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It’s spring in Southern California, and our backyard fruit trees have run riot. Golden yellow loquats the size of my child’s fist hang heavily from two trees, and oranges left over from the winter crop spectacularly cover a 30-foot tree shading my daughter’s playhouse. Our yard looks like a postcard trumpeting the glories of Los Angeles suburbia, circa 1923.
But as with any paradise there’s a dark side. This year, the dark side comes from the loquats. I don’t know what to do with them.
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There are so many loquats that our yard has become a hazard. Fully-ripe loquats drop from our trees every five minutes, and as my daughters play in the yard, they grind the soft yellow orbs messily into the lawn and walkway. Still more are up there, some as high as 40 feet, way beyond the reach of our ladder and picking tool. They’ve become a feast for the flocks of squawking, screaming wild parrots in our neighborhood.
These are another holdover from the 1920’s “California is Paradise” meme. Some of the wild parrots are said to be runaways from the estate of Lucky Baldwin, and the creatures tear the loquats to bits, scattering the seeds and skins across our back yard to mix with the rotting ones.
We have two loquat trees that dominate our backyard, each with slightly different variety of fruit. When we first moved to this house, I had no idea what loquats were and wasn’t even sure they were edible. For several weeks we raked them into huge messy piles and shoved them into the recycling bin. But I couldn’t stand to see this bounty left to rot, so I started asking questions about this small, fleshy yellow fruit. I discovered that loquats are not only edible, they’re downright delicious. My youngest daughter became obsessed with loquats when she was just a year old and ate her weight in loquats that first season.
Don’t sweat the seeds
Over the past few years, I have turned our loquats into loquat cobbler, loquat butter and loquat leather, with varying degrees of success. The biggest problem with loquats is their incredible seed-to-flesh ratio. Each loquat contains one to six large seeds, which means that you get almost as much seed as you do edible flesh in each loquat.
When I first starting researching loquats, I’d read that the seeds were poisonous. Filled with arsenic, and possibly cyanide. The websites were not clear. But like any paranoid mother, I worried that my children might eat them and fall into a temporary coma, just like an unnamed child I’d read about online. Although we’d been eating loquats for several years without incident, I decided to put my fears to rest once and for all by checking with an expert.
I put in a call to professor Jules Janick, director of the Indiana Center for New Crops and Plant Products at Purdue University. He’s not only the co-editor of “The Encyclopedia of Fruits and Nuts,” he is also a kind and understanding voice of reason. Janick told me that loquat seeds are indeed toxic, but then so are the seeds of apples and pears. To put things into perspective, Janick said, “If you ate 3 pounds of them, then it might be a problem.” He also reminded me that the bitterness of the seeds would stop someone from eating them pretty quickly. I realized that my daughter was at far greater risk for choking on a loquat seed than being poisoned by its chemical components.
Backyard loquat adventure
With this in mind, on an April afternoon, I took my loquat-loving youngest daughter to the back yard to begin Loquat Harvest 2013. We planned to fill my daughter’s toy wagon with enough fruit to make loquat leather, but we were quickly distracted by the fun of the collection process. We examined huge spider webs woven between the tree’s broad leaves. We ducked our heads from a torrent of loquat hail that rained down on us as I used our fruit picker to reach an especially high cluster of fruit. But we stopped in our tracks when we discovered a tiny hummingbird’s nest attached to a small wavering branch of our loquat tree. All thoughts of loquat leather disappeared and we marveled at this tiny treasure.
Our loquat tree was not only a source of food for humans and birds alike, it was a home. Our loquat trees now feel like an integral part of our own home, one that we happily share with our feathered friends.
I’m still experimenting with new ways to use the backyard bounty, without creating more work than necessary. The simplest approach is to just eat the fruit straight from the tree, spitting out the seeds, of course. But that’s a LOT of loquats to eat.
Our future is sure to be full of new loquat-laced dishes including loquat jelly, loquat chutney and loquat-chicken tagine. Maybe even a batch of loquat ice cream. But even as my family members stuff themselves with loquats, I think that the bounty of Southern California may simply be too much to keep up with.
