Change the form. Vary the use. Expand your notions.
Put it in a Shaker – Sprinkle on Soups – Stir into Stews – Dry Rub Meat – Top your Popcorn – Lime Pickle Hollandaise
Spice up your Marinade – Sauerkraut Leather – Rim a Cocktail – Add it to a Dressing – Toast on a Bun – Season your Fries
Make a Simple Syrup – Replace Salt – Add to Pasta Dough – Dust Chocolate – Flavor Sauces – Lick off Fingers
Season your Burger – Make a Dip – Add Complexity to Chili – Keep by the Grill – Instant Broth
Spice up Mayonnaise – Whisk into Batter – Coat your Crackers & Chips – Add to Pickling Spices – Sprinkle on Deviled Eggs
Whip into Butter – Toss into Salads – Sprinkle on your Pizza – Add to Guacamole – Add to Batters – Season Nuts
Every year in early June, after the last of the spring rains have fallen and the fruit of Prunus mume have begun to blush, we head over to the North side of town where a long time customer has a tree. Ume, the fruit of the Prunus mume tree, is commonly referred to as a plum. However once you hold the fruit in your hand and feel the soft fuzz and take in the strong sweet fragrance you might sense that this is much more closely related to an apricot, which it is.
The tree is small and sturdy. It is planted up against a backyard tool shed and with one of us on the shed roof and one on the ground we strip the tree of fruit, in one short hour filling two 5 gallon buckets.
Back at the Shop the fruit is divided into those that are blushing and those that are solid green. The blushing fruit is salted and used for Umeboshi.
The green are steeped in Mugi Shochu, a distilled alcohol made from barley, and mixed with sugar to create Umeshu. This alcohol maceration process will take the better part of a year.
The salted Ume are then packed into the stoneware crocks that we used to ferment our sauerkraut in, years and years ago. They are impractical for the volume we do now but we have kept a few around for small projects. We press the Ume by placing a plate over the top and weigh it down with a bag full of pebbles. We allow it to sit for several weeks to create a brine.
After a few weeks of pressing the Ume has released some liquid and formed a brine.We then drain the brine, setting it aside for later, and lay the Ume out onto racks to dry for about two weeks.
We add Red Shiso (Perilla frutescens) to the Ume brine. This is what gives the Ume its color.
After drying, we pack the Ume back into a crock and add the Shiso infused Brine. They will stay in this crock under pressure for several months.
Usually we allow our Ume to ferment under weight for about six months. After that time, we take them out and age them in jars. We have vintages going back to 2008.
So here’s the question. Why are we not doing this with other stone fruit? On our list to try in up and coming years: Apricots, Peaches, Nectarines, Pluots, Plums, and Cherries
Kasu. Sake kasu. Sake Lees. Dregs.
Tapping into waste streams and re-purposing for deliciousness.
After a tank of sake has run the course of its fermentation—anywhere from 18 to 32 days—what remains is a white mixture of sake, rice solids, and yeast. This mixture, known as the moromi, is pressed to separate the sake from the suspended solids. There are several methods of pressing the sake out, leaving compressed rice solids, or lees, behind. This is Kasu.
Larger sake producers extract the sake from the lees by machine and the kasu comes out in thin dry sheets called itakasu. Smaller producers may press their sake by hand using a wooden box called a fune, which has a lid that gets cranked down on the sake mash, or moromi, which has been placed in small canvas bags. This method will yield a kasu that is moist and chunky called teshibon or namakasu.
Kasuzuke or vegetables pickled in kasu, are said to have originated in the Kansai region of Japan as early as twelve hundred years ago. The first vegetables known to be fermented in kasu were white melon and were named shiru-kasu-zuke or Nara-zuke. Later, the technique would used with cucumbers, eggplants, and uri or bitter melon. It was produced primarily by Buddhist monks and used by Samurai for sustenance in wartime and winter. During the Edo period of the 17th century, sake producers promoted the use of kasu widely. Not long after, kasuzuke would become a mainstay in the ever expanding repertoire of Japanese tsukemono.
