Biggest 2014 harvest yet. First carrots & beets, main crop of potatoes, lots of cabbage, garlic, onions & greens, and the perpetual lettuce keeps on coming.
Biggest 2014 harvest yet. First carrots & beets, main crop of potatoes, lots of cabbage, garlic, onions & greens, and the perpetual lettuce keeps on coming.
Some of the seedlings that I'm fostering under lights are almost ready to go outside into the garden. Seen here are several different kinds of lettuce, leeks, spinach, red and green cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. The cabbage and Brussels sprouts are a bit slower and will probably need another week under the lights.
Previously, I wrote about my growing interest in making fermented foods, inspired by Sandor Katz and his book “The Art of Fermentation”. Since last summer, I have been experimenting even more, making pickles from a variety of vegetables, especially those from our garden or our local farm, Busa (now replaced by Lexington Community Farm, or LexFarm). As we divided the crops each working day at the Garden, "I'll pickle it!" became my slogan, especially whenever some extra vegetable was up for grabs.
Of all the trials, I have had only two disappointments – my first set of brined cucumbers, made with some of the smaller cucumbers picked from the Garden, had tough, rubbery skins. After some discussion among Garden colleagues, we decided that pickling cucumbers were probably especially bred for pickling, and perhaps have more tender skins. So, in subsequent batches, I used pickling cucumbers from Busa Farm. Both types of cucumber pickle I made with the pickling cukes, a partially sweet Bread and Butter style and a brined sour "no dill" pickle, were superb! The other disappointment was an apple and onion pickle, prepared with freshly picked local apples from a farmer’s market. They were just too sour, plus too spicy with crushed dried red pepper. Unlike some of the other pickle recipes I’ve used (e.g. a beet recipe), there was no added sugar. I will be looking for a slightly sweeter apple pickle recipe in the future.
Otherwise, though, the pickling has been very rewarding! Friends and family have given me very positive feedback on the tastes and textures coming out of these colorful jars stacked in our basement “pantry”. This winter, I was so glad to be able to hang on longer to the abundance of our gardening season.
Besides the guidelines from Katz’s book, I’ve followed some more specific recipes, in particular those from Linda Ziedrich’s classic, “The Joy of Pickling”. As I usually do, I’ve modified these recipes here and there. In this post, I will describe just a few examples of the pickles I’ve been making.
In most cases, I have sterilized the packed jars by immersion in a boiling water bath, enabling me to store them safely in the pantry for weeks to months. For acidic preparations, which all of these are, boiling water temperature is sufficient. For canning fruits and vegetables that are not acidic, a pressure cooker must be used to attain higher temperatures. I did my canning in a 23-gallon pressure cooker/canner for convenience, but with the valve open so that it was not under pressure. In a few cases, such as a tomatillo recipe, the recipe called for the pickles to not be heat-packed but, instead, to be stored in the refrigerator where they will keep for only a few weeks.
In my pickling, I’ve employed two general techniques. One is to immerse the vegetables, plus some spices, in a solution that is already acidic, usually vinegar (at 5% acidity) or a vinegar-water mixture. The second, more classic fermentation technique, is to immerse the vegetables and spices in brine (a salt/water mixture) and let it sit at a warm room temperature, such as in a sunny window, for 2 or 3 weeks, giving micro-organisms in the preparation time to ferment, generating their own lactic acid that imparts a tangy taste and helps preserve the pickles. While I have found that many wonderful flavors have resulted from the vinegar-based recipes, I definitely have a preference for the brine fermentations. I love the ancient tradition of this method, its connection to biochemistry, and the complexity of flavors that develop in the final brine after several days of fermentation. According to Katz and others, after the pickles have been eaten, people have been known to make soup with the leftover brine or even to drink it. I have not yet tried drinking it, but I did make a soup and it turned out to be one of the best soups I’ve ever had. (More on that later.)
