You’ve likely heard the phrase “timing is everything”. I can’t think of any better way to describe making this traditional treat from Greece and the Middle East.
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Though I have seen all sorts of things that normally wouldn’t be eaten fresh turned into traditional Greek spoon sweets (unripe nuts, baby eggplant, citrus peels, unripe figs, etc) pickled items aren’t as common in Greek cuisine. What both pickling and candying processes have in common, though, is that they preserve foods in a way that is shelf-stable. They also allow for foods to be used that would possibly go to waste.
Long ago people realized that culling some baby fruits from a tree led to larger, albeit fewer, fruits later on. It’s painful doing so, though, because there’s the thought of losing out on quantity of fruit to harvest. It seems like such a waste, but if you can make use of the culled baby fruit, it doesn’t feel so bad.
That’s exactly what has led to things like these pickled green almonds, called tsagala (TSAH-gah-lah) in Greek. Almond trees will put out a huge number of baby fruit early in the spring. Many may fall off on their own if a seed isn’t properly developing inside, and others may be knocked down by weather or animals. Lately our tree has been hit hard by leaf-footed bugs to the point that we aren’t getting any fruit reaching maturity at all, and therefore no nuts. The bugs pierce the outer flesh with their mouth and secrete enzymes that liquefy the developing seed so they can suck it up. I’m not happy about this, by the way.
So instead of looking with sorrow upon all the baby almonds I won’t get to see mature unless I figure out how to deal with the bugs, I’ve decided to find the silver lining dangling by the hundreds on my tree each spring. By harvesting my almonds before the bugs do, I can actually get to enjoy them. Green almonds are eaten fresh and whole in a variety of dishes. The flavor is reminiscent of green peas and asparagus to me and works well both raw and cooked. The only problem is that timing thing I mentioned at the very beginning.
You have a very narrow window in which to take advantage of this seasonal treat. Almonds only set fruit in early spring in areas that have a Mediterranean climate. They are also best when they are very small, otherwise the outer fruit becomes tough and fuzzy, and the shell around the nut gets hard and woody. Basically you’ve got about 3 to 4 weeks at the most to take advantage of the opportunity to use them.
Though it’s not likely that you will find green almond fruits at the local grocery store, you may be able to find them in specialty markets, especially those that cater to Middle Eastern or Mediterranean cuisines. They will only be around for a short time so start looking for them in March and April. After that, most almond fruits will be left on the tree to develop the nuts that are harvested in the fall.
Some quick notes before you begin:
The best size for using green almonds is no larger that an inch long. Larger ones are more likely to be tough and the shell may have already begun to form inside. Small almonds will have some fuzz on them, though, but there is no problem eating it.
If you are picking your own green almonds, be sure to avoid those that are yellow in color or that come loose very easily. Those are ones that were not properly pollinated so there is no seed developing inside. The tree will not be putting any energy to develop them and their flavor will be lacking as a result.
It is important to make sure your almonds are clean. Take a few at a time in your hands and rub them together under running water. This will help dislodge anything stuck on them and also helps rub off a little of the fuzz.
The almonds are typically poked with a wooden skewer at the stem end. This hole will allow the vinegar to better penetrate the inside of the fruit. Be sure to not poke all the way through, stopping about half-way into the almond. Also it’s important to use a skewer and not a toothpick as those won’t make a hole large enough to allow the vinegar to enter and prevent the development of pathogens.
It is important to use the proper strength of vinegar in order to ensure the correct pH of your pickling solution, otherwise lethal pathogens like botulinum can develop. Look for vinegar with a pH of 2.4 or a concentration of 5% acidity on the label.
Any flavor of vinegar can be used, but white wine or distilled vinegar are more neutral in flavor and will allow you to better taste the spices and almonds.
Technically speaking, these pickled almonds are shelf stable and require no refrigeration or processing due to the low pH (high acidity) of the solution. However, I recommend that you either process them in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes for pint size jars, or keep them in the refrigerator where they will last for months. If you’re not familiar with canning, please read my article here for more information.
By the way, almonds are stone fruits like nectarines, peaches, plums and apricots. It is not uncommon to preserve the green, unripe fruits in the same way as almonds. Out of an abundance of caution, I want you to know that mature stone fruits often have toxic compounds in the seeds, which is why they are not consumed. However, it seems that these compounds are not present in high quantities in the early fruits. The exact same method used below can be used to preserve those fruits, as well.
Pickled Green Almonds (Tsagala) Recipe
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The recipe below makes approximately 2 cups of brine, which should be enough for two pint jars filled with baby green almonds. Make as much brine as needed to properly cover the amount of almonds you wish to pickle. Any leftover brine can be stored indefinitely in the freezer. The brine may not freeze solid due to the salt content, but that is okay.
For the brine:
- 1 cup white wine or distilled vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 3 Tbsp. granulated sugar
- 2 Tbsp. salt
For each pint jar:
- 2 cloves
- 1 dried bay leaf, broken into pieces
- 1/4 tsp. coriander seeds
- approximately 1 inch of cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
- pinch of chili pepper flakes
- fresh green almonds, stems removed
Wash the almonds thoroughly by gently rubbing a few in your hands together under running water. Using a skewer, poke a hole into each almond from the stem end. Go only half-way into the almond, and be sure the hole is large enough to allow the brine to be able to penetrate inside the almond (toothpicks are too small). Pack the almonds into clean, pint sized jars that have tight fitting lids. Add the spices to each jar.
Put the ingredients for the brine into a pot and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Ladle the brine slowly and carefully over the almonds and spices. Carefully give each jar a little shake to release any air bubbles. Make sure the almonds are completely covered by the brine and that there is a 1/4 inch headspace in the jar. Put the lids on the jars and process them in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. For best flavor allow the almonds to soak in the brine for a few weeks to give the flavors of the spices time to penetrate the almonds. Enjoy them how you would any other pickled food. These are great as an addition to the appetizer table, or use in place of ingredients like capers, pickles, or olives. Enjoy!
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