Our ancestors had it right. They relied on a more natural route to digestive health.
Warmed milk mixed with a bit of yogurt and tightly wrapped and left on the counter for four hours produced a culture-rich yogurt. Cabbage rubbed with a little salt and left to ferment for a few days becomes a “pickle” rich in lactobacillus bacteria.
“The bacteria also produce B vitamins and enzymes during the fermenting process that are beneficial for digestion,” said Bernadette Burns, who teaches classes and does demonstrations on fermentation.
“You can get as creative as you absolutely like,” she said, “because almost everything will ferment.”
Burns knows firsthand the benefits of a little fermentation in aiding digestion. After stomach surgery, she had trouble eating raw vegetables. She found inspiration in Sandor Katz’s 2003 book “Wild Fermentation” and began pickling a few years ago. A trained chiropractor and assistant director of choirs at Modesto Junior College, Burns is part of the move away from mass-produced food to uniquely flavored dishes that reflect a cook’s personal taste and the produce on hand.
Fermentation, the process in which foods are gently exposed to microflora such as bacteria and yeasts, can seem rather unorthodox — even spooky — because it goes against our modern-day notion of refrigerating foods to keep them from spoiling. The bacteria convert the sugar in foods to alcohol and acids to produce a treat that can soothe a stomach burned by too many pills, or aid digestion, as is the case with Burns.
Fermentation is easy. Take a green cabbage and set aside three or four outer leaves and shred the rest along with the core. Put the cabbage in a large mixing bowl and add about 3 tablespoons of sea salt for about 5 pounds cabbage.
Burns suggests weighing the salt on a food-grade scale and not using table salt because it’s iodized. “The reason it’s good to use weight for salt is because every variety weighs differently because of the crystal size,” she said.
Knead the mixture for about 10 minutes to help release the juices. After kneading, mix in other shredded vegetables, such as carrots or daikon.
Pack the cabbage tightly into a large jar, adding unchlorinated water to cover, if needed. Place the large cabbage leaves on top and weigh down the mixture and cover loosely. Place in an area that’s 55 to 65 degrees. Check daily. Skim off any impurities or anything that looks suspicious before refrigerating.
The process may be a leap for many, so the recipes here include quick pickles and a vinegar-based pickle, both of which are not true fermentations.
The pressed cabbage and friends from “Feel Good Foods” can be made into a quick pickle or fermented. Omit the greens and cilantro when fermenting.
“The kraut method would create a stronger flavored more intense sourness,” said “Feel Good Food” author Tony Chiodo.
“Beware that the longer it ferments the saltier it becomes, so if it gets too salty you may rinse before eating,” he said in an email. Taste the cabbage as the week rolls on, he suggests, and refrigerate when it’s to your liking.
Chiodo offers one important rule when fermenting: “Don’t seal your jar with a tight lid, as the gases formed may blow it. So keep it loose.”
Shredded Indian Carrots
3 pounds carrots, peeled and shredded
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 to 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1 knob (1 inch) of ginger, peeled and grated
1 teaspoon nigella or celery seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seed
19 grams (rounded tablespoon) sea salt
Shred carrots either with a grater or in a food processor. Place in a large nonreactive bowl and add remaining ingredients. Mix well and let rest for about 15 minutes. By now, the salt should have released the juices from the carrots. You can mash it a bit with a wooden spoon or just squeeze in your hands. Spoon into a fermentation vessel, pressing down so the carrots are submerged in their juices. If not enough juice is produced, add 2 percent brine to cover (19 grams sea salt — or a tad over a tablespoon — per 1 quart water). Use a weight to keep the carrot submerged.
Cover and let set at room temperature for about five days or until activity dies down. Move to cold storage.
Recipe from Bernadette Burns.
Pressed Chinese Cabbage and Friends
Makes 1 1⁄2 cups.
2⁄3 cup Chinese cabbage, shredded
2⁄3 cup mustard greens, finely chopped
1⁄2 carrot, cut into matchsticks
1⁄4 daikon radish, cut into matchsticks
1⁄4 red (Spanish) onion, finely sliced
1⁄4 teaspoon finely chopped ginger
1 tablespoon coriander (cilantro) leaves
1 teaspoon freshly grated lime zest
1⁄4 teaspoon finely chopped chili, seeds removed
2 teaspoons sea salt
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl. Transfer to a pickle press or onto a flat surface and cover with a plate topped by a weight and press for 30 to 60 minutes. Drain off any excess liquid and serve.
The longer the vegetables remain pressed under the salt, the more pickled they become and the more intense the flavor. Serve with grains, fish or chicken.
This recipe, from “Feel Good Food: Wholefood Recipes for Happy, Healthy Living,” by Tony Chiodo (Kyle Books, $29.95), is an adaptation of the traditional Korean kimchee pickle recipe.
Makes 1 quart.
4 cups grated carrots, tightly packed
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
2 tablespoons sea salt
In a bowl, mix all ingredients and pound with a wooden pounder or a meat hammer to release juices. Place in a quart-sized, wide-mouth Mason jar and press down firmly with a pounder or meat hammer until juices cover the carrots. The top of the carrots should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jar.
Cover tightly and leave at room temperature about three days before transferring to cold storage.
Recipe from Bernadette Burns.
(Latin American Sauerkraut)
1 large cabbage, cored and shredded
1 cup grated carrots
2 medium onions, quartered lengthwise and very finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced (optional)
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1⁄4 to 1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
4 tablespoons sea salt
In a large bowl, mix cabbage with carrots, onions, garlic (if using), oregano, red chili flakes and sea salt.
Pound with a wooden pounder or fist for about 10 minutes to release juices.
Place in two quart-sized, wide-mouth mason jars and press down firmly with a pounder or meat hammer until juices come to the top of the cabbage. The top of the cabbage mixture should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jars. Use a weight if needed.
Cover tightly and keep at room temperature for about three to 10 days, depending on temperature, before transferring to cold storage.
Recipe from Bernadette Burns.
Fills 3 (10.5-ounce) jars.
6 bunches asparagus
2 1⁄3 cups white wine vinegar
1 1⁄2 cups apple cider vinegar
1⁄4 teaspoon mustard seeds
1⁄4 teaspoon coriander seeds
1⁄4 teaspoon white peppercorns
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 shallot, thinly sliced
Preheat oven to 275 degrees once asparagus has been blanched.
Wash and dry jars. Lay a jar on its side and measure the asparagus next to it, chopping off the bottom part of the stalks to fit the jars. Quickly blanch the asparagus in a saucepan of salted boiling water, then drain and refresh in icy cold water. Once cool, take out and pat dry, then place into the jars, crown side up.
Put vinegars in a saucepan and bring to a boil, then allow to cool. Divide spices, garlic and shallot between each jar and pour over vinegar, making sure the liquid completely covers the asparagus. Screw on the lids, place on a baking sheet and put into the oven for 10 minutes.
Label and store for at least one week, but 3 months is better. Unopened jars will keep until the next season. Once opened, store in the fridge.
Tester’s note: Two batches of vinegar solution covered 10 pounds (10 bundles) of trimmed asparagus. The asparagus was blanched between 11⁄2 and 2 minutes. The resulting spears were tender yet snappy.
Variations: Exchange one of the vinegars with malt vinegar. Recipe is terrific with baby onions, cucumbers, mushrooms or a cabbage, carrots, cauliflower and radish mix.
From “Mr. Wilkinson’s Vegetables: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Garden,” by Matt Wilkinson (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, $27.95).