Food 0.001 – pickling is old school

September 14, 2008 in Gardening, Humble Garden, vegetable


I have been looking forward to doing this project for several years. I have distinct memories of when I was a child in Iowa, down in our basement in the bathroom we always hid in when the tornado sirens went off several times a summer. In that bathroom, near the shower, was an antique crock that was filled with little pickling cucumbers that were floating in this fascinating brine. A plate was put on top to keep the pickles from floating onto the surface.

I remember what it smelled like – a very distinct pickle aroma that makes my mouth water as I write this. I remember also being captivated by the scum that would float on the top and how it was ok that this scary odd concoction was being grown in OUR basement and by MY mother to be eaten by US kids.

Humble Garden: lactofermented organic homegrown pickles

I say that pickles are old school because there are records of pickles going back 4400 years to Mesopotamia. If you follow this link to the Wiki page on pickles you will learn that pickling has been a strategy used by humans for a long time and also by peoples across the globe.

  • Aristotle of Ancient Greece (1100 BC – 146 BC) promoted pickles for their health promoting effects
  • People on the move with mouths to feed figured out that pickles were a GOOD THING to have – Julius Caesar‘s army ate them but likely didnt understand that it was the vitamin C in the pickles that saved them from scurvy

Pickles have been immensely popular for 1000s of years across Asia, from India to China to Japan. Each region has its own special character and history. Each type of pickle is like a barometer of local authenticity.

What you likely do NOT know about pickles is that what you think of as pickles, those mass produced jarred pickles in the hot dog section of the grocery store are very little like the ones of history and do not possess the health promoting qualities attributed to pickled foods through the ages.

Humble Garden: lactofermented organic homegrown pickles

The difference is a matter of temperature and time, namely pasteurization and lactofermentation.

Most of us know what pasteurization is – the process of heating liquids for the purpose of destroying bacteria, protozoa, molds, and yeasts. (WIKI) We know that it is used to “make safe” our milk supply. This method has been used to “clean” up a vast majority of our foods that we buy from the store.

This is all new school – it was applied to our milk back in the time around 1900 (see this link about this whole saga) when milk production was industrialized and the dairies were crashing from management issues (conditions just like CAFOs today – crap in crap out).

Cows were fed the mash from nearby distilleries, cramped into standing room only pens with crap piled knee high and never cleaned, untested workers (think tuberculosis) worked in slavery like conditions – people and cows alike dropped like flies due to the conditions.

To be able to utilize the milk, which was burdened with e coli, brucellosis, tuberculosis, high cell counts from udder disease (mastitis) pasteurization was used.

Humble Garden: organic homegrown lactofermented sauerkraut

This same broad spectrum bacterial killing method is now used in pickle making. Whats more, because bacteria are “bad guys” (ignoring the fact that our bodies are made up of something like 10% bacterial mass) pickles are not allowed to go down the fermentation route – they are pickled with vinegars or industrially produced lactic acids.


Lactofermentation is what has historically been used to make things like wine, beer, and pickles. Its what you get when you take a raw vegetable from the garden, add some salt, and then let it sit at room temperature a couple of days and then put it in the root cellar (fridge).

At first, there is a broad spectrum of bacteria and molds and yeasts, just like on your skin (no matter how many showers you take) in the jar.

Then a dance takes place.

Bacteria are like us – they care about where they live. For them it is life and death tho. Certain types of bacteria can live with oxygen, some can not tolerate oxygen at all. Some like low pH others need high pH. It goes on.

Humble Garden: organic homegrown lactofermented sauerkraut

Bacteria are used to living in a menacing environment and have evolved ways to compete. They may produce poisons that kill off predators or they may change the oxygen composition or they may change the pH.

If you culture your lactoferment in a certain environment (certain pH, oxygen concentration, temperature) then you encourage some bacterial species and not others.

Humble Garden: organic homegrown lactofermented sauerkraut

This is the art of non-toxic non-lethal very delicious lactofermentation.

