Picklefest 2008 at Machine Project, Los Angeles, Saturday September 20, 2008

In collaboration with Mark Frauenfelder of Dinosaurs and Robots and the fine folks at Machine Project, we’re proud to be a part of Picklefest 2008. We’ll be demonstrating how to lacto-ferment everything from cabbage to radishes. Come on down with your produce and jars at 1 p.m. More info here. And here’s some directions on how to lacto-ferment foods.

Moldy Grapes!

We had a nice conversation with BoingBoing blogger and Make Magazine editor Mark Frauenfelder about how important mistakes are in the DIY life, so here’s two more recent blunders for ya’ll, courtesy of Mrs. Homegrown Evolution.

Recent failure #1: Inedible Pickled Grape Leaves

We have grape leaves. Lots of them. Our two table grape vines are a little hesitant to really bust out, but our native grape (Vitus californica) has taken over the entire south facing wall of our garden, and is threatening the neighbor’s house. The chickens like grape leaves, fortunately, so I have something to do with the prunings, but I wanted to do more.

I’m a big fan of dolmas, so thought I’d try to pickle some grape leaves. Skimming the internet for recipes, I saw, as usual, many contradictions [Mr. Homegrown's editorial note here--first mistake--internet recipes are notoriously unreliable. I know this because I've promulgated bad recipes myself!]. I found a recipe attributed to Sally Fallon which called for no pre-cooking at all, just pickling in whey and salt. I saw others that recommended pressure canning and I don’t have a pressure canner.

What I ended up doing was blanching the grape leaves before I pickled them, hoping that would soften them up some, but not so much that they would disintegrate when rolled. I was sure to only pick the youngest, freshest leaves.

I should have done a small test batch, but went nuts and filled a half-gallon jar with many rolled up bundles of leaves, and covered it in a brine and whey pickling solution. A week later I tasted the leaves. They looked right, they tasted right, but no matter how much I chewed, the leaves didn’t break down. I ended up with a mouthful of cud.

Now the question is whether wild grape leaves simply aren’t edible, or if I should try it again, and this time boil the beejeezus out them. I think I’ll do a beejeezus test run, and report back.

Has anyone out there done this successfully?

A second level of grape leaf failure:

While fermenting, a mold developed at the top of the jar, because a couple of the rolls crested the surface of the brine. One way to keep veggies below the brine is to weight them down somehow. In this case, I had a baggy full of salt water (salt water so that if it leaked, it wouldn’t dilute the brine) sitting at the top of the jar. But I didn’t pay attention to the jar during the fermentation, and a couple of the rolls popped up at the sides and mold set in––a kind of fluffy, spider-webby black mold that crept from the exposed bundles up the sides of the jar.

The lesson to be learned here is to pay some minimal amount of attention to your pickles while they’re fermenting. But notice, the mold didn’t keep me off trying the leaves. I just extracted the bad bundles, cleaned the sides of the jar, and sampled leaves that were not touched by mold.

By the way, I don’t always weight down my pickling veggies. For quick ferments, like the daikon radish pickles which I make all the time, I just turn the jar on end every day, sometimes more than once a day, for the 5 days or so it takes to pickle. I just leave them out where I can see them so I don’t forget to turn them. After they go in the fridge, mold doesn’t seem to be a problem. But for a longer ferment, like sauerkraut, you really do have to keep the food below the brine with weight.

Recent Failure #2: Moldy Chamomile Tea

We had a bumper crop of chamomile this year, due to generous volunteerism on its part. Several large plants sprung up in unlikely spots and thrived with no help at all. I harvested lots of the flowers so I could have chamomile tea in the cupboard until next spring.

The mistake I made in this case was not drying the flowers enough before I transferred them to a jar. I thought they were dry, but they weren’t, and they went off in storage. I noticed the flowers looked a little strangely colored, and one whiff in the jar told me all I needed to know. Mold had set in. A jar of chamomile should smell like heaven.

This was another pantry disappointment, similar to, but not nearly as devastating, or disgusting, as the loss of our sun-dried tomatoes to pantry moths.

Like the moldy grape leaves, this was really a matter of not paying attention. Mold in general is a certain sign of not paying attention. I am also guilty of rushing. Certainly, you don’t want to leave your drying herbs out for so long that they lose flavor. Storage in glass, in the dark, is essential for protecting those volatile oils, but the herbs really have to be crumbly dry before they go in jars.