As noted above, my first attempt at classic fermented pickles was disappointing. But, after that unsuccessful run with the tough-skinned regular cukes, I made two much better batches of sour pickles using whole pickling cukes and a classic brine fermentation technique. Since I am not crazy about dill, I decided to make something similar to the “no dill crock pickles” recipe from Joy of Pickling. Sandor Katz recommends a 5% brine (5 g salt to 100 ml water) for a sour pickle, 3.5% for “half-sour”. So, I went with that 5% brine strength, also adding a very small amount of white vinegar because Ziedrich’s recipe recommended it. (Too much vinegar, however, is a bad idea according to Katz because it inhibits natural fermentation.) I also used the same spice combination suggested in Ziedrich’s “no dill” recipe, whole allspice, peppercorns, lemon zest and fennel seed. Ziedrich and others suggest adding sour cherry or grape leaves which reportedly helps keep the pickles crispy. I was unable to find sour cherry or grape leaves, except for the marinated canned Greek style grape leaves that I’m sure were not what she had in mind. Having read in Katz’s book that these leaves, or tea leaves, work by adding tannins, I decided to just throw an Earl Grey tea bag in each jar. In addition, I added a few bay leaves, though honestly, I have no idea if they supply the requisite tannins. In the end, the pickles were crispy and delicious so whatever I did seemed to have worked fine. I therefore repeated it exactly for the second batch. Someday, though, I’d like to find these sour cherry leaves and see if they make a difference.
Traditionally, the fermentation is done with the cukes in a crock, and then later they are packed into jars for canning and longer term storage. (When I described this pickling project to my Dad, he told me that he remembers his father, my Zayde, fermenting dill pickles in a big crock in their kitchen.) Ziedrich says she prefers using large glass jars, so that you can see what is going on. I liked that idea, and used several half-gallon jars. The fermentation works best if the mixture is not exposed to much oxygen, by sealing the top in some manner, though not completely airtight. (Remember the biochemistry: when oxygen is scarce, instead of using the usual mitochondrial respiration, the organism makes ATP through anaerobic glycolysis, ultimately resulting in lactic acid production. This is what happens in excessively exercised muscle…ouch. ) In a traditional crock, a weighted plate is laid on top of the vegetable/liquid surface. Ziedrich’s book suggests placing a clean zip lock bag, also filled with brine, in the mouth of the jars (see photo). I did that and it worked great! The photo shows one batch, at the beginning of the fermentation period. As the pickles ferment, the mixture bubbles and gets cloudy, and the cucumbers turn from bright green to olive green. (Whereas “half-sours” remain brighter green.)
The recipe called for allowing fermentation to proceed for 2 to 3 weeks. After 2 wks, I liked the way the pickles looked and tasted, so I proceeded with the next step. The pickles were drained through a colander collecting and saving all the brine. The pickles were rinsed (photo below) and repacked into quart size jars. I added fresh spices, allspice, peppercorn, fennel seed and lemon zest. In addition, a modification to the cookbook recipe, I added a few cloves of garlic. Meanwhile, the brine is strained and the whole spices, tea bag, leaves, etc discarded. The brine is then heated to a boil and simmered for a few minutes and then poured back over the pickles in the smaller jars. After two weeks of fermentation, this brine had become a gorgeous, rich golden color, loaded with flavor.
At this point, the jars can just be stored in the refrigerator or, to enable them to be stored longer in the pantry, canned in a boiling water bath. I chose the latter, and processed all the sealed jars for 12 minutes in the boiling bath.
To my joy, I had a lot of leftover brine after filling the canning jars. As mentioned above, it’s been reported that this brine can be used for a tangy soup. I found a recipe I liked online, called “Polish Soup”. I modified this recipe by adding a few more vegetables all, except for the celery, from the Garden (leeks, parsnips, turnips, carrots, Savoy cabbage and a small Chiogga beet). Instead of boiling the carrots with the potatoes as the recipe instructed, I sautéed them along with the leeks, celery and parsnips, and garlic, in an olive oil/butter mixture. I boiled the turnips and beet with the Yukon gold potatoes. Instead of using only one cup of pickling brine, I used about 4 cups, and also added 2 cups of organic vegetable stock. When the potatoes were boiled, I pureed most of them to give the broth its creamy body, but kept one potato in coarse chunks. I chopped some of my own sour pickles into the soup, and also added cabbage and simmered it all together for another 20 minutes. This soup was amazing! It had more flavor than I can even describe. As we have finished our stock of sour pickles, I have saved the brine in the freezer. I’ve made a few more batches of this soup, varying the vegetables depending on what I have, but always using Yukon gold potatoes, carrots, chopped pickles and some kind of onion and/or leek. And, often I add greens. Depending on the amount of brine I have on hand, I have varied the brine/stock ratio. I have used all my leftover brines for soup, again, not really feeling the least bit tempted to drink it!
