Friday, December 20, 2013

Bento in a rush, pork with potatoes

Being half an hour late for work is not a good time to learn a new recipe.  I had planed on some simple tonkatsu (breaded fried pork) but I had no bread or breadcrumbs.  So I grabbed my Just Bento cookbook and found a recipe for fried ginger pork with potatoes.

Quite tasty, but I think next time I'm substituting bacon fat for the butter.  Butter made the potatoes taste too sweet.  Also, I think a dash of chili or hot sauce would be nice with the potatoes.  Also in the lunch some lightly boiled broccoli and shredded raw cabbage.  Have to make certain everything is cool enough before adding the cabbage otherwise it's wilt city.  But it's a good idea to let the bento cool before putting the lid on it anyway, as it reduces condensation and keeps it from spoiling.

The only thing I didn't like about it is that the rice and the potatoes were both a starch, which was a bit much even for me.  I think next time, make a larger amount of the main dish and leave the rice at home.

Sorry for the poor quality of the photos.

Healthy, yep
Affordable, about 2 to 3 dollars for the ingredients

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Gingerbread day

My friends and their little ones came to play.  We made gingerbread.

The kids, 2 and 3 years old helped roll the dough, cut the cookies and decorate with some dried fruit, all under the watchful eyes of mummy.

Ever wonder what to do with those leftover scraps of cookie dough?  Make them into long snakes, then shape them as x and o.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Bento: one pot beef-yaki

I found some flank steak on sale and thought it would make some fantastic beef bento dish (which I can't remember the name of - probably something-yaki which means something-fried).

The recipe is from the book 10 Minute Bento. I don't normally eat beef because it gives indigestion, however, when it's cooked this way with sake, something changes in the beef making it easier to digest.

I put some more of those daikon pickles (really starting to like them), but there was still something missing.  So I put some tiny tomatoes on it, and look, a lovely christmas coloured lunch.

Allergies:  I substituted the mirin for vinegar, the sugar for honey and the soy sauce for rice based soysub.

Affordable?  This is about 2 oz of beef, so basically you are getting a lot of flavour for a small portion of meat - my favourite kind of meal. It also tastes good with other red meats like goat or lamb, depending on what you have at hand.   But make sure to slice thinly and across the grain or things get tough to chew.  Other ingredients include frozen peas, onion, veg, rice... although I don't remember how much the cost of the beef was, the rest of the ingredients were about $1 to $1.50.

What I really like about this recipe is that it is fast food.  The book suggests we can make this in 10 minutes, however, that's only if you are super-mum.  Prep took about 5 min, cooking and assembling, 15 min.  But 20 minutes for a complete and completely delicious bento is well within my happy range.

As for Healthy: I'm going to go with yes.  Meat is full of all sorts of things that are good for your body, and having it in small quantities like this is great.  Though I thought while eating it, I wish I had put a bit less rice and a lot more veg in it.  Next time I'll try a different way of assembling the dish that includes more veg.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bento: Shiokoji chicken, rice, tomatoes, cabbage and pickled daikon

Today's bento was rice, shio koji chicken, tiny tomatoes, cabbage kimpira and those pickled radishes I told you about the other day (very tasty, if a bit spicy).

The little triangles contain raisins and toasted almonds for emergency energy.

For tea, I combined some green tea with some herbs I gathered and dried during the summer - gunpowder green tea, sage and mint.  Brew it, strain it, put it in my to-go mug.  yum.

Affordable: probably 3 to 5 dollars for the entire lunch, depending if the veg and chicken are on sale or not.

Healthy: yep, though I maybe don't need such a large portion size, as packing this lunch box averages 750 calories, nearly half my daily intake.  But if we aren't counting calories, then everything in here is yummy and good for me.

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Monday, December 9, 2013

It may work, don't know, let's find out.

I had some daikon in the back of the fridge that needed eating up, so I decided to make some fermented pickles.  Sliced it thin, mixed it with one chili pepper, also sliced thin, and added one generous teaspoon of sea salt per pound of veg.  Weighed it down and added water to make certain everything was submerged.

It's only been fermenting for three days now, but it is quite tasty.  I'm going to leave it a week or two, tasting it probably again in a week.  I really want the chilies to mellow and the daikon to spice up.  But who knows what will happen... it's all up to the invisible beasties now.

Affordable (they were all leftovers from the back of the fridge that were going to be tossed), healthy, vegan friendly and all that jaz.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Do I need an airlock to make sauerkraut, kimchi, and other fermented foods?

cucumber dill and garlic pickles
ready for the inner lid and weight
There is a lot of debate out there as to whether or not you need to airlock your vegi-ferments.  People are very passionate and sometimes a bit carried away.  There is supporting evidence for both sides, but as you may have noticed I prefer the open vat method.  In this post I would like to give you a simple overview of the debate and tell you a bit about why I decided that the airlock is optional.

To start with, some definitions:

This topic is mostly about fermented veg, like sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled cucumbers, hot sauce, whatever.  These are processes that use bacteria to transform and preserve foods.  We aren't talking about alcohol ferments like mead and cranberry mead which are primarily yeasted based transformations.

Wild cultures or fermentation is a process that takes advantage of yeast, bacteria, and other invisible beasties that live wild in the air and on the veg.  Cultured cultures and fermentations, sometimes called seed  or starter cultures, utilize a specific starter culture or bacterial addition that you can buy or grow yourself.  So for example, wild sauerkraut is just cabbage chopped up with salt, cultured sauerkraut is (sterilized or not) cabbage, salt and some sort of starter culture like whey or a commercial product made just for this purpose.  These seed cultures are awesome sometimes.  For example, if you left some milk out on the counter, you get sour milk (or worse), but add some Fil Mjolk and you get a tasty yoghurt.  The other advantage of using a starter culture is it provides a more consistent result between batches, whereas wild cultures has more variation.  I'm going to assume we are talking about wild ferments unless otherwise specified.

Open vat fermentations are basically a wide mouth container, some veg, some salt, some water, and possibly a starter culture.  The veg are weighed down with an inner lid and a weight like a rock or bottle of water and covered with a towel to keep out flies and dust.  The inner lid and weight insures that all the veg stay below the level of the brine, and thus out of contact with the air during the fermentation.

