JT Thayer is wild about fermenting veggies

Preserving food with tradition

Photo by susan laughlin

Fermentation is easy. It takes only simple equipment and a few good vegetables, especially cabbage.

When the garden stops producing, it’s time to get out the canning equipment to preserve the bounty. Or is it? New trends are pointing to old traditions for preserving food, especially those cabbages that beg to be transformed beyond coleslaw.

There is a certain magic, alchemy, if you will, when some foods are fermented. Grapes become wine, wheat becomes bread, barley becomes beer and cabbage becomes sauerkraut. Lots of synergy going on here and somehow the final sum is better than the original parts. Before you turn the page, yes, fermented vegetables can be exciting, tasty and, maybe even more importantly, a key to good health.

Jeff “JT” Thayer of The Brinery NH in Laconia is a strong advocate of fermented vegetables. He offers for sale a variety of lacto-fermented vegetables made in small batches from locally grown sources. Sure, you can find jars of all kinds of “put up” vegetables on the shelves of local markets, but the really good stuff is not shelf-stable. Thayer explains that, when vinegar and hot packing are part of the process, all of the beneficial bacteria are killed in the process.

Bacteria may sound scary, but Thayer says, “Our cells are outnumbered 10 to 1 by bacteria cells. This is your microbiome — there are trillions living collaboratively and benignly within us. When bacteria is the beneficial kind, our health will flourish; when we do not maintain our gut flora, all sorts of disease may set in.” He cites references by fermentation guru Sandor Katz and GAPs (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet expert Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, who has done extensive research on the relationship between autism and other nervous system problems and gut health. Local nutrition and wellness educator at Concord Hospital, Alicia Rossman RD, LD, CLT, will be working with Thayer to deliver fermentation workshops through the Center for Health Promotion in Concord and in the Laconia community this January. They all march to the same drummer. Let the good bugs and good health prevail.

Many cultures around the world have fermented foods in their diets. Naturally made kefirs, yogurt, wine, beer, tempeh and the ubiquitous kimchi found in Korean restaurants all have a long history of keeping cultures healthy. With our penchant for canned or frozen foods, we have broken the long chain and provided an invitation to havoc in our immune system. The body has a wonderful system to keep everything in balance, but antibiotics, steroids, drugs, stress, poor diets and infections can throw off the balance of beneficial gut flora. Probiotic pills, a current trend, are useful, but eating naturally fermented foods is 10 times more beneficial, says Thayer.

photo by susan laughlin
Jeff “JT” Thayer also grows flats of wheatgrass and pea shoots available at the Laconia and Tilton winter farmers markets.

The natural fermentation process is a simple chemical transformation. Lacto-fermentation, as it is called, occurs when vegetables are salted and then brined anaerobically, in their own liquids. The salt brings out the juice and a tight lid keeps out the oxygen and the possibility of bad bacteria entering. The correct salt brine ratio of approximately 2.5 percent (six or seven tablespoons of Celtic sea salt to the gallon) also suppresses bad bacteria and encourages the formation of lactic acid.

The closed jar is left at room temperature for about five to seven days and then refrigerated. The good bacteria will still be alive, but set into suspended animation by the cold. As long as the product is kept submerged in its juices to keep out oxygen, it will be preserved by refrigeration and the lactic acid that has formed. The growth of lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases the vitamin levels. Unfortunately, this time-honored tradition does not lend itself to large-scale commercialization. Vinegar and heat processing destroy the bad bacteria but also the lactobacilli.

Preserving through lacto-fermentation is a great DIY project with the guidance of a good book such as "Wild Fermentation" by Sandor Katz or "Nourishing Traditions" by Sally Fallon. Thayer also teaches workshops in the Laconia area. Local health food stores or Whole Foods in Nashua carry naturally fermented products in their refrigerator cases for easy access to ready-made products. Just make sure vinegar is not listed as an ingredient.

Through The Brinery NH website, Thayer lists the varieties of fermented vegetables he has on hand through direct sales. He will also be selling jars at the Tilton and Laconia winter farmers markets. Products include his variety of kimchi made for Western taste buds, including red cabbage, bok choy, jewelweed, dandelion, plantain, red clover, pea shoots, red onion, garlic, cardamom, turmeric and Celtic sea salt. This White Mountain kimchi has ingredients locally foraged, grown locally and less hot spice. He also sells a variety of krauts augmented with everything from apples and cinnamon to caraway seeds and kale to curry spices and winter melon.

Thayer says the idea is not to eat a heaping dish of these fermented foods occasionally, but to eat small amounts daily. He personally takes a slice of local bread spread with yogurt and tops it with one of his kimchis. He guarantees it is delicious.

More conventional ways of adding fermented vegetables daily to a diet is as a topper to salads, stirred into a soup after it has cooled a little or simply as a side dish for the meal. Kimchi is meant to be eaten as a condiment. The acidic quality is the perfect foil for rich meats. That’s why there are always cornichons, those little pickles, on a charcuterie plater.

As Sally Fallon says in her book "Nourishing Traditions," "Could it be that in abandoning the ancient practice of lacto-fermentation and in our insistence on a diet in which everything has been pasteurized we have compromised the health of our intestinal flora and made ourselves vulnerable to legions of pathogenic microorganisms? If so, the cure for these diseases will be found not in vaccinations, drugs or antibiotics, but in a restored partnership with the many varieties of lactobacilli, our symbionts of the microscopic world.”

Maybe there is a leap of faith involved here, but if church attendance guarantees an afterlife, maybe a little daily kimchi will forestall that giant leap. Blessed be the fermenter. 

Ginger Carrots

4 cups grated carrots, tightly packed
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
2 tablespoons sea salt

Run tools and jars through the dishwasher first and clean work surfaces.

In a bowl, mix all ingredients and pound with a wooden pounder or a meat hammer to release juices.

Place in a quart-sized, wide-mouth Mason jar and press down firmly with a pounder until juice covers the carrots. The top of the carrots should be at least one inch below the top of the jar. Cover tightly and leave at room temperature, out of sunlight, about three days before transferring to cold storage or the refrigerator. Product should be lightly fermented with a slight acidic taste. If things have gone awry, your nose will tell you.

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