x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Why a sandwich is not a sandwich without a pickle

A good pickle is can be an essential ingredient in everything from burgers to soup to shawarma.

After two failed shawarma expeditions, I'm ready to start a boycott. The sorry, soggy first offence came from my stalwart standby, and bore no resemblance to its flawless predecessors. The second indignity came from a highly lauded fallback, but it wasn't until midway through my sandwich, that my spirits sank like a stone. On the verge of tears, I put down the monochromatic mess and began dissecting it. "No pickles?" I cried. "What kind of world is this?"

The pickles, as it turned out, had been wrapped in foil and tucked into my plastic carry-out bag. But I wasn't after kabees mshakkal (mixed Arabic pickled vegetables, including beet-stained turnips, crunchy carrots, and sharp green chillies). Known as "wild cucumber pickle", the ubiquitous, chartreuse Arabic-style pickle sliced thinly and added to shawarma, or cut thickly on the diagonal and added to kabees mshakkal, is made from the slender, ribbed fruit of the Armenian cucumber. These "wild cucumbers" are actually a type of unripe melon. I wanted the flavour and texture collision of my beloved crunchy wild cucumber, pickle, pungent garlic, creamy, placid potatoes and tender spit-roasted shreds of chicken. For an addict, pickles don't just supplement a sandwich; they complete it.

I'll happily spend my waking hours snacking on pickled okra and gherkins, or cornichons, snappy with tarragon and vinegar. Give me five-gallon drums of sauerkraut and kimchi, and bottomless bowls of briny olives. My refrigerator door creaks with plenty of Indian lime pickle, spicy pickled asparagus, and the indispensable British pickles, tangy Branston and piquant piccalilli, a sort of coarse chutney with chunks of cauliflower and other vegetables cloaked in a turmeric-scented mustard (in the UK, home of the idiom, "hunger is the best pickle", "pickle" is a more generalised condiment than it is elsewhere).

Americans consume an enviable 25 billion pickles a year. That's a hundred pickles per person (more, if that person is me). In my fantasy colonial life of pioneering on the frontier, I'm a creative, committed homemaker who "puts up" pickles and relishes in glass jars, and forgets they're in the pantry until winter. Alas and alack, no sooner had I begun making my own Kirby cucumber pickles than I realised I couldn't keep up with my own rate of consumption. Project Pickle: fail.

Still, a sandwich without a pickle is like a song without a melody: just because you can, doesn't mean you should. Last week, while polishing off an entire appetiser portion ("made for sharing!") of sliced pickles that had been battered and fried, I found myself longing for a grilled cheese sandwich. It's a balanced, thoughtful combination of salt and acidity that makes flavours pop: unctuous counters tart, bright counters muddy, earthy counters sharp. Classic pairings include pan-fried chicken livers and pomegranate molasses, avocados and lime juice, mozzarella and balsamico, fried fish and a squeeze of lemon, chips and malt vinegar, duck and oranges. For a contrast, try a Chicago-style hot dog: an all-beef frankfurter on a slightly sweet, squishy bun, and topped with yellow mustard, sweet pickle relish (often dyed neon-green), a dill pickle spear, and pickled sport peppers (plus tomato, onion and celery salt). A pickle on its own is a beautiful thing, but its magic lies in its ability to transform a snooze into a spark; from cloying muzak into acid jazz.

Nowadays, I often make sunomono, a Japanese salad of lightly pickled, thinly sliced cukes marinated in rice vinegar, sugar, salt and ginger to serve with poached fish, a pile of translucent cucumber slices that curl like minted paper. It's a far cry from my college days, when I'd satisfy my cravings by squeezing yellow mustard on to thick spears of kosher dill pickles, and eat them with flat tuna melts fried in a frothing pan of melted butter.

The story of pickles is thought to date back 4,400 years, when cucumbers, native to India, were brought to the Tigris Valley. Since then they've been an ongoing theme in the global culinary lexicon, loved by Cleopatra (who attributed her beauty to pickles) and the Roman Emperor Tiberius (who ate them daily). Troops led by the pickle enthusiasts Julius Caesar and Napoleon relished their supply, which they thought to be invigorating. Pickles were a main course at the famous Feast of King John, and US presidents George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were all purported pickle fiends.

Pickle juice is a crucial ingredient in Russian soups, and my favourite involves a rich stock of roasted chicken bones, porcini mushrooms, various vegetables, three different grains, and generous amounts of both pickle juice and smetlana, a soured heavy cream that can be added to hot soups without curdling (I use a combination of crème fraîche and whim). I've read that tossing hot potatoes in pickle juice before dressing with mayonnaise makes a particularly delicious potato salad, and that substituting pickle juice for water in a bread dough can result in sublimely sour results, but I haven't yet had the chance to try either, opting instead to discard pickle juice in order to make room in the fridge for more pickles.

Bob's Pickle Pops ("Uniting closet pickle juice drinkers around the world") are sticks of frozen pickle juice in a little plastic pouch, and I've seen frozen pickle juice sold at concession stands. But true degenerates with steel-lined stomachs will swig pickle water, or pickle juice, straight from the jar (stop looking at me!). Some sports medicine specialists are convinced that pickle juice prevents muscle cramping, and its health benefits have recently undergone clinical examination, with inconclusive but promising results.

However, I find most sweet pickles (usually brined with cinnamon, clove and allspice) inedible, homemade bread-and-butter pickles (a drier, sweet pickle brined with turmeric and mustard, and named for the American diet reliance on them during the Great Depression) can be wonderful. In New York delis, a"full-sour" will get you a succulent, zesty, olive-green, fully-fermented dill so tart that it's almost like licking a battery, but it makes an excellent foil for rich smoked meats such as pastrami and corned beef. A"half-sour" is a bright green, super-crisp pickle that gets a shorter bath in brine and still tastes like fresh cucumber. These are the pickles of my dreams.

Long before I warmed to condiments, I embraced the pickle. As a kid, my standard McDonald's order was "a hamburger with pickles only". In those days, I balked at our standard daily summer lunches of tuna salad with mayonnaise and chopped celery on soft, white bread. Until, on a hot July afternoon in 1987, my aunt Susan, a petite, blonde Irish sparkplug whom I identified as the epitome of glamorous, feathery haired chic, made herself a tuna sandwich, while I watched, having declined one myself. She popped open a small glass jar of imported tuna in olive oil, then casually tossed the fillets with a little mayo, a lot of Dijon mustard, chopped caper berries and red onion, and plenty of salt and pepper. She spooned it on to toasted whole-wheat pitta bread, slid a couple of pickle spears on to her plate, and bounced on to the patio to enjoy her lunch. I followed, transfixed, staring until she offered me a bite. And I couldn't believe how delicious it was; the mustard and capers bit through the oiliness of the fish, which had none of the grainy, waterlogged qualities of canned tuna in water. I never turned back.

The next year, I gave up plain burgers and conquered my first Big Mac, sloppy with gloriously, hatefully gooey thousand-island dressing - a sauce characterised by its inclusion of pickle relish. Without pickles, there would be no tartare sauce, no remoulade, no Russian dressing: no fun.