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.

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