I may have to ignore much of the fruit of the loquat this year.
And the real beneficiaries, the screaming, squawking, fat and happy parrots.
8 cups seeded loquat halves (approximately 9 to 10 cups of whole, ripe fruit depending on size)
2 cups applesauce (store-bought is fine)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Wash loquats and remove any blemishes and remaining brown bits from stem and blossom ends. Be sure to use ripe loquats, which are softer, sweeter and less acidic than unripe loquats.
2. Cut loquats in half. Scoop out the seeds and white membrane inside the pulpy yellow flesh. Don’t bother to peel them.
3. Make two batches of loquat-apple purée by adding 4 cups of loquat halves, 1 cup of applesauce and ½ teaspoon of cinnamon into blender or food processor. Process until smooth. (The blender does a slightly better job on breaking down the peels than the food processor, but either will work.) Repeat with second half of ingredients.
4. Place a solid tray liner, usually called a fruit roll sheet or non-stick dehydrator sheet, on top of your dehydrator tray.
5. Spread a layer of loquat-apple purée, about ¼-inch thick, onto the solid tray liner. The fruit leather will have a more uniform thickness if you spread the puree slightly thicker around the edges. Be sure to follow instructions for your dehydrator. Some suggest brushing the tray with a thin layer of vegetable oil to the tray liner before adding fruit purée.
6. Place the tray (or multiple trays if you have them) into the dehydrator and dehydrate at 135 F for 4 to 8 hours, until the fruit leather is translucent and can be easily peeled from the tray without falling apart. It may still feel a bit sticky to the touch, especially in the middle.
7. Cut into strips and roll. Keep in a closed container or bag until ready to eat.
Picking loquats. Credit: Susan Lutz
Food and science converged in our house recently with an impromptu sugarcane experiment. The exercise began a few weeks ago when my daughter came home from school and announced that she had learned something important: “Sugar is bad.” This statement disturbed me. Obviously too much sugar isn’t good for anyone, but it doesn’t seem productive to talk about foods as essentially “good” or “bad,” especially to a 6-year old.
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Eating too much of any food can be bad, even if that food is full of nutrients and comes straight from the garden. And talking about sugar, both naturally occurring and manufactured, is especially complicated. Refined white crystals are “sugar,” but so are honey, maple syrup and molasses. There are important scientific distinctions between fructose, sucrose and glucose. I discussed all these things with my daughter, but she only seemed confused.
The sugar problem
I’d been mulling over the sugar problem for days when I took my daughters to our local farmers market. And there, lying on a table in glorious 6-foot-long stalks, was the answer to my conundrum.
“Look girls,” I said. “Sugar!”
In spite of their frank disbelief, I decided these stalks of freshly-cut, locally-grown sugarcane would turn “the sugar problem” into “the great sugarcane experiment.”
My two daughters watched in awe as the owner of the stall, Mee Thao Her, chopped the sugarcane into 6-inch long chunks. Next she stripped off the hard green outer coating to reveal the cane’s porous white center. She handed each of my daughters a small chunk, and watched as they placed them carefully in their mouths. My first-grader beamed, “It tastes like sugar!”
“Because it is sugar,” I said.
She was clearly dubious. I realized we had to ratchet up the experiment. We bought a full 6-foot stalk of cane and brought it home.
My plan was to help the girls turn this stretch of green stalk into crystallized sugar, the kind they would recognize. Some quick research revealed a possible problem. There are three kinds of sugarcane: crystal cane, syrup cane, and chewing cane. Her raised “chewing cane” on her family’s farm in Fresno, so I wasn’t sure we’d even be able to make crystallized sugar from this sugarcane. But in my family, we’re always up for a culinary challenge.
Taste-testing the experiment
Before we began our experiment, I introduced the concept of the scientific method. We talked about what color we thought the finished product would be (yellowish-green) and how the juice would taste (like sour sugar.) After much discussion we developed a hypothesis: If we chop up the sugarcane, peel it, strain it, boil it, and dry it, we will create sugar crystals.
