Brined Cherries, for a Change

brined cherriesPickled fruit? People often ask me that two-word question with a look of mixed astonishment and horror. But in the Anglo-American tradition fruits have commonly been preserved in strong vinegar, along with plenty of sugar, to make sour, sweet, and long-keeping accompaniments for meats. These pickles are similar to English-style fruit chutneys, though not as heavily spiced. Less common but also traditional in North America are lightly sweetened vinegar-picked fruits, such as cherry olives—that is, vinegar-pickled dark cherries that resemble olives more in appearance than taste.

These pickles all have their place. I love sweet pickled figs or plums on the Thanksgiving table, sour pickled grapes on a salad dressed with olive oil alone, and cherry olives with pâté. But for a milder-tasting fruit pickle that complements a wider range of foods and drinks, it’s worth considering leaving out vinegar altogether. Pickling fruits in brine, in the same way as cucumbers and other vegetables, can be another appealing way of extending the season.

I recently applied this method to my favorite wild cherries, which are slightly bitter, too small to pit, and nearly black when ripe. To ensure that the cherries wouldn’t soften too much with fermentation, I picked them when they were not quite ripe but still dark red. And then I devised this recipe:

Brined Cherries

1 pint (about ¾ pound) small, slightly underripe cherries, stems trimmed to 1 inch or removed
2 small dried hot peppers, slit lengthwise
4 garlic cloves, sliced
2 to 3 sprigs thyme
¼ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns (or substitute black peppercorns)
1 Mediterranean bay leaf
2½ teaspoon pickling salt
1½ cups water

Rinse the cherries well, and put them into a clean quart jar along with the peppers, garlic, thyme, Sichuan peppercorns, and bay leaf. In another container, dissolve the salt in the water. Pour the brine over the cherries. They won’t float—at least mine don’t—so you shouldn’t need to weight them.

Cover the jar loosely, and let it stand at room temperature for about a week. Check occasionally for yeast or mold, and promptly skim off any that appears. When the cherries taste at once briny, tart, and a little spicy, cap the jar and refrigerate it. Serve the cherries cold.

I like brined cherries as a small, slow, thoughtful snack, because even for me they are strange and hard to categorize. They are good with drinks before dinner; upon first tasting them my son Ben immediately wanted to try one in a martini. Use a gin with plenty of juniper, he recommends, but light on other botanicals.

 

Cabbage Rolls with Adjika

When I finally found time to make cabbage rolls from my fermented whole cabbage heads, I didn’t know where to begin. From Turkey south to the Levant, west to Greece, north through eastern Europe, and west again to Germany, cabbage rolls vary a lot. They usually include ground meat of some sort, and rice, although bulgur or other grain may be substituted. Tomato is usually incorporated, in forms that range from V8 Juice to canned soup to tomato paste. Other ingredients may include cilantro, mint, dill, basil, and quince (in a Turkish recipe); beans and fresh peppers (another Turkish recipe); mushrooms and parsley (Poland); onions and paprika (Hungary) carrot, celery, and parsnip (Russia), cinnamon, cumin, garlic, and pomegranate molasses (Levant); bacon and pork ribs (Serbia), and even mustard seed, ginger, and garum masala (an Indian cook who says cabbage rolls aren’t really Indian, though hers certainly are).

But Cristina from Moldova was the first person to tell me about fermenting whole cabbage, and my daughter, Rebecca, loved Cristina’s mom’s cabbage rolls, called sarmale, when Rebecca tasted them last spring. So we had to go Moldovan. The key ingredient in Moldovan sarmale, Cristina had told me, is adjika, a tomato-pepper sauce with garlic, horseradish, and apple added. Rebecca remembered carrots in the cabbage rolls and told me I must also use unrefined sunflower oil. These bits of information would have to do as a recipe, because we weren’t going to bother Cristina, who was (and is) busy with a new baby.

First I set some rice to soaking. Some people make cabbage rolls with raw rice and others with cooked rice; soaking seemed a good compromise. It would shorten the cooking time but still allow the rice to swell, filling out the rolls as they cooked.

My gogosari look-alike, a happy product of careless seed saving
My gogosari look-alike, a happy product of careless seed saving

The next day I fetched from the garage two pint jars of adjika. I made the adjika last summer according to instructions from Cristina’s mother, who had used a dinner plate as a measuring reference. Unfortunately I lacked an essential ingredient, gogosari peppers, which, Cristina had told me, are “meatier” than other sweet peppers, but in the garden I had a pimiento cross that looked very similar. I can’t know how closely my little peppers match gogosari peppers in taste, but my sauce turned out delicious. True pimientos might work well enough, too.

