Category Archives: fermentation

On the feast day of summer’s end* (Halloween)

I think I found it, Mama

We tried to find something scary to show you in the garden.  As is common throughout history, when a new culture bangs in to an existing one, the conquered people’s holidays or rites are usually the most ripe for transformation by the new guys. Christianity supplanted a pagan festival with its own, All Saints, on 1 November,  and Halloween is merely the day before (the eve of All Hallows).  The old Celtic holiday, *Samhain, or summer’s end, was a day spent in reflection and stocking up at the end of autumn/beginning of winter.  It also was a period of time for the real world to touch the unreal, so you’re to keep your eye out for the supernatural.  I guess I am glad we kept that part of it; the kid does like to dress up and scare people.

But we like these harvest-based holidays around our house; they seem much more real than something arbitrary.  And personally, I like parties, especially when they reward all my hard gardening work.


Voila!  “You know, I think that thing is bigger than you were when you were born,” I told her.  She paused, and stared.  “You have GOT to be kidding me,” she said, looking over her glasses.

So behold!  The 7 lb, 5 oz cylindra beet.  This nearly filled a two gallon crock once shredded.  Fermented beets are super delicious…and it’s a fair way to stock up for winter.  Every year we get at least one or two monsters, but this year’s model has set the bar pretty high, eh?

I do like the sense of community on this holiday…even if we don’t have threshing or haying festivals any longer, or we don’t gather around the big kettle to process apple butter, I will think of all these joint events as I chase my daughter down the dark streets in town as she goes begging for sweets.  Why not.  It’s the new culture, after all.

On(ward) autumn

stomp stomp stomp

It is fully fall.  I cannot quite tell, though, whether this will be a stellar leaf-color year or not.  Surely the traditional heralds, the low sumac and high tree-climbing Virginia creeper and poison ivy, say this year will be gorgeous, but they’re always untrustworthy in their carnival colors.  You’d think, though, that with a bizarre weather year like this one, they’d flame out in riotous color.  So I keep watching.

Watching, and harvesting.  Apparently I am not the only one to do so:  the voles (field mice) have had family reunion-sized feasts in my sweet potato and winter squash patches.  Now, I don’t normally mind sharing a bite or two with the local beasts.  When they get half the butternut squash, though, I guess I get a little tetchy.  My loss, their gain.  But partially I blame myself for being so busy, for not watching the crops’ turning.

And yes, they turned for me in the vineyard.  Though a productive year, the grapes never reached a high level of sugars…and I kept waiting, thinking this last weekend would be the peak.  And I missed it, being blessed instead with vines full of raisins.

Not all raisins, though:  I am able to fill a 5-gallon carboy with what I hope turns out to be great homemade wine, complete with child labor!

Twelve gallon crock, 45 pound child, 7 gallons grapes

On summer pickles

Pickle Pot covered with one of the World’s Ugliest Tea Towels

Okay, so I lied a teensy bit in my last post:  I *have* been pickling nearly everything in sight, putting away for tomorrow (well, or at least next month) that which grows abundantly today.

It’s lacto-fermentation, though, that I have been relying upon to pickle my veg, not vinegar.  As far as methods go, this is as Old School as it gets.  I’ve basically been throwing grape leaves, unripe grapes, peppercorns and mustard seeds, garlic, fennel and parsley flower heads, and any nice fleshy unripe vegetable that I can get my hands on into a crock with salted water.  Cover them up (weighted down with my lovely weights and a quart jar of water) and in a week, voila, pickles!  The salt in the water interacting with the lactobaccili on the surface of the vegetables is what makes this happen.  (I could goose the process by adding whey…but then things end up tasting like goat.  No thanks.  It works fine on its own.)

Frankly, I can’t wait for all my cukes to get to adequate pickling size, even though I am growing a lot of them this year.  And–as ever–I am way behind with my dill plantings.  No matter; I look to see what’s blossoming and indeed fennel, cilantro, celery and parsley are all bearers of significant umbrelled flowers…lovely, all, for seasoning.  Italian flat-podded green beans, radish seed pods, young peppers (hot and not), eggplant, okra, thin green paste tomatoes, leek pearls, young onions, scallions, shallots, purslane:  these are all fair game to add to the limping-along cucumber stash. Even Brett’s milkweed buds and pods get harvested and thrown in the crock.

Sandor Ellix-Katz is my guru in all of this.   Perhaps he should be yours too.  Please pick up (even at the library) a copy of his Wild Fermentation.

My veggies’ weekly trips (more or less depending on the weather) in the crock yield about 7 pints of veggies:  one for each of my CSA people and one for us.   These aren’t canned, then; they’re eaten fresh from the fridge, preferably within a month or so…it’s basically slow(er) food.  And if you do eat it all, don’t worry, more is coming soon!

More information in the comments.