The top of the brine, however, is exposed to the air.  Sure there is a slight layer of CO2 gas (fermentation farts) that settle on the undisturbed brine, which protects against some O2 (oxygen) contact, but how well it works is limited.

Airlock ferments have basically the same contents as the open vat, only an extra stage is taken to prevent the surface of the brine from touching oxygen.  This will be something that allows the ferment farts (CO2) to escape without letting any gas back in.  The Pickl-It system is the best example of this, but some people use those snap jars with the rubber rings like this one:

This is the type of airlock often used on alcohol

So long as it lets the ferment farts escape, prevents air from entering the container and won't explode from the gas buildup, I'm going to consider it an airlock system in this post.

With the airlock system, the fermenting veggies must be kept submerged beneath the brine just like the open vat system.

In my opinion, the best use for an airlock system does is when the contents of the ferment have been sterilized, neutralizing or killing the wild bacteria, then given a starter culture to it.  This way, it prevents any wild contamination from entering the vat.

Before we really get into this, I want to let you know a bit about my approach.  As a former academic I've read and understood a large amount of the scientific literature on this topic.  I also know and understand the technical jargon, I just choose not to use it when writing this blog.  What's the point in showing off my big words?  That would restrict my audience and intimidate people new to the idea of fermenting.  Big, technical words are awesome when I want to show off how smart I am, that I'm paying attention, or when I need to be very specific.  However, they have a time and place and if a person cannot put the idea into lay terms, then quite frankly they don't understand it.

Have I mentioned I'm also opinionated?

My idea in writing this is not that everyone should convert to my point of view.  It's more in response to one extremely vocal side of the fermenting community.  They quote science and lovely fancy words to browbeat people into their way of thinking - or what happens more often, to browbeat others into giving up entirely on fermenting.  I don't think they realize what they are doing because in their heart of hearts, they feel they are doing good by spreading the gospel of airlocked fermentation.  Perhaps they don't realize that the expectation of everyone achieving perfection on the first attempt is a bit intimidating (I put that way nicer than I feel about it - but hey, I do respect them as knowledgeable and enthusiastic individuals, and I want to give them a fair hearing).

I can find nothing wrong with the science they cite; however, the idea that all fermentation must be in an airtight condition otherwise you don't do any good for your health or possibly damage it, is based on some rather dodgy premises.  If we accept their assumptions (starting premises) then their conclusion is sound (has a logical structure and is relevant to reality).  I have some doubts as to just how much evidence there is in the world to accept these assumptions.  That's what I want to talk about today - not the science it'self, but the philosophy that underlies it.

The other goal of this is to reassure people just starting out with fermenting their own foods that they don't need specialized equipment or knowledge.  All that sciency stuff and toys can come later, for now ignore the neigh sayers and those who bully with good intentions, and just get started.

So basically, both the airlock and open vat systems protect the veg from contact with the air.  Why do we need this?  In a really oversimplified way, there are invisible beasties interacting with the veg to preserve it and make a nice sour flavour.  These invisible beasties are good for your digestion, in fact it's like they are pre-digesting some of the food before you even pop it in your mouth.  I'm going to assume here that you've seen enough yoghurt commercials to know that probiotics are good things to eat.

These invisible beasties, the ones we want, live in an environment that doesn't like oxygen, thus we keep it submerged in brine.  If we left it out in the air, different invisible beasties would start acting on the veg and turn it to unappetizing mush (compost).  By controlling the environment, we influence which invisible beasties (which include yeast, bacteria, fungus and other things) are dominant.

The airlock school of thought has some great science that talks about how many more good bacteria an airlock system can produce and how that the part of the brine that has exposure to O2 reduces the amount of these specific bacteria and grows air-friendly invisible beasties.

I've read the science, I'm not disputing any of it.  It's good science!

However, it does rely on a few assumptions.

  1. exposure to all air bacteria (aerobic) is harmful to us
  2. if some anaerobic (living without air) bacteria (invisible beasties) for us is good, then way more of it is better
    • this also assumes that our body has an unlimited ability to use these bacteria.
  3. That it is only the anaerobic bacteria that is good for us.
  4. It is only the quantity of the bacteria that is good for us, not the ratio.

The first assumption is crucial to the point of view that we should always use an airlock.  It's also the most pathetic assumption.

Think about it, we are exposed to aerobic bacteria (air loving invisible beasties) constantly.  We breath it, we touch it, we eat it on our food... Some of them harm us, but not all of them.  Some of them help us, but not all of them.  We don't understand everything about the invisible world, but we do understand that without air loving invisible beasties, we wouldn't exist.  Therefore, it's difficult to accept the first premise.  Not all aerobic bacteria (air loving invisible beasties) are bad for us.

So is the way that the air loving invisible beasties interact with the ferment bad for us?  Well, it reduces the non-air loving invisible beasties and over time will slow and changes the ferment... But is that entirely bad?  Most people these days ferment for taste and don't leave the vat of sauerkraut at room temperature for a year before chowing down.  They make smaller batches, fermented for shorter periods of time and consumed within a few weeks or months.    So the good/badness of the air-ferment interaction does not factor into it nearly so much as it would for longer fermentations.

But also, how do we know that this air-ferment interaction is bad for us as eaters?  Just because it reduces the quantity of the non-air loving bacteria, does it follow with absolute certainty that it is bad for us (in moderation like you find in an open vat system)?  More on this follows.

The second assumption, if some is good for us, then more is better is a common belief in this day and age, however, it's usually faulty.  Actually, scratch that, it's always faulty.

An example: water is good for you.  In fact, like bacteria, it is necessary for your survival.  Too much water is deadly.  You are probably aware that you can drown in too much water, but did you know that if you drink too much, it will kill you?

Another example:  Oxygen.  We like this.  It makes us stay alive and breath and stuff.  But too much oxygen, and you get sick and/or die.

That's some anecdotal evidence showing that if a little of something is good, then more of it isn't always better.  Bringing it back to the fermenting topic - yes, everyone agrees that some non-air-loving invisible beasties (anaerobic bacteria) is good for you.  It's a probiotic that improves gut health and digestion.

However, if some is good for you, what evidence that more is better?  Where is the line drawn?