Here is my version of Cristina’s mom’s adjika recipe:

Adjika (Moldovan Tomato-Pepper Sauce) 

Hot as well as sweet peppers are required for this recipe. I used ripe pimientos de Padron, which have quite a bite, and I didn’t bother to seed them, but still the sauce turned out only mildly piquant. If you have scant tolerance for capsaicin, however, you should feel free to seed your hot peppers and even to substitute peppers that are barely piquant. 

Note that the USDA provides no recipe for homemade adjika, so I can’t give you an officially approved processing time. In Moldova the jars of hot sauce are simply capped and stored in a cool place, but I chose to process my adjika like salsa, in pint jars in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes. The pH of the finished sauce was 2.6. 

This tomato sauce with kick is good not only in cabbage rolls but on bread and pasta, in sandwiches, and with meat.

1 ½ pounds gogosari, pimiento, or other thick-fleshed sweet red peppers, tops and seeds removed
10 red hot peppers, such as pimientos de Padron, tops removed but seeds retained
6 pounds tomatoes
1 tart apple, cored
3 large garlic cloves
½ ounce peeled horseradish root
1 tablespoon salt
½ cup cider vinegar 

Cut the sweet and hot peppers, the tomatoes, the apple, and the garlic cloves into pieces, and grind the vegetables fine in a meat grinder. Put the ground mixture—which should have “the texture of sour cream,” Cristina says—into a large, nonreactive pot. Grate the horseradish, and add it to the pot along with the salt and vinegar. Cook the mixture uncovered over low heat for several hours, until the adjika is as thick as pizza sauce. Pour the sauce into five pint jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Cap the jars, and either process them in a boiling-water bath or let them cool and then store them in the refrigerator. 

For the sarmale filling, Cristina’s mother may use pork or possibly beef, I suppose. But I chose ground alpaca, because I had some handy, thanks to our local food swap. Since the meat was very lean, I used plenty of sunflower oil. I also added carrot, as Rebecca insisted, onion and garlic, as I suspected a Moldovan might, and cumin simply because I love it.

Here is my recipe for the stuffing:

Sarmale Filling 

6 tablespoons unrefined sunflower oil (available at Russian markets)
½ pound onions, diced small
½ pound carrots, diced small
3 garlic cloves, minced
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
½ cup adjika
2 pounds lean ground alpaca or other meat
1 cup long-grain rice, soaked in water to cover 8 to 24 hours
Salt

In a pot, heat ¼ cup of the oil, and sauté the onions until they are soft. Add the carrots, garlic, and cumin, and sauté the mixture until the garlic and cumin seeds release their aroma. Let the mixture cool. 

With your hands, thoroughly mix the cooked vegetables with the adjika, meat, rice, remaining 2 tablespoons oil, and salt. I used 1½ teaspoons salt, which was just the right amount, but you’ll need more if you’re using unfermented cabbage and less if you’re using heavily salted cabbage. 

Stuffing the cabbage leaves is surprisingly quick and pleasant if you have a helper or two. Rebecca and her friend Guillaume and I did the job together in ten minutes or so.

Stuffing and Cooking the Sarmale 

You can substitute water or meat or vegetable stock for some or all of the brine. This is a good idea if the brine is very salty or you aren’t terribly fond of the taste of sauerkraut.

1 very large or 2 or more smaller fermented whole cabbages
1½ cups adjika
2 cups brine from fermented cabbage, or water or stock
About 3½ cups water

Core the cabbages, and pull off the leaves one by one. If you’re using a very large cabbage, you may need to cut each leaf into pieces and plane or trim off the thick rib at the base of each leaf. I used six very small cabbages, whose leaves were mostly perfectly sized for small sarmale. Cover the bottom of a large, heavy pot with cabbage leaf fragments, and save more fragments for placing over the sarmale.

Put a little filling on the concave side of each leaf or leaf section; the exact amount of filling will depend on the size of the leaf and the desired size of your sarmale. Roll the leaf around the filling, folding in the sides as you would in rolling a burrito. Place the cabbage roll seam-side-down in the pot. Continue in this way, layering the rolls in the pot, until you have used all of the filling, Cover the rolls with the reserved cabbage scraps. Combine the adjika and brine, and pour the mixture over the cabbage rolls. Add enough water to cover the cabbage (heating the water first will speed the cooking).

Cover the pot, and set it over medium heat. When the contents begin to simmer, reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer the sarmale for 45 minutes. Before serving, take one out and taste it to be sure the rice is fully cooked.

sarmaleServing the Sarmale

 Adjika
Sour cream

Place several hot sarmale on each diner’s plate, and serve adjika and sour cream on the side. Alternatively, drain off some of the cooking liquid, mix it well with adjika and sour cream, and serve the mixture as a sauce.

Although the sarmale are irresistibly tasty, you will probably have many left over; four of us could finish only about a third of them at a sitting. So the next day and maybe again the day after that, you might fry some sarmale in a little sunflower oil. Again, serve the hot sarmale with adjika and sour cream.

