Friday, January 28, 2011

Probiotics Part 3- Making Vinegar.

Last September in the frenzy of havesting and canning I ended up with an overabundance of local grapes. It was a few days before I could get to them all, the fruit flies were swarming and in desperation I juiced a large quantity of them. I flash heated the juice to pasteurize it, filled 3 litre jars and set them aside to be used later. A few days later I noticed that one of the jars hadn't sealed properly and had a small amount of what appeared to be scum on the surface. When I lifted the lid the distinct odor of yeast and alcohol hit me right away; unbeknown to me, I was making wine!

Now since wine making wasn't really on the agenda and and I didn't have the proper equipment nor knowledge to do so, I probably should have just thrown it out right then. But the science nerd in me was intrigued so I pour the entire contents into a 2 l plastic bottle and loosely capped it so the gases could escape. Then I stuck it away in warm corner and let it do its thing. After a couple weeks the process seemed to be complete- the bubbling had stopped and the liquid smelled strongly of wine. Appearance wise however it didn't look so nice- it was clouded and murky and looked like nothing you'd want to drink. And without taking a crash course in wine making I didn't think there was anything I could do to make use of it. Then it occurred to me that I could let it turn into vinegar! It seemed simple enough; after all a bottle of red wine left open for too long will eventually turn to vinegar on its own. I looked around online to see if there was any information on how to ensure this process took place but there wasn't much out there. I recalled reading a recent article in Edible Toronto ( a fantastic magazine about local food that's distributed for FREE around the GTA) about a man who calls himself and his product line Mr Vinegar. Roger Lambert and his wife Joyce have been making their award winning vinegars since 1994 so in my books that makes them experts. Roger was gracious enough to speak to me by phone and answer all of my questions!

Here's where the science nerd part kicks in again. All alcohol is made by yeast acting on upon sugars and plant carbohydrates- in this version, grape juice- to produce ethanol and carbon dioxide (the bubbles). If you were making wine or beer you would add a specific strain of yeast to your base substance; in my case it was wild yeast which are naturally occurring on grapes that started the process. Once the yeast has consumed all the available sugar they die off and you're left with ethanol. To continue on to vinegar you need another microbe -bacteria known as acetic acid bacteria. The most common of these are the Acetobactor family. They break the alcohol down to form acetic acid- the key component of vinegar. I asked Roger how I would go about ensuring that these bacteria found their way into my poor excuse for wine. He suggested two things - the first was to leave the lid off to encourage fruit flies to enter. That was pretty easily done since my house was still swarming with them. The second was to add some flowers- any kind. It seems Acetobacter are found naturally in rotting fruit (and transported by fruit flies) as well as in the nectar of flowers. I threw in some lobelia, mums and tomato flowers for good measure- now my wine looked odd but pretty!

Roger and I also discussed a possible third source which is to purchase vinegar that includes the 'mother'. A mother is a large colony of the necessary bacteria that is found on the surface of a batch of vinegar. Unfortunately once the acetobactor have consumed all the ethanol available they tend to die off and the mother sinks to the bottom. This is important to note because Acetobactor are oxygen dependent- hence why we try to keep air out of red wine. To keep your culture alive you must continually add more of the source of food- ethanol, and it must be exposed to air. Most bottled vinegars which contain a mother don't actually have much in the way of viable bacterial cultures but they are still more healthy than those that contain sulphites which are added to stop the process cold and kills off all the bacteria in the process. You can also buy packaged mother starters from some homebrew supply companies.

I left my 'wine', flowers floating and open to the fruit flies for several weeks. Per Rogers instructions I also added some white vinegar to help acidify the starter. Soon after, a weird shiny mat appeared on the surface just as Roger described and the smell of vinegar began to overpower the wine smell. After another month or so I noticed that the mother had sunk to the bottom so I decanted the liquid from the container, strained it and bottled it. It tastes like a fruity version of red wine vinegar although I suspect I might have left it a bit too long; some species of Acetobactor can further convert acetic acid into carbon dioxide and water and mine's a bit watery I think. I definitely won't be using it for canning since I don't know the percentage of acetic acid, and I don't think I'll be stealing any gold medals from Roger with this batch. Truthfully it was a bit messy and time consuming to produce a small amount of vinegar but the satisfaction of knowing where the ingredients came from, start to finish makes it worthwhile. Next time I'll do a much larger batch.

