Monday, August 29, 2011

Dilly Beans / Come on [Ir]ene

On my birthday last year, a small cardboard box arrived in the mail from our friend Andrew, and it was full of small red chilis that he'd grown. No note, no card. Isn't that the best? I strung them up and dried them, and now they're showing off in many jars of things.

When the power went out last night with a sucking sound and then black silence, the kids darted in from their bedrooms, cheering. The hurricane had not gathered itself up with much oomph around here, thank goodness--a nisht geferlach, if you’re of the Yiddish persuasion. Some rain, a tree limb or two on the ground, us checking news updates somewhat obsessively, checking this and that online hurricane tracker, checking out the window, checking in with my parents in New York. We wanted our roof to stay on, sure, our basement to stay dry—but we understood that, in the scheme of things, we were likely to be fine no matter what, and, therefore, deeply lucky. “It might be a nuisance,” I reassured Birdy. “It might be a mess or a pain or even kind of expensive to deal with. But it’s not going to be catastrophic for us. The only thing worth worrying about is people who can’t stay safe where they are.” Who am I? I hardly recognize the person I’ve become—the person with perspective. But there it is. All of us together? And safe? Let the basement flood. (Of course, when the basement did flood in March, I did some no small amount of lamenting, don’t get me wrong. Every morning I stood at the top of the basement stairs with my coffee mug, looked down into the underwater gloom, and, to the children’s daily delight, sighed, “Motherfucker.”)

Disaster preparation, Ingalls-style. I picked five and a half pounds of wild concord grapes and made five and a half pints of jam. Also tomatillo salsa and bread-and-butter pickles and wild blackberry jam, which was overseen by my mother. Money in the bank, as I like to say. Or, rather, who needs money in the bank when you have canned goods?
But yesterday? I prepared for the hurricane like it was 1870, canning pickles and jam in a cloud of fragrant steam. “Should we do more stuff to get ready?” I asked Michael, but he’d already taken down the bird feeders and was now onto the important task of programming our iPod: Bob Dylan, “Hurricane”; The Beatles, “Rain”; Kris Delmhorst, “Hurricane”; Gillian Welch, “Wind and Rain.” He is a man with priorities. We played “everyone picks a board game,” which represents our family’s most luxurious kind of afternoon: four games in a row (Birdy: Make Me a Cake; Me: Rummikub; Ben: Acquire; Michael: Agricola). The projected peak of the storm came and went, and we pulled rubber boots on over our pajamas and went outside, kicked through puddles and crushed fallen apples under our heels. We wandered up to the top of the golf course as the sun was setting, pink light streaming in through rolling banks of silvery clouds, the kids chasing each other, mushrooms pushing up through the green, green grass almost, it seemed, while we watched. I was so happy. I am still.

But the kids were a little disappointed—a little bit awash in the strangely dry anticlimax, although they understood rationally how lucky we had been; they understood that the hurricane had uprooted a lot of people's homes and lives. Still, we’d planned for the romance of candlelight, of boiling tea on the camp stove and living off of pickles and jam indefinitely. (I, personally, had also planned on somehow not needing to work for days on end.) So when the wind picked up late, when doors slammed spontaneously shut all over the house and the window frames shuddered, when the darkness blinked on, they were thrilled. I lit a candle. We moved their mattresses into our bedroom, and then we lay on the big bed, all of us together with the cat, and listened to the wind. And only fifty minutes later, with a couple of stray beeps, the lights came back on. But it had been something. It was enough.

Here's hoping the same for you. Sending love and safe, dry thoughts.

Dilly Beans
Makes 6 pints

This recipe is adapted from one in the wonderful book The Joy of Pickling. I think that, if you’ve never canned anything before, you should go ahead and simply make these and plan to refrigerate them and/or give them away. That way you won’t be daunted by the stress of the canning situation, and you can just make them all together in a large bowl or jar. That said, I am not going to give you full canning directions because you really need to consult the introductory chapter of a book about it: the Joy of Pickling has a good one, as does Tart and Sweet, my new favorite preserving book, and of course your library has all the classics like Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving.)

