When I was growing up in Jersey, every Italian restaurant had a jar of pickled vegetables somewhere around the counter, and for long years I thought “antipasti” specifically meant the combination of pickled cauliflower, carrots and onions that always appeared whenever you ordered “antipasto” at these red-sauce joints.
And in many places, they just set it out on the table the way a Mexican place sets out chips and salsa. Sometimes there were skinny breadsticks alongside, sometimes garlic knots, sometimes garlic bread.
The real name for this mix of pickled cauliflower and other vegetables is giardiniera, or garden pickles, and they are, apparently, a Southern Italian thing. Makes sense since this is where most Italians in my town came from. The mix also often has pickled green peppers and celery in it, too, and some can be wicked hot.
Cauliflower isn’t my favorite vegetable to eat normally — it bores me — but I do like it pickled. Its firm texture and form really lend themselves to pickling. So I make these every year as a hat tip to my New Jersey childhood.
Below is an Italian recipe for pickling cauliflower, but some fun variations would be:
- Adding turmeric or saffron to the vinegar to turn it a bright yellow.
- Including beets to stain it pink.
- Actually making giardiniera, by adding sliced carrot, onion, garlic and peppers.
- Go Asian by adding a tablespoon of soy sauce instead of salt, a few slices of fresh ginger, skipping all the spices below except for the chiles, and adding some sliced garlic.
You can make your pickled cauliflower as a refrigerator pickle, as I mostly do, or you can water-bath can it, following these safety guidelines.
Pickled Cauliflower, Italian Style
- 1 large head of cauliflower
- 4 teaspoons coriander seeds
- 4 teaspoons fennel seeds
- 4 teaspoons mustard seeds (optional)
- 4 dried hot chiles
- 2 teaspoons dried thyme
- 7 cups white vinegar
- 7 cups water
- 5 tablespoons pickling or kosher salt
- Get a large canning pot full of water hot. Be sure it has a rack or a metal steaming insert to keep the bottom of the glass jars from touching the bottom of the pot.
- Toast the coriander, fennel and mustard seeds in a dry pan until they smell fragrant. Stir or toss occasionally. As soon as you hear the first seed pop, turn off the heat.
- Meanwhile, break the cauliflower into pieces you’d want to eat as a pickle — neither too big nor too small. Do this by cutting down around the stem, then breaking the clumps of florets into smaller pieces. You may want to trim the stem pieces as you go.
- Divide the toasted spices, thyme and chiles into 4 clean quart jars. Pack the cauliflower into the jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace.
- Boil the vinegar, salt and water and ladle into jars. You might have some left over, depending on how tightly you packed the cauliflower.
- Wipe the rims before you put on unused lids — you must use new lids every time, otherwise you might not get a proper seal; you can reuse the metal lid rims, though. Submerge in simmering water for 10 minutes, then let cool on a cutting board or rack. Wait at least a few weeks before eating. These pickles will keep in the pantry for a year. Refrigerate after opening, though.