I am eager to attempt other kinds of vinegars which use different starting ingredients. I think the next obvious choice is apple cider vinegar. There's great instructions (using much better equipment) for this at Local Kitchen .

If you make your own beer you can also try making malt vinegar from it. You can even use mass produced beer but most will contain sulphites to impede the growth of the bacteria so aren't as reliable. Any type of alcohol can potentially become vinegar so the possibilities are many. White vinegar is made from -go figure- white spirits, predominantly rum. Champagne vinegar is popular as is white wine. Roger takes things to a whole new level; he makes fruit vinegars from things like blueberries and peaches, even a cucumber vinegar and my new favourite- maple syrup vinegar!

If you live near Hamilton, Roger will be teaching a workshop on vinegar making at Mohawk College in May!


Location: Mohawk College - Fennell Campus - 135 Fennell Ave W, Hamilton, ON

Date: May 14th, 2011

Time: 10:00 am - 4:00 pm

For more information, email ask@mohawkcollege.caThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Probiotics Part 2 - Lacto-Fermentation

The word 'probiotic' seems to be everywhere these days, but using microbes to transform food and enhance the available nutrients is not new; in fact it's as old as mankind itself. We start using probiotics in our diets almost from birth; breastfed babies have colonies of bacteria in their gut that break down the sugars in breast milk for easier absorption. As we age, the types of microbes in our intestines changes to adapt to our diet. Introducing microbes to food before we eat it helps to repopulate those colonies, as well as rendering food more digestible. Fermentation is probably the most widely used method of introducing probiotics in our diets; there are many methods of fermenting different substances and even more microbes at work in these methods. Like yogurt, the process behind things like sauerkraut and kimchi are dependent on lactic acid producing bacteria, hence why this process is often referred to as lacto-fermentation.

The most commonly known probiotic bacteria are the Lactobacillus family. Anything that starts with the initial L. followed by a barely pronounceble latin name is a member of this family. L. acidolphilus is probably the most well known; lately L casei has been getting some press as well. I'm sure you can figure out where L. kimchii is commonly found! This group of bacteria are commonly found in our guts (and in women they are found in healthy vaginas as well). The main reason we consider them beneficial is because their acid production makes their surroundings a little less inviting for some of the not so friendly bacteria- it's a competition thing and in a healthy gut the balance is constantly maintained. However scientists are beginning to examine the possibility that certain strains of this bacteria also produce additional health benefits which is why there's a recent commercial interest as well.

Another less commonly known probiotic bacteria is the Bifidobacterium family. Like the Lactobacilli they are found in yogurt and fermented foods. They are also found in the gut of healthy individuals, primarily infants; their numbers decline in the human body with age. Interestingly, bottle fed infants have much lower numbers as well. One species, B infantis is very successful at treating irritable bowel syndrome. Scientists are also looking at this group for it's positive effects on the immune system.

The best part of all of this is that it's very easy to ferment foods at home. Given the right conditions, fermentation by lactobacilli will take place naturally, because lactic acid bacteria occur normally on things like raw cabbage leaves where they grow. In traditional fermentation recipes salt is added to inhibit unwanted microbes like molds initially but allow the lactic acid bacteria to thrive. Once the bacteria have taken hold, the process is self promoting. As the desired bacteria eat up the naturally occurring sugars, they produce acid; the acid in turn makes the environment more hostile to unwanted pathogens therefore acting as a preservative. The benefits to humans are multilevel- a source of vitamins from the host medium (vegetables) along with other nutrients made more easy to digest, a replenishment of healthy bacteria in the gut, and additional components from fermentation process that we can't even identify yet!

