Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Dirty socks?... No! It's fermentation!

I don't know if it's a collective consciousness thing or what, but I've noticed that people are fascinated by talk of fermentation. So I thought I'd share my weekly lacto-routine to encourage you all to experiment with this ancient, easy, fun and nourishing method of food preservation. I try to ferment at least one vegetable and one dairy product every week in addition to my ongoing kombucha project.

Let's start with kombucha; once you secure your 'mother' mushroom, or 'scoby' nothing could be easier. My little brother does this, and if he can do it, anyone can! He gave me my starter mushroom, but go online to find one if none of your friends are hip to kombucha.

Okay, so basically you're just going to make tea; start with three quarts of good water brought to a boil, then dissolve a cup of white sugar (it works best with white sugar/I use organic cane sugar from the co-op bulk bins) add four black tea bags (again, it works best with black tea/I use the whole foods organic black tea as you get eighty bags for under $4) turn off the heat and let it cool completely. Then remove tea bags and pour into a gallon sized glass jar (I get mine at the co-op, but I heard they're available at Smart and Final and even at Wallie World) and place the mushroom on top. Add one half cup of kombucha for a starter, then cover with a clean dish towel and secure with a rubber band. Place in your cupboard and wait seven to ten days. Taste everyday after, until your kombucha reaches the desired balance of sweet versus sour. You can then pour into individual serving bottles and drink immediately, or you can place the bottles back in the cupboard for a few days to increase the fizz factor. I tend to drink mine straight from the original fermentation jar, as it goes too fast in my house for the bottle step.

You will notice that your original mother has made a 'baby' underneath herself; this is your new mother for another jar. Your original mother will continue to make kombucha for a very long time, so as you see, this is an exponential process; hence, we all have mushrooms to share with friends and family. If you end up with more than you can give away, you can either store them in the fridge, or they make a great addition to your compost pile.

I keep six gallons going at once, but your only limit is the space you have to ferment them. I've noticed that my kombucha has gotten better and better since I started last spring; I think the culture matures over time.

Use a reasonable degree of kitchen cleanliness, and if your mother develops mold, throw her out and start with a fresh one.

Next let's talk dairy; I'm crazy for dairy cause I'm a midwestern born gal. I make both 'farmer' cheese and creme fraiche on a regular basis; the farmer cheese is a cross between cream cheese and cottage cheese as far as I can tell, and the creme fraiche is like a lighter, sweeter version of sour cream.

Okay, for farmer cheese, I start with a half gallon of raw whole milk which I put in a two quart Ball jar, tightly capped in the cupboard for two to four days until the curd separates from the whey (you'll be able to see this if you check every day). Then I line a fine meshed strainer with a dishtowel and place over a large enough bowl to catch the liquid as it drains. Pour the contents into the strainer, cover with the edges of the towel and let sit on the counter until the whey stops draining (many hours). Then transfer the curds/cheese to a jar and put in the fridge until you're ready to season it, and pour the whey into another jar and store in the fridge for use as a starter for your fermented vegetables. Ta da! Easy.

I like to season my cheese with finely minced shallots, herbs and edible flowers; confetti cream cheese! It's great on toast or bagels, but my favorite use is for stuffing squash blossoms to batter in egg and arrowroot and fry in the skillet. Yum.

So let's move on to the creme fraiche. Start with a pint of raw cream, transfer to a pint sized Ball jar and stir in one tablespoon of buttermilk (store bought works fine). Place the lid on tight and set on top of your fridge for twenty-four hours. That's it! Now put it in the fridge where it will set up even more, and use it on everything, especially those fried squash blossoms! It's traditional in France to stir a tablespoon into a bowl of soup at the table (you don't want to cook it, or you will kill all the enzymes that you fermented it for) and I don't eat scrambled eggs without it anymore. Fish tacos are a natural. So good.

Well, let's see, now we have all this whey; what do we do with it? I know! Let's make sauerkraut. I like to use red cabbage because it's pretty, but any cabbage will do of course. Grate the whole head (some people cut it with a knife, but I like it finer than that) and place in a large, flat baking dish. Sprinkle with one tablespoon sea salt (I like pink Himalayan) and four tablespoons of your groovy homemade whey! Now pound the whole thing together with a meat pounder until it's really juicy (about ten minutes is right) then squeeze it into a quart sized Ball jar, making sure to push it all down until the liquid rises to the top and covers it all. Leave a couple of inches for expansion, and screw the lid on tight. Now put it in the cupboard for three days, then transfer it to the top shelf of the fridge.

You can eat it now, but it will get better and better the longer you wait (I can never wait). Use it as a garnish on your plate a couple of tablespoons at a time to help with digestion, or top your hot dog or reuben sandy with it. Oh yeah baby! And did I mention fish tacos...

The same method works for other vegetables, and I imagine the sky is the limit, but ginger carrots are a big hit. Just grate four cups of carrots, one tablespoon of fresh ginger, add one tablespoon of sea salt and four tablespoons of your trusty whey, then pound, pound, pound until the liquid runs (less time than the sauerkraut usually). Do the same thing as the sauerkraut from here on out. I like this one with eggs in the morning, or mixed into a salad or wrap, or just shoveled into my hungry mouth straight out of the jar. Good.

I suppose it would be even better with a bit of 'hot' so maybe some minced peppers mixed in with the ginger? Or garlic? I don't think you can go wrong.

Whew. So now you've got a fridge full of yummy, ready to eat chow. Think how easy dinner will be if you cook a steak, burger, fish fillet, chicken breast, whatever, and then all you have to do is reach in the fridge for the veg... too slick!

Oops, we mustn't forget the humble beet (my personal favorite rooty thing). Fermented beets are truly a thing of beauty and gastronomic wonder.

Start with a dozen or so medium beets, and bake them at 300 degrees until they're soft (a few hours) Now just peel, cut into strips and place in a quart jar. Push them down and cover them with one tablespoon salt, four tablespoons whey, and one cup of good water or enough to cover the beets; make sure to leave space for expansion. Cover tightly, and leave at room temperature for three days, then transfer to top shelf of the fridge. Voila! You won't believe how good these taste.

So you see, fermenting is easy. People with a whole lot less in the way of a proper 'kitchen' have been doing it forever... well for a very long time anyway. It's a simple, elegant and economical way to introduce beneficial bacteria and enzymes into your gut for help with digestion and assimilation of nutrients. It adds that necessary 'sour' taste to meals that include animal food. But mostly, it looks beautiful on the plate, and tastes wonderful in your mouth, so feel free to experiment and indulge your fancy.

Happy fermenting,