A Pickle by Any Name:

A 90-Year-Old Tortoise Named Mr. Pickles Is a New Dad of Three

The radiated tortoise is the oldest animal at the Houston Zoo. He has been with his partner, Mrs. Pickles, since she arrived in 1996. The mom and hatchlings are doing fine. (from the New York Times, March 23, 2023)

photo from turtleroom.org

If you want to feel good today, read this joyous birth announcement, and meet babies Dill, Gherkin, and Jalapeño resplendent in their first baby pictures. The birth of these Radiated Tortoises,(the name has nothing to do with the treatment they’ve received, but merely identifies this type of tortoise unique to Madagascar), is “an astounding feat.” That Mr. Pickles, the proud father, is 90, and Mrs. Pickles, 53—is rare enough, but as endangered species producing offspring in captivity they become an even greater marvel.

My husband shared this story with me over morning coffee yesterday probably because, since the pandemic, we have become a pickle-loving family, (and we’ve always been fans of clever writing). In that lockdown period when many turned to baking, we turned to cucumbers—well, my husband did.

He has never liked the vinegar-based pickles, but he does love those crunchy, petite Persian Baby Cukes that have sprung up in produce aisles. Like everyone, we were shopping less frequently, planning trips carefully, and wanting what we bought to last the ten-or-so days between trips.

Cucumbers are finicky, delicate vegetables, their bumpy shell belies innate fragility. When my husband found the pickle recipe, switching salt and spices for the vinegar, he decided to try it on the bags of cukes we’d bought, crispy and fresh but quickly heading for their expiration date.

A passion was born, and a devotee: ME! I knew of their benefits, the juice for hydration, but the texture, the soggy center where the seeds rested in a bed of mushiness, I had never truly loved. Not so now. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t enjoy a pickle—or two. They remain crunchy, probably because they don’t last long, and they are flavorful; without the bossy vinegar to overshadow the array of spices—mustard seed, coriander seed, dill seed, dill weed, peppercorns, salt and GARLIC—flavor sings and brings pickle power to the palate.

As the four quart jars diminish to one, cucumbers by the bagful populate the shopping list. The chopping, grinding, mortal-and-pestle machinations are soon to follow. And then after a four-day gestation, new pickles are born.

This is just to say, “Thank you, Houston Pickles, and congratulations! You are an inspiration and among friends.”

Holiday Comfort

St. Patrick’s Day is a sort of ersatz holiday for me although I am plenty glad for all that green, its variations filling the elementary school hallways when the smallest sprites tell goofy jokes, believe that green milk is leprechaun shenanigans, and maybe gold could be found at the end of a rainbow. St. Patrick’s Day is a happy harbinger of spring. Truth is, I have a lot of Irish ancestry to claim, my mother’s family named Patrick, and a researched genealogy that verifies the ties, but it’s food that makes it special.

On St. Patrick’s Day my mom would cook corned beef and cabbage. I don’t recall any other time of the long year filled with meal preparation for six kids and a husband that this fare appeared. I can see—and almost smell—the strands of limp green cabbage, like streamers that have lost their pluck, lifted out of the water, shiny with beef juice and dripping, as mom served them alongside the thready pieces of unusually dark pink meat. Occasionally one of the many peppercorns she used to season the water would hide in the folds of the pale, seaweed-like cabbage, and if I wasn’t careful, I would get a very peppery mouthful.

Yesterday after a full day with leprechaun charmed elementary students, a Friday that seemed endless, I headed home with food prep on my mind. I am often an Oscar-times-ten Grouch after teaching; I love it, but it exhausts me, and the thought of fixing a meal? Forget it. (So lucky that there’s pizza), but yesterday I was undertaking a cabbage dish in homage.

The New York Times Cooking site had featured a recipe for haluski, buttery cabbage and noodles, economical and simple to prepare, compliments of Ali Slagle, and I was determined to give it a try. Not to be deterred, I didn’t change into comfort clothes right after I got home (pjs), nor did I pour myself a glass of wine. I began thinly slicing onions—doubling them because…onions— and treating the cabbage the same.

My husband, who usually cooks when I teach, knew that I was committed to this gastronomic venture and wisely stayed out of the way. His experience with childhood cabbage was a way-too-frequent overcooked mush, so my promise of haluski was more a threat than an invitation. Undaunted, I forged ahead.

In the end, the dish was exactly as Slagle had vouched, “The strands of caramelized cabbage become happily tangled in the noodle’s twirls. This version includes a final step of tossing the cooked cabbage and pasta with some pasta water and a final pat of butter, so each bite is as comforting as can be.”

Comfort on a fork, comfort both my husband and I slurped happily—feeling lucky on March 17, 2023!

Rising to the Occasion

My latest “textbook adoption”

I know a lot of people took up baking to ease their way through the pandemic, but I came to the bread-baking party late—as is my habit. And it wasn’t motivated by the baking bread at all. It arose from my sugar-free January, the contemplation of it in November through the reality of it January first.

Sugar-free means…well…no sugar. So many things have sugar, and even if the sugar in bread can be minimal, minimal is the first slide on that slippery slope. Mark Bittman and Bittman Bread stopped that downward trajectory in its tracks. My sister-in-law gave me my sourdough starter. The rest is history.

January found me thumbing through Bitman’s sugar-free, no-knead (folding is everything!) bread bible at least once a week to keep me experimenting with the staff of life. And it was good. January became February, and even though sweets entered my life once again, perhaps a bit more reservedly, each Friday night found me preparing starter for my Saturday baking. (I say a bit sheepishly that my brother watched in amazement as I measured and stirred after much-too-much red wine with him on a Friday in February, unwilling to forgo my Bittman ritual.)

Yesterday, though, I departed from the path. It will be St. Patrick’s Day this Thursday, but I will not be at home baking. I will be south of the border—olé. So I made no-yeast bread of another kind, Irish soda bread, the Americanized version:

How sweet it is!