There are many great books on fermentation and tons of online sources for recipes. Look for simple directions that don't include a lot of specialized equipment. Fermentation projects are great for winter months because you don't have to worry about conditions being too hot for your microbes and many of the ingredients are still readily available from local sources.

Some of my favourites:
A great resource site and author of several books on fermentation.

Good clear instructions, with pictures, for making sauerkraut. He uses a special crock but mentions that you don't need one- a large jar with a wide mouth will work just as well and you can actually watch the bubbles appear- another byproduct of fermentation.

White kimchi
White kimchi uses same process but without the heat of traditional kimchi. It's a good place to start if you've never made kimchi before.

I made pickled grape leaves last summer using this recipe. For whey you can use the the liquid produced in yogurt making.

Happy fermenting!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Yogurt and Probiotics

There's been a lot of discussion online recently on making your own yogurt. Making yogurt at home is not new; my mom used to make it at home when we were little, way back in the 70's. You don't need much in the way of equipment or ingredients and it's pretty simple to make and fairly forgiving if you aren't an exact recipe type person, like me. A lot of online directions include a list of must-haves and must-dos which I find intimidating and sometimes absolutely wrong. I've been making yogurt for years and don't have or do most of those things and I've never had a failed batch. What you do have to keep in mind is that all yogurt is a live culture, at least at some point and it is possible to kill the organisms by mishandling; dead bacteria don't make good yogurt.

Things you need to know when making yogurt, the basics:

You need milk. Whole milk, skim milk, goat's milk, yak's milk, powdered milk (reconstituted of course), even soy milk (I've heard but never tried- apparently you need to add extra sugar). The only type of milk you should never try this with is ultra pasteurized because it has been heated to the point of destroying the helpful enzymes and you will end up with a pot of goo.

You need a starter culture. This is just a small amount of yogurt that contains a live culture (more on this later). Since all yogurts should contain live cultures in theory, you should be able to use any unsweetened yogurt but to be safe use a good quality plain yogurt that lists active bacterial cultures as one of the top ingredients and as little extra ingredients as possible. You need about 1 tablespoon of starter per two cups of milk. Once you've successfully made a batch you can use your own as a starter for future batches.

You need to heat the milk. The milk whichever type you use, needs to be heated to prepare it to accept the culture- this breaks down the inhibiting enzymes that are present. If you are using raw milk this will also kill off any potentially harmful organisms. You do NOT need to boil the milk, only scald it. Scalding milk means to heat it until the bubbles are just beginning to form so this is the only part that requires paying close attention. You do not want to burn your milk- it smells and tastes awful and as anyone who's ever done it knows, virtually impossible to get off the pot bottom. You can heat your milk on the stove using any kind of pot with a lid- use a double boiler if you like more control over how quickly it gets hot. Remove from heat as soon as you see new bubbles appearing around the sides of the pot, put a lid on it and set it aside to cool.

You need to cool the milk before adding the starter culture. This is the point where it's possible to kill the bacteria by mistake. The types of bacteria that make yogurt are thermophiles (heat loving) but even they can't survive at temperatures over 55oC (130o F). So you must let the milk cool to lukewarm before adding the culture. Don't cook your starter! If you are unsure what lukewarm should feel like, use a thermometer and don't add the starter until the milk is below 50 C (122 F) but still above 37oC (98oF). I just use my finger and if it feels warm but not hot, I add my starter directly to the milk. Stir well with a fork to evenly distribute the culture.

