Growing edible plants in Hawaii allows us to enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables, herbs and edible flowers year-round. However, you may wonder what to do when you suddenly find yourself with 5 pounds of green beans, have 30 carrots ready to pick and your zucchini or chayote squash just won’t quit. Eating fresh vegetables is definitely part of a healthy diet, but when you have abundance, you might want to consider preserving some of your bounty for even greater health benefits.
We can freeze, dry or can excess produce, but the art of fermenting vegetables as a preservation technique is ready for a revival. Fermented foods have, throughout history, been created and consumed not only to preserve products, but also to add healthy probiotics, flavor and variety to meals.
The Chinese have been fermenting cabbage for nearly 6,000 years. Roman texts contain references to sauerkraut’s delicious taste and ability to protect against intestinal infections. Voyagers, including Capt. James Cook, were known to pack sauerkraut to provide enough vitamin C to prevent scurvy among their crew.
Of course, many of the foods we eat today are the product of a fermentation process. Yogurt, wine, bread, cheese and soy sauce are all good examples. Pickles and sauerkraut are fermented vegetables, but today’s mass production techniques can rob these and other fermented favorites of valuable microorganisms and enzymes. By fermenting at home, you are more likely to capture all the health benefits fermenting offers.
The beauty of fermenting your vegetable bounty is you can turn a plentiful harvest into tasty food that is good for you and can be stored for a long time. The fermentation process relies on microbial activity and produces probiotic rich food full of vitamins, enzymes and antioxidants.
Lactofermentation is an anaerobic process that occurs when starches and sugars in vegetables convert to the natural preservative lactic acid. The process takes place best when the ingredients are not exposed to air. The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases the breakdown and absorption of nutrients in the food we eat. Lacto-fermented foods can normalize the acidity of the stomach and promote the growth of healthy flora in your intestines. The introduction of natural microbial colonies into your system can have noticeable health results including improving your immune system, as well as helping to reduce hypertension and lower cholesterol levels.
Though the art and science of fermenting foods is ancient, it is not lost. Interest in the benefits as well as the process is experiencing a revival today. Since many more people are growing some of their own food, producing occasional bounties, all kinds of simple small-scale preservation methods are being explored. The health benefits coupled with the simplicity of fermentation make it one of the most popular techniques practiced today.
Though ingredients, recipes and techniques vary widely, a few easy steps are usually followed.
1. Collect and clean vegetables. Fresh and organic is best.
2. Sterilize your containers.
3. Chop or grate your vegetables.
4. Macerate some of the contents to produce a liquid.
5. Pack the vegetables in a container so they are immersed in liquid.
6. Let the contents sit in low light for a few days, weeks or months.
7. Taste frequently to find the level of fermentation that pleases your palate.
8. Refrigerate to slow or stop fermentation when it reaches your idea of perfection.
9. Enjoy your fermented vegetables every day.
10. Start a new batch before your old one runs out.
Lots of information on fermenting exists online. Two recent books by authorities on lacto-fermentation are available locally. “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon and “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Katz are packed with information, instructions and recipes.
Now that a course in master food preservation is being offered in Kona and several people and institutions are offering classes, you can learn techniques using produce from local experts.
Watch for classes if you want hands-on experience.
However you choose to learn the process, start fermenting produce soon to extend the life of seasonal vegetables while adding some tasty, healthful food to your menus.
Tropical gardening helpline
Joshua asks: A friend of mine wants to plant sweet alyssum flowers in her garden because she says they are edible. I am wondering if they are and if all the colors alyssum comes in are equally nontoxic.
Answer: Sweet alyssum or Lobularia maritima, is a member of the mustard family. Like other brassicas, sweet alyssum’s leaves and flowers are edible with a typical pungent flavor.
Though the flowers have a fragrant honey scent, their taste is peppery, similar to cress, kale and other brassica family plants. Along with other family members, sweet alyssum is considered nutritious and health giving in all its colors.
Alyssum has additional value in any garden for its ability to attract beneficial insects that prey on harmful insets like aphids, mealy bugs and scale. The sweet fragrance of the flower also attracts butterflies and bees.
The plant grows as a bedding plant in full sun, making a lovely ground cover. Sweet alyssum works well when interplanted between either ornamentals or edibles and can serve as an attractive garden border.
Sweet alyssum grows as a perennial here and seeds itself. Seeds and small sweet alyssum plants are readily available at local nurseries to get started. With so many reasons to grow sweet alyssum, you may want to consider it for your garden and enjoy the blossoms as a colorful topping for your next salad.
Email plant questions to email@example.com 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.