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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Salt of the Earth and Lactic Fermentation…

Bean dripThe bean poles are dripping beans and that calls for action. The Ripple is all about variety, a change of scenery, a “pushing to the edge of the envelope,” so to speak. You plant the beans, you weed the beans, you trellis the beans, you water the beans: you devote valuable life minutes to the beans. About all that’s left for the beans, then, is harvesting and canning. But wait a minute…there are other methods of preserving one’s bean crop, of laying by the beans of summer for the meals of winter. I posted about beans in a September post two years ago: “Spilling the Beans About Beans,” (9/12/2011). Consider this post a “post script” to its predecessor.

One alternative to canning and freezing garden produce is by dehydration. I mentioned a Mother Earth News tip about “leather britches,” bean pods threaded through their middles with kite string or pea twine and fashioned into bean leis and hung up to dry. No fancy dehydrator necessary; no electricity consumption: I hung my britches behind the woodstove where they soon shriveled from the radiant heat. Unstring a handful of the crispy shells, toss them in the Saturday soup, and soon they’ll reconstitute, feel right at home bubbling away on the stove with the rest of the vegetables. Not only a good way to prevent bean wastage but quite convenient, too.

Last fall my friend Jim gave me a half gallon jar of pickled green beans.  Natural curiosity, by the way, is just one of Jim’s admirable traits. Take gardening  for instance: Jim is always trying something new, some cutting edge method in tilth (“no till gardening,” for example ). Ever the enthusiast, Jim is, of the new crop, the exotic variety, the best shell bean, the ideal winter squash, dent corn for the perfect cornmeal (I believe this year Jim is exploring the world of the Jerusalem artichoke). Now I’m a gardener myself, and I’ll be the first to admit where green beans are concerned, there’s not a whole lot of excitement one can derive from a thriving bean pole. Enthusiasm, perhaps, or in the case of next year’s crop—anticipation: Tony Broers has promised me seed from his foot-long bean variety. (The other day I asked Tony if  he could spare one bean  for show and tell. “Take four, he chuckled, “and have yourself a meal.”) 

“Kraut beans,” I called them when Jim presented me the jar.“Kraut” because they have the sauerkraut pucker factor and because the beans were processed the same way: in a salt brine.

For you chemists out there, it’s called“lactic fermentation.” Back when the world was young and science just a toddler, someone discovered that the salt of the Earth, when applied in liberal amounts to meat and garden produce, would preserve them until they could be replenished the next growing season. These were the years between the last Ice Age and the first refrigeration patent in 1834 and the 1933 first edition of the Ball Blue Book Easy Guide to Tasty, Thrifty Canning and Freezing.

Lactic Fermentation. That’s what happens when you chop cabbage, salt it, and crock the mixture until sour happens. It’s all chemistry, of course, and therefore entails a whole lot of technical terms that for me get in the way of the destination. I’m all about process and  product; how the process works I’ll leave to the PHDs in chemistry; that the whole thing works is what I’m about.

I’m perfectly satisfied to stand on the right hand side of the equation as in the cartoon I once saw where two scientists stand looking at figures on a chalkboard and in place of the equal sign are the words: “And then a miracle happens.” In fact it was the math involved that soured me on high school chemistry; the experiments I loved; the mixing of exotic chemicals was a joy…the resulting strange smells that prompted crass jokes and accusations. Then the “after”math to figure out how much of this caused so much of  that byproduct. At this point in the class I usually started fiddling with the nozzles that supplied gas to the bunsen burners (which explains in part why I earned my only “progress in this class stalled”report during my lackluster high school career where I pretty much straddled the hump of the bell curve until graduation).

Part of the chemical interaction in the salt cure method involves an anaerobic reaction, something I know a little about because of the Werkhovens’ methane-producing digester in the Valley; however, for those among you fascinated by the science of things (you who made better marks in chemistry than I, for example), I’ve provided a link that should fill in the gaps on the subject.

Turn your back on beans for a day or two and suddenly they’re like leather britches on the vine. Jim’s beans, tasty as they were, leaned a bit toward the tough side (a fact he candidly admitted). Beans at the bottom of the pole mature first, so to forego the expense of a sore back and tough beans, I selected tender young pods from the vines clinging to the top of the pole. I’m a poor judge of quantity and end up picking enough beans for a gallon jar, maybe more. The recipe, which I found in the book Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning (Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1999), recommends not washing the beans unless they’re especially dirty (another reason to forage at the top of the pole), the reason, I believe, is most garden produce has natural yeasts that cling to the skins. These little yeast organisms help expedite the fermentation process.preserving the old way

I mix the brine: two tablespoons of salt per quart (I make a quart and a half—for displacement, understand), and while it comes to a boil, I snip the ends from the pods and like coins in a fountain, toss the pods in the half gallon jar. loosely packed beans(“Pack the beans loosely,” the directions state: the reason, I’m guessing, is to provide the brine maximum access to the beans). I allow the brine to cool and then pour it over the beans until they’re entirely covered, then tightly latch the seal. “Store the beans in the cellar,” is the final directive. Problematic for us: we have no cellar. A flood plain and a cellar seem incompatible entities;  however, for a premium product, lactic fermentation works best in a constant temperature environment. jar of sring beans

(As an arena for processing sauerkraut, the garage is less than ideal…too much at the mercy of  fall temperatures: too cool, or too hot—certainly not constant--I’m never quite sure when the process will be complete, the cabbage at last krauted.'kraut beans

It’s been three weeks since I crocked the beans and so far, so good. I surreptitiously cleared a space on a shelf in the spare bedroom, the coolest room in the house thanks to the shade of the backyard maple tree. Now if it were the three gallon crock with twenty pounds of fermenting cabbage, I doubt I could pull off using the spare room as a root cellar…especially if company came to call for the night and discovered their guest suite a gas chamber. But now the half gallon of beans is discretely simmering away in the dark …right above the stored luggage. Around holiday time, I figure, the beans should be nicely soured. Out of the closet they’ll come…just in time to join the festivities.fermenting beans

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