It seemed simple enough. First we cleaned and stripped our sugar cane. My husband eagerly volunteered, happily wielding the large machete he keeps in the trunk of his car “for emergencies.” Next, we chopped the tender white centers into 1-inch chunks and ground them up in the food processor. We poured the resulting fibrous mass through a series of coffee filters and cheesecloth into a measuring cup. An hour later, our 6-foot long stalk of sugar cane finally yielded 2 cups worth of pale yellow juice. My eldest daughter said that it tasted like sugar, but “grassier.”
We boiled down the juice, filtered it again, and reduced the juice a second time. The result: our twice-boiled sugarcane syrup tasted like molasses, but sweeter and less bitter.
My next step was to try to crystallize sugar from this boiled-down juice. Realizing it might not work with “chewing sugar,” I hedged my bets by creating a second jar, this one containing a super-saturated solution of refined white sugar in water. I coated two strings with a dried sugar solution. This would be the “seed” for our future sugar crystals. My daughters placed the “seed” strings into each Mason jar and covered them with a paper towel to keep the flies out.
Then we waited.
It took three days, but the result was worth it. In one jar was a string of perfectly crystallized white sugar. This was no surprise to me, because my own parents had performed this “magic trick” with me when I was a child. In the other jar was a quarter-cup of golden-bronze liquid, with only a bit of thick golden syrup clinging to the string.
My daughters were amazed. We examined the contents of the different jars with a magnifying glass. We tasted each sample — the gritty crystals and the luscious syrup. We discussed the difference between the two kinds of sugar. We also talked about the fact that sugar wasn’t a magical white substance that came in a bag from the grocery store. Sugar is a naturally occurring substance. Sugar comes from Mrs. Her’s farm in Fresno.
Sugar is sugar
I told my daughters that sugar is vitally important to make our bodies work the way they should. And that too much of sugar can cause serious problems. I didn’t go into a list of issues like diabetes, tooth decay, America’s obesity epidemic, high-fructose corn syrup and the host of other problems that undoubtedly lay behind the phrase “sugar is bad.” These are all serious problems that I want my daughters to be aware of. But sugar isn’t bad. Sugar is sugar. I think my daughters now have a better understanding of what that substance is.
Some of my family’s theories about sugar-making proved incorrect. Actually most of them did. But the most important hypothesis yielded positive results. With some help, and active participation, kids can learn to think about sugar in a meaningful way and to start making conscious food choices.
Top photo: My daughter supervises the first filtering process during our sugarcane experiment. Credit: Susan Lutz
Driving down a country road in Virginia on a winter afternoon, I was definitely not thinking of vintage kitchen tools. Which is odd for me, since the topic is often running quietly in the back of my mind in many situations, much to my family’s chagrin.
My husband and I were enjoying a beautiful wintry drive in the rolling countryside of the Virginia Piedmont when we passed a weathered storefront piled high with old furniture and an ancient sign that read “Farmer’s Service Center.”
The Feed Store
105 Church Street
Madison, VA 22727
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Suddenly I was thinking about vintage kitchen tools again.
While my husband was uttering, “That looks like an interesting place,” I had already swerved off the main drag and pulled into the parking lot. I was on a mission.
We were greeted at the front door by a friendly woman named Joan Tanner. She asked whether we were looking for anything special and I replied, as I always do in such places, “Kitchen tools.”
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m obsessed with old kitchen tools. I don’t mind if these items are a little battered and worse for wear. In fact, I love them all the more because I know that some cook used and cherished this tool before I was born.
I always keep a mental list of kitchen equipment I’d love to find, and at the top of this list is a lid for my Guardian Ware 2-quart Dome Cooker. It’s a 60-year-old a pot with a glass lid that belonged to my grandmother. When I broke the glass lid almost two years ago, I wept. I’ve been on the hunt for a replacement lid ever since. And I thought this might the place to find it.
I wandered into a cramped room overflowing with sleds, vintage lunchboxes and collectibles jars. Tanner plucked something down from a large nail in the wall. “You might like to see this.”
She handed me a small rusted object with a handle and a crank. “Do you know what it is?” she grinned.