Taking the Wind Out of Jerusalem Artichokes

jerusalem artichokes
Jerusalem artichokes look like thick, pale gingerroots.

Does your spouse refuse to eat Jerusalem artichokes because they’re too—err—windy? Have you yourself abandoned your Jerusalem artichoke patch to the weeds or the pigs, because no human of your acquaintance would eat the damn things again? If so, you have plenty of company.

If you can’t quite place this native North American vegetable, you may know it instead by a name invented by a California produce wholesaler in the 1960s: the sunchoke. The sun part of this moniker comes from sunflower, because the plant is closely related to the sunflower that provides us seeds for birds and snacks and oil. Jerusalem artichoke blooms look like small sunflowers, and they can grow just as tall.

The Jerusalem part of Jerusalem artichoke came about soon after the plants were first grown in Europe, in the early seventeenth century at the Farnese Garden in Rome. From there they were distributed to the rest of Europe as Girasole articiocco, “sunflower artichoke.” In the diet book that he published in 1620, an English doctor, Tobias Venner, translated Girasole as “Jerusalem”—a good first guess, perhaps, but unfortunately the name stuck. Soon inventive English cooks were making their Jerusalem artichokes into “Palestine soup.”

Sunroot would be a better name for the vegetable than sunchoke, because Jerusalem artichokes certainly are not artichokes, and they have nothing like the hairy, inedible part of an artichoke that is called the choke. Yet the two vegetables known as artichoke are discreetly similar in their chemical makeup and flavor. Samuel de Champlain noted this in 1605, when he found Indians on Cape Cod growing roots with “le goust d’artichaut,” the taste of artichokes. Both artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes, he may have observed, share a peculiar sweetness. This sweetness comes from inulin, a kind of soluble fiber that passes through the human digestive system intact until bacteria go to work on it in colon, releasing a lot of gas in the process. Artichokes are rich in inulin. Jerusalem artichokes have about half again as much, by percentage of fresh weight.

I thank Rose Marie Nichols McGee, of Nichols Garden Nursery, for asking the question I should have long ago asked myself: Can fermentation rid Jerusalem artichokes of their windiness?

Rose Marie posed that question about a year ago, and the two of us promptly decided to conduct an experiment. After digging up the little patch of Jerusalem artichokes that I’d ignored for ten years, I brined a pint of the rhizomes according to the kakdooki (Korean fermented daikon) recipe on page 64 of The Joy of Pickling, with garlic and powdered chile. Rose Marie developed another recipe based on one of mine, she said, although nothing about it sounded the least familiar. With a stroke of brilliance, she added turmeric, so that her pickled Jerusalem artichokes turned out a brilliant yellow. We shared both pickles, hers and mine, at a Slow Food board meeting, and people seemed to find them both tasty. I requested follow-up digestive reports.

But I got none. Was this good news? I couldn’t be sure. Apparently nobody’s bellyache was bad enough to prompt a complaint. But, then, the meeting attendees hadn’t actually agreed to tell me about their gas problems. Some of them may have felt they really didn’t know me well enough. And none of them had eaten more than a small handful of the pickled rhizomes. So the results of our study were inconclusive.

In digging up my Jerusalem artichoke patch, however, I must have missed a little rhizome. Last summer, sans weeding and sans water, a single nine-foot sunflower stalk shot up. I could experiment some more!

I waited through most of the winter to dig up the rhizomes, because time alone has been said to convert much of the inulin in Jerusalem artichokes to fructose. In January, I harvested a crop just as big as the previous year’s, at least ten pounds. Several nights of temperatures around 0 degrees Fahrenheit had done the rhizomes no harm.

I first assessed their windiness by simply roasting some with salt, pepper, and olive oil. The roasted rhizomes were delicious, but still gassy.

Inspired by Rose Marie’s example, I then pickled some of the Jerusalem artichokes in this way:

fermented jerusalem artichokesMellow Yellow Jerusalem Artichoke Pickle

1½ pounds Jerusalem artichokes, broken into nodes, thoroughly scrubbed, and cut into ½-inch dice
1 teaspoon ground dried turmeric
1 ounces garlic (about 8 cloves), chopped
½ ounce fresh ginger, minced (about 1 ½ tablespoons)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons pickling salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1½ cups water

Toss together the diced Jerusalem artichokes, the turmeric, the garlic, the ginger, and the cumin. Pack the mixture into a jar with a capacity of at least 6 cups. Dissolve the salt and sugar in the water. Pour the brine over the Jerusalem artichokes; it will not cover them at first. Add a brine bag (a gallon freezer-weight plastic bag containing 1 tablespoon salt dissolved in 3 cups water) or another suitable weight.

The next day the brine should cover the Jerusalem artichokes. If it doesn’t, add more brine mixed in the same proportions.

Wait several days before tasting the pickle. I found it perfect after a week: The brine was sour, and the Jerusalem artichokes pleasantly, mildly spicy and still crunchy.

