When I think of fresh pickles, I immediately envision a platter of sushi, accompanied by pickled ginger (gari) and preceded by a quickly pickled cucumber salad (kyuri asazuke). The Japanese know a thing or two about pickling. They find a range of uses for pickled foods, including condiment, relish, garnish, palate cleanser, and digestive aid. Small portions of these foods can appear at any meal, even breakfast. Traditional Japanese pickles feature ingredients ranging from vegetables to eggs to fish to even cherry blossoms.
In America, the primary exposure to Japanese pickles comes as an appetizer before a meal and as a palate cleanser during it. A favorite local sushi restaurant serves sunomono, small portions of freshly pickled cucumber salad, before every meal—so of course I needed to come up with a version for our home-rolled, and more importantly boat-rolled, sushi nights. This salad is best made fresh when cucumbers are in season.
Quick-Pickled Cucumber Salad (Sunomono)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 small carrot
1 small red onion
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon mirin
2 tablespoons water
1/4 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
roasted black and/or white sesame seeds
Gently brush or wash any dirt from the cucumber skin. Slice the cucumber into the thinnest possible slices using a mandoline or very sharp knife. Sprinkle with salt and set aside.
Wash the dirt from the carrot and onion, cut off both ends, and peel off the outer layer as needed. Cut the carrot into fine matchsticks or grate it into coarse pieces, and slice the onion as thinly as possible with the mandoline or sharp knife; set aside. In a small container with a lid, combine the rice vinegar, soy sauce, mirin, and water. Seal the container, and then shake well to combine.
Rinse the cucumber slices briefly under cool water to remove some of the salt, and then gently squeeze the water from the cucumber. Place 8 slices and a pinch each of carrot and onion in each personal serving bowl, and then sprinkle with the ginger and sesame seeds. Drizzle each salad with 1–2 tablespoons of dressing and let rest as you prepare your sushi. Serves 2.
Tips & Tricks
- I highly recommend making these pickles with fresh cucumbers when they are in season; you’ll have the best flavor and texture. We’ve tried making a refrigerator pickle version that can be pulled out midwinter for a sushi fix, but the paper-thin slices don’t hold up well to long-term storage, unlike pickled ginger (see below).
- You can use any cucumber for this freshly made salad, even ones too delicate to pickle in a water bath. I particularly like lemon cucumbers when they come on midsummer.
- Don’t hesitate in making this salad if you’re missing one or more ingredients; versions of it vary widely, and this one is merely the closest I’ve come to approximating a favorite variation. At its most basic, this salad needs cucumber, salt, and vinegar.
- For years I didn’t understand why salted vegetables should be rinsed before pickling; the whole point is to draw out water, so why add it back in? Then I realized a quick rinse doesn’t really add water, but it does remove some of the salt that remains on the vegetable’s surface. The result: less salty yet crispy pickles.
Twice as Tasty
Pickled ginger is meant to be a refreshing, cleansing tidbit between bites of sushi. But I find little refreshing about the cost of a tiny jar of pickled ginger or the garish pink dye added to some batches. Even though I can’t grow ginger in my climate, it’s incredibly easy and cheap to buy and pickle at home. Young ginger, which has a skin so thin you can peel it off with your fingernail, is traditional but not so readily available but it produces the best texture and flavor. If you can find it (often in spring but more frequently in fall as well) in a specialty Asian market, snap it up. But a few tricks let you use mature ginger, with it’s hard, dry peel. Young ginger in particular can release a faint pink tinge into your jar over time, but this one is natural instead of a cosmetically enhanced blush.
1/2 cup rice vinegar (4.3% acidity)
2-1/2 tablespoons sugar
dash of pickling salt
Use the edge of a small spoon to peel the ginger. Cut off any unpeeled or rough ends with a sharp knife. Use a mandoline to cut the ginger into nearly translucent slices, cutting parallel to the fibers for young ginger and crosswise into coins for mature ginger.
Fill a medium saucepan halfway with water and bring to a boil. Drop in the ginger slices, blanch them for 30–60 seconds, and then pour them off into a colander to drain. Add the vinegar, sugar, and salt to the empty saucepan and bring just to a boil, stirring to dissolve the solids.
When the ginger is cool enough to handle, pack it into a hot sterilized half-pint jar, leaving 1 inch of headspace. Pour the vinegar mixture over the ginger, gently poking the ginger around the sides of the with a chopstick to remove any air bubbles and ensure all of the ginger is submerged but there is still about 1/2 inch of headspace. Screw on a used canning lid and ring and let the jar sit at room temperature for 3–4 hours before storing it the refrigerator. Let it mellow for 1–4 weeks before eating; it will keep in the fridge for at least 6 months. Makes 1 half-pint jar.
Tips & Tricks
- The direction in which you slice makes all the difference when preparing ginger. Young ginger can be sliced with the grain, but cutting mature ginger that way gives you tough, fibrous results. Cutting that older ginger against the grain gets rid of that undesirable texture.
- Don’t leave out the sugar, particularly if you’re using mature ginger. Both ginger and vinegar have a tang that packs a powerful punch; the sugar helps to balance it out. Briefly blanching the ginger slices and waiting at least a week before eating them also gives softer, mellower results.
- I tend to make a jar of pickled ginger at a time because it keeps well in the fridge. If you come into a motherload of beautiful young ginger, you can process it in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes, plus your altitude adjustment.
- Even if you don’t roll your own sushi, pickled ginger is worth having on hand if you ever get takeout from your sushi bar. You can also build a sushi bowl: top a mound of rice with the ingredients in your favorite roll, sprinkle it with slivers of nori, and add a splash of soy infused with a pinch of wasabi. Serve Quick-Pickled Cucumber Salad and pickled ginger on the side.
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