Saturday, 26 July 2014


Those of you who have my book will know that the simple recipes at the end have been modified by my wife from more complicated ones. They are quicker, cheaper and easier to make than the originals. They taste better too, because they have been adjusted to suit us. You will also know that whenever possible she makes the recipes flexible so that you are not tied to specific weights or ingredients and you can change them to suit you.

It does mean you need a little cooking experience, or are prepared to experiment. You will soon learn how to modify them, and there are always opportunities to change things as you go. Building in the safeguard of being able to make changes part way through means that tips on how and when to do it need to be included in the instructions.

One important point to note is that unlike almost all recipes for piccalilli this one does not have the vegetables coated in salt overnight. In fact there is no added salt. It is not necessary because of the other flavours. It is also a lot healthier than the salt laden versions. The amount of sugar in many recipes is also excessive. This is the typical “bad” manufactured food scenario - lots of both salt and sugar.

If you are in the northern hemisphere, now or in the next few weeks is the time of year when you (or a friendly neighbour) can supply most of the ingredients from vegetables in the garden – or buy them at their cheapest if you have no garden.

The two things you need to make vegetables into piccalilli are vinegar and spice. We use white wine vinegar because that is what is available in Portugal, but use whatever you have. The British brown malt vinegar is what my mother always used and the only difference is that it makes the sauce darker. The one essential spice is turmeric powder. Everything else is optional. I prefer some mustard seeds too, or you could use powdered mustard. Coriander seeds, powdered ginger and other spices are frequently used in more complicated recipes. The choice is up to you. Use what you like.

Marrows or courgettes tend to overwhelm anybody who grows them, and many gardeners have a few plants. They soon grow bigger than is suitable for a single meal and piccalilli is often the only thing that these fruits are used for in a household. They are also very cheap in shops that stock them. Onions, cucumbers (or gherkins) and cauliflower are traditionally used in addition to the marrows or courgettes. I think it would not be the same without onions and cauliflower. Further options are green tomatoes, French beans, runner beans, peppers (either sweet or hot depending upon your taste) capers and garlic. Omitting the overnight salting means you can have the piccalilli ready in under an hour after you have prepared the vegetables. We do feel that a small amount of sugar enhances the flavours.

Before making the first batch this year we did an internet search and looked at numerous recipes. Most had far too much salt, and only one confirmed our opinion that salt should be omitted. That was on the website of the supermarket chain Waitrose. We saw recipes that use nasturtium pods instead of capers. Carrots occasionally appear in recipes too. Some used weights, others referred to large, medium or small vegetables.
You might want some guidance on quantities to use. The ratio of vegetables to vinegar varied a lot in the recipes we saw, from less vinegar than vegetables to twice as much. Have available a bit more than half the weight of vinegar to vegetables for your first attempt, although it is unlikely you will need it all. Vinegar weighs 1kg per litre, 20ozs (one and one quarter pounds) per British pint, and one pound per US pint. We also suggest no more than 1oz of sugar per pound of vegetables or 55g per kilo – and use a lot less ourselves. We are not being diet goody-goodies, we just think that sweet piccalilli is not right. If you want sweet pickles then make chutney and not piccalilli.

Make sure you have sufficient sterilised jars with non-corrosive lids for the batch being made. Know the capacity of the jars and allow one spare over the combined weight of vegetables and vinegar. You might not need it. They must be kept hot because the newly made piccalilli will be close to boiling point when it is transferred to them.

Our main purpose for a recent batch was to use up an overgrown courgette and excess cucumbers. So, we used 1 large cauliflower, 250g/half a pound of French beans and 2 big Onions in a total weight of 6.5kgs/14lbs of vegetables in their fresh natural state. The single courgette we used was close to 6lbs (2.5kgs) so comprised about 40% of the total weight. Cucumbers brought the total to 6.5kgs. We had not previously used French beans and are not impressed. They add nothing to the flavour and we will not use them again.

