Two, Four, Six…

Traveled to Brookings, SD today to help present a Farm Beginnings marketing workshop.  Got into town a little early, so I stopped in Threads of Memories antiques to check out their extensive crock selection.

What a Crock!

I bought the six gallon crock a couple of years ago, and today I picked up a two and a four for about the same (total) price as the #6 was then.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not trying to be anal about matching my Red Wings, it’s just that the other designs (like the birch leaf) and the crocks from lesser-known companies seem to be more in favor by collectors right now, and are thus more expensive.

Threads of Memories tends to have the fanciest crocks up front, with the less expensive ones hidden throughout the back regions of the store in the various consignment areas.

Back there, you can find cheaper ones that have cosmetic issues (rim chips, finish flaws, or small, non-integrity-threatening cracks)–there is no need to have a “perfect” crock for fermenting–let the collectors pay the high prices and get something that you can use and not feel bad about setting in a back corner of the basement to ferment whatever deliciousness you want to brew up.

The one thing you really want to watch out for is a hairline crack that goes all the way around the base.  That’s bad news if you want to move a crock full of veggies and brine.

You can use a plastic bucket instead of a crock, but I don’t trust even supposedly food grade plastics with storing a fermenting, acidic brew.  I have soured vegetables in gallon glass jars with good results.

The #6 crock has been in a cold corner of my basement since I moved here, patiently holding just a couple of gallons of garlicky dill pickles–what I was able to harvest by the end of last August, when I moved away from my cuke patch.

Because the brine had evaporated and some of the top layer of cukes was exposed to the air (though there was no mold or objectionable material), I tossed the surface fruits, plus some of the big ones that looked a little shriveled.

Then I transferred the rest into this gallon glass jar–a gift from my now-deceased boss Marj Robertson when I worked in her cafe a decade ago.  She used jars like these to make sun tea out front of her restaurant and jalapeno-spiked refrigerator pickles, too.

Due to the brine’s reduction, 2010’s batch of pickles is really salty, but still very tasty.  They might be best used chopped in salads or as an occasional pick-me-up.

The past couple of years I have canned my fermented dills, but I’m just going to keep this jar in the fridge and slowly eat my way through them instead of killing off the live cultures in the boiling water bath just so I can store them on the shelf.

For the 2011 season, I think I’ll use the #4 size crock for pickles and save the #6 for something more exciting (to me, anyway)–like sauerkraut or kimchi.  Number two can be my experimental crock for small batches of something new I want to try.

My guide in this experimentation is a new book bought with a Christmas gift card.  It’s not really a cookbook per se (especially since a lot of things aren’t actually cooked), nor does it give super-specific instructions throughout, but it’s a guide made with a sense of adventure and love.

Wild Fermentation is part revolutionary food manifesto, part ode to microbes, and part life celebration.  It’s great fun to read, and there are all kind of ideas for fermenting grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, and dairy products (meat is not included).

However, I do suggest looking over the reviews before you decide to purchase it.  If your sensibilities will be offended by discussions of GLBT communities and/or you prefer to live in a pasteurized, homogenized, sterilized world, this book is not for you…

…and neither are sauerkraut, beer, chocolate, coffee, cheese, or any of the other fermented foods that have long been part of humanity’s diet.  What a loss!

Crock-Fermented Dill Pickles

Crock Pickles 2009 4This is my second year making crock dills in cooperation with my friend Cathy, who lends me the crocks her grandmother used.  The cukes come out of my gardens, as well as the peppers.  This year’s dill came from my friend Amy’s garden, and the garlic is Patti’s from Evergreen Farms (certified organic).

The recipe comes from Putting Food By–the little cucumber crock pickle recipe.  Because I started later this year (not thinking I was going to make them, and having a friend who had a little crock to fill with the early season cukes), I used the smaller 3 gallon crock this time.  The 5-gallon crock was devoted to the Concord grape wine project.

Crock Pickles 2009 2You can actually leave the pickles in the crock and eat them out of it over the winter.  But because I split the pickles between Cathy and me, and because it’s just easier to have the jars of pickles on hand, I can them.  I sterilize the quart jars and pack them with pickles, then strain the brine and heat it just to boiling before pouring it over the cukes.

I’m generally a bit short of enough fermenting liquid to can all of the pickles, so I add a brine of 3 cups water, 3 cups vinegar, and a third cup of pickling salt to that brine to make sure there’s enough.  The vinegar I added this year was 1 1/2 cups each of white and cider vinegar.

Crock Pickles 2009 3Because of the late start this year, and because I was picking those cukes very small like I like them, I only ended up with 9 quarts of pickles this year.  But they are gorgeous, and they are tasty.  Luckily, I have one quart of last year’s pickles left to eat, and a few leftovers from this batch too before I break into my share of this year’s dilly goodness.

Bubbies' of San Francisco

Bubbies’ Bread and Butter Pickles

I’d like to post occasionally on food and drink that I think is good stuff. It may be anywhere from down-home to gourmet, and it may be local, regional, or just plain good no matter where it comes from. Obviously, I lean toward local food, but for right now, most local food I’m eating came from my own gardens or from the one steer or one pig (or walleye or venison) that friends shared, so I don’t want to be entirely shameless and/or smugly self-sufficient about my plugs.

I want to tip my hat to Bubbies’ of San Francisco. Everything I’ve gotten under their brand name is great-tasting, uses all-natural ingredients and is free of preservatives–today I picked up their bread-and-butter pickles as I had a complete cuke crop failure last year and have no pickles of my own making. I had to restrain myself from eating half the (big) jar after the first bite.

I’ve also had their horseradish–not super hot, but good flavor–and their saurkraut, which is phenomenal. In case you’re not hip to the fermentation process, it basically includes nothing but vegetable and salt, a fairly cool place, and maybe a little water in the canning process. Saurkraut should never contain vinegar–if it does, they’re cheating by pickling, not fermenting. Bubbies’ is not cheating.

I did a batch of saur ruben (fermented white turnip) a couple years ago when I massively over-planted turnips. My CSA members breathed a sigh of relief after six weeks of turnip deliveries, and I had a great product that I was a little worried about eating at first. Not that I didn’t do it right, but jamming a bunch of raw produce and salt down in a big jar or crock, leaving it in the basement, and skimming off scum for a couple weeks seems antithetical to the clean canning process for the fermented foods novice.

I have also noticed that a lot of the horseradish sold in local supermarkets has artificial flavor added. I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would think something so basic would need artificial anything needed. I mean, even if you look at it purely in terms of financial cheapness (a perspective I generally abhor when it comes to food), all you need is horseradish, vinegar, and salt. You don’t need soybean oil, fake colors, fake flavors–nothing that would cost even a penny more. Horseradish is a rampant grower, and salt and vinegar are about the cheapest condiments on the market. How can it get any easier? But so many companies feel they have to add something to make it–what? Nothing you add to horseradish besides the two things listed above could make it better than it is–unless you are making cocktail sauce, and that is a different story.

Anyway, I don’t need to buy horseradish in the store anymore, as I have plenty, and I grate it fresh from the roots in the crisper as needed. But if you need to buy it, I suggest reading the label for weird, unnecessary additives. Bubbies’ and (last I knew) Helluva Good both make a good, clean product.