By Mekala Bertocci, William Smith College ’14
At the height of late summer, there’s nothing our taste buds swoon over more than the chin-dribbling juiciness of a tree-ripened peach, the quintessential intersection of tart and sweet hidden in a jumbo heirloom tomato, or the dark chlorophyll-packed crispness of rainbow chard. But the looming coolness of fall brings finitude to this summer’s bounty. Cherry tomatoes and the other heat-loving crops in our gardens continue to blush into peak ripeness, but soon they will begin their descent into winter. Now is the time to preserve the fruits of summer, so that in the coming months we might be reminded of those otherworldly cherry tomatoes and juicy August peaches that abounded in the dog days of summer. Although methods like water bath canning and proper fermentation may seem like daunting tasks, they’re actually relatively simple processes that are actually kind of fun to ‘check in’ on as they continue to age. Moreover, from an advocacy standpoint, a common criticism of the ‘eat local’ movement is that it can’t sustain us year-long. But with preservation methods like canning, fermenting, and pickling, eating out of your own garden or preserving the harvest of your local farmers can last even as our garden plots are buried under a thick blanket of snow.
I’ve only just begun to experiment with fermentation, an old world art form that seems to be making a comeback these days. I was always a little hesitant about the idea of growing bacteria on purpose, but now it seems like the natural processes of making sauerkraut and maintaining a sourdough starter are much safer and good for you compared to the world of preservatives and expiration dates that we’ve grown accustomed to.
Fermentation is the process by which bacteria or other microorganisms (like yeast) break down a substance. The ‘good’ bacteria contained in fermented foods and drinks help us digest food, regulate bowl functions, and balance the acids in our stomach. Fermented foods are easier for us to digest because the probiotic bacteria have already begun breaking down the structure of the original food, allowing us to more efficiently absorb its nutrients. Lactic acid fermentation is a type of fermentation that requires only salt, vegetables, and water. The brine kills bad bacteria but allows lactobacilli to flourish. These lactobacilli convert the sugar and starch in vegetables into lactic acid and give them that signature tangy taste in kimchi, dill pickles, and sauerkraut.
The following are some recipes I’ve found to work for me since I began experimenting with fermenting.
Kimchi. Photo credit: Mekala Bertocci.
Adapted from Alex Lewin’s Real Food Fermentation.
(yields about 1 pint)
1 lb Chinese or Napa cabbage
¼ c plus 2 tbs kosher salt
1 c water
1 medium onion
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 inch section of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
2 tsp sugar
¼ c hot pepper flakes
1 bunch chives, cut into 1 inch sections
- Cut the cabbage into bite-sized pieces. In a large bowl, dissolve the salt into the water and add the cabbage. Cover and let the cabbage and brine rest on the counter for at least 4 (up to 12) hours.
- Drain the brine off the cabbage, rinse the cabbage in cold water and squeeze it dry. Return the cabbage to the bowl.
- Make the pickling paste by pureeing the onion, garlic, and ginger in a food processor. Add just enough water to form a paste. Add in sugar and pepper flakes and puree again to combine. Stir in the chives.
- Add the paste to the cabbage and stir until well combined. Pack firmly into a large glass jar and cover loosely with a lid (as the cabbage starts to ferment you want the gases to be able to escape).
- Let the kimchi ferment on the counter for 12-24 hrs. When you like the taste (I like about 16 hours of fermentation), refrigerate, still loosely covered. It will continue to ferment over time.
2 medium heads green cabbage (about 2 lbs)
1 tbs kosher salt
- Cut the cabbage into quarters, removing the solid core. Then cut the cabbage crosswise into fine shreds. You can also use the shredding blade on a food processor, if you have one.
- In a large bowl, toss the shredded cabbage with the salt. Massage and pound the cabbage until it starts to soften and release its juices.
- Pack the cabbage into your pickling crock. (If you don’t have a crock, wide-mouth half-gallon mason jars are a good substitute). Pack the cabbage in tightly to eliminate air bubles. The cabbage will create its own brine and the liquid should cover the shreds. If you need more liquid to cover the shreds, make some additional brine by dissolving 1 tsp salt into 2 cups water.
- Cover the crock or jar loosely with a lid. If your crock is very full, the kraut might bubble over so you should put the fermentation vessel into a saucer to catch any overflow. After about 2 weeks, give your kraut a taste-test. The kraut will get tangier with age, so when you like the taste transfer it to the fridge for storage.
Hot Peppers. Photo credit: Mekala Bertocci.