When the pickle has fermented enough to suit your taste, store the jar in the refrigerator. Keep the Jerusalem artichokes weighted so they won’t take on a grayish cast.

Several people have now eaten this pickle in potentially distressing quantities. The test subjects remained on site this time, so that if reports didn’t come verbally they would emerge in another form. And nobody has suffered.

I hope that these results will be duplicated by other investigators. Let me know, OK? Don’t be shy.

How to Pickle Cabbages Whole

fermented cabbagesWhen years ago my young Moldovan friend Cristina asked me if I’d ever fermented whole cabbages, I just looked at her dubiously. I’d never even heard of fermented whole cabbages. Could salt really penetrate through an intact cabbage before rot set in? I wondered if Moldovans simply tucked little second-crop cabbages into crocks of shredded cabbage while making sauerkraut. But I’d never heard of that practice, either.

So when my daughter sent me pictures of big fermented whole cabbages in a Moldovan market, I had to figure out how to make such things. I found an article that two Cornell researchers had published in 1961 with the help of their Yugoslav exchange student, Gordana Niketic. As Gordana had apparently explained to her mentors, “In Yugoslavia, particularly in the republic of Serbia, whole heads of white or red cabbage are packed in salt brine. Although sometimes the cabbage cores are scored crosswise before packing the heads in brine, more often the heads are packed with no alteration of the cores.” Just as in Moldovan, the fermented cabbage leaves were used to make meat-and-rice filled rolls, or sarma, an originally Turkish word for food wrapped in leaves; the Moldovan term is sarmale or galush. Yugoslavs also baked slices or chunks of the cabbage with turkey, goose, or pork and served the cabbage cold as a salad. After fermenting whole red cabbages, they would drink the pretty pink brine as an appetizer.

Since methods of fermenting whole cabbages varied from one Yugoslav household to another, Gordana and the Cornell researchers decided to experiment. The first year they packed whole cored cabbages tightly into barrels and added brine at three different strengths. The second year, they packed a barrel the same way, at the highest brine strength from the year before, but with uncored cabbages. The third year they packed a barrel as I’d imagined, by mixing dry-salted shredded cabbage with whole small cabbages placed among the shreds.

The best whole-cabbage kraut from the first year, the three concluded, was made with the strongest brine, 3.5 percent, “calculated from the combined weight of brine and cabbage.”* Whereas the least salty cabbages were soft throughout, and the medium-salty cabbages were soft at the core, the saltiest cabbages “showed only slightly soft cores and their leaves were firm and flavorful,” with “an enjoyable blend of taste and mellowness.” When the leaves were used for sarma, their taste perfectly complemented the meat filling.           

Far superior than even the saltiest version from the first year, at least in the judgment of “a former native of Yugoslavia” (Gordana? Someone else?), was the whole-cabbage kraut made in the second year, from uncored cabbage. So, coring turned out to be unnecessary and possibly also detrimental to flavor. The researchers concluded that the best whole-cabbage kraut was made from uncored cabbages pickled at a brine strength of 3.0 to 3.5 percent—calculated, again, as the weight of the salt to the weight of cabbage and brine.

The third-year kraut, made from small whole cabbages packed with shredded cabbage and dry salt, proved a disappointment. The quicker fermentation that resulted made this kraut more pungent and sour—like ordinary dry-salted, shredded sauerkraut, I suppose.

I began my own whole-cabbage pickling experiment late last fall. Because most of my fall cabbages had been damaged by freezing weather, I used the second growth from spring cabbage plants, seven very small heads harvested before the weather turned very cold. I sliced each stem at the base of the head, leaving the core intact, and half-filled a 10-liter crock with the cabbages. I added 10 tablespoons pickling salt dissolved in 5 quarts water, to make an approximately 3.5-percent brine, calculated—because I’d read the Cornell study too carelessly—in the way that’s familiar to me, as the weight of salt as a percentage of the weight of brine. In other words, my brine was weak, perhaps half the strength recommended by the Cornell team. I weighted the cabbages, and, a week or so later, I skimmed the brine once. The small amount of yeast growth didn’t continue.

A little more than two months after immersing the cabbages in their brine, I took them all out and examined them. Some of them showed a little softening around the edge of the core, and the largest one, 4½ inches across, had softened at the center of the leaves as well. If I’d used bigger cabbages, they might have rotted. Perhaps I could have prevented the softening by ending the fermentation sooner. But I simply cut away the soft parts, and all that remained tasted sweet, mellow, and very mildly tart and salty—really much nicer than typical shredded sauerkraut.

Last night one of the fermented cabbages made an excellent dinner salad, sliced and mixed with toasted walnuts, black pepper, and unrefined sunflower oil. No vinegar was called for; the cabbage was already tart. Walnut oil or roasted hazelnut oil might be nice in place of sunflower oil, Robert suggest, and maybe next time we’ll add some smoked meat.

