Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Recipe: Spinach Gnocchi in a Parmesan Butter Sauce

For lots of reasons, I've been rather lax about preparing meals lately. I'm not proud of it, and I've definitely not felt as amazing as I usually do BUT I'm still trying to eat as fresh and healthy as I can.

I came up with this dish due to lack of time and energy and it is very tasty and very rich considering the little effort that goes into it.  Because this is one of my last minute, go-to recipes, I don't have exact measurements or ingredients. I tend to make it with whatever I have on hand, and it's even tasty plain. Of course, I much prefer it with vegetables in it because it's much heartier and more filling, but use what you have on hand for this quick dish.

I found fresh (and affordable!) gnocchi with spinach ground into the pasta. So that's the base. I whipped up a quick butter sauce while the gnocchi was boiling. If you're feeling ambitious, toss fresh vegetables in the butter and saute them. If you're lazy and have fermented vegetables on hand, just wait until everything is ready and add a spoonful on top when it's finished baking. (You can guess which one I did...)

1 pound of gnocchi
3-4 tablespoons of butter
parmesan cheese

optional: shallots (or fermented onions), garlic, fresh spinach, bit of lemon juice (or zest of preserved lemons), chili flakes, salt, pepper

Place a pot of water on the stove. Add the gnocchi once the water begins to boil. Keep an eye on it as it usually only takes 4 minutes.

Place your butter in a pan on the stove as well.

If you're using fresh produce, you'll need a bit more butter, it should be on medium heat, and you should begin sauteing. Start with the shallots/onions and saute until they're golden brown - about 4 minutes. If you have anything else crunchy you want to add, do it now. Otherwise, as the shallots/onions brown, add the rest of your ingredients: spinach, lemon juice/zest, garlic, and spices.

If you're not using fresh produce, keep your butter on low heat.

I like to add the cheese (after the veg have softened) and let it melt into the butter. Keep an eye on it so it doesn't burn.

As the gnocchi finishes (it will get all fluffy and float to the top of the pan), I add it to the sauce/veg mixture and saute it for a few more minutes.

Add the gnocchi and sauce to your bowl and let it cool for a moment or two. If you're using fermented veg, now would be the time to add it and stir it into the dish.

And there you go! Very simple and delicious.

Total time: 5-10 minutes
Serves: 2 people

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

How Do You Know When Your Ferment Has Gone Bad? (AKA Fermenting is Really Easy, I Swear!)

One of my favorite things about fermenting food isn't the health benefits or the idea of using it as food storage, though those things are great, but I really love how it easy it is.

If you look at vegetable fermentation, at it's core you just essentially put some vegetables in some salty water. Sure, sometimes you can get more complicated that - maybe you want to chop everything, maybe you're fermenting salsa, maybe you're making something alcoholic - but at it's core, fermenting is fairly simple and straightforward.

My biggest concern when I started fermenting foods was that it would go bad. I'm the type of person who throws out the whole container when it gets moldy rather than carefully clean it and disinfect it for future use so trust me when I tell you I hate mold and bad bacteria.

As an American, I was raised to think all bacteria is bad. Obviously, we've been learning in the last few years why that attitude is not only incorrect but can be very dangerous. Some bacteria is good. We need bacteria to live, to thrive. If you're having a little freak out right now because you don't know if you can eat living bacteria, I'd just like to point out that if you eat yogurt, saurkraut, cheese, olives or drink beer, wine or kombucha, then you already consume fermented foods. Congrats!

Now let's move on to what happens if you follow a fermentation recipe. If you look at my fermented jalapeno pepper recipe, you'll find that it's very simple. Peppers. Salt. Water. You get the basic steps. But what's happening in there? What if something goes wrong? What if you accidentally eat the bad bacteria and get really sick?!

Don't worry. I don't want you to die from using my recipe either. 

Here's what's going to happen. On the peppers you bought (and on everything, really) are thousands, maybe millions of bacteria and yeast waiting for their chance to thrive. After you clean the peppers with hot water and toss them in the brine, the salt in the water suppresses the "bad" bacteria and allows the "good" bacteria to do it's thing.

If all goes according to plan, after a few days you'll start to see bubbles at the top of the brine. That's good. It's working. Sometimes you get a lot of bubbles. Sometimes you only get a few. It doesn't really matter.

