The parable of food preservation; an Indian carrot pickle

IMG_7128Once upon a time, the dark cold months were months of deprivation. No green shoots appeared in the ground, no fruit swelled on the trees. The young ones went without, or raided the underground cellars for the grains and husks that they shared with their rodents. But the old ones said no, look, here’s what you do. You collect your bounty in the sunlit months; then you preserve it to feast on in the dark months.

“Preserve?” said the young ones, reflecting that perhaps dementia had claimed the old ones. “We have no fridges, nor vacuum packs. Surely, microbes will feast on our bounty before our clumsy hands are able to tear off a single chunk of it to place at the hungry lips of our babes. Surely a week, perhaps two, is how much one can hope to prolong the lives of these frilly delicate vegetables, whose very fronds seem infused with the light of Solis. But all season long? Respectfully, winter is long and harsh.”

“You fools,” said the old ones then, “have we taught you nothing?” They might have cuffed them with an open hand, I’m not sure. Then they drew out jars and jars of fruits and shoots they had taken the trouble to preserve many moons ago. The glass shone with the still preserved colors of the sun’s bounty.

IMG_7143But at first, the young ones shrank from the taste. “Pooh!” they said. “We see that this is imbued with the deep orange of a carrot, but the saltiness scours our tongue. And the mango—did you have to preserve it when green and sour? Could you not have waited for its velvety sweetness to emerge? Ah, we would give our firstborn for the taste of a sweet mango now! That clay jar under the ground—could that be cabbage? But heed the fumes—did a dog die in there?”

“Your trouble,” said the old ones, snatching the kimchee from their hands, “is that your noses are underdeveloped. Look. All of creation loves a good vegetable. You do, and so do the microbes. Food preservation is a race—who shall get to eat the bounty first? The microbes, or the apes known as humans?”

“We are not apes,” the young ones said, with dignity.

“You certainly are,” the old ones returned, “but moving on. Now not all microbes are created alike. Some sicken and extinguish us; others concoct healthful compounds in our foods. Let us call them (because thou hast simple minds, and thy understanding is shallow) the good microbes and the bad microbes. Some of food preservation is nothing but allowing the good microbes to build their colonies in our foods; by their own mysterious devices, the good microbes then form barricades to prevent the bad microbes from entering. Not only that; the guts of these little ones start to break down the foods, thus do our guts get a head start.”

“Shall we then eat microbe-infested foods?” the young ones queried. “Your brains are going soft, perhaps the good microbes have fomented trouble in them.”

“The word is ‘fermented’,” the old ones said, “and you need to understand, your bodies are suffused with microbes at all times. Be not childishly fearful. In fact, in the age of our descendants, fermentation will be thought of with glamour and books and websites shall celebrate the advent of the good microbes in our food, and our partnership with them.”

The old ones then explained how salting the food created a happy place for the good microbes, but instilled fear in the hearts of the bad ones. And how sourness also chased away the bad ones, so one could add to the food an acid-making elixir, such as lemon or vinegar; but if one wanted to be specially tricky, one could have the good microbes produce their own sourness from the depths of their bowels, as they feasted on sugars. Such sourness, the old ones further explained, went by the name of lactic acid, but had little to do with the food of the mammal babes.

IMG_7131“But heed,” the old ones intoned, “while fermentation is hip, do not forget, it is not the only way. Remember, water is needed for all of creation, and all of creation harbors it; the bad microbes desire it with a thirst so deep that it might be a thirst for life itself. What if one were to draw the water out of our foods, and leave it shrunken and dry; the microbes would find it as bare as a moonscape and would not deign to enter. Then: what if one were to cover the whole thing in oil, perhaps an oil such as from the mustard plant, that is practically a warrior against microbes itself, what then?”

What one has, then, is an Indian pickle.

Indian pickles (achar)

It has been a persistent mystery in the minds of some interested parties as to whether Indian pickles are fermented, or not. Among these, I count myself, and also my dear blogger friend Annie Levy from Kitchen Counter Culture. Well, by applying the powers of my mind deeply to the question in a Holmesian sort of way, I think I have my answer. Indian pickles—the typical kind, that are preserved in mustard oil—are not.

