A bit of a pickle: Mark Hix's preservation orders

It used to be the only way to preserve fruit and vegetables, but pickling is still a rewarding option, says Mark Hix.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Tucking into Simon Kelner's homemade chutney made with his Blenheim orange apples at The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival reminded me that now is a great time to preserve vegetables and fruits for Christmas and the winter months.

Pickles, chutneys and preserves are thoroughly British and they go back a long way. Before the days of refrigeration, preserving was the only way to store fruit and vegetables.

There are many ways to preserve food, from bottling fish in oil or salt to simple handed-down chutney recipes. The key, though, is to ensure that you have good fresh ingredients and clean sterilised containers. Sealing is crucial, and can be simply done by loading in the hot chutney, jam or pickle – the steam of which creates its own vacuum.

Alternatively, you can boil the jars once they have been filled if you are preserving, say, mushrooms or a vegetable such as artichokes. Kilner jars are great and have that lovely homemade look in the larder or fridge. Of course, you will need to change the rubber seals every so often but the jars themselves will serve you for years. I even have some great old bottle-green examples from France which I picked up from a junk shop. I don't really use them for preserving, just for keeping both culinary and bathroom odds and sods in.

You can have lots of fun with pickles and preserves, and once you get the knack you can concoct all sorts of interesting things in preserving jars to pull out of the cupboard along with the cheese board.

Pickled shallots in cider vinegar

Serves 4

Pickled onions or shallots are always a handy thing to have in the larder, especially at Christmas time. You can normally crack these open after about 6-8 weeks or keep them up to a year. I've got some that are a couple of years old now and they are still pretty good, though not quite as crunchy as before.

3kg shallots, peeled
4-5tbsp rock or sea salt
1tbsp mustard seeds
6 bay leaves
30 black peppercorns
4-6 dried red chillies
3tbsp caster sugar
2 litres good quality cider vinegar

Place the shallots on a non-reactive tray and scatter with salt. Leave for 1 hour then rinse off and dry the shallots on a clean tea towel or kitchen paper, and load them into sterilised Kilner jars. Bring a third of the vinegar to the boil with the mustard seeds, bay leaves, peppercorns and dried chillies and leave to infuse for 30 minutes, then add the rest of the vinegar. Pour the vinegar over the shallots, ensuring each jar has an even amount of the spices and the shallots are well covered. Seal the lids and store in a cool place.

Pickled winter vegetables

Makes about 4 x 500ml jars

Root vegetables are perfect for pickling as a little winter nibble or accompaniment to cold meats or cheese. You can use a selection of root vegetables or single ones and add some shallots or button onions or even halved Brussels sprouts.

10 medium carrots, peeled
10 medium turnips, peeled
3 parsnips, peeled
2 litres white wine vinegar
250g caster sugar
2tbsp coriander seeds
4 red chillies, thinly sliced
100g root ginger, peeled and thinly sliced

Cut the root vegetables into different shapes: the carrots can be sliced on the angle, parsnips halved lengthways and sliced, and turnips cut into wedges. Mix them up and pack into sterilised kilner jars, distributing the chillies and ginger between them. Bring 500ml of the vinegar to the boil with the sugar and coriander seeds and leave to cool a little, then add the rest of the vinegar. Pour the vinegar mix into jars, ensuring the coriander is divided evenly between the jars. Seal the lids and store in a cool place for up to 4 months.

Blackberry jam

Makes 2 litres

There seem to be still plenty of blackberries on the bushes despite the rather erratic weather we've been having. There isn't too much rocket science involved in jam-making, except that you need to make sure that you use enough sugar to preserve the fruit. I quite like to add the fruit in two stages so you are left with some good chunks to spread on your toast or dollop on your rice pudding.

2kg blackberries, rinsed
1kg preserving sugar

Put the preserving sugar into a heavy-based saucepan pan or preserving pan with a cup of water. Cook over a medium heat, stirring every so often until the sugar has melted then continue cooking for another 5 minutes. Add half of the blackberries and cook on a medium heat for 30 minutes, stirring every so often. The mixture should be a fairly thick, sauce-like consistency by now and the blackberries will have disintegrated. Add the rest of the blackberries and continue cooking on a medium heat for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and spoon a thin layer of the jam on to a plate and place in the fridge. If the mixture sets (after about half an hour), the jam is ready to ladle into sterilised jars and seal the lids; if not continue boiling for another 5-10 minutes.

Store in a cool place for up to 6 months.

Spiced squash chutney

Makes 2 litres

Sometimes those big squashes and pumpkins that we see so much of around this time of year don't get used up and a chutney is a perfect way to preserve a good harvest of unwanted squashes through the winter months. You can adapt the spices according to your taste. If you want, you can dry the squash seeds out in a low oven overnight and chop them into the chutney for a bit of texture.

4tbsp vegetable oil
6 large onions, peeled, halved and finely chopped
2tbsp finely grated root ginger
1tbsp brown mustard seeds
The black seeds from 30 cardamom pods
tbsp cumin seeds
tbsp ground cumin
300ml cider vinegar
200g sugar
1.5kg squash such as butternut, gem or onion, peeled and seeded
The grated zest and juice from 4 limes
1 litre water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Gently cook the onions and ginger in the vegetable oil for 3-4 minutes in a thick-bottomed pan, stirring every so often until soft. Add the spices, vinegar and sugar, bring to the boil and boil rapidly for 2-3 minutes. Meanwhile cut the squash into rough 1-2cm dice and add to the pan with the lime juice and zest, water, season, cover and simmer gently for about 20-25 minutes until the squash is tender.

Transfer the hot mixture into sterilised jars and seal the lids. Store in a cool place for up to six months.