Saturday, May 10, 2014

pickled cherry blossoms

Last year, I pinned pictures from Gardenista's lovely DIY post about how to make traditional Japanese pickled sakura, or cherry blossoms. They looked so beautiful and sounded so interesting, but I found her post after the cherry blossoms had fallen for the year, and I wanted to remember to try it again when I got a chance this year. I almost missed my chance - again! But one afternoon, late in the cherry blossom season, as I looked out and admired my neighbours' gorgeous cherry tree, covered in pink blossoms, I suddenly remembered those photos. I immediately called them to ask if I could come over and pick some blossoms to pickle. They laughed, "yes, of course you may. Please take as many blossoms as you would like!" (When we first moved in to this house, our neighbours were so surprised to see me using a sewing machine that they would stop and ask (through the open kitchen window) what I was making every time I hauled it out. After more than three years together, they no longer are surprised by anything: there are new portraits being painted out on the deck all through the summer, traditional marmalades and pickles being made all through the year, I set racks of calendula blossoms out to dry in the sun ... they're used to it all now! (But they still laugh!)

So, the next morning, I hustled out to pick a big tub of blossoms, as I read we had a week-long storm due to set in by mid-morning. The best flowers to use are ones are not fully-opened yet, so that their perfume has not faded. You can include the stems and even some of the young leaves, though I didn't want to remove leaves from my neighbours' tree, so I only picked blossoms.

 First they had to be soaked overnight in cool water to kill any bugs that might be in them and release any dirt or detritus...

... and then they had to be gently set out to drip dry (above).

After that, it was time to get ready to salt. The proportions in Gardenista's recipe are loose: you put a layer of salt in the bottom of a vessel, and start putting in blossoms, adding generous handfuls of salt as you go (she estimates that you should use about 1 cup of salt per gallon of blossoms).

It looks like snow, doesn't it? So pretty. Then the blossoms are gently weighted: I fit a plate in on top of them and added a jar of pie weights, to press them into the brine created by the salt. Then the entire bowl needs to be placed in a cool, dark place for four days. Mine went into a cupboard that buts up against the uninsulated back wall of our house; it's always cool in there, no matter what I do in the kitchen!

After four days, you pour off the brine and then pack the blossoms (which have considerably less volume at this point!) in a bowl with enough umeboshi (or "ume" or "ume plum") vinegar to cover. This was the only challenge in the process: I went down to Uwajimaya and they were entirely out of ALL umeboshi vinegar! We tried a few other import shops before I finally found some at Central Market in Shoreline. Whew! I didn't see that coming! Lesson learned: acquire your ume vinegar in advance, kids!

The blossoms are weighted (again) to keep them submerged in the vinegar and go back into the cupboard (or other cool, dark place) for three more days.

Then it's time to dry! Gardenista stipulates that the blossoms should be spread on a bamboo rack to dry. Lacking that, I realized I could use the trays from the food dehydrator my parents got me for Christmas. (Perfect! Thanks, Mom!)  To keep bugs from getting into them, I draped flour sack towels over them, so that air could still circulate around them.

The blossoms are supposed to be dried for about 24 hours, until they are a little leathery and not wet anymore. I went for about 48 hours (it's so damp here in Seattle)!

And here's the final result! Aren't they pretty? And how do they taste? They're salty, but also kind of fruity, and they have a lovely cherry floral quality (yes, like almond extract!) that fills your palette.

The blossoms are packed in salt and stored in the refrigerator. Gardenista says you can also let some of the blossoms dry out completely and grind them with salt to make sakura salt. I'm going to do that - I even have some Himalayan pink sea salt that I can use, so that it will all be a lovely pink color!

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