Saving Tomato Seeds from Your Garden

farm, fermentation

When venturing out to save tomato seeds look for the plants and fruits that are performing best- most beautiful, undamaged fruit, best disease resistance, excellent flavor, etc. A single tomato, depending on variety can yield perhaps enough seeds alone for the following year, making it a crop you can still continue to enjoy while simultaneously saving its seed. I like to pick ripe fruit throughout the year from the best plants while keeping detailed notes for each batch of seeds that gets saved.

Tomatoes for seeds can be cut open or just smashed, then placed in a jar to let ferment for a day or two. The fermentation helps separate the seed from the tomato flesh and any membrane that might be clinging to it. Fermenting too long can possibly have an adverse effect on germination later on.

When you’re ready to strain, shake up the jar and let things settle. This will help get the viable seeds to collect at the bottom. Next I’ll pull out the tomato solids I can grab with my hands then top the jar off with water. Carefully pour off the water and the remaining tomato debris should pour out with it. Keep refilling the jar and pouring out until the water is clear and clean. Then you can strain out the seeds and lay them on a surface for drying.

Dry gradually, which I do by leaving either on my breezy porch or in a room with a ceiling fan on- caution that fruit flies will be looking for them. Mix up the seeds occasionally to ensure even drying as they can tend to clump up. After a lazy week or two pack them up in a jar or bag or elsewhere safely away until you’re ready to use them next season.

Saving Zucchini & Cucumber Seed

fermentation, homesteading, Vegetable Fermentation

Zucchini and cucumber seeds are vegetables that both use a little fermentation to help in saving the seeds. When saving them you’ll want as mature of a fruit as you can get. Even after you harvest them it can help to let them cure for a couple days before cutting them open. It’s still a strange feeling to stop eating the favorite plants of a crop and let them grow out for seed. Maybe the pleasure is in the hope it gives to next year.

For zucchini start by cutting off any “neck” that is only flesh and doesn’t contain any seeds. Then carefully with a good knife cut the first half inch or so or around the perimeter of the vegetable so it can be pulled apart into two halves. The reason for this procedure is to prevent throwing a knife straight through the seed cavity and slicing a handful of them.

Next, scoop out the seeds.

Or thumb out the seeds.

The seeds will have a thin coating around them. To remove that place the seeds and anything stuck to them into a container and cover it with water. Add a cover to keep the flies out and ferment for 1-2 days. Caution not to forget about the ferment for too long as it can eventually begin to deteriorate the seeds germinating potential.

After the light fermentation the seed should be free from their covering. Check to make sure then you can stir up the seeds in the water, the good seeds should sink to the bottom and you can pour the rest off the top. This can be repeated by adding more water, stirring, and pouring until the seeds are generally clean. Then drain, rinse, and dry the seeds in a warm, dry place, and mix them up periodically to keep it going evenly.

Strawberry Amazake

fermentation

Amazake is a Japanese sweet beverage/ porridge made from koji mold and grain that can be reminiscent of a smoothie. (Mold smoothie? Yum.) Amazake is easy to make, wonderfully delicious, as well as vegan and sugar free. Its unique earthy sweetness is provided by enzymes in the koji that saccharify the grain starches into sugars. It is the infant state of sake and mirin, as amazake is the stage where sugars are being made to later convert into alcohol.

Making amazake is just mixing koji, a cooked grain, and water, and letting it incubate in a jar or sealed container for around 6-12 hours. The ratio of ingredients can be changed to your preference but a good starting place is 1:1.5:3/ koji: cooked grain: water. Incubation needs to be on the warmer side, ~120-140 degrees, as the higher temperatures are what activates sweeter results.

This is definitely a good “taste as it moves along” type recipe as you find your perfect “sweet spot.” An over mature amazake will start tasting sour (alcoholic).

When you have the amazake of your dreams incubated you can just pop it in the fridge to put the brakes on the fermentation. It’ll likely keep creeping along but you probably have a few days before it starts souring. For a refreshing summer smoothie give it a blitz in the blender, but if you do, why not also toss in a couple strawberries or whatever else you have on hand? Yum.

