Making Sauerkraut – A Smashing Good Time

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I like to get up close and personal with my food preparation.  I’m not afraid to don my apron and get my hands right in there for the sake of something yummy.   And, making sauerkraut is the perfect way to be both hands on and hands off.  Let me explain.

Sauerkraut is a form of controlled decomposition.  If you wonder why it smells so funky, that is because healthy bacteria are digesting the cabbage and breaking it down —  this is the process of fermentation.  If the idea of fermentation grosses you out, then you’d better abandon yogurt, beer, coffee, cheese, chocolate and even bread.  Fermentation is everywhere, propagating good bacteria and it is a natural way of preservation.   Now we are learning about how helpful these beneficial bacteria are to our bodies.  Instead of trying to eliminate all bacteria, we need to better understand how to cultivate the good microbes and add them to our diet.

But I digress, I became interested in making sauerkraut a few years ago because I actually enjoy the taste.  It is tangy and I enjoy it on a grilled cheese with sauteed mushrooms, almost like a reuben.  It’s also a great condiment with perogies.  Making sauerkraut is quite simple.  The process involves a lot of smashing and then a lot of letting it ferment without intervention.  To make, first take a cabbage and chop it roughly into small pieces, or you can use an antique kraut board, but this device looks to me like a surefire way to visit the local ER doc.  Place the chopped cabbage in a metal bowl, add some coarse kosher salt and then start smashing it.  For a smashing implement, you can use the flat end of a rolling pin (pins/handles removed), or make something out of scrap wood.  The main thing is that you need to speed up the breakdown of the sauerkraut by smashing it up.  Once you get to a point where your cabbage is covered in liquid, you can then loosely pack the cabbage into mason jars, leaving at least an inch from the top to allow for air.  I can’t emphasize this enough:  don’t pack your jars too tightly — it creates a pressure during fermentation and will rupture the glass.  I did this once, arriving home to a hissing sound from my cabinet and when I opened up a jar under pressure, it spewed partially rotted cabbage all over my ceiling.  Oh, and this was when I was experimenting with red cabbage and living under the roof of a supremely neurotic landlord.  Not awesome, but lesson learned: don’t pack the container!  Once in the jar, you can add a bit of spicing.  I prefer to add a couple of juniper berries and some caraway seeds.  Now, you just let nature do the rest.  Store in a cool, dark place for at least 2 weeks.  Check on the kraut often to make sure it’s not drying out; if dry, add a brine solution of salt and water to top.  Check on the actual fermentation and when it’s done and tastes like sauerkraut, transfer to the refrigerator to slow the fermentation and preserve.

Freshly smashed and into the jar.

Freshly smashed and into the jar.

 

Why make your own sauerkraut when you can buy it?  For one, with a single cabbage you can make at least two quarts of kraut for a fraction of the price.  Second, you can experiment with different types of cabbage, and still the best I’ve ever made was from an heirloom dark green Jersey cabbage varietal.  And, it can be a stress reducer for what is more therapeutic than smashing something to smithereens for the sake of good food?  Finally, because it is homemade, you are getting all of the beneficial probiotics out of the food that are lost in the commercial production of sauerkraut.  Fear not the fermented cabbage!  By making your own kraut, you are continuing a long tradition of food preservation.

 

Made by (Another) Hand

Craft brew and cart burrito

Craft brew and cart burrito

As much as I love to make stuff, there are (many) times when it is best for me to leave the handmade up to other hands.  Take Mexican food, one of my absolute favorites, and yet despite copious amounts of trial and authentic ingredients, mine never comes close to that of my favorite burrito stand.  Never.  This cart sits in a parking lot across the street from a busy truck stop and it is some of the best food I’ve ever eaten.  The owner makes everything from scratch and you can taste the difference.   Our idea of a big splurge is taking our growler for our a fill at our local brewery followed by a trip to the Mexican cart — both handmade with skill and care by another hand.  And, a note about food carts:  they are one of the easiest ways for a cook to open up a restaurant, being so much more affordable than a brick-and-mortar place.  Most of the best food I’ve ever eaten has come from a food truck.  Visit these and support local cooks.   You will be amazed at what crafty cooks are able to create in small spaces.

