Saturday, April 9, 2011

Pickled Beet Eggs - Perfect for Spring

Pickled Quail Eggs with Beets
Pickling is the process of preserving food by anaerobic fermentation in brine (a solution of salt in water) to produce lactic acid, or marinating and storing it in an acid solution, usually vinegar (acetic acid). The resulting food is called a pickle. This procedure gives the food a salty or sour taste. Pickling began as a way to preserve food for out-of-season use and for long journeys, especially by sea. Although the process was invented to preserve foods, pickled foods are now also made and eaten because people enjoy the resulting flavors.

The term pickle is derived from the Dutch word 'pekel', meaning brine. In the U.S. and Canada the word pickle alone almost always refers to a pickled cucumber. But today I wanted to talk about pickling eggs, which they do in the Southern regions of the U.S. as well as in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where they are often prepared with jalapeño peppers. My focus however, is in pickling the eggs with beets as do the inhabitants of the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside. As my family resides near this area in Ohio, having pickled beet eggs (also sometimes called red beet eggs) was common each Spring. This delicacy includes beets in the pickling solution to impart a pinkish red color to the eggs.

The Pennsylvania Dutch began immigrating to America to the Borough of Germantown in northwest Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania around 1685. Many Pennsylvania Dutch are descendants of refugees from the Palatinate of the German Rhine. Because of a continual string of regional wars, mass emigration began out of Germany in the early 18th century. Some Amish and Mennonite came to the Palatinate from the German-speaking part of Switzerland, where they were persecuted for the religious beliefs, and so their stay in the Palatinate was of limited duration as they too emigrated along with the Germans. In my family's region of Ohio we have a large Amish and Mennonite community.  So I can only assume that pickled beet eggs must have also be common in that region of Europe and they brought the recipe with them to our little area of the New World.

Amish Wedding
Pickled Beet Eggs
The first published record of "Pickled Beet and Egg Salad" I was able to locate appeared in the New York Times in 1944.  My 1969 edition of Better Crocker's Cookbook contains the recipe with photos, so presumably this was popular nationwide at the time. Growing up in Ohio, you could find jars of commercially prepared pickled beet eggs and many of the deli counters also had pickled beet eggs on hand for your convenience. However when I moved to Chicago in 1985 and packed pickled beets and eggs in my lunch for work, my new colleagues were quite amazed having never had seen or tasted such a dish.  I've made pickled beets with eggs every year since and they are common on my Easter dinner table. While most guests have never had them before, they usually enjoy them.

I pickle both chicken and quail eggs (usually one or the other) and I do not use a canning method to preserve them for a long period. I prefer the eggs to absorb the pickling only through the whites leaving the yolks yellow and un-pickled. I serve them on bed of leaf lettuce or watercress. I generally slice or quarter chicken eggs and serve quail eggs whole. I sometimes sprinkle a little gorgonzola cheese over the salad and usually make a dressing by combining some of the pickled beet juice with some oil and a bit of honey. Salt and freshly ground pepper is all that is required to finish up this tasty spring salad. Making this dish for your holiday dinner is a snap as most of the work is done two weeks in advance.

Canned Pickled Eggs
A Word of Caution: While pickled beet eggs are simple to prepare and delicious to eat you should follow proper food precautions with this dish. In 1997 the Illinois Department of Public Health discovered a case of food borne botulism from home-pickled beet eggs. To reduce the risk for botulism when pickling, food items should be washed and cooked adequately, and utensils, containers, and other surfaces in contact with food, including cutting boards and hands, should be cleaned thoroughly with soap and warm water. If you are canning the eggs for long-term storage, the containers (lids and jars) in which pickling will occur should be sterilized. Adequate acidification to a pH <4.6 is essential whether you are canning the eggs or serving them soon (i.e., don't reduce the amount vinegar in the recipe below.) Refrigeration while pickling is essential, as the yolks of the eggs will be inadequately acidified. Poking holes into the whole eggs after they are boiled to increase pickling speed might introduce spores or bacteria into the yolk and so should be avoided. If you pickle the eggs two weeks in advance of serving, they will be adequately pickled.

Pickled Beets and Eggs

10 fresh beets (or 6 cans beets, whole or sliced)
3 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups vinegar
4 cinnamon sticks
12 medium chicken eggs
(for quail eggs, half the recipe above and double the number of eggs)

To cook fresh beets:

For tender, freshly picked medium sized beets - wash, rinse and drain until all traces of garden soil are removed. Use a small vegetable brush if needed. Cut off leaves and stems, leaving about 1 inch of the root end.

Place beets in large heavy pan and cover with water. Bring just to a boil; reduce heat to medium, cover and cook until fork tender, approximately 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat and drain, reserving all of the beet water. Once cooked and cool, you can peel them; the skin of a cooked beet will slip right off. However, it's wise to use a paper towel or wear gloves to keep the beet juice from staining your hands. If the beets are large, cut them into smaller pieces or slice them.

To prepare hard-cooked eggs:

To correctly cook the eggs, place them in a single layer in a pan with enough cold water to cover them completely. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, remove from heat when you are at a full boil, cover with a lid, and allow to remain in the water approximately 8-10 minutes. Overcooking eggs makes the yolks turn green. Then place under running, cold water to cool quickly and stop the cooking; peel.

To make pickled beets and eggs:

Place hard-cooked eggs into a container with a lid. Add the cooked beets on top of the eggs. Place the reserved beet liquid (or canned beet liquid) in a saucepan. Add sugar, vinegar and cinnamon sticks to reserved liquid. Heat to boiling stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Take care that the mixture does not boil over. Pour hot liquid over beets and eggs; cool. Cover and refrigerate. Jossel container or use a spoon to ensure eggs are evenly dyed with beet juice. After about one week you can eat them, although two weeks is better.

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