Crunch time

New flavors and low-carb diets are boosting the popularity of the pickle.

September 08, 2004|By Suzanne White | Suzanne White,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ask Dolores Mason, 72, the best way to keep the doctor away, and she'll tell you to eat a pickle.

Mason, who just won top prize at the Maryland State Fair for her jar of kosher dills, praises the pickle for its ability to brighten a plate and make you feel better.

"There's something in that vinegar that's good for your body," says Mason, who lives in Springfield, W.Va.

Whether or not that is true, pickles seem to be enjoying a resurgence of popularity, boosted by the introduction of new flavors and the recent clamor over low-carb diets.

"We've been way in front of the wave when it comes to pickles being low-carb," says Richard Hentschel, executive president of Pickle Packers International Inc., a nonprofit trade association in Illinois. "Pickles are naturally low in carbohydrates, except for the sweet pickles."

Americans crunch more than 2.5 billion pounds of pickles a year, and more than 67 percent of households eat pickles, according to the association.

Nutritionally, the classic dill pickle barely registers on the calorie chart. An average-size dill packs about 5 calories, 0 grams of fat, 0 grams protein and 1 gram of carbohydrate. Some have a scant amount of sugar, and the sodium content is usually in the 200-milligram range.

"All the discussion on diet has brought new light to the pickle category," says Claussen company spokeswoman Sarah Delea. "As people become more aware of the focus on carbohydrates, they are now finding pickles as a new snack."

Even the sweet pickle makers are getting in on the trend, offering pickles made with sugar substitutes to keep the calories down. B&G Foods, which has a factory in Hurlock, recently introduced sugar-free gherkins, bread-and-butter pickles, and relish.

Besides tinkering with recipes to reduce the calorie content, pickle makers have been experimenting with new flavors as well.

"We're seeing that consumers are really excited about the diversity and are trying new flavors and cuts," said Hentschel, adding that pickles infused with hot peppers and citrus are creating a buzz.

Ralph Sechler & Son Inc. is one packer that is putting an exciting twist on the classic pickle. By doubling the sweetness and blending the pickle with complementary flavors, the company has taken a predictable shelf staple and transformed it into a pickle with punch.

"We do some unique things with pickles and make extra-sweet products like our candied sweet orange pickle," says owner Dave Sechler, whose company offers 39 varieties of pickles, including lemon, raisin and apple-cinnamon flavors.

Dill remains the most popular flavor sold in the United States.

"Grandma or Mom made the dill pickle, and it's the dill that is used on every fast-food hamburger today," Hentschel says.

Pickling cucumbers are grown in more than 30 states, including Maryland. B&G Foods relies on local produce from farmers on the Eastern Shore and Delaware for its pickles, relish and packed peppers that are sold in stores in New York, Connecticut and Baltimore.

But what makes the pickle so historically endearing that Pickle Packers International dubbed it "the world's most humorous vegetable" ?

"When you say the word pickle you mouth grins a bit," says Hentschel. "It's just a funny word, and in no other language does it come across funny."

Pickles add pizazz to any recipe and can be fixed a number of ways. Tartar sauce would taste flat without it, and what deli doesn't serve a pickle with its pastrami sandwich? And pickles have long dominated the potato-salad argument. Pickle or no pickle?

For 25 years, Howard Koontz has been selling pickles-on-a-stick at the Maryland State Fair. Years ago, he sold them for 50 cents; today they cost a buck.

His kosher dills are displayed in large glass containers, allowing customers to point to the pickle they want, which then gets speared on a candy-apple stick.

"The pickles really appeal to the people walking around and eating. They'll buy a pickle and soda or pickle and sandwich," said Koontz.

For those thinking about making their own low-calorie snack at home, now is the time to catch the last of the harvest. Look for cucumbers that are firm, without soft spots or mushy ends, says Jon Traunfeld, regional specialist with the Maryland Cooperative Extension.

"The growing conditions for cucumbers this year have been very good, and we will have them all the way through September," he says.

Candied Dill Pickles With Cherries

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 quart dill pickles (not kosher)

2 cups sugar

1 cup vinegar

1 bay leaf

2 whole cloves

1/4 cup maraschino cherries

Slice pickles into sticks and soak overnight in cold water. Next morning make a syrup of sugar, vinegar, bay leaf and cloves. Bring to a boil.

Drain pickles and place half of the cherries in bottom of glass container. Put well drained pickles in and add remaining cherries. Remove bay leaf and pour syrup over; cover tightly. When cool, refrigerate for several days. Use within 6 weeks or so.

- www.hungrymonster.com

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