Saturday, February 19, 2011

Adventures in Fermentation I

Winter's almost over, and most people still haven't made their own sauerkraut. What a pity. Sauerkraut is one of the simplest and most delicious things you can make at home. It requires only two ingredients, a few minutes of work, and a few days of waiting to provide the basis for any number of healthy, delicious meals. It's also an excellent first foray into the wild world of fermented foods. Fermentation is a lost art of food preservation--and, it increasingly seems, compounding health benefits. From yogurt to beer to kimchi to ketchup, much of the food our ancestors consumed was alive. You can continue eating pasteurized this and flash-frozen that, or you can reestablish the alliance with good germs that kept prior generations all but immune to colds, fatigue, and indigestion. Few things you can do in the home kitchen are as magical as fermenting cabbage, a process whereby a tough, sweet, dry, voluminous vegetable transforms into something tender, sour, juicy, and dense.

Though I do sport considerable German heritage, I never thought much of sauerkraut, because I'd only ever had it out of a can. It was just something to cover a hot dog with. As I developed a taste for beer, and increasingly unusual pork products, I became reasonably fond of commercial kraut, even though it sometimes gave me pretty bad indigestion. This probably resulted from the vinegar used in most commercial varieties, or the excess of pork fat often used to cook it.

Homemade sauerkraut tastes very different from the canned stuff--depending on how long you let it ferment, it can be plenty sharp, but more like horseradish than vinegar. At its best it has a depth and complexity of flavor I can only describe as "creamy." Yet maybe even more notable is the texture: while the commercial stuff tends to be very limp and a little slimy, homemade kraut is delightfully crunchy.

So how do you make it?

1. Slice half a cabbage as thin as you can with a good sharp chef's knife.
2. In a large bowl, toss the cabbage with several teaspoons of (Kosher) salt. To facilitate blending, layer cabbage, salt, cabbage, salt into the bowl. After you've filled the bowl, stir it all together thoroughly.
3. Cover and let stand overnight. Cabbage should "bleed" several tablespoons of juice.
4. Stir and mash the mixture with a wooden spoon. Let stand a few hours. Repeat. When the cabbage has been reduced to about half its original volume, you're ready to bottle it.
5. Pack the cabbage very tightly into a wide-mouth one-quart glass jar. You should be able to compress it to about half the space it took up in the bowl (or less).
6. Pack the cabbage all the way up to the brim of the jar, just beyond where it seems to fit, turning and mashing with a wooden spoon, so that the juice rises and covers the cabbage, all the way to the lip of the jar.
7. Loosely screw on the lid and wipe up overflow as necessary.
8. Cover with a towel and let stand in a cool, dark, draft-free place for about a week. Above 70, the cabbage will rot; below 60, it won't ferment. I've found a temperature of about 65 and a "rest" of 5-7 days to produce optimal sauerkraut. Less time, lower temperatures, and more salt all inhibit fermentation, producing a less sour product.

The picture shows red cabbage--half a big head of it, which seemed like way more than I could possibly fit in the jar. But the tighter you pack it, the less chance there is of mold. I've also tried white cabbage, and, best of all, half red and half white. Such a blend makes a beautiful swirl of green and purple when you start, but by the time it's done fermenting, it's solid fuchsia.

Serve with pork chops, sausage, ham, spaetzle, potatoes, any of the usual German suspects. Or substitute it for lettuce and make a beautiful winter salad. I get my cabbage at the farmers' market, so it's got a lot more vitamins, and fewer chemicals, than supermarket lettuce and other veggies. You can go on eating summer-style salads all winter and ignore the fact that the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc., are flown in from Mexico or Chile, grown in E-coli-infested soil, woody with fertilizer, transported by planes gobbling up precious oil. Or you can embrace winter and enjoy some fermented cabbage. Since I'm not a football fan, Superbowl Sunday has become a celebration of guacamole; I "intercept" the avocados on fire sale for the weekend. Here red sauerkraut does a glamorous understudy for lettuce; with two colors of tortilla chips, the little plate could fetch a pretty price in one of those places where "vertical presentation" is a big deal. What a long way we've come from a can-opener and a frozen hot dog!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Foodie Central

