Over a decade ago I met a social scientist who was trying to track how and why people share medical advice and beliefs. She studied the still very young Facebook to see what kinds of articles or blogs got shared and reposted, trying to discern the pattern of social distribution of medical knowledge.
What intrigued me about her work was the sudden realization that, in some way, we are all our own doctors now. We believe what we choose to believe about medicine, and discard or ignore the rest. There are no omniscient authorities anymore. I don’t think this is due to the inroads of quacks, or American individualism gone to extremes. It’s more a matter of how confidence in the medical establishment has been shattered among those who continue to be sick, overweight, and uncomfortable despite their obedience to the old rules. I gather there is even a growing crisis within the sciences themselves, as the repeatability of experiments proves more elusive in matters of health and psychology than previously acknowledged, not to mention a fresh appreciation of the incredible complexity of natural systems—from the whole planet’s climate to the biome of our guts—that makes testing for single variables difficult, if not downright misleading.
Truth be told, this is just a long-winded and semi-apologetic preface to my own bit of somewhat arbitrary, selective medical wisdom. In short: your gut will feel better if you feed it home-fermented foods.
I should rephrase that: my gut feels better when I eat home-fermented foods, and this is no small thing, as I have long had a very moody gut. You don’t need to know more about it; suffice it to say there’s good reason my favorite theologian is Martin Luther. But he probably ate his sauerkraut cooked to death instead of raw and alive. The benefit of home-fermented foods is that they seem to stack your gut with the right kind of bacteria and yeasts, which in turn crowd out the nasty ones.
Fermentation has gotten sexy in the past few years. I came to it a long while back via my first taste of Korean food and the corresponding unavailability of kimchi (at the time). I found a recipe for it, and Andrew and I loved the results so much that our house has hardly been without a jar of the strong, smelly stuff ever since. If you are an afficionado of spicy and/or Asian food, this is your gateway drug.
I know what you’re thinking: home-fermented foods are probably no more safe than illegal drugs. Let me reassure you. Nobody can get interested in fermentation without sooner or later running across Sandor Katz, the true lactic acid revolutionary. His magnum opus covers every possibility, including such alarming things as “high meat.” It’s a great read and has lots of great suggestions—he doesn’t really do recipes per se—but the most important thing I took away from the book is that there is no case in recorded U.S. medical history of anyone being hospitalized due to eating their own salt-fermented vegetables. You can do yourself some damage with dairy products or botched canning (though has that ever stopped you from making jelly?), but not with raw veg. So let that set your anxieties to rest.
Kimchi is still my favorite, but the second-most likely ferment you will find in my fridge is preserved lemon. It’s popular in North African and Middle Eastern cooking, and it’s amazing—like lemons on steroids, or maybe lemons on ecstasy. It is lemon raised to the power of lemon.
My most recent discovery is a Japanese-style fresh pickle. Kimchi and preserved lemons hold a long time (and personally I like the kimchi better the stinkier it gets) but these Japanese pickles are light, refreshing, barely effervescent. And that’s no small thing, because I have historically detested cucumbers so much that my brother invented a comic strip character to illustrate the hostility between me and this dastardly vegetable. But the change may also be due to the fact that Japanese cucumbers are very small, slender, and not too seedy, lacking the mucus/caterpillar sent I detect in U.S. varieties.
If world travel is currently out of the question, you can at least make your grand tour riding on the winds of home fermentation. I promise you won’t die, and chances are you’ll even feel better.
This recipe is frankly an American corruption of the original, but I think it tastes better than anything you can buy. I eat with pretty much anything, though a favorite pairing is with a cheese omelette. It’s surprisingly good with raclette, too, should you ever stumble into a Korean-Swiss dinner party. Kosher salt is preferable because it doesn’t have iodine (which is antibacterial, defeating the purpose) but honestly I’ve made it work with regular table salt, too; just reduce the amount to about 3 Tbsp., though obviously proportions will depend somewhat on the size of your cabbage and radish. Fermentation is a good place to learn not to stress out about exactitude.
1 Napa cabbage, washed and cut into roughly 2” pieces
1 daikon radish, peeled and cut into ½” cubes
¼ c. kosher salt
1 c. water
1 head garlic, peeled and minced
1 big chunk ginger, peeled and minced
Korean red pepper flakes (gochugaru), to taste (start with ¼ c.)
large glass jars with rubber gaskets (like this Ikea version)
Put the cabbage and daikon in the hugest bowl you have, sprinkle with the salt, and pour over the water. Use your hands to toss well. (The natural bacteria and yeasts on your hands, as well as on the vegetables themselves, are exactly what you need to get it going. Don’t be grossed out, just think how convenient it is.) Cover with a towel and let sit overnight. Next day, mince the garlic and ginger and add it to the veg, which will have wilted like old flowers to a fraction of their original volume. Add the red pepper flakes and mix well. Transfer to the glass jars (this quantity fills about two 2-quart jars) and close up. Let sit at room temperature for one to several days until you see the bubbles rise up when you shake the jar. Be warned, in hot weather this can go very fast, and the pressurized liquid can spew even out from the gasket. (Ask my mother-in-law how many times I did this to her kitchen.) When it’s as ripe as you like, transfer to the fridge. It will continue to deepen in sourness and complexity even in the fridge, just slower, and unless it sprouts massive quantities of colorful fungus (which has never happened to me) it will pretty much never go bad.
The amazing thing about fermenting lemons is that it takes all the bitterness out of the peel and softens them to delicious edibility. Since the peel gets eaten, I try to use organic lemons for the actual fruit, though my spurious medical opinion (see caveat above) is that the bacteria and yeast eat all the nasty chemicals anyway, so you’ll survive if you use ordinary lemons. The juice to cover them needs to come from real lemon, not from a bottle, but it can be non-organic. As with kimchi, kosher salt is preferable, but not strictly necessary.
2 organic lemons
2–3 non-organic lemons
1 generous Tbsp. kosher salt
Cut the organic lemons into sixteenths (half, half again, each quarter into quarters). Place in the smallest glass container you have that will fit them (I use the kind with a plastic snap lid) and sprinkle over the salt (slightly less than 1 Tbsp. if you only have regular salt). Squeeze the other lemons and pour the juice over to cover or mostly cover the lemon pieces. Put the lid on and give a fervent shaking. Let sit at room temperature for about three days, shaking whenever you think of it. When they’re ready you’ll be able to bite into the rind without resistance and taste nothing but insanely good salty lemoniness. Excellent with vegetable stews, couscous, anything containing tomato, salads. Plus, the leftover liquid is better than straight lemon juice in pretty much any savory application.
This is the lowest-effort pickle in terms of equipment: I’ve been using an old plastic 16 oz. nut butter jar and just sticking in whatever fits. The only tricky thing to find, perhaps, is the kombu—stiff dried sea kelp—but most Asian and organic/health food stores will have it, and it keeps forever. (Image at top.)
Enough slender cucumbers to fit your container
small knob of ginger, sliced thin
1 or 2 dried red chilis
1 small square kombu (about 1”)
Wash, trim, and slice your cukes lengthwise to fit into your jar of choice. In the cracks shove in the ginger, chili, and kombu. Sprinkle 1 Tbsp. of kosher salt (slightly less of table salt) over the veg for each 16 oz. of volume in your receptacle. Top with water to cover, screw lid on tightly, and stick right in the fridge. This isn’t supposed to ferment as aggressively as the other two, since that would just make the cukes mushy. Eat as is like an instant salad with anything, or dress up with soy sauce and sesame oil for a more obviously Asian side dish.