Then your bubbly ferment will start to turn cloudy. The colors on the fruit will dim. Don't panic. The cloudiness you're seeing is dead yeast. Did I mention that there's also a lot of yeast along with the bacteria? Anyway, it's all going according to plan.

Let it sit a bit longer. Check your recipe. Sometimes ferments are ready to go after a few days, sometimes after a few months, and the annoying thing is (especially when you start out and you're really concerned about bacteria) that the length of time depends on you and your kitchen.

Basically what happens is this: when you start your ferment, it takes a day or two as the bacteria start to wake up. Then it turns into a party. Then the party starts to wind down and everyone goes home (aka dies).

Ideally you want to stick your ferment in a fridge (or somewhere below 60F) right as the party winds down. When your bubbles start to dwindle, that's a very good indication that you should tighten the lid and move your container to a cooler place.

Warmer environments speed things up. So if you live somewhere without air conditioning and it's 95F, then you need to check on your ferment quite a bit because you could have something ready in a few days. If you live in a much cooler place and it's only 75F, then it'll take a bit longer.

If you're ever unsure, which could happen because maybe you didn't get that many bubbles or the temperature fluctuated, I recommend taking a deep breath to brace yourself, then smell it, and taste it. The deep breath is to help calm your nerves - even though I usually know what I'm making and eating, it's still scary to taste-test something! But really, smell it. Does it smell like food? Or does it smell off? Taste it. You'll know immediately if it's bad. (It's probably not bad.)

Here's how you know when a ferment has gone bad (and pay attention, this is important):

1. It has mold. Mold is fuzzy. Mold is usually green. Mold is on the surface. If you have something slimy on the bottom of your ferment? Something white on the sides? Not mold, probably yeast and normal, so go ahead and eat it.
See the fuzzy cloudiness? Normal.
Some cultures feel that mold is normal and okay and they happily scrape the mold off and let it continue. Some others will scrape the mold off the top once and hope it doesn't come back. I'm not really there yet. I don't want to chance it at all so it gets tossed.

2. You have kahm yeast. Kahm yeast grows on the surface. It's white and has little bubbles. Technically it's harmless and you can eat it. However, sometimes it doesn't have a good taste to it and you have to toss the whole thing*. The downside is that you have to taste your ferment to know if yours is fine or not.

That's it. That's really all that can go wrong.

But what about botulism?
Botulism is a common fear for people who can their food, and for good reason. It has serious side effects, including paralysis. In case you're not aware, it's caused by the bacteria clostridium botulinum, and sometimes a few other strains. Obviously, this is a bacteria you want to avoid.

C. botulinum is, like other bacteria, everywhere and is just waiting for the right conditions to grow and thrive. The right conditions: an anaerobic environment that's not too acidic, not too salty, and not too crowded with other bacteria. All of these conditions are the exact opposite of what you're trying to achieve when you're fermenting, and assuming you follow the recipe, to add vegetables in brine, you're going to be fine.

The only time botulism has been linked to fermentation is when you're fermenting fish and meat, and for some reason, they're all reported from Alaska.

So yeah, fermenting can be really easy and you'll know right away if it's safe to eat.

Now get to it!

*I have recently discovered a "cure" for kahm yeast. I'm currently testing it out to see if it works so stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Fermentation: Not Just Good for Your Gut, Good for Your Budget!

The coolest thing about fermenting is the idea of using fermentation as food storage. Obviously fermenting produce has numerous health benefits and that's why most people are interested in it (aka part 1 in this series), but I find the idea of long term storage to be even better!

I try to cook all of my meals from fresh ingredients, but sometimes I don't always have time to cook it (or I get ambitious and realize not only do I not have the time to make it, but I don't have a small army hanging around) and quite a bit goes bad. It's definitely not good when my food goes bad before I even get around to making something with it.

When you ferment food, you stick produce, generally vegetables, in brine and the salt makes sure that the "good" bacteria can do its thing while suppressing the "bad" bacteria. It can take anywhere from a few days to a few months to be fully fermented. Once it's fermented to your liking, you don't have to consume it right away, you just pop it in the fridge.

So guess who's not affected by the lime shortage? ;-)

To slow fermentation, the jars go in the refrigerator (or a cool room like a basement or cellar - generally just below 60F). This is important because the cooler environment does not kill off the bacteria. The bacteria is still alive, it's still doing its thing, and it's still able to keep your food from spoiling.

