Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What to Do with Green Tomatoes?

A month or so ago I pulled the last of the straggling tomato plants out of my garden. The weather had turned and nothing else was going to ripen so it was better to bring them inside and see what could be salvaged. What to do with a table full of green tomatoes? Luckily, I found a few things!

The first thing I tried was fried green tomatoes. It's a simple, classic preparation that turned out great. I used kefir instead of buttermilk or sweet milk to moisten the tomato slices, a mixture of flour and cornmeal to bread them and fried them in a mix of refined coconut oil and bacon grease. They were fantastic hot, topped with some Secret Aardvark Sauce, and also cold on top of a lettuce salad.

The best thing I've done with them, however, is this fantastic green curry with shrimp recipe I came across. The original recipe calls for making a shrimp stock and augmenting the curry with lemongrass but my simpler version was still amazingly good. I've been a fan of yellow curry for a long time but this was my first time working with green curry paste. It is fiery hot but with really interesting sour flavors as well. I found more lime juice and sugar, as well as mixing in some yellow curry paste, really helped mediate the heat. Give it a try!

Simple Green Curry with Green Tomatoes and Shrimp

coconut oil or other cooking fat
1/2 yellow onion, sliced thin
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbs ginger, minced
2-4 tbs green curry paste (I like Mae Ploy brand)
1 can coconut milk
2-3 cups shrimp, chicken, or vegetable stock, or water
1 cup green tomatoes, halved or quartered into 1 or 2 inch chunks
shrimp*
brown or raw sugar
soy sauce or fish sauce (optional)
1 or 2 limes

*I used pre cooked frozen small shrimp from Trader Joes. Because it was a splurge item I used a fair amount of shrimp. Use as many of whatever kind of shrimp you want. Adjust how long they are in the curry based on how much cooking or heating your shrimp need.

Sautee onion and ginger in coconut oil in a medium sized sauce pan. When the onion is soft but not brown add the garlic and cook for another minute then add the green curry paste. Continue to cook for another minute or two until fragrant. Stir in the coconut milk and broth until it is the consistency you like - I like mine like a thin stew or thick soup.

Bring the curry to a boil and add in the green tomatoes, a spoonful of sugar, a dash of fish or soy sauce and a squeeze of lime juice. Taste the curry and see if you think it needs more or any of those seasonings. Allow to simmer for 15 minutes or until the tomatoes are tender. Stir in the shrimp and allow them to get cooked or heated through. Adjust final flavor with more sugar, lime or fish or soy sauce.

Serve over jasmine or basmati rice with more lime juice squeezed over top.

This recipe posted as part of Real Food Wednesdays. Check out the other posts for more ways to incorporate healthful, real food, into your diet.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Homemade Cider Vinegar

Some people love vinegar and other people can't stand it. I'm in the former camp. I add vinegar to just about every sauce or soup I make, love it on cooked greens and raw salads. Sometimes I get a hankering to drink cider vinegar raw. I usually come to my senses first, but it is healthful and good stuff. Imagine my relief when I found out just how easy it is to make it at home!

Vinegar is a bacterial ferment that turns alcohol into acetic acid. Remember, alcohol is a yeast fermentation that turns sugar into alcohol. Some people make cider vinegar by allowing raw, fresh pressed cider to do it's own thing with wild yeast and bacteria but I like to shepherd the process along with some simple technology and starters. You can start with raw, pressed cider, pasturized store bought juice or apple scraps and sugar. I used the scraps because that's what I had, and the vinegar turned out great.

I highly recommend that you start by reading the beer, wine and vinegar chapters of Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. Try making a beer like the one I write about in my Alewife blog post, or try a wine from one of Sandor's recipes. Once you've tried a beer or wine ferment, vinegar is an easy next step. It's a lengthy process but like all fermentations it's mostly waiting. Take an adventure, give it a try.

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Scrap Cider Vinegar ala Broderick Cellars

Hardware:
*A one gallon or so sized bucket or wide mouthed glass jar with a lid
*1 nylon mesh bag, food grade (could use cheesecloth, I guess, but I have a 2 gallon nylon bag I got at a brew store for not very much money)
*A pot, 6 quart or larger
*a stainless steel long handled spoon (or other easily cleaned spoon-like device)
* a cup or jar, pint sized or so
* a measuring cup or kitchen scale
*A one gallon sized glass jug with a narrow mouth (you can buy these at brew shops, or you can buy a jug of Carlo Rossi wine or apple cider invite your friends over and have a party :)
*An air lock and stopper (avaliable at homebrew shops for cheap - Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz has DIY options, but I say buy an airlock, it'll work great and costs like a buck)
*A funnel and strainer and/or a siphon/racking stick/length of food grade plastic piping

Software:
*Apple peels and scraps - about a gallon OR one gallon apple cider
*Sugar and/or apple juice concentrate - see below for amount
*Water, good quality.
*Wine yeast, avaliable at homebrew shops or online
* Unpasturized vinegar like Braggs, a glug or three

Phase One: Make Hard Cider

Day One: Making the Must and Adding the Yeast

If you are using scraps and sugar, follow the directions in this first paragraph. If you are using cider, then heat the cider to pasturize it, cool it to body temperature and skip down to where you add the yeast.

Make a mock apple juice with sugar water and/or apple juice concentrate by heating up water and sugar until the sugar is dissolved and the liquid is just boiling. I use the amount of sugar in apple juice as a guide so 24 g of sugar per cup of juice. That equals about 2 tablespoons of granualted sugar per cup or a half cup sugar per quart of water. You could probably get away with less sugar because there is sugar in the apple peels, but I would add at least a little. (Online Conversion.com is an amazing website to help you convert weights and volumes of common food items... very handy for off the cuff cooking!) You need about a gallon of boiling hot apple juice sugar water.

Put your peels, cores and scraps into your nylon mesh bag and put in "primary fermenter", aka your bucket. If you wanted a wild fermentation you would let the sugar water cool to body temperature and then pour over the apples, cover with a cloth and let ferment. I like to guarantee alcoholic fermentation by adding wine yeast. Take out a cup or so of the sweet water and let it cool to body temperature in a small jar or cup. Pour the rest of the hot sugar water over the apples in the bucket and stir to combine everything well. Put the lid on the bucket and let everything cool to body temperature. Body temperature means it feels neither hot nor cold. It's a little cooler than bath water, about 100 degrees F.

While the apple must (juice ready for fermenting) is cooling add your wine yeast to the small jar of body temperature sugar water. It will start to get frothy and smell yeasty after 10 or 20 minutes. When the must is body temperature and the yeast is primed (active and ready to work) then pitch(pour) the yeast into the must and cover the bucket with the lid again. The lid shouldn't be air tight, but it should be closed. The guy who taught me to brew used a 5 gallon bucket with a small hole drilled in the lid as his primary fermenter. He covered the holewith a clean coffee filter and then the whole lid with a clean dishtowel. I have a glass jar with a glass lid that doesn't fit down tight and that works fine, too. Day one is completed. Your must is beginning to ferment?

Day Two: Check Fermenting Cider

Now you will leave your fermenting cider to do it's thing for a couple days. On the first morning check it the next morning to make sure it's frothy and fermenty (if it's not, email me and we'll make an emergency plan B) Every day or so clean off your "easily cleaned spoon like device" and stir the cider around making sure to mush any floating fruit back down under the liquid. Do this quickly and try to keep the lid on as much as possible while stirring. The active fermentation will make it difficult for contaminating bacteria or yeast to get a foothold in there, but it could happen. 5-10 days after you started fermenting it is time to "rack" (move the liquid offthe solid stuff) the cider into your "secondary fermenter" (jug with an airlock- isn't brewing lingo fun?!?).

Day Three: Racking into Secondary Fermentation

On racking day clean up your whole kitchen, your kitchen sink and the secondary fermenter and funnel/sipon tubing. I use hot water and soap with three rinses of hot water, but others would have you use bleach or some more serious disenfectant. Have a trash bag or compost bucket handy. With your primary fermenter situated near your sink and garbage take the lid off and pull the nylon bag out of the liquid. With clean hands squeeze it a little to get most of the liquid out of the fruit. Put the fruit in your garbage or compost and set the bag aside to clean later (but not too much later. Don't forget, ask me how I know. It was gross).

Now you have to get the cider into your secondary fermenter. One way to do this is to siphon it. Stick the clean tubing into the primary fermenter until most of it is in the liquid, put your thumb over the end of the tube and pull it out ofthe liquid until the part of the tube with the liquid is below the bottom of the fermenter (like in the sink or on the floor below the counter), put the tube inyour secondary fermenter and take your hand off the end of the tube. The liquid will pour through the tube into the jug. Magic. This guy has pretty good instructions with photos. The other way to do this is to gently pour the liquid out of the bucket into the strainer in the funnel and into the jug. Either way works.