I am kind of {immodesty alert} famous for these pickles. My friend Becky, who is a lawyer, once traded me doing our will for a jar of beans to put in her husband’s Christmas stocking. They are crisp and puckery and perfect. If you make them with dill, they’re classic, and if you use tarragon, they taste like French cornichons. Keep a few jars around, and you will always have something good to put out with drinks.

Did you need a beginner's canning kit? Here's a nice one.

Okay, the beans:

6 garlic cloves, sliced
36 black peppercorns
3 pounds very fresh green or wax beans, washed and topped
6 dill heads or sprigs (or else tarragon or basil or lovage or cilantro--I like them all)
6 dried chili peppers or some chili flakes (optional)
3 1/2 cups white or white wine vinegar
3 1/2 cups water
4 tablespoons kosher salt

Begin by putting a large pot of water up to boil. Give six pint-sized canning jars a thorough, soapy scrub, then put them in the pot of water that you’ve put on to boil. Make sure you have six lids and rings to match. (The other thing to do is pull jars, hot and fresh, from the dishwasher—especially if you’re not planning on doing the full canning thing).

Into each of 6 sterile 1-pint mason jars, put 1 sliced garlic clove, 6 peppercorns, and a chili or chili flakes. Pack the beans vertically into the jars, adding 1 tarragon sprig (or other herbs) to each jar. You will want to gather an organized handful of beans and then cut them to size so that nobody pokes up out of the brine.

Bring the vinegar, water, and salt to a boil in a pot, then pour the hot liquid over the beans, leaving a half inch of headspace. Close the jars with hot two-piece caps. Process the jars for 5 minutes in a boiling water bath, or pasteurize them for 30 minutes in water heated to 180 or 185 degrees F. They're best after a month and keep forever.

If you're not a canner, then just make them and store them in the fridge! Or eat them. 

And if you're an experienced canner, you can do what I do though I am not officially recommending it, and the Ball folks would have a fit because NOBODY RECOMMENDS THE OPEN KETTLE METHOD ANY MORE: pour a kettle full of boiling water over the beans in a colander in the sink, then pack them in the jars hot, with scrupulously clean hands. Then they’ll can up just fine in the hot jars, without the pasteurizing step (and they'll stay crunchier). But if you have any doubts, process or pasteurize them.

I picked these at our CSA and they were so fresh and green that they actually smelled like fresh-mown grass. In a good way.

Herbs. Garlic.

Beans, packed in a jar. The things is, everything you really want pictures of I didn't take pictures of. I'm sorry! I think I'm trying not to seem like a good starting-resource on canning because if you're going to get serious, you should read a book first and not just follow some crazy blogger's slap-dash method. But I made these for *years* before I canned them, just for the record. I used to keep them in an old pickle jar in the fridge.

After you add the brine, the beans turn khaki-colored. And the garlic turns blue. And your cheeks turn pink from standing over a hot stove, canning, like it's the friggin' 19th century.

Dilly Beans! Silly beans.


  1. dale in denver5:41 PM

    Oh how I love dilly beans! I need to make triple the batch from last year - we ate them fast, gave them at xmas and were out and sad by March!

    Glad you weathered the storm cozy and in love with your family.

  2. Given your love of all things pickled (cukes, beans, birkenstocks...), have you ever made fermented "sour pickles?" You know, without vinegar, the Ma Ingalls way?
    I just tried my first batch, it was a total, stinking, scummy flop, but if I knew you've done it I might have the courage to try another batch.

  3. Robin8:27 PM

    Our Hurricane Irene was less eventful than yours somehow, even though we're a couple of hundred miles to your south in MD. We were given dire warnings by the local newscasters, but I very much communicated the "possible inconvenience" scenario to my own kids. We never lost power despite a few inches of rain, 50 mph gusts of wind, and a number of downed tress (our power lines are underground in our neighborhood), but my daughter's first day of second grade was canceled because 27 of the 72 schools in our county were without power! But I just found out she'll start tomorrow, and she had a great day with her cousins while I went to work and her brother went to preschool. We are feeling safe and lucky here, too.