It’s also possible to make amazake from leftover grains from dinner as well as things like oat “milk.” To sweeten and inoculate your favorite non-dairy “milk” do a 1:3 ration of koji to “milk” and follow the same procedure.

Need some koji? Buy some online or get some spores to make your own.

Fermented Nettle for the Garden

farm, fermentation

If you take the stinging nettle season very seriously- as I hope you do- we previously mentioned a couple of ways to preserve them, but now it’s high time to transition with the plant as it grows. Personally I’ll never pick anything taller than my knee and here in Pittsburgh stop right around May 1st. After this point the tender leaves and stems will become courser as the stem elongates and she prepares to flower and set seed. Let’s let that happen and let the seeds drop too, then we can cut down the tall stalks to use as an all-purpose fertilizer for our gardens. We’ll be trying out in earnest this year making some fiber from them too, which we hope using this technique will produce some good results.

Stinging nettles contain a wide span of nutrients leafy green plants love such as potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium. By doing a basic ferment those nutrients are released for easier access. The liquid can be dumped at the foot of a plant or sprayed on the leaves for foliar feeding. This fertilizer is best for leafy green plants or plants in their growth stage, that is, before showing any signs of transitioning to flowering.

The process is easy. Cut down the tall nettles and stuff em in a bucket. Cover them with water, with rainwater being best, and let get good and stinky (outside naturally). Use anytime really. Depending on conditions we tend to start using it once the plant looks good and broken down and use a sprayer to foliar feed a lot of crops. It’s really satisfying to leave the farm behind in a cloud of stink.

Homemade Cream Cheese

dairy, fermentation

Cream cheese is another very simple cheese that is worth making if you’re able to get your hands on some really good local cream.

We culture via the David Asher method of using kefir. A simple plop of our kefir into the cream and we’ll let it sit out for a day at room temperature and then strain the grains out before heating. This culturing makes sure that our pasteurized cream has strong populations of the beneficial microbes we need. And perhaps according to your taste preference you can let the culturing go a little longer, or not.

The next step is to warm up the cream gently to a temperature comfortably warm to your finger, or say around 80- 90 degrees. Heat slowly and carefully, then add a small dose of rennet. (Rennet is the curdling agent we need to make this cheese. Here’s a decent source for getting it either derived from animals or vegetables.) We use animal rennet, which is very effective and we use the smallest drop we can get for a pint of cream. The drop is mixed with a 1/4th cup of lukewarm water and then gently stir in and all around for 20 seconds or so. Let the cream settle for an hour or two and it should have a yogurt like consistency, after which we like to plop it in the fridge overnight as we feel it makes a very loose curd a tad firmer for when we get to straining. Is it true? Who knows but nonetheless has evolved into our cream cheese making process.

When you’re ready to start straining prepare your set-up such as laying a towel, or even just a ink-less t-shirt over a colander with a bowl underneath. After carefully ladling in the cream, pop it in the fridge to slowly strain to the thickness you desire while occasionally mixing to encourage an even strain. Often times we’ll let it strain for up to 3 days. As it thickens up you can ball up the cloth and hang it, up to you. Doing things as gently and gradually as possible feels good sometimes.

When the cream cheese is strained to your liking mix in salt to suit your tastes and pack away.

This is a great recipe to dollop on your bigos, or naturally, to pair with your bagels.

Spring Rain Kombucha

fermentation

Is there an added benefit to a poetic tumble into consumable nature? Who knows, maybe just a strange feeling of connectedness. (Who couldn’t use a little more non-electrified connectedness?) Eating seasonally is a great start to nurturing a sort of ceremonial significance with what’s happening outside. It can begin as an arrangement of local ingredients on your plate and then expand to things like chasing the first stinging nettles for soup to welcome the coming growing season, or the wondrous moment of your first bite of summer’s tomato on a sandwich; it could also be a little more creative.
Here is a fine example of a whimsical take on kombucha, that while noted here for our current season of spring, could be replicated any time of the year, with as many variations as your imagination.

Process

1. Lay an open, wide vessel outside to collect the rain that is coming on fast over the horizon.


2. Rush out to the woods, or wildest patch of growth near you and pick modest amounts of different edible herbs, possibly in various states of grows (roots, arial, flower, fruit, etc). Whatever is exciting to you.


