My introduction to real pickled onions (and by real pickled onions I mean burn your mouth off, spicy pickled onions) came at the hands of my step-brother Tim. I can’t remember the precise circumstances because it was over 40 years ago, but I remember the onions. They came in a preserving jar, were about three times the size of those tepid vinegary silverskins you find in the supermarket, and they were served with bread and beer. They were superb: tasty, crunchy, hot with a long-lasting tang.
Then about twenty years ago, I asked my step-mother Jane whether she had a recipe for them because, like a first kiss, I remembered that first crunch and its accompanying sensations and I wanted to relive the experience. She duly obliged and I made a batch. They didn’t disappoint.
On and off over the years I’ve been looking at nets of shallots and thinking that I really should get pickling again. But I never quite got around to it.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, in the first flush of my ‘do something creative every day’ resolution, I finally pulled my finger out. Aside from the burst of manic, resolution-inspired activity, my motivation for this particular project arose from the easy and cheap availability of preserving jars in IKEA. The young lad, Edward, and I took a trip to Ballymun, availed of a ridiculously cheap and tasty lunch in the IKEA canteen and came out with about ten preserving jars and, as one does in IKEA, a few other things that I hadn’t intended to buy and didn’t really need.
Jane, again, obliged with the recipe. I still had the one Jane dictated over the phone twenty years ago but I couldn’t read my own handwriting. This time Jane’s trusty 57 year-old Good Housekeeping recipe book (bought in Nairobi when she lived there) and a dash of digital technology delivered the original printed recipe to me in seconds.
Over the next few days I assembled the ingredients (basically vinegar – I used a mix of cider and white wine vinegar – spices and shallots). I measured out the spices (chillies, mace, root ginger, peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon and mustard seeds) threw them into an enormous pot, poured in the vinegar and brought it to a just-bubbly hotness. Remembering that I had stunk out the house for about a week the last time I made these, I prepared the spiced vinegar in the garage with a camping gas stove, borrowed from the older lad Tom, perched precariously on my trusty Black and Decker workbench.
While the vinegar was cooling, I peeled the shallots, sterilised the jars and packed them with the crunchy layered orbs. When the vinegar was just cooler than lukewarm, I strained it and poured it into the jars, not forgetting to put into each jar some of the spices, especially the chillies. I sealed the jars and stuck them in a fridge. They’ll be ready at the end of November and I’ll save some for Christmas.
Here’s the process pictorially: