Monday, 24 September 2012

ITKP: "Courageous Cooking Class: Fermented Foods"

With the autumn equinox upon us, the reality of cooler temperatures and gusty winds became evident as folks made their way to our second In the Kitchen Practicum. Co-sponsored by and related to our Spectrum Series's "Courage & Creativity" campus-wide theme, and with support from both the Office of Sustainability and The Open House, our "Courageous Cooking Class: Fermented Foods" program drew in about 25 participants eager to learn and inquisitive enough to try their hand at (and challenge their palates to) the world of fermentation. In actuality, as we learned throughout the practicum, we're already quite familiar with (and some perhaps arguably addicted to) fermented foods-- certainly tea, cheese, chocolate and/or coffee are known to most? But what about such traditionally prepared "staples" as kefir, kombucha and kvass? Teresa Peters, co-owner of The Going Green Store, and Erin Harvey (owner of The Kale Yard and the Going Green Store's first employee) were on site to share their own experiences with fermented foods and then to lead us in the preparation of our own jars of sauerkraut.


In what could have easily been more than the two-hour session for which we had planned, our Courageous Cooking Class cut across a vast variety of experiences and engaged participants from those who had no clue what fermentation is to those who have had great successes (and not so great ones) with fermenting their own food to those whose were simply there to make the most of another educational moment. As hoped for, it's also worth celebrating the fact that our participant pool also included faculty, staff, students and faculty members... all in the name of fermentation!

Just as openly as Teresa was during Wednesday's Food and Culture Colloquium session, Teresa shared that it is for personal health reasons that she discovered the benefits of fermented food; combined with her regular treatment, she credits much of her good health while living with cancer to her alternative lifestyle by way of fermented foods. In that context, Teresa shared the many health benefits she has researched and learned about through this personal interaction with food. In essence, consuming fermented foods introduces "good bacteria" to your system; and they're good because they help begin the digestive process for you. For those who may be in the growing number of gluten or lactose intolerant diners, this is especially good news, given that the bacteria help break down the grains and milk that your body has a hard time breaking down on its own. While one could consume an acidophilus pill which contains billions of lactobacillus acidophili (i.e., good germs), relatively inexpensive foods such as two tablespoons of sauerkraut may contain trillions of these healthy aids (check this out for more info). Not only do fermented foods provide great health benefits, but they also become practical and economical. For a fuller list of lactobacillus-heavy foods, click here.

For Erin, she found fermentation as a practical means of preserving her crops. While whey helps in the fermentation process, pickling and similar preservation techniques aim to create an environment (of which the key ingredient is salt) where the bad stuff is kept from growing. For whatever you end up pickling/leaving to ferment, it's important to include enough water to cover the top layer of food, and to mix in that water with a high quality sea salt (Celtic sea salt is preferred, as is Himalayan salt) that still contains its natural elements. This salty environment makes putrefied bacteria unhappy and thus can't survive, while the lacto-bacteria breaks down lactose, etc. Once your food is under salty liquid, it's all up to you as to how fizzy/pickled you want things to go.

And so, the goal of the fermentation process is to get enough good bacteria into our food; but how can you even extract it? When you think lacto/lactic hopefully you're also thinking milk. Naturally, the lactic acid in milk separates as whey, as you leave milk to separate and "sour." As you may have done in grade school, I suppose you could concoct a science experiment and use vinegar to get this separation process to happen, but we're not exactly going for vinegar-flavoured whey nor is it essential to work with curdled milk. (By contrast, you may note that we can go through that as part of the rusk-making process should we need a substitute for buttermilk.) A longer, drawn out process requires the use of both rice and milk and not only takes a few weeks to complete, but also begs the question of whether or not its safe to share this with a gluten or lactose intolerant individual. These options aside, then, the preferred method, in a much simpler form, is to separate the liquid (whey) from a different dairy product, the solid particles of which much easier to separate than the minute solid particles dispersed throughout milk. The answer, of course, is to strain, at least overnight at room temperature, high quality (milk from cows without growth hormones, no sugar added, live cultures, whole fat, etc.) yogurt between a few layers of cheesecloth. When straining, do be sure to save the strained liquid and not strain it into the sink and down the pipes, as that's what contains the whey and lactobacilli! (And if you're concerned about botulism or eating something left alone kept outside of a refrigerator, consider Sally Fallon and mary Enig's words of wisdom in Nourishing Traditions: "Spoilage in lacto-fermented foods is very obvious unlike canned foods where the food can be fatally contaminated by botulism yet show no obvious sign of spoilage." For more info on botulism, check out this video with Kandor Satz. As for the separated solids, you've essentially got a cream cheese that would go very well with fresh herbs. [An aside, check out this site for more info on lacto-fermentation.]

