PRESERVING TASTE MEMORIES

Written by Jake Elmets

 
Image of Carly Leusner contributor to the article
and fermenting partner with Jake Elmets.

 

FERMENTATION THE LARDER
AND FOOD SECURITY

To take foods at the height of their natural growing season and preserve them through treatment with salt and/or sugar, smoke, acid, pectin, or oil, is to participate in ancient food traditions that predate recorded history and are closely aligned with the very essence of our civilization: hunting and gathering. Canning and preserving has long been a social engagement for rural housewives. Ensuring the larder for the winter has always been the woman’s purview, as the man’s role in agrarian society was to work the fields and animal husbandry. Dealing with the harvest including the role of the butcher in rural or small village based societies has been the purview of women.

This is a small piece of a contextual rabbit hole. Let’s cut to the heart of the matter: why, as busy people with households to run, social and career obligations careening our bodies and spirits in opposing directions and drawing and quartering our goals and aspirations - why should we go through the trouble of fermenting and putting up a larder during the harvest seasons?

 

A CULTURAL FOOD LINEAGE

For Carly and I, the most significant reason to ferment, other than enjoyment of wild foods and working with our bodies, is the idea of participating in ancient traditions. While we process our foods for the larder, we tell stories, jokes, and allegories. These are the traditions of the hunter-gatherer societies we evolved from and also the oral traditions that our lore and collective intellectual lives grew from. Our foods hold stories and evidence our personal lore.

 

STORY OF THE LAND:
TERROIR

Cool memories of the damp leaf litter that blankets the sweet spring forest soil pour from my wild leek infused vinegar. With the vitality of summer’s peak, layers of amaranth and lamb’s quarters speckle our sauerkraut, conjuring visions of the giant compost pile

where they thrived. Our cask of dandelion mead sings songs of bee fairies and the magic of springtime blooms. This hard work, all with our own hands, elevates each jar’s preciousness beyond the mundane relationship most of us experience when eating. Instead, eating becomes an opportunity to deepen and refresh our connection to the world. Each time we sit for a meal, it’s a reminder of how miraculous and full of meaning food is.

 

DEVELOP AND CULTIVATE
THE TERROIR OF YOUR
SPACE AND LARDER

As many extol the design features of their home spaces, those invested in wild foods brag about the quality of the latent wild yeasts and lactic acid colonies that come with years of fermented products cultivated and cohabiting with one another in a space. And, all of the amber bottles, Mason jars, dry bouquets, and chilies make epicurean design features all their own.

 

CULINARY
FLEXIBILITY

Preserves and ferments are like words. Develop a library of them, and then you have a vocabulary to work with. Cooking becomes an elastic process, building on previous dishes. Parlay one sauce into the next day’s soup, into the third day’s braise, into the fourth day’s base for a new set, etc., etc., etc. Same goes with pickles - save the brine; pickle more items in it; doctor the brine for use in cocktails or as an acid component in a soup, stew, or sauce; or just put it up for later use in the library. Grandma would be proud, as this thrifty and waste averse life “hack” was handed down to her from her parents - far before the advent of refrigeration and the proliferation of rancid vegetable oils and preservatives present in our foodstuffs.

 

IMPROVE YOUR GASTRIC
HEALTH AND STOMACH FLORA

Great decomposers live inside of our bodies, comprising the majority girth of our bodies, and outnumbering our own cells 10 to 1. Embracing bacteria is a form of self-love. Rather than unsanitary opportunists, freeloading off of honest multi-cellular beings or important partners in our health, bacteria are in fact stewards and masterminds of these animal bodies we find ourselves living in. Responsible for facilitating digestion, assimilation, regulating metabolism, and bolstering immunity - bacteria play a fundamental role in human wellness. Supporting our gut flora has benefits beyond digestion and immune health. Referred to as the “second brain,” the digestive system is loaded with more neurons than the brain and spinal cord, which interact with the microbiomes in our gut in intriguing ways. When we keep this central part of us, our gut, thriving, warm, and running smoothly, we can nurture our entire well being. Daily consumption of living fermented foods and beverages is a literal way to connect the ecosystems that exist outside and inside our bodies, reminding us of our interdependence with the microscopic world.