Now there are certainly Indian pickles that are fermented, but those are not the norm and the ones that I am familiar with do not use oil at all. But we will talk about those another time.

The typical pickles use a pretty standard method. First, salt the food: salt wants to reach equilibrium, and if the food isn’t salty already, it wants to enter the food from its surroundings. As it enters, it draws out the moisture and takes its place inside the food.

Next, allow the moisture to dry out by placing it in the sun. Once the pieces are much shrunken, jar it up and pour mustard oil over.

IMG_7127This is the basic method I have used with such disparate ingredients as cranberries and sour mango. This time, we have carrots and some green garlic.

The spices tend to be a similar set. Fennel seed is congenial, and so is the use of nigella seed. Turmeric powder has antiseptic properties so that is always used, and the heat comes from red chilies. Usually, the spices are left whole, this time, I chose to pulverize them a bit. They went from looking like this to this:

Of course, a lot of salt is used, and the carrots and green garlic are thoroughly mixed with the spices and salt and laid out on a wide, flat surface. Cover with cheesecloth, place in the sun, and allow the salt and the sun to perform their magic. Watch the slow shriveling of the carrots over the period of a week:

Once the pieces look pretty dry, it is time to mix in some lemon juice, jar it up and pour mustard oil over. Some like to heat the oil to smoking point and then cool it before using, but I don’t see the point because I want the oil to be at peak pungency.

Carrot pickle

  • Servings: 1 pint jar
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Ingredients:

  • About 10 carrots, washed, scraped, and dried completely
  • About 5 full stalks of green garlic, washed, trimmed and dried completely
  • 3 tablespoons fennel seeds
  • 1.5 tablespoons nigella seeds (kalonji)
  • 1.5 tablespoons fenugreek seeds (methi)
  • 2 tablespoons mustard seeds
  • 3 tablespoons sea salt
  • 0.5 tablespoons red chili powder
  • 0.5 tablespoons turmeric
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • About half a cup of mustard oil

Method:

Once the vegetables are completely dry, slice them up in smallish segments, the exact shape does not matter. You could do longish sticks or smallish dice, as I did.

Pulverize the whole spices (fennel, fenugreek, nigella and mustard) slightly using a mortar and pestle. You can skip this step if you like.

Place the vegetables in a wide platter and cover with the pulverized spices, the salt, turmeric and red chili powder. Give it a thorough mixing so all the pieces are evenly covered with the salt and spices.

Cover the platter with cheesecloth and place at a sunny window. My window only gets sun for about an hour in the mornings and that seemed to be enough. Every couple days, give it another mixing with a scrupulously clean spoon.

In about a week the vegetable pieces will look much shriveled, darker and more leathery. Stir in the lemon juice.

Transfer to a scrupulously clean glass jar (you can sterilize it in boiling water first if you like, I didn’t). Pack it down. Pour some of the mustard oil over it and wait for it to settle; pour more. Do this in a few stages, until a thin film of oil shines over the very top of the jar. For me, it took about half a cup. Cover and store in the pantry.

Your pickle (achar) is done. It is great as a side in minuscule portions (since it is highly spiced). It should last for a good long time, even up to a year.


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Curds and whey

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I have before rather blithely thrown around assertions about how easy it is to make yogurt at home. Room temperature, time, blah. blah. So, madam, how about you put your money where your mouth is, hunh? Hunh?

Fine. Let’s do it. And in the process, get answers to a few persistent questions.

Those of you who hire a house cleaner — you know how easy it is to have your house cleaned, right? You prepare the house and leave. They come over, do the job while you are out working, whooping it up, or waiting watchfully outside the door. Come back home and enjoy your clean house.

Did you do any hard work? No — you waited. Of course, you had to hire the cleaners and set things up for them. But you didn’t actually dust a single chair or sweep a single room. Someone did though.