By the way, the secret to a good chamomile harvest is constant picking. Don’t be afraid to pick the flowers. The more you pick, the faster it will make more flowers. Like, overnight. I swear. Just pinch the heads off. And you use the whole flower, dry or fresh, to make tea. If a little stem gets in there too, it’s not going to hurt anything.

Mead!

While we’ve tasted the Ethopian honey wine known as Tej, we’ve never had mead, so we decided to cook up a batch. It’s way too early to tell if we have a tasty beverage or a gallon of home brewed Listerine–it will be many months before the stuff is drinkable. But we thought we’d note how we made it, based on a recipe in Ken Schramm’s book The Compleat Meadmaker.

We downsized the recipe from five gallons to one gallon, figuring that we’ll experiment with a few different small batches rather than taking a chance on one big batch. Here’s how we did it after first sanitizing everything with Idophor sanitizer:

1. Boil 1/5th of a gallon of water (we used bottled water since our tap water is a bit on the heavy side).

2. Add one teaspoon of Fermax (this is a yeast nutrient available at home brew shops).

3. Take the water off the heat and add 3 pounds of honey (we used orange blossom honey) to make what is called the “must”.

4. Add 3/5ths of a gallon of refrigerated water to cool the must.

5. Pitch in the yeast once the must has cooled below 80º F. We used a wine yeast called Lalvin 71B-1122 which we also picked up at our local home brew shop. We rehydrated the yeast according to the directions on the package, letting it sit for 15 minutes before we tossed it in the must.

6. We put the must in a used one gallon apple cider bottle and fitted it with a fermentation lock.

Mr. Doug Harvey gifted us with an old hydrometer (used to measure the density of a liquid) which we used to take a reading of 15% on our finished must. When fermentation is complete we’ll take another reading. The difference between the two readings will be the percentage of alcohol in our mead.

A big disclaimer here. We don’t know how well this recipe works, but we’ll let you all know. In the meantime, for those dying to get started, the National Honey Board has some free mead making instructions here (pdf).

Lastly, in our search for mead information, we kept coming across ads for chain mail and peasant pants, and figured out that for some reason mead seems to be unfairly associated with Renaissance fairs. This gives us an excuse to conclude this post with an image from the Texas Renaissance fair:

It’s always been fun to stick it to the Man

The folks from Dough on the Go! were over the other night and reached into a box of slides we found years ago at a thrift store and never looked at. That box turned up these images showing a previous generation enjoying the “water of life” coming out of what appears to be two different home built stills. Homegrown Revolution applauds the DIY spirit (so to speak) and these images seem an appropriate way to begin the dreaded holiday season.

For info on how to build your own still read our earlier post, or check out our esoteric notions on distillation at Reality Sandwich.



Moonshine

Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0074685. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society

Homegrown Revolution will neither confirm nor deny that we have any plans involving the production of moonshine. Nevertheless, we were thrilled to find a new book in the library by Matthew B. Rowley called Moonshine! that offers up an entertaining history as well as recipes and instructions for building two kinds of stills, a simple one made with a wok and a more complex model involving welding that resembles the one being seized in the photo above.

As soon as things cool down here this fall we’ll definitely begin some legal fermentation experiments, but we can’t help but feel envious of some comrades of ours in France we visited a few years ago who recounted how their families used to ferment the excess fruit in the yard and take it to a licenced farmer to distill into the French version of moonshine, eau de vie. Here in the states it’s illegal to distill anything yourself but perfectly o.k., as a recent article in the Wall Street Journal points out, for agricultural corporation, Archer-Daniels-Midland to distill pure ethyl alcohol, sell it to corporate vodka producers as “product code 020001″, ship it “Bulk, Truck, Bulk Rail, or Tank” and as Journal reporter Eric Felten concluded, “Cut it with water — preferably from a source that will lend itself to a pretty picture on the label — bottle it, and you’re in the vodka business.”

As it turns out there is an art to good homemade moonshine — a far cry from the soulless mouthwash Archer-Daniels-Midlands turns out. Here’s some excerpts from an interview of ex-moonshiner John Bowman conducted by the Coal River Folklife Project from “Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia”:

Making whisky at night (mp3)

Telling the difference between good moonshine and bad (mp3)

Good water for moonshine (mp3 with rooster!)

