Archive for ‘raw food’

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.

March 2, 2012

Kale & Roasted Potato Salad: Seasonable Satisfaction

Kale Some of us here in the abundant Pacific Northwest attempt to eat locally year-round. A friend from California recently scoffed at this notion. “Kale and potato” diet, she called it, due to the difficulty of finding much else that is local during the long span of winter months.

A recent surge in demand for local produce has enabled many farmers to offer much more than kale and potatoes year round. Still, if you’re on a budget and not a good food horder (in other words, you didn’t spend half your summer sweating over the stove to preserve the bounty), there are a few weeks when the local diet is limited to those hardy winter greens and the tubers that hide out in warm soil.

This is by no means a punishment. Kale and potatoes happen to be culinary compliments any way you slice ‘em – roasted, mashed, cooked in a soup or grated into pancakes. With a little creativity, there is no end to the possibilities, and before you know it, it’s April and you’re feasting on baby asparagus and homegrown arugula.

This is a variation of German potato salad as my mother taught me. Its fans are many and rabid, forcing me to publish the recipe to quiet their clamoring. Roasting the potatoes brings out their fullest flavor, and the yams add unexpected sweetness. It’s the raw kale, of course, that really gives this dish substance and a satisfying chewiness.

Kale and Roasted Potato Salad
serves 8-10

1 T stoneground mustard
¼ c mayo
¼ c sour cream
3 T sugar
1 T capers
juice of half a lemon
Spike or salt
pepper, to taste
red pepper flakes, to taste

6 small Yukon Gold potatoes
2 medium yams
1-2 cups kale, chopped to ¼-inch pieces
1/2  c parsley, chopped finely
1 yellow, orange or red bell pepper, diced
¼ c minced onion
1 clove garlic, minced
2 pickles, finely chopped

Roast the potatoes and yams at 400 F for 30-45 minutes, until soft. Allow 15 minutes to cool, then dice.

Meanwhile, combine the first nine ingredients for the dressing. In a large bowl, combine the remaining ingredients with the potatoes and yams. Toss with dressing and serve. Better when refrigerated and served the next day, just be sure to bring to room temperature before serving.

September 6, 2011

The War on Raw: Your nanny state boils the milk, but you don’t have to drink it

It’s banned in Canada and 18 US states, but it’s legal in Europe and always has been. Three in California were recently arrested for selling it. In other states, everyone from local police to the FDA take it upon themselves to eradicate it, even where laws permit its production and sale.

What is this substance, and why is the subject of so much kerfufflery? It’s raw, unpasteurized milk – from cows, goats, sheep, and anything else with four legs and an udder. The source of the controversy can only be seen under a microscope. It’s the wriggling bacteria that colonize everything from skin to the vacuum of space.

Is raw milk really the pathogen-loaded drink of insanity that the mainstream media has made it out to be? Of course not. Is there any reason to prefer it over pasteurized milk? Well, people wouldn’t be going to jail in their determination to consume and sell it if there wasn’t.

We tend to think of pasteurized milk as the norm, but really, it’s only a recent phenomenon. The practice of pasteurization began around the period of industrialization in the US – the late 1900s and early 20th century. Around this time, farmers quit their livelihoods in mass numbers to take jobs in the cities. The reasons for this are complex, but the result was that the farms that remained got bigger. Food preservation – canning, pasteurizing, freeze-drying, etc. – went from a home practice to a factory process. This made food more suitable for long-distance transit and less time consuming for people to prepare, while coincidentally (or not) multiplying the profit margin for the corporations running the whole thing.

Dairy animals also got the shaft in this transition. Because people no longer owned their own cows, goats or sheep, milk had to come from somewhere, and the first mega-dairies were born in the 1920s, with cows the new dairy standard. Sanitation was poor at first, and the USDA was still a small government department. It didn’t have the funding to keep up with inspections or the power to limit dairies to a reasonable size. Also, modern-day methods of testing for pathogens, or bad bacteria, did not exist, so pasteurization was proposed as a way of guaranteeing the safety of the milk supply. Today, despite advances in testing and the potential to track a given jug of milk back to the dairy at which it was produced with barcodes and microchips, not much has changed. We’re still using the outdated technology of heating milk to near-boiling temperatures for 15-20 seconds, just to be on the safe side.

What does pasteurization do, other than kill anything that might be living in the milk? Actually, the bacteria-annihilation thing is part of the problem. In the human gut, there are millions of varieties of bacteria, known as the “gut flora”. Obviously, they’re harmless, or else we’d be sick all the time, and many of them are beneficial. Our bodies have evolved along with them to enhance our ability to digest certain substances and absorb nutrients. Ever bought “probiotic” yogurt? It’s just pasteurized milk that’s had bacteria added back in and left to ferment.

One of these bacteria is Lactobacilli, which eats and digests lactose. Many lactose-intolerant individuals find that they can digest raw milk, but not pasteurized milk, because pasteurization destroys Lactobacilli. Scientists haven’t even begun to identify the trillions of bacteria in our environments and our bodies, so I’m guessing Lactobacilli has a few million relatives present in raw milk. Just because we haven’t studied them doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from them.