Once your jug is filled up to about the shoulder of the jug then put the airlock on it. There are a couple varieties of air lock but all involve filling a small portion of the lock with water and putting the stopper and lock on the mouth of the jug. Put the jug back in a safe, dark spot where it won't be disturbed or have major temperature fluctuations (ie: basement good, back porch bad). Label it well with what it is and the date you started fermenting and the date you racked it (the labels on my jugs are my record keeping system, what exactly goes on your label is up to you)

Aaaaand, now we wait a few months. Like three, or six. You will know the cider is done fermenting because you won't really see bubbles coming up out of the airlock anymore. Also, the cider should clear up as the yeast die and fall to the bottom of the jug.

Thanks to Anthony at Homestead Pretty for the gorgeous photo. Go check out their post on making honey wine!

Day Four: Racking Off the Yeast

When you have a relatively clear cider and hardly any bubbles coming up through the air lock then you can taste the cider. The easiest way to do this is to stick a small amount of tubing or a straw into the jug, put your finger over the top and pull the liquid out. A syringe with some tubing would work too. You don't want to disturb the yeast bed. Does your cider taste alcoholic? If not, come back for emergency plan B, but most likely it will. It may not taste good, but it should taste alcoholic.

At this point, you can rack the cider off the yeast bad (carefully, with the tubing - a commercial racking stick works great here because it is stiff and has holes in the tubing half an inch up from the bottom so you pull the liquid from above the yeast bed. Tubing can work with some careful holding to keep the end off the yeast bed) and either bottle it to age for drinking as hard cider, or make vinegear.

Congratulations! You are done with phase one!

Phase Two: Making Vinegar

You've racked the cider off the yeast in the secondary fermenter. You can rack it into another jug, into your original bucket or into a number of smaller jars. Ultimately, you will want to get the liquid into containers with relatively wide mouths because vinegar is an aerobic (with oxygen/air) fermentation. We used the airlock to keep oxygen out of the alcohol fermentation, but will work to get air into the vinegar fermentation. I put my cider into 3 or 4 quart sized mason jars and recommend that, but you can find containers that work just right for you. It should be glass, though.

Pour the cider into the container(s) you are going to make the vinegar in. It is OK, and even a good thing to let this pouring incorporate lots of oxygen intothe mix. Pour it from as high up as you can, let it splash around a bit. Add a goodly dose of raw vinegar to your cider.. I'd say 1/8-1/4 cup vinegar per quart of cider. If your vinegar has a mother in or on it - the rubbery or stringy floaty bits - then add those to the cider, too. That's the good stuff.

Cover the container(s) of cider with something that will allow air in and out, but keep out bugs and dust. I put two layers of coffee filter over the mouth of the jar and held it in place with a mason jar ring. Cloth and string or rubberbands would work too. Label, label label.

A note - this ferment should be kept away from any other alcohol ferments you are doing like beer or wine. You might also want to keep it away from kombucha ferments, though I don't. Vinegar bacteria can spoil alcohol ferments(make them vinegar when what you really wanted was wine) and could potentially cross contaminate with kombucha. My vinegars have turned into kombugar and I don't care if my kombucha becomes vineguchaor, but some people might.

In a couple weeks or a month or whenever you think about it, see how your vinegar is doing. Is there a mother on top? It looks kinda like a kombucha scoby but might be quite thin like a film. Does it smell vinegary? It's OK, maybe even adviseable, to lift the mothers off the jars (carefully keeping them a side to add back) and pour, mix and aerate the vinegar. I had three jars going and would get out a fourth and pour everything back and forth among the jars, mixing and aerating everything. Then add the mothers back to the jars, cover with the paper or cloth and let them sit another few months. When it is vinegary to your liking, it's vinegar! :)

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It sounds super complicated, but it's not really, I promise. Like I said, check out Wild Fermentation for good, simple instructions with clear illustrations. Google "home wine making" for more info and make friends at your local brewstore. They're friendly folks there, no doubt. Your vinegar will keep in the cupboard for close to forever so don't worry about making too much. I have recently been infusing my vinegar with different flavors - rosemary, oregano and blueberry are my favorites so far.

If you have any questions, pleae leave a comment. I tried to write this as clearly as possible, but maybe I didn't. The best way to learn this stuff, of course, is to meet someone who can show you. Good luck with your vinegar, and all your kitchen brews!

Posted as part of Real Food Wednesday! Check it out!!








Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nothing Says Lovin' Like Something From the Crockpot

As the wheel of the year tips into autumn there is nothing so wonderful as coming home to a hot meal ready and waiting for you. Since I don't have a significant other/housekeeper/cook/slave to do my cooking for me I've had to rely on menu planning and my trusty crock pot to keep me warm and fed. What? You don't have a Crock Pot? They cost like 20 bucks. Go get one. You've never liked any food that came out of a Crock Pot? Well, I've got some tips and recipes for you to try right here.

My aunt bought me a crock pot a few years ago for Christmas but it took me years to get the hang of it. I tried recipe after recipe, but everything had that overcooked "Crock Pot" flavor. Stuff was dried out, smelled burned, was generally gross. One of the hardest obstacles to overcome was the fact that with an 8 hour work day and commuting time I am often out of the house for 10 hours at a time. Very few dishes require 10 hours of cooking in a crock pot, and even fewer are edible after that long. Also, so many recipes I found called for cream of whatever soup, velveeta cheese or other foods that don't belong in my kitchen.

The second problem, though not completely solved, has been gotten around with some well chosen recipes. Though she doesn't always use 100% real food I absolutely love Stephanie over at A Year of Slow Cooking. Her writing and recipes gave me permission to throw some slop in the crock pot and call it dinner. Thanks! On the other end of the spectrum are the Cook's Illustrated slow cooker recipes. As with all Cook's Illustrated recipes they are extensively tested and rather complicated. The upside is that if you follow the recipes, you get a really good dish every time. I also am a big fan of Leanne Ely's Saving Dinner recipes. She uses real food and uses a slow cooker at least once a week in her autumn and winter meal plans. She also sells ebooks of slow cooker recipes on her website.

For the other problem I was relying on a rather unreliable boyfriend or housemates to turn on the crock pot after I left the house. After one too many teary evenings of cold food and a hungry me, Dave finally came home with a lamp timer. It was a brilliantly simple solution. You plug the crock pot into the timer and the timer into the wall, set the little pins and voila - crock pot turns on and off when you tell it to! You do have to make sure you have set the timer correctly, and that the crock pot is in the "on" position, but I have been so happy with the results. No more 10 hour chicken, no more crock pot flavor!

One of my very favorite crock pot recipes is so simple it's hardly a recipe. It's just a whole chicken, seasoned as you see fit, and shoved in the crock pot. The result is tender, moist chicken meat, well seasoned and way, way cheaper than one of those grocery store rotisserie chickens. If you shove the bird in with the legs down and breast up you even get a decent amount of almost crispy skin. Home and cooking gurus like to talk about Rubber Chicken meal planning (getting three or 4 meals out of one chicken) and the crock pot makes it so much easier. In addition to the chicken meat I got 2 cups of gelatinous chicken broth, bones for more stock, about 1/4 cup of chicken fat for cooking AND I roasted a head of garlic in the cavity of the bird. I'll be eating off of last week's chicken well into next week.

The last time I did chicken in the crock pot I seasoned the bird with Chile Grill Salt with extra garlic powder and black pepper on all sides. I shoved a little butter up under the breast skin and cooked him for 8 hours. My other favorite seasoning is to put a quartered lemon in the cavity of the chicken, season with salt, pepper and maybe some oregano and put as much of a rosemary branch as will fit into the crock pot all wrapped around the chicken. Serve with a little extra lemon juice for fantastic greek chicken.

Last night I made another well loved crock pot recipe, tamale pie. This is a chili topped with cornbread batter and baked or crock potted until the chili is hot and the cornbread cooked. I made a chili the night before out of ground bison, canned beans, random tomato products, garlic, onion, and chipotle in adobo sauce. I also mixed up some cornmeal and kefir for Sue Gregg's Blender Batter Cornbread. In the morning I poured the cold chili in the crock pot and went to finish the cornbread batter. Oh wait, my blender broke. I realized I could just mix everything up by hand since I was using cornmeal instead of whole grains. Hooray! I poured the batter in, set the timer so the chili would cook for six hours and be done when I arrived home and off to work I skipped. I came home to perfectly cooked cornbread, hot chili and a very happy me. Topped with spicy carrot pickles, sour cream and garden tomato it was a fantastic late autumn meal.