Signalling the presence of the federal man (mp3)

More of this interview here.

How to Make Amazake

Who needs to bust open a bottle of hen dog when you can chill with a nice cup of moldy rice, or to be more precise, a cup of amazake. Amazake, an ancient Japanese beverage, is made by the bizarre process of introducing a fungus, Aspergillus oryzae to a batch of cooked rice. The fungus breaks down carbohydrates into simple unrefined sugars yielding a sweet and pleasant beverage that we’re proud to say we made ourselves here at the Homegrown Revolution compound earlier this week.

You can find amazake in the isles of upscale health food stores thanks to the same generation of hippies who brought tofu to the flyover states back in the 1960s. Or you can make it yourself and save some dead presidents. Here’s how:

1. Get your Aspergillus orzae in the form of inoculated rice grains called koji. We found our koji in the refrigeration cabinet of our local Japanese supermarket. Koji can also be found at some health food stores or you can mail order it from G.E.M cultures. We used a brand called Cold Mountain.

2. Bring 1 cup of white or brown rice to a boil in 2 cups of water. Turn down the heat and simmer for 50 minutes. We used sweet rice, but any kind of rice and if fact almost any grain will work.

3. Cool the rice down to 140º F (60º C). Mix in 2 cups of koji and put it in a sterilized wide-mouth jar.

4. At this point you need to incubate the concoction for 10 to 14 hours at 131º – 140º F (55º C – 60º C). We accomplished the incubation by placing the jar in a small cooler filled with water heated to 140º. Every few hours we checked the temperature and added a little more hot water as needed.

5. After 10 hours check for sweetness. If it’s not sweet enough continue the incubation process for a few more hours.

6. Once you’ve reached the desired level of sweetness you must stop the fermentation process by boiling the mixture, otherwise you’re heading down the road to making sake, something we plan on attempting in the fall. Taking a tip from the guru of fermentation Sandor Ellix Katz, we first boiled two cups of water and added the amazake to it to prevent burning. Mix well and as soon as the amazake begins to boil remove from the heat and refrigerate. You can eat it as a porridge or cut it with some more water to enjoy as a beverage. You can also add flavorings such as chocolate, almonds or espresso.

Aspergillus orzae is also used to produce soy sauce and miso, though miso making, according to the Cold Mountain pamphlet that came with our koji, will take you between 18 to 24 months. For now we’ll enjoy our amazake.

Mandrake!


Homegrown Revolution chanced upon an amazing book at the library, Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers that has inspired ambitious plans of a fall and winter season of beer making (things are too little too hot around right now for fermentation). What separates Buhner’s book from both the geeked-out world of middle-aged home brew aficionados on the one side and the Budweiser frogs on the down-market other is his emphasis on the ancient and sacred elements of beer making which used to be, he claims, the duty of women, not men.

His chapter, “Psychotropic and Highly Inebriating Beers” contains a number of recipes, including one making use of the mysterious mandrake plant, a member of the nightshade family and popularized lately in a certain series of books about a wizard school (Homegrown Revolution suffered through the first film based on these kid’s books on a transatlantic flight a few years ago, finally falling asleep during an endless video game inspired broom chase scene).

Apparently wherever it appears in the world, mandrake (Atropa mandragora) has always inspired unusual beliefs. Buhner says,

Though all indigenous cultures know that plants can speak with humankind, mandrake is almost the only plant from indigenous European practice about which this belief is still extant. Throughout its Christian European history, it has been believed that when mandrake was harvested, the root would scream, and that the sound would drive the harvester mad.

The roots are said to resemble a human with the top of the plant representing the head as in the illustration above. The plant belongs to the nightshade family and has been used over time, as a purgative, an aphrodisiac, treatment for rheumatism, a means to expel demons among countless other purposes. Pliny used it as an anesthetic, and Buhner offers a beer recipe using a 1/2 once of the dried root. Seeds for mandrake, an endangered plant in many places, are available from Horizon Herbs, a company trying to revive cultivation of the plant.

This summer season we’re surrounded by nightshade plants, tomatoes, ground cherries and eggplant. These common nightshade family members, as well as mandrake and the datura that the local Native Americans used for there spirit journeys, have a strange relationship to human culture, at once edible, sometimes poisonous, sometimes psychotropic. We think we can almost hear them talk.