You need to keep your yogurt warm for 4 - 6 hours. Once you've added the culture to the milk, the bacteria are going to do their thing which is eat all the lactose (milk sugar) and produce lactic acid among other things. Also they are going to reproduce like crazy. You want this to happen so you need to give them the ideal conditions to do so and that means maintaining a minimum temperature of 38oC (100oF) but not higher than 50 C (122 F). There are a couple of low tech possibilities to do this. If you have a gas oven, the pilot light provides enough heat to maintain the proper temps so you just place your yogurt inside and check it in a few hours. If you don't have a gas oven you can get creative. Use a heating pad set on low and cover your pot with a heavy towel. Or put a hot water bottle with your yogurt, wrap both in a towel and put in cooler or inside your microwave, replacing the bottle with another if it cools too quickly. I've stuck pots of yogurt culture on my heated waterbed (yeah I'm old school), covered them with the duvet and left them for hours. As long as the heat source produces enough to keep it in the above temperature range your yogurt will be fine.

And that's pretty much it! In 4-5 hours the milk will begin to solidify and whey will appear. Once this has occurred you can stop the process at any time by refrigerating your yogurt. Refrigerating doesn't kill the culture, it just slows it down and the bacteria don't break down any more of the sugars. The longer you leave it at a higher temp, the more sour the yogurt gets so if you like it that way, leave it up to 8 hours or overnight. Congratulations, you've made yogurt!

Commercial yogurts as noted contain at least some bacterial culture although in many cases the yogurt is treated in a way that the culture is no longer active, or there are so many additives like gelatin, preservatives and artificial sweeteners and flavours that one wonders if there's actually any yogurt left. The recent trend to promote certain brands as having unique probiotic qualities makes me want to throw things at my television. Probiotics as defined by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the World Health Organization are "Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host". This includes the lactic acid bacteria used to make yogurt as well as yeasts and other microbes. That means any yogurt that contains an active bacterial culture is probiotic, along with things like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and fermented pickles. The bacterial cultures found in yogurt can vary a bit in terms of species but they all have similar characteristics in that they are heat loving as mentioned above, and they consume sugars and produce acid.

In my previous life I studied about these kinds of things in school and the science nerd in me still thinks bacteria is fascinating. I also believe that everyone should have a basic knowledge of the types of bacteria that are helpful, as well as the ones that can potentially harm us, at least so I'm not the only one rolling my eyes at all the ads for antibacterial products. I hope to write a series of posts over the next while that go a little more in depth into preservation methods that utilize fermentation, and the science behind it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

January Spice Rack Challenge: Rosemary

I had so much fun with the Can Jam last year that when I heard of the Spice Rack Challenge I signed up right away. And then promptly forgot about it until I read about it again on today's post by Tigress. Then I got in a panic and thought the deadline to post my recipe was today, which it it isn't ( that would be a different challenge - more on that later).

In any case I should probably mention that the Spice Rack Challenge is the brain child of "Mom" at Mother's Kitchen and, like it sounds, the idea is to cook with a specified herb or spice every month and blog about it. I regularly use a lot of different spices in my cooking and this sounded like a simple project to write about. The focus ingredient for this month is rosemary which I use lots of, and I overwinter my rosemary plant every year so I have a constant fresh source. Problem was since I hadn't been thinking of it, I didn't have the rest of the ingredients on hand for the recipe I'd planned on. So I did like any sensible person- I googled rosemary recipes! Lucky for me, one of the first recipes to pop up was a very simple dish that required only a couple ingredients, all of which I had. It's not a dish I would have normally chosen, mainly because of it's simplicity but I thought it would do well in a pinch. To my surprise it was absolutely fantastic and that fact that it turned out so well has given me the idea to make the Spice Rack Challenge even more challenging. I've decided that from here out I'm not going to fall back on my tried-and-true recipes for this project; instead I'm going to find a new (to me) recipe for each ingredient. After all if the point of the exercise is to learn something, it only makes sense to try new things.

Beet Roesti with Rosemary

From How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

1 to 1-1/2 pounds beets
1 teaspoon coarsely chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup flour
2 Tablespoons butter

Trim the beets and grate them in a food processor or by hand. I think this recipe would be a great one for yellow beets as well. (I love yellow beets but as gorgeous as they are when fresh, yellow beets do not make a very attractive pickle.)

Begin preheating a medium to large non-stick skillet over medium heat. I used my cast iron pan but I had a little difficulty getting it out intact so maybe non stick is better if you use one.