After explaining their motivations for getting into fermented foods and demonstrating how to extract whey from yogurt, Teresa and Erin talked about kvass or rather more specifically beet kvass (a version of which--bubonic tonic--I tried via Fab Ferments at Findlay Market a few weeks ago). A true friend to the liver, beets are great detoxers, so why not ferment them and boost their power? Originating in Eastern Europe, fermented beets are even the key ingredient to making a proper borscht. A labour of love, Teresa found that a successful kvass includes nothing more than beets, salt and fresh filtered water. Perhaps even more importantly, though, the beets need to be chopped coarsely (somewhere between grated and chunks) and the entire batch should sit in the dark for about five days before transferring to the fridge (when the colder temperature slows down the fermentation process).

From the beet kvass we transferred over to another kind , kombucha (tea) which, if ever there was something that could exemplify the need for courage in a courageous cooking class, this would be it. Settled in a large jar on the demo table is a "mother culture" which is necessary for brewing kombucha. While one could buy a mother culture, mother cultures such as the one Teresa owns are typically peeled off as a layer and shared with friends who would then brew their own tea and likewise create a literal culture-al community (haha, get it?). Also known as a scoby (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast), I should note that this culture is not a mushroom, and as is the case with anything else you aim to ferment must exist under a liquid (here, tea). In any case, to properly brew kombucha, a mother culture is needed to ferment your tea and pack in the claimed nutritional benefits; additionally it is absolutely vital to brew kombucha in a sterile environment. Indeed, many conflicting reports and case studies arguing against kombucha and which claim it as "dangerous" seem to come from improperly brewed batches. This said, I'll probably stick to buying kombucha from such vendors as Central Ohio's Bob Munley who has gone through many an entrepreneurial battle to market his Kombu-Tea which can be found at the Granville Farmers Market.

With the scoby passed around, we concluded the demo portion of the program with an explanation and preparation of kefir, a brief discussion of miso (and its umami-ness), and notes on the ingredients of kimchi, before moving onto the much-anticipated fermented foods sampling which included kefir, kombucha and kvass, as well as the cream cheese-esque herb spread, miso soup and commercial sauerkraut.

The final, and unfortunately rushed but nevertheless slightly chaotic and fun (the summary of a communal cooking experience, no?), part of the program was the process of preparing cabbage for our own individual jars of homemade sauerkraut. Guided by Nourishing Traditions's recipe, each individual jar of soon-to-be sauerkraut included enough cabbage to fill the jar after being pounded (about 2/3 a cabbage), 1/2 tbsp Celtic sea salt and 2 tbsps collected whey (for a dairy-free version, i.e., without the whey, we doubled the sea salt). In sum, shred your cabbage and to it in a metal bowl (a sturdy plastic one works well, too) your salt and whey, and pound it all together to release the water from the cabbage. You may not be able to tell from the photos, but we used the same jars we were going to put the cabbage in to mash everything together. After about 10-15 minutes, you should be good to go.

In my version, I mixed red and green cabbage, and once I released enough water, I transferred everything into my jar and used a smaller glass to pack in all the cabbage. Compressing the cabbage does two things: this ensure you're going to preserve as much cabbage as possible and it helps keep the liquid level above the cabbage itself. Remember the importance of letting the salt acts as your food's barrier for preservation. In this process, if you don't have enough liquid, there's nothing wrong with emptying everything back into your bowl and continuing to smash the cabbage; it's really quite a therapeutic process. And if absolutely necessary, you could top off the rest of the jar with fresh filtered water. Do make sure to leave some room between the liquid and the jar lid as the bacteria will create carbon dioxide and thus build up pressure in the jar. In fact, a clear sign if you've gone through the process correctly is if the jar makes a clear popping sound when you unscrew the lid. At the end of it all, tightly secure your lid and leave your jar of cabbage out to ferment at room temperature for at least three days. Before putting it in the fridge, open the jar and give it a taste. If it's too salty or needs to continue to ferment (or if you want a more sauerkraut-y kind of taste), you'll know pretty much immediately! (I should note here not to be thrown off by the last photo in the above series; the jar to the right has leftover cabbage that I still need to process. Also, I'll be sure to update this post after I open my jar tomorrow. (Update, 10/1: here's the update)

Suggested reading for this session:
"An Interview with Underground Foodie Hero Sandor Katz" (via Grist, 2007)

Before I conclude this post and another successful food and culture program, I would like to share some important follow-up information from Teresa and Erin:

We had initially planned on incorporating into the practicum this interview with Sandor Katz (a big name and proponent in the world of fermented foods), but time easily escaped us. In addition, it should be noted that the following recommended books are available for purchase at The Going Green Store: Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz, and Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.

For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. For all the posted photos from this practicum, click here.

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