One of the problems with this is that bacteria often competes with each other for food and space, often changing the environment to suit it's needs and exclude competition.  We know that the body needs a balanced bacterial community to function properly, but consuming a lot of one bacteria (or one conglomeration of bacteria), we risk tipping the balance in our gut.  But eating some is good, too much is bad... hmmm.

That brings us to the sub-premise (the little bullet point beneath the second assumption), that our body has the capacity to use all the bacteria.

We know that it can use some bacteria, and that too much of a limited kind of bacteria is harmful.  But the real question is that if we can use all the extra anaerobic bacteria (non-air-loving) produced in the airlock ferment.

The airlock produced a lot more of this friendly bacteria than the open vat system (no one is disputing that), but can we use it?  Even if it isn't harmful, is it helpful to have that much more?  Is it like Vitamin C, the body uses so much and flushes the rest out, therefore it's useless to take extra - is it like that?  Is going to the extra effort of culturing more anaerobic bacteria worth it, or does the law of diminishing returns apply?

The third assumption, that only anaerobic (not-air-loving) bacteria is good for us to consume.  This is only subily different from the first assumption, so I'm not going into detail in the interst of brevity (3 thousand words is enough for one blog entry don't you think?). - this is pretty much addressed when I talked about the first assumption.  But to recap, it's obvious that this is not true.

The fourth assumption, that it is the quantity of specific bacterial species which is important and not the ratios.  This is so very 20th Century, and I don't blame people for thinking this.  I disagree with it, but sciencey people come by it honestly, they were trained to focus on one factor, item, or collection of similar items, because it's easy to isolate for all the variables.

However, these days, people are starting to realize that isolating one variable does not lead to the ability to predict how the entire system works.  For those who studied philosophy at university, the fallacy label goes like, 'assuming that the whole is the sum of it's parts'.

Even if we were able to isolate and study each individual bacterial species on it's own, especially the ones that interact with our digestion, we still wouldn't be able to understand the entirety of how our gut works.

When it comes to the health of the human body, more and more people are beginning to realize that it's not the individual components, but rather the ratios between them.

We can take this to refer to the ratio of anaerobic (not-air-loving) bacteria in our gut talked about earlier, but we can also look at the ratio of anaerobic and aerobic bacteria (air and non-air loving invisible beasties) in the ferment itself.

Wait!  Am I suggesting that the air contamination that happens with the open vat system may actually be a good thing?  Sort-of.  It's more something I've been wondering about and have failed to find any studies into it that both look at the interaction of the air and non-air loving bacteria in the vat AND how this ratio interacts with the human gut.

But why would I even consider this a possibility?  Let me tell you.

I am slightly obsessed with the history of food and food preservation pre-refrigeration.  Lacto-fermentation - the fancy name for what happens when you make sauerkraut and what we've been talking about this entire post - ... Lacto-fermentation has been used by people for a few thousand (probably a few ten-thousand) years, and during this time, it was almost always in an open vat kind of system.  The 'airlocks' available until the 19th Century, were slightly porous, which allowed the food to breath.  For example a bladder (pre-20th Century clear-wrap) is very slightly porous and over time, 'breaths'.

So I look at history and I see that for most of human history people have been using open vat fermentation with out any obvious ill effects.  Especially none of the ill effects that some of the more enthusiastic pro-airlock followers declare will happen.

Looking at what we are learning about ecosystems (because what is a gut full of invisible beasties if not an ecosystem? - rhetorical question), human health, and history, it makes me wonder if looking only at the quantities is missing out on the really important aspect of fermenting (and how it relates to our health).  Maybe there could be something to the ratios of invisible beasties - and possibly, just possibly, maybe using an airlock is detrimental to our health.  This needs more study.

One day, these assumptions will be taken into account, and I could well be proven wrong about them all.  But until that time, there isn't enough foundation to believe that an airlock is completely necessary.  The arguments of the pro-airlock school is logical (it makes sense to the rational mind) but it has yet to be proven that it is sound (the assumptions at the beginning of the argument have yet to be found without question to be relevant to reality).

My opinions on the topic of using an airlock or not when fermenting:

First of all, please stop pounding beginners over the head about being perfect.  Even if the airlock is the best way to go, it's not the only way that works.  Give them a chance to try making some kimchi with the materials they  have on hand and get excited about fermenting.  Once they are excited, then you can bombard them with your opinion on how to do it right.  But please, not before.

I use an airlock when it suits me, and I don't when it does not.  More importantly I don't care what you use when you ferment.  It's YOUR choice, not mine.  Do what you want.  In complete and brutal honesty - I DO NOT CARE what you use.

What bothers me is this new kind of cyber bullying that comes from people trying to help by expressing their opinion that the only way to do something is the right way and that if you can't do it that way from the start, don't even bother.  Yes, people go to forums looking for answers to their questions, but the reason they are really there is to seek support and fuel their enthusiasm for their new hobby.  The line between being helpful and being a bully seems to be getting thinner as time goes on.  But I can give you an example of what the difference looks like (roughly paraphrased from things I've seen in different places on the internet)

N00B: Oh wow, I'm so excited to start my first kimchi.  The only thing I have on hand is this plastic tub, a cabbage and some salt.  What sort of thing should I use for an inner lid?

Helpful:  Good for you starting your first kimchi, let us know how it goes and feel free to ask if you run into any trouble.  I usually use a plate for the inner lid, but some people use plastic or wood or any non-reactive thing that fits.  Maybe later on, you might want to move away from plastic as some people believe it can leach into your food.

Bully: Don't use plastic ever!  That's so nasty.  Just toss it out.  (technical stuff about molecules leaching... acid reaction...&c.).  What you really need is this expensive fermentation vessel and starter culture, because you just can't rely on wild bacteria.

Did anyone notice how the Bully answer usually doesn't answer the original question?  Anyway, enough of my complaining.  You get the general idea of what motivated me to write such a long post.

I wonder if all this talk about airlocks and stuff isn't some residual meme leftover from the public education system.  All that fear of botulism and other possible harms that come from an industrial food system but are not present in a fermented setting, these fears linger and are difficult to shake.  Maybe this is what drives people to take total control of the fermentation - with airlocks and starter cultures and total sterilization at every step in between.