 

FOOD STRATEGY, STABILIZATION,
ORGANIZATION

When the warm side of the sun comes over to our side, our spirits get wild. So too does the Earth’s bounty. Temper your feverish pitch of road trips and vacations, picnics, and late nights at or on the water with trips to the farmers market. Better yet, tend to your Victory Garden. Maintain your relationship with the world that surrounds you and the vegetation that you put in your body. Use everything. Select vegetables and fruits that have their tops attached as they tell a story all their own, when they were picked, how robust the plant was, and the growing practice that went into their cultivation. Going to the market is a luxury. Access to real food and unparalleled. Put in some strategic work between beach trips, reading novels, and dinners alfresco with the Albari.o and Bandol Rose. Your winter self will be grateful for your summer sweat.

Each week, attempt to organize your food shopping so you can focus on one or two products per week - in anticipation of making big batches of those items. Peel, cut, weigh, blanch, construct brines, and add aromatics, and then taste, test, workshop, and experiment. Set aside small quantities and follow your whimsy, intellect, and wit to intuitive riffs on your well-enjoyed classics from last season. Go in with friends or neighbors, and gather once or twice a week at the home with the best kitchen. Take time to be with friends and nurture platonic community relationships. You will find cooking in this manner is greatly fulfilling, satisfying, and nourishing and bring wine – it helps! Exercising systemic organizational thinking is easily translatable into other parts of life: taking a big task, breaking it down, and organizing it into manageable steps. The process of fermentation and cooking in this way can be a meditation - grounding people to think about issues in other aspects of our lives. Looming problems become smaller and petty tiffs fall away as the relaxation of leisurely cooking, the smells, and the manual dexterity nurture our spirits and engender style, grace, stamina, and perspective in our daily lives. It seems only fitting that the ferments and preserves that we have constructed using these processes nutritionally mirror the aforementioned phenomenological traits. In very real ways, creating a larder is a political and social act. By creating a larder in your home or community, you have insulated yourself from future market, political, societal, and natural forces - effectively securing yourself healthful, nourishing, and delicious food source.

 

TOMATOES AND SOME USES

When canning, proper care in sanitation is essential as well as adding salt and acid to prevent anaerobic bacteria growth - chiefly, botulism. Safe salinity and acid ratios are 5 grams of salt and 30 grams of bottled lemon juice per quart of tomato product. If you have

further questions, consult Google. Canning is very straightforward and hard to botch, but as we say in the kitchen, “When in doubt, throw it out.”

 

 

 

BLANCH AND CAN
WHOLE TOMATOES

Mill and separate water from solids by pouring milled tomatoes into a strainer lined with cheesecloth or a slightly damp dish towel. Let strain for a day or two.

 

WITH THE SOLIDS
(TOMATO PULP)

Spanish Tomato Conserva: Grate raw garlic and fold in olive oil, salt, a spring of rosemary, a splash of sherry vinegar, and a thread of saffron - if you please. Jar in a pressure canner or via a pot of boiling water for eighty minutes. Use generously to top a piece of grilled

bread for pan con tomate, or add a spoonful to enrich soups, stews, and sauces. Tomato Paste: Pur.e in a food processor and cook down gently until reduced by half or two-thirds. Freeze in ice cube trays or process using the boiling water method and store small quilted jam jars. Tomato Relish: Gently caramelize Bermuda or Vidalia onions, shallots, and garlic, and then pur.e with the tomato solid mixture. Cook down and season with a fruity new olive oil, cider vinegar, salt, pepper, and oregano.

 

WITH THE TOMATO WATER

Vinegar: Pour into a sterilized Mason jar and tightly cover top with cheesecloth. Leave in a cool dark place to ferment, add a little vinegar “mother” from Braggs Apple Cider Vinegar, or a little existing tomato vinegar to the water. Taste test after three weeks and every week thereafter until desired acidity is reached. Store in a dark bottle with a cork and introduce a small amount into your next batch later in the season or next season!