Doing lactofermentation in the post-pasteurization post-modern world requires you to take a leap of faith in our ancestors or to read a bit about science and trust your eyes and the collective wisdom of your ancestors.

To successfully venture into the delights of fermentation, I think that you have to be the following:

  • be ready to experiment
  • be willing to fail
  • be curious
  • be a foodie
  • be stubborn

You can learn a whole lot about lactofermentation from Sally Fallon in her book “Nourishing Traditions” and also from Sandor Ellix Katz at Wild Fermentation.

You will find a strong anti-germ theory running through a lot of this.

As a scientist, I can tell you one VERY important take home message – absolutism is foolish and will never serve you well. Its absolutism that has created our industrialized society (along with expensive lobbyists who have pushed massive regulation of food production so that the little farm cannot compete).

It is an absolutist mindset that will reject all germs and it is the same core absolutist mindset that will reject all regulations.

Don’t get caught up in the War of Germs or Anti-Raw Milk.

Moderation is key.

Follow what the germs themselves tell you. Equilibrium with functional moderation leads to a healthy ecosystem and a healthy body.

Delve into lactofermentation, make some pickles, sauerkraut, beet kvass, beer, wine, eat them raw, but also, clean that cut, take a shower, sterilize your bathroom for goodness sakes.

I am not going to give you recipes for these pickles because I think that people need to do some reading on the basics, learn about the lactofermentative process, learn what its supposed to look like when its going well and when its going UN WELL (its pretty obvious).

I have shared shots here of our pickles and sauerkraut. They were all made recently so its not time to taste yet.

I CAN tell you tho that the smell is HEAVENLY! I can’t wait to dig in!

Humble Garden: organic homegrown lactofermented sauerkraut

Ask yourself: Are organic veggies BETTER than conventional?

August 25, 2008 in farm, Food Science, ingredient, issues, vegetable


(This is what you are really getting with conventional and Big Ag Organic food – depleted foods)

Who has not stood before a pile of organic vegetables or fruits and compared their price to the price of the conventionally grown ones next to it? Who has not asked, on some level, is there some real qualitative difference? You likely appreciate the lack of chemicals used to grow it – artificial fertilizers and pesticides made from petroleum.

This question – “Are organic vegetables BETTER than conventional ones?” can catch you because there are several assumptions that are meant to trip you up.

Our first broccoli, for supper tonight

Not all organic growers are the same, what the USDA means by Organic may not square with your idea of it, the USDA is known for letting certain things slide for Big Ag, and many other system issues that have been purposefully institutionalized.

You may also assume that “Organic Food” is more wholesome too.

Merriam Webster defines wholesome this way:

  • Pronunciation: \hōl-sÉ™m\
  • Function: adjective
  • Date: 13th century
  • 1: promoting health or well-being of mind or spirit
  • 2: promoting health of body
  • 3 a: sound in body, mind, or morals b: having the simple health or vigor of normal domesticity
  • 4 a: based on well-grounded fear : prudent -a wholesome respect for the law- b: safe (it wouldn’t be wholesome for you to go down there — Mark Twain)

Unless you are standing in a farmer’s market where the veggies or fruits are honestly sourced from a local small holding organic farm, the organic items in question – in the big box grocery store – are likely to have MUCH more in common with the conventional ones.

How is this possible?

Big Organic growers grow their plants with the same industrial model as Big Agriculture – huge carbon foot print and constant destruction of the soils.

Depleted Soils

Soil, or dirt as some may think of it, is not just powdery minerals. It is a complex mixture that includes those minerals from long eroded rocks but also organic residues from all the activity that has happened in the soil.

Those organic residues can include:

  • Living and degrading plant debris
  • Living and degrading insect and animal bodies
  • Living and degrading bacterial populations
  • Living and degrading mushrooms (mycelium –mushroom roots-, and mushroom fruiting bodies, even spores)

The activities of these living things lend structure to the soil (different zones of life, mineralization, compaction, oxygen levels, nitrogen levels, moisture levels) and also help by making certain compounds, elements, minerals, available, things like:

  • Plant-usable nitrogen (nitrogen fixation via bacterial-root-rhizome symbiosis)
  • Vitamin production
  • Plant-usable forms of elements like calcium, phosphates, and other more rare types.

