As the summer progresses, it becomes time to think about ways in which to preserve one’s excess produce. Freezing is, of course, an easy way to set aside for the colder months. But in days of yore, there were no freezers, and our ancestors relied on the miracle of fermentation to preserve their bounty.
It was a gift of the gods—Bacchus turned juice into wine; Osiris was responsible for beer, Japanese O-kami were responsible for miso and soy sauce. Bread, kimchi and its cousin sauerkraut, yogurt, vinegar, moonshine. Don’t forget cheese! We all reveled in the knowledge that the gods were great and generous in allowing for the miraculous transformation of simple produce into savory, long lasting nourishment.
As Western Europe’s scientific boom at the turn of the 19th century began, some people were starting to suggest that fermentation might be the product of a chemical reaction. But it was not until the late 1830’s that scientists started to realize that fermentation is due to the activity of molds, fungi and bacteria.
This conclusion was not without controversy. Proponents of a mystical philosophy called “vitalism” argued that living organisms contained a vital life force district from chemistry. Louis Pasteur, the father of modern biochemistry, was able to prove that fermentation is called by living organisms. His early studies on fermentation led to his subsequent development (with Koch) of germ theory, which stated that different types of diseases are caused by different types of micro-organisms.
And so the process of fermentation began to be mystifying in a whole different way. Wikipedia says,
“Fermentation takes place in the absence of oxygen (when the electron transport chain is unusable) and becomes the cell’s primary means of ATP (energy) production. It turns NADH and pyruvate produced in the glycolysis step into NAD+ and various small molecules.”
Well, if that doesn’t make the process of fermentation crystal clear, I don’t know what does!
But I think I rather prefer the idea of a Kim Chee God.
And speaking of kim chee — that Korean concoction of cabbage and/or other vegetables fermented with garlic, chili paste and fish sauce here is a recipe that will blow your mind. It takes a few days to get to the finished product.
Chop up into bite sized pieces about 2 pounds of nappa cabbage or bok choy, 1 medium sized daikon radish, a couple of carrots and a bunch of green onions. Brine them in a big, non-reactive bowl with 4 C water and 4T salt. Cover and let it sit overnight. Then add a mixture of one minced head of garlic, at least 4 inches of grated ginger, about 2-4 T Korean chili powder, and about ¼ dried bonito flakes. Drain the brine off, saving a bit for if you need it later, and then mix everything up with the seasonings. Pack tightly into jars.
When I was younger, I used to sit and watch TV with a bottle of beer and a jar of kimchee! So yummy but more than a little smelly.
What I didn’t know back then was how healthy fermented food are, because of their probiotic properties. Wellness experts claim that fermented foods can help you lose weight, prevent illness, and help with IBS.
I have also had a life-long love affair with takuan, which is that yellow pickle that you often see in Japanese restaurants along with other cold, pickled vegetables. It is made out of a Japanese radish called daikon.
Slice or cut into sticks three or four scraped daikon into a lidded plastic container and mix in a generous 2 cups of sugar. Slap the lid back on and stick it in the fridge for 2 hours, shaking the container every few hours. Drain and rinse. Combine ¼ C kosher salt and 1/3 C rice vinegar and brown sugar and add that to the daikon along with some chili flakes. You can add yellow food coloring if you wish at this point for a traditional touch. Put the lid back on and refrigerate for two weeks, tossing occasionally. After two weeks, pack the pickles into jars and screw the lids on tight. These pickles last a very long time.
But if these traditional Asian fermentations are too much for you, allow me to present a recipe for the ever popular cucumber pickle. These are two recipe offered by my favorite food radio personalities Nancy Leson and Dick Stein of Seattle’s KPLU.
DICK’S HALF-SOUR NEW YORK PICKLES (MAKES 2 ONE-QUART JARS)
Lay 2 sterilized 1 quart canning jars on their sides and push a grape leaf down to the bottom of each. Pack the medium cukes in to fill jars half way. Then, to each jar, add 1 tablespoon pickling spice and 2 cloves sliced garlic. Pack in the rest of the medium cukes, then wedge the small ones in between to keep them from floating up when brine is added.
Fill jars to top with brine, screw on lids and refrigerate or process in a hot water bath. Pickles need a week to mellow in their brine before being eaten.
NANCY’S WILD GINGER CUCUMBER PICKLES
Slice a pound of small cucumbers to quarter-inch thickness and combine with 1 teaspoon salt. Let sit for 1 hour. Rinse and drain. Then combine 1 t salt, 2T vinegar and 2T sugar with 5 tablespoons hot water. Stir up the liquid and pour over the wilted cucumbers. Toss with 2 sliced shallots and 1 T sliced ginger. Let it sit an hour before serving.