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My Secret to Low-Effort Cooking: Always Keep Preserved Veggies On Hand

Fermented and pickled veggies are a culinary secret weapon

Assorted pickled vegetables in glass jars, as seen from above. ArtemSh/Shutterstock

This post originally appeared in the December 14, 2020 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.

If I were to describe my cooking style, I would say it is born out of anxiety. Every fresh meat I own is cooked that day; I’m a cauldron of concern, worried I’ll somehow give myself food poisoning by letting a chicken breast sit in a fridge for longer than 24 hours. If I tackle a big cooking project, it is either an act of self-care distracting me from some other neurosis, or it’s done in a panicked final moment, before a forgotten lemon withers in on itself. And hanging above all of this is the uneasy feeling that I am somehow not feeding myself correctly, that one day I’ll give myself scurvy because I went too long without eating any produce.

My fridge, then, is reliant on things that last a long time and will give me some modicum of nutritional value when I need them: It almost always has some sort of fermented or brined vegetable in it, be it kimchi or kraut or a plain old half-sour pickle. If I realize in a panicked moment that I forgot to go to the grocery store for two weeks, I know that in the pantry, there are a few jars of kalamata olives and pickled roasted red peppers, ready to hop in a braise or pasta sauce. My sodium levels are probably nightmarish, but preserved vegetables are wunderkinds in any number of dire cooking emergencies, waiting for their moment to shine. My move: Always keep something brined or fermented on hand.

Here’s the thing: Pretty much anything tastes good with a pop of salt or acid, and most fermented or cured vegetables offer one or the other. The salt, sugar, or spice used to preserve a piece of fresh matter in perpetuity is just enough to adequately flavor the blandest dish, a fail-safe for even the most pathetic cook. A blah tomato sauce almost always benefits from the addition of a briny olive; the combination of lemon juice and marinated artichokes and capers will tenderize and impart flavor to even the most freezer-burnt chicken thigh. When staring down a meal of a lone sausage, my German ancestry perks up with the thought of sauerkraut or half-sour pickles, a little boost of tang and funk to keep things interesting, and to force me to eat *a* vegetable. Similarly, my dear friend kimchi appears in every instant ramen I make, on top of every bowl of steamed white rice or congee, in every stir-fry. I’ve made full-blown salads with one forgotten head of romaine and a combination of whatever jarred vegetables I have on hand, especially Mama Lil’s pickled peppers. When I’m trying to make some sort of house meal or slop, I will often turn to these old friends to doctor up whatever is in my fridge, to give it some punch.

My fridge is a horizontal Tetris board of half-opened jars of pickles and ferments, because it gives me a palette to work with in any situation. They last for ages in the fridge, so there isn’t the same pressure to work fast, before something rots (another constant source of anxiety, and the fate of almost every leafy green I buy). They’re reliable and steadfast, but they also challenge me to be creative, to not just pour something out of a can into a pot. It’s an if-you-give-a-mouse-a-cookie situation: When artichokes enter the chat, I know to grab oregano, and if I grab oregano, I should probably grab a lemon. They’re an instigator of a culinary conversation, bold enough that they encourage other flavors to step up, a balancing act of sweetness and salt and tang. And, at the end of the day, you’re eating a vegetable, something with a touch more nutritional value than the Smartfood popcorn I’d eat for the rest of my life if I had the chance. We’re calling that a small victory.