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.