Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fermenting Change

Autumn is a busy time here on our boatstead. We have been gathering apples, pressing them in our gorgeous cider press for our year's supply of wine and hard cider. I have been canning: tomatoes, tuna, applesauce. And more applesauce. I have dried wild mushrooms and tomatoes. This year we put in a small garden on the top deck, mostly herbs and tomatoes (plus a few leeks that traveled from Kirkland to Oakland and then to us, which is a longer story than I am going to tell right now).

Fermentation is Science for Cooks!

This week the theme is ferments.  Fabulous Ferments, of course! I am conducting a fermentation workshop on Saturday for the members of our new GAPS support group (and anyone else who wants to learn, of course). Starting GAPS is hard enough without struggling to make unfamiliar things like kraut and stocks, so this is where we need to start, with the basics.  When I do a workshop, I always bring as many samples as I can, to demonstrate the possible variety, so I am scrambling to have enough to showcase. Because my ferments have been kind of wacky recently. Well, slimy is a more exact word. Odd, though, that the vegetable matter isn't slimy and the smell and taste are fine. It's just the brine that has the consistency of raw egg whites, which is not a big selling point for most people.

So I am conducting a major experiment: I bought a monster cabbage at Sunny Farms--it weighed over 20 pounds!--and prepared the whole thing by shredding and salting, using my thrifted old-timey cabbage shredder (which looks like an overgrown mandoline, and makes cutting the cabbage in fine threads so easy) Then the fun really began! I stuffed each of five mason jars with the basic kraut mixture, then added a different starter to each one: powdered yoghurt, powdered kefir, a commercial probiotic, liquid whey, and the fifth was left wild, using the lactobacillus naturally present on cabbage. One more jar was also left wild, but airlocked, in a Pickl-It jar.

I have had some success with the Pickl-Its, but we have odd flora on the boat, and they somehow managed to infiltrate the supposedly closed system. I have scalded the jars, sterilized them with bleach (yuck, I know, but I am desperate to get rid of the funky slime). Still I have this ropy liquid I am hesitant to call brine. Which has led me to turning the boat into a laboratory this week.  I think the natives are getting restless, what with the discombobulation in our small floating home. Let's see what the experiment tells us in a few days... Hopefully it will have been worth the mess and disruption, when I have a successful approach to ferments in our marine environment.


A note about starters: I used what was available to me locally, which means I didn't have a dairy-free starter. Those are available online, and I am going to get my hands on some for experiments. Whey (from dripped yoghurt)is obviously a dairy-based starter, but I have always been able to tolerate the small amount that remains in my kvass, despite not doing well on dairy (other than butter, and the newly-introduced homemade sour cream--yay!) Powdered starters are convenient, though they are not perfect. I believe that it is much better to use real kefir grains than any starter, but I neither have any nor am I at all sure how I would use them to ferment something thick like applesauce. Another experiment in my future! When I make yoghurt I use a good quality commercial yoghurt, with no fillers or extra ingredients, as the starter. Using the dried powder starters seemed to be a good starting place for my investigations, as they are reliable, relatively easy to use, something I can teach others to do.

Call me crazy, but when I get on a roll, well, lots of things get done! In addition to the plain kraut, I made one jar with cumin and fenugreek and one with juniper berries and cauliflower. There is a new jar of basic beet kvass (I like it well aged, so have to make ahead), no additions, and a jar of Dr. Natasha's Vegetable Medley. Add in a jar of ginger carrots (from Nourishing Traditions, and four jars of fermented applesauce--two raw and and two cooked, and WHEW!! I am done for now, and am enjoying the array of bubbling jars on the shelf behind the setee.

There are wonderful sites, blogs, and books now devoted to the art of fermenting, but I always come back to Sandor Katz' Wild Fermentation, with a book and blog of the same name. He does an amazing job of introducing many types of ferments, why we would want to make and eat them, and--best of all--he transmits a infectious joy for all things microbial. I encourage any of you who have yet to dip a toe into the world of ferments, traditional and inventive, to explore what "Sandorkraut" has to offer.

Why Ferment?

We humans have more microbes in our digestive tracts than we have cells in our bodies--about five pounds of the stuff! These microbes--bacteria, yeasts, viruses and tiny parasites, come in both beneficial and pathogenic varieties. The beneficial beasties help with digestion, with conversion of various substances we eat to usable forms, and they even manufacture some nutrients that we depend upon (vitamin K is a well-known example). They help keep the pathogens in check, both the ones that reside in the gut, and the ones that show up on occasion--so they are a functioning part of our immune systems.

