Your pregnant girlfriend loves them. Your mother loves them. Your friends and your house guests and your children love them. They store well, they last long, and they’re perfect in potato salad. Pickles–the magical fermented sour (or sweet) treat.
But have you ever made a pickle a la Sandor Katz? Because, ehem, he’s sort of the fermentation master of the universe. His book, Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, is defining the movement of “underground” foods, and has crocktastic recipes. And this is one of them:
Japanese Nuka Bran Pickles
Nuka pickles are a traditional Japanese ferment, where vegetables are packed in a crock filled with absorbent rice bran mixed with salt, water, seaweed, ginger, miso, and sometimes beer or wine. In this rich medium, whole vegetables can be pickled in just days, or continue to ferment for long periods. I usually pickle vegetables whole and then slice them up. Sharp sour flavors quickly permeate the vegetables. These pickles receive frequent compliments.
I’ve had an easier time finding wheat bran than rice bran. Bran is the fibrous outer layer of grains, what the white processed versions seek to eliminate. Fortunately, nuka pickling works great with wheat bran, too. The bran pickling medium takes a few days to get going. But once you start a nuka crock, you can keep adding and harvesting vegetables indefinitely.
TIMEFRAME: Days, then ongoing
Ceramic crock or food-grade plastic bucket
Plate that fits inside crock or bucket
1-gallon (4-liter) jug filled with water, or other
INGREDIENTS (for a 2-gallon/8-liter crock):
2 pounds/1 kilogram wheat or rice bran
3 4-inch/10-centimeter strips kelp or other seaweed
3⁄8 cup/90 milliliters sea salt
1⁄2 cup/125 milliliters miso
1 cup/250 milliliters beer or saké
1-inch/2.5-centimeter piece of gingerroot, cut into a few chunky pieces
2 to 3 turnips, carrots, radishes, peas or beans, cucumbers, or other seasonal vegetables
1. Dry-roast the bran in a cast-iron or other heavy skillet. Use a low flame and stir frequently to avoid burning it. The
roasting brings out the flavor of the bran, but it is not essential to the process. Roast until the bran feels hot and you can smell a pleasant toasted aroma.
2. Pour 1 cup (250 milliliters) boiling water over the seaweed and allow it to hydrate for about 1/2 hour.
3. Mix brine: Dissolve salt in 5 cups (1.25 liters) water. Stir well to completely dissolve.
4. Place about 1 cup (250 milliliters) of the brine in a cup or bowl and mix it with the miso. Smooth any chunks of thick miso into a paste. Once well blended, add the miso paste to the larger quantity of brine and stir well. Add beer or saké to the brine.
5. Strain the seaweed-soaking water into the brine.
6. Place the toasted bran in the crock. Add the seaweed and the ginger. Add the brine and mix well, making sure the liquid
is evenly distributed, without pockets of dry bran.
7. Bury whole vegetables in the briny bran so they are not touching one another.
8. Cover and weight the bran. If, by the next day, the brine does not rise above the level of the cover over the bran, add a bit
more brine, with about 1 tablespoon (15 milliliters) of salt per cup (250 milliliters) of water. If the brine rises 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) or more above the cover, remove some liquid and discard, or use less weight so more liquid is held by the bran.
9. For the first few days, remove the vegetables each day and add fresh ones. The bran and brine medium is just developing, and fresh vegetables help it establish a Lactobacillus culture. Mix the bran well with each change of vegetables. The vegetables you remove at this early stage may taste good or not. Some recipes say to discard them, but I’ve enjoyed them. Taste them and see. Keep replacing the vegetables daily until they taste good and sour. Then you can start leaving them for longer periods. Takuwan pickles are daikon radishes fermented in nuka for as long as three years.
10. Remove vegetables by reaching into the crock with your hands. Use your fingers to brush as much bran as possible off
the vegetables back into the crock. Rinse the vegetables for a moment, or soak them if you find the pickles too salty. Then slice and serve. The vegetables will contain hints of all the flavors in the crock: seaweed, ginger, miso, and beer or saké, subtle enough that people will wonder about that Japanese flavor.
11. Your nuka bran fermenting medium can be used in perpetuity. If it gets too liquid as it absorbs water from fresh vegetables, press a cup or bowl into the bran to drain off some of the liquid. If the volume of bran seems to be reducing too far, add some more toasted bran. Salt migrates out with the vegetables, and needs to be replenished to maintain a pickle-friendly environment. Add more salt, just a little at a time, each time you add vegetables. Enjoy the ginger and seaweed as pickles. Add more ginger, seaweed, miso, beer, and saké, occasionally and in small amounts. If you go away, store the crock in a cool place, such as a cellar or a refrigerator.