3. Filling your fermentation vessel with your collected rainwater, add the spring herbs to steep, and perhaps some green tea.


4. Add your recently made maple syrup, or honey from you bees, or your neighbors bees, or any sweetener meaningful to you or best you can manage and sweeten to your preference.


5. Plop in your SCOBY, affix your cloth covering, and let the brew come bubbling to life, just like the post-rain cricks that trickle down hillsides, feeding the spring herbs around its edges.


6. And lastly, and quite importantly, repeat annually or with each new season.

Fermented French Fries (& Potato Chips)

fermentation, Vegetable Fermentation

In a makeshift urban root cellar such as we have, the turning of the weather is felt in more places than the breaking of tree buds. While a fermented french fry recipe featured above seems lighthearted and fun, it serves a practical purpose as the tail-end of our stored potatoes also experience an early Spring “bud-breaking” (or spud-breaking?). It works two-fold as what needs eaten needs done with a little more pep, while those potatoes put aside for seed are getting a little pre-sprouting before going in the ground soon enough. The light fermentation adds a more dynamic lacto-pickley flavor to your fries that goes great with traditional condiments, making them worth a try.

Leaving the skin on, cut up the potatoes into your preferred fry shape.

Normally fries get an overnight soak in cold salt water to wash off excess starches. In this case we’ll do the soak as usual, but at room temperature and for a couple more days.

In your fermentation vessel cover the fries with water and add enough salt that the brine has a pleasant lightly salted taste. There’s no wrong answer with salt, except the potatoes will be taking on salt during the ferment, so too much can result in over-salty fries. A light brine enables you to still add salt after frying without overdoing it.

Ferment the fries for a couple days depending on ambient temperature and your preference. We do 4 days in 70 degrees. The potatoes get a nice pungent odor. The final taste is much more restrained than the smell describes so if you’re a lover of the funk, you could keep going. Strain and rinse before you’re ready to fry.

Heat your favorite frying oil- whether that be canola or tallow or other, to 250 degrees and par-fry the potatoes for 7:30 minutes. Work in batches if space in your frying vessel is limited.

Par-fried fries can be held in the fridge to finish for a week or so. When you’re ready for french fries, heat your oil once again but this time heating it to 375 degrees. Cook your fries to your preference, likely somewhere between 2-3 minutes. Strain excess oil and toss with a pinch of salt.

For potato chips follow the same process with these changes/ tips:

Cut whole potatoes on a mandolin- our cabbage mandolin for sauerkraut does the job here. Whether they are thin or thick is up to you.

Ferment the same as with the fries above.

There is no par-frying needed with potato chips. Fry them once in oil at 375 degrees for ~5min or so. The color should be your indicator here. Make sure to move the chips around periodically because they rise to the top and can get some uneven frying. Under-fried parts will be chewy rather than crispy.

Strain and toss in salt, or maybe your favorite spice blend.

Fermenting Homegrown Flax into Linen

farm, fermentation

It’s said that the first automated spinning machine helped kick start the industrial revolution. The practice of spinning fibers itself came from a rudimentary toolset such as a stick and a small weighty rock that was invented independently all over the world as separate cultures birthed their own thread spinning traditions. And this simple act of spinning, spinning, and spinning fibers, over and over made clothes, bags, and sails for ships to launch out to sea, which using a non-automated spinning wheel would take around 4 and a half years to spin. Flax is believed to be one of the absolute earliest cultivated plants and one used for its fiber. But in order for the world to hop on the back of flax to fully spin out of control it needed fermentation to carry it from plant to fiber, from flax to linen.

Growing

In growing habit flax is a cooler weather loving plant so is often sown in the spring in Western Pennsylvania. It has thin strong stalks that reach maybe around 3’ or so. They can be broadcast but doesn’t compete well with weeds. Flax grown for fibers are sown close together to discourage the plant from branching. Conversely if it’s the oil-rich seeds that are desired, give em a little more space. After around 100 days the plant begins to yellow (round mid-July) and the plants are pulled, by hand, with root and all to maximize the fiber length.

