Monday, March 5, 2012

Pickling it up--Italian style grilled spring veggie pickles

As my resident life advances and becomes more surgical, having clamped through my first few hysterectomies, tied and cut dozens of tubes of postpartum women, and delivered hundreds of babies abdominally through C-sections, I have had my share of complications.  My wise attending told me “if you haven’t had a complication from surgery, you haven’t done enough surgery.”

The inability to always prevent complications unsettles me.  An adverse outcome during a case provokes a feeling of desperation.  Sometimes I just feel like a stupid jerk that doesn’t want to operate anymore.  But I have to get over myself, because I’m going to be doing surgery for the rest of my life, and no matter how much I study and practice, things aren’t always going to go right. I am lucky to have great teachers who have coached me through fixing mistakes and counseling patients postoperatively. 

Thank god I have the kitchen.  Complications arise all the time, under-whipped egg whites, a cake that falls apart the second you invert it, awful tasting crab sauce, and overcooked T bones.  The beauty of the kitchen is the cauliflower won’t bleed, the chicken doesn’t need its ureters anymore (does a chicken even have ureters?), and best of all, there’s always Chipotle.

When I find myself in a funk at work, stressed or depressed, nothing distracts me like the kitchen, my improvised operating room.  Just like surgery, I gather my supplies, wash my hands, gown in an apron and begin.  The knife courses through pork fat and onions, on my feet for hours.   

The comparison between chefs and surgeons has been made more than once.  Both jobs heat up quickly, promote distended bladders and last long hours.   The stakes separate the two.  Kitchen failures are frustrating, sometimes depressing, but rarely scary or life changing.  I’m just fine with that. 

I’ll keep my day job and my hobbies separate, enjoying pickles in edible instead of existential forms.  These Italian style pickles with grilled spring vegetables taste salty, sour, oily and herby.  They make a great snack.  They are beautiful on their own or served over toast with ricotta for a wonderful bruschetta.  They would also taste great in a pasta salad, over grilled fish or a plethora of other foods.  They take a little effort, but they last for weeks.  I use a grill pan to grill the asparagus and eggplant, however roasting them in the oven or over an open grill would produce equally tasty results.

The veggies I use in the recipe below are just what I had in my fridge.  Surely other vegetables such as fennel, carrots, or zucchini would also be delicious.   The pickles do not taste sweet at all, the sugar merely softens the blow of the vinegar and salt, as does the water. 

Pickled Grilled Spring Veggies Italian Style

Half an eggplant
10 spears asparagus
1 red onion
½ head of cauliflower
2 ribs celery
4 birds eye chiles or other peppers
2 cloves garlic smashed
10 black peppercorns
½ tsp fennel seeds
½ tsp dried oregano
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
1 ½ cup white vinegar
½ cup red wine vinegar
1 cup water
¼ cup plus 2 tbsp kosher salt
¼ cup sugar
½ cup canola oil, ¼ cup olive oil
olive oil and salt for grilling vegetables

To grill the eggplant, asparagus and onion:  Slice the eggplant into thin slices.  Cut off the woody end of the asparagus.  Cut the onion in half.  Salt and oil the veggies.  Over medium high heat on a grill pan, cook the vegetables in batches until they have grill marks and begin to soften, however they do not have to be completely cooked.  Cut the eggplant rounds in half, cut the asparagus into 1 inch pieces and slice the onions in strips.  Set aside.

Cut the cauliflower into small pieces and chop the celery.  Slice the chiles, keeping the seeds.  Over medium high heat in a medium pot, add the garlic, chiles, peppercorns, fennel and oregano until fragrant but not burnt, about 20 seconds.  Add the vinegars, water, sugar and salt and bring to a boil.  Add the basil, parsley, celery and cauliflower and cook for another 5 minutes. 

Pour the hot liquid in a large jar over the grilled vegetables.  Float the oil on top, if the oil does not cover the vegetables, add more.  Allow to cool on the countertop and then refrigerate overnight. 


  1. Elizabeth. I love your writing when you bring in emotions.

    These pickles look like a lot of fun.

    Love ya, Mom

  2. Your food looks tasty...and no, chickens do not have ureters.