For those of you on the receiving end of those well meaning lectures as to why you must only ever always use an airlock when fermenting.  Be strong.  These people have a lot of science and aren't afraid to use it.  They are also very intelligent and vocal.  It's hard to stand against that, especially when all you have is an unarticulated feeling in your gut that maybe something they say isn't right, but you can't find any fault in their logic or science.  That's mostly because there isn't any fault in their logic or science.  It's their basic assumptions that have yet to be proven... and if you want to argue that, it's near enough futile.

Arguing basic assumptions with a passionate, intelligent person results in cross monologues.  Which is to say, you both yell at each other and cannot hear what the other is saying, so really you're just yelling at yourself, and that's not something a sane person should be doing in public (on the street or in an internet forum - both are public, the latter more than the first).

Check out this interesting discussion about fermenting with airlocks and open vats

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Fermented Hot Sauce Recipe from Dried Chilis and Excessive Amounts of Garlic

I adore those long, thin red spicy peppers that go so well in stir fry.  The garden centre calls them Super Hots, the grocery store Thai chilis, the grocery store in the garden center calls them chilis, and nothing else.  I call them yummy.

Every year I grow a few and buy a few, and it's always a few extra.  So they get threaded and hung to dry.  Dried chilis are great...except after a year or two of storage, they tend to loose their colour and pazaz.  So I decided to try a little experiment.

Fermented Hot Sauce with Garlic

For each 1/2 cup of dried chilis
1 clove head of garlic and
1 Tbs of salt

  • Roughly chop up the chilis, or not.
  • Peel the garlic and roughly chop it up or not
  • Combine salt, garlic and chilli in a small jar.  Add water to cover.
  • Use something to press down on the chilli mix so that every part of it is submerged.  I cut out a circle out of plastic container and then filled a small mason jar with water to use as a weight.
  • Leave on the counter for at least a week... I um, forgot about it and it was there for over a month.  If anything, I think the longer ferment was good for it.  Check it every couple of days (or not if you forget) to make certain everything is submerged and to scrape off any mould that forms.  If the mould is black, toss the whole thing, otherwise, it should be fine.  The spices, garlic and salt are strong enough to kill just about anything bad, but if it develops an off smell, don't eat it.
  • When it's time, place the chilis, garlic and brine in the blender or blitzer.  Blend or blitz till it's a lovely puree.  You may want to add a pinch of sugar or a few drops or honey.  A few drops of apple cider (or other natural) vinegar also go good in this.
  • Store in the fridge, eat within... I have no idea how long, but it will probably last a year.  You can store it at room temperature, but it may go mouldy after a month or so.

Roughly chopped
This is a fresh one I found in the back of the fridge
so I decided to toss it in with the others

chilis and garlic kept submerged in the brine

Very hot sauce with strong garlic taste.  yum.

Affordable:  Yep, the chillies were getting too old and destined for the compost, garlic was from the garden.  The only thing I paid for was the salt.  But to buy these ingredients in the store are usually cheaper than buying a good quality hot sauce.

Vegan-Friendly: Yes....unless you add honey at the blending stage.

Healthy and allergies:  By making your own hot sauce, you can avoid any additives or ingredients that you may be allergic to.  Also the probiotics from eating a live food, are good for you too.

I could do the same old song and dance about this being a good Transitional food, but you know it all by now.  Encourages self-reliance, and stuff, so forth.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Soy Free Sweet Miso Paste Recipe, with just a little bit of soy-free Tamari on top

For those of us with soy allergies and sensitivities, finding a soy-free miso paste that we can enjoy (and afford) isn't easy.  So I decided it was time to make my own.  I'm not certain what surprised me more, how affordable it was to make or how easy.

Miso paste and tamari
both made without soy

You can use any pulse, be it lentils, chickpeas, fava beans, black eye peas, anything, to make miso.  You don't need soybeans.  The only potentially difficult ingredient to get is Koji rice, but most asian grocery stores can order it in for you already cultured.  You can also make it at home with a bit of dedication.  It takes a couple of days, and you can get the koji spores from GEM Cultures.  The third ingredient is salt.

The method for making sweet miso is easy: get the koji rice ready the day before and soak the beans.  Next day, cook the beans, mash them (or not) and then mix them with the koji rice and salt, and maybe a bit of bean cooking liquid.  Pack it in a vessel with a inner lid and weight to press the miso down, then tie it up with a cloth and leave it on your kitchen counter for 2 to 8 weeks.

Red Miso, has the same method for making it, only different ratios of ingredients and it needs to ferment for at least a year.  It also requires different temperatures.  Since it's more fussy, I decided to start with the Sweet Miso recipe.  But I have everything I need, including confidence, to try one year miso later this winter.

For this first batch I cleaned out the back of my cupboard and used a mixture of forgotten dried beans (mostly Romano and Black Eye Peas).   But like I said before, you can use any bean to make miso paste.  Most people use chickpeas for their first soy free miso making experience.

I used an antique food chopper to mash up the beans
but you can use anything you like from stick and bowl
to cement mixer.

The references I used for this are The Book of Miso, especially this chapter, and Katz's two books, Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation.  This is the recipe I used for the second batch of sweet miso as the first batch didn't have nearly enough saltiness to it and tasted a bit sour.

From what I've read, 1 gallon is about the smallest batch of miso you want to make at a time.  Something to do with the ratio of surface area to the volume of the something something.

Miso ready to dig out of the 1 gallon vat
you can see that some white mould has formed on top
that's normal.  Koji is a kind of mould, a delicious one.

So that's what this recipe makes, 1 gallon.  The ingredients cost me just under what one pound of soy-free miso paste is in the shop.  Since it made close to 10 pounds, I'm very happy with how affordable this is.  Next year I plan to grow my own beans which will cut the cost in half, and culture my own koji rice, which will take price of making this from $15 down to about $5 per gallon.

Soy Free Sweet Miso Recipe

1 kilo of dried beans
1 kilo (or just over) Koji Rice
140 grams sea salt (non iodized) plus extra
Kombu/kelp (optional)

Some other stuff you will need:
A container that fits more than 1 gallon (otherwise known as vat)
Something to mush the beans with
A plate or inner lid that fits inside your vat leaving as little room between the walls of the vat and the plate as possible.
A weight, could be a rock that has been purified with boiling water and scrubbed with salt
A cotton or linen, tightly woven cloth
...and other things.  This link covers it better.

