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Getting cultured can get you into a pickle

March 23, 2014 - 12:05am

Ryan Peters is continuing to teach folks ways to preserve their bounty by making healthy food through fermentation. His “Get Cultured” classes are a great place to start learning about the process and benefits of fermenting.

Many fermentation students are expanding the basics into more complex recipes of their own or those established in the long history of other cultures. Before refrigeration, many cultures depended upon fermentation as a means of keeping food safe and edible as well as healthy. They understood that eating fermented foods could improve digestion and increase vitamin and mineral absorption while adding interesting flavors to a meal.

In Germany, cabbage could be made to last until next year’s harvest by turning it into sauerkraut. In the Middle East, fermenting milk into yogurt more than doubled its shelf life. For centuries, Koreans have enjoyed meals with a kim chee accompaniment.

The Japanese fermented soy beans into both miso and tempeh to extend their useful life. They also developed many fermented products that remain important parts of modern Japanese meals. These products are referred to as tsukemono which translates to “pickled things.”

Pickling is a general term that often includes fermenting. Both processes are established methods for extending the life of perishable food. Pickling describes a method of preserving vegetables in an acidic environment. Quick pickling is often done with the addition of vinegar. The fermentation process naturally produces lactic acid that “pickles” vegetables while creating natural probiotics.

Tsukemono preparation methods vary from simple salting or brining in vinegar, to more complicated processes involving cultured molds and fermentation. The flavorful products are used as garnishes, relishes, condiments and palate cleansers as well as a digestive.

A variety of vegetables are used in Japanese pickles. Daikon, cucumber, okra and ume plums are all used sometimes with flavor additives such as shiso, wasabi and seaweed. Some recipes use agents beyond salt and vinegar including miso, soy sauce or sake.

Salt pickles, or shiozuke, are the simplest and most common type of Japanese pickles. The recipe consists of lightly salted, sliced vegetables and produces pickles with a crisp texture that maintain the mild flavor of the fresh vegetables. One variation called hakusai no sokusekizuke is made from lightly salted Chinese cabbage that is seasoned with lemon zest, seaweed and chili peppers. The result is a salty, crisp slightly hot pickle with a spicy citrus flavor that can be eaten the same day.

Heavily salted pickles, such as the red pickled Japanese plums, called umeboshi, have more complicated recipes and stronger, more complex flavors. The plums are salted and dried before pickling. The pickles are extremely salty and sour. They are eaten as a digestive with all types of traditional Japanese meals and are often included in bento boxes.

Takuan is the name of Japanese pickles made from daikon. The radishes are sun-dried before being pickled in a mixture of salt, rice bran and sugar. The result is a sweet, crunchy pickle.

Kyuri asazuke are simple Japanese pickles made with cucumbers marinated in salt brine that is sometimes seasoned with seaweed, pepper or vinegar. In summer, the whole cucumber might be pickled in this way and served on a skewer as a refreshing, cool treat.

Japanese pickles all serve as digestives and palate cleansers, but unless the process is aerobic the probiotic content is considerably reduced. They are presented here as ways to preserve the bounty of vegetables and fruit from your garden and as suggestions to inspire you to create your own recipes for cultured foods.

If you haven’t already started fermenting, check out one of Peters’ upcoming classes offered for $49 through Hawaii Community College’s Office of Community Education and Training at the UH Cooperative Extension office in Kainaliu from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday or in Waimea on April 26. For more information call OCET at 934-2700.

Tropical gardening helpline

Angelica asks: I am growing cacao plants from seed and want to know when and how I should plant out the seedlings. The farm is at 1,500 feet elevation.

Answer: Cacao is a good crop to consider growing now. Seeds will generally germinate in two to three weeks. Plants started from seed will produce a taproot so they should be grown out in deep pots for about six months before planting. As long as the pots are deep, you can leave them in for longer. Planting them when they are between 18 and 30 inches tall is advised.

Be sure to select a good site and prepare the soil before planting. At your elevation, the afternoon cloud cover makes it possible to plant cacao without an overstory, though placing some gliricidia plants throughout your plantings is a good idea to protect the plants from hot sun exposure and to provide some nitrogen fixing.

Cacao trees grow best in rich soil with good drainage so be sure to dig holes that are wide and deep to allow for good root development and use backfill that is at least 25 percent organic matter. Backfill the bottom of the hole and tamp it down so that the crown of the plant does not get buried when you out plant. If you want your trees to branch out as you keep them low, dig holes at least 8 feet apart.

Water your seedlings well a few hours before planting and put water in the holes to help the soil settle and check for good drainage. A moist environment will help your plants establish quickly. Though keeping the soil somewhat moist at the beginning is good, be careful not to overwater. Once you see new leaves forming you can cut back some on the watering.

Chinese rose beetles love young cacao leaves. Reducing their numbers and damage is important. Neem oil applied to the leaves and neem fertilizer at the base seems to discourage them.

The trees should grow to about 5 feet in three years and start producing flowers and fruit.

• Farmer-direct markets: Hooulu Farmers Market, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, Sheraton Kona Resort &Spa at Keauhou Bay; South Kona Green Market, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays and Sundays, Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in Captain Cook; Keauhou Farm Bureau Market, 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays, Keauhou Shopping Center.

• Plant advice lines are answered from 9 a.m. to noon Thursday at the University of Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service in Kainaliu, 322-4892 and 9 a.m. to noon Monday, Tuesday and Friday at UH CES at Komohana in Hilo, 981-5199.

Email plant questions to for answers by Certified Master Gardeners. Some questions will be chosen for inclusion in this column.

Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant with an organic farm in Captain Cook.

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