Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Cabbage Minus Zero

If your dog has an ancient brain, vestigial memory, he will bury a bone and go back one day and dig it up and lie down over it and hold it in his paws and nurse it until it’s gone, licking and sucking and sometimes chawing until it is lace and finally disappears. He buries the bone not so it ferments, not so the earth will make its elements work on each other until they are more available to his digestive system, which is what happens, but because something, a hunch, tells him to. My dog’s ancient brain has been pretty much bred out of him. Nevertheless, he has little or no interest in a fresh bone. If I give him one on June 1st, he will disdain it, nose it a few times over the next month as it lies in the grass under a hot sun, and finally find real interest in it about the 4th of July. A winter bone can lie there till hell freezes over and then thaws, at which point he might find it fascinating.

Makes you glad to be a civilized human, doesn’t it? But wait a sec: you pick a cabbage out of the fall garden. It might be sleeting, you might have to lift the protecting blanket and shake the snow off it before you break off the cabbage. Now what? Eat it at ground zero? Probably not. And no, you can’t leave it on your counter or even in your fridge to eat next month, for even if rot doesn’t set in, the quality – the flavor and nutrition of it – will degrade. No, you have to do something with it – immediately, if not sooner. What do you do? Grandma used to cut out the core and shred the cabbage, salt it until it wept, wring it out, and apply a dressing of light cream, vinegar, a little sugar. That’s pretty much ground zero.

Next step is to heat it. I like to put some good amount of butter in the pan (natch!), melt it over low heat, then add the thin wedges of cabbage, salt and pepper, cover it up and leave it over very low heat on a back burner for a long time – an hour, maybe. Turn it once in awhile as the cabbage melts and golds. The long low heat doesn’t excite cabbage’s bitter buds but calms them into sweetness. A touch of vinegar when you eat it.

That’s the way with cabbage. You heat it, it’s a plus, an addition.

Let’s go the other way – don’t heat it, slice it up in slivers and put it to work, encourage it to make the most of its innate self. You’ve heard of sauerkraut? You know how it’s made? Think about it – it’s buried in a crock with salt sprinkled over it, pounded down, weighted, covered, and let work!

The process is called lacto-fermentation, and the key to it is salt, which allows “Lactic microbial organisms – similar to those that curdle milk – to develop spontaneously and convert the natural sugars of the vegetable into lactic acid. This environment rapidly acidifies, to the point that it becomes impossible for bacteria responsible for food spoilage to multiply.” This is from a little book called Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning, put together by The Gardeners & Farmers of Terre Vivante, in France, and published by Chelsea Green in White River. It’s a treasure trove of old techniques of preservation that get left out of modern cookbooks but that were – until quite recently, the middle of the 19th century when heat sterilization (canning)came into wide use – the prevalent forms of food preservation. They include drying; preserving with salt, oil, sugar, alcohol or vinegar; cold storage, and fermentation.

“Oh, how esoteric,” you might say. But lots of foods we eat everyday take advantage of fermentation. Chocolate, for instance. In an October 29th New Yorker article called “Extreme Chocolate”, Bill Buford says “Fermentation has been around forever. It is older than cooking. It was probably the first method of food preparation. Fermentation transforms grapes into wine, grains into beer, wheat into leavened bread. It transforms a raw ingredient, often valued for its nutrition, into one valued for its taste. It yields vinegar, yogurt, sauerkraut, cheese, prosciutto, vanilla, and pickles.” Of course, cacao pods are also fermented, a process Buford describes robustly, to yield, finally, the silky bitter thing we call chocolate.

Without undue thought about the matter, I made a couple of small batches of sauerkraut this fall. I was surprised by the sweetness and velvety texture of it, and how well it accompanied roasted or grilled meats. A taste of it alone in the middle of the afternoon proved satisfying, too.

Suddenly, as though my ears had been unstoppered by the doing of it, people were TALKING, in the most ravishing tones, about sauerkraut and the more varied Asian counterpart of it, kimchi, a fermented vegetable mix, usually based on cabbage but with the addition of other vegetables such as carrots and onions. Its spiciness can be scorching or mild with hot peppers, its Asian origin told in notes of ginger or fennel or seeds of cumin, coriander or cardamom. It’s as individual as the maker.

Potter, Maya Zelkin, served kimchi as part of a little spread she put out for her pottery studio opening in Shrewsbury in October. As I nibbled it appreciatively she told me she’d made it from her own garden produce and in a fermenting crock like the one I was at that moment looking at and wondering what that unusual object was. She had taken a fermentation class given by the Flack Family Farm of Enosburg Falls a few years ago at a NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) conference, and based her execution of the crock on one she’d seen there.

The crock holds 2.5 gallons of vegetables, considerably more than I had been making at home, and the covering weight is a halved disk that fits, half by half, through the narrow top to cover the vegetables to weigh them down. “You don’t need a lot of weight,” Maya told me.