  • Wash the beans well, and soak overnight.
  • Rinse the beans and boil with lots of water until they are mushy.  How long this takes depends on the kind of bean and how long they have been sitting in the back of your cupboard.  The older, the longer.  Usually for me it's about 2 hours, but some beans can take upto 14.  You can also use a pressure cooker for this step, but beware if yours is aluminium as sometimes that can contaminate your food.
  • While the beans are cooking, bring your koji rice to room temperature (if it's not already).  I'm going to assume at this point that you read the entire recipe before starting out and already have your koji rice ready to go.
  • Drain the beans, reserving the liquid.  Mash them up however you like.  It can be a paste, or it can be chunky, some miso recipes, like Natto Miso, keep the beans whole.  I do moderately chunky and puree or not as required when I use the finished miso.
  • If you are using kombu then keep in large pieces and soak in tepid water now.
  • Combine the salt with about 1/2 cup of bean cooking water, make certain it dissolves completely.  
  • When the beans are below 140F (aka, you can put your hand in them and they feel somewhat warm, but not hot), then add the salt water and koji rice.  Mix really well.
  • Add more bean cooking water as needed.  The goal here is to make a fairly moist, but not too moist mush.  To tell if the texture is correct, make a ball, like a snowball, from the bean mush.  Toss the ball firmly and assertively against a surface, like the bottom of your miso vat.  If the mush ball spatters everywhere, it's way too wet.  If it cracks upon impact, it needs more water.  And, if it just settles in, not cracking but not spreading out everywhere, then that's about right.  See the video in this post for an example of what you are aiming for.  
  • Make certain the inside of your vat is clean but don't use any antibacterial soap on it as this will damage the miso.  I often use a bit of sake or vodka to wipe inside the vat before the next step, but this is optional.
  • (Optional) Wet the inside of the vat and sprinkle lightly with salt.  Most people say this isn't necessary for sweet miso, but I find it makes a huge difference.  
  • Firmly press your bean mush into the vat, so that there are no air pockets.  I do a few snowball size bits of bean mush at a time, stop and massage them into the crevices, and repeat.
  • When the vat is almost full of bean mush, smooth off the top.  Evenly sprinkle at lest 1/2 a tsp of salt on top.  Cover the surface (directly on the surface) with clear wrap, or even better with kombu seaweed that you soaked earlier.  I go for a double layer, ripping the seaweed as needed to cover every last part of the surface of the bean mush.  
  • Place your plate or inner lid on top, and then your weight on top of that.
  • Cover with a tightly woven cloth and tie the cloth down so that no dust or insects get in.
  • Place the vat in a secluded part of the kitchen where it can stay at a fairly steady temperature, room temperature.  Check it after two weeks, but it will probably take a month.  There should be a layer of liquid on top (the Tamari, see below), maybe some white mould from the Koji Rice, and should smell like miso.
  • When you are ready to try some, drain off the liquid (keep it to one side for tamari, though if the miso is still immature, you may need to put it back in the vat again) and scrape off the mould.  Dig out half a cup from the center of the vat to try.  Press the bean mush back together to ensure there are not air pockets, smooth off the top, sprinkle salt on it, and wrap it up as before (kombu optional), replacing the tamari on top.  Try the miso you dug out.  If it's not ready yet, wait a week or two before trying it again.  If it is ready, then you can put all your miso in jars in the fridge, or you can use this same method to dig out miso you need for the week and let the rest continue to age.

You can see the coarsely mashed beans
and bits of koji rice in the miso
Sometimes I leave it as is, other times I puree it before use

Tamari (No Soy) Recipe

This is the liquid that forms on top of the miso paste while it's fermenting.  It tastes like super-strong-super-salty soy sauce.  Only if there are no soy beans in the miso, there won't be any soy in the tamari that forms on top.

Before you dig out your miso from the vat, drain off most or all of this liquid.  It's probably going to have some mould on top.  Remember, mold is one of the three main ingredients in miso (Koji Rice = special mouldy rice).  If the mould is white, yellow, or a bit blue-green, it should be fine.

Strain the tamari to remove the mould, sometimes this takes many strainings or even a bit of tightly woven cloth.  Bottle and store in the fridge.  Use as you would soy sauce, only use less of it, this will be much stronger.

Soy Free Tamari
Very salty taste, but delicious

Affordable:  Yep. I talked about this above

Vegan Friendly: Yep.

Healthy: Yep. There are some really fascinating studies out there about how daily consumption of miso has helped prevent radiation sickness, improve gut function, detoxify heavy metals from the body, and other good-for-you things.

Traditional:  Yep.  Until about 60 odd years ago, most families in Japan made their own miso paste, and each region (and family) had their own recipe.  Nowadays there are only a few dozen misos commonly available for sale in the shops.  Which is a shame.

Transitional:  YES!  With the consolidation of miso making to mid size and large companies, we have become very reliant on global trade and long distance shipping as a means of supplying our miso.  I think making our own miso paste can serve a role in transiting away from a lot of the problems we have with the current food system.  It's not just good for soups, but also for preserving pickles, marinades, condiments, and has huge health benefits.  Even those not use to eating miso could find this salty-savoury-sweet treat a beneficial addition to their daily diet.

There are a lot of different ways to make miso out there, this is just one of them.  The Book of Miso is currently the best English language book about miso, history, manufacturing, everything.  You can make miso from different pulses, grains, and even vegetables.  This experiment has opened up a whole new world, and I'm looking forward to exploring it all.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Everything's coming up Miso!

I made some soy-free miso paste at home and I love it.  Still working on the post with the recipe and my miso-making experience. Just in case anyone was wondering where I got to.  (ps, thanks for the comments earlier.  I'm also working away at Holiday letters and parcels.  So many letters to write.).

Anyway, I want to share this video with you.

I love the idea of a group of friends getting together to make a lot of miso.  I imagine at the end of the day, and after an amazing dinner of miso goodness, they each take home a share of last year's miso.  Like a Miso Club, one person has the place and gets together the ingredients, and the others subsidize the cost and help with the labour.

Back to work writing about soy-free miso and experimenting with different things you can make with it.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Some amazing things you can make with Fil Mjolk, Viili and other room temperature yoghurts.