We are fortunate to be located just blocks from Takara Sake one of the largest producers of sake in the United States. We have a long standing relationship with Takara, and after each pressing of their Certified Organic Ginjo Grade Junmai Nama Sake, they put aside about 150 lbs of kasu for us. The kasu has been pressed mostly dry at the factory and has a slightly sticky putty-like texture. Kasu is stored in the refrigerator and the cold makes it stiff and a little unyielding. We allow it warm in a bowl on the counter for the day and as it warms it becomes much more pliable and easy to work with. We knead salt and sugar into it until the dry sheets form a thick sticky paste. We then bury vegetables that have been salt pressed for two days into the paste . The vegetables ferment from three months up to a year or more. The result is a delightful and unique pickle with a distinct sake taste, quite unlike anything found in Western pickling traditions.
Typically we intend to ferment our kasuzuke for 12 months. With this in mind we have found that a ratio of 10:3:1 kasu:sugar:salt, works well for us. Those ratios will be adjusted down for shorter term ferments of vegetables that are more tender. One of our favorite kasu pickles is burdock.
Burdock. Arctium lappa. Gobo in Japan. It is the long tap root of a thistle. Dark and woody, it is deep in earthy overtones and slightly sweet. We wash the burdock well and press it at 6% salt for two days. The burdock is spiraled into a vessel and layered between the kasu-sugar-salt mixture. In the initial weeks of fermentation there will be a fair amount of carbon dioxide released and pockets will appear. To combat this, and insure optimal kasu to burdock contact, we weigh the ferment down.
Our burdock ferments for 12-18 months. One of our longer ferments, it needs that duration for the dense, sturdy root to ferment clean through. It is a testament to the hardy strength of burdock that after a full fermentation it retains most of its flavor and texture. Though the sake and koji permeate, it is still astonishingly earthy and woody.
For years we enjoyed this pickle sliced thinly on a bias. Wood chips, I called them. Wonderful, flavorful wood chips. Then I introduced it to the microplane. Burdock kasuzuke loves the microplane. A melt on your tongue snow of sweet earth.
Winter 1997, San Fransisco, 3:30 am.
The early morning hours are always dark and always cold, arrestingly cold in the enormous coolers of Veritable Vegetable, an organic produce wholesaler in the warehouse district of east San Francisco. I am staring at a wall of cabbage boxes. I will spend the next hour—shivering and dodging hand-trucks and forklifts marauding about—contemplating quality. The patient and gracious sales rep has set out eight boxes for me to inspect. I will caress, squeeze, cut, and chew on one cabbage out of each box. I am searching. I am hoping. The cabbage should be firm and dense. They should be sweet with a subtle undertone of bitter and spice. They should have a small core extending an inch or two up through the center. If the cabbage I try is not representative of the rest of the boxes, that will suck. If I get the cabbage home and Alex disagrees with my assessment, that will suck. There may not be any that will do. If not, I will go home empty handed. We will not be making sauerkraut today.
Thankfully a memory.
Eventually, we received seed catalogs from growers like Reeds and Johnny’s, as well as from various heirloom seed-savers exchanges, and Alex would spend late nights pouring over them. We selected promising cultivars and had the seeds sent to Tim Mueller at Riverdog Farm, who grew them out for us. Cabbages sold as “Kraut Cabbage” are no good for us. These varietals are not only dense, which is good, but they are dry, which is not. Selected for their ability to withstand long periods of cold storage, they are intended, presumably, to be shredded and water brined. We want them as close to harvest time as possible. They must have a high moisture content in order to create a proper brine when salted. Density is directly related to our yield. If the cabbage is too young or is bolting, the heads will be loose and ill-formed. There are practical considerations for the farmer as well. In the main, folks don’t want to buy huge cabbage. “What do I do with all of that?” The cabbage must, of course, grow well in the farm’s micro-climate and must have a cost effective yield. So it’s not all up to us. This is collaboration. It took years of trial and error to find what works for us and our farmer partners. That said, we are year-round sauerkraut makers and we must make the best out of the inevitable fluctuations in cabbage shape, size, weight, density, moisture content, sweetness, sulfuric-ness, and latent bacterial profiles. Yes, no doubt we spend our work in quest of perfection. The whole body tingles when something is, as we say, “textbook.” Funny that: which textbook would that be? And yes, sometimes things are just OK.