I must have appeared confused and she quickly told me that I was holding a nutmeg grater. I’d been sure it was a grater of some sort, but I’d never seen a nutmeg grater like this before. I knew at this moment that I’d discovered a very special place, but I didn’t know the full story yet.
Marveling at the collection
Joan walked me to the sliding garage door at the back of the room and said, “Be sure to check out the back room before you leave.” With these words, she slid open a heavy wooden door, revealing a massive warehouse behind the storefront, filled from floor to ceiling with rows and rows ancient, rusty, dust-covered treasures. When the door opened, I felt like Dorothy walking into Oz.
Within 10 minutes I found a lid to my grandmother’s pot. And it was aluminum, not glass, so I’d spare myself the agony of another lid-breaking incident. Soon after, I found a double-boiler that was nearly identical to my grandmother’s. I inherited this double-boiler and I now use it to make my grandmother’s classic seven-minute frosting for coconut cake. After my mother gave me the double-boiler years ago, she quickly regretted replacing it with the new non-stick version, which never again produced the classic taste created by the battered old aluminum version.
So I bought my mother the double-boiler. And because there was another on almost exactly like it, I bought that too. Just in case.
As we traveled through the tiny paths created between the towering piles of stuff, we marveled at the cider press, pottery jugs and the basket full of rolling pins.
This process took more than an hour and a half and if it hadn’t been so cold, we might still be there. When we reached the warmth of the wood stove back in the front room, Tanner and I talked about how she got started in the antiques business.
She and her husband Bobby originally opened the place as a feed store in 1956. On a fateful day in 1990, Tanner cleared off one small shelf in the front room to display her bottle collection. Her husband Bobby told her, “Oh, nobody’ll come in here to look for that.” He was wrong. Today, the store still stocks feed, but only in a small area behind the main building. As Tanner puts it with a grin, “You’ve heard of people dealing out of the back room?” Clearly, animal feed takes a back seat to Tanner’s beloved antiques. She loves her stuff and it shows.
Like Tanner, I appreciate the craftsmanship that went into the making of these old tools and the love that’s expressed in their weathered hardware. Our society values the new, the slick, the shiny. But throughout the country you can find these secret treasure troves; the country stores and flea markets where love and heart and craft are still collected and kept. These tools are waiting for the next person to find and love them. I still keep my mental list of kitchen tools to find. But now I’ve also started a mental list of places to find these items and Joan Tanner’s Feed Store is at the top of that list.
Top photo: The Feed Store, owned and operated by Joan Tanner, in Madison, Virginia. Credit: Susan Lutz
I love chomping into a chunk of crusty, crunchy bread. There is nothing like a freshly baked loaf that is soft and springy in the middle with a crust so hard it cracks when you bite into it. I often think of this kind of bread as San Francisco-style bread because that’s where I first ate it, although it can be found across the globe. I even bought a Le Creuset cast-iron pot expressly for the purpose of making it at home.
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As much as I love eating this kind of bread, I’d always found an excuse to avoid baking it myself. About the time I decided that this beautiful little pot would never, ever see a loaf of bread baking inside it, I discovered the Los Angeles Bread Bakers and attended a workshop that has radically changed my attitude toward bread baking.
The Los Angeles Bread Bakers is the kind of organization I admire because it is full of community spirit and knowledgeable members, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The hosts of the workshop were Erik Knutzen and his wife Kelly Coyne. Together they run rootsimple.com and have written a number of great how-to books including “The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City.” So I figured why not dedicate an afternoon to hanging out with Knutzen and Coyne and making some bread.
I already knew how to make bread, just not this particular kind of bread. I grew up in the South where bread is wonderful, but something entirely different. Where I come from, bread is soft throughout, slightly sweet, and topped with melted butter. It may be brown or white, but it never has the crunchy, crackly crust that I admired.
Many of the workshop participants were also experienced bakers who shared my motivation for attending the workshop. We all wanted to learn how to bake this crusty bread, but perhaps even more important we wanted to hang out with other people who really like to make bread and really like to talk about it.
