Something serious happened recently up north: the season changed. It’s not just the temperature, the coolness in the air, though that plays a part. There is a change in the color of the light, a movement from yellow to white. Not to mention that there was more than one treetop verging on colors other than green on my drive back up from Chicago last week. I’m not going to say the f-word yet, but I feel its inevitability hovering close.
The anxiety that leaving summer engenders for me has more than a little to do with the short, intense season of produce. Which is funny, because it’s not like that anxiety is born out of the possibility of starvation during winter (or maybe it is, written somewhere on our DNA).
It’s just that there is so much produce all at once! You can’t possibly eat all that you harvest if you garden, or even all that you are compelled to buy if you are a farm market devotee like me.
In Lebanon, when greeted outside their doors with this abundance, there is an ancient traditional response: mouneh, which means “to store.” The mouneh was everywhere I went when I visited Lebanon in April, rows and rows of beautiful jars often covered with a little piece of burlap and always tied with a string.
Even though there were pickles of all kinds on our table at home, lift in particular—and always in a very specific green pickle dish of which my mother must have bought several, because my sister and I each have one of these dishes—my first real awareness of mouneh from Lebanon was, oddly enough, in San Francisco. A beautiful bottle of rose syrup was among the elixirs on the shelf at the pastry station at Boulette’s Larder. I noted the brand, Mymoune, found it online, and ordered myself some. When I held the bottles in my hands and tasted their glorious contents, good things started to happen. I started to imagine a blog, and its name.
The mouneh led me to a very special book by that name, which I’ve been reading often over the last year. Barbara Abdeni Massaad meets, photographs, and writes about every possible artisan of mouneh in Lebanon. Hers is a work of art in and of itself.
On the first day of my trip to Lebanon, I was in the Chouf mountains where mouneh is a particular art. I wanted to spend the whole day finding as many different shelves of mouneh as possible; instead I had to settle for buying some. I don’t advise trying to bring lots of mouneh home in your luggage, by the way, unless you like olive oil-coated and rose-scented shoes, which trust me, you don’t. The most important of my mouneh survived, which was the jar of grape leaves my cousin May gave me that she picked and jarred in our family village of Dier Mimas.
Certainly neither we nor the Lebanese, even in the remote areas, have to store up for winter out of need. We can all get these things at the store and they taste fine (God bless Wickles). There is another kind of necessity, though, that we do have. It’s one that engenders the desire, the pull, to store up our produce. It is no doubt about eating locally and all that entails, as well as about getting away from processed foods and moving toward real food. And homemade pickles are downright delicious. My mom talks about the flavor and crunch of her mother’s pickles often, and she hasn’t had them in a lot of years.
But it’s also about something just as important. It’s about remembering (my friend, the poet Cindy Hunter Morgan, captures this stunningly here). I want to preserve—to ‘keep alive’—the feeling, the memory, the taste of summer up north. I want to do it myself in my family’s kitchen, even in the very small way that I do, because the act helps me hold on to summer with a small token, but also let it go and keep learning to accept the swift passage of time. I want to preserve simply because my mouneh makes me feel like I’m doing something good, worthwhile, alive.
Quick, Crunchy Pickles
No matter how alive we want to feel, there aren’t so many of us who are going to do the sterilization and hot water baths needed to safely give pickles shelf life. But you can still pickle and they will last in your refrigerator for weeks, sometimes months. There are many different ratios and flavorings used for quick pickles. I like this one because it has some sweetness to it; if you prefer, just leave out the sugar. Try all kinds of vegetables; combine them in one jar or separate them. Slip a slice of beet into a jar of cauliflower to make it a lovely, traditionally Lebanese shade of pink. Use fresh herbs like dill and thyme, and whole spices. Powdered spices cloud the brine, but if you want your cucumbers to taste traditional, use some powdered turmeric in the mix. Cousin Jim says you can save the brine when the pickles are gone and use it for the next batch. This recipe makes two large jars.
Carrots, cucumbers, green beans, peppers, cauliflower, and hot peppers, washed and trimmed
4 garlic cloves, peeled
Few sprigs of dill
2 cups vinegar (apple cider, distilled white, or white wine)
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon each of peppercorns, mustard seed, celery seed, coriander seed
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (if you like it hot)
In a small sauce pan, bring the vinegar, water, sugar, salt and spices to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat; cool.
Cut up the carrots, cucumbers, peppers and cauliflower into bite-sized pieced. Leave the green beans whole. If using hot peppers, pierce them all over with a knife. The sliced cucumbers benefit from resting among ice cubes in a colander in the sink for a good 30 minutes for better crunch. Save the tops of the peppers; they look lovely facing out here and there on the sides of the jars.
Pack two jars tightly with vegetables, garlic cloves, and dill. Ladle the vinegar solution into the jars to cover the vegetables. Top with the lids to the jars and refrigerate. The pickles are ready to eat as soon as the next day, but gain flavor over time.