Friday, December 12, 2008

Fermenting at Slow Food Boston

Fermenting at Slow Food Boston and Haley House

I arrived a bit early to teach Fermentation Class that Sunday afternoon. I had always been intrigued by commercial kitchens and was looking forward to working in one. Didi arrived and gave me a tour of Haley House. We entered the silent kitchen and I took in the stainless steel worktables, the giant stockpots, the enormous metal bowls, formidable knives, lunch lady ladles, oversized stoves and the walk in cooler.

Then she took me into the café, in the front of the building. It was warm, intimate and homey with beautiful artwork on the walls. The lecture and discussion part of the class would be here, in this inviting space. The hands on part would be in the slightly overwhelming commercial kitchen.

Soon, Willow and Rosemary arrived and we got ready for class. We filled large pots with water for boiling and hauled the Noonday Farm veggies out of the cooler. We would be making two recipes today: lacto-fermented green cabbage sauerkraut and lacto-fermented butternut squash, onions and apples.

Through much trial and error, I taught myself to lacto-ferment out of a book through much trial and error. Lacto-fermenting vegetables is an old fashioned salt brine technique. The technique utilizes the naturally occurring lactobacillus, a natural preservative, present on fresh vegetables, and furnishes an environment that fosters growth of more lactobacillus thus preserving the food for weeks and even months. Only salt and water are used for the fermentation while herbs and spices can be added to enhance the flavors.

The students began arriving. I felt a little nervous. I had never taught such a large group before and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Normally, I would lecture and we would discuss the material I was presenting. Then I would demonstrate the processes we were discussing. The students would assemble their own jars with the vegetables that I had chopped before class. The brine was started hours before class so it would be room temperature by class time. The prep work always took me many hours but it ensured that class would go smoothly.

This class would be a bit different. We would start the same way with the lecture, questions and discussion. Then we would all go into the kitchen and I would direct this large group of eager beavers through all the tasks: trimming, peeling, chopping, jar washing, lid boiling, rock boiling, jar packing, sealing and clean up. I had absolutely no idea how long any of this would take a group of twenty.

The lecture went well. The questions were intelligent. The discussion was lively and there were smiles and laughter. And then it was time to go on back. Someone told the group to put on aprons and there was a blur of white cloth flipping around as twenty people donned aprons. Then there was mass hand washing and people started to sort themselves into stations at the various worktables. There was the cabbage prep group, the squash prep group, the jar washing group, and the jar packing group.
It normally takes me a good piece of time to trim, wash and chop my cabbages. I gave the cabbage group their orders, expecting them to take a good long while since we were processing a lot of cabbages. I moved onto the squash group. I find squashes challenging to cut so I use a cleaver and a rubber mallet. I had brought them along to get them started and was about to demonstrate when a woman picked up an enormous knife and hacked open a big squash. I quietly tucked away my cleaver and mallet to the sound of many squashes being hacked open.

I moved onto the jar washing group. They had it under control. Rosemary had boiled rocks and lids and I had someone fish them out to cool and dry. By this time ten whole minutes had gone by and the cabbage group asked me what to do next. I turned around and saw this enormous mountain of cabbage in an equally enormous bowl. They had chopped it all and were already washing down their table! The squash group was still slicing squash, apples and onions, thank goodness. The jar washers had finished and had delivered all the jars to the jar packers who were standing and looking at me for direction…all those pairs of eyes…I moved into action and began demonstrating the jar packing technique, handfuls of cabbage into the jar, pressing it down with a wooden tool, layer after layer, then adding a few layers of whole cabbage leaves, plopping a sterilized rock on top and ladling in the brine, which I had made the day before and carried in with me. Dry the jar and the lid and then seal it.

The jar packers jumped into action layering and pressing, ladling and sealing. At this time the squash group was done and started bringing their enormous bowls of stuff to the jar packers. The jar packers pounced on the squash. Again, in a few minutes, it was all done and the sealed jars were in beautiful rows of lush color.

We cleaned up the rest quickly and efficiently. We put the giant pots, bowls, ladles and knives back in their places, swept up and put the aprons in a pile. Haley House kitchen was quiet again.
We said our goodbyes, packed up and parted company.

For me, the bonus of the day, besides working with this fantastically eager group was that I got to take home a giant bag of compost to feed next year’s harvest!