As it turns out, this is pretty much how The Los Angeles Bread Bakers got started. Knutzen, Mark Stambler and Teresa Sitz founded the group in 2011. I knew of Stambler because of his tireless campaign to persuade state lawmakers to pass the new California Homemade Food Act. Often known as the Cottage Food Law, it will open up a new world for home bakers looking to get into the food business.
When I asked Knutzen about the origins of LABB, he laughed and said, “I knew Teresa because she stalked me. Teresa and I were stalking Mark because we wanted to meet him and see his bread-making operation.”
The idea for LABB was born at Mark’s kitchen table. Its mission is to bring bread culture to Los Angeles and to introduce Angelenos to the many forms bread can take. To that end, the group has been host to workshops on a wide variety of topics including beginning bread baking, sourdough breads, soba noodles, pie crust and pizza making. They’ve even had a workshop on how to build your own adobe oven.
Membership in LABB also has privileges beyond learning great bread-making techniques. LABB’s almost 600 members are able to participate in bulk orders from high-end mills that grind flours using heritage wheat and other hard-to-find, but amazingly delicious grains.
Getting down to business in class
Our class began with an introduction to this type of bread, which is based on Jim Lahey’s now-famous recipe for “No-Knead Bread.” I always thought that bread was made or destroyed in the kneading process, but as we started to measure ingredients, Erik told us, “You have one chance to get it right — when you mix the dough.”
Knutzen showed us how to mix the proper proportion of flour to water, known as the hydration ratio. Just at the point when I started to worry (once again) that I’m not meticulous enough to be a great baker, Coyne chimed in and told us a hilarious story about doing everything wrong and still coming out with a good (or at least perfectly edible) loaf of bread.
Once mixed, the dough is left to rise for 18 hours, which is much longer than a traditional bread recipe. We all left the workshop with a bowl full of dough ready to rise in our own homes. The next day my family and I enjoyed a loaf of fresh-baked bread. It was not particularly gorgeous, but as crunchy and crackly as any I’d ever tasted in San Francisco.
The LABB is exactly what I’m looking for in a group because it encourages experimentation and breeds enthusiasm. Now LABB is taking its project to the next level. They’re growing their own wheat on a few acres in Agoura Hills, Calif. If all goes well, the wheat will be ready in early summer and milled into flour for the use and enjoyment of LABB members. As a new member, I can’t wait for the harvest.
Top photo: Boule made with all-purpose flour from Los Angeles Bread Bakers. Credit: Susan Lutz
It’s no secret that cider is booming. It is the fastest-growing sector of alcohol sales in the United States, with a more than 50% increase in the last year alone. After a century of decline, cider is showing sudden new growth, like an apple tree that lies long dormant and suddenly bursts into bloom. The popularity of craft apple cider is not a new phenomenon, but a return to America’s roots.
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In colonial days, cider was the most popular drink in America. John Adams drank a tankard of cider before breakfast every morning. Thomas Jefferson made enormous batches of cider every year from apples that he grew in his orchards at Monticello.
The majority of this cider is what’s known as industrial cider, cider made in large batches, and often made by beer companies. But there’s a steadily growing craft cider movement that depends not on massive sales but on small batches of carefully made product. The soul of cider rests in this craft cider movement, and my husband and I were determined to figure out how cider makers are bringing back the cider that helped feed Americans since Colonial times.
Terroir: Not just for wine
“Apple cider is wine,” Chuck Shelton said. “It’s not beer.” Shelton’s family owns Albemarle Ciderworks in North Garden, Va., less than 15 miles from Jefferson’s Monticello. On a rainy December morning, my husband and I visited the tasting room at Albemarle and sat down to talk with Shelton and operations associate Thomas Unsworth.
Shelton and Unsworth spent hours talking to us about the history of cider in their cozy office, schooling us on the basics of cider making. When we asked about the difference between “hard cider” and “sweet cider,” Shelton smiled and said, “We don’t use the term ‘hard cider.’ It’s cider! The real problem is educating people to understand what real cider is.”