Hot Pepper Sauce
Adapted from Edible Pioneer Valley, issue 2
5 lbs ripe red chili peppers (cayenne, Serrano, jalapeno, Fresno)
7 c white vinegar
6-8 tsp sea salt
- Wash the peppers well. Cut off stems and cut each pepper into inch-long pieces. Transfer to a large stock pot.
- Add the vinegar plus 6 tsp salt and bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes, uncovered, until the peppers are soft but not mushy.
- Transfer the cooked peppers to jars and let cool. Store in the refrigerator for several months to ferment.
- Check the jars throughout the fermentation period, adding additional vinegar as needed to keep the mash wet. Add salt to taste.
- When the mash has reached your desired taste, you are ready to bottle the sauce. Empty the jars into a stock pot and bring the sauce to a boil.
- Let it cool slightly and run it through a food mill to remove skins and seeds. Add more salt and vinegar to reach desired taste and consistency.
- Bottle the sauce and store in the refrigerator.
My first pass at sourdough ciabatta rolls. Photo credit: Mekala Bertocci.
Adapted from King Arthur Flour
4 oz (1 c) whole rye flour or whole wheat flour (make sure to use a whole grain flour – it contains more nutrients and sourdough-friendly microorganisms than AP flour)
4 oz (1/2 c) non-chlorinated cool water
- Combine the flour and water in a non-reactive container (glass, crockery, food-grad plastic will all do the trick here). Stir thoroughly, making sure there’s no dry flour anywhere. Cover the container loosely and let the mixture sit at warm room temperature (about 70°F) for 24 hours. During this time all the little yeasties floating around in the air will naturally attract to your flour/water mixture.
- Discard* half the starter (4 oz), and add to the remainder 4 ounces (a scant 1 cup) unbleached all-purpose flour, and 4 oz (1/2 cup) lukewarm water.
- Mix well, cover, and let the mixture rest at room temperature for another 24 hours.
- By the third day, you’ll likely see some activity – bubbling; a fresh, fruity aroma, and some evidence of expansion. It’s now time to begin two feedings daily, as evenly spaced as your schedule allows.
- For each feeding, weigh out 4 ounces starter; this will be a generous ½ cup, once it’s thoroughly stirred down. Discard any remaining starter. Add 4 ounces (a scant 1 cup) unbleached all-purpose flour, and 4 ounces (1/2 cup) lukewarm water to the 4 ounces starter.
- Mix the starter, flour, and water, cover, and let the mixture rest at room temperature for approximately 12 hours before repeating.
- Repeat two-a-day feedings on days 4, 5, and as many days as it takes for your starter to become very active. After about a week of consistent feeding, your starter should be ready to use in a sourdough bread recipe.
*Discarding half the starter might seem wasteful, but it’s necessary for three reasons. First, unless you discard, eventually you’ll end up with The Sourdough That Ate Milwaukee – too much starter. Second, keeping the starter volume the same helps balance the pH. And third, keeping the volume down offers the yeast more food to eat each time you feed it; it’s not fighting with quite so many other little yeast cells to get enough to eat. Also, you don’t have to discard it if you don’t want to; you can give it to a friend, or use it to bake. There are quite a few recipes out there that make use of “discard” starter, including sourdough pizza crust, sourdough pretzels, and waffles!
Cucumber and garlic. Photo credit: Mekala Bertocci.
Small Batch Refrigerator Dill Pickles
(yields about 4 quart-sized jars)
3 lbs pickling cucumbers
5 cups vinegar (white or cider)
5 cups water
2 tbs salt (pickling or kosher)
1 chili pepper (optional)
3 tsp dill seed
3 cloves of garlic
3 glass pint canning jars with lids
- Wash and slice the cucumbers lengthwise (trim there top and bottoms, they are bitter).
- Sterilize the glass canning jars in boiling water. Remove them from the hot water and sit them on the counter.
- Add the water, vinegar and salt in a sauce pan and bring to a boil. Mix it until the salt dissolves.
- Add a clove of garlic and a teaspoon of dill seed to each pint jar.
- Slice the chili and divide among the jars.
- Pack in the sliced cucumbers and pour the brine on top. Make sure to keep a half inch space at the top.
- Put on the lid and let it sit for 48 hours in the fridge. They will last up to 2 months.
Wondering what to do with some of the other stars in your garden? Below is a recommended list of how to best preserve certain crops and links to some trusty methods from well-seasoned preservers. Good luck!
Snap beans, or green beans as most of us know them, are easily frozen, canned, and/or pickled and canned. Canned Dilly Beans are one of my favorite pickled treats, and are an easy way to preserve snap beans.