A bowl-like top fits upside-down into the lip, or gutter, of the crock, the lip is then filled with water, which creates a seal that allows the fermenting gases to escape but keeps air and dust out and prevents the formation of kahm yeast, that slimy stuff that isn’t harmful but is a little distasteful.

The crock is both beautiful and utilitarian, and suddenly I was a little more excited about making kimchi.

Maya said that I might visit her one day for a kimchi-making session if I would provide the cabbage. We would need 12 pounds, and I arrived in her kitchen a few days later toting just two heads of cabbage, because one of them weighed a humongous 10 pounds! A pot of soup bubbled slowly on the back of the wood range and Maya was prepping ginger, carrots, garlic, onions, and daikon radish to grate, a bowl of sea salt and a package of dried hot pepper stood by, as she handed me a sharp knife and a teensy cutting board and bid me get busy on that cabbage!

As we chopped and grated and chatted, she told me she’d made several batches of kimchi already and stored it in canning jars in a cool spot in the basement.

“Really,” I said, surprised at this, thinking of it as a condiment, “and why do you make so much?”

“As a preserving method, this is just so superior to canned. I realize it’s not good for modern commerce, doesn’t have a long shelf life, but it means I don’t need to buy California greens in February.”

“So we need to be careful,” I said, “or the USDA will decide that lacto-fermented vegetables are dangerous to our health and outlaw them!” We both had a rueful chuckle at that!

As a matter of fact, there is a caution in the Terre Vivante book, saying that “The USDA and the FDA recommend that all fermented foods should also be canned in a hot water bath to protect against botulism,” but they add, “There is good reason to think these recipes are safe without canning.”

We plunged along in our dangerous task.

Much of the big cabbage was revealing itself to be made up of numerous baby cabbages that grew from the same stem and nestled in its structure like babies in a womb. I munched on one and offered one to Maya, which she declined. “I’m not much for raw vegetables,” she explained. “I think traditional cultures didn’t eat a lot of vegetables, except for fermented ones.” She went on to explain, “I think the emphasis on raw salads is really not good for you – after all, we’re not cows!” I looked around and tossed the little half-eaten baby cabbage in the compost.

I’d sliced about a quarter of the cabbage, Maya had a nice pile of grated additions, so we put them into the crock, sprinkled 2 tablespoons of gray sea salt – Maya was using slightly less salt with this batch, 6 tablespoons altogether, for the 15 pounds of vegetables – and a half teaspoon of hot pepper powder on them, and I took the big pounder that had been carved out of a stick of firewood and began to pound.

It wasn’t long before the last layer of vegetables was pounded down. Maya fit each half of the weight on top and pressed them down onto the solid vegetables – the kimchee was juicing up nicely – and fitted an incongruously vivid bowl over the top onto the lip. The original top cracked in the firing, but she found this bowl fit perfectly. Carefully she poured water into the lip. “This was the first fermenting crock I made, and the lip is a little shallow, so I refined it in the following ones. But this is good enough for me.” Too, this crock was the smaller of the two sizes she makes, holding 1.5 gallons of vegetables, a size she finds most useful for her needs.

The task completed, we cleaned up and I gathered my things to go. “Come back in three days,” she bade me. “It should be done by then.”

My mouth was agape. Three days! “Oh, yes,” she crowed. “Bring some canning jars.”

Sure enough, three days later I returned home with my jars of delectable, juicy, sweet and spicy kimchi.

The following Saturday I bought daikon, carrots, cabbage, onions and a bulb of fennel at the Winter Farmers’ Market at the Rutland Area Food Co-op, and made a small batch of kimchi for myself. Of course I didn’t have Maya’s fermenting crock, but I could get along with a small crock I did have, my little coffee-cup plate to cover it, liter jar full of water to weight it, and a cheesecloth covering. It’s been two weeks now, and my small batch of kimchi is beginning to taste pretty good. It’s a little dry, I think because of evaporation, but quite tasty. But I’m thinking that when Maya gets back to making pots again next spring I might have to splurge on my own Zelkin fermenting crock!

Preserving fall vegetables might seem a little off-season for a December column, but the mind-blowing success of the indoor Winter Farmers’ Market puts the lie to that thought! When the prospect of a winter market began to take hold last summer, farmers began to plan for fall and winter crops. So far their planning has been fruitful, and the market is bursting with produce. Talking to Sally Beckwith of Foggy Meadow Farm last Saturday, I learned that the cabbages are still in the ground, picked at opportune moments during the week, and have probably benefited appreciably, as the parsnips have done, by the nip of raw weather making them sweeter. The spinach, though not actively growing, has roots still securely in the ground waiting, with no loss of freshness, to be picked and sold at the market.

Fresh or fermented, even cooked – never have our food choices been so broad, so festively presented. Why, I feel as instinctively happy as a dog with a fresh juicy bone in its jaws, just beginning to dig a hole to bury it in!

Potter/artist, Maya Zelkin Pottery, wood fired stoneware and porcelain, Coldham Road, Shrewsbury, VT 05738, 802/492-2045 or mayazelkin@gmail.com

published in Rutland (Vt) herald December 4, 2007

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