Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fermented Vegetables are easy and fun

Trying to live life without corn required polishing my cooking skills and broadening my repertoire. If I didn't get into healing foods and the GAPS diet, I might never have discovered fermented vegetables. Fermented vegetables are another favorite new thing that I might never have discovered if not for evil corn. I've made pickles at home before but as vinegar causes a reaction for me and it is the main ingredient of all pickle recipes, I thought I had no choice but to live pickle-free. Then I found fermented veggies and I knew I had to master this process. I was shocked to find that it is a very forgiving process and quite easy to master. It is also addictive and exciting and hard to put down.

I've already told you the wonderful healing qualities of ginger root, but ginger is only one of many powerful healing foods. My first fermented vegetable recipe combines several of these: ginger, garlic, onion, carrots, and sea salt. I read Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods by Sandor Katz from cover to cover and it was very inspiring. After reading this book, I was so excited to get started and actually modified the very first recipe I tried. This man will make you fearless in fermenting, which makes the whole experience that much more satisfying.

Lacto-fermented (sometimes called cultured) vegetables also contain powerful probiotics for a healthy digestive system. This is especially good news for people that can't tolerate yogurt or other dairy ferments. Besides adding zest and interest to any dish, these homemade pickles actually help protect you from intestinal upsets and side effects of antibiotics. One spoonful of fermented veggies will also cure heartburn and derail sugar cravings. Vegetables that have undergone lacto-fermentation have been proven to contain more vitamins and minerals than the same vegetables in either raw or cooked states. They also help stimulate stomach acid aiding digestion hence the age-old tradition of serving vegetable or fruit relishes with high protein meals (cranberry sauce with turkey, sauerkraut with sausages, chutney with lamb, etc.). All condiments, salsas, chutneys, and jellies started out as fermented products and I intend to work up to one day eating only homemade fermented condiments. Just imagine getting beneficial probiotics into your children every time they use ketchup or mustard.

My favorite recipe is adapted from one in Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and I tend to use her method for small ferments minus the whey (we have problems with dairy). Her recipe calls for exact amounts of ginger, carrots, sea salt and whey. I am a "wing-it" kind of cook so I start with about the same amount of grated carrots (4 cups) and then add a small amount of ginger, garlic, and about twice those of onions. I put all the shredded veggies in a bowl with one tablespoon of celtic sea salt and then I squeeze it and mix it by hand. (I put on disposable gloves for this because the sea salt can be abrasive and drying to my hands) The juice will start to flow and then you can pack it into a wide mouth quart mason jar. Put a 2 inch layer of veggies, pack it down with a large wooden spoon, then repeat until jar is full. Leave one inch headspace in the jar then cover tightly and check it after two days. If you keep it cooler in your house like we do, just place it near a lamp and cover it. I always set mine inside a 9 x 13 plastic container to catch any overflow (that does sometimes happen but it is no big deal). When you get ready to open it (and you won't be able to leave the first batch alone) make sure to open over the sink. The fermentation process can cause it to fizz over when you open it. Taste it after 3 days or so and put it into the fridge if you like the taste. (It should smell like pickles, not rotten cabbage.)

This is just the first ferment that I tried and I have loved every one I've made except for plain sauerkraut (and it was OK). The varieties are endless and you should make combos that sound good to you. I had only one failure so far and that was because I used a plastic lid. Some of my favorites so far:
  • beets and daikon radish (about half and half)
  • turnips and onions and caraway seeds
  • cabbage with carrots, onions, red pepper and hot pepper flakes
  • turnips and carrots (onions optional)
  • brussells sprouts, dill weed, garlic and onion
  • squash and zucchini with pink peppercorns
As you can see, the combinations are only limited by your store selection and imagination. Fresh herbs are a great addition, but sadly hard to find in my area. I intend to grow a wide variety of herbs and aromatics next spring. In fact, I am planning my garden around fermented vegetable combinations that I want to make. I didn't even get to make any cucumber pickles this year because I couldn't find any decent cucumbers and I can't let that happen again. Click here for more of my fermented veggie recipes.

A few uses for leftover juice from your fermented vegetables:
  • use it in place of vinegar in salad dressings
  • mix it with mayonnaise or sour cream (another ferment) for dip
  • use a couple of TBSP to "inoculate" your next batch of veggies
  • feed it to your pets to boost their intestinal health
  • use it to rev up your compost pile (another ferment)
  • feed it diluted to your houseplants 
  • add it to broths or soups to kick up the flavor
  • drink it to prevent dehydration when active
Further reading:
Small Footprint Family: Speed Pickles
Get Cultured: Probiotic Recipes from The Nourished Kitchen
Wild Fermentation Message Board
Natural Bias: A Great Source of Natural Probiotics

I'd love to hear any new fermented veggie recipes or combinations. As usual, this post is part of Real Food Wednesday where you are guaranteed to learn something new.

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  1. My carrots got slimy. What did I do wrong?

  2. I'm not sure. I just had one jar of my last batch do the same thing. I can only guess that there was some impurity on the jar or lid or in the air when I made them. Since it only happened to one out of three jars, I would think that it was probably that particular jar or lid. Fermenting is not an exact science so one must be prepared for a failure from time to time.