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.

Making Flower Syrup

sugar

Late spring is the best time of year, when at any given time your olfactory can be flooded by an unsuspecting intoxicating plume. From roses and elderflowers (my two personal favorite flavors), to dandelions and liden- there is a world of flavors wafting in the breeze. Making syrup from them is a way to preserve their fresh flavors for as many uses as your imagination can find. Here’s how to do it.

Remove as much green parts as you feel like by hand. Place flowers in a bowl and add enough water to cover. *The quantities of everything here are pretty relative, as who knows how much you get, etc.

Cold steep in the fridge for 24 or so hours. This method of extracting the flower flavor I think is the best. The cold temp successfully grabs the flower essence without taking on any planty or bitter flavors from the other plant parts, but also means you don’t have to be too thorough when removing the green parts.

Strain & measure your perfumed water. Add equal parts sugar and set them to simmer to not only reduce to a syrup but to concentrate the flower flavor. 

When you get to the consistency of syrup you desire, you can hot-bath can it in a mason jar or just store it in the fridge for quite a while, however be careful, making a little spritzer with seltzer and a dash of fire water is what summer porch sitting is all about, and your flower syrup may disappear quicker than you thought.

Variations: Try steeping your flowers in cream to either spin into ice cream, or use it in your coffee for whatever the people are into these days- lavender latte?

An additional message from Dry Pittsburgh: Let winter get jealous when you pull out your dandelion or rose petals for scones, or other favorite baked good. Dried petals are the champion of brightening up deep winter baking. Why not fill up your cupboard now? If you’re into pickling dandelion blossoms but hate separating them from the green parts just let them dry and the petals pull out with ease.

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.

Smoked & Marinated Smelt

fish

Reminiscent of your favorite canned fish, this recipe is a nice smokey bite to add to so many meals, its even great for fishing out for a snack.

Soak thawed (if frozen) fish in a brine of 3/4 water & 1/4 apple cider vinegar, garlic, salt, and honey to taste, for ~3 hours in the fridge. (Generally for a quart it’ll be a tablespoon salt and a teaspoon of honey with 1 smashed garlic clove.)

A nice trick is to get together the salt, honey, and garlic and add enough piping hot water for it to dissolve, then finish topping it off with cold water so the brine is ready immediately.

Strain and pat the fish with a towel and leave uncovered to dry in the fridge for a couple hours. The smoke sticks best to things tacky to the touch.

Smoke the smelt for ~30 minutes at 175 degrees, or until done. Be careful to not overcook or they will dry out quickly.

In a jar add garlic clove, herbs like thyme, a piece of dried hot pepper, a slice of lemon, and whatever else strikes you. Pack in the smoked fish and cover with olive oil.

Store in the fridge and enjoy on bread with kraut and cream cheese.

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.

Our Three Favorite Subsistence Crops

farm, homesteading

Making lists is silly but we did it anyway here because we think there’s some real value in turning people’s attention to the foundations of feeding yourself in our geography where growing tomatoes in your garden is far more popular. Even if you don’t have the space to produce that much food you can still save the seed and pick up the rhythm.

All three of these crops provide a certain degree of simplicity and reliability. They also are generally low maintenance all the way from sowing to harvest, at a home scale require no special equipment to process, while also being straight-forward to store for the winter and having endless uses in the kitchen. Though if I had to pick a favorite crop it would be onions, which brings up another curious point for another day- should your favorite food take priority as your top subsistence food?

Beans

Beans are very easy to grow. Direct sow after the frost up until early June for most varieties. Seed in rows 8″ apart and cultivate once or twice until the bean canopy fills in. Watch out for groundhogs. Leave out until plants dry in the field, but not too long or the pods may mold or shatter. They produce a reliable seed. Bush are easiest to harvest, there is a node at their base you can use snips and clip them at, hauling out the whole plant. For larger plots I’ve taken to coming in with the scythe when the bean pods are about halfway to dry. It’s an efficient way to harvest big patches without shattering too many pods. Climbing beans are more work to harvest.

I’ve learned to finish drying out the beans under a cover in the open like an open barn, porch, or shed, in a pile turning it occasionally to prevent molding. I’ve noticed that the longer you wait to thresh them the easier it is. Most of my beans I’ll wait to thresh until a hot dry day in the spring. And when that time comes they are easy to break with your feet alone, and winnowing is a breeze. At that point they are ready for storage in buckets or other containers that seal out the moths.