Cider is fermented fruit, like wine. It’s not a fermented sugar from malted barley, which we know as beer. Making cider is very much like making wine. It depends on terroir, the term wine makers use to describe the soil, weather conditions, farming practices and winemaking style that give each wine its own unique personality. Often loosely translated from the French as “a sense of place,” terroir makes a wine what it is. The same can be said for cider-making.
To make a point, Thomas disappeared and returned with a glass of a light brown opaque liquid that turned out to be juice from a pressing of Winesap apples made only a few days earlier. The juice Thomas offered us was made from sweet, fresh heirloom apples grown with care and picked when fully ripe. This cider was — and ready to drink the moment it was pressed. My husband, a California native, described it as “thick, sweet, and nutritious feeling.” I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and this juice tasted like home to me. I don’t know a lot about cider or wine, but I growing up in the apple capital of Virginia means I know a fair amount about how apple juice should taste. This was the real deal.
Next, Thomas offered us a glass of their newest cider blend, a mixture of Winesap and Albemarle Pippins, which is scheduled for release in February under the name Red Hill. I’d never tasted anything quite like it. As I mulled over this unique new flavor, we continued our tour into the processing room full of gleaming metal tanks and past the old-fashioned press that Shelton had used in his early cider experiments. We ended up in the tasting room, where we ran into Shelton’s 92-year-old father, Bud. The elder Shelton talked to us about the humble origins of his family’s orchard, which began as his own retirement project. It apparently isn’t much of a retirement. He still drove the tractor in the previous week’s pressing, which netted nearly 1,600 gallons of fresh cider that would soon start its three- to four-week fermentation process.
Rooted in Virginia tradition
While we chatted, a friendly young woman named Jennifer served us three varieties of Albemarle’s cider: Royal Pippin, Jupiter’s Legacy and Ragged Mountain. My favorite was Royal Pippin, a single varietal made entirely from Albemarle Pippin apples. It’s common practice to make cider from a variety of apples to provide different flavor notes. But there’s something magical about the terroir of central Virginia that allows Albemarle Pippins to stand on their own. Several craft cideries in Virginia make a single varietal with this apple. Castle Hill Cider in Keswick makes one known as Levity. Jefferson himself grew Albemarle Pippins and created cider that was described as “champagne-like,” which is how I would describe Royal Pippin.
Perhaps it’s the purist in me, but I’m a sucker for Royal Pippin, which tasted like the real deal to me. I thought about Shelton and the life he’d created with his family on this farm. It too was the real deal, rooted in tradition and yet utterly unique.
Craft apple cider. Credit: Susan Lutz
Winter is the perfect time to start fermenting foods. Although it is possible (and sometimes even desirable) to ferment foods in warm weather, it’s harder to maintain a deliciously crispy texture in fermented vegetables when the temperature is consistently over 75 degrees. Cool-weather crops such as cabbage, carrots and radishes are ideal for fermentation. Sauerkraut and even fermented liquids such as hard apple cider are all traditional tastes (and processes) of the colder months.
We ferment a variety of foods at our house. My husband and I affectionately refer to the fermentation process as “festering.” This seemingly disparaging description amuses us, but it is also a recognition of the fact that fermenting your own food is not really an act of “rotting,” but is really an act of creation — one that can go deliciously right or noxiously wrong.
Getting started with vegetables
There is a huge renaissance in fermentation in America, led mostly by the author and fermentation expert Sandor Katz. Katz is the rock star of the movement and I had the pleasure of attending one of his workshops a few months ago. Katz is something of a fermentation evangelist, and this spirit was reinforced by the fact that he spoke at the pulpit of a local church.
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I had always been a little bit afraid of fermenting my own food and I was encouraged to hear Katz advocating beginning a fermentation practice with vegetables because it is, in Katz’s words, “intrinsically safe.” This is because lactobacillus, the lactic acid-producing bacteria produced in a vegetable fermentation like sauerkraut, almost always out-compete other bacteria, including potentially harmful ones. As a result, even when a vegetable fermentation project goes badly, it is unlikely to cause serious harm.