Middle Eastern handmade flatbread

Middle Eastern handmade flatbread

In addition to food carts, I love to shop at small ethnic markets.  You never know what kind of new-to-you ingredients you will find inside and I’ve found both the quality and price of food to be less than at conventional super stores.  Also, I really don’t like shopping at giant, fluorescent-lit stores with aisles of food all wrapped up in packages.  I prefer small, simple stores without hundreds of cereal varieties and chips overwhelming my senses.  Often you find fresh homemade food, too amongst the cans and bottles of ethnic markets.  Yesterday while venturing out in the nearby city,  I smelled something awesome and then I saw people walking out of a market with bags of baked goods.  I stopped in and got the last two pieces of flatbread made hours before.  I also got a couple pieces of baklava which I quickly ate on my way home, thus no photograph.  From the queso fresco and tortillas of our Mexican market, to the flash fried tofu we always cart back from the Asian supermarket in Portland, to this newly discovered pita palace, you will find people crafting incredible food by hand when you step away from the conventional supermarket.

 

Handwoven piece found at an antique store

Handwoven piece found at an antique store

And now from the fresh food of markets and carts to the old antique store,  what I love about perusing the piles of stuff in antique stores is again how much of what is there was made by hand.  As opposed to our current shops where everything is wrapped in plastic and cardboard and smells more toxic than new, antique shops are full of stuff that has already been used.  There is history and there is a lot of craft.  I love admiring the old handmade quilts, all of the carved furniture, the pottery and knowing that these things have and will continue to be useful.  Recently I found this amazing woven piece at an antique shop.  If you think that knitting or quilting is time consuming, try weaving!  This piece is obviously handmade and required hours of work.  Right now it is draped at the edge of the bed, but I think it would be great hung on a wall, that is as soon as I can create a means to hang it without the risk of creating a snag.  I am not a weaver, but I truly appreciate the time that some unknown person took to make this.  And I’m glad that I give this piece another life in another space.

Handmade crafts are not gone, there is no need to lament its disappearance in our age of mass production.  There are handmade things everywhere, you just need to look elsewhere and not the big box stores.  By choosing to support the handmade in life,  you’ll get more than just some thing, you’ll support craftspeople.

Easy Peasy Ravioli

 

Spring inspired ravioli

Spring inspired ravioli

Wonton wrappers, wow!  I have always wanted to make my own raviolis, but the thought of crafting fresh pasta to the perfect pouch-like consistency was intimidating.  While perusing my daily round of food and design blogs, I stumbled upon this recipe for Minty Pea and Arugula raviolis on The Kitchn.  Since I love arugula (this blog could have been Arugula and Whales!), my interest was piqued.

I made a few adaptations to the original recipe.  As an abundance of fresh local produce is lacking in my neck of the sagebrush, I could not find the fresh mint for the recipe, so I supplemented with lemon juice and dried basil.  Amazingly, we do occasionally have arugula in our store and I lucked out getting a bag in the close-out  produce bin for 99 cents.  Also, I used frozen peas.

The assembly line

The assembly line

This recipe was super simple, light and very easy to create for a weeknight dinner.  Wonton wrappers are amazing and I love knowing about this shortcut to ravioli making.  Mid dinner, I was already plotting my next rounds of raviolis:  homemade ricotta and spinach arugula pesto, artichoke heart and red pepper pesto, spiced ground lamb, butternut squash, and of course, mushroom.  Although I am an avid creator, I am always grateful for reasonable shortcuts.   I cannot wait to expand my ravioli repertoire!

In Awe

In order to better appreciate the process of creation, sometimes you have to stop making and just enjoy what has already been made.  Here are snapshots from Leslie Gulch in southeastern Oregon.

A Tulip Grows in the Desert

Tulips:  a symbol of fortitude in a harsh landscape.

Tulips: a symbol of fortitude in a harsh landscape.

