The Cucumber Cure

There's an doctor in the House... ER, Kitchen, at Fire Food & Drink.
Thirty huge bundles of dill, fresh from the farm, arrived at Fire, Doug Katz's Shaker Square restaurant, this morning. The long-stemmed stalks fill buckets scattered all around the kitchen, and more of the lacy leafed herb is spread out on every available work surface. The room is fragrant with its distinctive weedy, green aroma - something reminiscent of anise and caraway, but slightly sweeter. Volunteers are hard at work, stuffing the flowery heads into glass jars, along with plump little cucumbers, slices of pepper and cloves of garlic.

IT'S PICKLE-MAKING DAY. But the resident expert and man in charge of this seven-hour marathon isn't chef Doug; it's his father, Dr. Robert Katz. Katz is an ear, nose and throat specialist, and quick to admit he doesn't cook. "Why would I bother," he laughs, "with Doug for a son." But, once a year, every summer for the past 20 years, the doctor concentrates on the cucumber cure.

He used to do about 30 or 40 quarts of spicy Hungarian dills at home for himself and to give as gifts. But the elder Katz needs considerably more space now that he's putting up 600 jars at a time.

"Doug asked me to make some extra for the restaurant a few years ago," he says. "I gave him 100 jars, and they were gone in two months." Two of the crew at this pickle party paid for the privilege. "It was offered as an auction item to benefit the North Union Farmers Market," says Shannon Davis, "and it sounded like fun." Karen Johnston bid because it brought back childhood memories. "My grandmother lived on a farm and canned everything herself, including pickles. As a kid, I helped her. That experience is near and dear to my heart, so I jumped at the chance to do it with Dr. Katz."

Pickling is an ancient form of food preservation. When it comes to cucumbers, almost every ethnic group has a distinctive seasoning style. Dr. Katz uses a family recipe that came from an old friend. Before his friend died, the pair always made them together. Another longtime pal, Jules Belkin, a retired concert promoter and cofounder of Belkin Productions, is also a serious briner. Unlike Katz, he includes vinegar in the mix and adds alum to keep the dills firm and crisp.

Both use what's called the "cold-pack" method. There's no need to boil the jars, because, explains the doctor, bacteria can't grow in the briny environment. That makes the job a little easier - but it's still a big, messy, time-consuming task. Why bother when there are plenty of good pickles at the grocery store, including a couple of famous brands (Tony Packo's and Don Hermann's) that are made right here in Ohio? "Mine," says Katz without hesitation, "are the best."

It's late afternoon at Fire when the last lid gets its final turn. The rows of jars are an impressive sight. There's a real sense of accomplishment among those who spent the day filling them. Johnston says the experience gave her a new appreciation for what "made from scratch" really means, and the effort that once went into putting food on the table.

Everybody gets to take some home, along with the doctor's prescription: Wait six weeks. Chill if you like. Enjoy with everything.

This recipe should only be made when cucumbers and dill are in season and at their peak. (Makes any quantity.)

1. Thoroughly wash the desired number of wide-mouthed, one-quart jars.
2. Add the following ingredients, in order, to each jar:
1 tablespoon non-iodized kosher table salt (There are about 30 tablespoons of salt in a 26-ounce box.)
1 teaspoon pickling spices (15 ounces of pickling spices equals about 24 teaspoons.)
3/4 chili pepper (Cut pepper into 4 strips; use 3 strips per jar.)
1/4-1/2 Hungarian hot pepper (Wear gloves when slicing. For less intense heat, remove and discard seeds.)
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1-2 full heads of fresh dill plus several lengths crushed stems (Fold to fit in jar.)
5 whole cucumbers about 3-4 inches around, or 8 smaller ones (They must be unwaxed and unpeeled. Wash and dry before using.)
3. Add enough distilled water to completely cover contents and be sure jar is filled to the top. The water must be chlorine free.
4. Place lid on jar and tighten.
5. Tip jar back and forth several times to combine ingredients.
6. Store in a cool place for at least six weeks. Age longer for a stronger flavor and softer consistency. The brine gets cloudy and sediment forms at the bottom, but it's normal - the pickles are fine.
Line shelves with foil. A harmless gas is produced during the curing process that sometimes causes the lids to pop and the jars to overflow. The brine may be fizzy. This does not mean it's spoiled.


fresh whole cucumbers
1 stalk of fresh dill
1 whole banana pepper, stem removed
1 whole hot red pepper, stem removed
1 1/2 cloves whole, peeled garlic
1 tablespoon pickling spice

Brining liquid:
Add specified amounts to each gallon
of distilled water used for brining.
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 cup non-iodized kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon alum

1. Put cucumbers in first. Pack tightly but carefully - without pressing - so they don't crack.
2. Add remaining ingredients and then pour in brining liquid. Contents should be fully immersed with 1/2 inch of space left at top of the jar.
3. To allow the gas that forms to escape, tighten lids just enough so jars won't leak.
4. Turn upside down and leave undisturbed for 24 hours. Then, turn upright, screw lids tightly closed and store in a cool place. Best if chilled before serving.
If you like pickles bright green, mild and very crunchy, eat in 7-10 days. Jars can be refrigerated at this point to keep pickles that way. Flavors intensify over time.

Makes 1 pint

This dressing, says Katz, is great with fish and chips, crabcakes, iceberg salad or with a fried egg BLT sandwich. Shrimp cocktail wouldn't be bad either. Or a corned beef reuben ...
5 eggs, soft boiled
2 tablespoons shallots, minced
2 tablespoons dill pickles, diced
1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
salt and cayenne to taste
3 tablespoons champagne vinegar
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup Heinz ketchup

1 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

1. Boil eggs 5 minutes, then immerse in very cold water. Peel and separate the whites and yolks. Yolks should be runny.
2. In a large bowl, season shallots with salt and cayenne. Let sit for 5 minutes.
3. Finely chop egg whites and combine with shallots and pickles.
4. In a food processor, combine yolks, mustard, vinegar, lemon juice and ketchup and season lightly with salt and cayenne.
5. With processor running, slowly add oil (you are making mayonnaise).
6. When well-blended and thick, pour over shallot mixture and fold in herbs. Taste and adjust seasoning.

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