Monday, January 23, 2012

Living Kitchens

These jars are not what you think. They are not home-canned and inert. Every one of them is alive and undergoing an ancient form of preservation. This is how Sally and I pickle, sprout, and ferment our way through winter. We call it our kitchen garden. It's what we do while the rest of our farm lies fallow in the winter.

Now that people are returning to naturally levened breads (using sourdough starter), naturally fermented wines (using native yeasts already at home on the grapes), and naturally cured meat products like prociutto, why not natural pickle? It's one of the original slow foods.

Somewhere along the way the modern idea that pickling means dousing things you want to preserve with vinegar replaced the original tried-and-true food technology. And the taste. And the texture. And the health benefits that went with it. Anyone who's tasted real brine fermented pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchee knows the difference. Vinegar (usually industrially distilled acetic acid) tastes like the astringent industrial product it is. The shelves of Whole Foods and other wholesome grocers are stocked with vinegary-but-homey-looking products with nice packaging that simply aren't the real dill. Yes, they sometimes use artisanal vinegars (malt, rice, wine). But if you want honest pickle, the kind grandma used to ferment with the help of naturally occurring, age-old, lacto-bacillus in a plain stoneware crock, if you want the softly tart lactic acids with their meaty umami elements and complexity, if you want the same probiotic microbes that make for healthy intestinal flora ... you have to make pickle yourself. Or rather, set it up and let nature do it. Or visit me!

Guided by Meta Givens' classic Encyclopedia of Cooking, I made my first batch of fermented dill pickles from cucumbers, dill and garlic I grew myself while a freshman chemist in college back in 1973. Sauerkraut soon followed. Before that I never cared for either. Since then I have lacto-fermented just about everything I could get my hands on, all self-started with a few spices and a little salt to balance things in favor of the "good" preserving microbes over the bad rotting ones. I am pleased to boast, not one batch has been a failure. A record I can't claim for my wines.

For those of you already on the road to pickle heaven, I do not add whey (from strained yogurt) as every website and blog post on the subject recommends as a failsafe. The reason is whey contains bacteria evolved to turn milk into yogurt.* And while we also ferment our own yogurt, I prefer to pickle with the helpfully evolved bacteria and yeasts already attracted to cabbage, cucumbers, jalepeno peppers, carrots, beets, lemons, onions, limes, garlic, radishes, turnips, daikon, ginger, Brussell sprouts ... you name it!

And what could be greener? They need no refrigeration and keep for months (though refrigeration does prolong the shelf life).

Along with our bubbling pickle (and though it's months before we'll sow a seed in our garden) I plant small crops of alfalfa, radish, arugula, cress, lentil, mung bean and other for tasty sprouts that are literally still growing when they land on our plates. Nothing from a store, no packaged sprout, is as fresh.

Don't get me wrong. Sometimes, I like to sprinkle a little rice wine vinegar on my bean sprouts, and make a pickled salad. I like our homemade wine vinegar -- fermented using the "mother" Giovanni's ancestors started over 500 years ago -- on fresh arugula and braised spinach from our garden. I like it, after steeping hot chilies, on Carolina pulled pork with coleslaw. I like vinegar for what it is -- a condiment and flavoring. And I happen to like a "ploughman's lunch" of cheese, beer, and English mustard pickle (uses malt vinegar). But when I want something crunchy, tart and complex I reach into my tiny briney seas teaming with lactobacillus and pull out a naturally fermented pickle.

*Lacto-pickle strains of: Leuconostoc, (also gives sourdough it's scent), Lactobacillus (other strains in wine, yogurt, most fermented food, a probiotic) and Pediococcus (probiotic also in yogurt, gives buttery character to chardonnay)

** Yogurt: Lactobacillus delbrueckii bulgaricus, Streptococcus salivariusthermophilus, Lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacteria.