Archive for November 2nd, 2012


How to Preserve Food Without Nutrient Loss

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

Anyone who cans their own tomatoes, apple sauce, pickles, or jams knows that the difference between these simple preserves and the chemical-laced stuff you can buy at the store is immense. The flavor of home-preserved vegetables and fruits so far surpasses that of mass-produced stuff there’s almost no comparison.

But even preserving food at home by canning in a hot water bath can denature and destroy certain nutrients. To get the absolute most out of your home harvest or CSA haul you should investigate traditional methods of food preservation such as fermentation, drying, salt-curing, storage in oil or sugar, and more.

These methods are simple, require no fossil fuels, and are just as safe as hot-water-bath canning.

The following excerpt from Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation by the Gardeners & Farmers of Terre Vivant, will introduce you to some of these methods.

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PRESERVATION WITHOUT NUTRIENT LOSS

Canning or freezing. With few exceptions, these seem to be our only choices when we want to enjoy ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables out of season. As it is used today, the word “preserves” (like the French word conserves) evokes little more than food in cans or jars, preserved through sterilization. However, the original sense of the word was much broader, encompassing all known methods of food preservation.

These days, frozen foods tend to replace canned and bottled goods, since foods lose fewer nutrients through cold than through heat. But freezing is not very satisfactory either: it is expensive, consumes a lot of energy, and destroys many of the vitamins. In the home kitchen, we observe the same development as we have seen in industry: Canning, which was very popular in the 1960s (country folks each with their own sterilizers, putting up their own green beans, shell peas, and tomatoes), has given way to freezing. Emerging relatively recently (sterilization in the nineteenth century, freezing in the twentieth century), these two processes have relegated traditional food-preservation methods to obscurity, if not complete oblivion, as their scope of application has dwindled away. By far, the best example of displacement is lactic fermentation. Formerly used to preserve all sorts of vegetables, it has survived solely for making sauerkraut, and at that, more for gastronomic reasons than as a preservation process in its own right.

Fortunately, the traditional methods of preservation still live on in the French countryside, although they are rapidly disappearing. There is a wealth of knowledge to be gathered here before it falls into anonymity. This, then, is one of the goals of this book. Nevertheless, far from presenting a study of “preservation ethnology,” this collection is meant to be a practical guide. Every recipe we have included is still in use; some have even been enhanced by the advent of new technology, such as high-performance solar dryers, and water-sealed lactic-fermentation jars.

STOPPING FOOD CONTAMINATION

Left on its own, most fresh food quickly becomes unfit for consumption. Food is biochemically altered, due to the action of enzymes, and provides microorganisms—primarily bacteria—with a fertile environment in which to grow. To prevent this process, the most radical method is simply to kill the microorganisms by placing the food in an airtight container, and then heating it to temperatures greater than 100°C/212°F for a sufficient length of time. This technique, discovered by Nicolas Appert at the beginning of the nineteenth century, gave birth to the canning industry as we know it today.

Other methods of preservation seek to prevent microorganisms from spreading, without necessarily killing them. If the temperature is too low, acidity too high, water content insufficient, or salt concentration too high, microbes simply cannot multiply. As it is equally effective to destroy microorganisms or inhibit their growth, the method chosen should be the one that best protects the appearance, flavor, and nutritional value of the food, without adding undesirable substances. Of course, no method is ideal: During any preservation process, some alteration of the food is unavoidable. Moreover, no one method has proven superior to all others in all cases. And so, for most foods, we have a variety of techniques to choose from, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

CHOOSING A METHOD OF PRESERVATION

Three methods overwhelmingly dominate the history of food preservation before the industrial age: cellar storage under cool, dark conditions, for certain fruits and winter vegetables (such as root vegetables, tubers, apples, and pears); drying, for fruit; and lactic fermentation for most other vegetables.

Natural-state preservation in a cellar is the most basic way to preserve foods that take well to this method. Although it is possible to dry apples and to lacto-ferment carrots, winter provisions have traditionally relied on apples stored in a cellar in their natural state, and carrots preserved likewise in a root cellar, or in the ground.

Nor is the choice between drying and lactic fermentation made arbitrarily. Experience has shown that dried fruits keep much better than most dried vegetables, retaining more flavor and vitamins due to their natural acidity. It is no coincidence that one of the few vegetables traditionally preserved by drying is the tomato, an acidic fruit-vegetable. As for lactic fermentation, people soon discovered that it was an unsuitable method for most fruit: Everyone knows that when fruit is fermented, we get alcoholic beverages.

Applications for the other methods of food preservation described in this book—sugar, salt, oil, vinegar, wine, and alcohol—are more limited, but certainly interesting nonetheless. For example, there are no substitutes for slow evaporation when preserving sugar-free jams, nor for oil and vinegar with herbs, salt with cod, and so on. In practice, the choice is often obvious, and simply depends upon the food to be preserved and its future culinary use.

ALTERING OR ENHANCING?

Inevitably, food is altered in the preservation process. However, unlike sterilization or freezing, many traditional methods do not necessarily mean a loss in flavor or nutritional value. Lactic fermentation, for example, enhances digestion and also increases the enzyme and sometimes the vitamin content, compared with the unfermented food. In other processes, the act of preserving often enhances the flavor of a food rather than its nutritional value. It might seem bizarre to preserve grapes in vinegar when this fruit keeps perfectly well by drying, but any gourmet will tell you that grapes in vinegar are divine with game or poultry.

Preserving basil in oil and vinegar serves two purposes: to preserve the flavor of this precious herb itself, and to impart its flavor to two ingredients used daily in cooking. And while drying preserves fruits, it also increases their sugar content, opening a new world of uses, such as sweetening desserts and certain beverages and providing energy-rich snacks for athletes. In bygone days, North Africans used raisins or dates, not cane sugar, to sweeten tea.

Over fifteen centuries ago, Hippocrates himself pointed out the positive effects of different preservation methods on the quality and properties of meat:

Meats preserved in wine become dry and are nourishing: they dry out because of the wine; they are nourishing because of the flesh. Preserved in vinegar, they ferment less, because of the vinegar, and are quite nourishing. Meats preserved in salt are less nourishing, as salt deprives them of moisture, but they become lean, dry out, and are sufficiently laxative.

The art of food preservation, which remains in part to be discovered, is this: For each food, use the method that not only best protects its nutritional value, but also enhances its flavor (and occasionally medicinal qualities), according to the eventual use we have in mind.

A NOTE ON FOOD SAFETY

Today, as home gardeners and cooks rediscover the joys of preserving, they often must confront a gap in cultural knowledge. Instead of turning to a parent or grandparent for advice, they turn to government agencies (chiefly the USDA) or to conventional books on canning, which advise sterilizing jars of food in either a boiling water bath or a pressure canner. However, as this book demonstrates, there are many traditional options for putting up fresh food that help food retain more of its flavor and nutritive value.

There is an important distinction to be made between sanitary and sterile conditions. Unless you live in an autoclave or hospital operating room, your kitchen (no matter how sanitary) will be far from sterile. Fortunately, absolute sterility isn’t necessary for most aspects of food preservation. For instance, though metal jar lids and tops will need to be boiled and sterilized, you can keep many disease-causing microbes in check simply by washing your hands frequently; by rinsing off raw foods; by thoroughly cleaning all utensils and cutting surfaces; and by following a few commonsense food safety guidelines (such as avoiding “cross-contamination” by using different utensils and surfaces to prepare raw meats and other foods).

In most (though not all) cases, food that has spoiled in storage should be readily apparent. Signs to look for include mold growing inside the lid of the container, on the food itself, or on the outside of the jar. Food that is badly discolored or darkened, or that is smelly or slimy, is likewise suspect and should be thrown away. When food is going bad, small bubbles may form inside a storage jar, and gas or liquid may escape in a rush when you unseal the container.

Remember that the point of preserving food is not to place it forever in suspended animation, but to extend the bounty of the fresh harvest season. Depending upon the type of food and the method of preservation used, this extension, or “shelf life,” might range from a few weeks to many months. Think of your pantry or cold cellar as a close cousin to the outdoor cold frame or unheated greenhouse—a simple, low-cost technology that can help you prolong the garden year and make the most of it. Many of the recipes in this book provide estimates on how long the prepared or stored foods will keep in good condition. Using this information, it’s possible to enjoy your preserved foods at their peak of flavor, just as you would fresh fruits and vegetables. Here’s to good food and good health!

Celebrate the Wort Moon: Make Your Own Root Beer!

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

Much of what we know about the moon consists of when it’s waning, when it’s waxing, and that a full moon makes people do strange things. And while it’s common knowledge (and not just on cheesy astrology websites) we have a connection to the moon, it’s hard to know exactly what it is, without sounding a bit like your crazy aunt who wears flowing glittery jumpsuits and calls herself by a Sanskrit nickname. But the moon is a dynamic and energetic force — especially when it comes to food.

Jessica Prentice, longtime chef and passionate food activist–not to mention the inventor of the word “locavore”–talks about the thirteen lunar cycles of an agrarian year, from the midwinter Hunger Moon and the springtime sweetness of the Sap Moon to the bounty of the Moon When Salmon Return to Earth in autumn. And now that it’s late summer, it means we’re living under the Wort Moon. The moon of making your own root beer.

The following is an excerpt from Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection by Jessica Prentice:

If they would eat nettles in March,
and drink mugwort in May,
so many fine maidens would not go to the clay.
—Funeral song of a Scottish mermaid

In late summer we enter the lunar phase known in sixteenth century England as the Wort Moon. Wort is a wonderfully old fashioned Old English word that has fallen into disuse, one that the dictionary calls “archaic.” Yet it is a word that beckons to me from history, a word that wants to be remembered.