I'd been to Zingerman's once before: I remembered coffee in pint glasses and a sense of stress. Nothing has changed. Entering the deli, an unprepossessing brick building that opens like some wild pop-up book into a tiny space jammed floor to ceiling with bread, cheese, cured meats, prepared salads, olive oils, coffees, and other specialty items, you suddenly understand what Imelda Marcos must have felt like on entering a shoe store. Interest in food quickly goes from acute to terminal here. Negotiating the sandwich menu alone could take half an hour, if you actually took the time to read all the ingredients meticulously listed for every sandwich. No noun will do without an adjective, it seems, and no story may be left untold. The kitsch faux hand lettering doesn't make things any easier. None of the three dozen or more sandwiches listed seemed to include serano ham, several of which were hanging from the ceiling nearby. I would have done almost anything for a couple slices of it, in any form, but I was afraid to ask, lest I get drawn into a protracted discussion of the various grades and sources and cuts, abrading my memory of how casually the stuff is treated in Spain, the barman in the little place I frequented dabbing the butt-end of each dangling ham with a heel of bread as they sweated into the night. So much of the magic of food for me is bound up in its original context, where it is treated as impossibly common. A decade later I remember the cafe con leche at an unremarkable little bar in Granada not only because it was one of the best cups of coffee I've ever had, but because the barman was so utterly nonchalant in making it, as if coffee like this could be had anywhere.

There's no question they do a lot of things extremely well here: apricot rugelach was second only to my mother's, and a round French pastry I'd never heard of was so exquisitely constructed that its near-absence of flavor and moisture somehow became a virtue. The coffee, a "single-origin" variety, made me wonder why lattes were invented. (And they offered to rinse my travel mug with hot water and give me a 10% discount for bringing it.) The prices would be outrageous except that everything really is made with great care and top-notch ingredients. A loaf of rye bread I'd purchased on my previous visit, some seven years ago, still haunts me.

Yet there's a lot of things to hate about the place, like their "guide to good eating," which comes in both book form for purchase and little placards all over the store for free, as in "seven keys to a good olive oil..." Call me old-fashioned, but I've never considered taste something to be taught. There used to be a joke about the price of a Rolls-Royce: "if you have to ask, you can't afford it." If you need someone to tell you what's worth eating, why are you eating it? My sandwich included more packaging than a meal at McDonald's; I'll be using the napkins alone for weeks. The menu bears little if any relation to the seasons: for all the grandstanding about milk produced at different times of year yielding different cheeses, my sandwich featured a hank of romaine lettuce, about as far from Michigan in February as one can get. Next door at the farmer's market, the "Brinery" offered red and white sauerkraut, pickles, and other fermented treats, while inside Zingerman's, sandwich after sandwich was adorned with the same old lettuce and tomatoes that hadn't been available locally for almost six months. If the point is to re-create standard sandwiches in higher-quality form, they've certainly succeeded, but if the goal is to create some set of new, ingredients-first delicacies, imagination is lacking.

I was in a pickle, both literally and figuratively: I was offered a choice, with my sandwich, of a garlic-brined sour pickle or an unseasoned new pickle. I chose the new, which was excellent, but I don't want to have to choose. There's a line beyond which gourmet sensibilities crumble into neuroses, and Zingerman's seems to nudge, if not hurtle, people straight over it. Everything is extraordinarily good, and extraordinarily complicated. Talking about food becomes more important than eating it. I spent ten minutes with a bubbly young cheesemonger comparing goat cheeses, trying to strike a balance between "gooey," "aged," "chalky," and "goaty," only to end up with something less satisfying than what I've found at Whole Foods. She was knowledgeable enough, but the process became more a war of vocabularies and predilections--her book-sanctioned terminology vs. my casual one, her inculcation into farm philosophies vs. my recollections of French markets--than a tasting.

Yet in a sense Zingerman's must not be judged for itself, but for how far askance it dares to look at the mainstream American food world. Ten minutes away is Potbelly Sandwich Works, a "gourmet" fast food chain which produces pitiful shadows of what used to be served at any decent deli. It's a marvel that two such ostensibly similar, yet essentially different, places can coexist within less than a mile. Potbelly is cheaper than Zingerman's, but not by much. And there's plenty of fuss on offer at Potbelly too, yet it leads only to mediocrity and monotony. So as much as I chafe under the weight of overwritten captions and gratuitous options at Zingerman's, I can only cheer the extent to which they've raised awareness of the subtleties that make food more than filler for shrinkwrap and styrofoam: "raw milk," "acorn-fed ham," "wild yeast," and so on. Somewhere behind all the jargon are many wonderful meals the rest of the country has forgotten. Yes, right here in Michigan, we have a thing or two to teach New York and San Francisco about eating. Ann Arbor is carrying the epicurean fire back, however pretentiously, to the gastronomic capitals.