I have fought with fermentation for years. I can’t make beer, no matter how hard I try and how many brewers I know. Amazing brewers, actually, the best in the country, arguably.
My sauerkraut is a crap shoot — the most success coming when I completely oversalt the batch and my friend Alice uses it to make runzas, adding no salt to her meat mixture.
Don’t get me wrong, I love runzas. They’re funza in the bunza for sure.
But I’d like, frankly, to conquer fermentation. And I am now determined that this is the year I will, finely, tame the wild.
To catch you up, I believe I have tried nearly everything — though not the beautiful German fermenting crocks that are so expensive I wouldn’t be able to afford even a cabbage if I bought one.
There are two essential problems to my fermentation: floaty vegetable bits and moldy ickiness I tend to not want to touch after forgetting to look at the crock for a few days.
But the real crux of my problem, sans the said fermentation crock loveliness (reizender topf, I think), is that my fermentation is always equipment-challenged. Right tool for the right job is great only when you can afford the tool.
Me? I am left cobbling together bits and ideas to make the project actually work for me instead of battle against me.
I know I could scour thrift stores for glass rounds (plates? vintage-y industrial somethings?) to act as weights. I’ve done a little thrifting but really, it is a whole job when it is done well. I have a job, and more than a few projects, that leave me little time to pop into Village Discount every day for a month until, EUREKA!
I know I could commission a starving artist at Lill Street to make me some weights to fit in my pickle crocks. That would take money, though, and ceramic chips frustratingly easily at the moments when you can’t afford it to, so the solution isn’t really long-term. And, frankly, I feel like every time I wash out a crock even they seem just a little more chipped.
Having been HAACP-certified in a past life, ceramic chips freak me out.
Which leads me to plastic. I am just not a big fan of the togetherness of plastic and food. I know, I know, what kind of crazy loonbag … but really, so much food-grade plastic has BPA and virtually everyone but the people who decide what can be in food-grade plastic agrees that BPA is super harmful. So — get your tin foil hat on, folks — sometimes I tend to wonder what the hell else is in the plastic.
And while I am all about freezing in vacuum seal bags and have a good supply of Ziplocks and so on and so forth, I just can’t seem to use plastic when I am asking it to undergo processes that would potentially compromise it’s physical integrity. So, no cooking with in or around plastic. No microwaving (no, folks, microwaving is not cooking though and even still, I don’t microwave much to begin with anyway). And no dunking a plastic bag full of salinated water into a fermenting crock.
And yet, I determined. Because I decided that this was the year I would learn more about using my jars of stuff because Paul Virant finally published his book, The Preservation Kitchen. I write a bit about that on the “Yard Farm Year” half-aspirational/half-actually accomplished calendar but for the purpose of this blog post I will share that Paul’s book is the bible of how to use stuff you can. So, if you have a pantry full of jam made from every berry known to man, and you know I do, this is the book to get.
So, I got it. And I committed to making everything in it.
And boom, the project, because of the exact moment in time that is today, starts with fermentation.
You see, my secret ramp patch is ready for me today. And Paul’s book not only features pickled ramps (natch and no problem for me since I make ’em every year) but also fermented ramps. Dammit.
Nothing I want to do less is decide to start a project and then, on the day I am supposed to start, face what feels like probable failure.
Totally not what I am about.
But I am determined. I will do this project.
So, here’s what I am doing: conquering the airlock/mason jar method. (AKA: Fermentationem Appalacianos Officiales)
The airlock/mason jar method of my dreams employs a “brewer’s” airlock shoved into a large-size carboy gasket that is shoved into the top of a mason jar. For the technical out there, it is a size 13 rubber gasket with a hole drilled in the middle. The beauty — keeps air out, let’s bubbles out, keeps grody moldy bits to a minimum.
There are a lot of people on the internets epoxing an airlock onto plastic mason jar lids with holes drilled in them. But and as you can imagine, I am not really one for having epoxy that close to my food. (Sorry, can’t find link now, but that’s ok since you shouldn’t do this anyway so why do you want to look?)
You can also buy a set-up with special-size rings that keep the airlock tight. But it is pretty pricey, to be sure. (In comparison, five gasket & airlocks packages costs about $20.)
