In the days before refrigeration, the summer months were perhaps the busiest time of the year for Italian cooks, especially those with access to a garden: Throughout the land people broke out the canning jars and set to work, selecting, peeling, and slicing the various vegetables and fruit as they reached optimum ripeness, cooking them if need be, packing the jars, filling them with oil, vinegar, or syrup, and sterilizing them before they packed them off in the pantry to await the winter months, when the selection of fresh fruit and vegetables was greatly reduced.
Now, of course, refrigeration, commercial cold storage, and long distance shipping have greatly increased the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables, many of which are no longer seasonal but rather sold year round. There is, therefore, less need for preserving summer's bounty, on the one hand, and on the other, just about everything one could ask for is pickled or packed in oil commercially. This doesn't mean that Italians have stopped making homemade pickles (sottaceti) and oil-packed vegetables (sottoli), however: Those who have vegetable gardens must still preserve what they do not consume or give away, and many people find the less-expensive commercially produced pickles, which are made to appeal to as broad a consumer base as possible and therefore omit some herbs and spices, insipid enough that they would rather make their own. There's a quiet satisfaction to the process, one can tailor the recipes to suit one's tastes, and they also make excellent gifts.
A couple of words on Sottoli and Sotto Aceti before we begin: Though Italians often mention them in the same breath, and both figure prominently in the classic platter of antipasti that begin many an Italian meal, they are quite distinct.
- Sottaceti (Sotto Aceti, meaning literally, "under vinegar") are vegetables that have been pickled in vinegar, whose acidity keeps the food from spoiling. Italians generally use wine vinegar, though apple vinegar will also work, as will flavored vinegar, which will give your sotto aceti an extra boost. When selecting vinegar for pickling, make certain it's fairly strong, especially if you plan to pickle vegetables that have high moisture content.
- Sottoli (literally, "under oil") are vegetables packed in olive oil, and require much more care in preparation than do sottaceti because oil is not a preservative; it prevents spoilage merely by isolating the vegetables from the air. This means that the vegetables must be fully cooked (often in vinegar, whose acidity acts as a disinfectant) and transferred immediately to a sterile jar, which must be filled immediately, and tapped briskly so as to dislodge all the air bubbles. Do not pack anything raw in oil, because raw vegetables can harbor bacteria on their surfaces even if they have been well washed, and some of these bacteria can do quite well in the anaerobic (i.e. airless) environment of a sottolio jar. There is a small, but serious, risk for botulism if this process is not done correctly. Therefore, when you open a jar of sottoli, be careful. If the lid is domed up, and there's a whisper of air escaping the jar, discard it, because it might not be safe.
What Will You Need?
First of all, the vegetables that you have decided to pickle or pack in oil, which should be ripe and blemish free. Wash them well to remove all traces of dirt, working quickly if the vegetables are the sort that will absorb moisture (mushrooms, for example). Pat them dry when you're done washing them.
Broad-mouthed canning jars; if they are of the sort that has a glass lid held down by a metal clip, make certain the gaskets are in good order. If you are instead using canning jars with screw cap grates are handy they're not absolutely necessary; what's important is that you not overpack the jars with the vegetables, and in all cases fill them to the brim with oil or vinegar.
A sterilizer (if the recipe calls for it), which is simply a large pot with a rack that will allow you to boil the jars of what you are making without their coming into contact with either the walls or the floor of the pot.
A pot for cooking the vegetables. It should conduct heat well, be large enough to hold your vegetables comfortably, and should be made of a material that doesn't react with vinegar or other acids. Stainless steel is probably the best.
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