Delegation! That is what making yogurt is about. We delegate the making of yogurt to the lactic acid bacteria. We ourselves do nothing but wait while they are about their task. Of course my analogy breaks down somewhat because the lactic acid bacteria are not really hard at work with their dustpans and brooms, but rather simply enjoying a meal. It is as though you hired house cleaners to come over and dine at your house, and magically when they were done eating, your house sparkled.

Yogurt-making process

Yogurt-making process

The picture above describes the process.

  1. Milk is full of two kinds of proteins floating about in the liquid — casein and whey.
  2. It also has a special type of milk sugar called lactose
  3. We add in yogurt starter, which contains lactic acid bacteria. They simply love to dine on the lactose
  4. As they do so, they give out lactic acid
  5. The lactic acid amount in milk builds up over time, turning the whole thing somewhat acidic (sour) — you see how it turns yellow?
  6. In that acidic (sour) environment, the casein knots of protein relax and spread out into long strands. Once they are all open they knit with each other into a web that traps the whey proteins and the liquid in milk. This is why the curds are jelly-like.

The experiment

Enough theory. Let’s get to action. In my home in Bombay we made a batch of yogurt every night. Most times it was delicious but every once in a while we would have a runny mess that us kids refused to eat. What went wrong? I have also made yogurt at home in California many, many times. Sometimes with spectacular success. Other times not. Why?

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The ideal yogurt recipe is this: Heat milk to 185 F (scalding), wait till it cools to 110 F (warm). For each cup of milk, add a tablespoon of whipped yogurt and stir. Keep it warm for about 8 hours.

But what happens if you add less starter? What if you skip the step of heating to scalding first? Will room temperature work, just take longer? Time for…

The experiment! I made 7 cups of yogurt:

Cup 1: Left at room temperature to set, not scalded first, one tablespoon starter

Cup 2: Left at room temperature to set, scalded to 185 F first, half tablespoon starter

Cup 3: Left at room temperature to set, scalded to 185 F first, one tablespoon starter

Cup 4: In warm oven to set, not scalded first, half tablespoon starter

Cup 5: In warm oven to set, not scalded first, one tablespoon starter

Cup 6: In warm oven to set, scalded to 185 F first, half tablespoon starter

Cup 7: In warm oven to set, scalded to 185 F first, one tablespoon starter

The Results:

The most important factor that good yogurt depends on is warmth while leaving it out to set. In my home in San Francisco room temperature is around 70 F. The first 3 cups, that were left out on the counter to set, turned out terrible. It took 2 – 3 entire days for them to set, and those that eventually did, had by then developed off flavors. Cups 1, 2 and 3 ended up down the drain. To avoid that fate, yogurt must be set in a warm environment!

The second factor that mattered was whether milk was scalded up to 185 F first, then cooled, or was it just warmed up to 110 F directly. Funny thing is, yogurt formed either way. But the yogurt that formed when milk was scalded first was firmer with a more even texture. The reason for this is: when milk is scalded, some of the whey proteins get relaxed (denatured), and they help the casein proteins form a more even web, rather than clustering together. The actual effect of this is that when milk has been scalded first, the yogurt is firmer and more even, while if it hasn’t been scalded, the curds are more clumpy and separate from the whey.

The third factor — whether we used one or half tablespoon of starter, hardly seemed to matter at all. If the other two things were done right, you could not detect a difference. For the borderline cases, one tablespoon helped it some. It did not solve all problems though.

The Ideal Yogurt:

Now I am equipped to give you the most ideal yogurt recipe as tested by my household.

Start with whole milk. And if you are starting with store-bought yogurt, make sure it says ‘live cultures’. Warm up an measured amount of milk till the point it starts to rise and foam up. Turn it off. Wait till it cools down to just lukewarm. If you want to be precise, the first temperature is 185 F and the second temperature is 110 F.

