This Sunday afternoon I know where I'll be: at my very favorite annual food event, Celebrate the Craft at The Lodge at Torrey Pines. This intimate food festival extolls the collaboration between San Diego's best chefs and our growers, vintners, and culinary artisans. Led by A.R. Valentien exec chef Jeff Jackson, the chef round up includes Paul Arias (The Fishery), Pete Balistreri (Tender Greens), Antonio Friscia (Gaijin), Katie Grebow (Cafe Chloe), Matt Gordon (Sea & Smoke), Javier Plascencia (Misión 19), Monica Szepesy (Q'ero), Jason Knibb (Nine-Ten), and so many more. And the setting, on a pristine lawn overlooking the golf course and the sparkling Pacific Ocean, couldn't be more stunning.
One of the great traditions of Celebrate the Craft is having jars upon jars of house-made pickles and preserves from A.R. Valentien for guests to take home. In recent years, chef de cuisine Kelli Crosson has taken on the task of creating them--all 320 jars, divided this year between bread-and-butter pickles, pickled watermelon gherkins, and stone-fruit mostarda. She invited me to their sprawling kitchen to help her make a batch of the pickled watermelon gherkins. It turns out they're quite easy to make and even the canning wary should give these a try.
These unusual heirloom gherkins are known by numerous names, including Mouse Melons, Mexican sour gherkins, Cucamelons, and Cuka-Nuts. They're tiny, about the size of a grape, and look just like ultra-mini watermelons. They're terrific for pickling, but you can enjoy them raw, add them to a salsa, or even to a cocktail. When they're in season, I've found them at Suzie's Farm farmers market stalls and Specialty Produce.
Crosson, who has been with A.R. Valentien for four years, is originally from a small town called Exeter in Central California, having grown up on a citrus farm. As a child, an aunt's gift of cooking tools got her hooked on cooking--to her it was a way of creating community around a table, whether it was her family or friends, or, later, restaurant customers. Like many, Crosson got sidetracked and, in her case, she went into advertising in San Diego before she chucked it and left for the East Coast to attend the French Culinary Institute (now The International Culinary Center) in New York. "It was one of the best experiences of my life," she says. From there she headed to Washington, D.C., where she worked in catering at the Ronald Reagan Building and even catered for the Supreme Court. But, she realized she was more suited for the discipline of working the line and creating food à la minute so she returned to San Diego and started work at A.R. Valentien as a line cook, before being promoted to sous chef and, six months ago, chef de cuisine.
It was at this juncture that we met. And now, all these months later, we spent the morning making pickles.
We started, of course, with sterilized half-pint glass jars and lids. Crosson set out a bunch of them, and I started adding the herbs and spices.
Since I was wearing contact lenses, Crosson sliced and distributed the serrano chiles.
Then came the little gherkins, followed by a classic pickle brine of water, distilled white vinegar, sugar, and kosher salt that Crosson had already brought to a boil. I absolutely want this stainless steel confectionary funnel we used to inject the water/vinegar mixture into the jars. It gives so much control with hot liquids!
We screwed on the lids and placed the jars into steel containers that would then go into the kitchen's large steamer for about 10 minutes. For us home cooks, we'd be placing them into a water bath.
Since then they've been sitting in a pantry and will be ready to eat by this Sunday.
I broke open a jar early and found that even now, they're itty bitty flavor balls--crispy with a little saltiness, a hint of clove, and a pleasing hit of heat on the palate. I'll be making these for myself. You can, too. Here's Kelli's recipe:
Pickled Watermelon Gherkins
from Kelli Crosson of A.R. Valentien
Makes 2 pints
1/2 pound watermelon gherkins, washed with stems removed
1 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
1 cup water
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 serrano chile, halved
4 garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1. Wash and sterilize two pint jars and lids, per manufacturer instructions.
2. In a non-reactive saucepan, bring the vinegar, water, salt, and sugar to a boil.
3. Meanwhile, divide the serrano, garlic, clove, bay leaf, mustard seed, and peppercorns between the jars, and pack with the watermelon gherkins.
4. Pour hot brine over the gherkins, leaving a 1/4-inch headspace.
5. Close the jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
6. Store in a cool, dry, dark place for at least two weeks before eating the pickles. After opening, store in the refrigerator.
Celebrate the Craft takes place on Sunday, Oct. 6 from 11:30 to 3 p.m. at The Lodge at Torrey Pines (11480 N. Torrey Pines Road) in La Jolla. Tickets are $85 a person and can be purchased online here.