The best way to preserve dry beans is to harvest them after they are fully dry, shell them from their pods and pack them into mason jars. You can also choose to can your dry beans for further convenience later when eating
Pickling and canning beets will ensure your winter supply does not go bad. Pickled beets are great in salads, by the way!
The best preservation method for broccoli is definitely blanching and freezing. Broccoli can be cooked from frozen without loosing much flavor or texture.
Brussels Sprouts also should be blanched and frozen for best future eating quality.
Chard, like most other leafy greens is best preserved by freezing. Whole leaves and stems can be blanched and frozen, or the chard can be chopped and/or pureed raw and put into ice cube trays for a healthy addition to smoothies.
Depending on the type of corn you grow, your preservation options vary. For sweet corn it can be frozen on or off the cob, canned once sliced off the cob, or even made into a wonderful relish. Some people recommend blanching to corn before freezing, others say you don’t need to. I personally have frozen corn on the cob after blanching and found the texture to be mushy. This year I am experimenting with freezing corn off the cob without blanching.
Eggplant is not something I typically think of preserving, but I recently found out there are multiple ways to enjoy this flavorful vegetable the whole year through. Eggplant can be made into pickles, preserves, or blanched and frozen.
My favorite way to preserve fennel is to make a fennel onion relish. The relish is amazing served with a tangy goat cheese on crostini. Fennel can also be sliced and frozen for use in soups and other baked dishes.
Garlic is a great storing vegetable and can be stored in a cool, dry area without any additional methods of preservation. It also tastes amazing pickled! Garlic can also be frozen or dried. The following link has ideas for multiple methods of preservation.
Lettuce is mostly water; because of this there is currently no real method of preserving lettuce for long term storage.
Melons like cantaloupe, honeydew, muskmelons, and canary melons can be cubed and frozen for addition to smoothies or for a refreshing cold melon soup.
Pickled okra is by far my favorite pickled vegetable. Blanching and freezing is also recommended for this Southern favorite.
Onions and Leeks
Many onions and leeks are fine stored in a cool, dark, dry place, like a root cellar. They should be stored hanging, if possible, in mesh bags. They can also be dried or frozen for future use in cooked dishes.
Snap peas make a great pickle and sweet shell peas can be easily frozen for later use in dishes like Chicken Pot Pie or Indian Samosas or canned. The recipe in the link below for pickling sugar snaps includes sugar. I personally prefer them pickled without the sugar.
I just love sausage and peppers, as well as peppers roasted with potatoes and garlic. Any color and type of pepper can be easily sliced and frozen. Sweet red peppers can also be roasted and preserved in oil. Hot peppers can also be dried, then powdered and crushed, or left whole.
While spinach can be canned, its flavor is best when frozen. Once frozen it can be thawed for spinach dip, thrown into soups and stews, or blended with cheese and stuffed into manicotti pasta shells. It also makes a great addition to smoothies while still frozen.
Summer Squash and Zucchini
Summer squash and zucchinis can be dried, frozen, or made into a wonderful sweet relish. The included zucchini relish recipes calls for white vinegar, but I personally like to use apple cider vinegar which lends a wonderful sweetness.
Tomatoes can be canned, frozen, or dried. The type of tomato will determine the best preservation method. For example, while cherry tomato varieties can be canned or frozen, their sweet flavor lends itself to dehydrating into sun-dried tomatoes which can then be stored in the freezer. Paste tomatoes can be blanched, and frozen or canned. You can even can your own tomato juice!
While all herbs can be air dried and/or finished in an oven at the lowest temperature or in a food dehydrator, some lend themselves better to freezing, such as Cilantro and Parsley. Basil and Chives are also examples of two herbs that retain better flavor when frozen as opposed to drying. Herbs can be frozen in oil or melted butter in ice cube trays, or on their own.
Mekala graduated from William Smith Colleges in May 2014 with a BA in Philosophy and Environmental Studies. After spending the summer of her junior year interning with a small USDA Organic family farm in Sheffield, MA, she was hooked on growing food. Soon she became engulfed in the deep and complicated world that is our food system. She’s now the ‘permanent intern’ at the same farm she started out at in Sheffield, and is working with Berkshire Grown, an organization that links farmers in the Berkshires with the surrounding community through events, workshops, promotions, advocacy and education highlighting locally-grown and produced food. She plans to attend graduate school in the near future, and in the more distant future — to ease into the life of a second generation farmer in the Berkshires of MA. Contact Mekala at email@example.com.