Our first broccoli!

(Ready to scarf fresh picked veggies)

When soils are plowed, the structure is obliterated and whole communities of plants, mushrooms and bacteria and insects are disrupted, killed, inhibited. They can no longer transmute atmospheric nitrogen and soil-locked minerals and organic debris into nutrients for plants.

The good stuff in the soil is also exposed to the harsh sun, rains, winds – all depleting the soils even further.

Our present day industrial Big Agriculture requires MASSIVE amounts of oil, mechanical toil, and amendments (also dependent on oil for their very manufacture) to compensate for the damage that plowing does to the soils.

Consider these stats:

Raw Broccoli

  • From 1963 to 1999:
  • calcium went from 103 mg/100g sample down to 48 mg/100g sample
  • potassium went from 382 down to 325 mg/100g sample
  • Water content went from 89.1% up to 90.6%

Red Tomatoes

  • From 1963 to 1999:
  • calcium went from 13 mg/100g sample down to 5 mg/100g sample
  • magnesium went from 14 mg/100g sample down to 11 mg/100g sample
  • potassium went from 244 down to 33 mg/100g sample

Raw Carrots

  • From 1963 to 1999:
  • calcium went from 37 mg/100g sample down to 27 mg/100g sample
  • magnesium went from 23 mg/100g sample down to 15 mg/100g sample
  • potassium went from 341 down to 323 mg/100g sample

On top of this soil holocaust, you have genetically modified plants (via breeding and the lab) that have been optimized for the industrial method and which are able to grow in depleted soils.

What you get are vegetables which LOOK like a carrot, a cabbage, a head of broccoli, corn, cucumbers, etc but if you were to measure the mineral and vitamin contents you would find something closer to a wet soggy sponge.

Humble Garden: goliath broccoli

(Ready to eat!)

Let me repeat: Big Organic growers grow their plants with this same Big Ag industrial model – huge carbon foot print and destruction of the soils.

What this means to you at the store, is that when you buy Organic, you are buying a compromised promise of pesticide purity but not wholesomeness. You are buying simulations of vegetables.

Taking vitamins will not solve this problem because they are based on a false premise. Many vitamins are not absorbable by the human body unless they are embedded within the context of food (be it plant or flesh).

The only way to resolve this issue (and just how many diseases arise from our bodies being depleted almost from the moment of conception) is to buy veggies from small farms that are practicing permaculture and organic gardening methods.

Better yet, learn how to get your own permaculture and organic garden beds going so that you can eat REAL vegetables with actual vitamins and minerals.

What a concept

If you are interested in learning how, visit my garden blog at Humble Garden and also ask me in comments.

Humble Garden: goliath broccoli

(Pretty darn big head of organic homegrown broccoli)

I Have a Bright Green Secret

May 23, 2008 in Gardening, Humble Garden, vegetable

Thanksgiving 2007: asparagus frond decor

(Asparagus fronds)

Can I tell you about a secret thing I learned recently?

We planted asparagus last year and this spring we have been sampling a few spears from the 1st year growth. The production quantity is meager in the first year so its sampling, by definition.

Asparagus and mozzarella stuffed blue cheese and basil hamburgers

(Grilled asparagus)

No, thats not the secret.

Garden Project: Asparagus bed

(Asparagus crowns before being covered with soil)

Let me tell you the secret now. Homegrown asparagus is as different from store-bought as a rainbow is to the pitch black of a new moon night.

My vocabulary for flavor is just unprepared for the job of describing the difference between freshly picked, homegrown asparagus versus the poor things at the big box grocery store that has been soaking in germy water for days, traveling unknown miles. That asparagus is also bred specifically for putting up with the rigors of early picking, bruisy travel, oxidation, and temperature changes – all so that the poor defeated spears can sit on the grocery store shelves in pallid water until you pick them up, dump them in a bag, drag them home, and put them into your fridge for some short period of time. They are also likely grown on mineral and micro-nutrient depleted soils, leaving them mere simulations of asparagus.