So what's cooking in your crock pot? Do you use yours regularly? What are your family's all time favorite crock pot recipes? What recipes have been a total bust? Any tips or tricks for doing real food in the crock pot?

For more real food tips and recipes, check out Real Food Wednesday!

Special thanks to Kamphora and (Cup)Cake Eater for their fantastic photos. Go check out their flickr streams for more!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Street Food, Portland Style

For years Portland, Oregon has been up and coming in the food world. It is a fantastic climate to grow a wide variety of produce and meats so we are known for our local, organic, sustainable and otherwise virtuous food. Chefs like to pair local specialties like salmon, hazelnuts, raspberries and lamb with our world renown wines. There are restaurants specializing in local foods at almost every price point ranging from Higgins and Wildwood at the top, The Farm Cafe and Laughing Planet in the middle all the way down to vendors at farmers markets and street carts like Addy's Sandwich Shop.

Today, though, I went for something a little different. A little more Asian. I spent a day last week reading through Food Carts Portland.com and found myself daydreaming about a Thai cart they reviewed downtown. If you throw a rock in the air in this town you will hit a decent Thai restaurant or food cart, and as you know I do love Thai food. This one, however, is a little different.

Nong's Khao Man Gai has only one dish on the menu... khao man gai. Just one dish, you ask. And this one dish is chicken and rice? This doesn't sound daydream worthy. But just wait until you taste it. First off, it's served wrapped up in white butcher paper with the fork and napkin tucked under a rubber band. Too adorable!

Then you open the package and smell the delicate, heady scent of the chicken and rice. Whatever seasoning Nong uses in her broth is absolutely fantastic! The cucumber and cilantro add a nice crisp, cool crunch to the warm soft chicken and rice and look beautiful against the mound of brown. Then you open the little sauce cup and the ginger soy chili smell momentarily takes over everything. But you are ready. You take a fork full of chicken and the flavor sensation begins. A little chicken, a little rice, some sauce. Or no rice, just chicken and sauce. Cucumber and rice and sauce. A sip of the winter melon soup served on the side. Yummmmm. Everything is subtle, and flavorful and absolutely delicious.

I don't often spend this much time waxing poetic over a single dish, but this stuff begs for it. It is the epitome of that Asian juxtaposition of simplicity and complexity. I know where I'm going to eat the next time I am feeling a little under the weather, or just in need of some interesting comfort food. Next time, I might try adding the chicken livers or fried chicken skin, or I might just try to make it at home. Khao man gai, my new favorite food!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Egg Tacos, Ole!

Sometimes you find a recipe that is more than a sum of it's parts. A way to prepare simple foods in an interesting way with lots of easy variations. Sometimes this recipe suprises you and you find yourself eating it every meal for three days straight. This recipe is all of that and more. Smitten Kitchen calls it Huevos Rancheros, I call it Egg Tacos.

I've seen two kinds of huevos rancheros recipes in this world: the traditional fried egg with tortillas and chile sauce, and eggs poached in a chile sauce served with cheese and tortillas. I was actually served the latter while on a cross country trip on the Green Tortoise bus. 30 international travelers, two hippy drivers and me for 3 weeks driving across the U.S. We had huevos rancheros for breakfast one morning at a hot spring resort in New Mexico. It's one of those food memories I will never forget.

This recipe is unlike either or those and is much simpler. Basically, it's an egg fried ON a tortilla with cheese and whatever toppings you like. Couldn't be simpler, couldn't be tastier! It's hard to translate this food concotion into to "recipe" because you can make it different each time. I've made it with one egg on the tortilla and two, I've made it with different cheeses and I've topped it with everything from refried beans and salsa to grilled zucchini and chutney. Give it a try!

Egg Tacos

1 or 2 corn tortillas
A small pinch of grated cheddar or jack, or crumbled cotija cheese
1 or 2 farm fresh eggs
Salt and pepper, fat for the pan

Toppings of your choice including seasoned whole or refried beans, cooked rice, more cheese, avocado, tomato, red or green salsa, sour cream, hot sauce, pickled chiles, lime wedges, grilled veggies, ketchup, chutney, chocolate sauce (OK, just kidding about that last one.. kind of).


Heat a well seasoned cast iron skillet and warm up the corn tortillas over medium heat. Allow one side to start getting browned and a little crispy. Use only as many tortillas as will fit in your pan with minimal overlap. For my Ikea skillet it's one. With a 10 inch skillet I could fit two.

Flip the tortilla once it is starting to brown and add a pinch of cheese to the top of the tortilla. Crack the egg directly onto the tortilla, trying to keep it mostly on the tortilla, and cook until the white is starting to set. Carefully flip the tortilla over and cook the egg to your liking. Serve with toppings!


As I made these tortillas I came across one major problem - keeping the eggs from sticking to the cast iron skillet. Non-stick pans would fix this problem but we don't use those kinds of pans here at Real Food, My Way. (For an explanation of why and healthy alternatives check out this article this article from Mercola, this one from Tuberose.com, this one from Marks Daily Apples, or even this article that was front page of the Oregonian newspaper FoodDay section recently.) A very well seasoned cast iron skillet is clearly the answer, but you don't always have that as well. I tried using tons of butter, like I do when I scramble or fry eggs normally, but the tortilla kind of sucked all the butter up. Once I did successfully lift up the tortilla, melt some butter under it and flip the egg into the melted butter without spilling egg white all over the pan. Just note, this is a recipe to make one a day your cast iron seems to be cooperating.

This recipe is so easy, so tasty and so variable. I am not joking when I say I made it for five meals in a row and never got bored. Thanks, blog-o-sphere!

For more great recipes and tips from the blog-o-sphere, check out Real Food Wednesday!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pickle FAQ

A few weeks ago I posted my pickle making tutorial and last winter I posted my Kraut 101 tutorial. Since then I have had many, many requests for a FAQ to answer some other nagging pickle making questions. So here they are, but remember, I'm just one pickle maker. My answers are not definitive and generally not "researched". They are synthesized from what I have read and what I have experienced over the years. The best way to answer you own pickle making questions is to start making pickles!

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1) How do I know my pickles are fermenting? How you know they're ready to go in the refrigerator?

In the pickle tutorial I recommend that you open the jar to smell and taste the pickles every day after you start them. This way you will get to see the changes that start happening right away. Signs of fermentation include fizzing or bubbling of the brine, the lid popping when you open it and sour smells or tastes in the brine or vegetables.

Sally Fallon suggests that your pickles or kraut stay on the counter for 3 days before transferring them to the fridge. I say, give them a day or two after they show signs of fermentation. Exactly when they go in the fridge is one of those variables that separates artisan products from industrial products. It's up to the artisan to decide based on their own experience and intuition. If it has been warm and the fermentation has gone quickly I am more likely to put them in the fridge as soon as they start fizzing. If it's cooler and it has taken a few days for the fizzing to get going I might wait another day or even two before putting them in the fridge. Remember, fermentation will continue in the fridge just at a slower pace. I feel it is important to give the microbes enough time in the "nursery" of the room temperatures before putting them in the cold temps to age.

2) My grandma's favorite pickle recipe calls for vinegar. Why don't your pickles have vinegar in them?

There are two kinds of pickles in the world, vinegar pickles and brined pickles. To show the relationship between vinegar pickles, brined pickles and other fermented foods imagine a Venn diagram (remember those from like 3rd grade?). One circle is fermented foods like yogurt, beer, vinegar and sourdough. The other circle is pickles like vinegar pickles, Asian vinegar pickles, homemade pickles in a vinegar brine, those British pickles like Branson pickles and pickled onions and any kind of pickled fish or egg or pigs feet in vinegar. Where the two circles overlap are fermented pickles like sauerkraut, kim chi, kosher dill pickles and anything made with my recipe for brined pickles.

The bottom line is that the English word pickle simply means something preserved in acid. Vinegar pickles use vinegar (a product of fermentation) to preserve the food in a completely shelf stable form. Brined pickles use salt to set up an environment in which lactic acid producing bacteria thrive and preserve the food in the acid they produce when they eat the sugars in the food. Brined pickles are a living thing (unless you cook them or can them) that can last a long time in the proper storage conditions, but are not shelf stable indefinitely.

There is nothing wrong with vinegar pickles, especially home made vinegar pickles. Home made pickles still benefit from you knowing exactly how they were made and who grew the vegetables, and are free of industrial sugars and colorings so often found in commercial pickles. If your family loves Grandma's bread and butter pickles, by all means, keep making them! But try fermented pickles, too.

Lastly, I have heard of some people adding small quantities of raw apple cider vinegar to their brined pickles because they like the flavor. They say they taste more like the vinegar pickles their family is used to. So long as your pickles show signs of fermentation then you are making fermented or brined pickles. If you don't like the way your salt only pickles taste, try some vinegar. They're your pickles, after all.

