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Fermented Freedoms

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Discover Fermented Foods

Is kitchen pickling destined to become a thing of the past? Not if Sandor Ellix Katz has his way. Find out why preserving homemade foods may soon be back in style.

Can making a pickle be a revolutionary act? In 2003, Sandor Ellix Katz announced that yes, yes it could. A self-described “fermentation fetishist,” he penned a book, Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003), and set out to warn America that the art of pickling was all but lost.

What’s so important about pickles? Well, for starters, they’re part of a huge domestic tradition in real danger of being forgotten. And in Katz’s view, they also represent a culinary freedom at risk.

For thousands of years, he notes, human beings have had an intimate relationship with food: Plant it, harvest it, preserve it, eat it, get ready to plant again. Today, though,  much of the art of preserving food — especially preserving and enhancing the nutritional value of vegetables, nuts and grains through wild-yeast fermentation — has been handed over to corporations and, thus, effectively lost.

Wild Fermentation is a how-to guide for reclaiming that tradition. Katz shows us how to preserve a whole range of foods with wild yeast — from vegetable pickles (including sauerkrauts and kimchi) to fermented dairy (yogurt, cheese and kefir) to grain (sourdoughs).

“I realized there was this huge amount of fear in our culture because of our emphasis on refrigeration,” Katz told me from his Tennessee farm. “People have become terrified of the idea of killing themselves and their families by doing anything outside of refrigeration. But these are techniques that people have used for thousands of years to preserve foods, and if you have access to them, you can save money, eat more healthily, and do all sorts of things to eat lower and better on the food chain.”

Katz’s book and Web site (www.wildfermentation.com) spread the news about fermentation and brought him into contact with other Americans who were also thinking about the disconnect between modern life and food. Some were gardeners and seed-savers who didn’t want to see favorite varieties of tomatoes, radishes and apples disappear because they weren’t suited to industrial production. Others were frustrated by arcane laws that prevented them from baking food for the homeless. It seemed that everywhere Katz turned, people were working to reclaim some of the ground that had been lost to the current system of factory farms and commodity foods.

And so Katz’s second book was born: The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2006). Together, Katz’s books describe a growing number of Americans being transformed by the idea of “voting with your fork,” or changing the world by what you choose to eat.

“When I started traveling and talking about Wild Fermentation, I met all kinds of people who had a more politicized view of the whole food system,” Katz explained. “At first, you’d think these people had little in common: Here were scientists opposing genetically modified crops because they can undermine wild plants. Here were doctors saying that this is the first generation in which our children are going to have shorter life expectancies because of diet-related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. Then over here were the people in the Slow Food Movement who were saying it’s critical that we keep our traditional foods alive and respect our history of traditional food producers. And while these people were all doing their separate things, I started realizing they were all really just saying one thing: This is about our cultural survival.”

We all need food to survive, says Katz, “but mass-produced food is destroying the earth, our health and our communities. Reversing that process can’t be done by decree from the top; it has to be done by people at the grassroots reconnecting with their food.”

For a lot of us, the first step to participating in this cultural survival movement is to take the time to complete the small, but still meaningful, revolutionary act of making something homemade — whether it’s salad dressing, pesto or even a simple refrigerator pickle.

“Anytime you’re buying processed foods, you’re spending more money on foods that are nutritionally diminished,” explained Katz. “If you make your own anything, you’re spending less money, giving your money to people fewer steps down the supply chain, and getting better food — food that’s better tasting and better for you nutritionally.”

Grandmothers across America might be surprised to learn that their simple garden pickles were, in fact, small acts of radical food independence. But a new generation is discovering that, indeed, sometimes even a pickle can be revolutionary.

WEB EXTRA!

