July 20, 2019

In a pickle: Meditation on Yonah Schimmel

I can’t help but think that the fact that I am mired squarely in middle age has a lot to do with my return to pickles. In college, I started making sourdough bread, which, like pickles, is a product of natural fermentation. By junior year, my hobby became a job — I turned out 20 loaves at a local bakery each morning before classes. 

Then I had kids and the busy schedules they come with. Full catastrophe living, as Zorba the Greek says. And, I felt, the last thing I needed was one more living thing to nurture, even if that living thing was bread dough.

My memories of wild yeasts lay dormant until last May, when my wife and I went to Yonah Schimmel’s on a trip to Manhattan. The first time I visited the venerable Lower East Side knishery was in 1980, and I was instantly taken with its homemade yogurt. According to legend, the yogurt it sells today is a descendant of the first batch made in 1910. On this last trip, it occurred to me I could just take a bit of yogurt home and use it to start my own. It wasn’t theft, I rationalized, it was adoption.

Just before we got on the F train, I popped into Duane Reade and bought a set of travel-size shampoo bottles. Then, at Schimmel’s, we ordered yogurt to go. In his thick Eastern European accent, the owner told us it wasn’t ready yet. “More wait, more thick,” he explained. “More wait … more thick.” I bought some anyway. If the yogurt hadn’t fully set yet, it would by the time it sat in an overhead bin for the seven-hour flight back to L.A.

When we got home, I took the yogurt from the mini-shampoo bottles in our toiletry kits, heated and cooled some milk, added a few tablespoons of the “starter” and set it aside overnight in our oven with the light on. By morning, it had the consistency of Junket, impossibly fresh — alive. Whatever cultures grew in the basement of that ancient tenement had come alive in our Venice kitchen. And so, too, had my fascination with all things fermented. 

Within a month, our kitchen counter began to look like a set from “Crossing Delancey.” I shredded 12 pounds of cabbage, layered it with salt, caraway seeds and juniper berries, and turned it into hundreds of Reubens’ worth of sauerkraut. I bought pickling cucumbers at the farmers market — 16 pounds for $16 — and with not much more than salt water, created a barrel’s worth of crunchy garlic dills. I pickled string beans, carrots, cauliflower, zucchini and peppers. I was the kind of guy spoofed on the IFC series “Portlandia,” breaking up a CD case and declaring, “I can pickle that!” Honestly, I wasn’t sure what had gotten into me.

But it had gotten into my wife as well. Throughout our marriage, Naomi, the rabbi, handled the Judaism, and I handled the foodaism. But it was Naomi who took over yogurt-making duties. And when the Los Angeles Fermentation Festival brought dozens of vendors to Venice a couple of months ago, Naomi came with me, sampling the gin and beet kvass cocktail, touching the slimy kombucha at the “culture petting zoo.” Now, between us at every meal sits a dish of homemade pickles. We are well on our way to becoming old Jews.

Of course, now pickles are cool. Home fermenting is as hipster as a tattoo on the back of your calf. That is due in part to the foodie movement, but also to solid evidence that all those molds and bacteria we’ve tried to Purell out of existence actually can make us healthier.

Fermenting begins when microorganisms in the air and on the skin of fruits and vegetables penetrate cell membranes and transform the starches or sugars inside. Grapes become wine; milk, cheese; and cabbage leaves, kraut. The older the culture, like Judaism, the more entwined it is with the wisdom of culturing. Our modern society, enthralled by antibiotics and antiseptics, is just beginning to awaken to the science of probiotics.

I do feel better, but I know there’s more to this new phase in my cooking life than that. I suspect it has something to do with time and age itself.

Fermenting is unique among cooking techniques in that it requires no external heat. Those busy microbes generate their own energy. People intervene, but nature cooks. We are partners in a process that existed long before we arrived and will go on long after we disappear.  In fact, it’s how we will disappear.

“As one of the primary processes by which nature breaks down living things so that their energies and atoms might be reused by other living things, fermentation puts us in touch with the ever-present tug, in life, of death,” Michael Pollan writes in “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.”

We spend our youth and early adulthood burning through life, trying to shape and stir and sear it into the dish we want. But with middle age comes a letting go, the realization that there are forces beyond our control; that entropy is a thing; that death looms.  

So I am drawn to pickles. The same process that improves our health echoes our decay. 

“The dust returns to earth as it was,” Ecclesiastes says. Or, as a wise man once said, “More wait, more thick.” We will improve with age — until we don’t. 

PICKLING RECIPES:

This is the basic recipe I’ve been using, adapted from many that are out there. 

Lacto-fermented Pickles

Serves 8

  • 2.5 tablespoons  kosher salt (non-iodized)
  • 1 quart spring, distilled or filtered water (no chlorine!)
  • 3 cups washed vegetables (carrot slices, cauliflower florets, string beans, zucchini chunks, red pepper slices, okra, etc)
  • 1 clove garlic, smashed and peeled

  • 1-2 bay leaf
, preferably fresh
  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds

  • 1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns

  • ¼ teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
  • 1-2 grape or oak leaves (optional, to help keep pickles crisp)

 

Combine salt and water in a measuring cup and stir until the salt is dissolved.

Place the remaining ingredients in a very clean, large jar (a half-gallon mason jar works well). Pour the salt water over the vegetables, leaving at least 1 inch of headspace at the top of the jar. If necessary, add more water to cover the vegetables.  I bought little clay weights from a pickling/canning web site that keep everything down.

Cover the jar tightly and let  stand at room temperature.  “Burp” the jay daily by twisting the lid slightly then retightening.  If scum forms on surface scrape it off.

The pickles take about 3 days.  Taste, and taste again.  When you’re happy with them, place in refrigerator. They last about a month.

Dill Pickles

  • 4 tablespoons kosher  salt
  • 1/2 gallons distilled, spring or purified water 
  • 3 pounds (about) pickling cucumbers, washed
  • 5 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 heads or bunches dill
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seed
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorn

 

Dissolve salt in water.

Cut tips off each end of cucumbers. 

Place in jar, layering in spices.

Make sure water covers by an inch.  Weight down with clean stones or other weights. Keep things under water.

Tighten lid.  Burp daily.  After 3 days check for doneness.  Refrigerate when they reach the right taste for you.

Homemade Yogurt

  • ½ gallon milk
  • 4 T. natural yogurt

 

Heat milk in large pot to 180 degrees. Stir occasionally.

When ready, remove from stove and let cool to 110-112 degrees.  You can pour into a cool bowl and place in an ice water bath, or just let cool on its own.

When cool whisk or stir in the yogurt starter.   The better the yogurt the starter came from, the better your yogurt will be.

Cover and place in an oven with the light on for 8-12 hours (overnight works).

Remove and place in the regrigerator.

Going forward you can use 4 T. of this batch to make a new batch.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.