3) Sally Fallon's recipe calls for using whey but you use just salt. What gives?

The recipes in Nourishing Traditions for fermented vegetables all use whey from raw milk, yogurt or kefir as an inoculant to jumpstart the right kind of bacteria. Her instructions say that if you can't tolerate dairy to use extra salt instead of the whey. In all my reading I've never seen these instructions elsewhere, but I have seen instructions to use brine from a previous batch as an inoculant. My guess is that Sally saw these instructions and made the intuitive leap that whey would do the same thing. Artisan foods made by artisans all have slightly different methods of production.

I don't use whey because a) I never seem to have any around and b) because when I do I am not as fond of the results. I believe that a jar of fermenting vegetables is like a forest ecosystem after a burn or a clear cut. New populations of bacteria colonize the environment and change the environment making it possible for other populations to grow. In order to get the most diversity this succession should happen relatively slowly. For a jar of sauerkraut I think letting the bacterial populations develop over the course of 2-5 days (or more) leads to the a diversity that causes interesting depth of flavor, lack of mushiness and generally a higher quality product.

I feel like adding too much inoculant in the form of mature brine is like planting native trees in the burn area. Those trees aren't supposed to be there yet, they were supposed to come in after other shrubs and herbs prepared the soil for those trees. It may turn out just fine, but you may get an imbalanced ecosystem. Using the same metaphor, adding whey is like planting non-native trees in that same burned landscape. They're not supposed to be there now and they aren't supposed to be there later, either. You may end up with a really diverse and interesting landscape, like a suburban neighborhood with a mix of native trees and non-native ornamentals and fruit trees, but you may also get a really off balance ecosystem.

Again, just like with the vinegar, there are plenty of folks who use whey and get a great product. Others report cheesy flavors or mushy pickles. If you have whey available give it a try! You might end up with a great pickle. If you have leftover brine, try using that. If you have none of the above, or even if you do, try some with just salt. You are the artisan, make your own pickles the way that works best for your kitchen, your vegetables and your tastes.

4) Sandor Katz uses crocks with weights to ferment his vegetables but you and Sally Fallon use jars with lids. What's up with that? What about those Harsch crocks or the Picklemeister?

The bacteria we invite in to ferment our vegetables require some specific habitat. They want a certain level of saltiness, a certain temperature range and a certain amount of oxygen to do their job properly. Lactic acid fermentation is basically an anaerobic fermentation, which means our little bacterial friends like very little oxygen around when they are doing their work. There are many ways to keep oxygen away from the fermenting vegetables.

The traditional method for keeping your fermenting vegetables anaerobic is to use a crock, brine and a weight. The vegetables go into the earthenware crock (which is non-reactive to the acid and stays nice and cool), salty brine is poured over them or created by the salt drawing water out of the vegetables and the the weight keeps the vegetables under the water. The water is a relatively anaerobic environment and fermentation can happen very effectively there. Usually a cloth is placed over top of the crock to keep flies and dust out and the brine is topped up if it evaporates out.

Sally Fallon and I use jars with tight fitting lids to keep our ferments anaerobic. By packing a jar almost full of vegetables and brine and keeping a lid on most of the time keeps the oxygen out. I do sometimes push shredded vegetables down into the brine with a whole leaf because I notice some discoloration or excessive mushiness when I don't. At the same time, vegetables like mushrooms seem to float like corks but still ferment just fine. I have found that opening the lid every day to inspect or taste the pickles doesn't cause ruin. The pickles seem to keep on fermenting with no problem. In fact, it is a good idea to check the pickles regularly because there is no way for gas to escape from the jars. You can end up with some highly carbonated pickles and serious spill over (think shaken up soda bottle) if you aren't careful. I recommend opening your jars over the sink until you get a hang of how they are going to react.

The Harsch crock is a new twist on the old crock method. It is an earthenware crock with a stone weight and a lid that fits into a water filled lip. You fill the crock with vegetables and brine, weight them down with the stone and put the lid on. The water filled lip acts like an air lock to allow gas out but not allow oxygen in. The Picklemeister is a glass jar with a plastic lid fitted with a true airlock. This is a bit of plastic tubing with water in it that allows gas out but doesn't allow oxygen in. People who use these products report great success with their pickle making and since I've never used them I can say nothing for or against them. Well, actually, I can. Harsch crocks go for over 100 dollars even for their smallest size (approx 2 gallons) and the Picklemeister goes for about 20 for a 1 gallon jar. I don't believe you need to shell out that kind of cash to make good pickles, and sometimes I like making a pint or a half pint at a time. If you really want to buy one of these products I'm not going to stop you, but unless you are regularly making gallons and gallons of fermented vegetables at a time I think your money would be better spent on good quality produce.

5) It's summer in L.A./Phoenix/Florida/Equitorial Africa and I finally got motivated to try making sauerkraut. It was bubbly the afternoon after I made it and I'm afraid it's going to turn into a sauerkraut monster. Help!

Like all organisms that don't make their own body heat our friendly pickle bacteria need a certain temperature range to do their jobs properly. If they are too cold they can't metabolize very quickly but they work better the warmer it is up to a point where they die from the heat. Luckily, standard room temperatures are good temperatures for lactic bacteria. If it is above 80 degrees or so you get into the range where the bacteria are eating and producing acid and gas so quickly we can run into problems. If we go back to that forest succession metaphor, excessively warm temperatures are like 24 hours of sunlight or super fertilizer in that new forest. The growth is quick and spindly instead of steady and robust. The only time I've ever had pickles or kraut go "bad" was when I started a batch of kraut during a heat wave. They ended up being mushy and smelly and gross.

What to do about excessive temperatures? The obvious solution is to wait until the proper season and let nature do the work of keeping everything the right temperature. Sauerkraut making is traditionally an autumn activity to take advantage of both the cabbage harvest and the cooler temperatures. In Korea they make a summer kim chi that is used quickly as opposed to the autumn kim chi which is stored all winter. If you can't wait you could try to find the coolest place in your house. Perhaps your basement is cooler, or an interior closet. You could also try a cooler with ice packs or cool water. If you come up with a great solution, let me know!

6) The instructions say to store the pickles in the fridge. My fridge is already full of food, what are my other storage options?

Buy another fridge. Joking! But only a little. I actually have two fridges and have both of them (plus their freezers) full of food and ferments. Not exactly the most economical or sustainable option, but it's what I have. What you need is a place where the temperatures are cooler than room temperature, but above freezing. Refrigerators are a simple way to get these temperatures in this land of electricity and manufactured goods, but not the only way.

Traditionally, fermented vegetables would be kept in a crock in a root cellar. Root cellars are unheated rooms with earth floors and proper ventilation to keep them below 40 or 50 degrees F, but not below freezing. Unlike refrigerators, root cellars need to have high humidity to keep the vegetables stored in them in prime condition. Earthenware crocks stay cool and the open top of the crock allows for gas to escape without human intervention making them perfect for long term storage of fermented vegetables. There are lots of articles available on the internet to help you transform an unheated basement into a root cellar or to build one separate from your house. If keeping ferments in a root cellar you might want to experiment with extra salt in the brine. This will keep the bacteria population lower and slow fermentation. This might extend shelf life. Experiment and see what works for you.

If you don't have either of these options you are, again, going to have to use nature to do the hard work. An unheated room or porch that stays cold but not freezing would be fine winter storage for fermented foods. A cooler and ice could work too, but would require plenty of supervision to make sure it stays cool. If you don't have room in your fridge for lots of jars then you are going to have to get creative with when and how you make fermented vegetables. Remember, using the jar method you can make them in any size quantity you want from babyfood jars to gallon jugs.

7) My pickles are mushy. Ga-ross. How to keep them crunchy?

This is the 64,000 dollar question in fermenting cucumbers. Someone knows the secret, it just isn't me. Sandor Katz's recipe for sour cucumber pickles calls for two things different than my spicy carrot recipe. One is the addition of grape, sour cherry or horseradish leaves, and the other is more salt. I have heard of this grape, sour cherry or horseradish leaf theory before and even tried it. The idea is that the tannins in the leaves don't let the pickles get mushy. Other people have used tea or oak leaves as they are also very high in tannins. Sandor's recipe calls for 3 tbs of salt per quart of water to make the pickle brine. This results in a brine considerably saltier than my "too salty to be tasty, not salty enough to be gross" method. I recently made a batch of cucumber pickles with Sandor's recipe and about 6 fresh grape leaves and still have mushy pickles. Any of you know the secret?