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Fine. Turn on the oven to about 150 F or so. Turn off as soon as it reaches that, and turn on the oven light. Leave it on. Put the milk in the jar that you want the yogurt to set in. For each cup, put in a half tablespoon of stirred yogurt and stir to meld. Cover and leave in the warm oven for at least 6 hours. In 8, 10 or 12 hours, it will turn more and more sour, so it depends on your preference. Store in the fridge thereafter.

I have often woken up in the morning and, completely forgetting I have yogurt setting in the oven, turned it on with melted plastic lids, ruined yogurt and other disastrous results. So now, I use oven-proof glass Weck jars, and put a sticky note on the oven to remind myself.

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No more accidents. Just good creamy sour yogurt which is not accidental at all.

A method to the meadness — Update after 6 days

The first post in this series is here. Six days in, our mead-to-be is bubbling along nicely. We have reached peak bubbling of about a bubble every two seconds in the airlock, look:

Bubbles in jug and airlock

Bubbles in jug and airlock

To recap, we have put yeast into a solution of honey and water, shaken it, and waited. What is going on in there?

My friend Saccharomyces cerevisiae ICV D-47

Let us get to know this worthy fellow — Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Out of the many single-celled yeasts out there, that is the one we humans have chosen to adopt. This is the yeast that brewers and bakers cultivate; we see it sold on grocery shelves under various labels: active dry yeast, instant yeast, bread-machine yeast, wine yeast and so on.

Saccharomyces cerevisiae -- the brewer's and baker's yeast from MicrobiologyOnline.org

Saccharomyces cerevisiae — the brewer’s and baker’s yeast from MicrobiologyOnline.org

What is so special about it? Beats me, but I got some clues from my obsessive googling. It reproduces quickly — in an hour and a half, it can double its population. It can ferment both in the presence of oxygen and outside it. In the presence of oxygen it ferments faster. Without, it goes slower. But ferment it does. As for reproducing — it can blithely switch between simply diving into two, like a plant, or having male and female babies that have sex to produce babies, the familiar way.

Yes, all of this parade of life is going on in the glass jug while it ferments.

Actually seeing a microbe with a naked eye is not something one usually aspires to (you could fit about two hundred of these, end-to-end, within a single millimeter of your tape measure). But one of the talents this yeast has is to ‘flocculate’. What that means is that individual creatures come together into a ‘floc’, which sounds conveniently like ‘flock’. If only all science words were so conveniently named. Now a flock is actually visible, it looks like brownish residue — as you see below in the picture:

Floc of yeast

Floc of yeast

Another way you can actually see it is: next time you buy some red grapes at the store, dust off the whitish powder that you find on its surface. This is nothing but our friend Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

In fact the exact strain of this yeast that we used — ICV D-47 — was dusted off grapes originally in France by a man named Dr. Dominique Delteil, somewhere in the 1980’s.

Airy fermentation

I think of fermentation as ‘incomplete eating by a microbe’. ‘Incomplete’ because even after the microbes have had their fill, there is plenty of stuff left over for you to enjoy, whether it is wine, beer, bread or dosa. ‘Eating’ because that is what the microbes are doing, gorging themselves silly on your sugars, gaining energy enough to meet, marry and multiply. Why only microbes? Because clearly, you would not look very kindly at bigger creatures gorging on your food — we would call them pests.

Our mead right now is in the process of fermenting in an airy way (aerobic fermentation). Remember we shook the jug to allow air to disperse throughout the liquid? Well the yeast is rapidly using that oxygen to produce the bubbles of carbon-dioxide that we see filling the airlock.

These are the same bubbles that we aim to trap inside a loaf of bread to make it rise. In this case, we allow those bubbles to escape. Because what we care about (the alcohol) will come about after all the oxygen has been used up, and we go into the next stage. Stay tuned….

A method to the meadness

Dear Reader, are you willing to follow me in an experiment?

You will be following along in real time, just like a reality TV show! Suspense, excitement, a slightly risque end-product, and the very real possibility of failure. Hopefully this means high ratings!

We will attempt to make mead.

