Fine Fermentables

The hero of this story is tiny.  Imperceptible to the naked eye.  And always around.  He aids in the production of yogurt, sauerkraut, beer, cheese, pickles, sourdough starters, and various other tasty treats.

Our hero is Lactobacillus.  And he and I are pretty much best friends right now.

For those of you who haven’t heard of lactobacillus (his friends call him Lacto), the term itself actually refers to a family of bacteria that have their hands in a wide array of fermented foods (you’ve undoubtedly heard of some of his relatives, like L. acidophilus – guess what the L stands for!).

What makes lacto even better is the fact that you don’t need any special tools to employ his help.  He’s literally all around you, hanging out in the air, waiting for you to request his assistance.  That’s why when you make sauerkraut, or sour pickles, or even a beer like a Berliner Weisse, you just leave the container open.  Lacto does all the work behind the scenes, with little help from you.

Lacto and I have been tight for a while – he’s the key ingredient in my favorite style of beer to make (Berliner Weisse).  It’s low alcohol, requires relatively little help, and comes out tart and refreshing.  But after our most recent adventure together, we have a newfound respect for one another.

For the first time, I made kimchi.  Kimchi is similar to sauerkraut – it typically involves fermenting cabbage and/or other veggies in a spicy mix of hot peppers, ginger, and garlic.  I’ve always loved kimchi, a staple in Korean food, but homemade kimchi is amazingly simple, and absolutely delicious.

Cabbage and Shredded Carrot Kimchi (Back) and Radish Kimchi w radish greens (Front)

The base recipe I worked off of was from Sandor Katz’s book, Wild Fermentation.  It’s a great introduction to fermentation for those of you who are interested in the topic.  It’s fairly simple.  You take cabbage, or other vegetables, and soak them in a brine for several hours.  Then, you rinse them off until they taste mildly salty, and mix them up with the spice mixture.  Pack them into a crock, food bucket, mason jar, or other fermentation vessel, and let that beauty sit out on your counter for a week.  As always, you want to have some sort of weight on top to keep the veggies under the juices.  In a week or so, you’ll have the most delicious side dish ever.  Slather it on hot dogs or burgers, eat it as a side dish with asian stir fry, or just eat it straight out of the jar.  It’s amazingly simple, and if you have cabbage around, it’s a nice alternative to a more traditional sauerkraut.

Below, I’ve attached the base recipe, and them some notes on how to vary things up and take your kimchi to new levels.  Also, feel free to scale back the spices and the ratios if you want something a bit milder, but traditional kimchi should have a fiery kick to it.

Recipe:

  • 1 lb cabbage (about half of a large head, I used savoy, any firm cabbage works), sliced thin
  • Brine: 1 tablespoon of salt for every cup of water; use enough to cover the cabbage

Spice Mix:

  • 4-5 Long red hot peppers (I just chose any long red-hot from my local asian market; definitely use fresh peppers if you have a choice)
  • A hearty helping of milder onions (shallots; scallions; leeks; whatever – just something oniony)
  • 2 inches of ginger root, peeled
  • 4-5 cloves of garlic
  • generous splash of a good fish sauce (also from my local asian market, if you cant find it you can probably do without, but I love fish sauce)

Kimchi Spice

If you want more heat, add more peppers, or even some sriracha. If you want less heat, seed some of the peppers, or use fewer peppers or less spicy peppers – find a balance that works for you. But definitely try and make sure you have some red peppers in there, it helps give it that red appearance that goes with traditional kimchi.

  1. First, soak your cabbage in the brine.  Put it in a non-reactive (in other words, non-metal) bowl, and put some sort of a weight on top.  I used a pyrex bowl and a plate that fit inside.   I threw a big jug of water on top of the plate just to make sure everything stayed submerged.  You want to make sure all your cabbage stays under the brine.
  2. Leave this alone for several hours, or overnight.  You want your cabbage to still be crispy, but it should have noticeably softened.  Don’t worry about refrigerating this – leaving it out actually lets lacto start getting in on the action a bit.
  3. Rinse off the cabbage, tasting it here and there to make sure its noticeably salty, but certainly not as salty as your brine.  If you rinse it off too much, just sprinkle a little more salt on them. *SAVE SOME OF THE BRINE* just in case you need some more later on.
  4. Get your spice paste ready (you could also do this the night before if you want to let all those flavors mingle together too).  I just zapped everything with a hand wand until it was one delicious heap of spicy goodness, and then i topped it off with some green scallion slices.  Play with the amounts of ingredients until it tastes good to you.
  5. Mix the cabbage with your paste, and then pack it into your fermentation vessel.  Really cram it in there – I fit all of this into a widemouth quart jar.
  6. Make sure there’s some sort of weighted lid going on.  In my case, I just used a 1/2 pint jar inside the widemouth quart, and filled the smaller jar with some water. This worked great, and it kept the veggies under the juice.  If you don’t have enough brine, add a little of the brine you reserved from earlier.
  7. Set this all up on a counter, or a place where you can leave it undisturbed for the next week or so.  It’s a good idea to stick a plate under it in case the brine spills over.
  8. Throw a clean towel over the top to keep bugs out.
  9. Check it at least once a day to keep the veggies under the brine.
  10. After about a week, taste it.  It may take longer in cooler environments, while things go much quicker in a warmer environment.  When it tastes good to you, just toss it in the fridge.  It will keep for quite a while. And it’s full of all sorts of probiotic goodies!