After my previous adventures with Viili the shop sent me a replacement culture.  Since they were so helpful, and I know other people who have had good success with their cultures in the past, I decided to order some Fil Mjolk (also spelled Filmjolk) starter at the same time.  I'm so glad I did.

Viili and Fil Mjolk are considered room temperature yoghurt cultures.  In that you do not need a yoghurt maker or insulator to make them, rather you can culture them at room temperature.  Very awesome.  They probably aren't actually yoghurt in the true sense of the word, but English does not seem to have a word for this and it beats calling them 'cultured milk products' every time.  The taste and texture is also like yoghurt, so we call them that on the basis that they share the same qualities.

The Viili is yummy and tastes a lot like The Captain remembers real yoghurt tasting like, but it's tricky to culture.  It takes a lot longer than Fil Mjolk, is fussy about temperature, and it requires you monitor it frequently and not miss the point where it sets - that's a bit more bother than I like in a fermented food.

What I demand from a fermented food (and just about every food) is that it be flexible.  That it is quick to prepare and can be put on hold if something happens.  That it can grow in just about any temperature range, with the understanding that there may be an alteration in flavour and timing.  That it can be used to make several different things, and that if I'm suddenly called away and miss the deadline, it will happily wait for me.  Fil Mjolk does all this for me.

I'm going to keep going with the Viili, but more as a snacking yoghurt than anything else.  The Viili is flexible in that I can use it to make a drink, yoghurt, and two different cheese (with whey left over for other uses).  I can do all this with the Fil Mjolk as well as making butter, buttermilk and buttermilk cheese.  But the taste between the two is very different.  Each has it's unique charm.

Here are some of the amazing things I've made with my Fil Mjolk (and sometimes Viili).

Yoghurt drink (Viili and Fil Mjolk)

I haven't tried this yet, not on purpose anyway, but by culturing a low fat milk, or not letting the culture work long enough, I ended up with a thick liquid.  Soon, I want to try blending this with fresh fruit for a yoghurt drink.

Yoghurt (Viili and Fil Mjolk)

This is pretty easy, you start with one Tbs of the old batch per cup of milk in the new batch.  Mix well, cover with a cloth, and leave at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours till set.  Put in fridge for 6 hours before removing starter for next batch and enjoying the rest.  At least that's what the instructions say, and it works well for the Viili.

For the Fil Mjolk, I find I only really need 1 teaspoon of starter (old batch) per cup of milk.  Adding less, takes longer to go firm, but it has two advantages:  It's less sensitive to timing, and it makes a lovely sour taste.

For a thicker yoghurt, use cream, for a thinner yoghurt, use milk.

Yoghurt cheese (left out method) with live culture whey (Viili and Fil Mjolk)

This is easy, and I discovered it by mistake.  I forgot that I had some yoghurt culturing, and when I found it two days later, it had distinct curds and whey (it had clabbered, what a great word, clabber).  I used some cheesecloth to strain the curds four about 12 hours, then I mixed a pinch of salt (per 2 cups of yoghurt used) in with the curds.  It made an almost creamy cheese, with a bit of sour taste like cottage cheese.

The whey from this is fantastic.  It has live culture in it, which can be used to add probiotics to your food.

Yoghurt cheese (cooked method) with cooked whey (Viili and Fil Mjolk)

To make this cheese, I heat up the yoghurt in a pan, stirring frequently.  Forget the thermometer.  If it boils, it's too hot, if you see the yoghurt curdle, then it's hot enough.   I strained this for 18 hours, or for a night and a morning, then mixed a pinch of salt (per two cups of yoghurt used) in with the curds.  It made a fantastic cream cheese that would be great savoury or sweet.  I think I might make a cheese cake for christmas using this.

The whey from this is cooked, not live culture, but it's still jam packed full of nutrients.  Use it in soups, bread, and anywhere else to substitute some or all of the water in a recipe.

Cultured Butter and Buttermilk (Fil Mjolk)

I've posted the instructions for regular and cultured butter here.  I'm surprised how easy it is to make, and I adore how it tastes.  I wait for the cream to be on sale at $1.99 per litre, then I buy them out.  The milk usually expires in one or two days, so culturing it helps the butter last longer.

Per litre of cream I get one pound of butter and half a litre of buttermilk, which can be used to make cheese and whey, or used as is in baking and cooking and drinking.

So far I've only tried it with Fil Mjolk.  I don't know if it would work with Viili, or if it did, if the taste would be good.  One day I'll give it a try.

Buttermilk Cheese and resulting whey (Fil Mjolk)

Made the same way as Yoghurt Cheese (cooked method) above, but use the leftover buttermilk from making butter.  Can be made with buttermilk made with uncultured butter, but you may want to leave this buttermilk at room temperature for about 24 hours before hand to sour it.

Update: Tried this yesterday.  It didn't make as much cheese as I would like, but I don't think I heated it up enough.  Taste is good and now I have some whey for bread baking tomorrow.

Did you notice how I avoided using quantities to tell you how it's made?  You don't need it, just the ratios.  So many recipes require gallons of milk and to be frank, most people don't want to make that large a batch.  You can make butter with half a cup of cream, or with 18 gallons, the method and ratios are the same.  Same with the yoghurt cheese.  If you have one cup of yoghurt that's been in the fridge too long, then use that, if you have more, then use that.  Salt to taste, but use at least one pinch per cup of finished cheese for preservation.  Or eat it faster and leave out the salt all together.

These are recipes for everyone.  They don't need fancy equipment or knowhow.  The only knowhow you need is to tell thick from thin, how to stir, and for the cheese to tell when milk curdles (it gets lumps in it). They are very forgiving if you get the measurements wrong, and the Fil Mjolk is kind enough to work in a wide range of temperature (65 F to 75F).

So is this affordable?  Oh yes!  It's a great way to take advantage of about-to-expire-therefore-on-sale milk and cream.  When I do this, it ends up costing about 1/4 the price of buying the already made products in the store.  And I know exactly what goes in making this, so know how healthy it is.

Allergies:  Well, you always have milk allergies to think about, however let me share something with you.  I've always been sensitive to milk, since I was a couple of months old, especially cow's milk.  And yet, on occasion, in some parts of the world, and only specific brands of milk, I can enjoy milk products with no negative effect whatsoever.  I don't know if it's something they feed (or don't feed) their cows, but I suspect it's something in the pasteurization process.  The organic milk from Avalon Dairy is one of those milks I can have no problem.  Their non-organic products have some effect, but when cultured with Fil Mjolk or Viili, they don't bother my gut either.