Processing

The stalks are laid out to dry for a few weeks (after which threshing can occur to save or obtain the little flax seeds by carefully whacking the stalks). And now things start getting good and rotten.


Next comes the stage of retting. Linen is a bast fiber meaning that the fibers are collected at the phloem, or inner bark, part of the stem. Incidentally the xylem (outer woody part) and phloem are bundled together by pectin which need broken down to separate out the desired fibers.

The word retting is thought to originate from rot, our dear friend to fermentation. A prolonged saturation of the plant causes the cells around the phloem to burst which in turn invites microbes to come and work on the carbohydrate-based pectin, and this action frees the cellulose fibers from its woody stalk.

Attention must be taken at this stage as under-retting won’t cause proper separation, and over-retting can disintegrate the fibers. Verifying success comes through testing to see if when you break the stalk you see the fibers separated.

Retting

There are several methods to ret. The first is dew retting where the flax is simply laid in thin layers on the grass to rot with the accumulated morning dew, dry out during the day, and repeat. This can take a while, upwards of a few months and produces a darker gray color.

Another way is to submerge the dried flax plants in a pond or stream weighed down possibly by rocks. On a large enough scale this method has been trouble for fish and has led to various bans of it overtime. It’s much quicker, taking maybe a week and a half or so and produces a more blonde color.

The way we chose for our trials, and by far the stinkiest is by submerging the fibers into a stagnant pool. This was done in a large tub. And since we used just hose water, we also dumped a cupful of pond water in as a sort of starter culture to ensure some microbial activity. With a lid on top to keep the water from evaporating in the summer sun the smell was horrendous and beautiful. It took about a week and then the stalks were taken out and dried again.

Fibers Emerge

At this point the dried stalks are ready to be broken and shattered which should free the long thin fibers from the woody parts of the plant. It’s quite magical to watch the beautiful blonde fibers released from the bondage of their wooden cell. This is also a step we might save for another time, and instead shove the prepared stalks into the basement to await a winter day when there’s more free time to complete the process.


All the steps to processing hereafter are involved enough themselves and perhaps too much to go into here. We took on flax growing a few years ago and tackle it as a project to gradually develop. A couple years later and finally this winter we got to find out what spinning was all about. For that we took a handmade ceramic fermentation weight that happened to have a hole through the middle and jammed a dowel rod into it, then bent a nail at the one end to act as a hook. The pros recommend a cd and dowel rod to get started. And clumsily off we go to spin, spin, and spin, to cherish the perspective replaced by a now automated process that is mostly taken for granted.

Sugar, Saccharification, & Homemade Reindeer Lichen-Malt Syrup

alcohol, fermentation, sugar

Question: how is potato vodka made? Like, how is a potato turned into alcohol? You need sugar right? Shred a potato into water, ferment it and what happens? Yuck. So where does all the sugar come from?

Alcohol made from grains uses malt to produce sugar. Malt is a grain that is sprouted for just a few days, then is dried and possibly roasted. A grain kernel contains mostly starches, which is that prized stuff we eat every day in various forms of flours. When the seed begins to make new life, those starches are converted into sugars (denaturing its bread-worthy-ness) through enzymes to assist in the growing of that new plant. What an amazing human moment this must have been to nibble on a just sprouted seed and taste a sweet kernel! (Here is a malt-making tutorial).

Similarly another likely result of curious human nibbling was in the case of moldy rice in Asia. The white fuzz later became referred to as koji and also converted the plentiful starches on grains into fermentable sugars.

While it’s probable you’d get some additional sugars from molding a potato in koji, I wouldn’t necessarily go about sprouting it. There has got to be a better way.

In both cases with the malted grains and with the koji-cultured grains a similar thing is occurring- the process of saccharification. By way of enzymatic activity present starches are being converted into sugars. But not only can they do it for their hosts but they actually hold the capacity of converting additional starches as well. This is known as its diastatic power. Any additional starches that get added, the brewing universe refers to as adjuncts. Therefore malt and koji can be used as the sugar-making “starter” which we add something else- possibly cheap, plentiful, and packed with starches- like the potato!

Or… lichen!