Not to mention the fact that both of those methods seem kinda one-purposing the tools to me. Airlocks and carboy gaskets can be used in beer (!), in soda (!), maybe even I dunno, making soap or something. (!!)
So this year, with this method, I will conquer a basic first step level of fermentation. Later in the season, I am having Nance Klehm over for a class in advanced fermentation with whey and suchlike. (Let me know if you wanna join, it will be six of us. I will be serving runzas, unfortunately and probably.)
Anyway and onward. For now. Ramp pickles and sauerkraut.
The project starts with collecting five nice-size rocks from the backyard and cleaning them really well. The rocks need to fit into the mouth of a small-mouth jar; they’ll sit on top of the ramp tops to keep them submerged. I use black river rock that I used to use as decorative garden elements now seem to be something Grant and I move around every year as we try to decide how to make the yard look somewhat backyardy even though it is rows and rows of vegetables.
The reason for the small-mouth jar is because that is what the number 13 gasket fits into. I don’t know the size that would fit in a wide-mouth and in fact it would be something that the brewer supply store wouldn’t naturally carry anyway. Additionally, the shoulders of the small-mouth jar will be advantagous as one can shove in things that would simultaneously keep the goods down and stop at the curve of the jar. An added layer of protection from floaty bits. So, small-mouth it is.
Then, go ramping.
As I type this, I have decided that my new ramp tradition will be to gather ramps on Easter Sunday morning. From now on, every Easter, as you don your bonnet, I will grab my trowel and go ramping. I love making my own traditions and they always have something to do with the seasonality of food.
Some people are religious. I am foodigious. (Foo-Dig-You-Us, noting to slur the last two syllables)
This year has been kinda hard to live up to my food seasonality traditions. I mean, who wants to make corned beef for St. Patrick’s when it is 80 out — I was looking for a tomato to eat. Putting in seeds on Imbolc was also horked, since on that day it was 45 or so, not 20. And there was no snow.
It sucks, this year. Though my garden is exploding with food. So, also, it doesn’t suck. Such is the real conundrum of Global Climate Change when you live in a temperate climate.
Back to ramps and Easter. I have realized, actually, that the side benefit of making a ritual of an Easter morning ramping was the realization that Easter morning might be a good time to do something illegal since everyone else will be distracted.
On now, you go hush up.
I take good care of my ramp patch by not over-harvesting. And, I am pretty sure the somewhat ridiculous place where my ramps grow means that likely not too many people, if any, partake of the harvest.
So, yes, it is illegal. But there are gradations of illegal, right?
Most years, I pickle the ends and freeze the greens. The greens I save for creamed ramps and spinach which, in the last few years, has been a part of a Thanksgiving dinner I make for my friends.
Freezing ramp greens is as easy as lining them up on a paper towel and then rolling the paper towel up and shoving the whole thing in a vacuum seal bag. Then, just toss them in the water before the spinach when the time comes.
My pickling recipe varies depending on what I find on the internets. Mostly it is rather sweet. I think a sweet pickle brine is important in a pungent ramp.
This year, as I said, I am dipping into The Preservation Kitchen and following Paul’s recipes for pickling and making ramp sauerkraut and then using those preserved items for recipes in the book.
I am pretty excited (ramp martini and creamed ramps and morels!) but it also means I won’t be adding recipes. Because I think you should go buy the book. If you are a canner, you will most definitely find one of the best canning books around.
What I like about it is that it is useful not just for canning — including some unique recipes and ideas, but it is useful for how to use the item. It’s pretty unique, going far beyond the other great book of its time, Well Preserved. Though I note many canners complained (wrongly!) that Well Preserved had too few canning recipes and too many what to do with the canned goods recipes — yet really, canning is super fun but jars and jars of Italian Plums Aigre Doux can sometimes not be.
So, I am grateful for the book because I am pretty sure I will learn a thing or two about using my canned goods. And hope to at least attempt to share what I made and how I used it here. I’ll mark the posts, as I have done on this one.
So, until the morels are in season and I can cook up Paul’s Rainbow Trout with Creamed Ramps and Morels, I pass along a Happy Easter, Happy Passover and Happy Whatever Else.