Katz discussed fermentation not only as “an essential survival practice” but also as a means for building community. His recent book “The Art of Fermentation,” is a giant love letter to the fermentation process, and it is packed with stories about Katz’s own experimentations and those of other fermentation aficionados.
Katz ends the book with an epilogue entitled “A Cultural Revivalist Manifesto” and it’s hard to resist his call to go forth and fester. For Katz, fermentation is not only a metaphor for the importance of creating communities, it is an essential building block of community-building.
At Katz’s workshop I started a batch of sauerkraut with carrots, carrots, turnips and garlic. It produced a serious stench after just a few days and I ended up throwing it out. I’m sure it would have been safe to eat, just not much fun to eat.
A second batch, minus the garlic, fared much better. I’ve even roped my husband into the mix. He focused on the alcohol-oriented end of fermentation by making a delicious batch of hard apple cider.
In the midst of my new obsession, I followed up the Sandor Katz workshop with a second fermentation workshop by Alex Lewin. Lewin’s new book “Real Food Fermentation” is concise where Katz’s book is exhaustive, but equally impassioned. Lewin describes Katz as “the grandfather of the modern fermentation revolution” and says he “feels [Katz's] presence whenever fermentation is on the table.” Read together, these two books provide both inspiration and how-to knowledge about fermentation. Katz’s book also offers a collection of useful step-by-step photographs that show readers just how things should look.
Both authors make the point that many foods we eat on a daily basis also use fermentation processes in their production. Sauerkraut and kimchi may be the classic examples of fermentation, but everything from bread to vinegar, yogurt, sour cream, corned beef, soy sauce, chocolate, coffee and beer all owe their existence to various kinds of fermentation.
My greatest fermentation success story (so far) is a delicious batch of red wine vinegar, which I started by acquiring a “mother” or starter from my friend Elizabeth. Making vinegar is a simple process of adding leftover wine to a starter. The starter or “mother” can come from another batch of homemade vinegar or a bit of unpasteurized store-bought apple cider vinegar.
Elizabeth also suggested that I try making kombucha, a fermented tea that is extremely popular for its supposed health benefits. She even gave me a kombucha starter, which is called a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, or SCOBY.
I’m sorry to say that I forgot about the poor thing and I’m not sure if it will still grow once I take it out of the refrigerator where I’ve been storing it. I’m not normally a huge fan of drinking kombucha and I should have known that my apathy toward drinking the stuff may not have given me the most committed approach to its production. However, the starter still rests in my fridge awaiting my next experiment in fermenting a new batch of kombucha. Time will tell if it works. But that’s the great thing about fermentation. It’s full of mystery, expectation and the promise of success.
The evangelical fervor for fermentation is contagious. So I urge you to get out there and fester.
Vinegar by Alex Lewin
From “Real Food Fermentation: Preserving Whole Fresh Food with Live Cultures in Your Home Kitchen,” published by Quarry Books and reprinted with permission.
Yield: 1 quart (946 ml), to start
Prep time: Minimal
Total time: Months; varies
1 quart (950 ml) wine, apple cider, or other fermented beverage
¼ cup (60 ml) vinegar from a previous batch, or some store-bought raw apple cider vinegar, to use as starter (optional)
Carboy, bottle, crock, or jar, ideally dark-colored glass and definitely lead-free
Handkerchief or towel with which to cover the container; you want to keep foreign matter out but allow the vinegar to breathe
Rubber band or piece of string
1. Pour your wine or cider into the vessel.
2. Add the starter, if using — roughly 1 tablespoon (15 ml) for every cup (250 ml) of liquid, or ¼ cup (60ml) starter per quart (950 ml) of liquid.
3. Cover with the cloth, fasten with the rubber band or string, leave in a dark place, and wait. Be patient. Taste the vinegar occasionally to monitor fermentation, but it will likely take one or two months to become fully sour.
Unfinished bottles of wine are great for this recipe. Once you have some vinegar in progress, you can add to it wine from any unfinished bottles that linger in your kitchen.
Top photo: Sauerkraut from fermented vegetables. Credit: Susan Lutz