Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Living Foods

Micro-farming holds new meaning in the kitchen where bacteria, yeast, and plants are encouraged to take root.

Since Kevin stopped eating gluten, I’ve stopped making my own bread, but I used to be in the habit of raising colonies of bread yeast, just to the point where they must have thought they had built quite the civilization, and then popping their whole world into a piping hot oven until it was crisp and steaming through.

A couple days ago, I made yogurt in the crock pot. I do this every ten days or so, when we run low on milk. I make sure to reserve enough yogurt to culture the next batch before heating, then cooling half a gallon to a gallon of milk in the crock pot in preparation for enculturation. I add yogurt to the warm milk and wrap the crock up warmly in a towel, allowing the colonies of bacteria to grow, and thickening the milk overnight to the consistency of pudding.

I keep compost and let organisms have their way with it, assuming they all know better than I do how to turn my kitchen waste back into soil. There is, in fact, a magical heap of rich black dirt in my back yard that used to be banana peels, cabbage cores, and other vegetable detritus.

A few years ago, I made ginger beer using the recipe in Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions. I’m getting ready to do this again, because it’s hot out and I’m craving this beer. It’s mildly alcoholic and very spicy. It takes about a month to make, and begins by setting out a mash of ginger, sugar, and water to culture. Wild yeast from the air will find it and turn it into something else. The first few times I did this, it worked like a charm, so when it didn’t come out right a time after, I could tell from the dearth of signs of life: no bubbles, no good odor, and the color turned gray and dark.

I still fail at my micro-farming on occasion. A jar of beans intended for sprouts will moulder, instead, and have to be thrown away. On rare mornings, I unwrap the crock pot and the cultured milk has not thickened. Kitchen-sized is just about the level of agriculture I can manage: a cup of sprouts, a heap of compost. I have farm shares, but no garden in my tiny yard; not yet. For now I’m happy to divert compostables from the garbage stream, even without having a use for soil enrichment. I only have time to indulge so many of my obsessions at once.

Every once in a while I am caught by surprise by my own cooking, and am reminded of the several steps I mastered to be able to create this dish that I used to have to go out to get any version of. It happened last night as I ate the last serving of sprouted, spicy chickpeas with rice and kale and yogurt for dinner. It is a good example of what I consider comfort food today: we’ve been eating this spicy chickpea dish for years and know that it always tastes best after it’s been in the fridge for several days, letting the spices sink in. As I ate it last night, it was spiced and cooked to my taste, nourishing to my own idiosyncratic and exacting standards, and made fresh from local ingredients. I brought the kale home from the farm, sprouted the peas, roasted the cumin seeds, cultured the milk, steamed the rice. I know it takes exactly 40 minutes to get perfect brown basmati rice from one particular saucepan and precise measures of grain and water. I’ve got the yogurt down to a science, too. All combined, it is indistinguishable from magic. Arthur C. Clarke would approve.

Photo credit: little blue hen/flickr