A couple other things I think about when I think about mushy pickles. One is speed and temperature of fermentation. Especially with sauerkraut (which I have had success in not getting mushy) I find a slow, cool fermentation best for the taste and texture. Again, doing these ferments in the fall or winter will help. Unfortunately, cucumbers are ripe in the heat of the summer. Also, firmer, less watery vegetables do best at staying crunchy. I've never had a mushy fermented carrot, but cucumbers are very prone to mushy. Slicing cucumbers are worse than pickling cucumbers. In my last batch I had one tiny little gherkin sized cuke that was not mushy at all, and another larger cuke that was a little old and it was really mushy. But again, folks make crispy fermented cucumbers out of larger sized cucumbers, so what's the secret?

If you have any thoughts, or any tips, let me know! I'd love to know the secret, and I'd love to be able to pass it along. Keep experimenting out there, and let's see what we can come up with.

8) My kids love sweet pickles but fermented pickles are always so tart. Do you have a sweet pickle recipe?

Nope, I haven't liked sweet pickles since I was about five. I spilled a jar on my third favorite stuffed animal and it always smelled like sweet pickle. Gross. A quick google search has given me some ideas on sweet pickles, though.

This raw vegan blog has a cucumber bell pepper fermented relish that might work for you. Other folks on the DiscussingNT yahoogroup have used kombucha vinegar or raw cider vinegar to pickle cucumbers with or without stevia. These might not be true brined pickles, but they would have live probiotics from the kombucha or raw vinegar. Shannon over at Nourishing Days has a canned vinegar sweet pickle recipe that would not be probiotic at all, but calls for honey instead of sugar. If you've got a sweet pickle recipe worth sharing, let me know!

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If you have more questions about fermenting or about your pickles or kraut, let me know! There may be enough for a second pickle FAQ in another few weeks!

And don't forget to check out Real Food Wednesday for more recipes and posts from real food kitchens!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Making of an Alewife

Almost two years ago now I met a very lovely man who I like to call the Brewmeister. The Brewmeister had recently come back from a 9 month program in Berlin to learn to brew beer but had previously thought about earning a bachelors in fermentation science at Oregon State University because he loved making wine and mead almost as much as he loved making beer. Before too very long the Brewmeister and I were cohabitating and fermenting like crazy fools. It wasn't all unicorns and rainbows so when spring rolled around this year the Brewmeister moved to Alaska and I kept a fair amount of his brewing supplies. Who said men are good for nothing? :)

This summer I have been putting the skills I learned at the Brewmeister's side to use in making my own beer and wine. Brewing alcholic beverages has an acient history and some say it might even have been the ultimate factor in humans deciding to stop wandering and set down roots and build a civilization. The theory is that people grew grains not to make bread but to make beer, and once you are making beer you need storehouses for the grain and the beer... plus pubs to drink it all in. Until the 1516 Reinheitsgebot, the German beer purity law, was enacted (and even well after it in many places) beer was brewed with a wide variety of grains and herbs, often by women in their own homes. On it's surface the Reinheitsgebot, which restricts beer ingredients to malted barley, water and hops (plus yeast, but that wasn't identified as a crucial ingredient until the 19th century) is a trade protection law to reduce competition with both local bakers and brewers in other regions. Digging a little deeper it probably also had anti-pagan, anti-"drug" and anti-women motives as well. Many of the old style beers were made with herbs that were psychotropic and used in ancient cermonies that predate the puritanical Christianity that was gaining popularity at the time. Hops, a common but not at the time universal bittering and preserving agent in beers, are actually a depressant and anaphrodisiac. People who drink hopped beer don't generally have the energy for all night frolicking like those who drank the ancient gruit ale. No matter the reasons behind the Reinheitsgebot the results were clear - a Teutonic culture of pure beer, made in factories by men using chemicals and precise measurements. This is how the Brewmeister tended to brew.

Being a disciple of Sandor Katz and uncounted generations of alewives brewing in their kitchens I have adopted a much more free flowing style. All of my experience making fermented vegetables had led to me have faith in the microbes. If you give them a reasonable place to set up shop, they will! My first beers were literally "a little of this, a little of that, throw in some yeast". Honestly, that first beer is quite drinkable. I did actually cave and buy a kitchen scale after the first brew day and my second beer is much better.

My first two beers are fir tip beers brewed with both hops and the young tips of Douglas Fir trees. Doug Firs are the state tree of Oregon and insanely common where I live. I collected the tips in March and April from trees growing my parents' yard and my everyday dog walk park. They have imparted a lovely acidic and tannic flavor to what would otherwise be a rather boring amber ale. Here is my recipe and instructions. These may look complicated but they are not. In fact, brewing can be a lifetime pursuit and there is always more to learn. But the first step is just brewing some.

The ingredients to make beer are neither expensive nor exotic. If there is a home brewing supply store in your town you are all set and if you don't I'm sure everything can be found online for a reasonable price. Right now I am making beer using malt extract which is basically a molasses or syrup made from malt sugar. The more advanced method of making beer involves extracting the sugar out of malted barley yourself. This involves considerably more equipment and skill but yields a much more complex beer. Malt extract is avaliable in many colors at home brew supply stores or over the internet. Hops are the other main ingredient in beer and both they and brewing yeast are also easily found at brewing supply stores. The variety of hop is not too important in this beer (some hops have lots of bitterness and little aroma, others the other way around) so get something middle of the road if the brewing supply folks ask what you need. I used an American ale yeast, but again it's not terribly important. Anything that isn't a specialty yeast will work just fine.

I will list out both the hardware and the software you need but you can certainly get away with less or load up on more, especially in the hardware department! I will give instructions for a one gallon batch as opposed to the more common five gallon batch because I think it is easier to start small. As soon as you get the hang of it, scale up. I highly recommend reading all the recipes, forums and books you can get your hands on (I highly, highly recommend Sandor Katz's Wild Fermentation) and then just give it a try. Remember, the yeast will make alcohol, all you are doing is setting the table for them.

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Broderick Cellars Fir Tip Ale


Step One: Brew Day

Hardware:
*Cooking pot with a lid
*Stainless steel long handled spoon
*Cheese cloth or other mesh "hop bags" or a strainer
*Kitchen scale or other device to weigh a couple ounces of plant material
*A second pot or 1/2 gallon glass jar
*A small glass jar, coffee mug or pot
*Timer
*Funnel and strainer
*1 gallon glass jug - this is called a carboy or fermenter
*Air lock and stopper
*A stove or other device to heat water to boiling and keep it there, as well as running cold water, *A tub of ice water or some other way to cool a volume of liquid relatively quickly.

Software:
*Pale or amber malt extract - 1 pint (it is usually sold in 7 or 14 pound tubs. It stores forever so don't worry about buying too much)
*Hops - 20 g of whole hops (Any variety that is not a specialty bittering or aroma hop)
*Fir tips - 40g (Be sure to collect only the young, soft, light green tips. They have a lovely citrusy, christmas tree smell but less tannin and bitterness than the older, dark green tips. The young tips of any edible conifer would do. Spruce is traditional but many pines are edible too)
*1 packet of dry ale yeast (Don't let them talk you into "pitchable yeast". Since you are making a 1 gallon batch you want to be able to use less than a whole packet. Any American or non-specialty yeast will do)
*Good drinking water. People always claim that their water is the reason their beer or wine is so good. If your tap water is icky, buy bottled water. Or better yet, find a well or a spring.

Method:

Start heating a half gallon plus a pint (10 cups) of water in a good quality cooking pot and 4 cups of water boiling in a second pot. Measure out your hops and divide them into two hop bags. One bag should have 15g of hops in and the other one should have 5g. Measure out the fir tips and put 20g in a third hop bag and the remainder in your glass jar or other container that can hold at least cups of water. When the smaller pot has come to a boil pour the boiling water over the fir tips in the jar and let steep. This is your fir tip tea.

As the larger pot of water gets hot pour in the malt extract. Carefully swirl hot water in the measuring cup to get as much malt out as possible. Stir to help the malt dissolve and pull out one cup or so and put that in your coffee mug and allow it to cool. Continue stirring or watching the pot until it comes to a full boil. It may get frothy so be careful with it. When it is boiling add the bag with 15g of hops and the bag with the fir tips in it to the boiling malt water. Stir or push them under the water and then put the lid on the pot and turn the heat down to where it maintains a strong simmer/low boil, but isn't boiling over. (OK - they say you shouldn't boil your wort with the lid on because it can cause off flavors. When I boiled with the lid off I had such great loss of volume I had a hard time topping it off. Read some other recipes and do whatever feels best to you). Again, be careful because all the sugar in the water may cause it to boil over. Set your timer for 55 minutes.

