Archive for July, 2012

July 30, 2012

Lacto-Fermented Salsa: Culture for your tomatoes

Here’s one of life’s sad ironies: The rich cultural heritage we inherit from our parents often doesn’t jive with our personal tastes. I’m thinking, of course, mainly of food.
My mom is German, and as a kid I ate a lot of sauerkraut, bratwurst and marzipan, mostly because I didn’t know better.
As an adult, I’ve tried giving the cuisine of my ancestors another chance, but it hasn’t stuck. I may nibble on a bratwurst or marzipan log now and again, but it’s my revulsion to sauerkraut that I know really makes my grandma turn in her grave. The thought of cabbage shredded and pickled, with that crunchy-flaccid texture and mouth-puckering flavor doesn’t just repulse me, it makes me wish I was adopted.
Interesting, because sauerkraut is made using the same basic process as cheese, bread, beer and other foods I know I cannot live without: fermentation. I present to you these Fun Fermentation Facts:

  • Fermentation is the oldest form of food preservation. It’s been around for 10,000 years – since the Stone Age!
  • Fermentation always involves a “culture”, or bacteria that consumes the sugars available in the food being preserved and produces carbon dioxide and sour lactic acid.
  • Coffee and cocoa (chocolate) beans undergo a fermentation process that eats away the slimy layer around the beans before they are roasted. Thank the bacteria for your daily fix!
  • In the Middle Ages in Europe, water was unsafe to drink so most people drank wine or beer. When fermentation occurs, “good” (non-toxic and often beneficial) bacteria win over “bad” bacteria that cause disease.
  • Fermentation is central to many ancient and modern cultures, and these foods are often considered delicacies. The Chinese prize duck eggs that are salted and flavored before being coated in mud and left to ferment for at least a month.

Ok, I take back the thing about wishing I was adopted. Chinese kids have it way worse.
Anyway, I know I may never find my roots in fermented cabbage, but there is another form of fermented vegetable (okay, fruits) that makes my stomach weep tears of joy. I give you…

Lacto-Fermented Salsa.

There are at least three ways of making salsa, that unbeatable combination of tomatoes, onions, peppers and cilantro, each with its own “consume-by” date.

  • Fresh salsa keeps for a few days in the refrigerator.
  • Canned salsa, either store-bought or home made, can last indefinitely on the shelf, but often tastes as much like the fresh version as cherry pie filling tastes like real cherries. Plus, canning your own salsa is steamy, hard work to do in the summertime.
  • Fermentation provides the best of both worlds, preserving salsa in the refrigerator or root cellar for up to six months, long enough for your tomato plants to turn into compost.

This salsa is made using the usual ingredients, with the addition of lactobacillus culture, easy to find in the air or in a carton of yogurt.
An honesty-the-best-policy note: Like most fermented foods, fermented salsa is an acquired taste (although acquirement can happen within seconds), and depending on the stage of fermentation, eating it may feel like chugging a just-opened can of soda. The sour flavor comes from the lactic acid created by the bacteria, who are also responsible for the carbon dioxide bubbles. Personally, I love this fizzy salsa, and even find it addictive. Kids do, too (I discovered the recipe while working at a gardening summer camp).

You’ll need one quart-sized canning jar, clean but not sterilized, and:
4 medium tomatoes, diced
1 onion, finely chopped
¼ cup chopped chili pepper, hot or mild
½ cup chopped bell pepper (optional)
3-6 (or more!) cloves garlic, peeled and minced (optional)
½ c chopped cilantro
1 t dried oregano, or 1 T fresh
juice of 2 lemons
1 T sea salt
4 T whey*, or extra tablespoon salt if whey is not available**
1/4 cup filtered water (unless your tomatoes are really juicy)

  1. Once you have all that stuff:
  2. Combine all ingredients and place in the quart-sized jar.
  3. Press down lightly with a spoon, adding more water if necessary to cover the vegetables. The top of the salsa mixture should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jar.
  4. Cover tightly and keep in an undisturbed place in the kitchen. Fermentation time will depend on the room temperature. After two days, you should start to see bubbles, although it may take up to four in cooler climates. Bubbles indicate fermentation is occurring, and the salsa is ready to be eaten or stored in the refrigerator, where fermentation will continue at a much slower rate. Some prefer to leave the salsa out a bit longer to increase bubbly goodness.
  5. Enjoy with tortilla chips!

*Whey is the source of lactobacillus culture. It is simply the liquid that can be found in any yogurt that contains live cultures, such as Nancy’s (use the plain variety). For extra points, use whey from your own yogurt!
**If you can’t find whey, not to worry, lactobacillus cultures will find you. The added tablespoon salt preserves the salsa until wild lactobacillus already present in your salsa is able to multiply and create some fermentation action. However, this method will make your salsa extra salty.

A final note on mold: I know someone will one day successfully sue me for saying this, but it’s not really that scary. If mold grows on your salsa, either before or after you refrigerate it, simply scrape it off and discard. Add more water to ensure that your salsa is covered to prevent mold.

My tomatoes aren’t ripe yet, but when they are, I’ll be dicing and fermenting and waiting for those magical bubbles to appear. As for the cabbage, I’ll take it raw, thank you.