Big thanks to Willow, Rosemary, Didi, Bing and the 20 pairs of hands.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Kombucha Tea
Gluten Free Rice Sourdough Starter

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Tasting the Food

I was having lunch with a friend at a local restaurant known for fresh, local, organic ingredients cooked to order. They use a variety of ethnic dishes complete with ethnic sauces. They were willing to accommodate my complex special food needs: multiple food allergies. I told them exactly what vegetables, grain and fish I wanted, and how I wanted it cooked: stir fried in olive oil. I clearly said “no sauce, no croutons, no tamari, no garnish, no added anything”. They were happy to accommodate me. This is the way I cook for myself and I hoped that with their fine ingredients the food would be in accord with my diet and be full of flavor.

I don’t eat out much as it can be challenging to sort through the myriad of ingredients on a menu. I understand that for many restaurants it can be a challenge to make a special dish for people with special needs. It can slow the cook’s pace having to carefully check the ingredients, avoid the sauces, avoid the garnish and, in general, change their routine. The kitchen was visible and, as we waited for our meal, I saw a cook carefully reading from a slip of paper, reaching for ingredients and dropping them into a pan. All the other cooks were flying through their tasks.

My friend and I watched as people who had ordered after us received their meals before us. It took a long while for the meal to be ready but finally it arrived. The dish looked good, steam rising out of the mountain of colorful vegetables. I had chosen shrimp because I rarely cook it at home and it’s such a treat to have well cooked fresh, sweet shrimp. I took my first bite of shrimp. It was chewy with no sweetness to it at all. I was greatly disappointed. The rice tasted flat and was simultaneously overcooked and al dente’. (how do they do that?) Thankfully, the vegetables were excellent.

I decided to let it go and just eat. We were hungry, it was busy there and it didn’t seem worth the effort to send it back. I ate, truly enjoying my vegetables while wondering how rice and shrimp could be so badly prepared. Halfway through the meal the manager came over to check on my special order. I decided to be honest. “Well, the shrimp is tasteless and chewy and the rice is overcooked”. She responded by saying “Well, you didn’t want any sauce and we pride ourselves on our sauces to give our dishes flavor”. I looked at her and resisted launching into a diatribe about the natural palatability of fresh, well prepared, simple food. Instead I said “Never mind, it’s okay” and waved her away.

In my classes I offer tastings that are usually unseasoned, unsalted, and unsweetened partially because of students’ restricted diets but more importantly I want to offer the opportunity to resensitize their palates to the way simple food really tastes. A properly prepared brown rice is quietly rich with a substantial yet fluffy texture. Fresh shrimp sautéed in garlic and olive oil is both sweet, salty and invokes the ocean. Recently harvested vegetables served without extraneous condiments are bursting with sweetness and feel like power food. One is energized from them.

In my opinion a dish should be able stand up on its basic food ingredients alone. It should not have to depend on a sauce, marinade or a condiment for palatability. This isn’t to say I never use ingredients beyond the basic ingredients but that I really enjoy the inherent taste of each food. When I choose to use a sauce, marinade or condiment I use them sparingly so they will support and showcase the food rather than eclipse it.

One should easily be able to taste and enjoy food despite dietary restrictions. It may be a matter of resensitizing our palates in new directions. We need not be deprived of beautiful and exciting food nor should we be isolated or ostracized. As we learn to care for ourselves by cooking new foods we can share with others how they can cook for us.

Well prepared, lovingly cooked and graciously offered food is a blessing I encourage you to take part in.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Eating in Early Spring: Perennial Vegetables and Over Winter Beds

April 29, 2008, in Eastern Massachusetts and I picked all the veggies for my lunch out of the garden! I picked an onion from the fall storage in the basement and then headed out to the garden. The perennial vegetables were ready to start harvesting. I cut some lush walking onion greens, some asparagus shoots, the two largest rhubarb stems (only about 6 inches long), and the first two Good King Henry shoots, also known as Goosefoot.

From the over winter bed I picked Miner's lettuce, flowering yet still tender. From the new spring bed I gathered young lettuce, beet greens and escarole previously planted indoors under lights 6 weeks ago.

I sauteed the first batch of veggies in olive oil adding leftover lentils and organic Black Japonica rice, a mix of red, black and brown rice. The dish had a multiplicity of tastes: sweet onion, sweet and sour rhubarb* and splashy walking onion greens. The Good King Henry was bland but comforting and the asparagus had its usual unique taste. There was a full bodied melange of flavors!

The salad greens, with a little olive oil, had that freshly harvested burst of flavor that I am so grateful for after winter.

Tomorrow I will start adding violet flowers to the salad!

* saute'ing rhubarb tames its tartness

Posted by Sharon A. Kane 4/29/08