The first definition for wort in the Oxford English Dictionary is “a plant, herb, or vegetable used for food or medicine; often = a potherb.” As early as 1605 the word wort was being replaced by the word herb, as is shown in a quote from that year: “Woortes, for which wee now vse the French name of herbes….” The word was still understood and used occasionally throughout the next centuries. In 1864: “We find the healing power of worts spoken of as a thing of course.” A love poem written in 1888 includes the delectable tidbit: “And worts and pansies there which grew / Have secrets others wish they knew.”

The original meaning of wort survives to this day in the names of many of our medicinal herbs. Saint-John’s-wort, still widely used today, is a beautiful yellow plant that was traditionally harvested on Saint John’s Day—which falls near the summer solstice. Many other medicinal herbs incorporate the word wort in their names, including lungwort, mugwort, motherwort, gipsywort, soapwort, masterwort, Indian birthwort, figwort, rupturewort, bairnwort, banewort, bloodwort, bridewort, cankerwort, clown’s woundwort, coughwort, feverwort, fleawort, glasswort, and dozens of others. In some cases the name gives a clue to how the herb is used: Lungwort makes a mucilaginous tea that soothes coughs; soapwort root is loaded with saponins, and is used in treating skin problems. But in others it can be misleading: Fleawort is so named not because it wards off fleas or cures fleabites, but because the seeds look like fleas!

The names of herbs possess much poetry. I also hear in their names a kind of ancestral memory— an ancient wisdom that wants to be remembered. The plants seem to be calling to me through their names. They remind me that once upon a time they were honored and valued; they were the primary source of healing. The herbs themselves and the gardens they grew in were our medicine chests, instead of today’s brand-named plastic bottles filled with pharmaceutical pills. Herbs were a part of daily life—a familiar, everyday, working knowledge— just as aspirin and vitamin C are to us today. The World Health Organization recently estimated that 80 percent of the world’s population still relies on botanical medicine for a majority of health problems. I find that statistic a potent reminder of how important plants are in treating illness.

I must admit that I have had my skeptical moments about the healing power of herbs. I have been dubious that the leaves of a certain plant could really cure a cough, or that the flowers of another could treat depression, or that the root of still one more could clear up the skin. Plants seem like such mild, simple, common things to have such powers. But everyone who was at my thirtieth birthday party and anyone else who has ever smoked marijuana knows that a plant can have a very powerful effect. So does anyone who’s ever gotten poison oak or poison ivy. And of course we all know that certain plants can be fatal if eaten. So whenever I find myself doubting the power of plants, I remember that if plants can make us hallucinate, or make us itch like crazy, or kill us, it is only logical that they can heal us as well.

* * * * * * * * * *

Root Beer
Makes 2 quarts

This is one of the few traditional lacto-fermented beverages modern people are familiar with—though the modern version is little like the traditional. For one thing, it is now illegal to sell root beer made from sassafras. Even though sassafras was a traditional herb long used by the peoples indigenous to southeastern North America, science experiments injecting large amounts of safrole—a compound in sassafras—into lab rats gave the animals cancer. But any compound, taken out of its plant matrix and injected in high quantities, can be toxic. Some people smell a rat: soft drink companies wanting to eliminate competition from home brewers? I make my root beer from sassafras—traditionally used as a blood cleanser—and don’t fret about the trace amounts of safrole it contains.

2 tablespoons dried sassafras (the bark of the root), available at herb stores or online
1 tablespoon dried licorice root, available at herb stores or online
2 quarts filtered water
1/3 cup birch syrup
1/3 cup Sucanat or Rapadura
1 cup ginger bug, 1/2 cup kefir grains, or 1 cup yogurt whey

Put the sassafras and licorice in a large pot and pour 1 quart of the filtered water over it.

Bring to a simmer and cover for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave covered for about half an hour.

Pour the birch syrup and Sucanat or Rapadura into a 2-quart mason jar, and strain the still-hot herbal mixture over the birch syrup. Stir or whisk to dissolve.

Add the remaining 1 quart of filtered water. Stir to combine.

Touch the liquid with your finger or use a milk thermometer to gauge the temperature. Before you add the ginger bug, kefir grains, or whey, the liquid needs to cool to about 100º F. This was the temperature the alewife would call blood warm. It should feel just warm to the touch but not hot.

Add the ginger bug, kefir grains, or whey, screw on the lid, and leave for 2 to 4 days in a warm place.

Strain equal amounts into two glass bottles with screw tops. I use the bottles from Gerolsteiner mineral water. If they are 1-quart bottles, they should be full; if they are 1-liter bottles, add enough water to fill. Screw the lids on tightly, label and date the bottles, and return to the warm place for another 2 to 3 days.

Transfer to the fridge. Once they are cold you can enjoy them anytime! When you are ready to drink the root beer, open the bottles carefully because they may have built up a lot of carbonation. Open them outside or over a sink. Turn the lid very slowly to see if the drink begins to release foam. If so, then allow it to release some of the carbon dioxide by not opening the bottle all the way and letting out some of the pressure, then opening it more and more, bit by bit. This way you won’t lose your drink to its carbonation.


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