From the Ground Up: pickling the old-fashioned way
by Ann M. Evans & Georgeanne Brennan
A 2013 food trends report says that canning is cool, and that pickling, in particular, is emerging as a hip way to add a personal touch. We decided we wanted to pickle the old fashioned way.
We’ve both made loads of kosher dill pickles using vinegar brine, but other than making sauerkraut and vinegar, we’ve never used fermentation to preserve foods. We turned to a local expert – Capay Valley’s Cathy Suematsu – and invited her to teach a class as a part of our Slow Food Yolo Home Food Craft Series.
As co-leaders of Slow Food Yolo, we’ve offered classes on backyard beekeeping, ravioli making, and soon, we’ll do backyard chicken butchering. The classes are small and hands on.
For the fermentation class, 12 of us, mostly newcomers to fermentation but all avid vegetable gardeners and cooks, gathered for an afternoon in my sunroom to learn from Cathy and make our own product to take home.
“Lactic acid fermentation is my preferred method for preserving vegetables,” Cathy Suematsu told us. “These microorganisms consume certain types of sugars and create lactic acid, which acts as a preservative and gives the pickles and sauerkrauts a sour flavor.”
Cathy, who has been fermenting vegetables for about eight years, has fermented over 200 gallons of pickles and sauerkraut as an alternative to canning. She also ferments condiments such as hot mustard and hot chili sauce. We taste tested some of her creations, from whole okra pods to grated carrots with ginger and caraway seeds, from a spicy Mexican kraut with green cabbage, cayenne cumin, and oregano to beet kavas, an effervescent drink made from beets, and even the chili paste and mustard. The depth of flavor impressed both Georgeanne and me.
A self-described fanatical note keeper, Cathy doesn’t use other people’s recipes. She makes up her own and tracks outside temperature, amounts of items added, and the process she uses on each product she ferments.
“I’m kind of a geek that way,” she said.
She uses grape leaves, horseradish root, and oak leaves in place of powdered alum to keep the vegetables firm and crisp, non-chlorinated well water from her home, and non-iodized salt. She explained that lactobacilli occur naturally on some vegetables including cabbage and cucumbers. When making ferments that lack their own natural beneficial bacteria (carrots, green beans, mustard, etc.) she adds whey as a starter culture, made from cheese she makes with either cow or goat milk she gets fresh in Capay Valley. Whey is a byproduct of processed milk.
“For the lactobacilli to grow, they need a certain concentration of salt, a specific range of temperatures, and an oxygen-free environment,” Cathy told the class. “I find fermentation is a magical process. The taste changes over time,” she said. “It takes a leap of faith.” She says she’s careful how much product she ferments each year. She has an entire refrigerator devoted to her products and rotates what is there. “Because our valley has not many greens in the summer, I pack a lot of kale and collards into my kraut,” she said, “that way I don’t just eat “nightshades” [tomatoes, tomatillos, potato, eggplant, bell pepper] in the summer.
Over the two and a half hours of the class, we made sauerkraut, cucumber pickles and mustard. I’m now eating my purple kraut with lunchtime sandwiches and loving it. To make it we grated, pounded and mashed in all manner of ways our four and a half pounds each of purple cabbage to release the liquid from the leaves. We had already added our caraway seed and sea salt. We put that mixture in a half-gallon jar and covered it with a brine Cathy had brought from her home, made with her non-chlorinated well water.
Over the next week or so, that kraut mixture came alive in my kitchen. At one point, before my morning cuppa’ tea, it exploded as I opened the lid to pound it down every few hours as I had been told. (Note: I had let it sit overnight without pounding down.) This evidence that fermented foods are alive seemed to be part of the magic of the process, very different from canning. Cathy suggests we can add all manner of spices and herbs to future batches – like bay leaves, juniper berries, onions, garlic, cumin, ginger, carrots, seaweed kale or collards.
For the final class project, we each made spicy brown mustard. This I’ve been using nightly in place of Dijon mustard in the vinaigrette for my salad. Georgeanne and I agree fermentation is a simple way to add terrific and interesting flavor to your plate.
Cathy Suematsu’s Spicy Brown Mustard
This mustard is spicy and can be used in salad dressings or spread thinly on bread with mayonnaise to make a sandwich. Use about half the amount you would with store bought mustard.
One-quarter cup plus 2 tablespoons ground brown mustard
1 tablespoon liquid whey
1 teaspoon sea salt
juice of one lemon
2 garlic cloves peeled and run through a garlic press, or chopped finely
1 tablespoon whole mustard seeds (optional)
One-quarter cup non-chlorinated water
Notes on whey: Cathy says you can use the liquid that gathers on the top of plain yogurt, for more information, this website has a video on what whey is and where to get it http://gnowfglins.com/2011/07/20/free-video-whey-what-it-is-how-to-get-it/#.
Notes on non-chlorinated water: Cathy says of you don’t have well water, you can either boil your tap water to evaporate the chlorine, then allow it to cool before using, or, purchase it.
Putting it together
Put the ground mustard into a small mixing bowl. Crush any lumps of ground mustard.
Add whey, sea salt, lemon juice, garlic, and optional mustard seeds to the bowl. Stir to combine and mash any more lumps of ground mustard.
Add water and stir. Continue to mash any lumps of ground mustard until the mixture is smooth.
Transfer mustard to one-half pint jar with lid and leave out on counter at room temperature for 3 days. After the third day, if there are any bubbles in the mustard, stir the mustard and put it in the refrigerator. The mustard is ready to eat after the third day and will keep in the refrigerator for months. Yield: 1 cup
And Another Fermenation Coming Up: Beaujolais Nouveau: The first wine of the new harvest from Burgundy, Beaujolais Nouveau, is released around the world annually on the third Thursday of November. This year it is Nov. 15, and Slow Food Yolo and Main Street Cellars in Winters are partnering to join in the fun. Sample the young wine while you feast on grilled Rabbit and Pistachio, Duck and Juniper, Pork and Chestnut sausages from Napa’s Fatted Calf, Rouge et Noir Cheeses, Homemade Quince Chutney, Farmstead Honey and more. Raffles for signed magnums, and 20 percent off cases of selected French wines and bottles. $35 per person www.brownpapertickets.com Tickets limited. For more information: www.slowfoodyolo.com or mainstreetcellars.com
Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan are coauthors of “The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook, Tasting California’s Small Farms,” (2012.) Co-leaders of Slow Food Yolo, they have a food and agricultural consultancy, Evans & Brennan, LLC, specializing in farm fresh food in school lunch. Reach them at email@example.com.