It’s the end of the growing season, but it isn’t quite time to rest. With the bulk of our harvest frozen, canned, dried, and fermented, it’s time to deal with the left overs: the harvest that didn’t get processed during the peak of the season. Though these “ugly” fruits and veggies are now gaining recognition in the mainstream (not everything comes out looking perfect!), they’ve always been part of harvesting and cooking for home gardeners. I have fun examining the motley selection of veggies occupying my kitchen counters and refrigerator space, determining how they could be combined in delicious ways. It takes some creativity at this time of year!
Sometimes end-of-season produce is a bit worse for the wear. This weekend I prepared several gallons of sauerkraut from some cabbages that were admittedly acting as slug hotels in the garden. After removing the holey outer leaves, however, wonderful fall sweetened crisp cabbage was revealed. Yum!
It is also an important time of year to monitor harvest stores in the basement and attic. Any veggies that show sign of rot or discoloration should be used first. As last night’s dinner highlighted, blemished squash, onions, and other veggies are often perfectly delicious. They don’t stay good for long, however, so it’s good to enjoy them right away while they’re still tasty.
Thankfully, some plants are happy to be outside in the frost and colder weather. Most of the brassicas: kale, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli, get sweeter and more tender after it has frosted. For now I’ll happily leave them outside and will be ready to enjoy them when I see counters and fridge shelves empty and need to go get vegetables in order to prepare for our next meal.
Though we did have some cold windy weather and deep frosts, our first two November weekends have been clear and sunny. Perfect for wrapping things up in the garden! At our new house, we had part of our field tilled, hoed rows, and spread straw on top of everything. We’re hoping that the garden will be in good shape for a first planting in the spring. No doubt we’ll have lots of grass weeding ahead of us, but we’re off to a good start!
This past weekend I finally had time to turn our end-of-season harvests of kohlrabi, cabbage, and carrots into pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi. I was excited to be able to use Vermont-grown ginger for the first time in my kimchi! Maybe I’ll have to add it to our crop list next year. I happily pounded away at the sliced cabbage with my new tamper and smasher: happy results of my dad’s recent experimentation on his new lathe. Finally, in a team effort, we erected a fence around our new garden to deter the rabbits and herds of deer that pass through our land on their way from Mt. Philo to Lewis Creek. It feels good to have all of our outdoor chores crossed off the list. Bring on the snow – I’m ready for sledding season to start on our sunny slope of Mt. Philo!
Have you heard how awesome fermented foods are? (if not, check out this story or this one on NPR or this longer article in the New York Times) If you are trying to fit more fermented foods into your diet, and you don’t have unlimited money, try making your own at home! A cabbage and two tablespoons of salt, the ingredients of sauerkraut, cost a buck or two. A quart of “live” sauerkraut can easily set you back $10. Sandor Katz, one of the most famous advocates of fermentation, recommends “starting with sauerkraut,” and I agree!
It’s easy to make your own sauerkraut and you can do it without buying any unusual or extra tools or ingredients for your kitchen. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll never look back! Here’s how:
1) Gather ingredients (1 organic cabbage, 1 tablespoon sea salt), containers (1 half gallon ball jar, or equivalent, and a bowl it can sit on), and tools (knife, cutting board, big tupperware container or pot, washed log with flat end). Yes, the tools include a washed log with a flat end! Instead of buying a “tamper,” we went out to the wood pile and selected a nice maple log that was about 1.5″ diameter, brought it in, and washed it off in the sink.
2) Rinse cabbage and remove any really yucky outer leaves. Outer leaves that are simply wilted are fine to leave.
3) Cut up the cabbage. Any shape will do. I like halving the cabbage, laying each flat half down, cutting strips, and then cutting those strips into shorter pieces. I leave the core in – it’s just as delicious when pickled.
4) Fill big tupperware or pot, no more than 1/3 of the way up, with cabbage pieces. Add a proportionate amount of your salt. If you fit half the cabbage, add half your salt: 1/2 tablespoon. If you want to add spices, now’s the time to do it.
5) Hold the container between your feet and mash, over and over again, with your tamper or log. You want to break the cell walls and mash in the salt. This will cause the cabbage to release liquids – enough to cover your sauerkraut with brine! When you’ve mashed enough, you’ll notice that the pieces don’t pop around in the container as much when pounding. They’ll be limper and less firm than when you started.
