Hakka pickles, bred from frugality

Frugality is instilled in most Hakkas. It’s a characteristic that likely helped them to survive when they lived in poor isolated areas. They learned to be resourceful with what they had. It’s a trait I have. I find it difficult to throw anything out if there is another good use for it.

After making more than ten batches of Pickled Mustard Greens for a tasting for a 180 guests in December, I was left with lots of sweet-sour pickling solution. Instead of pouring it down the sink, I kept the sugar/vinegar solution in clean yogurt containers (I recycle those, too) in the refrigerator. I had some leftover cabbage, the common round green cabbage. I decided to pickle it. I blanched bite-sized pieces briefly in boiling water, just like the broad-stemmed mustard greens, rinsed it with cold water and immersed it in the sugar-vinegar solution, and placed it in the refrigerator. After a few days, the cabbage was crunchy and sweet-sour. It lacks the pungency of the mustard greens, but still is a delightful pickle although the color is a bit pale. With red cabbage, the color is deep purple and the liquid turns pink.

Cut watermelon radish into thin slices and drop into vinegar-sugar mixture to make easy sweet-sour pickles.

I have also pickled other vegetables. My latest find at the farmers’ market was watermelon radishes. These large green-tinged white radishes don’t look like much on the outside, but cut it open to reveal the red interior that resembles watermelon. Peel, cut in half lengthwise, then thinly slice and immerse in the pickling solution, and refrigerate for a few days. No need to blanch first. The liquid will turn pink.

Treat jicama the same way, except I cut the jicama into sticks. Do the same thing with cucumbers, except I use the cucumbers unpeeled. With vegetables with a high moisture content such as these, blanching isn’t necessary. Once the pickling solution tastes watery, discolors, or gets cloudy, I’ll dump it. Probably can reuse it once or twice. So far, I’ve reaped a bumper crop of new pickles just by being frugal.


Mustard greens are in

Last week, I gave a presentation at the ACCT dinner in San Francisco. They wanted a small taste of a recipe from the book. When I heard 180 people were attending, I turned to one of the easiest recipes in the book, Pickled Mustard Greens (p. 147). I have used this recipe often for book signing events, because it can be made ahead, served cold, and provide a small taste to great many people.

Use broad-stemmed mustard greens for pickles.

The key to the recipe are the mustard greens. The ones used for pickles have big broad leaves and thick wide stems are generally most available in cool weather months. Sometimes they are called dai gai choy. Since they are sold mostly for pickles, sometimes the leaves are trimmed off. The heads and stems may be straight, but are often curved into a semiclosed heart.

Just a week before the dinner, I was surprised to find these greens at the San Mateo Farmers Market where I shop every Saturday. The Hmong farmer was so pleased that I bought six big heads, that she brought them again the following week. She said that although she grows them, she didn’t usually bring them to this market because she didn’t think people would buy them. She also pickles them to eat at home. If you can’t find them at the farmers’ market, most Asian markets carry them in the winter.

This recipe comes from Hawaii resident Margaret Lai who grew up in Tahiti where the Hakka made up the majority of the Chinese population. Her easy pickles have a strong sweet-sour punch and are far crisper than purchased pickles.

Pickled Mustard Greens

Makes 3 to 4 cups

3/4 to 1 1/4 pounds broad-stemmed Chinese mustard greens

2/3 cup rice vinegar or distilled white vinegar

2/3 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon sea salt or table salt

1. Pull apart the mustard greens and separate the stems. Cut the stems and thicker part of the leaves into 1-inch pieces to make 4 to 5 cups. Wash and drain the greens. Reserve leaves for soup or other stir-fries.

2. In a 3- to 4-quart pan over high heat, bring about 1 1/2 quarts water to a boil. Add the mustard greens to the boiling water. Stir to separate. Drain and rinse with cold water to cool.

3. In a bowl, mix the vinegar, sugar, and salt until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the mustard greens. Cover the bowl and let stand at room temperature overnight. Transfer the mixture to a smaller container. Cover and chill until the pickles are yellowish-green and sweet and tangy, 2 to 3 days. Store in refrigerator up to 2 to 3 months.