Unfortunately, there are multiple factors in our modern life that can destroy our microbial friends. The list is long: antibiotics (which do not discriminate between the good guys and the bad), steroids, birth control pills, denatured foods, metal toxicity, multiple chemicals (in foods, the environments, cleaning supplies, etc), and more.

As concerning is the fact that we don't have or take in the microbes that we might have in the past. Babies are supposed to acquire probiotic bacteria as they travel through the birth canal, swallowing fluids from mama, and then through the skin-to-skin contact of nursing and being held. As more babies are born by C-section, and fewer are nursed, and many moms receive antibiotics during labor, many babies start life at a microbial disadvantage. 

In the past we sourced our water from streams and wells, where we gained the benefit of pure water (no chemicals) and trace soil organisms. Our forbears ate quite a bit of their food fermented, perhaps originally owing to a lack of refrigeration, but eventually because people enjoyed and thrived on the changed foods. We developed a taste for all sorts of ferments, things you might not even know were once fermented: soda, yoghurt, vinegar, sausages (such as salami), bread, beer, wine, ketchup, fish sauce, myriad pickles, chocolate, coffee, tea. Just about every culture has a favorite culture! Think dosas and iddlies in India, sauerkraut in Germany, root beer in the USA, tsukemono, natto, and miso in Japan, kvass of all sorts in Russia. I know I am just scratching the surface, but that should give you a sense of the enormous variety in the world of fermentation.

Eating cultured food does not replace the flora we should have gotten at birth, but it goes a long way toward keeping us healthy. Hippocrates famously said that all disease begins in the gut, and now we are finally proving this scientifically. Luckily, though, we don't need scientists to help us shift the balance toward the beneficial, friendly, tribe. We just need to take the offenders out of our lives, as much as we can control, and add the good guys in on a daily basis. In an acute situation, a bottled commercial probiotic can be helpful, but we all need to consume some amount of cultured food to keep the healthy balance we were meant to have. Some folks have even reversed very troubling issues with powerful probiotic foods such as kefir (see Dom's site for one inspiring story).

OK, so these foods are almost miraculous. Will they change the world? Will they satisfy those agitating for various political and economic shifts? Why should we put so much energy into food? I don't have all of those answers, but I will say this: slowing down to make and appreciate real, healing, foods may indeed change your life. It has changed mine. And if our lives change, we may influence some others. We may be able to turn around and help a friend, a neighbor, a relative. We can set an example of a simple and healthful life, which might shift the energy in our social circle. That in turn, can affect a neighborhood, a town, and who knows where the change might end.

It is entirely possible that by helping our microbes instead of killing them, that maybe we might Ferment Change in the world.

All it takes is a head of cabbage, some salt and a jar....

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Recipe (and a bit of a rant.)

I trust my farmers. I trust them deeply, else I would not eat the food that I do (and I feed my family with this food, so this is terribly important to me, that I can look a farmer in the eye, go to his or her farm, observe how the animals live).

When I started eating in the manner advocated by Weston A. Price, Sally Fallon, and Nourishing Traditions, some years ago, I had no idea that I would have such gratifying relationships with our local farmers. Over time, they have become Friends Who Happen to Raise Our Food. I believe this is what happens when there is no separation in the form of a grocery store or other middle man. Every week we go to the farmers market. That is beginning of the story. What happens from there depends on the day. We might have intense conversation over whether the cheese is better with or without the rind. About how hot the Big Bomb peppers are. About the best way to prepare beef heart. That may seem obvious, talking about the food.

Soon, though, something else started to happen. If we missed a week, we were greeted with loving concern ("Is everything all right? We missed you..."), there were questions back and forth about kids, about health concerns, about the weather and the economy. We were becoming part of a rich community. Now we hear about sweethearts and weddings, the loss of another farmer's chickens, the immigration troubles of a relative. We exchange hugs, phone numbers, recipes.

And because I trust my farmers, I generally trust their recipes. Tonight I tried something a bit out of my comfort zone, recommended by Fred and Joanne Hatfield of Kol Simcha Farm. Fred and Joanne raise lamb, chickens for eggs and vegetables. They are always ready with a wonderful recipe and the ingredients to prepare it, so when they suggested making a lamb stew Fred remembered fondly from his fishing days, we had to try it. I wasn't too sure about the combination of lamb, cabbage and peppercorns, and I had no idea this dish is a national icon in Norway, but I am game to do almost anything once.