In addition to micro-flora, milk carries hundreds nutrients and enzymes. Pasteurization cooks the life from these as well, another side-effect that scientists don’t really know the impacts of. We do know that extreme heat denatures, or modifies beyond recognition, certain molecules that build enzymes, proteins other necessary building blocks present in milk. As a result, David Gumpert, author of Raw Milk Revolution, calls pasteurized milk nutritionally inferior to raw milk.

Look at it this way: many of us were raised on unpasteurized milk. It came from our mothers. Personally, I just don’t like the idea of drinking anything with dead stuff in it.

But is it safe? Yes, we have an obsession with safety these days, so here are the quick and no-so-dirty numbers: Illnesses from raw milk consumption average about 42 per year. In 2010, 9.4 million people reported having consumed raw milk. Around fifty million suffered from a food-borne illness. There are only four pathogens commonly found in raw milk that lead to illness in humans, and all of them can be eliminated with proper handling of the milk. If animals are healthy and clean, the milk is not exposed to outside contaminants, and it is refrigerated right away, chances of it ever making you sick are close to none. (Source: The Weston A. Price Foundation)

Raw-milk enthusiasts, and I guess now I’ve admitted to being one, have other reasons to seek out milk straight from the udder. Usually, farms that produce raw milk are small-scale, close by, and practice good farming methods. Compare that to a mega-dairy with 30,000 cows who never set hoof outside the barn. Most raw milk producers pasture-feed their animals, which has a thousand benefits for that animal’s health, translating to healthier milk for us to drink.

So the cows (or goats, camels, sheep, etc) benefit, the consumer benefits, and farmers benefit also from being able to sell raw milk. Raw milk represents a market niche for small farmers – it’s a product they are uniquely suited to produce, and consumers are willing to pay top dollar for it. Around Eugene, it’s anywhere from $7 to $15 a gallon for goat or cows’ milk (pasteurized cow milk in the store is about $3 a gallon). Some farmers will tell you this price barely matches their cost of production, while others will admit raw milk sales are the literal “cash cow” of their operation, allowing them to take on less profitable ventures, like growing vegetables or saving seed. Many also keep rare heirloom livestock breeds, milking animals like Guernsey cows and Nigerian Dwarf goats that fell out of favor when the demand for machine-ready cows covered the landscape with Jerseys and Holsteins. Either way, no one can argue that farmers are an asset to the community, and any way they can earn money to keep themselves afloat should not be discouraged.

Unfortunately, it is discouraged, and mightily. In Oregon, raw milk sales are legal, but most people who sell it are probably doing so illegally. That’s because they don’t have expensive USDA approval of their facilities. It doesn’t make a difference to customers, who usually pick milk up at the farm itself and can perform visual inspections at will. Recently, though, raw milk has also started appearing on the shelves of our local natural foods stores, presumably produced by slightly larger farms with USDA licenses.

Those store owners may still have to watch their back, however. In California this month, three owners of the natural foods co-op Rawsome Foods were arrested in a SWAT team raid and pressed with criminal charges of conspiracy to sell unpasteurized milk. Law enforcement seized and destroyed $10,000 worth of raw milk. The officers, from the LA County Sheriff’s Office, the FDA, the USDA and the Centers for Disease Control, contended that the owners did not have proper business licenses and the farm producing the milk did not have permits to do so. The owners hold that they weren’t actually selling milk but facilitating a “cow share” agreement, in which individuals share ownership of a cow and pay the farmer to board it, milk it, and deliver the milk. The case is currently in the courts.

Meanwhile, cow share agreements, while causing unknown confusion to the cows, have been a successful tactic for Canadians to circumvent the legal system to obtain raw milk. An Ontario farmer named Michael Schmidt, whose fight to sell raw milk has made him a hero for real-foodies, pioneered the movement. Legally, farmers can produce raw milk for themselves, so cow shares simply create a way for people who live in the city to own a cow and drink its milk. On the surface, it works the same – farmers keep the cows together in the barn, milk them, care for them, and make the milk available to the cows’ real owners. Cow shares have the added benefit of circumventing Canada’s restrictive milk quota system, which gives the government total power over the milk market and prices. British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia are all home to cow shares, and farmers are battling in the courts for the right to sell raw milk in a simpler way, without having to arrange shared ownership. Maybe they should get the animal rights activists involved – this has got to be causing some emotionally taxing identity crises for the poor bovines.

Here in Eugene, I’ve found a slightly easier way to obtain raw milk without denting my pocketbook. Pining for the goats I left behind in Canada, this spring I began work trading at a local goat farm. I bike out into the countryside once a week, spend the morning petting goats, picking up their poop, milking them (after thoroughly washing hands, of course), and cutting grass for them to eat. In return, I go home with two or three gallons of creamy, fresh, delicious and – gasp! – raw goat milk. It’s a fun way to spend my day off and my cheese-making skills have developed to new heights. (I’ve also been enjoying kefir, especially the reaction I get to the phrase “fermented goat milk”.) I found the farm through craigslist, where I find everything else that is wonderful, and would encourage anyone living in vicinity of a farm with extra time on their hands to look for a similar arrangement.