Gazpacho: Preserve the beautiful clarity of your tomato water by seasoning only with white or clear ingredients. Flavor with salt, white pepper, white shoyu, white balsamic or aged tomato vinegar, and the best olive oil you can find (As this soup is not heated, all

the fruity citrusy notes of a first harvest new olive oil will shine!). Super finely slice celery hearts, scallion whites, seeded blonde tomatoes, snow peas or snap peas, and chili peppers of your discretion. Also ramps, garlic scapes, zucchini, and other mid-spring/early

summer baby varietals are at home in this vivacious and soupy sluice of life. Bring this whimsical and ethereal broth down to earth with baby roots alongside it: sliced or roasted breakfast radishes, baby boiled potatoes, or olive oil smashed fingerlings. Top with celery leaf and lavender buds.

 

FURTHER TOMATO
PRESERVATION IDEAS

Roasted Tomatoes: Halve tomatoes and toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, and any herbs and miscellaneous aromatics desired. Arrange skin-side up on a sheet tray. Roast until the skin is blistered and ethereal tomato smells envelop the room. Remove from oven, cool, and slide the blistered skins off the roasted flesh. Incorporate the fruit into sauce, soup, antipasti, or keep in a Mason jar covered in oil for “sleepy season” use. Tomato Bolognese: Caramelize onions, garlic, carrot, celery in nice olive oil. Heating olive oil to a high temperature destroys its nuance and turns it acrid, so go slow to preserve the integrity and fruity notes of the oil. Add whatever herbs you desire and sauté until fragrant, but stick with the woody aromatics: rosemary, thyme, lavender, and oregano - save the more delicate leafy herbs for later in the sauce or as a garnish (as with anything else in life, devising and respecting an order of operations as a creative framework yields dividends and timing is everything!). Deglaze with white wine, simmer until all the alcohol has burned off, and add another hearty splash of wine (at this point, you may need to open a second bottle, as you have been drinking part of this bottle as well).
Do not cook with a bottle that you wouldn’t drink. (drinking while you cook is a pensive thing and connects you to your sauce making process and loosens your creative strictures). Add blanched tomatoes, roasted tomatoes, or tomato pulp - or any combination of the three. Simmer in a mostly covered wide saucepan, the longer the better. If it gets too thick, you can thin the mixture with a bit of water. Season with salt throughout the process – a little at a time, remembering the elasticity and salinity of the sauce will deepen after relaxing a day or two. Enrich the mouthfeel by adding a smidgen of brown sugar, agave nectar, or bee pollen. To balance the sauce with a squeeze of acid, you can throw in some olives and capers, or maybe some baby artichokes.
Chop up some parsley or chervil, or maybe even some tarragon, but use a light hand. By doing this you will have made the sauce that you are going to crave in the winter. Pour it into some Mason jars and process it. El Potrero style Salsa Borracha: I learned to make this sauce in the mountain town of Viňales, right outside of Monterrey, Mexico while I was on a rock-climbing trip during college. It pairs perfectly with a summer mixed grill of lettuces, zucchini, brassicas, and bitter greens. Halve tomatoes, white onions, and your favorite summer hot chilies and season liberally with salt, pepper, and Mexican oregano.
Toss these elements in a mixing bowl with olive oil, pomace oil, or your favorite nut oil, and then char on a screaming hot grill until the skins of the chilies are black. As in the preparation for roasted tomatoes, slip the skins off the tomatoes and chilies. Impart a flavorful char on the onions but not overly burnt. Turn the ingredients out into a mortar and pestle - most preferably one made of Mexican volcanic rock (molcajete), and pound the charred elements along with chopped cilantro, lime, and a splash of your favorite light Mexican beer or tequila (with the liquor burnt off ) until chunky smooth. Adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper, and a fruity vinegar. If you want to use for the sleepy seasons, process as you would tomato sauce.

Article originally published in AGB issue No.7

 

Jake Elmets (b.1986, New York City) is an American food preservationist, natural resource broker, and photographer. Elmets holds a bachelor’s degree in Alternative Photographic Processes and Graphic Scoring from Hampshire College; Amherst, MA. A career cook, Elmets has worked in some of the most culturally innovative kitchens in the United States. His natural resource brokerage, American Topographics, aims to forge relationships and strengthen local food security between farms, restaurants, and communities. As an avowed dry spice and Chinese food nerd, Elmets lives in the wilds between the Catskills and the hills of Western Massachusetts. Carly Leusner also contributed to this article.