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.

 

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.

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.

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.

A Fool for Pickled Chard

I finally got around to pickling chard stems again last week, when I needed to dig out several big Swiss chard plants so I could start next year’s garlic crop in a raised bed. These plants were of the Bright Lights variety, with its assortment of beautiful yellows, pinks, and reds.

Bright Lights first proved me a fool me last spring, when the plants had grown about two inches tall. I had expected to find all the various colors on a single plant, as with a capsicum plant whose fruits change according to individual timetables from green to yellow to orange. Not so with the chard. I found some seedlings with yellow stems, and others with pale pink, beet-red, or white stems. Obviously, a farmer sells a multicolored bunch of chard by banding together stems from various plants. Someone with a very small garden who wants multicolored chard may have to choose one color for herself and share other seeds or seedlings among her friends, with the hope that they can trade full-grown stems later on.

Bright Lights turned out to be just as stringy as plain old white-stemmed chard. I was fooled again in the kitchen as I pulled off the strings; as with most rhubarb varieties, the color on those pink, yellow, and red stems is only skin deep, and much of it comes off with stringing. My Bright Lights had dimmed before the pickling began.

I made the pickle as in my prior post on this topic, except in a quart jar this time. The next day I thought I would take a picture of the pretty jar, but now, strangely, the contents appeared uniformly pink. Tipping the jar, I saw that the top ends of the chard stems were all the same color, a very pale pink. Fooled again! The chard had given up its color to its pickling liquid. I might as well have pickled a jar full of white-stemmed chard and slipped in a small slice of beet.

Bright Lights chard in all its lovely colors is still growing strong in the main garden. Until the rains drown the plants or the cold rots them, I’ll search for other ways to bring their beauty to the table.

Surprisingly Delicious: Fermented Tomato Salsa

Following my post on thick salsa made from baked sliced tomatoes, a reader asked about making fermented salsa. I grimaced as I considered how easily tomatoes rot. Cutting them up and leaving them to ferment would be asking for trouble, I figured. But I do sometimes brine tomatoes whole, in the Russian tradition. So I suggested fermenting whole tomatoes with other vegetables and then grinding them all together afterward.

In early October, Mother Nature had spared us the usual late-summer to early-fall rains but hit us with early frosts instead. So my entry hall was filled with boxes of tomatoes, all still beautifully free of disease. I had so many tomatoes and peppers both that if a crockful rotted I’d never miss them. In particular, I had plenty of Hard Rock tomatoes, one of my favorite paste varieties. So I came up with this recipe for—

Fermented Tomato Salsa

3 pounds flawless, firm, meaty tomatoes, ripe or semiripe, washed but left whole
1 pound green jalapeño peppers, tops sliced off
1 ½-pound onion, peeled and quartered
6 garlic cloves, peeled
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
¼ cup lime juice
5 tablespoons pickling salt
2 quarts water

Mix the tomatoes, peppers, onion pieces, garlic, and cumin together in a gallon crock or jar. Add the lime juice. In another container, dissolve the salt in the water. Pour the brine over the vegetables, and weight them. Cover the crock or jar, and keep it at room temperature for at least a few days, after which you can move it to a cooler place if you prefer. Check the crock or jar for yeast and mold and skim off any that appears.

After three weeks, cut a pepper vertically to be sure it has completely changed color, from bright green to olive. If it has, gently remove all the vegetables to a bowl, taking care not to burst the tomatoes, which will have swelled. Coarsely grind the vegetables in batches in a food processor or blender. You should have about 7 cups salsa.

My fermented salsa had a good, thick consistency, a pleasantly dark red color, a mild tartness, and a complex fermented taste that grew on Robert and me so fast that we ate a whole pint at a sitting. The only thing that could have improved the experience is fresh cilantro.

I tested the pH of the salsa as 4.3—low enough for safe boiling-water processing, but high enough that I’d advise testing each batch or adding more lime juice before canning. I brought the salsa we hadn’t eaten slowly to a boil and then processed the jars for 15 minutes.

If you want those fermentative bacteria to work in your gut, of course, you will store the salsa in the refrigerator instead. If you do, please let me know how long it keeps.

A Handmade Crock Weight

If you have access to potter’s clay and a kiln, why not fashion a weight to fit your crock and your taste? That’s what Rose Jaress did for her mom, Monica, at the suggestion of her dad, Gene, and with the help of her pottery teacher, Syd Shera of Seattle. About an inch thick, the weight has half-inch holes and a lovely handle in the form of a pickle.

Thanks, Monica, for sharing this photo.

Sauerkraut Tips

If you mostly eat your kraut cold, don’t can it; just store it in the refrigerator or another cool place. A cellar, outbuilding, or porch may suffice, depending on the time of year and on your climate. Uncooked kraut retains its vitamin C and live microbes that can aid digestion.

If you can your kraut, use the low-temperature pasteurization method. Put the covered jars into a canner of water heated to between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and continue to heat the water until it reaches 180 degrees. Maintain the temperature between 180 and 185 degrees for 30 minutes, and then remove the jars. This method helps keep the kraut from softening and also helps prevent the loss of liquid that’s so common with boiling-water processing as well as pressure canning.

Always thoroughly dry your washed crock, and especially the stoneware weights, in the sun.

The Polish Fermentation Pot

I’ve recently finished my first batch of sauerkraut in my handsome, chocolate-brown crock from Boleslawiec, Poland. Like the Harsch Gärtopf crock, the Polish crock has fitted weights and a trough in which the lid rests. If you keep water in the trough through the fermentation, no yeast or mold gets inside, so you don’t have to skim scum from the surface of the kraut.

The stoneware weights

Carbon dioxide produced during fermentation escapes through the water in the trough. You know this is happening by the occasional  burp that the crock emits (it’s a puzzling sound to hear in the middle of the night at first, but you get used to it). You can tell how active the fermentation is by the frequency of the burps.

I was attracted to this crock partially because of the rotund shape of the 10-liter size (the 20-liter crock is straight-sided). But the roundness is a little impractical if you frequently fill the crock only about halfway. In this case the weights rest in the broadest part of the crock, where they don’t come close to covering the surface. I guess the Poles can’t imagine anyone making less than 15 pounds of kraut at a time.

Even if you fill the crock completely, you’ll want to cover your kraut with two or three uncut outer cabbage leaves before adding the weights. This will keep little bits of cabbage from floating.

The Polish crocks are available from the Sausage Maker, Canning Supply, and Simply Natural.