What magical marriage is born from cold midwinter nights and New Year’s intentions still fresh in our hearts? The adventures of culinary alchemy, of course. Now is the perfect time to explore the wild and wonderful potential of growing and creating in your own kitchen, both for reasons of supporting personal health and getting to know your own unique human organism a little more intimately.
We’re only midway through the season, and it seems like every other person I know has taken some form of an antibiotic for their flu symptoms. So what better way to pass a cold January evening than with beneficial bacteria that make up the foundation of life known as fermentation?
Whoa, cozy up to microorganisms? Isn’t everyone scrubbing their hands with antibacterial soap and tossing back Z-packs to wipe these creatures out of their lives? Precisely, which is why there’s never been a better time to welcome these miniscule magicians into your life or start growing some to share with friends.
The actual fermentation process allows a wide variety of foods to be preserved in ways that make them both more nourishing and easily digestible, enhancing their health-promoting properties and refining their flavors. As fermented foods have mostly disappeared from Western diets, there’s been an increase in digestive aids, many of which are chemical-based and only act as Band-Aids to the system rather than restoring balance. Introducing fermentation into your diet can help reestablish good bacteria in the digestive tract; once balance has been restored, the body can naturally maintain it without the aid of supplements. Harmony in the digestive system is essential for optimal functioning, and these delicate ecosystems remind us of the magic of the human body.
Is there anything more mystical and magical than the intricately complex and beautiful gift of the body? The exploration of the physical body is often limited to the emotional and mental realms, and while meditation, yoga and other practices are clearly an important piece of the self-awareness puzzle, a deepened understanding of our physical selves only expands the potential of holistic self-development. What we put into our bodies affects everything we do, so it’s fitting that one of the cornerstones of physical health is digestion.
The great news is that we can eat our way to digestive balance, and fermented foods provide for such restoration. Also, they both nourish and strengthen immunity and, if you’ve taken an antibiotic, can bring much-needed good bacteria back into your system. Fermentation is already happening all the time, as bacteria and fungi are in every breath we give and receive, transforming energy from one form to another through microbial activity.
Sandor Ellix Katz, an expert in modern-day fermenting, explains in his preservation bible, “Wild Fermentation,” that the symbiotic relationship between humans and these single-cell life forms is multidimensional and enduring. Microflora break down food so that it can be absorbed by our bodies, protect us from unhealthy organisms and boost our immune systems. To further illustrate our interdependence: We descended from these tiny beings, as fossil records show that all forms of life on Earth come from bacterial beginnings, and we rely on them for the fertility of the soil that grows much of our food. Additionally, they’re responsible for decadent delights like bread, chocolate, cheese, wine and beer.
However, you aren’t likely to find such abundant vitality in a jar of dill pickles at Kroger, as it is live, unpasteurized fermented foods that bring beneficial microorganisms to our system. This is another reason for buying local or doing it yourself, since many fermented products in stores are pasteurized, meaning the good microorganisms have been boiled out.
What affects the one affects the whole, and strengthening our personal ecosystem of wellness can also strengthen our local community. Fermentation is an artisanal endeavor, and the groundswell of support for small farms and local economies means more growers and craftspeople are able to market their goods, such as locally crafted sauerkraut and kombucha, an elixir of delicious effervescence made from tea and a fermented “mushroom” (which is actually a colony of yeast and bacteria). It’s delicious, I promise.
To sweeten the deal, sampling this local bounty is just a phone call or a bicycle ride away. Rainbow Blossom carries Geierkraut, a local sauerkraut crafted on a small organic farm outside Frankfort — it’s one of the best I’ve ever tasted. You can find some of the tastiest kombucha at the Shelby Park/Smoketown farmers market in the spring, or you can contact the local brewmaster now for a personal order ([email protected]). Another local fermentation wonder, Bluegrass Soy Sauce, can be found on Story Avenue in Butchertown. This sauce — made from whole, non-genetically modified, Kentucky-grown soybeans and pure limestone-filtered spring water — is from the only small-batch soy sauce brewery in the country. Find out more online at bluegrasssoysauce.com.
Savoring local offerings is a good first step, but I recommend some DIY fermentation for an even deeper connection to our ever-evolving understanding of nourishment. Homemade creations are immensely rewarding to eat, but they’re also rewarding to create. As we enter into a partnership with these microbes, we get a deeper understanding of our bodies, which in turn will guide us to providing nourishment for all beings. It also cultivates a reverence for the complex and beautiful alchemy that fuels and regenerates our physical bodies.
So how to begin your kitchen table alchemy? Almost any food can be fermented, but one of the most commonly enjoyed is cabbage (sauerkraut), which is super easy to make. You’ll need a 1-gallon ceramic crock or food-grade plastic bucket, a plate that fits inside the crock, cloth cover, 5 pounds of cabbage and some sea salt. Here’s the recipe:
1) Chop the cabbage and sprinkle with sea salt, mix together and pack into your crock, packing it down and tamping it hard with your fist as you go to force water out of the cabbage.
2) Cover the kraut with a lid or plate that fits snugly inside the crock, and place a clean weight on the plate to make sure all cabbage is submerged. Cover the crock with a cloth to keep dust out.
3) Periodically press down on the weight for the next 24 hours until the brine rises above the plate.
4) Leave it to ferment, but check it every day or so. After a few days, it will be tangy, and the taste will deepen with time. You can enjoy it at any point in the process, so taste it as it develops and discover what you like best.
5) The brine in the crock is an incredible digestive tonic, so don’t miss out on this magical elixir. Also, each time you take out some kraut, be sure to repack the rest of it, and make sure the plate and weight are clean when you replace them. For more details on the process, check out wildfermentation.com.
Sinead O’Connor said it best: “I have a universe inside me.” As science and spirituality move closer together, we’re seeing more and more how we can understand life both more microscopically and macroscopically by embracing a holistic perspective. We live in an abundant universe, so make it less about denial and more about nourishment. If you want to feel better, have more energy and strengthen your immunity, don’t deny yourself — nourish yourself and learn more about what your body requires for radiant wellbeing and wholeness.