The rest of the cabbages are resting in their brine in a gallon jar in the refrigerator. My next challenge will be to make some of them into sarma, or sarmale. Or maybe I should say golabki (in Polish), golubtsy (in Russian), malfoof (in Arabic), kohlrouladen or krautwickel (in German), or töltött káposzta (in Hungarian). There are a lot of other names, too, because cabbage rolls—made from fermented, briefly brined, or simply blanched cabbage—are eaten throughout much of the world. Every region has favorite ingredients, and every cook seems to have a unique recipe. I guess it’s time for me to develop my own.

 

*In other words, 3.5 percent was the strength not of the initial brine but of the finished pickle. Because the amount of brine needed to cover whole cabbages can vary greatly, depending on the relation between the size of the cabbages and the breadth of the barrel, the researchers controlled the salt content with a much more accurate measurement than that of initial brine strength (the weight of salt as a percentage of the weight of brine). To do as they did, put the cabbages into the container, weighing each and noting the weight, in metric if you have a digital scale. Cover the cabbages with water, measuring the water in liters as you add it and noting the volume. Then calculate how much the water weighs: Every liter weighs a kilogram. Add the weight of the water and cabbage, in kilograms. To determine how much salt to use, use the following formula:

Weight of salt = Weight of cabbage and water x  x/100-x, where x is the desired brine strength. So, for a brine strength of 3.5 percent, your formula becomes

Weight of salt = Weight of cabbage and water x 3.5/96.5

Remove enough of the water from your container to dissolve the salt in, and pour this brine back over the cabbages.

If this calculation seems too much bother, I suggest simply fermenting your cabbages in a strong brine—say, about 1 cup fine salt per 1 gallon water. You’ll need at least half as much brine, by volume, as the volume of the cabbages. For example, if your cabbages rise three-quarters of the way up a 4-gallon crock—to the 3-gallon level—you’ll need at least 1½ gallons brine. Mix up more brine as needed so that the cabbages are well immersed.

A Taste of San Diego

What makes a good fish taco? In San Diego, where Robert and I went last weekend, craving sun on our pale skin and warmth in our winter-chilled bones, people debate this question seriously. And so the two of us did some not-so-serious sampling. In each case, the local fish taco seemed a bastard child of a traditional Mexican taco and a plate of fish sticks. The tortilla was made from either corn masa or refined wheat. The filling was a chunk of unnamed white fish, breaded or not and fried, and then sauced with thinned mayonnaise (often called “white sauce”) and topped with sliced head cabbage and yellow and white cheese shreds. The cook might provide a sprinkle of diced tomatoes or a side of tomato salsa or both, but if we wanted chiles we had to reach for the bottle of hot sauce.

A fish taco at the Cosmopolitan, Old Town
A fish taco at the Cosmopolitan, Old Town
Fish tacos at Point Loma Seafoods

I enjoyed the two fish tacos I tried, especially the one scattered with black beans, though both tacos would have been better without the industrial cheese. But the dearth of traditional Mexican food in a city less than twenty miles from the border struck me as a little sad. The soldiers, sailors, and retirees from Wherever USA seem to spread white sauce all over their adopted city. We witnessed this at the outdoor Little Italy Mercato, where we heard no Italian spoken but watched vendors make filled crêpes that bore a striking resemblance to San Diego’s second-most-popular pseudo-Mexican menu item, the breakfast burrito, a big wheat tortilla rolled around fried potatoes, eggs, and cheese.

 

 

 

A crêpe at the Mercato
A crêpe at the Mercato

CitruslettuceThank God It's Fermented

Still, we found excellent food in San Diego. We were duly impressed by the Mercato, with its lovely summer vegetables (even tomatoes and strawberries!), dozens of varieties of citrus, local olive oils, and fermented pickles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In restaurants, the seafood always tasted fresh, though none on the menus we saw was local. We especially liked Café Secret, a Peruvian restaurant in Del Mar that specializes in ceviche from sustainably harvested seafood, served on platters complete with choclo (tender hominy-like corn kernels) and canchitas (crunchy roasted and salted corn kernels). At Café Secret, the pale sauce on the fried potatoes and yuca was cheese-based huancaína, not runny mayonnaise. Though mayonnaise sauce would have been good, too, come to think of it.

Kohlrabi Kraut Again, with Sea Vegetable

kohlrabi kraut 6At the Good Food Awards blind tastings on September 15, my favorite sauerkraut was flecked with bits of green seaweed, whose tangy flavor and as well as strong color complemented the pale, sour cabbage.* So when I made my last batch of kohlrabi kraut this fall, I decided to incorporate sea palm, Postelsia palmaeformis, sent to me by a friend in California. The small, mild-flavored species of kelp, which stands erect in ever-pounding surf with its palm-like fronds exposed to the air, grows on rocky shores from Vancouver Island to south-central California. Its harvest is illegal, however, in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, and even in California some fear the species may be threatened. My friend swore, however, that her sea palm was harvested sustainably, and I was happy for the opportunity to experiment with it.