A goblet of mead, Konstantin Makovsky

A goblet of mead, Konstantin Makovsky, from Art and Faith blog

Mead is the grand-daddy of alcoholic beverages. This past New Year’s Eve when you got nicely liquored up, knowingly or not, you raised your glass to the original makers of mead. Those were the guys about 11000 years ago who discovered that honey diluted with water, when left outside, will turn into a hotbed of yeast infection; those yeasties will eat up the sugars in honey thereby turning the beverage ‘dry’; and clearly yeasties that eat must excrete, which they will do, in great globs of alcohol. Those ancients also discovered that this yeast excretion — namely alcohol — has a nicely happy-making effect, adding zest to New Year’s celebrations.

What a perfect season to attempt mead.

This past Christmas we visited my brother and sister-in-law on the East coast. They own a mead-making set, which they have used once, with moldy results. This post chronicles their second attempt. This time, they are determined to see the bubbles of carbonation arise and sip actual alcohol. The Odd Pantry will be reporting from the field.

Deepak and Shannon’s Mead

Ingredients: 

  • 3.25 lb pure honey (buy from a health/nature type of store. Grocery stores often carry adulterated honey. Check the label. If it says the name of the flower it is probably good. Also if it is crystallized it is pure.)
  • Acid sanitizer (amount according to directions on bottle)
  • Yeast nutrient (urea) — 1 teaspoon
  • Yeast energizer — 1 teaspoon
  • Wine yeast — 2.5 g (half package)
  • 1 gallon distilled or spring water
  • Mix of spices and dried fruit (optional), for example a sliver of orange peel; raisins; cinammon; cloves; cardamom

Equipment:

  • Funnel
  • A large bowl for sanitizing
  • A large bowl for mixing
  • Small bowl for rehydrating yeast in 2 cups water
  • 1 gallon glass jug with airlock, or 1 gallon plastic carboy with separate airlock
  • Rubber stopper with no hole for the jug
  • A thermometer that you can sanitize
  • Weighing scale
  • Spatula

Method:

The recipe that follows is adapted from this source.

In a large bowl, make a sanitizer and water solution. In this, sanitize all the equipment you will be using, including the inside surface of the mixing bowls. You can use the equipment directly without rinsing off the sanitizer.

Sanitizing

Sanitizing

Use 2 cups of the spring water in a small bowl to rehydrate yeast: heat the water in a microwave to between 104 F to 109 F degrees (use the thermometer for accuracy) and pour half the package of yeast in. No need to stir — we will do that in 15 minutes.

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Meanwhile, weigh out 3.25 lb of honey in the large mixing bowl. If the honey has crystallized, you can liquefy it by first putting the jug in a warm water bath; do not microwave it. Add about 2 cups of the spring water in and stir it with the spatula; we are simply making the honey easy to pour into the jug.

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Pour the honey-water mix into the jug using the funnel. If you are using fruit or spices, now is the time to put them into the honey-water mixture.

Add another 1 cup of the spring water in the mixing bowl, and add your 1 teaspoon of yeast nutrient, and 1 teaspoon of energizer. Stir and pour into the jug with the honey-water mix.

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By now the yeast has been rehydrated; give it a stir and pour into the jug as well.

Add enough spring water to the honey in the pitcher to bring it up to the 1 gallon mark. Put the rubber stopper on tightly and give the jug a good shaking for five minutes.

The shaking is important for two reasons — it not only homogenizes the mixture, it also aerates it. Which is something the yeasties need. So, while you are shaking, put it down at intervals, take the rubber stopper off a couple times and let the air escape; put the stopper back on and resume shaking.

Shaking the jug to aerate

Shaking the jug to aerate

Put your sanitized airlock on the jug and cap it. Place the jug in a cool dark place in the house where it will lie undisturbed. Label and date the jug. As you can see, we neglected to do this.

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In a few days, we should see bubbles of aeration arising in the airlock. Then, the bubbles should die down in a couple to three weeks. Will this happen? To be continued….

Update: 6 days later.