We are asked if we teach classes. We don’t. There are many reasons for this, chief among them is that not everyone sees themselves as educators. We don’t. We find it difficult to speak generally about the process. Fermentation is aflame at the moment and there are workshops galore to teach the basics. There are many great books out there. At the Top of the List, of course, are the two, now essential books, by Sandor Katz: Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation. Sandor is a fearless enthusiast. He does a brilliant job of demystifying the processes of fermentation and sets the proper tone of calm curiosity. Our approach is at once identical to Sandor’s and the exact opposite.
Fermentation happens. This is no bumper sticker quip. It does. It is here: in us, on us, and all around us. From life’s true beginning ’til it ends. So despite my tendency to wax poetic about the wonder of alchemy, there is nothing out of the ordinary happening here. It is a point of fact that, if asked about salt amounts, Sandor may say that he can’t answer that. “In most ferments, including vegetables, salting can be done to taste, without any need for measuring.” The amount of salt doesn’t really matter. It will ferment. You will get a sour. You will have pickles. Alex, if asked the same question, will also say that she can’t tell you. For the exact opposite reason. It matters too much. I know we often come across as being coy, evasive, or protective of trade secrets, but there are so many things to weigh and consider before the salt and sweat. The vegetable type, the time of year, the location of the farm, the maturity of the vegetable, the moisture content, the varietal, the cut of the vegetable, the intended fermenting time. It all matters. and matters very much. To us. It is important to acknowledge that we are really advocating for the same thing: cultivating intuition. Intuition cannot be taught or bought. It can only be earned through work and attention.
When our 16-year-old son came home from spending spring break on a class trip to China, he—of course—brought back pickles. A barely fermented chili paste, strong, garlicky, and salty. And a jar of pickled turnips. The chili paste was pretty unexciting but the turnips were to die for. They were hardly brined, with a nice heat from chili and an amazing chewy texture. We immediately wanted to try to replicate it.
We decided we would use daikon, because we had a bunch around the shop, and because its size lent itself to a long, noodle-like julienne. We laid them out on a rack to dry and the next morning found small shriveled confetti. The daikon had lost so much moisture it would blow off the rack as you walked by. Not what we wanted. We tried to air dry the daikon whole before processing it. Fail. We tried several more approaches, always ending up with the same thing.
The Japanese call this Kiriboshi. We knew of Kiriboshi but had never prepared or eaten it. We kept it around while we rethought our approach. Then came lunch.
Alex decided to prepare the Kiriboshi one day for our staff meal. She soaked it in a light dashi, simmered it with hijiki, and served it with some sweet brown rice. At the first bite the light bulbs started flashing. Maybe the turnips in our favorite Chinese pickle hadn’t been dehydrated to that amazing texture, perhaps they had been re-hydrated to it. Now we can start.
These pickled gingko nuts were initially inspired by a visit from Mike Ryan, the Chef de Cuisine at Elements, in Princeton New Jersey. Mike is such an amazing, creative guy. He and Chef Scott Anderson are doing some of the most exciting work with fermentation in fine dining today. They are the first restaurant that I have seen to incorporate kombucha into their dishes, rather than it being relegated to beverage status. They are creating hard cheeses out of almonds, fermenting them with Rejuvelac, and hardening them with transglutaminase. They are aging pork loin coated in uni paste. Really cool shit. Mike came into The Shop one afternoon and we hung out for a while tasting ferments and trading ideas. We were trying various misozuke, turnips, June garlic, and a three-year fermented pumpkin. Mike proposed fermenting chestnuts. I countered with gingko nuts. A couple of days later I started these and he started chestnuts.
I purchased some fresh gingko nuts and layered one batch in a two-year barley miso. The other batch I layered in a sake kasu that had burdock fermenting in it for 18 months. This kasu is beautiful. There is a heady aroma of sake, koji, and rich geosmin from the burdock. The kasu, after having a vegetable fermenting in it for that duration, is teeming with enhanced microbial activity. It is a superior product, ideal for short term ferments, especially proteins. I found that after two months both batches were quite delightful. The outer layer of the nut still had some resistance and density, with a slight chalkiness, while the centers had become a wonderfully flavored jelly. An explosion of flavor and texture in the mouth. Last I heard, Mike’s chestnuts were still fermenting. I imagine they may take a year or more.