I used just an ounce of dried sea palm for 10 pounds of kohlrabi, and I cut the long seaweed fronds into short lengths with scissors before mixing them with the kohlrabi. Next time I’ll cut much shorter pieces, because the dried seaweed swells immensely as the kraut ferments. But the moist, mild kraut looks and tastes lovely with the chewy, minerally green bits. Here’s the recipe:

Kohlrabi Kraut with Sea Palm

Peel the kohlrabi with a sturdy knife, and cut any woody parts out of the flesh.

10 pounds peeled and coarsely grated kohlrabi
6 tablespoons pickling salt
1 ounce dried sea palm fronds, cut into short pieces

Thoroughly mix 5 pounds of the kohlrabi with 3 tablespoons of the salt and half of the sea palm pieces, and pack the mixture into a crock or other suitable container with a volume of at least 1.5 gallons. Mix the remaining ingredients in the same way, and pack this batch on top of the first. Weight the mixture, cover the container, and let the kohlrabi ferment at room temperature for two weeks or longer, until the kraut is as sour as you like.

Have you tried seaweed in your sauerkraut? I’d love to know what kinds you have used and how you liked the results.

 

*This must have been OlyKraut’s Sea Vegetable Gourmet Sauerkraut, which has just been announced as a finalist for the Good Food Awards 2014.

Can Pickles Cure the Flu?

In an article in Letters of Applied Microbiology, Japanese scientists report that feeding a pickle microbe to mice infected with the flu alleviates the rodents’ symptoms. The scientists previously found that this same bacterium, already in commercial use as a probiotic, can ease acute gastroenteritis caused by Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which sometimes occurs in raw seafood, and irritable bowel syndrome. But the flu results have gotten by far the most attention from the media. UK’s Daily Express, for example, hailed the “New Wonder Cure for Killer Flu.” Picklers around the world may wonder, Is this miracle drug in my pickle crock? Can it cure me of the flu, too?

Actually, the microbe hasn’t cured anybody’s flu. But it did reduce weight loss in infected mice and reduce other symptoms of mouse malaise, such as ruffled fur and lethargy. In other words, the mice treated with the bacterial extract were a little less sick than the untreated ones (that is, until all the mice were forced to inhale enough carbon dioxide to kill them).

The bacterial extract hasn’t been tested in humans. We don’t yet know whether it would alleviate human flu symptoms, and we certainly can’t bet that it would prevent or cure influenza. And we should keep in mind that two of the scientists who wrote the article work for Kagome, the company that markets the microbe, although they declared no conflict of interest. Still, the results are promising.

The name of the miracle bacterium, Lactobacillus brevis, may ring a bell. If you make fermented pickles, you’ve surely cultivated the species. L. brevis predominates in the last stage of fermentation of sauerkraut and brined vegetables. This bacterium is also among the lactic-acid-producing species found in tibicos (water kefir) “grains”; it is, in fact, responsible for producing the polysaccharide gel of which tibicos grains are composed. Among brewers, unfortunately, mention of L. brevis provokes dread, because the species can spoil beer by souring it (although at the moment, oddly, soured beer is nearly as trendy as soured vegetables).

To understand how L. brevis may affect human health is to grapple with the theory of probiotics—that is, live microbes consumed to promote health through their effects in the intestines. L. brevis is one of the lactic-acid-producing bacteria found in healthy human intestines, vaginas, and feces. In recent years scientists have produced plenty of evidence that a healthy immune system depends on a healthy balance of intestinal microflora. When the balance gets out of whack—from the use of antibiotics, from improper diet, or even from emotional stress—we may be able to alleviate the problem by ingesting good bacteria.

Even assuming that the Japanese bacterial extract will prove effective in humans, whether eating pickles will vanquish your flu symptoms is hard to say. First, for L. brevis to be present at all, your pickles must be fully fermented and unpasteurized. Assuming L. brevis is present, it may be slightly different from the strain the Japanese scientists have studied, a strain known as L. brevis KB290. The scientists isolated KB290 strain from suguki pickles, that is, pickled suigukina, a kind of turnip grown near Kyoto. Suguki is one of many traditional Japanese pickles that are identified with a particular city, with particular varieties of produce grown in the region, and even with particular producers. But although the Japanese rightly view suguki as unique, it is made much like other fermented pickles: The turnips are peeled, cut, and briefly salted so that the slices become flexible. They are next packed firmly into buckets, layered with salt, and then weighted. Then they are drained, and they are weighted again until fermentation is complete. They are not enhanced with garlic, chile, or other seasonings. The only really remarkable thing about these pickles is the way they are weighted, using a big stick called a tenbin; have a look at the photo here. Even sans tenbin, fermenting turnips from your garden or local market would probably produce a pickle similar in taste and microbial content to Kyoto’s suguki.

