A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Culture Club

by Maria Reidelbach  
Eggplants of all colors.

On these fabulous late summer days in the Hudson Valley, we live in a cornucopia of fresh fruit and vegetables. Out in the garden, in farm fields, stands and markets, I feel giddy with delight—the colors, scents and flavors are so exciting! For starters, Gill Farm in Hurley grows at least 10 kinds of eggplant, purple, white, striped, and even orange and red. Good Flavor Farm in Clairmont carries beautiful baby carrots, beets, and leafy celery, and Maynard Farm in Ulster Park even has freaky black tomatoes!

So even if you don’t grow your own, this is a great time of year to take advantage of our local bounty. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with pickling—especially with the simple, ancient method used to make delicious, crunchy, kosher dill pickles. This summer, I’ve been making pickles from other vegetables too: baby zucchini, pattypan squash, green, yellow and purple beans, Brussels sprouts, beets, carrots, and all kinds and colors of eggplant and peppers. Sauerkraut is made this way, too. It is amazing that you need only two ingredients to produce a major transformation: salt and water—and no cooking in a hot summer kitchen, either! The vegetables will be preserved for months.
This amazing alchemy is a process called lacto-fermentation. It all happens on a microscopic level with our friends, bacteria, which you’ll be growing right on your counter top, yes, on purpose! When you submerge a vegetable in brine it creates an anaerobic environment—the vegetables are sealed off from the germy air of the outside world and protected from undesirable microbes that would spoil them. The benign bacteria that create yummy fermentation are already living inside the vegetables. Safe in their salty environment, these bacteria chow down on the vegetable’s sugars and produce a bunch of antimicrobial substances: lactic acid (it’s sour), carbon dioxide, alcohol, and a few other chemicals. All this happens without damaging the plant material or most of its vitamins, plus lacto-fermentation creates lots of B vitamins and natural chemicals that enhance the flavor of the vegetables.
And we’re learning now that there’s all kinds of good probiotic effects—these pickles are great for digestion and for the health of all the good biota that live inside of us. Nicci Cagan, a Stone Ridge healthy food advocate, says, “Fermentation is about creating healthy cultures. It’s something we can do together.” I’m not sure if by “together” she means her and you and me, or me and my bacteria.
Pickled items including beans, celery, broccoli, beets & carrots.
It’s kind of creepy and kind of magical. I have to admit that culturing bacteria on my food didn’t feel comfortable at first, even after I reminded myself that some of my favorite foods are the result of bacteria and fermentation: cheese, yogurt, beer, wine, miso, soy sauce, kimchi, and cider just for starters. But after I made my first batch of cucumber pickles and tasted how good they were, I’ve gotten braver—and more hungry.
Here is a basic recipe for lacto-fermented pickles. You can make great pickles with these simple instructions, as long as you pay attention to the important details.
Lacto-fermented Pickled Vegetables
1/3 cup kosher salt, or 1/4 cup plain or sea salt (don’t use iodized)
1 cup boiling water
2 lbs. fresh vegetables, cut up as you wish
crushed garlic cloves or sliced onions, if you like
a handful of fresh herbs, as desired
Mix the salt and water until dissolved, and let cool to room temperature (you can add a couple of ice cubes). Put the vegetables and herbs into a glass or plastic container that’s wide enough for a weight (see below) and pour the brine over, adding enough water to just cover the vegetables, which will tend to float.
Put a small plate on top of the vegetables to push them down. If necessary, put another weight on the plate—you want those veggies to be below the surface of the brine, even if the plate is submerged too. Cover with a clean tea towel.
Begin sampling after several hours and refrigerate the pickles when they’re as sour as you like. If any mold is floating on the surface, just skim it off. Top off the brine with water if you need to.
Keep your pickles very cool or in the fridge. They’ll continue to ferment, but more slowly.
If your pickles smell bad or get slimy, don’t eat them—they might have gotten contaminated somehow or some veggies, like garlic scapes, just don’t pickle well.
Nicci’s expert tip: she likes to start with chopped or shredded cabbage, then add other vegetables like cucumbers, peppers and onions.
There are plenty of resources about fermenting pickles with history, more detail about pickling containers, types of salt, effects of water, and many ways to tweak your pickle-fermenting practice. Here are a few that I find most helpful:
• Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz, the lacto-fermentation bible (thanks Lisa Jessup!).
• Keeping Food Fresh: Old World Techniques and Recipesby the Gardeners & Farmers of Terre Vivante, a fascinating source of traditional European recipes.
• Put ’em Up by Sherri Brooks Vinton. A fun source of all kinds of food preservation techniques.
• If you really want to cheat, you can buy locally grown and pickled vegetables from Perry’s Pickles, a multigenerational family company based in Woodstock. Perry’s sells pickles at farmers markets and local outlets.
• Nicci Cagan, pickler extraordinaire, is Director of From the Ground Up, a farm-to-school organization in Stone Ridge.
When she’s not pickling, Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist and serves as a board member of the Rondout Valley Growers Association.