I know that this is going to lead to a whole miso & kasu fermented nut program at The Shop. Stay tuned.
Years ago I attended a lecture given by the renowned author and horticulturist Ann Lovejoy. During the Q & A session Ann was asked by an audience member what her secret to success in the garden was. “Killing thousands of plants,” was her reply.
Best not be to attached to the outcome of your ferments. This is not to say that you should adopt an air of casual indifference or irreverence. Surely you should not. You must always approach your work with care and attention. You must set an intention for a positive outcome. But fermentation can be a cruel mistress, indifferent to your desires. It is best to shield your heart from disappointment so great it leads to inaction. Giving up.
We are all aware of what fear of failure does to our creativity. Our lively spirits.
We are often asked about ferments going bad or wrong. Bad? Wrong? Bad for who? The ferment? I guarantee you the ferment is doing just fine. Populations rise and fall. There is conversion, action, liveliness. Bad for you? Were you not given information? Did you not learn something? Were you paying attention?
Remain open to possibility. Regard the process with curiosity and awe. Sometimes the outcome is truly precious. The collaboration between you and the unseen world can yield something so stunning in its elegance, that its beauty leaves you breathless.
“So how long do you ferment this stuff for anyway?” I get this question almost every day. I usually tilt my head and squint and give a quick, curt, “Till it’s done,” and go back to work. Hint: If you come in to our Shop and refer to our work as “this stuff,” you probably aren’t going to get a straight answer. Though, truth be told, if you walked in all reverent, bowing and genuflecting, laying down offerings and singing the praises of our magnificent products…you’re not going to get a straight answer. There are few straight answers at The Shop.
Everything ferments on its own schedule. Everything. A single batch, made on the same day by the same hands, divided in half and put into two separate tanks, placed next to each other in the cave, will ferment differently. It is fascinating. It also makes our production schedule a fucking nightmare. We thought for sure when we tried it two weeks ago that it would be ready this week. Ready? Right there, a problematic, subjective, anthropocentric concept anyway. Is it good? Is it great? Would it be better next week? Last week? Decision is part of craft, and we’ve decided that it’s not coming out of the tank. Yet we have ordered accordingly, and staffed appropriately to empty and fill that tank. So now what?
Does it have to be this way? No. At three weeks, lacto-fermented cabbage tastes like sauerkraut. One could pretty much bang it out like clockwork. But we can’t. There are considerations of quality here. Fermentation is not an event, it is a process. Each bacteria and yeast population that is responsible for lacto-fermentation unlocks textural and flavor components in the ferment and adds some of its own. There are layers of complexity that come with age. There is a mellowing of the acids produced by Lactobacillus plantarum after week four, revealing the deep and essential flavors of the vegetable. There is a thinning in the viscosity of the brine that occurs when the bacteria Leuconostoc mesenteroides dies off at around the second week, and it continues to thin in subsequent weeks. In the first, fourth, and often the sixth week, we get our hands into our ferments, pushing the kraut down into the tank, expelling CO2 that has built up. There is a softening, a rounding out of the salinity, that we are looking for as the kraut matures. A particular balance is struck in the ferment. Sometimes this happens by week six, often by week eight, but sometimes not until week twelve and beyond.
A fetishistic cult has risen up around aging in the food world. I am a happy follower. I will admit that my heart skips a beat if we should find a hidden jar of kabocha kasuzuke from four years ago back in the cave. I really, really want to try that 180-day dry aged wagyu. I imagine the dish “Old Tuna, Old Beef” at Saison in San Francisco to be something quite special. If I post something “old” on twitter, I’m bound to get some oohhs and aahhs, especially if it’s a protein. Sport eating? Perhaps. Sometimes long aging is appropriate and sometimes it’s more appropriate to pay attention and determine that you—as nothing more than a novice guide in the unseen world—think that, at this moment, this is perfect and should be slowed down or eaten now.