So for example, I've always wanted to make my own condiments, but how can you justify creating a large batch of ketchup that's just going to go bad in a week? Unless you're prepping for a giant family picnic, you're going to have to toss it or hope that your fridge is cold enough to prevent mold from growing. But when you ferment ketchup, suddenly you have more than a week before it goes bad. Suddenly you have months to enjoy it.

This goes beyond just condiments.

Last year I would buy bags and bags of produce from the farmer's market for  much less than you can buy in the supermarket. I bought bags full of jalapeno peppers and garlic and onions for only a few dollars. There's no way I can eat that in a week or two before it spoiled, and I certainly couldn't pass up such a great deal.

But when you get home, rinse the vegetables a bit in hot water, slice them up, and put them in brine, suddenly they're good for months. Yes, it is March and I am still munching on onions that I picked up from the farmer's market last summer. Yes, they taste delicious. Yes, they're even still crunchy.

It's not witchcraft, it's fermentation!

So you're interested in this food storage idea I hope. But what do you DO with a jar full of onions?

I'll tell you.

1. You snack on them. This makes a little more sense if you have fermented salsa in the fridge, but you can definitely snack on your fermented vegetables. I know this sounds weird because who would snack on onions? Well, when you start fermenting foods, you will start be the weird one snacking on them.

Obviously, you'll need to take a bite of it before you put it in the fridge to make sure everything's okay. You'll think to yourself, "Wow, that's actually pretty good." So you have another one. Then you realize that your stomach really likes it. Not in the way that it likes pizza, but more like in the way that you can tell it's happy you just gave it a fermented onion. Then you stick it in the fridge and kind of forget about it until one day you're hungry and you open up the fridge and you go, "Oh, there are some onions in here." (Don't worry, fermented onions taste MUCH better than raw onions.)

2. You use them medicinally. Now I'm not trying to imply that fermented foods are better than medicine, especially because I'm not a doctor and have no medical training. However, I have seen plenty of articles that mention that your gut bacteria needs more bacteria to feel good. I also know that when I have an upset stomach, I eat a few pieces of fermented vegetables and I feel much better. I've also seen this work on other people. Are you one of those people? Only one way to find out! (I know it sounds really wrong to give a nauseous person a fermented jalapeno, but I've seen it work wonders!)

Cranberries still perfect 6 months later
3. You use them as a condiment. Let's say you ferment a container of carrots. You throw in a few spices. It's delicious. You're not really into snacking. Unless you threw in a bay leaf or something similar to keep the vegetables crisp, they're limp and somewhat unappetizing...

A perfect remedy for this situation is using your fermented veggies as a side dish or a condiment. Sauerkraut and/or mustard on a sandwich are perfect. I love putting my fermented cranberries on a sandwich with cheese. You'll slowly start to find uses for your new foods that you never would have thought of before! And if not, you can always...

4. You use it in cooking. This is certainly an unpopular answer among some in the fermenting crowd because you just spent days (or months) of your life waiting for the bacteria to reproduce and do their thing so you can eat them and be healthy and do your thing so why, WHY would you cook with fermented food and kill all the probiotics? Simple. I'm lazy. If I don't want to run out to the market when I just came back from the market (and who would?), I grab a few slices of jalapenos and toss them in the pan. After all, I get plenty of probiotics in other meals so I don't think killing them once will cause any problems.

Additionally, if you have a ferment that you can't really stomach, like your milk kefir is too sour, it's perfect to bake with. Or make pancakes. Any milk substitute, really. My favorite my soured milk kefir has to be making cream cheese and adding herbs. There all sorts of uses!

I will mention that bacteria tend to die over 105F so a great option can be to toss in the fermented veggies after everything has finished cooking and you're about to serve it. After all, you don't need to saute or cook anything as the vegetables are generally going to be soft and palatable. I have pretty much stopped cooking with garlic because I stir in a spoonful of garlic paste at the end of every meal. The end result being my food is flavored with garlic, I don't have to worry about burning the garlic when I add it to the hot oil, and I get the good bacteria in my gut.

What do you think? Are you excited about food storage? Any hesitations before you being fermenting? Next week I'm talking about making sure the good bacteria you're consuming is actually, you know, good.

You can also check out part 3 in this series: How to Know When Your Ferment has Gone Bad.