Bitter may be the Italian flavor of the moment—as in bitter greens and bitter drinks (amari). But I am partial to that other classic flavor associated with Italian food: agrodolce. Translation: sweet (dolce) and sour (agro).
Agrodolce in the Italian kitchen can mean a sweet and savory sauce for stews and braises or for sautéed vegetables. But it also refers to a popular pickling method using vinegar and sugar, plus herbs and spices. Most vegetables, and even some fruits, take well to an agrodolce brine, from asparagus in early spring to winter squash in late fall. Tailor your brine, making it sweeter or more acidic according to your preference and to what you’re pickling. Stick to a single vegetable or fruit or mix things up, giardiniera-style.
Here’s how to make agrodolce pickles without a recipe:
1. Choose and prep your produce.
Let the seasons guide your selection: young carrots, ramps, garlic scapes, and strawberries in spring; cukes, green beans, peppers and zucchini in summer, along with blackberries and melon; green tomatoes, butternut squash, and plums in fall; mushrooms, cauliflower, and pears in winter.
Wash and dry your produce. Depending on what you’re pickling you may need to trim, peel, pit, or slice. I peel baby carrots and leave them whole but cut larger ones on the bias into big coins. Cherries and plums should be pitted, and larger vegetables and fruits—winter squash and pears for example—need to be sliced or cut into bite-sized pieces.
2. Make your brine.
For every 1 to 2 pounds of fruit you’ll need about 2 cups liquid made with equal parts vinegar and water. I make most of my agrodolce pickles with white wine vinegar, which is aromatic, or cider vinegar, which is crisp and fruity. Both these vinegars do their job without coloring the brine too much. If I’m pickling something dark, like beets, I might opt for red wine vinegar, or even a splash of balsamic vinegar. Good balsamic vinegar is expensive though, so I use it sparingly.
If you are a real vinegar lover, you can use a higher ratio of vinegar to water. But don’t increase the water to vinegar ratio or you’ll end up with watery pickles and you could compromise the brine’s preserving properties.
Stir in sugar, anywhere from a couple of tablespoons to 1 cup, depending on how sweet you like your pickles. I tend to stick with granulated sugar, but you can substitute honey or another natural sweetener for some or all of the sugar. Add a generous pinch of salt, 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons, to balance out the flavors.
3. Punch it up with spices and herbs.
Here’s where you get to dictate the flavor profile of your pickles. Black peppercorns, cloves, fennel seeds, and juniper berries are all common in Italian pickle preserves, though I sometimes stray from tradition with cinnamon, star anise, or cardamom. I also like the bright taste of citrus zest. As for herbs, you can use fresh or dried: Mint and bay leaf are two of my favorites. (Keep in mind that fresh herbs will lose their bright color once immersed in the vinegary liquid.)
Bring the brine to a boil over medium-low heat, stirring to distribute the herbs and spices and dissolve the sugar and salt. If you’re pickling vegetables, add them to the boiling brine, cover, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes to barely soften them. Then lift them out with a slotted spoon and pack them tightly into clean jars.
Strain the brine or not, as you like, and ladle it into the jars. If you’re pickling fruit there’s no need to cook; just pack the pieces of raw fruit tightly in jars and cover them with the hot brine. Cover and let the pickles sit overnight at room temperature. Then refrigerate and let them marinate before serving. The pickles will keep in the fridge for about a month.
Agrodolce pickles are so versatile: Enjoy as part of an antipasto platter, with grilled sausages, in cold rice or grain salads, or in a prosciutto panino, along with a good assertive cheese.
Here are some possible combinations to get you started:
For more on preserving the Italian way, Domenica's new book, Preserving Italy, comes out tomorrow!