Toss the grated beets in a bowl with the rosemary and salt, then add about half the flour; toss well, add the rest of the flour, then toss again.

Place the butter in the skillet and heat until it begins to turn brown. Scrape the beet mixture into the skillet, shape it into a nice circle, and press it down with a spatula. Turn the heat to medium-high and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the bottom of the beet cake is nicely crisp, 6 to 8 minutes.

Slide the cake out onto a plate, top with another plate, invert the two plates, and slide the cake back into the pan. Continue to cook, until the second side is browned. Cut into wedges and serve immediately.

It was amazingly delicious! Crispy outside just like potato roesti, it had a nutty, slightly sweet taste that worked very well with the rosemary. I served it with a dollup of sour cream on top and we had it for breakfast along with potato pancakes and poached eggs. I also tried a bit with some horseradish mayo and that was even more spectacular!

I think I'm going to like this challenge. If you think you might as well, it's not too late to sign up! You have until this Friday, January 21 to register.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Getting a Jump on Spring

So it's the middle of January ( nine weeks till spring!) and I'm nowhere near thinking about this year's garden- I don't even know where my seedling trays are and haven't ordered a single seed catalogue yet! But apparently the garden is impatient and started without me this year. I was watering the indoor plants and checking on my recent transplants and realized I now have a whole mess of things that, for the most part, weren't there last week. This is what happens when you reuse potting soil and add worm castings straight from the bin.

In the dumb cane pot-I think it a rapini seedling, or perhaps a mustard green of sorts. The one behind may be a cucumber. Or not.

These have actually been growing for a bit but I only just realized they are nicotiana- the plants were growing side by side on the deck this past summer and apparently somebody self seeded.

In the thumbergia pot - a couple sad looking morning glories and something I suspect is a hanging petunia- I did not plant this I assure you.

And in the recently potted lemon and walnut seedlings I have a whole mess of volunteers.

At least one is pepper seedling but the rest are still too small to identify. Since they are gifts from the worm bin they could be just about anything. Except clementines. Those peels are just there to prevent the cats from digging in there- they dislike the smell of citrus. Perhaps I should consider using citrus scent toilet paper. Oh and yarn- this is what I woke up to this morning!

It was stretched from one end of the apartment to the other and wrapped around a number of chair legs. Probably retaliation because I finally hid all the tp where they couldn't get to it. Who knew cats could get cabin fever?

Back to the indoor garden:

Sharing the pot with the pineapple mint who is looking a bit bedraggled I have yet another tomato seedling.

Speaking of tomatoes my previous volunteers are still hanging in although they are a tad thin and spindly. But look what appeared this morning! Yes those are actual tomato flowers. On January 15th.
These guys are serious optimists.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Wildlife Tree

Christmas came and went in a blur this year and we've both been working a lot ever since so I'm a bit behind on this. Traditionally in my family we leave the Christmas tree up until "Little Christmas" also known as Epiphany, Orthodox Christmas or Twelfth Night if you will. It's always a bit of sad task to put away all the glitz and tinsel for another year, and the discarded trees look so forlorn waiting on the street for garbage pick up. A few years ago I had the idea to recycle my tree for one last celebration of sorts; I turn it into a wildlife tree and decorate it with tasty treats for all the small creatures that appear outside my backdoor, looking hungry in the dead of winter. It looks so pretty out side in the snow!

I like to use a variety of nuts, fruit and seeds. Acorns and chestnuts I picked up in the fall, seeds I saved from sunflowers, squash and pumpkins, and bits of fruit I salvage from stuff I've dried. This year I also have apples from that last late harvest that didn't get preserved and are too far gone for us to use. I also had some dates that got lost in the fridge and were dried beyond edible at least for human teeth. And of course I use popcorn, and cranberries if I have them. I drill holes in the nuts and use bits of yarn and twine to tie them to the tree like ornaments, and string popcorn, berries and seeds on thread. The animals eat the food and take the bits of yarn and such back to their nests.

