Browsing the shelves of Kinokuniya Bookstore two weeks ago, after succumbing to a still-warm crepe wrapped folded around strawberries and whipped cream, I found a book that now sits on my kitchen counter with scores of sticky notes shingled out from its pages: Easy Japanese Pickling by Seiko Ogawa (Graph-Sha, 2003). This book is an excellent introduction to the Japanese everyday art of “pickled things.”
Most are thoroughly non-fussy, but this pressed radish pickle caught my fancy. It requires a bit of extra effort if you’re slicing by hand, but if you have a mandolin, you can make it easily. I can’t wait to try this technique with watermelon radish or even regular, ol’ salad radishes to see how their colors might mute and layer.
For the best flavor in turnips, find the freshest, youngest turnips possible. Save the greens for a bowl of noodles or chop them and make another, ginger-based pickle. In a pinch, you could replace the konbu completely with strips of turnip green or, to maintain the umami level, slivers of reconstituted dried mushrooms.
Peeling the turnips in a spiraling fashion, rather than in strips from stem to root, helps maintain an evenly rounded edge when the vegetables are sliced.
Look for sheets of dried konbu in Japanese markets. You might find a bag of the kelp already shredded thinly, but I recommend buying the whole ones and having fun snipping the confetti yourself with scissors.
Paper-thin slices that give the look and mouthfeel of this strikingly elegant pickle. You can press them in bowl with a pot lid and a few cans. Or, if you’re obsessive, you can dig out a nonreactive, rectangular container and arrange the slices in even rows.
Alternate layers of turnip with a scattering of the soaked konbu and a sprinkling of salt. Continue until all the vegetables are used. Ideally, you have at least four layers, as fewer will make the pickle difficult to cut later.
Drape a large sheet of plastic wrap over the last layer and then weight the pickles. I used some old kidney beans from my pantry, to create even pressure, then topped it off with extra boxes of beans and lentils.
After sitting for 2 to 3 hours, the turnip pickle is ready for cutting and serving. Since I was carrying my pickles to a party, I ended up cutting them there, right in the glass container with a sharp paring knife. Use an easy, rocking hand to keep the layers intact.
Pressed Turnip with Konbu
Konbu is dried kelp, a key ingredient in Japan’s savory cuisine. You can find it packaged in flat, clear, plastic bags in Japanese and Korean markets or in natural food stores.
Makes 6 petite servings.
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons mirin, or 1 tablespoon sugar dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
4×2-inch piece of dried konbu, snipped into strips
6 young turnips (the size of tangerines), sliced paper-thin
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
Mix the vinegar and mirin in a small bowl, then add the konbu. Set aside for 20-30 minutes to soak and soften.
In a wide bowl or glass baking pan, arrange a layer of the turnip slices. Scatter a few konbu strips and drizzle a small amount of the soaking liquid over the turnip. Continue building up layers of turnip, alternating with the kelp and soaking liquid. Aim to finish with a turnip layer.
Cover the turnips with plastic film, then press with whatever heavy and balanced combination of plates, dried beans, cans or bottles. Let sit for 2-3 hours at room temperature, or refrigerate overnight.
The pickle will give off liquid, soften, mellow in flavor and meld into a silken texture. Cut into small squares and arrange on a plate of contrasting color.