ZING AND BITE

Pick­ling and fer­men­ta­tion are spring­boards to a world of culi­nary ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. And they're easy!

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — JEAN TENG / PHO­TOG­RA­PHY— ANGIE HUMPHREYS

Get ex­per­i­men­tal with pick­ling and fer­men­ta­tion.

Ihave some quick pickles in my fridge. They’re called acar: about four dif­fer­ent types of veg­eta­bles tossed with tamarind and a spice paste, mak­ing them sour and crunchy and slightly sweet. They’re good to go pretty much straight af­ter they’re made, hence “quick”. Also in the fridge, some home­made kim­chi I use to flavour my fried rice. And on the win­dowsill, a glass jar lies in wait, topped to the brim with colour­ful cherry toma­toes in brine. I’ll eat them with pasta, even­tu­ally. What a con­ve­nient way of cook­ing.

Dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing be­tween pick­ling and fer­men­ta­tion can be hand-wavy, and even within the two broad terms there are var­i­ous types and meth­ods. All pick­ling is fer­men­ta­tion, but only some fer­men­ta­tion is pick­ling. Pickles are sim­ply pre­served in brine or acid. Fer­men­ta­tion is a trans­for­ma­tion, wherein we try to in­hibit bad bac­te­ria and let the good bac­te­ria thrive. “Rot’s a club where ev­ery­one gets in; fer­men­ta­tion is where the party is pop­ping,” a wise man once said. (That’s Noma’s head of fer­men­ta­tion, David Zil­ber.) And it over­laps. Lacto-fer­men­ta­tion — us­ing a brine of salt and wa­ter — is what pro­duces kim­chi and sauer­kraut pickles, and is a com­mon process of fer­men­ta­tion; the good bac­te­ria (lac­to­bacil­lus) con­vert nat­u­rally present sug­ars into the lac­tic acid that makes veg­eta­bles all sour and zingy.

This isn’t new — var­i­ous cul­tures have used fer­men­ta­tion and pick­ling since the dawn of time, a pre-re­frig­er­a­tion way to pro­long the life of food dur­ing lean pe­ri­ods. Lately, we’ve been hear­ing more about it, as fine-din­ing kitchens around the globe push at its bound­aries in search of new flavours and sus­tain­abil­ity be­comes in­creas­ingly prom­i­nent in con­tem­po­rary food cul­ture.

Pick­ling and fer­men­ta­tion are fun. Ev­ery chef I speak to tells me that. They’re cre­ative, ex­per­i­men­tal ways to cook and to flex your brain a lit­tle bit. Ex­ec­u­tive chef Joe O’Con­nell at Ozone Cof­fee Roast­ers — a com­pany that’s re­ally push­ing it­self on fer­men­ta­tion — ex­plains that lead­ing an all-day eatery, open seven days a week, can some­times be a grind for a chef, their hands go­ing through the same mo­tions. “It’s re­ally im­por­tant there are ar­eas we can ex­plore, en­gage and have fun.”

And there’s some­thing re­ward­ing in the un­known. “I feel like it’s out of my con­trol a lot of the time,” Plabita Florence says. Florence owns plant-based eatery For­est and has been veg­e­tar­ian her whole life. “If some­thing’s gonna be­come cool, I’m dis­cov­er­ing it as it hap­pens. I don’t re­ally do it on pur­pose.” “Not on pur­pose” is Florence’s MO when it comes to this style of cook­ing, stick­ing to the phi­los­o­phy of us­ing what’s around, which, hap­pily, makes fer­men­ta­tion a very sus­tain­able way of cook­ing; here, as they of­ten do, sus­tain­abil­ity and cre­ativ­ity go hand in hand.

Florence serves a car­rot cracker us­ing pulp from her fer­mented car­rot soda.

“It’s not like, ‘I’ve got this wild idea.’ It’s like, ‘I’ve got this car­rot pulp and I don’t want to put it in the bin be­cause I had to pay for that weight.’ That’s when the best things come about, maybe be­cause they have a bit more mean­ing to them.”

O’Con­nell looks at it as a re­fram­ing; how do we look at what are tra­di­tion­ally ‘waste’ prod­ucts and think of them as some­thing new? In­stead of cab­bage, he uses sil­ver­beet stalks for Ozone’s kim­chi — it yields a dif­fer­ent, crunchier tex­ture, but no less de­li­cious. Pas­ture’s owner and chef, Ed Verner, will come up with art­ful dishes while al­ready hav­ing uses for their waste by-prod­ucts in mind. “I put this ridicu­lously waste­ful dish on the menu know­ing it’d be fine be­cause I was go­ing to use the other 90% for a fer­mented mush­room broth. With­out fer­men­ta­tion, I wouldn’t be able to do that.” And now it’s sum­mer, tak­ing ad­van­tage of the abun­dance of pro­duce feels like com­mon sense. It makes sense in terms of sus­tain­abil­ity, and also eco­nom­ics.

In­ter­est­ing flavours are an­other ob­vi­ous con­sid­er­a­tion with pick­ling and fer­men­ta­tion. “It brings so much umami and acid­ity and bright­ness, and an in­cred­i­ble range of flavours from one week to the next,” O’Con­nell says. Dur­ing the day, Ozone plates up clas­sic brunch food, but O’Con­nell sneaks in their funkier cre­ations wher­ever he can — such as lactofer­mented blue­ber­ries, which ended up a lit­tle bit fizzy, on bircher muesli.