Only, when I went to make dinner, I had misplaced the recipe that Joanne had tucked into my bag of lamb shanks and cabbage. A bit of googling turned up multiple recipes for faarikaal the national dish of Norway. (Do we have a national dish? Do I really want to know what that might be?) I remembered a few details (such as a copious amount of peppercorns--I used two tablespoons, and I think Joanne recommended four!) and set out to recreate what our friends had enthusiastically described. A simple braise, faarikaal can be pared down to four ingredients; lamb, cabbage, peppercorns, salt. Easy! And GAPS friendly too! I added some onion and carrot to those four things, filled one of my big Dutch ovens halfway with water and a bit of broth, and set the whole thing in the oven for three or four hours. That's it, nothing difficult. I had four shanks and used 1/2 of a medium cabbage and 3 carrots. The rest is done by eye and taste (meaning that you don't need a recipe with exact proportions, just trust it will work out).

As it happens, I had to go out in the early evening, and by the time I got home, the whole boat was filled with the aroma of faarikaal, warm and inviting. It was so late and I was so hungry that I just served the stew with no accompaniments other than some tart red kraut (yeah, more cabbage, but the tart was perfect with the rich meat and broth. I think lingonberries are a traditional accompaniment, for just that reason). I know you want pictures, but I was way too famished to stop and take any (there are a few at the above link).

So yummy and warming. Just like our friendships with our farmers. It's easy to say that we would be lost without farms and farmers. That must be clear to most anyone who thinks about it for a few minutes. But do most Americans know what has happened to the family farm? Do they know that most of the country's food comes from places that look very little like the pretty little farms in our children's picture books (or on the greenwashed packages in places like Whole Foods)? There's a reason they are called "factory" farms, with a heavy emphasis on the factory part.

This has been weighing heavily on my mind since Michael Schmidt began his hunger strike 33 days ago. Here is a farmer who has spent his life fighting for food freedom, for our right to eat real food, free from government interference, and who has won the loyalty of many around the world for his impeccable integrity. Unfortunately, the government of Canada, where he lives and farms, does not see it that way. He has been raided, harassed, and brought close to ruin more than once by government agencies that don't really care whether he is doing a service to families that choose--freely--to buy his milk. Rules is rules, according to them, never mind that the rules are bizarre, really serving to squelch real competition on the market.

Raw milk politics may seem marginal to many, but this is bigger than raw milk--it is about the freedom to choose Real Food. No one tells me I can't buy raw oysters (for now). I don't have to lie and claim they are cat food (though Mr. Chippy does love his oysters!) No one demands that fish or meat be sold cooked only. Why must we treat people like idiots or babies and force them to buy cooked milk only? Because, for some reason, the milk industry is actually feeling threatened by the presence of cow shares and milk coops. They will claim it is because people have been sickened by raw milk, but if you spend a while on you will see that more people have contracted illnesses from things like lunch meats, produce, and other products of Big Agriculture. I retain the right to eat what I feel nourishes me and my family. And I will go down fighting for your right to do so as well.

Which is why Michael Schmidt is fasting. His demand: a meeting with the premier of Ontario to discuss these matters face to face, with no intermediaries. The premier, Dalton McGuinty, has yet to even say whether he will meet with Schmidt. The demand is not to change policy, just to have a meeting, a conversation. Are we so frightened as a society that we can't honor a request for dialog? I have a hard time believing that a politician could let another man die on his watch, rather than man up and have a discussion with him, no matter how much they might disagree.

There is so much more I could say, but it is late and I am beginning to ramble. Lots of wonderful bloggers have written sensitive analyses of what is happening. If I have time tomorrow I will compile a list (for now, go to the FaceBook page that is serving as a clearing house for support and information: ) I hope that I am being clear though: we have to fight for our freedoms, in whatever way we can. Most of us can not risk our lives with a hunger strike, but might sign a petition, talk to someone, write a letter, attend a rally, or just go buy some raw milk--or oysters, for that matter--just go find some real food and support the farmer who is selling it.

And remember, those farmers, who work such long days to bring us our food...they could be your friends. Start a conversation. Who knows where it might lead?
Clicky Web Analytics