More lies:  here’s the first batch of paste tomatoes en route to the masonry oven.  Sundays are Oven Days so…why not hold off on picking tomatoes for the whole week and then having a steamer pan or two of cleaned, halved paste tomatoes go in for gentle cooking overnight?  When I took the bread and the chicken out of it, the Loven was about 300*.  It holds its heat overnight, but…I go check it before bed, and if it’s reduced “enough” then I will take the pans out, put their contents in half-gallon jars for the fridge, and then tomorrow after a trip through the food mill they’ll be canned.  It’s a great way to get paste.

On new compost

The compost heaps are also where the best volunteer veg spring up:  note the squash above.

Upon trucking the umpteenth wheelbarrow full of fresh compost around the new beds this weekend, I reflected on how much the big pile of stuff means to me and the gardens.  I’ve waxed philosophical on the subject many times over the years, and my ardor for the “garden gold” has only grown with time.

That said, I still have never let it cook down to being completely finished. Nope. Call me impatient, or greedy, or both.

It’s an interesting math problem, actually.  With the addition of dairy goats two years ago, the actual volume of compostables (in the form of their bedding) has quadrupled.  My gardens, however, have not.  It was only this weekend that the garden got expanded…it’s been the same size since 2008, thus, technically, I should be sitting on a surplus.  A surplus, or at least a big enough reserve so it actually cooks down!  There never is a surplus, though:  like the government’s budget, new sources for the goods are always readily found, and those resources get sucked up.  And lo, it’s never quite “done” yet.

So during that schlep of compost it also occurred to me that, as a gardener, my job is actually within the vast field of waste management.  You know, winkwink, nudgenudge, what Tony Soprano would claim as his profession (with a perfectly straight face, mind you) to anyone who asked.  Heh.

Yep.  Behold, the power of poo.

On pottery

About two years ago, I signed up for my first ceramics class.  I had stifled a yearning to play with clay for years, and finally embraced it.  So I have taken continuous classes at the local museum, taking the summers off, but otherwise making lots of useful things.

I still suck at it, frankly.  It’s a good feeling, this lack of control.  I suppose I am getting “better,” but just barely.  Frankly, I like my wobbly cups and bowls.

However, the pièce de résistance has been my new pickle crock.  It does not suck.

so deep!

At 12.5″ high, 11″ wide at the top, it holds a bit more than three gallons.  It’s coiled, not thrown.  Cone 6.  And:  it’s currently making its first batch of wonderful fermented magic (a mixed veg greenhouse clean-out:  cabbage, chard stems, escarole, carrots, kohlrabi, green onions and herbs…and from basement storage, onions and garlic).

I also made a couple of sets of weights to fit inside and weigh down the stuff.  This set fits my other crock…but they work fine in this one, too.

Anyway, it’s fun!  Learn from my experience:  Even if you’re afraid of producing things not up to your own personal high standards of craft and capital-A Art, you should go out and try, whatever it is.  You might just surprise yourself, producing usable things beyond any price.  And that, my friends, is beauty.

On winter’s bread

The start to a great breakfast:  four day old and still delicious bread, hot coffee, and lots and lots of fresh eggs

Wisdom is acquired by experience, not just by age, said my most recent fortune cookie.  Granted, I do understand this truism has a lot of gosh-that’s-so-true-ism when it comes to bread-making.  It is, alas, a skill.   You have to spank a lot of dough to understand the stretch and rise of what makes it what it is.  It honestly is not hard, though.  And I truly think that if anyone has an earnest desire to make his or her own bread, then one should start with the no-knead methods and variations.  One will realize how wonderful yet…unimproved that method is, mainly because the bread doesn’t keep long and has no real taste.  Eventually, using a sourdough starter or levain is the way to go.  And making one’s own levain isn’t as hard or as wasteful as it sounds.

I tend to keep on top of cooking-slash-cookbook trends.  I am not saying I am a purchasing consumer of said books so much as I like to learn the culinary lingua franca…it’s me eating up the culture of cooking, as it were.  And it’s another year, another batch of books of bread cookery that came ’round and were duly inspected by yours truly. And again, over and over, bread-bakers and cookbook-writers claim that the only way to make a sourdough starter at home is to throw away two-thirds of the volume of flour to do it.

Do you honestly think that your average baker threw away two-thirds of anything to make bread a hundred years ago?  Two hundred?  Two thousand years ago?  And the history of bread is five thousand years old  (give or take) so…I am just sayin’.  I think, have always thought, this oft-repeated instruction is profligate, another example of our throw-away culture, this time with us literally throwing away our cultures.    It doesn’t have to be that way to make or even maintain your own levain.

One of the least scary descriptions of home-grown yeast and its needs comes from a recent cookbook:  Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking (which is excellent, by the way).  “Actually, there’s no need to be scared of yeast, it’s pretty good humored and, like many of us, it has a sweet tooth and likes to be warm, so be nice to it.  The average warmth of a kitchen provides a suitable environment in which yeast can grow….”  The average warmth of the kitchen provides a suitable environment for children and husbands to grow, too.  Even know-it-all wives get schooled in a warm kitchen.