Last year, my first spring out of the damp Pacific Northwest, I was pleasantly surprised by all of the spring foliage.  Living in the desert, I did not anticipate daffodils, hyacinths, tulips and fruit blossoms to appear for a few short weeks between the 20 degree and the 100 degree days.  I especially did not anticipate tulips in our yard, the yard neglected over years prior to our arrival.  Incredibly, these hardy bulbs are able to remain dormant throughout the deep freeze of the winter and survive the intense heat of the summer.

Yesterday, our tulips finally bloomed.  I was concerned because all around town flowers were showing themselves off.  No need to worry, ours are just late bloomers.  I cut a few off to put inside on our house, but will keep the others intact outside for a few more days to enjoy the natural sunshine and the pleasant weather with their bee friends.

We have spent countless time trying to figure out how to make the landscape of our homestead a bit more pleasant without a ton of water.  We have cultivated, dug, planted and covered up our land trying to make it more aligned with the climate.  We’ve planted low-water desert plants, created rock gardens, used our chicken mowers and yet invasive weeds still dominate the yards.  And yet, the most beautiful thing in our yard, we haven’t touched.  These tulips live without human interference, they just exist.

I’ve always felt that I could live anywhere, adapt to anything and create the life I desired.  This location has proven these long-held notions harder to believe than ever before.  The weather here challenges me, especially the stretches of 105 degree days in the summer.  And then I look at these tulips and I am amazed by their ability to survive the extremes.  If they can do it, I can do it too.  I can become a hardier, more adaptable version of myself.  I can just exist and make it work.

 

Working From the Center Out

Start in the center.  Go from there.

Start in the center. Go from there.

 

As I sit here hand-quilting another project, I realize that starting at the center and working out is analogous to life just as it is essential to quilting.  In life, we should look to our centers and work from there; if we quilt from the outside in, we get a bumpy quilt.  Our hearts, and our gut, can tell us a lot about life and how it should be lived.  You know that feeling in your heart, that sinking feeling when things are not right?  That feeling comes from deep within, it is your center communicating to you.

I’ve had these moments in life where I just know things are not right — heck, I’m going through this right now.  It is easy to get overwhelmed when your heart and your mind are in disagreement, but there are ways to realign yourself.  It is important to always work on yourself, to learn more about what you need, and want, in life.  For example, yesterday I needed a House of Cards episode and a glass of wine on the couch for an hour to shut off my brain from the tedious job search.  Today, my day and needs will be different, a walk to the library and an hour spent on some projects as a reward for continuing to push along.  Moving forward, I’m going to continually listen to my heart in addition to my rational mind.  Working on my quilt reminded me that it is important to never forget your center while forging ahead in life.

 

You Never Know What You’ll Find on the Ground

My awesome haul!

My awesome haul!

Yesterday we attempted to go kayaking on a nearby reservoir.  What we thought would be a leisurely paddle was thwarted by crazy winds.  Thank goodness we have giant, stable sea kayaks!  It was surreal to be paddling on a man-made reservoir in the desert and feeling as if we were in the more turbulent waters of the Puget Sound or Columbia River.

Anyhow, after getting bounced around for a couple of hours, we decided to take a walk, shake off the sea/reservoir (?) sickness and find the creek that feeds the reservoir.  Walking across the dam, I was forced to look down at the ground for the wind was so strong.  And, thank goodness I did for, lo and behold, this road was covered with pieces of obsidian.  Now, who creates a road out of one of the sharpest rocks in existence (naturally occurring volcanic glass) I cannot explain, but I found some of the coolest pieces to add to my rock collection.  I am an amateur geologist, don’t you know.

In addition to my question of why the obsidian was there, I want to know where it is from.  There is no known obsidian within 100 miles of us, but I still find chunks of it when I’m scouring for rocks in the desert.  Some of these pieces could be old flakes from tools as obsidian was highly valued for its sharp consistency.  The sheer number of pieces that I found in the most unlikely place — on top of a dam road — is truly bizarre.  Also incredibly intriguing is how the rocks are rounded like river rock with the shiny, glass on the inside.  I wish I could solve the mystery of these rocks!

You really never know what you will see when you look down on the ground.  When you take your eyes away from the big picture, you can find tiny wildflowers, little critters and cool rocks in unexpected places.