We had added 5 large garlic cloves to an earlier batch of about half the quantity plus about half a jar of leftover capers, and I like that. We decided on 2litres of vinegar which is a lot less than any recipe we have seen, and is about one third of the weight of the prepared vegetables. We made the decision because the courgette and cucumbers were harvested from the garden immediately before being prepared and we knew they would contain a lot of liquid. With other vegetables you might need more. The starting amount is not critical to success.  
You will see how to use the dry ingredients during the instructions below and we used 1 heaped tablespoon of Mustard seed, the same of turmeric powder, about 3ozs/90g of flour, and 150g/5ozs of white sugar. All these are less quantities than other recipes will state, but it was enough.  Keep the flour handy in case you decide to thicken the sauce some more, when a tiny further amount of turmeric can also be added.  More vinegar should be available to increase the quantity of sauce if you think it necessary at a later stage. Some prefer the sauce runny, and others for it not to drip off the bottom of a spoon dipped into a jar, and the quantity of liquid in your chosen vegetables will have some effect on the consistency, and quantity, of the sauce. 
Take some notes on what you use and how long various stages take. That way you can decide whether you want to change anything for the next batch. You will make more.

If you intend to weigh the vegetables do it before preparing them – it is easier. Cucumbers and large gherkins are best skinned, as the skins tend to be bitter and the bitterness can persist in the piccalilli. Small courgettes need not be skinned, but if large like the one we used they have tough skins. We peeled most of it but left the skin on a few pieces for additional colour. We also removed the central pith and seeds. Break the cauliflower into small florets and prepare and cut all the other vegetables into the size of pieces you want in the finished product. Keep each vegetable separate from the others. About half an inch or 1cm cubes suits most people, except for garlic if used, which many will like sliced small, or even crushed.

Heat the vinegar and sugar in a pan big enough to take all the vinegar and vegetables. Whilst the vinegar is heating mix the mustard, turmeric and flour into a smooth paste with some cold vinegar. Other seeds or spices that you want to include should also be mixed in this paste. Extra dry spices, or including peppers, will change the flavour. Bulk up the paste with hot vinegar from the pan. This ensures you have a smooth paste that will not go lumpy. It also thins the paste and makes it easier to pour.

Pour the paste into the pan of hot vinegar before it comes to the boil. The mixture, now a sauce, needs to be stirred continuously and heated to boiling point. It should be adjusted to the consistency you prefer. I am happy with it quite thin. You do not want it too watery, nor do you want too much of it. You want jars full of vegetables in sauce, not sauce with some vegetables, so be careful about adding extra vinegar, and remember the liquid that will come out of the vegetables, especially the cucurbits (marrow, courgette, cucumber). You can always add more flour and a touch of turmeric later if you want to thicken it more. The sauce should not quite cover the vegetables when all have been added to the pan, and you can increase the quantity of sauce at later stages. You always have room to manoeuvre.

Do not tip everything into the sauce willy-nilly. The reason for keeping them separate is so that you can add them in order to achieve equal crunchiness in the piccalilli. Onions are always first, and the sauce will drop in temperature and stop boiling. Stir each vegetable into the sauce as you go. When one is thoroughly coated, add the next, but there is no need to rush. Cauliflower follows the onions, then any other hard vegetables such as carrots. These are followed by (if used) beans and peppers. Next comes the bulk - the cucurbits and finally garlic and capers. If the sauce is too thin for you, add more flour and turmeric paste, but remember you have to keep stirring it, so not too thick. 

Continue heating and stirring until the sauce returns to the boil. Liquid from the cucurbits will increase the amount of sauce, and the vegetables should have enough sauce to just cover them when boiling point is reached. If not, merely add some vinegar - and more flour paste if you want. Make sure it reaches boiling point again if you have added more vinegar or paste. You now have piccalilli. It can be removed from the heat now, which is what we do, or left to boil some more, but you must remove it from the heat before the vegetables become soft. A small number of minutes should be sufficient for anybody. Put the piccalilli in the hot sterilised jars immediately. Fill them right to the top and close the lids firmly. It will keep a long time. Some folks like to let the flavours mingle for a couple of weeks or more before using. As soon as it cools is long enough for me.