L. brevis would be present in your own turnip pickles, but don’t count on breeding the strain KB290. A strain, to a microbiologist, is derived from a single colony and has been protected from contamination through carefully controlled procedures. These procedures make it possible to test the strain for efficacy and safety and, assuming the strain passes the tests, to market it as efficacious and safe. A strain is not, however, different enough from other strains of the same species to be called a subspecies. And no strain would last in nature. In nature, bacteria undergo continual mutations and lose and gain genetic material. Bacteria thrive in communities made up not only of multiple strains of the same species but of multiple species as well.

Japanese scientists no doubt isolated and tested multiple L. brevis strains before selecting KB290 for marketing as a commercial probiotic. KB290 must have performed better in meeting the requirements of any effective probiotic, for example, in adhering to intestinal cells, in persisting and multiplying, and in producing substances, such as acids, that curb the growth of pathogens. KB290 had to work reliably in all of these ways so it could be marketed on its own, as a drug.

Your pickle crock, in contrast, hosts various strains of L. brevis along with other species of Lactobacillus and fermentative bacteria in other genera, such as Leuconostoc and Pediococcus. Since bacteria are genetically fluid, their diversity is more important to your health than the identity of any particular strain in the crock. Lactic-acid-producing bacteria in naturally fermented foods increases the spectrum of genes available to your intestinal microflora regardless of whether specific strains are able to take up permanent residency in your gut.

So, go ahead and pickle some turnips. Make plain sauerruben, as instructed below, or try my recipe for spicy Korean pickled turnips, sunmukimchi (The Joy of Pickling, 2nd edition, page 67). If you get the flu this winter, eating some of your own pickled turnips just might help you get better faster. In any case, turnips may help keep you healthy generally, especially if you eat the vitamin- and calcium-rich green turnip tops.

Sauerruben

5 pounds turnips, peeled and shredded (with a kraut board, food processor, or grater)
3 tablespoons pickling salt, plus more for the brine

In a large bowl, mix the turnips with 3 tablespoons pickling salt. Pack the mixture firmly into a 3-quart or gallon jar. Push a gallon-size freezer bag into the jar, and fill it with  brine made of 1 1/2 tablespoons pickling salt to each quart of water. Seal the bag. Set the jar in a place where the temperature remains between 60° and 75°F.

After 24 hours, check to make sure that the turnips are well submerged in their own brine. If they aren’t, add some fresh brine (1 1/2 tablespoons pickling salt per 1 quart water) to cover them well. If any scum forms within the jar, skim it off and rinse and replace the bag.

After two weeks, begin tasting the sauerruben. It will be fully fermented in two to four weeks at 70° to 75°F, or within four to six weeks at 60°F. When it’s ready, remove the bag, cap the jar, and store it in the refrigerator or another very cool place, tightly covered.

La Cuisine Rose

I have a longstanding horror of the all-white meal—the epitome of domestic artistry in the late nineteenth century, when American housewives drowned meat and vegetables in white sauce and favored angel cake and whipped cream for dessert. When I find myself serving up white fish and new potatoes on the same plate, or bowls of parsnip soup with white bread on the side, I bolt, frantic, for the parsley patch. White sauce is so foreign to my food culture that I had to watch studiously as our French houseguest, Raphaël, whipped up some béchamel for mushroom crêpes the other day. I really should know how to do that, I thought. But I was relieved when all the sauce got rolled inside the crêpes, which on the outside remained brilliant yellow from the healthy yolks of homegrown chickens.

Pink lunch fixings: kohlrabi kraut, picnic ham, pink oyster mushrooms, and shallots
Pink lunch fixings: kohlrabi kraut, picnic ham, pink oyster mushrooms, and shallots

Victorian cooks played with other monotone color schemes, including pink—from strawberries, lobster, and tomatoes, for example. The idea of an all-pink meal struck me as more amusing than scary as I tossed kraut made from grated kohlrabi, pinkened with red shiso, to even out the color. For lunch, I could heat up some of the kraut with sautéed pink shallots and pieces of home-brined, home-smoked picnic ham (grass fed, from Heritage Farms. And we could somehow incorporate the heap of pink oyster mushrooms that Raphaël had brought home from the Mushroomery.

Pink lunch
Pink lunch

As the Mushroomery’s apprentice, Alex, had warned us, pink oysters are more a delight to the eye than to the palate. With heating, we found out, they turn out salmon orange and rather tough, so I’m glad we cooked them separately from the kohlrabi and ham. But the gently heated kraut kept its lovely pink color, which contrasted prettily with the intense pink of the smoked meat. I only regretted that we had no red-fleshed apples this year; I could only imagine the sweet, tender pink slices of fruit nestled in the tart kraut.

