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To ferment or not to ferment?

10 Mar

Here’s the thing: I love beer. I love wine. Fermented beverages such as these have a special place in my heart (and my liver). So when fermented food started popping up on my radar in the last few years, I decided to have an open mind. Fermented foods aren’t even that far outside the mainstream of American food culture, if you consider the popularity of pickled cucumbers.

However, I don’t actually love the flavor of pickles and other veggies fermented in vinegar, so I decided to give the recipes in Nourishing Traditions that use water, salt and whey to ferment food a try. I started basic, with cabbage and carrots.

Sauerkraut

I used a cabbage, 1 tbs salt, 1 tbs caraway seeds, and 4 tbs whey (yes, I made my own whey, which is probably the most out there hippie thing I’ve done in a while but I kind of love it and I’ll get to why in an upcoming post).

Ginger Carrots

For these I used a big bag of carrots, 1 tbs fresh ginger, 1 tbs sea salt, and 4 tbs whey.

The process is pretty simple. You chop up the veggie (I grated the carrots), mix it with the other ingredients and then pound the heck out of it until it releases juice. A great arm work out! Then you pack it down tight tight tight in the jar, cover it, and leave it on the counter for a few days.

Guess what? When you ferment food it bubbles just like beer does during fermentation! Amazing.

After a few days at room temperature, it goes in the fridge. I gotta tell you, the cabbage smelled pretty gross to me at this point. I wondered if maybe something had gone wrong? I left both jars in the fridge for a week and after that the cabbage returned to smelling normal. It tastes like sauerkraut. The ginger carrots have a more complex flavor. Both are clearly best as condiments. I ate the ginger carrots with left over beer bourguignon and the combination was fantastic.

Am I sold on fermenting my own veggies? Not really. I like both of them just fine, but my life is not changed by them in the way it was by my now beloved homemade almond milk or even the whey (I’ll get to it, I promise). Maybe someday when I fulfill my dream of having my own garden and I have surplus veggies to deal with. But for now, as an apartment dweller who buys her fresh produce on an as-needed basis, I am not so convinced I should be going out of my way to ferment my food.

This reveals a personal quirk of my own food philosophy, which is that I’m only really willing to go to the extra trouble if I perceive it to be “worth it” or if a commercially produced alternative is not available or far inferior. For instance, I am all about making my own pie crust because there is just something so satisfying and irreplaceable about a flaky, homemade crust. But I am also a big supporter of farms and ranches using humane husbandry practices because I would like to continue to enjoy a nice steak now and then, but goodness knows I am not interested in raising, slaughtering, and processing my own cattle.

I’ll continue trying out food experiments like fermentation, and even returning to them if my life circumstances suggest I give something another chance, but in the end not all of them are going to speak to me or become regular projects in my kitchen. For now, in terms of fermentation, my heart still belongs to adult beverages.

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Food Philosophy (beta)

4 Mar

The main reason I have been cooking more in recent years is because I am on something of a journey to develop my own food philosophy. Though I didn’t really think of it in terms of a food philosophy at the time, the first stage on this journey was when I became a vegetarian in college. It was the first truly intentional decision I made about food for myself. At the time, if I thought about it at all, I still believed that food choices had to fit neatly into prescribed categories. This was well before Omnivore’s Dilemma was published and that term was not one I was familiar with yet. In my mind it was carnivore, vegetarian, or vegan. And even beyond that there were people who ate “health food” and people who ate “junk food.” Everything was hard lines and strict boundaries. College was the first time I really became aware of the problems with the factory farm industry. The solution? I assumed it was vegetarianism. It made sense at the time, for where I was knowledge wise and development wise, but it did turn out to be the wrong choice for me. Here’s why: 1) I like meat. I mention this because I think preference matters. People vary a lot on the kinds of food they enjoy, and even how much they care/enjoy food in general. I both care about and enjoy food immensely, and more specifically I like and crave flesh as food. 2) The problems with factory farms do not end at animals raised for meat. To truly protest the existence of factory farms via abstinence, one needs to be vegan. Read up on the plight of egg-laying hens for an example of why this is true. 3) Abstaining from meat products is not the only way to protest the factory farm industry. An alternative is to not buy or consume products from factory farms, and furthermore to actively buy products from farms that practice more humane and sustainable forms of animal husbandry.

My vegetarianism came to an end with the end of college, and the exact reasons I gave it up could fill their own post (maybe I’ll write that one eventually). What followed was a period of “anything goes” omnivory, during which I continued to feel like a hypocrite for being against factory farming but financially supporting the industry. It felt like a catch-22 to me, which forced me to start thinking much more actively about food. During this time I read books like the Omnivore’s Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and started learning more and more about the omnivorous ways to support changes in agriculture. I also had numerous conversations with people all over the food spectrum about their food philosophies. The very idea of a food philosophy came to me quite gradually as a result of seeing how extremely diverse and deeply personal people’s food choices really are. Food politics can get as divisive as true politics or religion. Common ground gets lost under surface differences in the food choices people make. Food is at once very personal and highly communal, which makes it a tricky issue to navigate. I have come to recognize that categorical thinking is counterproductive for my own food philosophy. I prefer fuzzier boundaries. But at the same time, I still respect people who find the hard boundary approach works for them. Sally Fallon perfectly captures my position on food politics in the introduction to her cookbook Nourishing Traditions; “The challenge to every individual is to determine the diet that is right for him and to implement that diet in a way that does not divorce him from the company of other human beings at mealtimes.”

So that is where I am right now, trying to determine the diet that is right for me. I’m taking an empirical approach to this process, by cooking and eating all sorts of foods and paying attention to how they make me feel both physically but also morally. For example, I’ve discovered that cooking food from scratch makes me feel incredibly virtuous, even if that is absurd because I am cooking pie or some equally unhealthy, sinful food product. I’m okay with this, I enjoy the psychological benefit even though I recognize its objective falsehood. Because I no longer follow any particular dietary guidelines, it becomes rather challenging to sum up my own food philosophy succinctly. I am an omnivore, but I am constantly trying to find new and awesome vegan recipes. I believe in humane, sustainable and local food production and I put my money where my mouth is by buying high-welfare animal products and local products whenever possible. I aim for a variety of whole, minimally processed foods. I don’t count calories, I do soak and sprout my grains, make my own chicken broth, and try anything from scratch even when it would be easier and cheaper to buy the pre-processed, pre-made, pre-packaged alternative. Simply put, I love food and I spend a great deal of my time, energy, and money on eating the best* food I can.

*where best = some combination of subjective preference and current objective understanding of nutrition and food ethics.