Right about this time of year the produce aisle of the grocery store starts feeling less than inspiring. In-season options are limited to storage vegetables like potatoes, onions and winter squash, which are getting old. Citrus is delicious, but you can only eat so many oranges and grapefruits.
So where do we turn to entertain our palates until spring? What’s in season when nothing is in season?
The traditional answer is fermented foods! Think sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha. Somehow this old-as-humanity method of preservation has become new again in our culture. Sure beer and wine have always been around, but our necessity for fermented vegetables has vanished since the development of freezing, canning and the transport of foods from around the globe. Traditionally, fermented foods were a staple in times of scarcity, such as winter, and are still a mainstay of many cultural cuisines around the world.
This natural process by which yeasts and bacteria digest carbohydrate is known to present a variety of health benefits. By partially “pre-digesting” foods, fermentation makes many foods more digestible by the human gut, nutrients become more bioavailable (easily absorbed) and extra B-vitamins are actually synthesized by the bacteria involved. Fermentation can neutralize anti-nutrients like phytic acid in grains, which normally impedes the absorption of essential minerals zinc, calcium, iron and magnesium. Eaten alive and unpasteurized, fermented foods act as a digestive tonic and natural probiotic, delivering live enzymes and friendly bacteria to the digestive tract, which further improves digestive health, immune function and disease risk. In the case of cabbage (integral to sauerkraut and kimchi), fermentation is believed to enhance the already potent anti-carcinogenic (anti-cancer) properties of the cruciferous vegetable.
It’s clear that preservation is not the only benefit fermentation has to offer. So why not liven things up by adding some sauerkraut to your plate this winter? The best way is to make your own. With only two ingredients, cabbage and sea salt, it may be the easiest recipe you ever follow. If you’re not up for it, Bubbie’s makes a good store-bought version that is easy to find, prepared in the traditional manner (new, more commercial varieties use shortcuts like vinegar rather than waiting out the fermentation process), and only mildly heat-treated (rather than fully pasteurized) to allow the survival of live bacteria. For more information, instruction and recipes, I highly recommend the books and blog of fermentation enthusiast Sandor Katz.
Source: Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz, 2003.
Photo Source: Jill Mead, The Guardian, 2013