Granted, I have a starter (its name is La Mama) that I have had running for years now.  I did start it by throwing half or more of it away and it galled me.  But if I don’t get to baking twice a week I don’t think La Mama is dead and just start over.  Nope; ever the tightwad, I use what I have, making something hurriedly with part of it (English muffins, pancakes, crepes) while I add more flour to the majority of it to revive it.  If it is not really actively bubbling, it takes a couple of days to make two loaves of bread this way, but…I don’t feel guilty about wasting even a cup of the stuff.

Hey:  it’s winter in the Northern hemisphere, and we gardeners still have a yen to get our hands dirty, so, why not get out the flour?  Probably the best compromise of all is a no-knead loaf with some of your own bubbling sourdough starter.  Please see the recipe in the comments.  And…get baking!

On fermenting the harvest

In my corner of the world, farmer’s markets and fruit markets (yes, we have a lot of the latter:  either they’re the market for a large fruit farm or a collaborative of a few smaller farms) are winding down.  This means I should get bags and boxes ready, and go shopping!

Even *I* cannot resist the pull of these markets on their last weekend, their last day.  I tell myself I can find the need for such slash-priced fruits and veg…why not?  (“Why not” might be because I have plenty of my own stuff already…plus, I didn’t need to pay for my harvest.)  Considering nearly nothing I purchased could be stored for long, I spent Saturday morning  in what only could be called a Ferment-A-Thon.

The last batch of sauerkraut took only 10 days thanks to a few warm fall afternoons so the pickle crock was fortuitously empty.  My routine had been kraut then kimchi then kraut with the pickle crock, so my mind was on putting together the next batch of hot/spicy kimchi.  (Kimchi also only takes about a week, sometimes less time if it’s kept in a warm room.  Sauerkraut can take a week or a month, both depending on how much you have as well as ambient temperature.)  Besides the makings of  kimchi, though, there were those large beets I picked up at the market…time for more pickled beets with roasted, crushed caraway seeds.

There’s no real magic involved with simple veggie ferments.  (If you want great step by step instructions, go see Sandor Ellix Katz’ website.)  It’s a three part process, really.  The chopped veg are salted and left for a time to release their internal water.  The veg are then are fermented in brine, and, after a time, eaten!  (Kimchi has one more middle step in there, where more veg, a spicy pepper mix, and a watery brine is added to cover.)  The only difference I impart to my own ferments from what I read in books and online recipes is that I stir. the. ferment. every. single. day.  I also taste it to see how it’s doing…therefore I rely on my tastebuds and not some recipe to tell me what’s going on in the crock.

Day One contents for the kimchi crock:  leafy cabbages and crisp carrots, radishes and kohlrabi.  Perhaps not completely kosher (i.e., more than just nappa cabbage, no daikon radishes, no fish paste, and who ever heard of kohlrabi in kimchi?) it points to the fact that most anything goes…especially when the garden needs pre-snow tidying.

It is helpful to weigh the chopped contents to best gauge the salt that will be needed.  Rule of thumb is 3 tablespoons salt per 5 pounds produce, in 1/2 gallon of water.  Submerge contents to sit overnight and soften:  you can use a plate, but a bowl is the nearest thing I have that works.  Glass/ceramic is best.  Drain, reserving water, and taste veg for saltiness:  if obnoxious, then you won’t be adding all the salted water back in.

Day Two:  add a mash of hot fresh peppers/garlic/grated gingerroot; add more veggies as you choose (I added green peppers and the last of the fall peas, and a fist-sized bundle of chopped scallion, and a leek for kicks.).  Toss well, then add liquid to cover it just enough when submerged.  Cover crock with a clean cloth, stir and taste daily, adjusting seasoning as required.  Kimchi is ready in 5-8 days.  My five pounds of veg makes about 3 quarts.

Sour beets leaching their water:  Same salt/water rule applies (3 tablespoons salt per five pounds veg, submerged, etc.) but here I added roasted, ground caraway seeds to the freshly shredded beets, and am letting it pickle in between two nested glass bowls.  I added a bit of whey (2T) to speed up the process of lactic fermentation.  Step One is I let the shredded beets osmose for 12 hours before adding the water/whey mixture; Step Two is adding the liquid and letting it do its thing.   Because beets are so sweet, I don’t want this to turn alcoholic on me…so I will only give it up to 4 days before it goes in the fridge.  Sour beets in borscht, yumza!

Next up in the pickle crock will be a green drumhead cabbage sauerkraut with shredded apples and onions added on Day 5.

Read what you can about the fermentation process, and have fun with it all.  And, as ever, trust your instincts.  If it smells/tastes truly horrid, well, something has gone awry.  Kimchi, in my humble opinion, smells fabulous when it’s cooking, though!