I suspect, that it may be possible, that some people with milk sensitivities will be able to enjoy milk products made with traditional milk cultures.  Maybe they can eat cultured butter but not regular butter.  But each person is different and if you do give it try, let me know how it turns out.

Transitional: So basically, these are easy to make, more affordable than the commercially made products, less wasteful than said products, and more variety than said products.  On top of that, you have the probiotics from the yoghurt cultures.  This is an excellent way to transition from dependence on big buisness.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Comments and changes

In case you are wondering what happened here, I've changed the blog back to the classic format.  I noticed that the comment thingy was broken on the old layout, so in case anyone actually pops by this place and wanted to say 'hi', I thought I would change it back.  Though I think I will miss the old layout, this one has far less issues.

Could one of the four people who visit this blog comment and say hi so I can find out if the comments are working now?

Speaking about comments, I would love to hear any questions people have about sourdough!  I'm getting really frustrated with all these so called rules, and must measure, and exact timing that kitchen elitists dictate must be done in order for sourdough to work, otherwise you are a bad person.  It's just not true.  You can get absolutely fabulous results with a far more casual approach to sourdough.  Instead of people thinking that sourdough baking is fussy and demanding, I want them to know that it's one of the few baking methods that will modify it's self to your will and your schedule.  People read all these limiting rules online and in fancy books by famous bakers and they believe them.  Then they get frustrated and don't even try because they feel that baking with sourdough is something only a specialist can do.  This saddens me.  Sourdough is the kind of baking best suited for the Joe Every-man and Jane Every-woman.  It's the only style of baking I've found that can be transformed into whatever the baker wants, anything at all, from sweet lofty breads, to dense sour bricks - and what's more, you don't need measuring cups, scales or timers to do so.  If you miss the timing, then a few hours more won't hurt it - even forgetting the dough for a day or two can be recovered.  Every time I see someone being shot down because they dared to step outside the 'proper way' to make sourdough, I get a little bit angrier.  I'm just about at the point where I feel compelled to write a booklet that will help people take back the sourdough.  Though the more I format the topic in my head, the more I realize it's going to be a bit larger than a booklet.  I've read a lot on the topic, but I've never found a book that has all the information I want to put into it, or in a format like the one I want to write.  But if I could write it and could get one or two people to read it, they could reclaim a small amount of independence from the kitchen dictocrats and learn to trust themselves - If I could do that, then it would make me very happy.

And, because I hate to post anything without photos, here's a look at a (rather major) project I've been working on for the last two months.  It's finally starting to taste good and I'm almost ready to share what I've learned while making it.

Here it is, ready to be dug out of the crock.
This is just a small sampling of a much larger project I'm about to embark on.  But I thought I would try the month (which ended up taking two months) long project first to see how it goes.  If this goes well, it will decimate (reduce by one tenth) my grocery bill.

Pasta day: Ricotta and Chard stuffed tubes

I found these pasta tubes in a store and I thought to myself, "hmm... I've never tried that before, but I bet it will go well with chard."  Without a solid plan, I brought them home and set to work making myself a treat.

A few minutes playing with google, and I didn't find any recipe that appealed to me, so I gave up and just went with my gut instinct.  That was the best decision I made all week.  The pasta turned out So Friggin Fantastic!

The filling:  Ricotta, which ended up being home made, with chard from my garden that has been boiled and finely chopped.  Salt, pepper and a pinch of cayenne.

The sauce: onion, garlic, a carrot (first of the winter carrots from the garden).  Tomato sauce, wine, spicy rooster sauce, basil, salt and pepper.

Crispy fried bacon chunks for the top.  And some more whine in the dish to help the pasta cook through.

Sorry guys, it smelt so good and I was so hungry I couldn't wait to take a good photo.

Next time I think I'll put a thin layer of sauce under the pasta tubes to help them cook evenly all around.

There are some tubes left and I have a craving to somehow combine them with squash.  hmmm... have no idea how to pull that off.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Bento: chestnut rice with miso squash

Quickly, as I run out the door, let me show you today's bento lunch.

Chestnut rice with adzuke beans instead of sweet potato.

Squash (well, Japanese pumpkin) and sweet potato simmered in a homemade, homemade, soy-free miso sauce.  Homemade twice because I made the sauce at home AND I made the miso paste.  More on that later.  Now I need to get moving.

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Bento Lunch

Kechk Stew

I've been playing around more with Kechk lately, making stews and soups and random stuff.  I quite like it.  It's easy to digest, and seems to make meat easier to digest too.  

To make the kechk stew, I do the usual fry the onions, brown the meat (or forget it if you are going vegetarian), add the vegi and some salt and pepper, don't forget the garlic, stir some more.  Mix a few Tbs of kechk powder into some water, add it to the stew with more water, boil it down till everything's cooked through.  Add more kechk a bit before serving to thicken it, cook ten minutes then serve.  

Adding the kechk twice means that I can get both the flavour and the texture I like.  Kechk is a fantastic thickener, and I am eager to try it in gravy next time we have a roast.

The only issue I have with kechk stew is that there is no possible way to photograph it that displays how incredibly delicious it is.  

Kechk is traditionally not vegan friendly, however there is a recipe in Wild Fermentation that explains how you could make a vegan version of this.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Emergency Ricotta Recipe

I needed ricotta cheese for a recipe (a pasta recipe) but I was feeling too lazy to go to the store.  The I remembered that there is a really easy way to make ricotta style cheese at home using milk and vinegar.

Ricotta cheese, salted and ready to use

Traditionally ricotta cheese is made from the leftover liquid (whey) from making hard cheese.  They take the whey, add vinegar, and basically get a second cheese out of the milk.  Very economical and when I get around to making hard cheese, I can't wait to try it.

Ricotta hanging
to drain off the whey
from the curds.
However, these days, the word ricotta is more flexible, referring more to taste and texture rather than a specific method.  Think of it like the word cheddar.  Cheddar use to refer to a very specific method of making cheese that required a special way of cutting the curds.  Nowadays there are no end of products on the market called cheddar, some of them have no milk in them whatsoever. It's amazing how words change over time.