Honestly, I wish we could also sell young ferments. There is something so wonderful about a kimchi at week one or two with that fresh crispness of the vegetable, and the bracing heat, and that harsh saltiness unmitigated by time. I love the crunch of a 1/4 sour cucumber with its slight acidity on a hot summer day with a pastrami sandwich and a celery kombucha.
There are, however, practical considerations. The product must sit well in a jar. No one wants to buy the jar on the store shelf that is bloated and leaking brine. This is far more likely to happen if the ferment is packed while still young and still producing an abundance of CO2. I see it all the time as I’m stocking shelves on my delivery route. I’ve even seen labels on some kraut advising the customer to open the jar over a sink, as the product may very well volcano out and flow over your counter top. This product may be quite tasty, lively in the mouth, with an effervescence that dances across your tongue, but it seems to us that it causes some logistical issues. We have a lot of products. We have no marketing budget, and the act of selling holds no allure. It’s nice to know that for the most part our work will age well in a jar and we can sell it slowly while we busy ourselves with making something else, unhurried and delicious.
Some things you do for money and some things you do for love, love, love.
-The Mountain Goats
Takuan pickles are sun-dried daikon pickled in a bed of rice bran and salt. We are intrigued by Japanese pickling traditions in part because of how they employ unique mediums such as rice bran, miso, and sake lees. This tradition utilizes “waste” materials from rice milling to impart both impressive nutritional value and unmatched concentrated taste to these pickles.
This pickle is named after Takuan Soho (1573-1645), a Zen priest who was exiled from the priesthood for rejecting the formal approach of Zen discipline in favor of the reflection of true spiritual insight. He is author of the book The Unfettered Mind: Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master. During his lifetime, rice milling gained increasing popularity in Japan, hence the abundance of the nutritious bran. Takuan Soho encouraged the proliferation of rice bran pickled daikon throughout the country, and indeed it is still enjoyed in Japanese cuisine today. The bran is rinsed off, and the takuan are sliced very thinly, most commonly eaten very simply with rice. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find traditionally produced takuan, as modern varieties utilize artificial color, sweeteners, and stabilizers.
We love making Takuan at The Shop. The daikon we use has been selected for its uniform size and is delivered with the greens still attached. We begin by hanging the daikon to dry in the windows. They are such great Shop decoration. In the mornings with the dappled light pouring through the foliage covering the large windows that comprise the eastern wall, The Shop feels festive and magical. We dry the daikon for about 8 days, until they become soft and pliable. This drying will provide the pickle with a wonderful chewy texture and keep moisture from flooding the rice bran. We create a mixture of rice bran, turmeric, chili flake, kombu salt and sugar. We remove the greens and spiral the daikon into a crock, layering in the dry rice bran mix. The crock is weighted with a bag of small clean pebbles. Pebbles are used because we can easily fit them into odd shaped vessels and the weight can be quickly adjusted.
We allow the daikon to ferment for anywhere between 4 and 10 months. We have always considered takuan to be one of the more challenging pickles to make. This is due primarily to the duration of fermentation and with the drying process. If there is too much moisture in the daikon it provides conditions optimal for lactic acid creating bacteria. It is quite easy for the ferment to pick up a distinct lactic tang. This is to be expected to some extent. Lactobacillus is ubiquitous, especially in our Shop. What we want to dominate, however, is the smokey yeasty quality that fermented rice bran brings to the palate. So we check on them often hoping to catch the moment.
There hasn’t been too much of a market for these more obscure pickles. We have continued to make them for the love and learning. But recently, as people become more aware of what we do, we have seen an increased interest. The last batch we made took eight months to ferment and yielded thirteen jars. They were all sold in within two weeks. We will be making more.
We change the way we do the Taukuan a little each batch. Here is one of our recipes:
4.5 kg daikon, air dried for 5-10 days until soft and pliable
1.5 kg rice bran
95 grams salt
95 grams sugar
13 grams turmeric
1 strip of kombu cut into 1/2 inch pieces
Combine the bran, salt, sugar, turmeric and kombu. Spiral the daikon into a 5 gallon crock and layer between one inch of the rice bran mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and/or a piece of clean cheese cloth. Press with 3-5 lbs of weight.
Try the pickles every two months and observe how they change over time. They are different and delicious.
-Kevin & Alex