The raw milk movement is at the stage the organic movement was in the US thirty years ago. For those who fear microbes in all forms and prefer a standardized product, pasteurized milk will probably always be there. For the survivalists, though, there’s always a way to get your hands on the world’s most nutritious illegal substance.

The blog The Bovine does an excellent job tracking developments in raw milk and other real-food movements. Go to for short, succinct articles on why raw milk is better. They also have very useful listings of where to find raw milk in most US states and some other countries.

If you’re a farmer considering or already selling raw milk in various stages of legality, the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund offers assistance to farmers under legal fire for selling or otherwise distributing raw milk.

October 28, 2008

>One-Ant Revolution?

>“Cooking the Navadarshanam Way”, it turns out, means using a minimum of oils and refined sugar to prepare food. Two trustees are vegan, they all fast often, and everybody loves raw foods. Luckily, they’ve mastered the art of healthy cooking and most of the dishes were very good. Fresh salads of coconut, cucumber and herbs, spicy curries served over red rice, vegan cakes and herbal teas kept me pretty well fed.
As much as I enjoyed just cooking and eating, I wanted to see how and where Navadarshanam was getting all this food. My experiences with Vanastree so far have comprised sort of a crash-course in small-scale agriculture and food politics, so Navadarshanam’s food production system promised to be another piece of this neverending puzzle. To my initial disappointment, however I found that they don’t have such a system per say. No matter how much I pestered Ananthu, the one who might be loosely be labeled as “in charge” of the place, I couldn’t get a precise explanation for this. Eventually, however, I figured out the reasons seem to be two-fold: the first is a series of “problems” in growing crops that he alluded to (I assume this has to do with the typical difficulties of weather, soil and animal invaders), and the second is the dedication to “natural farming” that one of the founding trustees, Pratab, brought with him.
A few decades ago, Pratab was living in a farming commune when he read Masanoba Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution, which I quoted in a previous post. Fukuoka basically invented natural farming (though, again, it draws on previous traditions) in Japan, and his ideas have been extremely influential to the organic farming movement. Basically, natural farming asks how to reduce the inputs, both of labor and materials, involved in growing food. The answer he came up with was to eliminate everything – don’t weed, don’t apply compost, don’t till, and certainly don’t use synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer. Most of his experiments had to do with rice, and the amazing thing is, it actually worked. In fact, he recorded higher yields than conventionally grown rice, and of course did a lot less work than those farmers. He also applied this method to growing vegetables: scattering seeds, seeing what came up, and then harvesting it, leaving an little of the crop to reseed for next year. Seeing success in that as well, he opened up a whole school and his books became bestsellers.
Of course, something that works on one mountainside in Japan won’t necessarily work everywhere else, but the idea has been applied in many areas, most recently resulting in the “no-till” agriculture movement popular in the US. And when Pratab read the book, he shared it with his fellow commune members, who then decided to try natural farming on their land. They lived this way (without starving!) for quite a few years, and Pratab became a fervent believer in the method. He describes this whole experience in the introduction to One Straw Revolution that he later wrote.
Pratab went on to become a professor of anthropology at Harvard and wrote many books of his own, but now he lives in Bangalore with a second home at Navadarshanam. In fact, he led my group on a couple of walks, talking quietly the whole way about everything from the benefits of eating ants (which he also demonstrated) to the dangers of industrial agriculture. A sturdy, ever-smiling old fellow, Pratab will talk your ear off if you let him, which many of us did because everything he said seemed somehow steeped in wisdom, although it could have just been his reputation getting ahead of him or the power of the thick white beard.
Still a highly dedicated follower of natural farming and plant-based diets, Pratab has encouraged the Navadarshanam leaders toward a similar lifestyle. After reforesting the 100 acres that they’d invested in, the trustees found that they could harvest quite a bit of food from wild plants. They haven’t gone so far as to include ants in the official menu (and Pratab prefers to pick them fresh off the cow dung anyway), but most of the greens and some other vegetables are found in the forest. Other than that, they get most of their food from outside sources, but plans are in the works to try (again) with a vegetable garden based on biodynamics, a whole other system that I have a very limited understanding of. This effort is what finally reassured me that Navadarshanam’s goals might just be practical and that when the eventual apocalypse does come, their little commune might not be a bad place to be.

So I left Navadarshanam a little sadly, wishing I had more time to hang out in Ananthu’s library, tease Tania and Manuel about their rotis, and listen to Pratab rant in his quiet way about society and the way we eat. Instead, the international team crammed in a car with and a generous family from Bangalore who was heading back there. As the clamoring city abruptly rose around us, I put my pastoral dreams behind me and instead focused on the fried foods and sugary desserts that would soon be confounding my digestive system but delighting my taste buds.