Emergency Ricotta is simple to make and a great introduction to cheese making.  Most recipes measure milk by the gallon, but since I only needed a small amount of ricotta for my pasta dish, I used a much smaller amount.  Feel free to scale up the recipe if you like.

Before we dive in, a word about vinegar.  I like using natural vinegar for this, however, different vinegars have different acid levels.  Start with one Tablespoon and then add a few drops later on if your milk doesn't curdle.

Also, I'm going to be terribly naughty here and not give you exact temperatures or timing.  In a hurry, I don't have time to deal with finding my thermometer and getting all fiddly with temperature.  Just give me the qualities we need, and let me get on with it.

Besides, people have been making cheese for a few thousand years now, without thermometers.  Then you come to the fact that milk varies from cow to cow and season to season, so the temperature may change from one batch to another.  Getting too precise is counterproductive in the home environment, especially when it's something as simple as making cheese.

If you are one of those people who find security and comfort in the scientific approach to the kitchen, the book Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll has just the right balance of precision without getting too bogged down in the rules to prevent you experimenting.  That's where I originally found the inspiration for this recipe.

Emergency Ricotta

1 litre whole milk or even half and half.  Raw (where legal) and pasteurized works well.  Make certain it's not ultra-pasteurized as that won't work at all.  Skim, 1 percent, and 2 percent milk probably won't give good results, as they've been chemically altered, but in an emergency, use what you have.

1Tbs apple cider vinegar, or other natural (not white) vinegar.  Failing that, lemon juice works great.  Even extra sour Kombucha will do the trick.

Generous pinch of salt.

  • In a saucepan combine the vinegar and milk.  Stir well.  Heat up until just below the boiling point when the curds separate and are clearly distinct from the whey, stirring frequently to prevent the bottom burning. Try to avoid letting it come to a boil.
    • As the milk heats up the vinegar will curdle it.  That's exactly what we want to happen.  As it heats up you will get to the point when there are white milk curds and the liquid they float in is basically clear.  That's what we want and that's where to move onto the next step.
    • If you get to just below the boiling point - where you have to struggle to keep it from boiling - but still no separation, it's time to add more acid.  Add a few drops, maybe four or five drops, of vinegar to the milk, stir it in well, wait a minute and see if it separates.  If not, repeat 'till it does.
  • Take the milk (well, curds and whey at this stage) off the heat and let sit undisturbed for 10 minutes.   
  • While it's sitting, get a bowl, a colander and some loosely woven cloth like, oh, I don't know, cheesecloth.   Line the colander with the cloth and put it so it drains into the bowl.  You will also need some string in a bit.
  • When the milk has set, pour into the colander so that the curds stay in the cloth and the whey drains into the bowl.  Use that bit of string to tie up the cloth into a little bag.  Hang the bag over the bowl (picture above) so that it can drip into the bowl.  Leave it there for at least 20 min, I usually do an hour.  The longer you hang it, the more firm/dry the cheese will be.
  • Take the cheese and put it in a large bowl.  Add a generous pinch of salt and mix it in well.  
  • Store in fridge, keeps about a week to 10 days.

cheese curds after draining
See, I told you this was easy.

You can keep the whey in the fridge for a few days, and use it to replace the water in bread baking, or any number of creative ways.  Even as a low fat milk substitute - though it is very watery.  The whey has a lot of nutrition still in it, so adding some to boiling veg, or stews is a good way to take advantage of it.  Keep in mind, this in not a live culture whey so it won't kickstart fermented foods.

Was it affordable?  In that I didn't spend the gas and time to go to the store just for one item, yes.  I also used up some milk that would expire soon... however, I was planning on making yoghurt from it, so it felt more like robbing Peter to pay Paul.  As for actual price - I don't know what the going price of ricotta is these days.  The milk was organic so it was about $4 and made 1 and 1/4 cup ricotta.

Update on affordability:  I went to the shop today and saw that regular commercial made ricotta cheese is $5 for the same amount I made in this recipe.  However, their cheese included many ingredients that I don't stock in my home... I like the stuff I made better, and in the end, it did work out cheaper.

Allergies:  You can make this with many different kinds of milk, including cow, goat, sheep, and a few others.  I haven't tried it with milk substitute like rice or almond, but I don't imagine it would work with that.  There aren't any shops in town that sell goat or sheep's milk ricotta so this is a great recipe for those who can't eat cows milk, but would like to have some cheesiness in their life.

Transitional: This is a great first step to being more self sufficient and less dependent on big industry.  For years they tell us that cheese is far too difficult or expensive to make and we must rely on big business to provide it to us.  Making cheese at home - and you don't have to do it all the time, I know I don't. - gives you the opportunity to understand what goes into making your food and empowers you to know that if you need cheese for a pasta recipe, you aren't 100% dependent on the big corporations to provide it.  Eventually you can work towards meeting the cow or goat that gave you the lovely white liquid... and that's when things get really exciting.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Bento: Chicken Karaage (Japanese fried Chicken)

Last weeks bento was cabbage kimpira and leftover karaage chicken.  Simple meal, but super-yummy.  I used an extra cabbage leave to separate the chicken from the rice.  The little chicken sauce dish is closed before the main bento lid goes on so that the sauce doesn't spill.

When I make karaage chicken, I often use pickled ginger instead of fresh (the bright red julian ginger, but sushi pickled ginger will do in a pinch).  That way I can add the ginger liquid to the marinade and I get the bright red colour from the ginger.  I wonder how they make ginger into delicious bright red slivers.

This is a traditional style wooden bento box.  The main thing about this box is that it allows the food to breath, which in my opinion keeps the rice much nicer.  As with all bento boxes, allow the food to cool completely before closing the lid (and heat up any leftovers before putting them in the box to extend their keeping power).  It seems weird to heat then cool, but have a read of this bento safety post by Just Bento.  She's fantastic and has a blog full of yummy recipes.

The only problem with this wooden box is that I don't have an elastic to fit it, so I fall back on the Japanese tradition to tie it up tightly with a colourful cloth.

Tea, bento, an orange for snack,
and chopsticks in a cute cat container.

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Bento Lunch

Check out some amazing bentos people made on What's for Lunch Wednesday.  I love browsing through the site for lunch ideas.