Why lichen? Reindeer lichen specifically, aside from being good landscaping for your model train set, has been found to be also packed with starches- packed as in 94% carbohydrates compared to the potato at 14%. A little inverted compared to the mushroom world, most lichens are edible, with the minority being problematic. The only drawback is that, in the case of reindeer moss, it also contains acids accumulated over time which can erode stone and when in your stomach, while it won’t kill you, doesn’t feel great. Therefore in order to make sugar from it we first we need to leach out the acid, which is easily done with the help of an alkaline water bath using lye, cal, or baking soda.

It’s done like this:

  1. Cover the lichen with water in a pot and add 1 teaspoon of lye, bring to a boil, turn off heat, and let soak for 24 hours.
  2. Drain and rinse.
  3. Take a small piece and dry it. Taste a nibble for any bitterness. If there is any, repeat steps until its gone. It should take 2-3 changes of water to do. When the coast is clear, proceed to drying the whole thing.

Supposedly history tells us that lichen’s hayday came during World War 2 when the supplies for sugar beets and potatoes were low, yet demand for alcohol was unwavering and spirits were made from lichen. However it never really took off as the processing of it was never cost effective. Prepared lichen could be crushed and used in bread, added to thicken soups and sauces, or we can go on to convert it into sugar, thusly:

  1. Combine crushed malt and crushed and dried lichen in a 1:1 ratio. (Note: this ratio was randomly picked to ensure the desired results)
  2. Heat water separately to 155 degrees, add to the grain and lichen mixture to cover liberally and hold at 150 degrees for 1-2 hours. Why you ask? Because the enzymes need to be broken down in order to be accessed and 150 degrees gelatinizes many things including grains. Note also that at 165 degrees all enzymes are destroyed. How shall I heat it may you ask? Perhaps a pot in the oven if your oven goes low enough, a pot in a dehydrator that goes high enough, maybe this handy incubator design, or a thick pot with a keen eye on stove and frequent stirring.
  3. (Optional). You can let the mixture cool overnight to allow more time for the enzymes to further breakdown the starches.
  4. Strain and squeeze excess liquid from the solids.

You can now either boil your sweet liquid into a molasses-like malt syrup or go ahead and brew it, distill it, or what have you.

Reindeer lichen, often referred to as Reindeer Moss, is fairly abundant in our region, especially in our nearby forests. One thing you should know is that reindeer lichen is extremely slow growing, about 3mm per a year. While expansive patches exist in Western Pennsylvania, it’s always worth considering such details to decide whether its worth it to harvest. My little harvest was to explore the rumor I’ve heard about lichen as a sugar and I hope you found it worth it.

Homemade Tempeh

fermentation

Quick n’ easy Ferment Pittsburgh take on making homemade tempeh- in any shape.

Give your choice of bean or beans a good long soak, ~12 hours or so.

Cook the beans in boiling water, being careful to not overcook them. You’re after a bean that holds its shape. Its okay if it’s a tad undercooked, al dente works great. Mushy beans not so much.

Drain the beans and spread them out to dry and cool off a bit. Spread them out on a clean towel does a nice job. In the end you want the beans to be dry to the touch and about warm-lukewarm temperature. At this point add your tempeh starter at the suggested rate of your starter and mix well in a bowl.

Before you incubate you’ll need to pack the beans up so the fungi can knit them together into a cake. All that is required is covering enough to keep the beans humid and some air holes for ventilation.

You can place your beans in ziplock plastic sandwich bags with holes poked in them every inch or so to accomplish the classic tempeh cake look. A shallow pan like a casserole dish works well too, perhaps with a lid of cling wrap with a few holes poked here and there. Or better yet, why not make it a shaped cake pan? Below is Tempeh Wonder Woman.

This is one here is just a plastic bag filled with inoculated beans and incubated.

Incubate the beans in a humid environment at around 86 degrees for 24- 48 hours. If you’re using a pan or dish, the oven or a dehydrator could work well. This incubator tutorial using a lamp is our preferred method. However in the winter time a radiator is perfect and in-season.

The tempeh is done when the white mycelium has knit together and smells fresh and fungal. If let gone too long darker colors will develop and so will smells and flavors maybe more preferable to hard-core tempeh aficionados.