Potatoes

Potatoes are wonderful because they can be grown lazily. Put a potato in the ground and get more potatoes. It can be as simple as kicking a little soil over them. Dig trenches if you’re a go-getter and drop them in every foot or so. Look for storage varieties to get through the winter. I use a poor storage type that I think is delicious, maybe the seeds are slowly adapting. When I plant those varieties I just say I’m planting pre-sprouted potatoes. Cultivating can be as easy as hilling them a couple times with a rake, or as many times as you can manage. Voles may gnaw on them but otherwise hopefully they’re left alone. It’s possible to get an abundant harvest in smaller space, around a pound per a potato seed. When the green arial parts die back it’s time for harvest. If the soil is loose enough it could even be done with hands, though a shovel works so long as you don’t slice into them. After harvesting make sure your potatoes are exposed to the least amount of sunlight as possible so they don’t turn green. Let them cure for a week at ambient room temperature, then move them to a cool, dark space.

Corn

I set out to grow wheat as my primary grain initially but ultimately fell in love with field corn which could be either flint or dent. I think the big difference is in harvesting and processing the grains. Corn requires much less labor to get to your plate, and no special equipment. Comparatively to wheat I love the ease of threshing corn. I like to nixtamalize my corn in huge batches and have it on hand as dried hominy. While wet in the nixtamalizing process it can be mashed up for easy masa without a mill. Field corn does require a minimum amount of plants to achieve pollination as its wind pollinated. Four rows at least 4′ long are recommended as a minimum. It also need a lot of nitrogen in the soil to be happy. Depending on your variety sow corn in rows 2- 4′ apart, around 8-12″ apart. Hill and feed with nitrogen as the plants reach your shins. Cultivate a round or two until the canopy fills in, then wait for the plants to die back. The corn is ready when the kernels can’t be dented with a fingernail. Then just pull them off the plants, husk them and give them a good ventilated place to dry. I’ll hang mine, tying them up by the husks, either indoors or outside under a pop tent. After a few weeks of drying they get either bagged up or threshed and stored in a bucket away from mice and moths.

Homemade Black Garlic

Vegetable Fermentation

Black Garlic is a product of the Maillard Reaction (when sugars and amino acids are exposed to sustained high heat) and is an exciting addition to year’s pantry. The process is very simple. The garlic is wrapped to retain its moisture then held at 135- 170 degrees F for 30-60 days. The long slow heat gives it a distinct black color and deep flavor, while concentrating the sugars.

Process

Wrap the garlic.

There are a couple ways to do this. The above picture shows a vacuum sealer but it also works just as well to wrap the garlic in a couple layers of plastic wrap, or to pop it into a jar or tupperware container. The goal is that it doesn’t lose its moisture while on the extended warm journey.

While not usually a huge fan of speciality equipment, the vacuum sealer has become a handy tool in the journey to preserve food, especially when not another jar could fit on the shelf. They are commonly sold at big stores these days.

Keeping Warm

The garlic will need consistent heat for anywhere from 30- 60 days. A dehydrator is the best way I’ve found to do this. Depending on how the garlic is wrapped the garlicy odor can be powerful. The first time I did this I used the cheapest dehydrator I could find, wrapped my garlic in plastic wrap, and placed everything outside against the house in a nest of blankets and tarps. It was November and notes of roasted garlic wafted through the neighborhood all month long.

With a couple upgrades, such as the vacuum sealer, no smell is present and the dehydrator can be hidden away in some corner easily indoors.

Temperature and Time

There is some play possible in how you chose to proceed with time and temperature. Temperature may be determined by the limitations of your heating method. Intuitively we know that lower temperatures will take longer and higher temperatures will take a shorter amount of time. Holding the garlic at 135- 140 degree F can take upwards of 60+ days to achieve the desired color development, while 195 degrees F can take maybe 20 days. Sometimes it’s helpful to know there’s more than one route to get there.

A very helpful study done by a group of researchers has noted that garlic held at 160 degrees F for about 40 days scored highest in their sensory evaluation. Check it out here.