Put the ginger slices into your pickling jar.

    10 dried red peppers

    1-½ tablespoons Szechwan peppercorns

    1-½ tablespoons rice wine vinegar

    2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine or cooking sherry

    1 tablespoon granulated sugar

    2 tablespoons salt

    3 cups water

    Break five of the dried red peppers in half and add them and the whole red peppers to the jar along with the Szechwan peppercorns, vinegar, wine, sugar, salt, and water. Stir this mixture very well, until most of the salt and sugar is dissolved.

    Now you are ready to add whatever vegetables you want to pickle. Cabbage, carrots, and cucumbers are classic, but turnips, string beans, and Chinese cabbage are equally good. (In fact, according to Mrs. Chiang almost any vegetable can be pickled successfully, with the exception of eggplant, which turns black and ruins all the other pickles.) You can use as much or as little of any vegetable you like. No rules apply and you can experiment with various combinations of colors and textures.

    Cabbage, regular or Chinese If you are going to use cabbage or Chinese cabbage, discard the outer leaves and cut the inner ones into pieces that are about 2 inches square. Half a small head of round cabbage should give you enough for 2 quarts of pickles if you are planning to use other vegetables as well.
    Carrots Prepare carrots by peeling them and cutting them crosswise into segments about 3 inches long. Then cut each piece lengthwise into slices about ¼ inch thick.
    Turnips Other root vegetables, like turnips, should also be peeled and sliced though the slices should be slightly thicker.
    Cucumbers Cucumbers don’t have to be peeled (unless, of course, they’ve been waxed); their dark green skins provide a nice touch of color. They do, however, have to be seeded. Cut the cucumbers in half lengthwise and scoop out all the soft, seedy part in the middle. Slice the firm outer meat into strips about 2 inches long and ½ inch wide.
    String beans Remove the tips from the string beans and, if they are long, break them in half.
    1 tablespoon salt

    Fill your jar up to the top with the vegetables that you have prepared. Sprinkle the additional salt over the top layer of vegetables, then close the jar tightly and let it sit at room temperature for 2 or 3 days.

    After a few days, put the jar in the refrigerator, where it will keep indefinitely.

    Although the first batch of vegetables has to begin pickling at room temperature, later ones don’t and you can continually replenish your pickle supply merely by adding new vegetables to the jar of brine.

    1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or cooking sherry

    1 teaspoon salt

    ½ teaspoon granulated sugar

    Whenever you add any substantial amount of new ingredients to the pickle jar, add some more wine, salt and sugar as well, to revivify the brine. It improves with age, and later batches of pickles tend to be tastier than the initial ones.