Using a similar brining technique, I made sour green tomato pickles. These incorporated all varieties of unripened tomatoes we had collected from the Garden on the day we chose to take down all the tomato plants prior to a hard frost. In this case, I followed the “green cherry tomato” recipe in Joy of Pickling, even though there were also large tomatoes, which I quartered, in the mix. The instructions called for room temperature fermentation for only one week, followed by a second week of slower fermentation in the refrigerator prior to eating. Since no canning option was mentioned in the recipe, I decided to just keep these cold in the half-gallon jars. I did not want to inadvertently cook them and have them lose their crunchy texture. These, too, were delicious..very tangy and garlickly. And, crunchy! I used this brine for soup, too. Its flavor was different from that of the cucumber brine but the soup was still delicious. Another experiment that worked really well was brining halved Brussels sprouts. Several batches of brined, then canned, sauerkraut were also a success. As Sandor Katz wrote in his book, sauerkraut is the perfect fermentation project for a beginner.
For the vinegar-based pickles, I pretty much followed the Joy of Pickling recipes. Though, I often used regular distilled white vinegar instead of white wine vinegar, even though Ziedrich feels its flavor can be “harsh….” and it is “..most useful..in cleaning windows and floors”. White wine vinegar was not readily available in gallon size jugs, and these recipes needed large volumes. I made red cabbage in two versions, with red wine vinegar and cider vinegar, and each had a different character.
Besides those I’ve mentioned above, some other kinds of pickles I’ve made include:
Bread and Butter “My Way” cucumber pickles, a less sweet version that, to Ziedrich, is less “cloying” than the standard recipe. I agree with her. Bread and Butter pickles can be too sweet, but her “My Way” recipe is excellent. Turmeric is included to give them that characteristic golden-yellow color.
Classic beets – I added carrots to one batch. A more recent batch included some golden beets, which I canned separately from the red ones so they’d keep their pretty color. This is a slightly sweet recipe, with brown sugar added to the cider vinegar, simmered with cinnamon, clove, and allspice. It reminds me of hot, mulled apple cider.
Pink pickled turnips: A Lebanese tradition, these were a favorite of mine when I lived in Roslindale, which has a Middle Eastern market that sold them in huge jars. The ones I made came out just like I remembered. These are very simple, flavored only with celery leaves and no other spices. The strong flavor of the turnips is really all that you need. A small beet is included just to give them a pink color.
Cauliflower with sweet and hot peppers. In a different variation, I used the same spice/vinegar mixture with halved Brussels sprouts. Fennel and cumin seeds, among other spices, gives this a really nice flavor.
Jerusalem artichokes or sunchokes – wonderful! Cider vinegar spiced with ginger, garlic, dried hot peppers, and whole coriander and cumin seeds and sweetened with a dash of brown sugar. They stay really crispy. These were from the Garden – I harvested them that day and they were everywhere, even invading under the fence. I believe I ended up with 3 or 4 lbs and, besides pickles, also made a delicious soup combining them with Yukon gold potatoes (a recipe from Deborah Madison’s “Vegetable Literacy”.)
As I write this, it is spring, 2014. Our basement pantry stock of pickles is at least half gone and I'm looking forward to replenishing it through a new growing season. Between the Robbins Farm Garden and our CSA share from LexFarm, I expect to have plenty of vegetables, and enough variety to explore new recipes. And, I am very grateful that my fellow Gardeners agreed that, this year, we can grow some pickling cukes. So, stay tuned……
Cold spring weather a problem for all early crop. Late crop started in garden and transplanted.
