Antici-pating our first spring vegetables and herbs, so delicate and transitory, I feel the energy whose lightness perfectly matches the fleeting quality of the season. Our time with these foods is short and sweet (or pungent, or thrillingly bitter). Fortunately, I love fermentation, an age-old method of food preservation that, through the dark winter, enables me to enjoy, transformed by microbiology and memory, the nourishing and delicious flavors of May.
Books and websites on fermentation abound (I particularly recommend Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation), so I’ll only hit the basics here. There’s a lot of science yet to be done, and some claims about the health benefits of fermented foods may not be well-founded. It’s clear, however, that fermentation makes foods easier to digest, produces essential vitamins, and can play a role in strengthening our immune system. It’s also clear that it’s very safe; the bacteria responsible for fermentation produce an environment that’s hostile to harmful microorganisms.
Best of all, it’s easy! All you need is a vessel, water (dechlorinated) and salt (free of any additional chemicals). My own preference is for glass canning jars whose removable rubber seal features a “tongue.” These allow the gas produced by fermentation to escape without letting any air in, eliminating the risk of mold. Ordinary canning jars are also fine. I don’t believe there’s any truly food-safe plastic, and prefer not to use it most of the time.
Start with a clean work area, tools and hands. Everything should be sanitary, but needn’t be sterile; hot, soapy water and cheap vinegar do the job. Rinse and chop your produce, pack as much as possible into your containers (leaving a little space at the top), and cover it with brine (salt dissolved in water). My rule of thumb is: make the brine justa little too salty, remembering that the end product will mellow.
Unless you have an airtight setup, you’ll need to keep your veggies submerged. Weigh them down with a chunk of vegetable, a clean stone, a bag full of brine... whatever makes sense. When you’ve packed and sealed your containers, label them, and store them away from direct sunlight, on something to catchany brine that leaks out. If using an ordinary jar, loosen the lid daily, at first, to release pressure. Then wait, anywhere from a few days to a couple of months, depending on the temperature and on how you like your ferment (three weeks is pretty usual). When it’s done, transfer it to the fridge, or to a cool cellar.
That’s really about all you need to get started! Here are some ideas for working with this spring’s early produce:
I love to ferment ramps, the amazing wild leek. I separate the leaves from the violet stems, preserving the leaves whole and the stems chopped. Use the leaves like herbs, or make a pesto. The stems are great in omelettes, sandwiches, salads, marinades and sauces. Fermentation brings out a lovely, lemony quality.
Slice and ferment green garlic on its own, or as a seasoning. I leave garlic scapes (the next stage in the growth of the plant) whole, gently bending them into rings as I pack the jar. I haven’t yet fermented sorrel—a tangy herb resembling baby spinach—but I’ve read about it, and will definitely include it in this year’s experiments. Toss chives and other spring herbs into ferments—their flavor generally softens over time, so try putting more in than you think you need.
I’ve had some success with dandelion, and want to explore fermenting leafy greens further—it’d be lovely to have nourishing local kales and chards around in the winter. Spring radishes keep beautifully, their persistent crispness and sharp flavor nicely balancing the sourness of the ferment. I like to slice them into fairly thin half-moons and add ginger or garlic and herbs.
Fermented asparagus is a treasure, more complex in flavor than its vinegar-based equivalent. Trim the bottom ends, making sure it fits upright into your vessel, adding herbs and pickling spices before the spears go in. Asparagus retains its crispness well, although I advise giving it a shorter fermentation period of only 3-10 days.
All these things combined would, I think, make a fabulous spring kimchi. I’m ready to get started, and hope you are too. Have fun, and happy spring!