Another secret – the flavor of the asparagus changes if you taste the stem versus the tip.

Garden Project: Asparagus bed

(Asparagus bed)

The main aspects of intact homegrown asparagus flavor include:

  • complexity
  • no bitterness
  • vegetal sweetness
  • a unique asparagus favor that is present in store-bought but which is divine in it’s purity

Garden Project: asparagus tops

(First year growth)

As you nibble your way to the tip, it becomes sweeter and more tender. If you are not paying attention, it is gone before you have had a chance to really appreciate the flavor.

Just like all of life right?

Its especially dear if you grow it yourself and you know it will be a whole year until the next chance to have such delicious flavors.

In terms of cooking, I would recommend a quick blanch, chill, and then a quick warm up in a bit of melted butter. There is no need to add anything besides a sprinkle of salt.

Let the asparagus sing to your soul.

Homegrown Potato Satori

October 19, 2007 in breakfast, vegetable

homegrown organic potatoes and egg with leaves

Egg, potato, Nabisco Crown Pilot cracker

Yikes, I have been so blocked with both of my blogs this past week. I can not put my finger on exactly why but that is the way writing is. For me its a double block because its both writing and shooting. Part of the problem, I think, is that the baby is starting to fight one of his naps so my writing time has been severely curtailed. Now the baby goes to sleep just as the middle child comes home from preschool. *sighs* I also am finding that shooting is more difficult because the baby and the middle one have decided that they must throw tantrums when I set up for a shot and that they need to scream the entire time I am shooting. I have said this before, while other photographers have to worry about the food looking stale in their shots, I have to shoot as fast as humanly possible in fears of hyperventilation and loss of 1 and 4 year old mental competence. Peace returns when the setup is put away. Gotta find a way around this problem. So, all excuses aside, I am trying to fight my way out of the double block, lets hope this post comes off ok!

On top of all of THAT, I am resisting this massive urge to write this post-modernist post-feminist paean to how my life has been impacted so utterly by the karma of the 1960s and the 1970s. I just watched the season finale of “Mad Men“, my favorite show, and I feel twisted up with conflictions around who I wanted to be and who I AM and who I want my kids to be and worry about what they may turn out to be. I won’t write it here, its off topic. But I do have to say that food plays a part of it but I am more concerned about the messy state of my kitchen and what that says about me than my ability to make puff pastry.

Back to the food.

We are finally starting to dig up some of our homegrown straw bale organic potatoes. I think next year we will be planting them in the ground because the straw doesn’t protect the tubers from the rodentia so we are getting some losses. We have also not gotten nearly as as many potatoes as we should have per plant.

Garden Project: KD with new potatoes

KD with newly harvested homegrown organic potatoes

If you have never eaten fresh out-of-the-ground potatoes then you have never eaten potatoes, period. They taste so fantastic, so perfect, the true realization of potato goodness.

Garden Project: new potatoes

All sizes

I decided to make an autumn themed breakfast sort of celebration of potatoes.

I heated some olive oil, added some turmeric and salt, added some sweet onion, and then the sliced potatoes. Sauteed them until they were crispy and brown.

For the egg, I separated the yolk from the white. I heated some olive oil to about low medium and then submerged the yolk in the oil. Its a sort of yolk confit I guess. I put the white in a pan with olive oil and allowed it to harden on a low heat. I used a leaf cookie cutter and cut out some egg white leaves for garnish. I am not so sure I like the yolk preparation, I like mine much less done.

I served this all on one of my all time favorite things that are not really that good for me, a Nabisco Crown Pilot Cracker. I can not explain WHY I like these crackers so much, they just have this satisfying flavor. I had no idea that they were a New England obsession until I googled it. Check it out.

homegrown organic potatoes and egg with leaves