Sunday, November 28, 2010

Kimchi, Sauerkraut and Chutney - the Art of Home Fermentation

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - NOVEMBER 09:  South Korea...Image by Getty Images via @daylife
There is something magical about homemade Sauerkraut, whether it is the European variety, the Korean Kimchi, or the Latin American Curtido, all of which are fermented at room temperature.  The first time you smell Kimchi, you may have serious doubts about its potential for human consumption.  Once you develop a taste for it, however, you begin to crave the funky, intense flavor of cabbage fermented with garlic, green onion, carrots and ginger.

The ingredients and the process for fermenting vegetables are simple, and the results are delicious and a little amazing.  The very concept that you could cut food up and leave it to 'spoil,' and then later eat it probably sounds like black magic to the modern American.  But fermented vegetables have developed independently in every human civilization around globe.  The modern American, in other words, is unique in the history of humanity in his diet of 100%  either fresh or pasteurized/preserved foods.

My foray into fermentation is very recent, prompted by the gift from a cousin of an alternative diet cookbook (which is equal parts fruity and fantastic, mixing good science with psuedo-science on almost every page, but full of wonderful gems), so I was surprised and somewhat validated by the November 22nd New Yorker which includes articles on fermented food in general and on sauerkraut specifically.  As Burkhard Bilger discusses in his article Nature's Spoils, our society's obsession with killing bacteria, thinking of all bacteria as pathogenic, has recently been recast as an extreme and sometimes detrimental view.  Some good science and a lot of appeals to down-homey common sense based on anecdotal evidence are used to suggest that a thriving population of non-pathogenic bacteria is essential to good health.  This argument is being used to promote a wide variety of foods and diets, from raw milk and dairy to raw food diets such as Primal Eating.

Polish Sauerkraut (Kiszona kapusta)Image via Wikipedia
I personally am neither for nor against raw milk (though I think you should know the cow if you trust it not to be contaminated with listeria), look skeptically at any extreme diet, and believe that pasteurization is essential for industrial food production.  That being said, I am fully converted to simply fermented fruits and vegetables. Statistically speaking, they are much safer than raw milk or meat, their benefits have been studied a little more rigorously, and they are (lest we forget) delicious.  In fact, if prepared properly with due attention paid to temperature and the even distribution of salt, the likelihood of fermented vegetables carrying food born pathogens is almost nil.  In the taste department, if you have previously been soured to sauerkraut, you may have had commercially pickled cabbage, which is completely different in flavor, texture, and nutritional value from the traditional room temperature fermented variety.

Nothing could be simpler than fermenting vegetables.  All you have to do is add salt and sometimes water (vegetables should be covered in liquid, but their own juices often suffice), put it in an inert container (usually glass) and wait.  Three days is sufficient for most veggies, two will suffice for most fruits.  Without access to oxygen, lactic acid producing bacteria thrive and create a very low pH saline solution, destroying most other microorganisms.  The result is similar to yogurt in that it is full of bacteria that is good for you and totally devoid of bacteria that is harmful.  Speaking of yogurt, you can separate the liquids (whey) from yogurt by straining through a cloth and add a little of this liquid to the vegetables if you want to ensure the presence of healthy bacteria.  The solids which remain will be a light, fluffy cream cheese.

After one extremely successful experiment with Kimchi, I decided to attempt a fermented cranberry sauce for thanksgiving this year, and stumbled upon this lovely recipe for lacto-fermented cranberry chutney.  With just a little modification, I followed this recipe and the results were fascinating.  Initially too sour for some of the family (I used water instead of juice, that was a mistake), with the addition of a little extra sugar it pleased the whole crowd.  The fermentation process really makes the most of the aromatic cinnamon and clove, and I added the zest of a whole lemon (in one giant strip, not shredded) which also wonderfully infused the entire concoction.