Florence likes serv­ing things that are “a lit­tle bit weird”. It makes life more in­ter­est­ing, and feels like you’re do­ing some­thing spe­cial. The po­ten­tial for unique flavours, which other restau­rants can’t just go to the su­per­mar­ket and pro­cure, is a tempt­ing draw­card, too.

You can add a whole va­ri­ety of spices to your pickle or fer­ment at the be­gin­ning of the process. Un­less you’re fol­low­ing a recipe, it can be a trial-and-er­ror kind of deal. And when it doesn’t work? “Oh, heart­break­ing,” O’Con­nell says. “An ad­just­ment of 1% salt can turn it from an ined­i­ble tough mess into the most amaz­ing thing you’ve ever fuck­ing eaten.”

“I’ve made so many dumb things,” Florence tells me. “Like last win­ter, I went to the park and col­lected up all these green grapefruit, be­cause they were fall­ing off the tree and rot­ting ev­ery­where. I spent hours pre­serv­ing them, and shred­ded up the rind to make savoury mar­malade. Ev­ery­thing I made was pretty bad.”

Verner’s ex­per­i­men­ta­tion days are largely over (although not com­pletely, judg­ing by how many jars are on the Pas­ture shelves). He now has his go-to favourites, and keeps the fer­ments clean and pure, lay­er­ing on spices and flavours later. That al­lows for more flex­i­bil­ity.

Due to the end­less nature of fer­ment­ing — you could prob­a­bly pickle any type of veg­etable — it’s easy to get car­ried away. “I haven’t found some­thing I haven’t liked yet,” O’Con­nell says. Your best bet is to use qual­ity non-iodised salt, clean wa­ter (he uses min­eral wa­ter, as city wa­ter is un­pre­dictable) and fol­low a good, clas­sic base recipe be­fore go­ing too crazy with adding herbs and spices.

How do you know your pickle or fer­ment has gone bad? You can prob­a­bly tell straight away. You’ll open the lid and see (non-white) mould, or it’s slimy and tacky, mushy or stinky. “I’ve tasted things be­fore and it’s like, ‘Whoa, you’ve just tasted death,’” Verner says. So if you taste death, that’s bad. White mould could sig­nal over-fer­ment. But if you scoop it out and the pro­duce still tastes good, well, it’s prob­a­bly fine. Keep jars in a cool, dark space (around 20°C), let it do its thing un­til it gets as funky as you can stand, and pop it into the fridge. Easy!

All three chefs see fer­ment­ing as re­ward­ing. You’re putting a lot of care into some­thing, af­ter all — watch­ing it grow, taste-test­ing in be­tween, cross­ing your fin­gers it’ll turn out well, some­times af­ter weeks, or months. And there are so many ways to use your fin­ished prod­uct: eat it as is, purée it, sweeten it up, add what­ever spices you like. You’ll fig­ure it out.

PLABITA FLORENCE’S PICK­LED CHERRY TOMA­TOES IN­GRE­DI­ENTS

Ap­ple cider vine­gar

Wa­ter

1 Tbsp su­gar

2 bay leaves

Salt

2 pun­nets cherry toma­toes Air­tight jar

DI­REC­TIONS

Pre­pare the pickle liq­uid first. Roughly mea­sure the liq­uid to the ca­pac­ity of your jar, us­ing the ra­tio of one-third vine­gar to two-thirds wa­ter. Pour into a pot, along with su­gar, bay leaves and salt to taste (two de­cent pinches). Heat and stir to dis­solve the salt and su­gar, then al­low the liq­uid to cool while you pre­pare the toma­toes. Bring a pot of wa­ter up to the boil and pre­pare a bowl of icy wa­ter nearby. Drop your cherry toma­toes into the boil­ing wa­ter. Watch them; this won’t take long. As soon as you see the skins start to split, re­move them and plop them into the cold wa­ter. The dras­tic change in tem­per­a­ture will shock them and make it easier to re­move the skins. Peel the toma­toes care­fully and place them in your jar. Check your liq­uid is quite cool. If it’s too hot, the toma­toes will cook and, with­out their skins to hold them to­gether, turn into mush. Add the bay leaves to the jar, then pour liq­uid over to cover. Put the lid on tightly and leave them to sit for a day or so.

ED VERNER’S PRE­SERVED LEMON JUICE

This is some­thing very sim­ple that gets used a lot in our kitchen; we reach for it as much as salt or cook­ing fat. Ide­ally, make this with Meyer le­mons at the height of the sea­son.

DI­REC­TIONS

Squeeze the le­mons and pour the juice into a pre­serv­ing jar. Peel the rind off the le­mons and add them to the jar. Cal­cu­late the weight of the con­tents and add 2% of that weight in salt. Seal jar tightly, and leave at room tem­per­a­ture for 2-3 months. Use pre­served lemon juice in any in­stance when you’d nor­mally want to add lemon juice. It’ll give a dif­fer­ent edge to what­ever it’s added to — fer­menty and a lit­tle bit­ter.

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