Monday, November 10, 2008

Experiments with Bacteria

This weekend, I entered into a new (and, to me, slightly foreign) realm of food preservation. Inspired by my 'Four Season Food Production' instructor Cindy Connor, I composed and began to ferment my first batch of Kimchi. This traditional dish is a staple of the Korean diet, and I really enjoyed eating it when I lived in Japan and visited South Korea. It's also easy to make.

There are apparently huge benefits to eating fermented foods. Our bodies, of course, are huge microbial cultures, full of bacteria thriving all over the place inside us, in particular inside our intestines, where they can exert a huge influence on how we process food and how we feel throughout the day. The 'good' bacteria help you digest your food and outcompete the 'bad,' leaving no room for those bacteria that can cause sickness, such as E. coli. Fermentation is a way of attracting these 'good' bacteria, by providing a culture in which they thrive (a crock of pickles, kimchi or sauerkraut) and then introducing them into your digestive system by consuming that culture. The distinctive taste of fermented foods is often one that must be acquired, but perhaps the knowledge that the microbes who come with that taste are great for your body will help.

My guide to this, my first fermentation project, has been Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. Katz is a fermentation expert, having tried everything from sauerkraut and kimchi to mead, beer, cheese, yogurt and vinegar. Apparently Katz also came to visit the J. Sargeant Reynolds Sustainable Agriculture club earlier this year (I think..), and did a big demonstration on how to start out in fermentation. Unfortunately I missed out, but I'm on the bandwagon now, especially after Cindy's story about how her chiropractor cured his acid reflux issues by eating fermented foods. Another good reason for trying fermentation \is it's an easy way of preserving all your summer vegetables!

So let's get did I go about all this?

I'm not sure if the kimchi I'm making is 100% authentic, but here is a list of the ingredients I used, and where I got them (this is mostly a locavore kimchi!):

1 medium Napa cabbage (Amy's Garden)
3 sweet peppers (Amy's Garden)
ginger root (Amy's Garden)
1 medium daikon radish (Manakintowne Farms)
1 medium Pac Choi (Amy's Garden)
4 cloves of garlic (Ellwood Thompson's)
2 Thai hot peppers (home grown and dried!)
1 onion (Ellwood Thompson's)
4 shallots (Amy's Garden)

We chopped up the big veggies (the napa, pac choi, sweet peppers and daikon) and soaked them for a few hours in brine. The brine is just a mix of water and sea salt, using 1 tablespoon of salt per cup of water. Once the vegetables had softened, we poured off the brine, reserving it in a bowl, and mixed the spices (onion, garlic, ginger, peppers) in with the vegetables.

My next step was to put everything in a glass crock we had on hand, crushing the mix down into the bottom and causing the vegetables to release their own juices. The goal is to have all the vegetables in the crock submerged in briny vegetable juice -- anything exposed to the open air will rot instead of ferment. The vegetables released a fair amount of liquid. I added a bit of the brine at the end to make sure there was enough.

A yogurt container happened to fit perfectly inside the crock we were using. I put a yogurt top down inside the crock on top of the vegetables to hold them down, then weighed down that top with the yogurt container, which is filled with water and closed with another top. Wild Fermentation dictates that I taste the kimchi daily, and suggests it takes about a week to be 'ready,' though you can ferment foods for as long as you like, depending on how intense a flavor you desire. I've got the crock sitting on the kitchen counter next to the stove, where it will absorb a little warmth (a good thing for the bacteria). Check back later for the results and a tasting!

If you're interested in fermenting things yourself, I recommend buying the book Wild Fermentation. Katz has good instructions and plenty of information about why these foods are great, and how to go about introducing them into your diet. Briny pickled vegetables may seem like a strange venture, but it's definitely worth investigating. Also, Pete from Manakintowne Farms told me he'd be bringing more daikon to the Saturday market in Forest Hill Park next week -- local, organic daikon is hard to find because it's really not a cash crop, so grab them while you can!

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