Lebanese Kishk Soup

This delicious soup features kishk, a fermented mixture of bulgur wheat and yogurt. It is available at Middle Eastern markets, or you can make your own: See the Web Extra! above for Katz’s recipe. Makes six to eight servings Time frame: 1⁄2 hour

  • 2 to 3 onions
  • 2 tbs. vegetable oil
  • 3 potatoes
  • 2 carrots
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 2 tbs. butter
  • 1 cup kishk
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 tbs. fresh parsley

Dice onions and sauté in oil in a soup pot. Once the onion is translucent, add 2 quarts of water and bring to a boil. Add diced potatoes and carrots (and any other ingredients you like). Cook until soft. Mince garlic and sauté it in butter in a separate skillet. Add kishk, and sauté a minute or so. Then take about 1 cup of liquid from the soup pot and add it to the kishk and garlic. Stir until well blended, then add the liquefied kishk-garlic mixture to the soup. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook five to 10 minutes, then serve, garnished with parsley.

Recipe excerpted from Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods by Sandor Ellix Katz (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003).

WEB EXTRA!

Kishk

Kishk is a Lebanese ferment of yogurt mixed with bulgur wheat. Its flavor is unique and distinctive. During its fermentation, it can smell almost sweet, like coconut, but it ultimately tastes like a strong, musky cheese. Kishk is traditionally dried after fermentation, then used to flavor and thicken soups and stews. Makes about 1 1/2 cups Time frame: 10 days

  • 1/2 cup bulgur wheat
  • 1 cup yogurt
  • 1/2 tsp. salt

Mix yogurt and bulgur in a bowl, cover, and leave overnight. When you look in the morning, the bulgur will have absorbed much of the moisture of the yogurt. Knead the mixture with your hands. Mix it well. If it seems dry, as though it could absorb more moisture, add a little more yogurt and knead it in. Cover it and leave to ferment for about 24 hours more. Check it again the next day, and knead. Continue to knead the bulgur-yogurt dough every day for about nine days. (If you neglect to knead it, it may develop surface mold; if so, just scrape off the mold, knead, and proceed.) At the end of this period (a few days more or fewer would not be significant), knead salt into the kishk. Spread kishk on a baking sheet and leave in a sunny spot, or in the oven with the pilot light on, to dry. As it dries, crumble it into smaller bits to create more surface area. Once the kishk is completely dry, use a mortar and pestle or a food processor to crush it into powder and crumbs for storage. Kept dry, it should store for several months in a jar at room temperature. To cook with kishk, fry the crumbs with butter, then add water and boil to desired consistency. Cooking will thicken it, as in a flour-based gravy or sauce. Kishk cooked with just water is flavorful and delicious; it also enhances soups and stews. Use about 2 tablespoons of kishk per cup of water.

Recipe excerpted from Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods by Sandor Ellix Katz (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003).

WEB EXTRA!

Savory Yogurt Sauces: Raita and Tsatsiki

Raita is a frequent condiment in Indian cuisine, tsatsiki in Greek cuisine. If these sauces have a chance to sit, the flavors will infuse and meld, so if you can, make them at least a few hours (or a day) in advance. Serve on pitas or with fresh vegetables.

Makes 4 cups
Time frame: one hour

  • 1 large or 2 small cucumbers
  • 1 tbs. salt, or to taste
  • 2 cups yogurt
  • 4 to 6 cloves garlic, crushed or finely chopped

For Raita

  • 1 tsp. cumin, dry-roasted then ground
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

For Tsatsiki

  • 2 tbs. olive oil
  • 1 tbs. lemon juice
  • Ground white pepper
  • 1/4 cup fresh chopped mint and/or parsley

Grate cucumber into a colander, sprinkle with salt, mix well, and leave in a sink or over a bowl to drain excess water for about one hour (or longer).

Mix other ingredients with cucumber in a bowl. Try varying these standbys with other herbs (fresh dill, oregano, chives, thyme, bee balm or other flower petals) or grated vegetables (kohlrabi, radishes, burdock).

Taste. Much of the salt will have dripped away with the water. If desired, add more salt, as well as other seasonings.

Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Recipe excerpted from Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods by Sandor Ellix Katz (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003).

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a celebrated food and wine critic. Nominated seven times for James Beard Foundation Awards — the Oscars of the food world — she has received four awards for her restaurant and wine columns. Since 2001, her work has been regularly featured in the Best Food Writing anthologies.

Food Photography by Terry Brennan; Food Styling by Betsy Nelson

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