I'd always been ambivalent about pickles. Growing up in California, with its year-round bumper crops of sun-ripened produce, I saw the utility but not the appeal of soaking a tasty vegetable in vinegar or brine to preserve it.
Then, on a cold day last winter in New York City, where I now live, a friend handed me a jar of pickled carrots from Happy Girl Kitchen Co., in Aromas, California. I had to admit that the bright orange spears, packed with slices of jalapeño and wisps of flowering thyme, looked alluring. I pulled one out and took a bite. Unexpectedly crunchy and sweet, with a subtle vinegar tang, it actually tasted like a carrot—and more. With its overtones of fresh-picked herbs and its jalapeño kick, it tasted like my home state. Intrigued, I ordered more Happy Girl pickles: Italian beans fragrant with coriander and basil leaves and mixed baby summer squash steeped in honey, thyme, and turmeric.
Happy Girl's founders, Jordan Champagne and her husband, Todd, started pickling in 2000, after moving to California's Central Coast to live and work on an organic farm. They'd noticed that a portion of every harvest was too ripe to transport or came back from the market unsold. "California is the land of abundance," Todd says, "but food distribution isn't perfect." The Champagnes started turning unwanted but perfectly good vegetables into pickles. After experimenting with different recipes, they developed a repertoire that united local produce with some of the Latin American and Asian seasonings that have long influenced California cuisine.
In 2004, a couple of years after the birth of their son, the Champagnes decided to dedicate themselves to pickling full-time. Today, Happy Girl (the name was inspired by Jordan's famously sunny disposition) hand-packs and ships nearly 10,000 jars of pickles a year, all of them containing vegetables grown on nearby farms. "Lots of our recipes," Todd says, "are really just answers to questions like 'What do we do with all this extra squash?'" I humbly suggest that he send some (pickled, of course) my way.
Happy Girl Kitchen Co.'s pickles cost from $6 to $10, depending on the jar's size and contents. To order, call 831/750-9579 or visit www.happygirlkitchen.com.