Check the coffee mug of sugar water to see how cool it is. When it is body temperature - when you touch it it feel neither cold nor warm - pour approximately 1/2 tsp of the dry yeast into the cup. Let the yeast dissolve into the sugar water and start to feed and bloom. By the end of the boiling period your yeast should be starting to get frothy and it should smell like yeasty bread batter. Fold up the packet, put it in a zip top bag and store it in the freezer until you need more.

Clean your carboy and funnel with hot water and soap. Many brewing books and experts suggest sterilizing with bleach water. Sandor Katz and I say cleanliness not sterility. Stephen Harrod Buhner, author of Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers uses a hop tea to disinfect his brewing supplies. Do whatever makes you feel most comfortable.

When your timer goes off drop in the second hop bag, reset your timer for 5 more minutes and put the lid back on. When the timer goes off a second time turn the heat off and start fishing out the hop bags with your stainless steel spoon. Use a second spoon or some tongs to squeeze as much liquid out of them as possible and set them aside (don't forget to empty and clean them as soon as they cool. Ask me how I know).

Fill your sink with cold water or ice water and put the pot, with the lid on, in the sink. Stir the wort (as your unfermented beer is now called) with a clean spoon, and swish the cold water around to cool the wort quickly. You don't want to get any of the water into the wort so keep the lid on. If your fir tip tea is not cooled to body temperature then put that jar in the cold water and swish it around too to cool it off. When both liquids are body temperature or a little cooler, around 80 degrees F, then pour them through a strainer and a funnel into your jug with the yeast. Pour the wort first, splashing it around a bit, then the yeast, and top off with the fir tip tea. Fill the air lock with water up to the fill line and pop the stopper on top of your jug. Put your jug in a dark place with a stable temperature and clean up. Don't forget those hop bags! Brewing day is done!

The next morning check your beer to make sure active fermentation has started. The air lock should be bubbling away and there should be froth on top of the beer. If there is not active fermentation by 24 hours then proof another 1/2 tsp of yeast in warm sugar water and add that to the wort. It'll be fermenting, though, don't worry. Let it sit for 3-4 weeks until primary fermentation is finished. You will know it is ready for bottling because there will be a clear layer of yeast at the bottom of the jug and it will take about 2 minutes for a new bubble to come up out of the airlock.

Step Two: Bottling Day

Hardware:
*Plastic tubing or racking cane (tubing with a stiff end specifically designed for siphoning beer or wine)
*A second one gallon jug or a cooking pot that will hold 1 gallon (a second jug is a much better choice)
*6 22 oz beer bottles or 11 12 oz bottles. I prefer the ones with a flip top because then you don't need caps and a capper. If you don't want to spend for the flip top bottles you can reuse beer bottles that were not twist tops. Buy a capper and caps at the same supply house you bought malt and hops at.

Software:
*4 oz by weight of malt or corn sugar, or white sugar. That's 4 tbs malt sugar, 2/3 cup white sugar or 3/4 cup corn sugar. The malt or corn sugar can be bought at the brew supply store or sometimes for a whole lot more money at a health food store. White sugar gives a different flavor, but certainly can be used.

When primary fermentation has slowed (layer of yeast on the bottom of the jug and about 2 minutes between air lock gurgles) you are ready to bottle your beer. Start out by washing and santizing your jug, bottles and racking hose. Again, use hot water and soap, bleach or hop tea as you see fit. If you using bottle caps instead of flip top bottles be sure to read up on how to use them.

Heat about a cup of water in a small pan on the stove and stir in the sugar. Bring to a boil to dissolve and sterilize and then let cool a bit. Pour the cooled sugar water into the clean second jug. This sugar is going to mix with the beer and give the yeast a second wind in the bottles forming carbonation.

Bring your fermenting beer out of the closet and put the jug on the counter with the second jug on the floor or a bench below the counter. Insert the racking cane into the beer and either follow this guy's instructions for sterile siphoning or do like I do and swish your mouth with scotch and suck the beer into the tube. Have a glass handy to pour the first bit of beer into and then put the end of the tube into the jug with the sugar water in it. Try not to let it bubble and slosh too much, but you can gently stir the beer to mix it with the sugar water. As the beer is siphoning into the second jug get your bottles all lined up in the sink or on a easily cleaned surface lower than your counter. Taste your uncarbonated beer from the glass. How does it taste? Anything short of disgusting and you are well on your way to good homebrew.

When all the beer, but not much of the yeasty sediment, is in the second jug put the airlock back on the first jug and bring the second one up to the counter. Insert the racking cane and start the beer flowing again, this time into the bottles. Again, try not to splash or slosh the beer as you fill the bottles to within an inch or two of the top. With only 6 or 12 bottles this won't take too long and you can flip the flip top when you are done (or use a capper to cap them, which won't take too long either). Rinse or wipe your bottles off and stash them away in a dark, coolish spot and clean up.

The yeasty sediment in the bottom of your fermenter can be saved and used for your next brew. Swish the yeast and leftover beer together and pour into a glass jar with a tight fitting lid. Stash it in the fridge and on next brew day wake the yeast up by mixing the contents of the jar with warm sugar water while you boil the wort. You may never have to pay for ale yeast again!

Store your bottles in a dark spot with a stable room temperature. During the next three weeks the yeast will eat up the sugar you gave them and produce carbon dioxide to carbonate the beer. After 2 or 3 weeks pop a bottle in the fridge overnight to chill and open it to taste it. If it's carbonated put the other bottles in the fridge and drink up. If not, either drink the beer (it's still homebrew!) or pour it on your compost pile and wait another week to try again. Darker beers will continue to age over time while lighter beers are more at risk of spoiling. I've had some of this beer in the fridge for 2 months and it is still changing flavor and still getting better. The worst thing that can happen is it doesn't taste good anymore and you'll need to brew another batch.

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So there it is, one alewife's guide to brewing a 1 gallon batch of beer. I highly recommend reading Wild Fermentation and Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers as well as spending time on the homebrew forums or chatting with the fine folks at your local brew supply store. You'll learn lots more about brewing beer and maybe figure out some better ways to do it!

Brewing beer is not that difficult. In a future post I will talk about making wine, which is a very similar process. Wine is possibly easier to start but takes months, if not years, to finish and age. Beer takes a little more work up front but is ready to drink is just over a month. In the end it is all just setting a table and inviting the right yeast to the party. It's not hard, it's not expensive and the results are well worth it. Even a middling homebrew is better than a fine commercial beer.

Prost!














Friday, July 24, 2009

Roly Poly, Daddy's Little Fatty

I never bought into the whole low fat diet thing. My parents didn't buy into it and it just never made any sense. Why would you want to eat margarine, which comes from a factory, rather than butter, which comes from a cow? Why eat sugar and preservative laden low-fat cookies when you could just eat real cookies in moderation? When I read Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions I finally had some words and some ideas to back up my vague feelings that a low fat diet was inappropriate. Fat isn't evil... in fact, fat is necessary for health and hapiness!

Traditional cultures have always prized fat because it is calorie dense and nutrient dense. From early American and European pig lard to SE Asian coconut oil to Inuit seal blubber fat has been the most sought after and important food stuff around the world. There's a Nature episode where Julia Roberts visits the nomadic people of Mongolia and learns about their culture. My favorite part of the show is how in one frame she is commenting on how gross the traditional butter tea is and in the next wondering how they survive such bitter cold temperatures. It didn't occur to her than the one is directly related to the other.

But in modern America something went wrong and has drastically changed how we view fat. In the middle of the 20th century a number of researchers promoted substituting unsaturated vegetable oils for traditional saturated animal fats and lowering dietary fat intake in general in order to reduce coronary heart disease. One of the best known of these researchers was Ancel Keys who published what became known as the Seven Countries Study which corrolated the lower fat diets of Post World War II Europe and Japan with that of affluent post war United States. Keys' statistical strong association weakens when other countries are added to the Seven, and almost fall apart completely when one takes into account that the Italians and French he studied had a long tradition of animal fats that had simply been put on hold by the devastation of decades of war.

In his New York Times piece What If it's All Been a Big Fat Lie Gary Taubes goes over the science and pseudoscience behind low fat and low carbohydrate diets (his research point to pro low carb and anti low fat diets). He lays out a very convincing story that a combination of imperfect human researchers and impossibly complicated human bodies have led us down a path towards obesity and disease. There is also more and more evidence that our modern diet is excessively high in polyunsaturated fats which are not a part of traditional diets. Polyunsaturated fat in the form of vegetable oil is cheap to produce and with the advances in chemically separating the oil from plant seeds, removing toxic chemicals and deodorizing the oils it has become a staple in every American home, restaurant and food processing plant.

Low fat, high fat? Unsaturated, mono-, poly-, just plain saturated fat? Omegas and LDLs and all that... what's a girl to do? Look to the past, that's what I always say. What would people use for cooking fat if they didn't have mono-cropped soy beans and giant food processing factories?

