A General Word on Lacto-Fermentation

When I teach Lacto-Fermentation classes, one of the things I almost always make is Ginger Carrots. I refer to them as “Fermented Foods for Beginners.” It is a good name for them because carrots generally retain their texture and people are successful with a ferment. While L-F is a very easy food preservation technique, it still takes some time to get the hang of it and there are failures. There is a lot of conflicting information here on the internet, so it is easy to let things sit out for too long, and therefore, turn mushy, which is pretty objectionable.

How Long to Leave Things Out

People are talking about L-F because the people in the medical community are finally seeing that the consumption of probiotic foods and good gut health has a direct impact on overall health. So you took my class, or you read a bunch of blog posts. In one place you read to leave things out for 2 days. Another said leave it out for 7 days. And yet another said that you aren’t doing yourself any good if you do not leave the ferments out at room temperature for 12 weeks. In my 90° F summertime kitchen, that’s a disaster.

Here’s the deal: Lacto-fermentation, just like anything else, has optimal conditions. When I teach my class, I tell people that everything depends upon the condition in your kitchen. The beauty of lacto-fermentation is that you can taste and test your ferments, and leave them to ferment some more if they are not ready. When you like the results, you move them to cold storage (the refrigerator or a wine cooler), with the understanding that the fermentation process is not stopped by the cold, only slowed, and the colder then environment that the ferment is stored the slower the fermentation process goes.

I have tested my ferments for pH levels – I grabbed the litmus strips out of a kid’s chemistry kit that came our way, and tested my kraut. It isn’t very scientific, because I only did tested on two batches and only recorded the temperatures as high’s and low’s, no hourly variations. One had daily temperatures in the 60’s, and overnight lows in the high 40’s. The other had highs in the 50’s and overnight lows in the low 40’s. I was looking for a pH in the low 4’s or high 3’s. As expected, the first batch reached a pH of 4.0 days faster than the second batch that had the cooler temperatures with which to contend. So, for MY KITCHEN, that is not air-conditioned, and is not well insulated, the counter time for fermenting can vary by 4 or 5 days. When I tested these batches again, after being in the refrigerator for 4 weeks, the acidity had increased, lowering the pH to 3.8. Writing this post makes me want to get more litmus strips and test all of my ferments. I love watching those things change color!

If you test your ferments, remove a little liquid from the container – DO NOT DIP THE STRIP IN YOUR FERMENT!

Now you say, “Natalie, you haven’t answered the question.” I know. I can’t really answer the question because I am not fermenting at your house. Open it, sniff it, and taste it.

Back to those Ginger carrots. You can make these with shredded carrots (my preference), as carrot sticks, or as coins. They taste great in any shape. I like the shreds because they are nice to mix in with greens for salad and make a delicious salad dressing (recipe also follows) that tastes kind of like that orange dressing you get at Japanese restaurants.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ginger Carrots

2 C shredded carrots (or cut in other shapes)

1 2 inch piece of ginger, finely chopped or grated

1 C of filtered water

1 T sea salt

Combine the salt and water and stir until the salt is dissolved.

In a bowl, combine the carrots and the ginger and mix thoroughly. Stuff them in a scrupulously clean jar. Cover with the salt water. Be sure the carrots are below the level of the liquid. Secure a lid on the jar. Leave to ferment on a counter, out of direct sunlight. Usually this takes 2-3 days.

 

Ginger Salad Dressing

1 C Ginger Carrots (above)

½ C rice vinegar

½ C salad oil of choice

2 T toasted sesame oil

Combine all of the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth and emulsified. Refrigerate for an hour before using.

Living La Vita Locale 7/12: Peaches

Ok, FINE! I’ll give Georgia THEIR peaches, because if you live in Georgia, and can get those gems tree-ripened, they are wonderful.  But in mid-July in New Jersey? It is all about the Jersey peach, especially white peaches that squirt juice all over when you bite them.  We like to pick peaches at the same orchard where we pick our apples, Strawberry Hill.  We bring home about a bushel of peaches and I can some, and lacto-ferment some, and dry some, and make fruit leather out of some.  And yes, we eat the rest of them: peach cobbler, yogurt with peaches, or even just a plain peach as a snack.  While I will buy “bump-and-dent” tomatoes to can into sauce (because sometimes I do not get enough tomatoes from my garden even with what is supplemented by the CSA share), I will not skimp on peaches.   They must be perfect specimens and perfectly ripe.

Peaches are number two on the list of the “Dirty Dozen” foods as defined by the Environmental Working Group.  Because they are fuzzy, peach skins retain much of the topical fungicides and pesticides that farmers spray on the fruit.  And because they are fuzzy, it is nearly impossible to get all of the chemicals washed off of the fruit.  And it is very difficult to grow a soft fruit that is susceptible to a plethora of pests and fungi without the use of chemicals.  That is why organic peaches are hard to come by. Additionally, with peaches being publicized as part of the “Dirty Dozen” more people are choosing organic over conventional.  This is why organic peaches are so expensive.