For the birds I also like to make suet balls. Suet balls are really simple to make and you'll find you have the necessary things on hand most of the time and can likely find a good substitute if you don't. Rather than buy suet, I keep the fat from cooking beef or pork in a jar in the fridge until I'm ready use it.

Suet Balls

1 cup beef or pork fat ( or a mix of both)- you can also use commercial lard.
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup chunky peanut butter ( natural preferably)
1/2 cup sunflower seeds-( I use some flax seed and sesame seeds as well)

Raisins, small pieces of dried fruit and/or nuts- optional

1 cup mixed wild bird seed- set aside half

In sauce pan over low heat, slowly melt fat and peanut butter.

Add all ingredients plus half of bird seed. Mix thoroughly. Add dried fruit and nuts if using. Allow to cool slightly but not completely solidify. Spread remaining bird seed on a plate. When it's cool enough to handle, take enough mixture in your hands to make a ball about the size of a golf ball, roll in bird seed and set aside to completely cool- you can put them in the fridge at this point. Or if you prefer, you can divide the mixture into muffin tins and make them into suet cakes

I save mesh bags from onion, garlic, etc to hold the balls. Place on tree branches where birds can access them. Squirrels around here will steal anything they can, so I sometimes use bits of wire to attach them.

I put my tree out on the deck yesterday, on a cold but sunny day, and almost immediately it was covered with squirrels and birds. By last night it had been stripped of almost everything so I will add more over the next few weeks. It's a great sight to watch all the creatures through the sunporch windows as I sit here warm and dry; the farm cats like to watch as well, although I swear they're licking their lips. Since there's snow now they rarely venture out and it's good to have something to amuse them , otherwise we end up with this!

That's the 3rd roll this week!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Looking Forward

Now that the holidays are past and we've had a chance to absorb the news that the Russian is here for good, things are starting to return to normal around here. We still have a few days off however so it's been a good time to talk of plans and dreams for the coming year. Some are still far off dreams, like where should we travel first, when he actually has documents in hand. Others are more day to day; like when will we finally finish some of the building projects that have been on hold forever, like the coldframes.

I have a few small projects of my own that I'm planning on doing this winter. Some are repeat projects such as sprouting and making yogurt. Others are new to me like making my own wine from various sources- I recently was given a book called Peggy Hutchinson's Homemade Wine Secrets, published sometime in the 1940's, that gives recipes for making wine with everything from clover to beets and I am excited to give it a try. I've also got plans for a wildlife tree which makes use of the christmas tree once it's taken down- a second chance to shine, similar to the pumpkins at Halloween.

Gardening of course is always at the top of the list and even when the weather isn't condusive to growing things outside, there's still things to be done. New Year's Day was unseasonalbly warm so I made use of the thaw to finish up a few things that hadn't been dealt with in the fall when my arm was in a cast- emptying pots of dirt and storing all the tools that hadn't made it away. Yesterday was right back to frigid temps so I took the time to change the worm bin and was ecstatic to discover another sprouted lemon pit ( they keep sneaking in somehow) and even more exciting, a walnut sprout! I had thrown one of the Pelham walnuts in the bin months ago to see if it would grow and had all but given up on it. I used the worm casting to augment some used potting soil and transplanted them both, along with the volunteer tomatoes which are still hanging in although one looks like it might not survive the transplant. There are also seeds still drying all over the place that need to packaged up and labeled for future plantings. And I'm already musing over seed catalogs and dreaming of what I'll grow in the gardens this summer.

Of course canning is still ongoing, although it's slowed to a trickle lately. We're still waiting to hear about this year's version of the Can Jam but you can be sure Colette and I will be signing up. I've also agreed to be part of a Spice Rack Challenge so there will be posts of those as well. There's a few other blogging projects that I'm intrigued by but haven't committed to yet- I'll be sure to post about them if I do!

So as the days get longer ( incrementally I know, but still!), one thing is for certain- this year is going to be a busy one- hope you're along for the ride!