Using this criteria I have put together a fat primer for you. I present it to you with the reminder that we all do the best we can with what we have. I eat out sometimes, I eat at people's houses sometimes and sometimes I even get a pack of chips out of a vending machine. I am not a whole food Nazi, but when I can I prefer to use the most healthful, traditional cooking fats. Here's what I do in my kitchen... on my best days.

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Fats for Cooking by Type of Fat

Unrefined coconut oil: This is the work horse of my cooking fats. It is almost flavorless and can be used at pretty high temperatures so I use it anywhere you would use "vegetable oil". It is solid when the weather is cool and liquid when room temps are above about 70F but since it comes in a wide mouth jar I just use a spoon to get it out. It's a little spendy to use for deep frying, but it would be good any other time you are cooking with fat. I usually buy Omega Nutrition brand but that's just because it's available at a good price at my local health food store.

Virgin coconut oil: I treat this as a special fat with amazing antimicrobial properties in addition to lots of medium chain fatty acids and a fantastic smell. It is pretty expensive and cooking might destroy the beneficial properties so I cook with it when I am doing something where coconut would be appreciated, like Thai curry. I melt it for use in baked goods occasionally when the flavor would be appreciated and use it along with butter on my popcorn. And sometimes I make coconut bark. Yuummm. I also use it for a number of body care products like skin cream (coconut oil and jojoba oil with a little scent) and deodorant (coconut oil and baking soda with scent). I buy pint jars at my health food store, but lots of people like Wilderness Family Naturals for 5 gallon buckets.

Butter: Mmm... butter. In addition to slathering this on bread and pouring it over popcorn I do cook with this occasionally. I use it, often mixed with coconut oil, when pan sauteing veggies or frying eggs. Butter does have some amount of water and protein in it so it will burn, but I don't have major problems with that. Ghee or clarified butter is an all purpose cooking fat in French and Indian cooking and can easily be bought or made at home. Raw, pasture raised butter is best but even regular store butter is better than margarine or vegetable oil. Look for imported butter like Kerrygold from Ireland or Anchor from New Zealand. Organic Pastures has a "pastured" butter and most stores sell organic butter these days.

Rendered animal fat: I am still working my way through the 3 pints of goose grease I rendered when I cooked a goose last winter. It's pure white, about butter consistency and has a slight poultry flavor. I enjoy cooking with this anywhere it's flavor would be appreciated or tolerated. I've also used chicken fat and would gladly use lard or tallow if I had it available. Each of these will have different flavors and smoke points but all would be good for general cooking (sauteing veggies, frying onions, browning meat, etc). A note on rendered animal fats.. these are not fats you can buy at any old grocery store.

Do NOT buy lard from a regular grocery store. The stuff they sell there is usually adulterated with hydrogenated lard and preservatives. It is not much better for you than crisco. These are fats you need to produce at home or buy from a specialty dealer/farmer. Of course, these fats are best from pastured, organic,happy animals but even grocery store chickens will make fat that is better than hydrogenated lard. You can save scraps from the meat you eat, skim fat from stock making or see if you can buy un-rendered fat from a butcher or farmer. Google around for instructions on rendering it yourself. It's not hard and the rendered fat will keep in jars in the fridge or freezer for a very long time.

Bacon grease: I collect bacon grease and keep it in a mason jar next to the stove. I use it for cooking anything a bacony flavor would be appreciate - which is lots of things. It's the best for starting soups or frying eggs. Mmm...bacon grease. And someday I'll get it together and make that bacon grease mayo recipe that's been floating around....

Olive Oil: Olive oil one of the few traditional liquid oils and is the classic oil for mayonnaise and flavored dipping oils. Buy the best quality you can afford because olive oil is subject to going rancid if not stored properly, and is probably much more adulterated than we would like to think about. It really shouldn't be cooked with. I do, sometimes for flavor, but rarely. Olive oil is much better for you when used in salad dressings or other raw applications because the monounsaturated fats are much more delicate than saturated fats. Extra virgin is the most flavorful, but feel free to use not-extra-virgin as long as you are using oil from a reputable producer.

High oleic sunflower oil: I just found this in the store, finally! It is a high monounsaturated fat oil that should be as healthful as olive oil, but with a different (less olivey perhaps?) flavor. I haven't opened the bottle yet so I can't tell you what it's like but I would use this anywhere I would use olive oil. It would be especially nice for mayo or other salad dressings where you don't necessarily want the olive oil flavor.

Spectrum palm shortening
: I bought this years ago and found it tasted horrible.It is made of deodorized palm oil and is low in polyunsaturated fats, so should be an acceptable fat. Probably a compromise fat because of how processed it is, but low in bad fats anyway. They say it can be used anywhere regular shortening would be used but the pie crust I made with it tasted like soap. Anytime I've used it for cooking I've also gotten a gross soapy flavor. I used it to season my cast iron pans last winter, and sometimes throw a glob in a wiped out cast iron skillet to grease it up and protect it. I might try it on a BBQ sometime. too.

Sunflower, safflower, sesame oil: I have bought these oils in small bottles to make salad dressings with. They are all higher in polyunsaturated fats than we would like to be consuming (especially since I probably still get a fair amount of poly unsaturated fats from factory farmed meat, eating out, eating at friend's houses and occasional packaged foods), but sometimes you have four heads of lettuce in the fridge and really don't want an all olive oil salad dressing. Now that I found the high oleic sunflower oil I won't buy these guys anymore. When looking at bottles in the oil isle at the health food store look for oils with the lowest polyunsaturated fat level and the highest monounsaturated fat level.

Red Palm Oil: I've never used this but I hear it's pretty neat. It's solid like coconut oil and deep red in color. The color indicates a high level of carotene vitamins and the saturated fats keep it stable at high temperatures.

Canola oil: This stuff really is gross and the devil in so many ways. My roommate has a bottle of it that I moved to under the sink and he hasn't missed it because he hasn't cooked in months. I busted it out when I grilled the other weekend just because I wanted to have fun and it was easy. I drank a Budweiser that night too. So sue me! :)

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Cooking Fats by Type of Cooking

Pan frying/sauteing: expeller pressed coconut oil, virgin coconut oil, butter,bacon grease, rendered animal fat, olive oil. Depends on the flavor. Be careful with butter at high temps.

Baking: butter, virgin coconut oil or expeller pressed coconut oil. Depends on the flavor, and how the fat is used. I would use either, along with parchment paper, for "greasing" the pan.

Deep frying: you would want to use rendered animal fat like lard or tallow there. These fats have the highest smoke point so are able to get good and hot to fry the food without letting it get greasy.

Seasoning cast iron skillets: Lard if you have it, palm shortening or crisco. I believe that a long baking in the oven would polymerize the fat and turn it into a coating rather than a fat that gets into your food so this would be a way to use up that jar of crisco you still have. I use palm shortening or coconut oil to grease up a pan between uses if I am not going to actually bake the fat on.

BBQs or Grilling: Well... yeah, about that. I still use canola oil for this. Expeller pressed coconut oil should be fine because of it's high smoke point, but it's awfully expensive for swabbing all over a grill top. I might try the palm shortening next time. I think ideally you would have a slab of un-rendered pork fat to rub all over the grill :)

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There is lots of good information out there about which fats to use and why. Check out all the links I used in this post and then check out the following resources:

*Weston A. Price Foundations Know Your Fats Index

*Cheeseslave's and Kelly the Kitchen Kop's Posts on Fat

*Nina Planck's Real Food book

*Bryan's Blog Stay Healthy, Enjoy Life. Specifically his post about fats.

Fat is a prized food for a reason. It is full of vitamins, energy giving calories and protective molecules. Remember, every cell in your body is encased in saturated fat and your brain is mostly saturated fat. The hormones that make you happy and sexy are made of saturated fat. Don't sell yourself short by going low fat or eating unhealthy, non-traditional fats.

Be sure to check out Real Food Wednesday for more posts from folks who aren't afraid of fat!! Also, be sure to click on all the photos I used to see more from my amazing, not fat-a-phobe, Flickr friends!

What fats do you cook with at home? What's your favorite way to get more fat into your diet? Whats the best butter you've ever tasted?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Of Probiotics and Pickles

If you are in anyway connected to the world you've probably heard more and more about probiotics and beneficial bacteria. People are selling probiotics as pills, liquids, juices, yogurts and other fanciful items. Most of you have probably seen the yogurt commercial with the slightly disturbing animation of an arrow on a woman's stomach and you might even be able to hum the jingle for that product. What's all the big deal about probiotics anyway? And do we really need to spend top dollar to have them added to our foods?