Of course I went in search of a local organic orchard!  Did I find one?  Yes.  But they did not grown peaches.  As a matter of fact, I could not find one local organic peach.  Not one.  The organic orchard I found only grew organic apples — the soft fruit orchards were on another property they owned about a mile down the road, and were not organic.  They, like Strawberry Hill, use IPM (Integrated Pest Management) system that minimizes the use of chemicals.  They do not use antibiotics (Yes! There are some pesticides that are antibiotics!), they release lady bugs and parasitic wasps to manage insect pests, but they do have to spray sometimes. Usually fungicide, and usually when it has been very wet.  My advice is to call the orchard and ask questions.  Most farmers and orchardists will be very happy to talk to you — they will be surprised that you are interested.  So while Strawberry Hill is a conventional orchard, I still buy fruit there because I feel that their practices are environmentally sound.

The absolute easiest thing to do with peaches is to lacto-ferment them.  Lacto-fermenting fruit can be a little tricky because the ferment can go “boozy” very quickly.  This is one I check about every 12 hours.  As soon as you feel a little effervescence on your tongue, it is time for this to go into the fridge!

Lacto-Fermented Peaches

2-3 ripe peaches, peeled and cut into chunks catching as much juice as possible

1/2 C fresh berries (blackberries and blueberries are usually coming in around the same time as the peaches)

1/4 C cilantro leaves

1 T salt

In a scrupulously clean quart jar, combine all of the ingredients.  Secure the lid and shake the jar until all of the ingredients are combined and the peaches and berries are broken up.  Leave this on your counter for 1-2 days, depending on the temperature of your kitchen.  This needs to be stored in the refrigerator, below 42° F.

This is delicious as is, or mixed with fresh chopped tomatoes and sweet onions as a salsa, spooned over grilled fish or chicken, or blended with a little balsamic vinegar and olive oil for salad dressing.

Not a fan of cilantro? Try some basil instead.  Don’t have blackberries?  Use strawberries.  This is just as wonderful without the berries.  If you want an amazing topping for ice-cream, leave out the herbs!  Have fun experimenting.  If you come up with a new combination, please share it in the Comments!

Who Grew Your Food?

Among the perks of going to a farmer’s market is actually getting to speak to the person who grew your food. I talk about this all of the time in different ways. In class, when I am teaching the Politics of Food unit, we discuss the concept of “eating lower on the commodity chain;” in my Lacto-Fermentation classes, I talk about using fresh ingredients, about knowing when items were harvested; with my peers and I talk about food safety and how knowing and respecting the people who are producing our food will make it safer. My neighbor asked how I became so knowledgeable about food production – I am an ENGLISH teacher, not a Biology teacher, nor Environmental Science teacher, nor a Horticulture teacher. I learned by asking questions of the farmers who produce my food. Sometimes I take this for granted – that I have this direct access, but you don’t have to belong to a CSA or buy a half a steer once a year to have this kind of contact. If you choose to buy your produce at one of the many farmer’s markets that are springing up all over our area, you can ask questions of the farmers – the men and women who are on the other side of the table.

As I have said before, the farmers I know are among the smartest people with whom I am acquainted. Before they were farmers, or in addition to farming, they earned degrees in English, Neuro-science, History, Bio-chemistry, Social Work, and Education; they were college professors, lab techs, nurses, Elementary School principals, and teachers. I know only one who knew he always wanted to be a farmer. All of the others came to farming for a myriad of reasons, none of which is any less fascinating than the rest.

This week at the Collingswood Farmer’s Market, I met my friend Laura who introduced me to her farmer friends, Barry and Carol Savoie from Savoie Organic Farm in Williamstown, NJ. On Saturday, among other produce, the Savoies had beautiful garlic, and I had the opportunity to “talk garlic” with Barry. The variety this week was White German Extra Hardy, a variety I haven’t had since my visit to Ecosophy Farm in Woodward, PA. Due to the massive individual cloves, this garlic is especially good to roast because it can stay on the heat longer without drying out which allows for the flavors to really develop. You know how Silver Queen corn gets really sweet when you roast it?  This garlic is the Silver Queen of garlic.

I learned that the Savoies both wandered a bit, but came back to New Jersey to settle down on land owned by Carol’s father. They went through the arduous process of attaining Organic certification, which is quite a task for any farm, but especially a small farm. For Barry, this isn’t just about certification and the Organic moniker – he believes in treating his land well in order to be a good steward of the environment. While they do not have on-farm sales, these busy farmers have three different CSA options, and make produce available at three markets: Collingswood, Headhouse in Philadelphia, and Ocean City.

