When I lived in Chicago, during my brief stint as an art handler one of my colleagues hipped me to Bari Italian Subs west of downtown. It’s an unassuming deli, with the usual assortment of Italian groceries and a deli in back. The thing that makes it so special, and the reason we would often drive many miles out of our way (on the clock, of course) was their hot giardiniera.
Besides being seriously hot, which heat was accomplished entirely with green peppers—to the exclusion of virtually all other vegetables—t also had this irresistible tang and deep umami that made it utterly addictive despite the lingering pain. In the immortal words of a classmate, “It makes me shit fuzz the next day, but it’s so worth it.” I would buy jars of it so my fridge was never without it. Now I make all sorts of cured, pickled and fermented chilies, and I can bring the homegrown heat nine different ways. I wonder if I’d still love it the way I did 20 years ago.
Fermented pickles make up the bulk of my preserved vegetables. I can make them in big crocks, so it’s efficient, and with some salt they pickle themselves, so it’s easy. The possibilities are infinite, and they taste really good. But I do enjoy the sharpness and crunch of a vinegar pickle sometimes, and there’s a seductive charm to oily condiments. My giardiniera, after some tinkering, has all of these qualities, plus some compelling heat.
First, I take the produce—cauliflower, carrot, celery, and hot pepper—and cut them all into bite-sized pieces. Then I submerge them in a brine for a few days to lacto-ferment, which lets the salt penetrate and develops a nice flavor. Then I drain them, pack them in jars, and pour a vinaigrette into the jars to cover them. It’s a pretty straightforward olive oil/homemade cider and/or wine vinegar situation, with a little garlic and a lot of herbs. In this instance, I had a big jar of lacto-fermented jalapeños from last year, so I added them after brining instead of using fresh ones. Year-old fermented chilies bring a lot to the table, literally. It’s so good. Crunchy, oily, sharp, hot, and still alive (it’s never heated), it’s glorious on almost everything. Hard cheese, crusty bread, and a pint of this makes as good a lunch as you could desire. The whole family is addicted to it.
The thing is, this year my late summer cauliflower don’t look like they’re going to head before the frost; I planted them a bit too late. But we do have a lot of big, fat daikon, which is in the same family and is white and crunchy, right? So I made another batch, but with a nod to daikon’s Asian origin I tweaked the flavors in that direction. Carrot and celery, yes, and garlic, but also ginger, some scallion, and cilantro in the vinaigrette along with some sesame oil and fish and usukuchi (light) soy sauces. It has that particular feety daikon stink when you open the jar, but it eats nice and clean.
This inspiration I owe entirely to the garden, and my working and walking within it. It’s where I figure out what’s for dinner, and nibble things in combination (like dill and red shiso, so nice, more on that later) to see what works, and to make connections that would not occur without being outside with the plants in the weather. If you can grow a little bit of food, do it. And go outdoors more; it’s the single best way to improve your cooking. Honestly, the smell of the woods today on my walk did more to inspire me than a week’s worth of reading about other people’s food.