Broccoli: sprouting type was a bust, possibly weather stress. Late crop did better in potato bed
– try heat tolerant variety next spring?
Brussels Sprouts: starting seedlings indoors produced more viable plants – plant further apart?
Cabbage: early green & red did well. Late green did well, red did not, savoy took a little too long.
Cauliflower: most early season produced tiny heads, a few heads produced normally & a few others took twice the time, late crop all produced well.
Romanesco Cauliflower: started indoors, plants produced tiny heads (like early broccoli & cauliflower) –give up or grow only late season
4 minute video here.
This was the year we dove head-first into seedling starting. Last year, we got our feet wet with early lettuce and spinach. This year, we took on a dozen more crops for a total of 350 seedlings! Here's what we did… and learned.
We started the seedlings in two main groups: early (sown on March 9th) and late (sown on March 30th).
Our early seedlings were Greens (lettuce & spinach), Alliums (leeks & onions) and Brassicas (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbages & cauliflowers). They were first transplanted into 6-packs, then planted in the garden on April 21 (6 weeks after sowing). We had a long cold early spring followed by a heat wave, so the transplants took some time to take hold and have suffered some heat stress. Yet, we've had an excellent harvest of early greens and most of the alliums and brassicas have hung on and are now growing well.
Our late seedlings were the Nightshades (eggplants, peppers, tomatillos & tomatoes), along with okra, basil and a smaller, second crop of lettuces. They went into the garden on May 27th (8 weeks after sowing). Unlike the early seedlings, they required transplanting twice: first into 6-packs and then into 4-inch pots. The tomatillos and tomatoes may have been slightly overgrown (over a foot tall, some with flowers) when planted in the garden. The eggplants and peppers were strong, stunningly perfect 6-9 inch tall seedlings.
We experimented with sowing in soil blocks this year. The lettuces and spinach were planted directly into pressed soil blocks made with a press borrowed from fellow gardener, Donna Kray. It took some experimentation to get the soil consistency and moisture level right (quite heavy and wet). It also took some practice to perfect the pressing technique, but the seedlings did very well. The soil block presses come in graduated sizes – with the smaller ones fitting into the larger ones — so they could also be used for the late seedlings.
The seedlings that weren’t in soil blocks were transplanted into 6-packs 2 weeks after sowing. The late seedlings were transplanted into 4” pots after an additional 2-3 weeks of growth. We made our own planting mix of coir, sterilized compost, vermiculite and sand. Unlike mixes using peat moss, no lime was needed to neutralize the acidity. We increased the amount of compost and decreased the vermiculite in the mix each time the seedlings were transplanted, always making sure to include a sprinkling of organic fertilizer.
Our seedlings began indoors under lights. Three 4' dual fluorescent fixtures were suspended below the upper shelf of a sturdy 4' x 2' x 6' tall shelf unit. Three 18" x 24" trays holding the seedlings were slid in on the shelf below. Two of the bulbs were Ecolux T8 and the others were older Paralite grow lamps.
The lights were run through a simple timer, set for 15 hours a day. The distance of the seedlings from the lights was adjusted by the number of trays (these trays have a 3/4 inch thick rim) and by switching out varying length S hooks made from heavy gauge wire suspending the light fixtures.
The only way we could grow so many seedlings was with the coordinated efforts of our dedicated seedling committee (Lisa, Michael, Mike, Sue and me). We gathered for planting and transplanting sessions, and took on caring for the seedlings at different stages of their development.
The grow lights in our basement made it easy for me to oversee the sprouting and early stages of growth. When it came time for the seedlings to be hardened off and given real sun, Lisa, Michael and Sue took over their care. We were able to spread the work and all reap the rewards — awesome!
We had another beautiful day for planting yesterday. We planted a second-round of radish seeds, added a few more lettuce and cabbage seedlings to what we had put in before, and planted first rounds of parsnips, soybeans, salad turnips, and parsley.
Steven watered. Dick weeded. Corinna and Martha thinned our early radish shoots, always a difficult task for tender-hearted gardeners. Susan cleared a plot of winter rye, then planted soybeans at one end, with the help of a young visitor. Elizabeth put in parsley seedlings and a screen to shelter them from too much sun. Several of the guys started in on a watering homunculus that will ring the garden, reduce hose dragging, and bring more flexibility to our watering routines.
