"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Fermentation Files (High Summer Edition)

My High Summer Altar

It is the highest point of high summer. The sun is strong and steady and the pastures are pure gold, without any hint of green from a distance. If you get right up close and part the tall golden stems, you will see the green clover underneath. My goats burrow in and eat the clover, along with those sturdy, wiry weeds that are still green at summer's height: plantain, burdock, false dandelion, thistle. 

The leaves have started to turn, so some people might call this short, beautiful season "earliest fall" but I'm sticking to Summer. As long as the weather makes you want to go jump in the nearest lake, it's summer. Lucky for me, I have my choice of lovely lakes nearby. Last week I took the children for a dip, and gave thanks for the blessed cool water. 

The harvest goes on unabated. Principally, pears. So many pears. A hail of pears. Almost a plague of pears, but I would never be so ungrateful. We have FOUR pear trees, which, I can assure you, is more pear trees than any one family needs. Alas, pears cannot, like apples, be made into cider, so either we have to eat them fresh or find other people who want pears and trade with them. I cannot possibly process so many pears myself. So far this year I have made eight quarts of pear sauce, a whole bunch of pies, and now dehydrated a dozen or so. That has not made a discernible dent in the number of pears covering my kitchen table. 

But canning is not the main way I am preserving food right now. I have a number of exciting fermentation projects going on. I have so many varied fermentation projects going on, in fact, that it sometimes feels like I have a collection of small pets in the kitchen. Each living cultivar needs its own special care. None of them are particularly demanding on their own, but caring for all of them does begin to add up. 

There is always sourdough, of course. I've had a good sourdough going for about a year now, since a neighbor gave me some of her family's dough that - so the story goes - dates back to Alaskan pioneer days. Its a good dough and makes nice bread and great pancakes, but I don't bake as much as I used to and I often find myself pouring sourdough in the trash just to make room in the jar. The sourdough is not very hard to maintain though - every three to five days I have to refresh it with a cup or so of flour and more water. If I forget and leave it in the fridge for two weeks, it's fine - just pour off the accumulated alcohol on top and refresh as usual. 

I brought back some new kefir grains from Oaxaca. My last kefir cultivar died ( Well, That Was Fast) before I could really even use it. These ones are a different kind of creature - small, separate grains each only a millimeter or so in diameter. My mother in law acquired them a few years ago locally and makes what she calls "yogurt" out them. She knows them as "bulgaros." The "yogurt" they make is extremely sour but has a very good flavor. I smuggled a tablespoon or so home in a spice jar. The kefir grains need a little more care than sourdough - every other day or so I have to strain off the kefir into a clean jar, wash the grains with water (my book says to use milk but mama has kept these puppies alive a long time so I'm doing what she tells me) and put them into fresh milk. 

I've made two batches of kosher dill pickles - each batch is about two gallons, because that's how big my crock is. I was lucky this year and both batches came out fabulous. Sometimes pickles just don't work - don't ask me why.  I make them the same every time but sometimes they get soft and slimy. That happened last year and I was sad. This year though, both batches turned out crisp and delicious. So good, I even drank some of the brine straight, in little sips out of a shot glass. So good, I saved back a little of the brine to use to get my sauerkraut started. 

As you can see, I used purple cabbage this year. My neighbor of the HSH  (hotel-sized-house) gave me three beautiful purple cabbages. I chopped them finely, and packed them into the same crock I'd used for the pickles, saving the dill and the grape leaves. I left about an inch of pickle brine in the bottom, then covered the cabbage with a new salt brine. 

Today, after approximately ten days in brine, I emptied the crock and rinsed the cabbage and repacked it into quart sized jars in the fridge. I could, if I chose, water-bath can it at this point. But I don't think I will. I am really enjoying the live, complex flavors of all different ferments. Canning the kraut would preserve it, yes, but it would also kill it. Since there isn't a ton of it, just three cabbages worth, I'm sure we can get through it before it goes bad in the fridge. 

And I'm trying something new this year. My Italian Plum tree has decided to produce enough plums to sink a battleship. So many plums that branches are literally breaking from the weight. So many plums that I thought - well, I can experiment. It doesn't really matter if I devote a bucket of plums to an experiment that doesn't pan out - it's not like we are going to miss them. We are all, in fact, mortally sick of plums, so if my experiment ends up in the compost, I'm kind of sort of doing everybody a favor, right? 

Plum wine. Yesterday evening, I sat out on the lawn with a knife and a clean plastic bucket and a pile of plums, and pitted plums as I watched my daughters doing cartwheels in the setting sun. The bucket slowly filled up and their long legs flashed, upside-down in the slanting afternoon light. The scent of ripe plums - their purple sweetness - rose up into my nostrils. Haku lay panting at my feet and my husband sat a few feet away, reading quietly. When I had a bucketful, I carried them into the house and covered them with sugar water. 

Most likely, my plum wine will not be objectively delicious. But if, when I drink it, it reminds me of that hot August afternoon with my family; if it brings me back to my hands, working, and my back, aching gently, and my daughters calling "watch this, mom!" and my husband glancing over at me with a smile on his face, then it will be a success.