Food production has become a complicated hydra of health and safety issues, with compelling arguments for and against every practice yet imagined or implemented.  In this jungle of information there is something extremely satisfying about stumbling across a home process as simple and fool proof as fermenting.  Follow the rules and you get consistently healthy and delicious results.  It is also a cheap and energy efficient way to preserve summer crops through the whole winter, as fermented veggies can last for months in the fridge (or even root cellar in cooler climates) with no negative impact to their nutritional value or flavor.

If there is any cabbage to be found at the winter farmer's market here in Eugene, I am bound to be making a large batch of sauerkraut in the very near future.  If not, however, I don't really see the point of fermenting conventional vegetables.  The process depends upon the presence of live lactic acid producing bacteria.  If you can't be sure whether the vegetables have been irradiated or not, then you can't trust them to ferment properly.  By law, fruits and veggies cannot be labeled organic if they have been irradiated, so organics are still worth the effort.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Weekend Meal Planning - Creating All your Meals for the Week in One Day

The key to eating healthy home made food when you have a busy schedule is planning.  Sitting down on the weekend and spending 20 minutes planning your meals for the week, and then doing as much cooking and preparation as you can on Saturday or Sunday will save you hours of planning and cooking for the rest of the week.  This method has lots of other unintended benefits as well, and the more you develop a routine the more you will see those benefits: less waste, less stress, less expense, more healthy diet.

For some time now, Courtney and I have tried to make a weekly menu before going shopping, starting ingredients that are already in the fridge or pantry.  We  write this list on a white board in the kitchen, and then write in the date that leftovers were made.  Since instituting this simple process, I think we take out the trash about 1/2 as often.  Here is what our whiteboard often looks like

Our Home Kitchen Menu

If you can avoid prepackaged meals and refrain from eating out for convenience sake (I love eating out, but only when I choose to treat myself), you can save a lot of money while gaining more control over your diet.  If you try to plan and cook a meal every night, however, you can quickly become overwhelmed and throw in the towel.

When we decided to do the October: Unprocessed challenge last month, we realized that with our busy schedules we were not going to be able to cook most week nights.  Eating out is expensive, but eating healthy and unprocessed foods out is phenomenally expensive.  In order to meet the challenge and maintain our savings (what little we have) Courtney and I turned our kitchen into a high efficiency food production facility every Sunday last month, and generally produced enough food in one day to last all week (that is why several of the menu items above have the same date by them).  Spending several hours doing intensive cooking is also significantly more efficient in terms of waste and energy.  For example, one Sunday, I made a frittata and Courtney cooked cornbread and pumpkin muffins, all at the same time.  The oven only heats up once, and there was one temperature change half way though, but over all we had 6 meals worth of food with one meals worth of oven time.

You may think that it would take more energy to refrigerate and freeze all that food, but in fact the opposite is true.  The more full your fridge or freezer is, the more efficient it will be.  Your fridge works hardest when you open the door, because all of the air it has cooled down escapes, and warm air rushes in.  The more stuff you have in the fridge, the less warm air can fill the space.  Also, the cold food will help to cool the air, so the actual heat pump doesn't have to work quite as hard.

Our menu over the past few weeks has been pretty extravagant, but our costs and time commitment have been relatively low.  We have been eating even less meat, and we feel free to experiment with more ambitious recipes and ideas (this week we plan on making kimchi).  One of the keys is making things which are not any more work when scaled up in volume, like soups stews and sauces.  The first week we did this, I made a tomato sauce from scratch.  A portion was sweetened and turned into pizza sauce that day, the rest was frozen and used variously as the base for enchilada sauce, a pasta sauce, and to make lasagna.

Homemade Tomato Sauce and Pizza with bell pepper and lobster mushrooms
For the rest of the week, Courtney and I are happy to come home and simply reheat our delicious and nutritious food, to wake up and grab left overs on the way out the door.  We find we spend less on groceries, since we tend to buy fewer items that can be used for several recipes, and that means less food spoils as well.

We have greatly enjoyed our Sunday cooking days, and hope that it will provide good practice for the extra work that a growing family will (eventually) bring.  Also, we are hosting a (very tiny) Thanksgiving here in Eugene for the first time, and our Sunday cooking experiments should serve as good practice for coordinating a large group meal.
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