The deadline has now passed for signing on for this year’s garden. For the 20 slots available, 15 people paid their $75 and signed up. We’re 10 returnees from last year and 5 new members. If things work out as before, that means we’ll usually have 8 to 12 people working in the garden each Saturday morning and one evening during the week, yet to be decided. Members will also drop by individually when extra watering needs doing or sometimes just to hang out. We welcome visitors whenever one of us is there.
On our last day of gardening
I proposed to compose
a frivolous poem
about a cabbage rose.
Instead of exposing
them all to the snows,
we harvested the rows
before they froze.
Now, in repose,
they silently doze;
destined for coleslaw,
Just like my Sue, my sister of the soil, I’ve just made my first-ever batch of sauerkraut, which spent four days on the counter before moving to the well-known "cool, dry place," which in my house is the fridge. Its base was Napa cabbage from the garden, and the secondary ingredients included both carrot and parsnip from the same source.
Honestly, I don’t really like sauerkraut — it’s "sauer!" — but I had my reasons to try it. First, is the locavore reason — what good is a bumper crop if your only choices are to give it to the neighbors or put it into the compost?
Secondly, I was writing a story about natural fermentation, the centuries-old method of food preservation, for the Boston Globe, and wanted to have a feel for what I was talking about. It’s one of the privileges of journalism, to learn and experience more than I would if I didn’t have a need to know.
Anyway, the story was published this morning. Though it didn’t make the print version, the online presentation includes a tips box from Dan Rosenberg, founder and co-owner of Real Pickles, a Greenfield, Mass., company makes about a dozen products using only local produce and natural fermentation.
If remember to, I’m going to bring my kraut to the garden Saturday morning for a tasting. C’mon by!
I was intrigued by a recent Terry Gross interview with Sandor Ellix Katz about his book "The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World". Katz explains that fermented foods and beverages have been prepared by humans for over 8000 years. Fermentation is the process whereby cultures of micro-organisms (usually bacteria or yeast), often microbes already naturally present in the food or surrounding environment, are allowed to establish and grow in the food, enhancing flavor and, Katz believes, providing numerous health benefits. (Our own bodies normally contain vast — VAST — numbers of living bacteria and other microorganisms, known as our "microbiome", though this fascinating topic is way beyond the scope of this post.) As they grow in the fermenting foods, the microorganisms digest carbohydrates and produce byproducts that impart characteristic flavors. (See "glycolysis" in your biochemistry texts.) For example, both wine and beer are fermented beverages, with sugars converted by yeast to alcohol (and carbon dioxide). In the case of some other fermented foods, lactic acid is the product contributing to the characteristic flavor and texture. Lactic acid gives pickles and sauerkraut their sharp sourness, and the extent of acidity can be controlled, for example, by moving the product to the refrigerator to slow bacterial growth.
In his book, Katz cites an estimate that up to one third of all foods eaten by people worldwide is fermented! Some of the most obvious are the foods and beverages mentioned above, and yogurt. Less obvious are cheese, coffee and bread. Think of those beautiful, strong-flavored ("tres fort") French cheeses laced with colorful, happily metabolizing molds. In bread, the yeast also generate ethanol and carbon dioxide, and the carbon dioxide bubbles help the dough to rise. Katz's interview made me realize that I already use fermentation routinely in some of my cooking, for example, in sourdough bread. I knew already that the sourdough starter that's been brewing in my refrigerator for well over a year is a living culture — one that seems to rebel by giving me misshapen bread loaves if I ignore it for too many weeks. But, I hadn't quite appreciated its connection to beer, wine or sauerkraut.
Yeast breads are good examples of fermented foods, since the carbon dioxide, produced as the yeast metabolize carbohydrates in the mixture, causes the dough to rise. Sourdough breads, like this one, rely even more on fermentation, since the sourdough starter itself is a simmering culture.
