We caught up with Sandor, fittingly nicknamed Sandorkraut, this past July just hours before his sold out class. He and his small retinue were ensconced in the mobile abode of some local friends. Arriving late morning, we wandered in with a gallon jug and air lock to loan them for one of their recipes, passing a large dreadlocked man on the porch banging away on a laptop, another guy in a kitchen nook, also pecking on the keys of a small computer. The self-described fermentation freak appeared in the sitting room, looking relaxed.
Until his class had appeared advertised on the local e-mail network, I didnâ€™t remember who Sandor Katz was. Then I rifled through my fermentation files and found an article I had clipped from the now defunct tabloid-style zine called Bummers & Gummers from a few years back, featuring the self-same Mr. Katz. OK, now it all flooded back into my brain. This was a guy who also felt better when bottles, jugs and crocks of stuff were bubbling nearby, preferably instigated by his own hand. I say also because I too enjoy surrounding myself with food experiments. My wife long ago learned not to throw away any of my stuff no matter how rotten it looked.
After meeting him, I could easily picture his trekking through a desolate place with wide mouth quart jars of ingeniously executed lactic ferments in his backpack, stopping every so often to commune with the ever changing colony of beings living in that glass domain, tasting, offering a spoonful to any willing passerby, breaking the ice, transcending cultural and linguistic barriers with spontaneous lacto-fermented cultures acting as ambassadors.
One of the main points Sandor made was â€œDonâ€™t Be Afraidâ€?, as in donâ€™t be intimidated by the process, your lack of knowledge, or anything else. â€œReject the cult of expertise,â€? he says in his first book, Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Culture Food. â€œCertainly there is considerable nuance to be learned about any of the fermentation processes, and if you stick with them, they will teach you. But the basic process is simple and straightforward.â€? So, just start a recipe and watch what happens.
He stressed that making fermented foods is a process, one that doesnâ€™t stop. One of the most enjoyable things for him is making something, sauerkraut for example, and tasting it as it progresses. As each day passes, the kraut develops different odors and flavors. The color changes as the little bacteria do their work.
Fermentation does two very important things. First, it preserves perishable foods. Sandor notes in his book that Captain Cook prevented scurvy amongst his crew by carrying sauerkraut (loaded with Vitamin C, the lack of which is the cause of scurvy) aboard his ship, sixty barrels consumed over twenty-seven months. Not a single crewmember developed the dreaded disease. Second, it breaks nutrients down into more easily digestible forms. Take soybeans and milk. Fermentation breaks down soyâ€™s complex proteins into digestible amino acids. Fermentation transforms lactose in milk, to which many people are intolerant, into lactic acid.
SeÃ±or Katz also points out that fermentation creates new nutrients, most notably B vitamins such as folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and biotin. Apparently, Lactobacilli create omega-3 fatty acids, too. So there you have the theory. Now letâ€™s get busy and start fermenting!
Wild Fermentation and Sandorâ€™s upcoming book entitled The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, about Americaâ€™s underground food movement, are available through Chelsea Green Publishing. www.chelseagreen.com
Equipment: Ceramic crock or food grade plastic bucket
Plate that fits inside crock or bucket
1 gallon/4 liter jug full of water or very clean rock
Ingredients: 5 pounds/2 kilos cabbage
3 Tablespoons/45 milliliters sea salt
1. Chop or grate cabbage. Put it in a large bowl as you chop it.
2. Sprinkle salt on the cabbage as you go. The salt pulls water out of the cabbage and creates the brine in which the cabbage ferments. 3 Tablespoons is a rough guideline.
3. Add other vegetables, herbs or spices if you desire, such as: grated carrots, garlic, seaweed, greens, Brussels sprouts, turnips, beets, burdock root, apple slices, caraway seeds, dill seeds, celery seeds, juniper berries,
4. Mix ingredients together and pack into crock. Pack just a bit into the crock at a time and tamp it down hard using your fist or any other sturdy kitchen implement.
5. Cover the kraut with a plate or some other lid that fits snugly inside the crock. Place the gallon jug or rock on the plate. This is to pack the cabbage down and keep it submerged. Cover the whole thing to keep dust and flies out.
6. Press down on the weight frequently until the brine rises above the plate. This can take up to 24 hours. If the brine doesnâ€™t rise above the plate by the next day, add some salt water to bring the level above the plate. Use 1 Tablespoon/15 milliliters of salt to 1 cup/250 milliliters water.
7. Leave the crock to ferment, preferably a coolish spot, and one where you wonâ€™t forget about it.
8. Start tasting it after a few days. Some mold may grow on the brine surface but it canâ€™t hurt the submerged kraut. Rinse the plate off before you return it to the crock and put the weight on.
Ingredients: 1 gallon/4 liters whole milk
Â½ cup/125 milliliters vinegar
1. Heat milk to a slow boil, taking care to stir frequently to avoid burning. Remove from heat.
2. Add vinegar, a little at a time while stirring, until the milk curdles.
3. Place the cheesecloth in a colander then pour the curdled milk into it. Lift the corners of the cheesecloth and twist until you form a ball and force the water out. You can hang the ball and let it drip awhile. This is farmer cheese, similar in consistency to ricotta
4.To make a more solid cheese, add about 1 Tablespoon /15 milliliters salt to the curd and mix thoroughly. The salt draws more water from the curd. You can add herbs or spices at this point. You can leave the ball to hang and drip more or you can put it on an inclined surface and place a weighted board on top. After a couple of hours, maybe more, they will hold their shape.
Kvass: Fermented Russian Drink
Ingredients: 1 Â½ pounds/750 grams stale bread
3 Tablespoons/45 milliliters crushed dried mint
1 lemon, juiced
Â¼ cup/60 milliliters sugar or honey
Â¼ teaspoon/1 milliliter sea salt
Â¼ cup/60 milliliters sourdough (or 1 package yeast)
a few raisins
1. Cube the bread and let dry or toast in 300ÂºF (150ÂºC) oven.
2. Put bread, mint, lemon juice, and 12 cups/3 liters boiling water in
3.After 8 or more hours, strain out solids. Add remaining ingredients
4. Let ferment 2 to 3 days.
5. Transfer to quart bottles, about three-quarters full. Add a few raisings to bottle and seal. Let sit until raisins rise, then drink. Stores in fridge for a few weeks.
This article first appeared in the Sept 11, 2006 print edition of Backwoods Hipster.