We are definitely back in the land of the living here at Mucky Boots, after about ten days' worth of coughing and wheezing and feeling miserable. Kim ended up with pneumonia, and my asthmatic lungs were crackling so loudly my doctor didn't know what to call it, but today we are both feeling human again.
Maybe because of that emphatic reminder of how awful it is to be sick, or maybe because my cold-deadened taste buds needed reawakening, I woke yesterday morning convinced that there was nothing more important on my to-do list than gearing up production again in the Mucky Boots Fermentation Factory.
The health benefits of fermented foods are well known. By introducing probiotics into the digestive system they not only help us get the full nutritional benefits of the food we eat, they can help the immune system and play a role in fighting chronic diseases, among other things. Plus they taste great.
I've had some spectacular successes fermenting food (sauerkraut and deli pickles) and some spectacular failures (broken glass in the sauerkraut, and a batch of unintentional sauerkraut wine). Sure, the fermentation disasters bummed me out, but yesterday when I woke up craving the sour bite of home-brewed sauerkraut, I realized those unhappy memories had faded into oblivion and I was ready to try again.
Just a few hours and a lot of chopping later, the kitchen counter looked less like a place to make toast and tea, and more like the site of a science experiment, with three different fermentation projects on the go. A big crock of sauerkraut, of course. But also, for the first time, a smaller batch of kimchi, that potent mix of fermented vegetables my Korean students used to obsess over.
To make kimchi, add a few chopped carrots and radishes to a chopped head of Napa cabbage. (I also added some locally harvested kelp.) Cover with brine, weigh down with a plate and leave it overnight. The next day drain the vegetables, saving the brine. Make a paste of chopped onions and garlic, grated ginger, and some fresh or dried hot peppers (I did this in my food processor), add it to the drained cabbage mixture, and then tamp it all down in a jar or crock. Weigh down the top with a plate or jar and add as much of the reserved brine as needed to make sure the vegetables are all submerged. Cover with a clean cloth to keep the bugs out but let the bacteria in. Taste it every day until you're happy with the flavour - this could take as little as a week in warm weather - and then store it in the fridge.
The third project now fermenting away on the counter is kombucha - a fizzy, slightly-sweet-slightly-tart fermented tea that many people drink as a detoxifier. I can buy it in 16 ounce bottles at my local health food stores, but at $3.95 a pop, that adds up. With a "mother" (an established kombucha culture sometimes called a scoby) it's apparently as easy as pie to brew up a couple of gallons of the stuff in 10-12 days, for only the cost of a few tea bags and a little bit of sugar to feed the bacteria.
The hard part is finding a scoby in the first place. If you're lucky enough to know a fermentation master with their own scoby, bring them a batch of home baking and they will probably give you a daughter scoby from the next batch of kombucha they make.
I'm not so lucky. I'm not sure I even know anyone who knows what kombucha is. Enter one of my favourite new blogs, Food Renegade, where Kristin gives instructions for growing a scoby using a purchased bottle of raw, organic kombucha. Unfortunately I failed to read the instructions carefully enough, and came home with kombucha adulterated with other ingredients: ginger juice in the case of one bottle, and spirulina in the other. I decided to give it a go anyway - the worst that happens is the loss of two perfectly good bottles of a tasty, refreshing drink.
One of the issues with fermenting here at Mucky Boots is how cool our house is. This isn't a problem for many things - in fact, some people believe a slower, cooler ferment results in a more flavourful outcome. But the recommended temperature for growing a kombucha scoby is 25 - 30 degrees Celsius. Our kitchen is 15 degrees on a good day. So I brought in an unused heat mat from the greenhouse and put the kombucha jars on top. This could just end up cooking the whole mixture instead of helping it ferment, so between this and the adulterated kombucha I started with, I don't have high hopes for this experiment. But I already have Plan B in my back pocket: purchasing a scoby online (which convinces me all over again that you can find anything on the internet...)
And so here they are: two jars of kombucha and one of kimchi, all lined up on the counter.
Don't they look like the Three Wise Men from a school nativity play?