6) Pack mashed leaf and salt combination into your ball jar. Use your masher and the back of a strong spoon to pack down the leaves as much as possible.
7) If you still have un-pounded cabbage and space in your jar, repeat chopping and mashing process until the (tightly packed) cabbage rises to one or two inches below the top of your jar. Don’t go higher than that. Liquid should be covering mashed packed leaves. If it doesn’t, let everything sit for ten minutes and try pushing the leaves down into the jar again. The salt will work its magic helping the leaves release juices.
8) Cover and put in a bowl in a warmish place in your house where you’ll notice it. A kitchen counter works well for us. When you’re just starting, you’ll want to keep an eye on things. Check your kraut every day. The bowl is important – juice may leak out the top and you’ll want to catch it.
9) KEY SECRET STEP: This seems to be left off of most sauerkraut how-to lists. It can make the difference between limp stinky kraut and a crunchy yummy final product. Stick a butter knife down into your kraut each day in a bunch of different spots to allow any air bubbles to come to the top. If any liquid came out of the jar and was caught in your bowl, pour it back in. Push kraut back down, making sure all the cabbage remains covered in liquid every day. The key to good kraut is to make sure it sours in an anaerobic environment. You can use all sorts of expensive tools for this, or you can do daily check-ups, using a butter knife to remove air bubbles and a spoon to push leaves back below the brine.
10) Taste it! After 4 or 5 days, taste a piece! Sauerkraut will sour at different rates based on the sugar content of the cabbage, the quantity of bacteria present, and the temperature in your house. Plus, YOU need to decide when it has soured enough for your taste. Everyone’s perferences are different.
11) When you love it, stick it in the fridge. Naturally fermented veggies will last for a long time in the fridge. Just make sure to keep the leaves submerged in brine. If it starts to dry out and there isn’t enough brine to cover the leaves, add a bit of water and maybe a sprinkle of salt. If the top layer gets a white filmy mold, don’t worry! If it grosses you out scoop it off. It won’t hurt you. When you’ve finished the kraut, any remaining brine can be used in recipes (salad dressing, soup flavoring, etc.) or used to inoculate your next batch of pickles.
While I wait for food to grow in the garden, I’ve been playing around with growing things in the kitchen! Fermenting foods – with fungi and bacteria – makes them more digestible and nutritious. They can seem like an acquired taste, but I’m guessing you’ve already acquired a taste for cheese, beer, and chocolate. These are all fermented. Many sterilized canned products containing vinegar today, like pickles and mustard, used to be live fermented foods. It seems we are just starting to learn about the complexity and importance of our “microflora” – all the things living in our digestive system that help us process food and stay healthy.
To get inspired and feel more confident, I attended a Fermentation Workshop at our local Waldorf School. Jason from FolkFoods was great. In just two hours, he helped the interested but hesitant audience become confident fermenters. We all left eager to go home and make our own lacto-fermented vegetable creations!
To start, we all brought a pint canning jar. Crocks or buckets can be used as well, but canning jars allow for smaller experiments which probably are best for beginners!
Tasting a variety of fermented foods helped us understand how different chopping methods, time, and ingredients affect the flavor of the final product. In the photo above, there are fermented garlic scapes, leeks, beans, fennel, cabbage, cauliflower, and a red cabbage/veggie blend.
Next we chopped. Pretty much any vegetable can be made into a nice pickled product. Beans can make dilly beans, beets turn into pickled beets, and cabbage transforms into sauerkraut. Experimenting with cutting the same veggie into different shapes and sizes can help you learn what you like best.
Once our team had chopped the beautiful array of vegetables laid out by Jason, we packed our jars. After filling each jar with our favorite veggies, we packed them down and fit in even more leaving about an inch of head space. Any spices or herbs were then added along with salt, and water was poured over everything to make a brine. For every quart of veggies, 1 tablespoon of salt is needed. If you add in brine from a previous lacto-fermented pickle batch for whey from strained yogurt, you don’t need to use as much salt.
At home, I loosened my ball jar’s cap to avoid carbonating my contents and placed it in a safe but visible space in the kitchen. Each day I press down the veggies to make sure everything is under the brine. I’ve watched the colors blend more and more. The veggies started out tasting salty. Each day they get a little bit more sour thanks to the activity of my bacteria friends. I expect to find my favorite flavor between seven and ten days, when I will put the jar in the fridge.