Now for the variations:

For me, the star of the kimchi show is the spice mixture.  That means you can literally throw in any other veggies with the cabbage and brine.  Hell, you can use nothing but other veggies and leave out the cabbage.  I made a radish kimchi (quartered radishes plus the green tops; shown above) that is awesome and insanely spicy.

For the spice mix, again, feel free to make it to your liking.  The key ingredients are ginger, milder onions, red peppers, and garlic.  How you mix them is up to you.  Horseradish is also an awesome addition to the mix.  Use fresh grated horseradish if you can find the root, but be forwarned, grating horseradish is..um………challenging.. It will literally bring you to tears.

Also, if you see some moldy-lookin stuff on the top of your ferment, that’s entirely normal.  As long as your veggies are under the juices, they’re safe.  Just skim off the bloom and let it continue to ferment away.

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A plethora of strawberries

Strawberries have long been one of my favorite fruits. I remember every year for my birthday, I would beg my parents for a strawberry shortcake. I would then linger around the dining room table, waiting for the chance to steal the strawberries off the top. This behavior went on well into my college years.

However, over the last few years, I fell a bit out of love with strawberries. Any time I got them in the store, they were huge, but they were also white in the center, and not particularly flavorful. Sure, they were still good after they sat in sugar, and I drizzled them on top of a fresh slice of angel food cake. But they just didn’t taste how I remembered.

Then I discovered the joys of local strawberries. Last summer in my CSA share, I received a quart of strawberries. They were warm from sitting in the sun, and much smaller than their grocery store counterparts. I remember thinking, well….these are um…petite…. But sweet baby Jesus, the flavor was unparalleled. Those strawberries brought me right back to the delicious fruit of my childhood.

So over the last month or so, I’ve made it a point to take full advantage of strawberry season. Some got put up in the simplest way possible: I froze a few, for the occasional morning shake or quick sorbet. Others went away in good ol’ strawberry jam. But both my mom and I wanted to get a bit more creative this year. So this is what we came up with:

First, some strawberry jam with vanilla – take your strawberry jam recipe of choice, and just throw in a fresh vanilla bean that you have split and scraped (if you’re not sure how to do this, there are some great YouTube videos to help you out). It’s an incredibly simple variation, but it’s awesome. The flavor you get from the fresh beans goes perfectly with fresh berries.

Next up, strawberry rhubarb jam. I had a jar of this at the end of my winter CSA, and it was delicious. So when I saw that the strawberries were at the peak of their season, and the rhubarb stalks were the size of baseball bats, I jumped at the chance to make this treat. I followed a standard strawberry jam recipe, but used equal parts strawberry and rhubarb (my mom tried this jam last year, but we both agreed it need more rhubarb than just a few stalks in the pot). It’s also a good idea to let the rhubarb macerate in sugar overnight – it really softens it up and draws out those juices.

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For my next adventure, I found a recipe for strawberry rhubarb butter, on Food in Jars. I had never done a butter before, but it was amazingly simple.  Mix up your ingredients, stick it in a slow cooker, and let it go all day.

Your kitchen will smell fantastic, and you’ll get a few jars of butter with very little effort. Just keep in mind that you’re really cooking this down, so you’ll get lower yields than you would for jam. But trust me, it’s worth it.

Strawberry Rhubarb Butter

And as a side note, you can also make a strawberry vanilla butter using the same technique in the recipe above. Or, you can do what I did: I put a plain strawberry butter on a bit later in the day, and when I was ready for bed, it had thickened up, but not enough to be a true butter. Rather than let it go all night, which would have made it too thick, I just threw it in jars as-is. Voila, a thick strawberry sauce! I had some on pancakes the other morning, and all I can say is, strawberry sauce is the sh*t!

And finally, I made some strawberry leather using my dad’s dehydrator. You basically just add a fruit puree (which can be lightly cooked or entirely raw) to a fruit leather tray, and then wait until the leather is dry to the touch.

Fresh strawberry puree – this amount makes one tray of thin fruit leather

The yields are extremely low for the amount of strawberries I used; in the future it may be better to add some apple sauce to increase the volume. I’ll do a separate post later on about my new love of home-made leathers, but in the meantime, this article should get you started. It offers a great general technique for making all sorts of scrumptious fruit leathers.

There isn’t much time left in strawberry season – if you’re lucky enough to find some fresh ones, grab a few quarts and have some fun!