As any backyard gardener knows, those who choose to grow cucumbers are swamped with them at this time of year. The bins at the farmers’ markets and at the supermarkets overflow with them, too.
But there’s only so much Greek salad and Polish cucumber salad you can eat. Whatever to do with all these cucumbers?
Well, you can make your own pickles. It’s fun and easy to do. If possible, buy your cukes at the farmers’ market or grow them yourself. Supermarket cucumbers are often coated with wax to reduce transpiration and keep them fresh, which interferes with the pickling.
Some varieties of cucumbers are bred for pickling. A real farmer at the farmers’ market will know which variety he or she planted, so don’t be afraid to ask. The most common pickling cuke is probably Boston Pickling, but you may run into other excellent picklers like Solly Beiler (choose cukes the size of your thumb, no larger), Parisian Pickling to make gherkins or cornichons, Chicago Pickling, Delikatesse, Monika, and Muncher, all available from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com) or visit their store at 199 Petaluma Boulevard North in Petaluma (closed Saturdays).
One of the very best pickling cukes is the Persian Cucumber, now at Oliver’s. These small, warty fruits produce high-quality pickles. If you want to grow them yourself, Amazon sells a packet of 30 seeds of Persian cukes called Beit Alpha that were bred in Lebanon.
The long, ribbed, thin-skinned hothouse cukes that are often found wrapped in plastic in supermarkets do not make good pickles. And neither do very large, thick-skinned slicing cucumbers, which have bitter, semi-mature seeds when grown to marketable size.
To pickle cucumbers, you’ll need a pickling vessel, always glass or ceramic and never metal. I have several glazed stone crocks, and it’s my three-gallon crock that I use most often. A large, wide-mouth jar works just as well. You won’t need a lid.
In the herb racks at the markets, you’ll find pickling spices, and they go a long way toward making a tasty pickle. You could make your own blend but the commercial blend is probably cheaper in the long run.
When you get your cukes into the kitchen, always wash them, no matter where they’re from, to wash off dust and soil, both of which contain unwanted microorganisms. Bacteria called Lactobacillus acidophilus that occur naturally in the environment actually do the pickling, so you want to give them every advantage. These bacteria are probiotic, too, and are beneficial when they inhabit our gut.
After washing, trim a quarter inch off both the blossom end and stem end of each cucumber. This is extremely important, as these ends — especially the blossom end — contain enzymes that will result in mushy pickles, when what you want are crunchy, firm pickles.
The genus name of the bacteria, Lactobacillus, means a rod-shaped bacteria that transforms the sugars in the cucumbers into lactic acid. This acidifies the pickling solution, which makes it hospitable for the bacteria, whose species name, acidophilus, means acid-loving. The addition of vinegar to the pickling solution also increases the acidity.
It’s a feature of nature that spoilage organisms don’t like acid conditions, and this fact allows us to make healthful pickles. As long as the cucumbers are held below the surface of the pickling solution, you have no worries about spoilage. If, by chance, any portion of any of your cucumbers protrudes into the air, it will soon turn foul and spoil from fungus molds and yeasts. Keep your cukes submerged by covering them with a heavy plate on which you set a gallon freezer bag filled with water.
West County Regional Trail, Forestville to Graton
Hiking distance: 4 miles round trip
Hiking time: 1.5 hours
Elevation gain: level
Exposure: mostly exposed with forested pockets
Maps: U.S.G.S. Camp Meeker and Sebastopol; West County and Rodota Trails map
A rails-to-trails system has been developed on the old Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railroad line, which connects Petaluma and Santa Rosa with Sebastopol and Forestville. The West County Regional Trail, a 5.5-mile segment of that system, runs from Forestville to Sebastopol. This hike follows the first section of the trail in a tree-lined corridor from Forestville to the small town of Graton, following a water channel, meandering alongside pastures and vineyards, and passing through the Fish and Game’s Atascadero Marsh Ecological Reserve. The mostly paved path is a popular hiking, biking and dog-walking route.
From Graton, the walk can be extended another 1.75 miles south to Occidental Road and another 3.5 miles to Sebastopol. From Sebastopol, the trail continues west to Santa Rosa along the Joe Rodota Trail. The entire rails-to-trails system is 14 miles, from Forestville to Sebastopol to Santa Rosa.
Trailhead: Hwy. 116/Second Street, Forestville
From downtown Forestville on Highway 116, park along the south side of the street between Second Street and Mirabel Road, or pull into the open area off the road.
The hike: Walk down the gravel road alongside houses and buildings on the left. As the road curves left, leave the road to the right. Walk toward the tree grove to the posted trailhead.
Take the paved path through a tunnel of trees alongside a stream and a vineyard on the right. Follow the tree-lined corridor, cross a bridge over the creek and cross Kay Lane, a private road. Cross a second bridge over a stream.
Continue south to Ross Branch Road at 0.8 miles. Bear left 30 yards to Ross Station Road. Walk 40 yards to the right, and pick up the posted trail on the left.
Stroll between vineyards and a few farm houses, gradually descending past horse stables and corrals. Pass the Graton Sanitation Pond on the right, then cross a bridge over the creek and another bridge over a wetland pond.
Curve right, where the pavement ends, and follow the dirt path between a pond and a vineyard. Curve left through the Atascadero Marsh Ecological Reserve. Cross the wetland on a 160-yard boardwalk to Green Valley Road. This is the turn-around spot.
To extend the hike, walk a quarter mile to the left on Green Valley Road, picking up the trail again on the right. The path continues south 1.5 miles through the town of Graton to Occidental Road in Sebastopol.
Source: Robert Stone, “Day Hikes Around Sonoma” Second Edition (Day Hike Books, 2016)