The term probiotics refers to bacteria and yeast found in food that are good for your body. Our skin and intestinal tract are completely covered in bacteria and the idea is that inviting the right kind of bacteria into that system has health benefits. The human gut can contain over 2 lbs of intestinal microflora (beneficial bacteria) and they do some pretty important work there. They help digest food and create vitamins, they make it hard for bad bacteria to live there and stimulate the part of our immune system that is in our digestive system. In fact, there is more and more evidence that everything from acute intestinal upset to allergies to autism can be helped by normalizing gut bacteria and using probiotics. There are lots of good commercial probiotic foods and supplements available (as well as some not so good ones) but being the DIY kinda girl I am, I like to make my own.

Yogurt, kefir and buttermilk are all very common probiotic foods. These are all fermented dairy products that are eaten while the bacteria are still alive. Vegetables and fruit can also be cultured into probiotic foods through a process called lacto fermentation. A couple months ago I wrote a tutorial for making sauerkraut, one of my favorite kinds of lacto fermented vegetable. Sauerkraut is a great way to start in on fermented vegetables because most Americans at least know what sauerkraut is and many even already like it. I've been surprised at how many of my friends are excited to try my sauerkraut because they grew up eating sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is not the only pickled vegetable out there so don't despair if you don't like the kraut.

Vegetable pickles are possibly even easier than sauerkraut and allow for as many variations as your imagination can come up with. The basic idea is to cover vegetables with a salty brine and allow the bacteria to do their thing. I'll give you a recipe-tutorial for my very favorite pickled vegetable recipe and list some of my favorite variations here and then I'll answer some common questions in a follow up post.

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Spicy Carrot Pickles


I like Spicy Carrot Pickles so much because they come out great every time. They are salty, spicy and a bit sour and always have a great texture. You can adjust the amount of spiciness to your liking using different kinds of peppers. These are based on the pickled carrots usually served at autentico taco places so they should be sort of familiar to a number of people.

Step One: Jar and Vegetable Prep

Find a glass jar with a tight fitting lid. A pint sized mason jars with a metal or plastic lid is great but an old pickle jar work just as well. Wash the jar and lid with hot soapy water and rinse well.

For a pint (two cup) jar you will probably use 1 1/2 - 2 medium carrots, 1/2 an onion, 2 cloves of garlic and half of a jalapeno. Have more carrots available in case I am underestimating and adjust the garlic and pepper as your family would like. I find half a jalapeno adds heat but is not blinding, but you may have widely different tastes. You can use a hotter pepper like Serrano or Habanero (if you dare) or a milder pepper like an Anaheim, a Hungarian pepper or a pizza pepper. Be sure to adjust the "half a pepper" accordingly to the size and heat of the pepper you choose. You could also use a pinch of red pepper flakes instead of fresh peppers.

Wash the carrots but don't peel them. Slice them into long ovals by slicing on a steep diagonal to about 1/4 inch thickness. Peel and slice the garlic cloves and slice the onion longitudinally (from pole to pole, not around the equator) into 1/2 inch slices or into chunks. Slice the jalapeno into rings. Layer the vegetables in the jar to within an inch of the threads.

Step Two: The Brine

There are all kinds of recipes out there for brine strength ranging from a specific measurement in the jar to percent salinity. After reading The Ultimate Kimchi recipe and Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz, I decided to do this the old fashioned way - use my taste buds.

I make a brine by adding salt to water until it is "too salty to be tasty, but not salty enough to make me gag." I understand that this is a very vague description of how much salt to use, but it works. I promise. Start with a teaspoon in a pint (two cups) of water and taste it. You can hardly taste the salt, right? Add another teaspoon and taste again. Then increase by half teaspoons until the water is really gross. Add a splash of water and taste again. Somewhere in between tasty and gross is the right amount of salt. It always seems a little saltier than seawater to me.

Oh - and use the right kind of salt. You should use sea salt because it is pure and has lots of trace minerals that are really good for you. I personally use RealSalt because it lists the trace minerals on the package and sells for a reasonable price. Other sea salts would be fine too. You can also use kosher salt or other salt as long as it has no iodine and no anti-caking ingredients. One caution about Celtic or grey salt - moist salt is sometimes known for carrying bacteria and mold that can ruin your ferments. If you want to use moist Celtic sea salt then you should bake it first until it is dry. Seriously, though, who needs to go through that much work for pickles. Just buy some lower quality sea salt for fermenting and keep the Celtic for sprinkling on your potatoes.

Once you have your brine made with the right kind of salt to the right saltiness then pour it over the jar full of vegetables. The brine should cover the vegetables but still be below the threads of the jar. Screw the lid on tight and set it on the counter to begin fermenting.

Step Three: Fermentation

Just like in the Kraut 101 tutorial I recommend you check your pickles every day and learn to look for signs of fermentation. The day after you make your carrot pickles open the jar and listen for popping, fizzing or hissing as you open the jar. Smell the contents and then taste a sip of the brine (you can take some out with a spoon or just sip it out of the jar like I do... but then again I'm pretty cavalier about things like that). Is it at all sour or fizzy or still just salty? Put the lid back on and let it sit out for another day.

It usually takes 2-5 days for signs of fermentation to really show up. Exactly how long depends on everything from the quality of your vegetables and the ambient temperature to whether you sacrificed to the proper deities. I'll address some of these variables in the next post and in the end it doesn't really matter how long it takes, just that it happens. Be patient, it will.

When your pickles are popping, fizzing or starting to taste sour then move them to the fridge. Carrot pickles usually taste best after another two or three days in the fridge (you should try them every day to see when you like them best) but will last for months without getting mushy or gross. The onion will start to get a little mushy after a month or so but whole garlic cloves are still virtually raw until at least a month in the brine.

I like to eat these pickles in anything even remotely Mexican in flavor. I love them in quesadillas and burritos as well as on salads. The pickle brine can really brighten up a soup and makes a fine salad dressing when substituted for vinegar in any recipe.

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Once you've run through this recipe once then you are ready to start thinking about pickling other vegetables. Here are some of my favorites.

Cucumbers: pickled cucumbers are a classic. I have used whole pickling cucumbers as well as sliced eating cucumbers (remove part of the skin, it is tough and bitter). Pack the jar with cucumbers, dill seed, garlic cloves, black peppercorns and maybe some sliced onion and/or mustard seed. Cover with brine and follow the steps above.

I didn't use cucumbers as my master recipe because I've had mixed luck with fermenting them. Cucumbers, being so watery, are at risk of getting mushy and even when they aren't mushy they never taste quite the same as vinegar pickles do. I like the fermented flavor but have not yet perfected the crunchy cucumber pickle. Some people add a grape leaf to the jar and others soak the cucumbers in salty water first. I'm going to experiment this summer and I'll let you know.

Turnips, Radishes, Not Spicy Carrots: Slice them into planks or chunks and cover with brine. Try these will dill seed and garlic or with mustard seed and red pepper flakes. Turnips tend to be a bit spicy when fermented, but are great on salads.

Beets: I recently made up a jar of sliced raw beets and carrots with no extra seasoning at all. The liquid is thick, sweet and deep red and the vegetables are now tender, sour, sweet. Fantastic.

Green Beans or Asparagus: Trim the veggies to fit in the jar and add a garlic clove and maybe one of those small, dried red chiles. Try doing the same with okra. A little juice from one of these jars is the secret to my Bloody Mary. Fantastic!

Mushrooms: White or baby 'bella mushrooms can be pickled in brine into a very tasty appetizer. I like to add black peppercorns and mustard seed as well as a small garlic clove. The mushrooms will float like corks but it has never seemed to be a problem.

Summer Relish: Last summer I made a jar of relish using canned corn, chopped green tomato, red bell pepper and onion with mustard seeds. It took a month or so for the flavor to develop but I was sad when it was gone. It was long past green tomato season and I've been daydreaming about it ever since!

Pickled Garlic:
Peel the cloves, fill the jar and cover with brine. It will take months (as in 4 or 5) for the cloves to ferment fully but it will be worth it. They ferment into this mellow, garlicky, almost sweet tangy condiment. Perfect for salad dressings and topping soup. And exceptionally good for you!

Of course you can mix and match. I almost never make a jar of just one vegetable, I use whatever I have around. I will often add turnips or carrots to sauerkraut, or get lazy and throw brine over cabbage as well. Give any vegetable you have a try in the brine and see how it turns out. Experiment with seasonings, garlic, onion and different flavor combinations. You'll be amazed at what you find you like. I serve pickled vegetables with almost every meal and pretty soon you will be too!

This post is part of the Real Food Wednesday Blog Carnival. Be sure to check out the other posts for more great real food ideas!

To see more photos of my lunches, others with home made pickles in them, check out my Flickr page.