26 April 2013

A first foray into fermenting food

I learn the coolest stuff from the "New Book Shelf" at the library. Because I pick up books that pique my fancy, but that I would likely never go on the hunt for.

A month or so ago I noticed The Complete Idiot's Guide to Fermenting Foods. Hmmm....

I'm no stranger to food preservation. I hardly ever ate a commercially canned fruit or vegetable until I was out on my own. Both sets of my grandparents were tremendous gardeners. My dad's dad had a practically-legendary asparagus bed, and I can still remember standing in mom's mom's garden with her one July, eating tomatoes hot off the vine. And that was just the tip of the vegetable iceberg.

My own parents planted a HUGE garden every year. Nearly every kind of vegetable you can imagine, rhubarb, plus perennial raspberry, strawberry, and black raspberry patches. Mom would take us blueberry picking a la Blueberries for Sal... and not just for funsies... this was a mission. Plenty of kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk, for sure. I climbed the Bosc pear tree and picked at my grandfather's house, we gleaned sweet corn from a nearby farm (with permission), picked our own apples at a nearby orchard, and bought peaches by the bushel at the height of the season. My sister and I weeded and thinned carrots, snapped string beans, shucked corn, washed cucumbers (prickly!), and milled applesauce and tomato sauce. All told, my mother would preserve hundreds of quarts of produce each year, both canning and freezing. NO SMALL FEAT.

I've canned a bit on my own, but mostly for fun (applesauce, maybe some jam). My sister is a champion baker: she grinds her own flour and bakes her own bread (it's AMAZING). She also gardens and makes great salsa.

I'm a foodie, I like to experiment, and you know, I'm ready to dive in. Fermenting seems especially appealing to me.

Beer: bubble, bubble,
not too much toil or trouble
We've already fermented at our house by making our own beer. We've done a lot of those pre-fab "kits" (I know, kind of cheating, in a way) but we've also made pumpkin ale (from chunks of homecooked pumpkin - delish) and a blueberry ale (using five pounds of blueberries picked from my parents' high-bush plants.  WAY easier than the tiny wild blueberries and still wicked tasty). Dear Husband wants to start a little further back on the food chain, so to speak. He has some whole grain, and I bought a cast-iron grinder (that I think will handle grain) on Craigslist for $20.

Yogurt and Whey
Just prior to this foray into food fermenting I started making my own yogurt (inspired by Alton Brown of Good Eats). Success every time. Turns out homemade yogurt isn't just yummy, it's better for me too because the good bacterias in yogurt, and frankly, in all fermented foods, is good for the gut. It aids in digestion and absorbtion of the nutrients in food.

And lo and behold, the whey (and the lactobacillus in whey) that comes out of yogurt when I strain it to make Greek yogurt is the PRIMARY ingredient in nearly all fermented foods. Well, that was good timing!
Regular kraut (left)
and Tsukemono (middle & right)

So, next I tried sauerkraut. I've never particularly liked commercially-canned sauerkraut, and now I know why.  Sauerkraut isn't supposed to have the life boiled out of it. It's supposed to ferment. It's not cooked at all!

I made two kinds. A "traditional" one, and Tsukemono, a Japanese variety (they're both traditional, I guess, but the Japanese one has a little more tang from soy sauce).

Fermented (left) and vinegar-pickled (right)

I'm feeling really fancy. So I throw in a couple of batches of pickled eggs. Pickled eggs are one of those foods you either love... or not so much. I happen to like pickled eggs quite a lot.

I made two batches: one fermented (using whey, brine, red onion, garlic, and dill) and one genuinely "pickled" (brine and vinegar - my grandmother's recipe). Dear Husband and Dear Son did a blind taste test. They liked both, but they liked the fermented variety better! Wow! They both said it had a more complex flavor. That makes sense.

Hens are forbidden to me... for now...

Although I've recently visited no less than two friends who have laying hens, and according to our city ordinances I can have up to six laying hens on my property, Dear Husband says that we're not turning our yard into a barnyard.....

 Also, the hens would probably die of fright because our neighbors' Great Pyrenees dog (125 lbs of fur and joy).  I think he would consider our backyard hens as his new victims toys to pester all day.

But now I'm really cooking with gas, right? So I start a sourdough. And oh, it's going so well, and it's doubling or tripling in size every 12 hours, and it smells all sour in a good way, just like the instructions say. But it was still pretty cool in the house during the day when we're out, so I would put the little Jar of Goodness in the oven with just the light on to stay nice and toasty. GOOD IDEA, GONE HORRIBLY WRONG. Husband (bless his heart) was very intent on getting dinner ready when the sourdough was about 5 days old.... and accidentally preheated it to 450 with sourdough starter still in the oven. Oh no!  Dead sourdough! That's okay, I think it will be easier to manage when the weather is warmer.

We've signed up for a CSA - Left Field Farm. This is our first experience of buying a CSA share. We're very excited. And we bought the "big share," so we may end up having a LOT of produce when it starts coming in. We like vegetables (my 11-yr-old's favorite vegetable is brussels sprouts. For real.) but I am eager to put some of it up for winter, especially by the fermenting method because I don't have a pressure canner, and we have just a small chest freezer. And canning is some pretty hot, sweaty work in the summer, whereas fermenting requires no heat at all!

So, why does a suburbanite like me want to get so feisty with food preservation?  I think I'm becoming more aware every day that I need to be more of a locavore, and in a climate like Maine, that means if you really want to eat spinach in January, you gotta do something. And the science experiment aspect is pretty fun too.  I'll keep you updated with more news!

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