  4. On Long Island saturday morning, I made your recipe for the pickled shrimp thinking that if we lost power the shrimp in the freezer won't go to waste and we will eat like kings. Well, thankfully we never lost power and no serious damage was done, but we still enjoyed the shrimp as the wind blew! The beans look good, but I have been craving your freezer sauce----hoping I can get some fresh tomatoes to work with---our CSA isn't delivering this week due to the hurricane.

  5. The dilly beans sound good but I adore your description of how you weathered the storm. It reminded me how the hurricanes of my Long Island childhood were always so wonderfully anxious.

  6. The beans sound grand and I can't wait to try them, with the fridge method of course, as I'm terrified of home canning induced botulism.
    I'm so glad you fared well in the storm. I am from coastal Louisiana and have been feeling so awful for all of you Northerners because at least we're used to it, but it sounds like you had the right idea with all of your pickling preparations.

  7. Our New England brethren are all fine after Irene. Glad to hear Western Mass was spared. My husband, who is from Vermont, was incredulous when I said, "it looks like Vermont will be hit hardest."

    Dilly beans. I will have to do this next summer. The dill in my garden's all gone to seed. I pulled out my cucumber plants on Sunday morning, all dried up and ghostlike. I think I made 48 jars of pickles this summer. We should do beans too. I tried pickling peaches when I was making all the jam for the year and came out with two full jars out of 36 peaches set aside for the recipe. They're delicious and very clovey, but not the multitude of jars I'd hoped for.

  8. Anonymous10:43 PM

    How do you dry your peppers- just string and hang? Is there a trick? We have a bunch and don't want them to get funky!

  9. 6512, I have fermented various things, including sauerkraut and kimchee, which were both outrageously stinky and good. But cukes I always do with at least a little vinegar. Maybe I'll try without. . .

    sagetribe, yes: a needle and embroidery floss, through the stems, and then hung across the top of a window. I'll see if I have any pictures. . .

  10. Anonymous10:03 AM

    This sounds wonderful, but I haven't ever had anything like it. Do you eat them at room temperature straight from the jar?

    I made strawberry jam for the first time this year, and I would love to add these to the basket I am planning to give for Christmas.

  11. Anonymous3:39 PM

    Catherine, I too am about to head out in search of wild concord grapes (I have to wait for a running visit to MA as they don't grow wild near DC -- that sounds hilarious even as I write it, like anyone would expect them to). Any favorite grape jam tips?

  12. Catherine, I am the one you so kindly emailed this recipe to a few weeks ago. We just popped our first jar open today and they are great! Your scandalously unsanctioned faux canning method worked marvelously! And I am really glad you confirmed that the garlic turns blue, because when mine did that I was pretty freaked out that I had introduced something crazy to the mixture. Whew. Great success - thank you!

  13. Allyson12:02 AM

    Catherine, tell your kids, that we just got our power back today, Wednesday, having gone without since the wee hours of Sunday morning, and it wasn't nearly as fun as they might think. Although my kids did enjoy listening to me curse several times daily at the automated Con Ed outage hot-line lady. I will be making dilly beans this weekend, along with your garlic dill pickles, some bread-and-butter pickles, and maybe pickled red onions, just as soon as I stock up at our farmers' market. Thanks for the recipe!

  14. Anonymous4:43 PM

    Just read your article about traveling in Redbook. Loved your new perspective! The man, the in-laws, & I also say, "I Farkled" when playing the game. As long as it doesn't get stinky, you're ok.

  15. You had me at "Eileen" :)

    Anyone else out there stuck with images of scruffy, overalls-without-shirt-underneath-clad musicians dancing around a farm in an effort to bed the elusive and just-as-scruffy Eileen?