Roasted Garlic

If we are planning a meal that is going to be on the grill for a while, we will plan to roast some garlic to have on hand.  It keeps for about two weeks in the fridge, although we generally use it up much faster that that.

  1. Brush the head of garlic to remove any dirt that might be clinging to it.  DO NOT WASH IT!
  2. Wrap the entire head in foil.
  3. Place the wrapped head of garlic on the back of the grill as soon as you can. If you use a charcoal grill, put it on when you put the grill grates on and just leave it there, even after you are done grilling, with the lid down, until your coals have burned down.  If you use a gas grill, the garlic should be on the heat for at least an hour (medium heat), but more is better.  Just be sure the foil packet is not directly over the flames.

To use it, just squeeze out a clove and spread it on bruschetta, or mash it and add it to salad dressing, or mix it with butter to spread on that roasted Silver Queen corn!

Living La Vita Locale 7/1: Kirby Cucumbers

What’s new at the market this week? Kirby cucumbers (aka “Picklers”). And when I see little those little gems, I gear up to make pickles, especially a family favorite Kosher Dill.

I’ve already done a post about making garlic pickles that are lacto-fermented and taste like the pickles you get at the deli. In this post, I will talk about pickle-making in general and then give a recipe for a classic Kosher dill, similar in style to what you would get at the grocery store, only better because you made it yourself from ingredients you can pronounce.  It was a Blue Ribbon Winner at the Burlington County Farm Fair a few years back.

Some general hints:

  • Unless you pick the cucumbers yourself, you won’t know how long they have been off the vine. Therefore you should soak the cukes in an ice water bath for at least two hours or overnight in the fridge. This will revive them and lead to a crisper end result.
  • The use of a grape leaf or horseradish leaf is optional. If you are using them, they should be as fresh as possible. The leaves are high in tannins and also work to help improve the crispness of your end result.
  • Smaller cucumbers will result in crisper pickles.
  • Keeping the cucumbers whole will result in a crisper pickle. You can cut them into spears or rounds just before serving. Cutting the cucumbers and then pickling them usually results in a mushy pickle.
  • Do not substitute the long slicing cucumbers for the small picklers. They have less dense flesh and will not hold up to pickling.

 

Kosher Dills

About 10 small pickling cucumbers

4 cloves of garlic, peeled and pierced

Dill fronds, Dill heads (the flowers), or dill seed

Black peppercorns

5 C water

1 C white vinegar

1/3 C salt

 

  1. Boil the water, vinegar and salt for 5 minutes.
  2. Pack clean quarts jars by putting in a grape or horseradish leaf in the bottom along with the garlic clove and dill (you can use a combination if you want. If you are using seeds, about ¼ t per jar). Add the cucumbers, fitting in as many as you can without bruising the cukes on their way in. Pour hot brine over the cucumbers being sure to leave adequate head space. Add a little more dill on top if you are using fronds or heads. Put the lids on and process by hot water bath for 15 minutes.

BE SURE TO FOLLOW MANUFACTURER’S INSTRUCTIONS FOR JARS AND LIDS!

Living La Vita Locale 6/4: Strawberry Jam

Strawberries?  Again?  Well, that’s the seasonal life — eating foods when they come into season, and trying to preserve some of it to eat when it is not.  I have already written about freezing strawberries, but I have never posted about making strawberry jam, a staple item in  our pantry.  We use it for flavoring yogurt, flavoring ice cream and sometimes just spreading it on toasted really easy homemade bread.

I always had very bad luck making jam.  It wasn’t until my friend Andrea took me under her wing that I got the most important part of making jam: follow the directions exactly!  Here they are:

Before you start with the berries, prepare the canning jars according to manufacturer’s specifications.  There is no use going to the trouble of making jam if you mess up on the jars.  They must be sterile.  I boil the jars in the canner and leave them simmering until I am ready to can the jam.

Strawberry Jam

  • 3-4 quarts of strawberries, with the green caps and any stems removed, lightly crushed to make 6 Cups
  • 8 Cups of sugar
  • 3 1/2 T powdered pectin (or one box)

Measure 6 cups of crushed berries into a big stainless (or other non-reactive metal) kettle.  Add the pectin and stir it in.  Turn on a high heat and bring the fruit to a full rolling boil.  Not a simmer (my early jam mistake — I never let it come up to a full boil).  Once it is boiling, add the sugar and stir it in and bring the mixture back up to a full rolling boil and boil for one full minute (actually time it — don’t guesstimate) and remove from the heat. Let rest for 3 minutes.

Take the jars out of the canner and put them on a towel.

Skim the jam to remove any foam and then gently stir the jam to evenly disperse the fruit.

Fill the jars leaving a 1/2 inch of head space and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes (that’s for Sea Level NJ.  If you live someplace that has an altitude over 1,000 feet, consult an expert!).