My kohlrabi kraut, by the way, turned out exceptionally moist and tender. And topping the fermentation jar with wilted shiso apparently worked not only to provide a comely color but to prevent the growth of yeast or mold. Next time I’ll use more shiso; I’ll put some at the bottom of the jar and more in the middle, for a stronger pink that’s even throughout. Actually, I still have plenty of shiso and kohlrabi to harvest from the bed where I need to plant garlic soon, so I think I’ll start a big pot of pink kohlrabi kraut today.

A Handmade Pickle Weight, Pickle Seasoning, and a Cookbook Giveaway

kohlrabi kraut with pickle weight 2I want to share these photos of an excellent stoneware pickling weight for one- and two-quart mason jars. Note the cute little knob handle and the holes to let the brine through. The weight was designed and created by Ken Albala, a prolific author of culinary history books and a professor at the University of the Pacific who somehow finds time to putter in his pottery. Do you suppose we could convince Ken to quit his other gigs and devote himself to supplying the world with pickle weights?

kohlrabi kraut with pickle weightThe dark stuff on top of the kohlrabi, by the way, is red shiso, wilted with a little salt. I’m hoping that the shiso will prevent any yeast growth while also turning the kohlrabi pink. If the kraut turns out well, I’ll post another photo later.

When you visit Ken Albala’s blog, be sure to see the post on Funky Dust Pickle Powder. Ken simply shaved some brined cucumbers thin, dried them in a dehydrator, and ground them to a powder to use as a sour and spicy seasoning. I may have to try this myself.

Another of my favorite bloggers, Nadia Hassani of Spoonfuls of Germany, is giving away a copy of The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles. If you’d like a chance to win this cookbook, let her know before Friday, September 27.

Tasting Pickles for the Good Food Awards

I made a day trip to San Francisco on Sunday for the Good Food Awards, a project I knew little about beyond what the website told me: The contest celebrates American-made commercial foods that are tasty, free of artificial ingredients, and crafted from produce that’s grown locally with a commitment to environmental and social responsibility. I was to be a judge in the Good Food Awards Blind Tastings.

pickles for tastingThe project is now in its fourth year, I learned. This year it attracted a total of 1,450 entries, from all fifty states. There must have been hundreds of us judges, divided among sections for beer, spirits, cheese, chocolate, confections, charcuterie, pickles, sweet preserves, and oils. I was a pickle judge. Pictured here are the pickles we tasted, coded for identification and divided into groups by region.

Some of my fellow pickle judges. At right is Brenda Crowe, of Olympic Provisions, Portland.
Some of my fellow pickle judges. At right is Brenda Crow, of Olympic Provisions, Portland.

Although we spent about six hours tasting pickles, none of us got to taste them all. In the morning groups of judged selected finalists for each region, and in the afternoon everyone rated all the finalists for all the regions.

I don’t know which pickles were the top scorers, but for me there were some clear standouts. They included a fermented bean relish; a smoky onion relish; kraut with a bit of seaweed added; cabbage kimchi made of leaf stems only, in a thick pepper paste rather than a brine; paper-thin bread-and-butters that were neither too sweet nor spicy and that curled beautifully on the plate; and a cumin-flavored mixed pickle in which the colorful vegetables were perfectly cut into little cubes. I look forward to learning which pickles win awards and, especially, who made them.

Chris Forbes and Todd Champagne, who organized and led the pickle section.
Chris Forbes and Todd Champagne, who organized and led the pickle section.

Most gratifying for me was meeting among the judges professional picklers who got their start with help from The Joy of Pickling. For example, Dan Rosenberg and Addie Rose Holland have a company called Real Pickles, which now employs fourteen people and sells fermented pickles through 350 stores in the Northeast. Todd and Jordan Champagne run Happy Girl Kitchen, a business in Pacific Grove, California, that manufactures pickles and sweet preserves, offers preserving workshops, and operates a café. I loved hearing the stories of pickling and preserving entrepreneurs whom I’ve unwittingly advised over the years.

Are you a pro pickler who doesn’t yet know about the Good Food Awards? If so, I encourage you to enter the competition next year. I saw room for improvement in various areas: There was a general overuse of hot pepper, in the form of dry powder or flakes. I tasted no pickled whole peppers and no fully cured sauerkraut. A few brined pickles were at the height of fermentation; they bubbled out of their jars. The fermented cucumbers were almost all oversized, and I tasted nothing you could call a gherkin or cornichon. There were no fermented cucumbers from the Northeast, whence fermented cukes entered American culinary tradition. Yet Northeasterners entered the only pickled okra I tasted. Where were the Southern okra pickles?

I have no doubt that the Good Food Awards will attract many more outstanding entries next year. I hope that some of my blog readers will be among the contestants.