A Recipe for Injera


One the many searches that leads folks to this cranky web site is the topic of the Ethiopian sponge bread known as injera. We think we know what’s going on. People go out to dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant and come home wondering how to make the bread, leading to a fruitless search of the internets for a recipe and our old post about one of the ingredients, teff flour.

The recipe we used comes from the excellent book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. This is a life changing recipe book that every urban homesteader should own–so go out and buy a copy!

So here’s how we made injera based on Katz’s recipe:

Ingredients

2 cups sourdough starter (check out our post on an easy way to keep and maintain a sourdough starter)

5 cups lukewarm water

2 cups whole-wheat flour

2 cups teff flour (an Ethiopian grain available from Bob’s Red Mill at Whole Foods)

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda or baking powder (optional)

Vegetable oil

1. Mix the sourdough starter, flours and water. The result should resemble a pancake batter.

2. Ferment in a warm place for 24 hours.

3. Just before you cook add the salt.

4. Katz gives several options with the baking powder/soda. He says that if you like the sour flavor and don’t mind a less bubbly bread skip the baking soda. We like sour, but we thought the final result was too sour so we added the baking soda. Katz says that using baking powder will provide leavening but leave the dough sour. Again, we recommend adding some baking soda.

5. Stir well and let sit for a few minutes after adding baking soda or powder.

6. Heat up a pan and and lightly coat it with oil.

7. Spread the batter thinly in the pan and cook on one side only. Cover the pan and cook the injera over medium heat.

Injera works as both bread and utensil and the batch we made tasted better than what we’ve been served in restaurants.

Daikon Radish Pickles

 Don’t cut your radishes like this!
Cut them in coins. See comments.

Even though we know–intellectually–that for centuries people have preserved food via lacto-fermentation, again, as with cultured milk, it is a head trip for grocery store kids like us to soak some veggies in brine for a few weeks, open them up and chow down.

Lacto-Fermentation is a process in which naturally occurring lactic acid producing bacteria are allowed to multiply. The lactic acid that they produce prevents the growth of the kinds of bacteria that cause spoilage. Thus lacto-fermentation is a method of preserving foods as well as a way of creating a distinct flavor. Lacto-fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, Swiss cheese, and sourdough bread among many others.

Lactic acid producing bacterias, and there are many different varieties, tend to have a high tolerance for salt unlike their unwanted bacterial cousins. The process of lacto-fermentation begins with creating a brine, which is the is the way pickles used to be made–most store bought pickles are now made with vinegar due to unwarranted safety concerns over lacto-fermentation.

Today, sauerkraut is the best known lacto-fermented food. Dill pickles are traditionally made this way too. In an old country store pickle barrel, lacto fermented pickles would sit out all winter long. All they’d do is make sure the brine always covered the pickles. They’d get stronger flavored, and softer textured as the year went on, but they lasted.

We look forward to trying this with cucumbers, but for this first experiment we used a big, pretty daikon from the farmers market. The entire process is amazingly simple:

Stir up a brine solution of 2 Tablespoons sea salt (un-iodized salt) to 1 quart water. Note that you must use salt that has no additives-check the ingredients of your salt to make sure that it contains nothing but salt. Additives in salt can prevent the lacto-fermentation process from occurring. Bottled water is best, but we used LA tap with no ill effects. The worry is that the chlorine in tap water will also interfere with the culture.

Peel and slice the daikon, and pack it into a very clean quart sized mason jar. Add a peeled garlic clove if you want. Pour the brine over the slices until the jar is nearly full. Leave just a little room at the top for gas expansion. Put the lid on, and place it your cupboard for as long as you can wait. A week, two weeks, a month–the flavor changes over time. We waited 2 weeks.

When we opened the jar it hissed and fizzed, and let off the powerful aroma of sauerkraut. We fished out the first slice, sniffed it and eyeballed it like curious but frightened monkeys. An uninformed and vague discussion of botulism followed. Finally the gauntlet was thrown down, and the challenge could not be ignored: are we wimps or are we homesteaders? So we ate of the fruit. Or one of us did. The other stood by ready to dial 911.

Yum! Our pickled daikons are salty and garlic-y and firm, and taste a lot like a good garlic dill, only with a different texture. Now that the jar is open, we’re keeping it in the fridge.