So, I decided to try making other fermented foods, inspired by vegetables growing in our Robbins Farm garden. Katz told Terry Gross that sauerkraut is the simplest fermented food for the beginner. Plus, beautiful fresh cabbage is available in our garden and in local farms right now. I followed the basic procedure suggested by Katz in the radio piece. Essentially, veggies of choice are salted to extract their juices, these juices are squeezed from the vegetables and they are allowed to ferment in their own juices in a sealed jar. Katz advises not adding more water unless it is needed to cover the vegetables, because this will dilute the flavor. I did need to add a little water (he said the vegetables should be covered with liquid) but it did taste pretty good, seasoned only with salt and black pepper. I used fresh green cabbage, scallions and carrots. (Because of availability, only the scallions were from our Garden, while the other vegetables were from Busa Farm.) As Katz had promised, it was a simple dish to make.
My first (only, so far) attempt at sauerkraut, using locally grown green cabbage, scallions, and carrots, and the guidelines described by Katz in his radio interview.
Emboldened by my relative success, I decided to next try making kimchee (or kimchi), the Korean staple that happens to be one of my favorite foods. There are probably as many different kimchee recipes as there are for wines and cheeses. Katz didn't offer a kimchee recipe in his book but I found a recipe online for "Basic Nappa Cabbage Kimchi (Kimchee)" that looked about right. This time, I was able to use nappa cabbage from our Garden. I followed the recipe closely, but used half of all ingredients since it was written for 2 lbs of nappa cabbage. Consult the recipe for further details, but essentially, I began by washing and cutting the cabbage and soaking it in salted water for about 24 hrs, then rinsing and draining it, squeezing out the excess liquid. This leaves it somewhat wilted in appearance. Regarding the other ingredients, I first searched a few Asian markets in the Chinatown area (near where I work) but was concerned that the ingredients, especially the fish sauce and red pepper powder, were not necessarily the Korean style. So, I headed to the amazing, though somewhat overwhelming, H. Mart in Burlington. Here the selection is great, with separate sections for Korean sauces and other items. (And, as it happens, H. Mart carries many types of prepared kimchee, sold in jars in the refrigeration cases, or in bulk by the pound.) To my surprise, even the daikon radish was available in both Chinese and Korean variations, so I took the Korean one. Both are plump and white, but the Korean had a greenish color at the base. Again, the red pepper powder selection was huge, with coarse and fine options and many different brands. I took the one that said "For Kimchi" on it, a coarse grind. While it was produced in China, it was packaged in Korea and, of course, the "For Kimchi" label gave me comfort that it was the right kind.
Shown here are several of the ingredients I used for kimchee. Clockwise from front: Daikon radish ("Korean" according to H. Mart), wild salted shrimp, Korean style fish sauce, Napa cabbage from the Garden (after soaking in salt, draining and squeezing out excess liquid), Coarse ground red pepper powder (marked "For Kimchi"), ginger root. Not shown: scallions
Preparation in progress, prior to adding cabbage and fish sauce to pack into jars.
As I write this, my 1 qt jar of kimchee, after brewing in the basement (a cool, dark place) for a little over 24 hrs, is now fermenting in the refrigerator. Before transferring it to the refrigerator, I opened the lid to release the gases; and, there were gases so we're on the right track!. To be continued……
Additional tips from my friends who have experience making kimchee: Val Hays has used, and recommends, another Kimchee recipe by David Lebovitz. While similar to the one I used, it does not have the salted shrimp, making it a good vegetarian option. MJ Keeler suggests letting the kimchee ferment in the refrigerator for at least a week, rather than the three days (minimum) suggested by the recipe. As I post this, it's been in the refrigerator for three days and we haven't tasted it yet.
Update: We have eaten some of this. It is okay, but I am not thrilled with it. The cabbage is a little tough, and the taste a little bitter. Today (August 11) I got another half cabbage, shared with Dick. I am going to try the other kimchee recipe in this post (David Lebovitz). However, I am slightly concerned that it is our nappa cabbage that is bitter or tough. We will see…..
p.s. Gardeners: I have plenty of the red pepper powder and salted shrimp, as well as extra 1 qt canning jars. Let me know if you want some to try this on your own.
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