In the bucket

(This morning’s view of the pond.)

Several years ago (at least) I took up homebrewing beer and mead.  It wasn’t something I wanted to do.  It was something M wanted to do, but didn’t have time for.  Because I wasn’t working at the time, he asked if I’d learn how to do it.  We were living in southern Ohio and there was a homebrew association in the area to which several of our friends belonged.  So, (very) reluctantly, I said ok.  I’d learn.  With the caveat that if my first batch of beer came out tasting like what you’d expect homebrewed beer to taste like (I’m sure you know what I mean), then that would be it.  No more homebrewing for me.

Well, much to my shock and dismay, my first batch of beer was not only drinkable, it tasted good.  Thus began my crazy homebrewing career in which I experimented with lots of flavors, including things not traditionally used in beer.  My specialty was spruce beer, a recipe I picked up from The Complete Joy of Homebrewing.  I know, it sounds weird.  And at a beer competition (I only entered a few) it would probably be unofficially classified as a weird beer (that’s what all the herbed, spiced, and otherwise not-to-style beers are called by those who like to “brew to style”).

Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.  It’s pretty good.  The recipe ingredients include the new spring growth off of a spruce tree.  If you’ve ever looked at a spruce tree in the spring you’ll notice small, bright green pine needles shooting out of the branches.  That’s the new spring growth.  You might not think the type of spruce tree makes a difference, but it does.  The new spring growth from the Norway spruce are the best I’ve found so far.  In fact, I won’t use any other kind having experimented with others that have been available to me and found the taste to be, well, not so great.  Palatable, but…eh… barely.

A good spruce beer, in case you’re wondering, requires a bit of aging.  Once it’s aged it mellows into a sort of Dr. Pepper or cola flavored beer.  Not quite as sweet, but in that general direction in terms of flavor.  Spruce needles, in the days of yore, were a common flavoring in beers in the northern latitudes as a substitute for hops which were not so readily available.  Word has it that the Sitka spruce makes the best spruce beer.  It would be nice to someday try a sample.

I also used to make a kickass mead.  Just saying.  I best not get into that or this post will be much longer than originally intended.  (It already is!)

You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this.  Me too.  I’m approaching the half-century mark and once I get rambling about something I tend to forget where I was going.

Oh, right!  Fermentation!  That’s where I was headed.

I’ve given up homebrewing for a variety of reasons.  M is doing the beer making now.  And it’s been a couple of years since I made a mead.  But I am still interested in the fermentation process so I decided to take a different route this year.

After the loss of all those lovely vegetables due to the power outage caused by Hurricane Ike, I tried my best to replace some of them with whatever was in season at the time.  My heart wasn’t really in it.  I felt burnt out from all the chopping, slicing, dicing, blanching, freezing, and canning.  The canning part wasn’t so bad because I didn’t lose anything I’d canned.  But all that prep work that goes into freezing veggies… ugh.  I was half-way through a bushel of peppers when I felt the life go out of the whole process.  I finished up all the peppers I’d bought and picked, and declared myself finished for this season.

Or so I thought.  When we picked the last bushel of peppers there were a couple of guys who work on the farm where we picked trying to sell us some cabbages.  Cabbages are pretty cheap if you buy them out in the field instead of at the farm market.  They were beautiful cabbages, first of the season.  It was hard to resist.  I managed, somehow.  It’s good that I did.  I had all those peppers we’d picked to deal with at the time and the cabbages might have ended up in the compost pile due to lack of energy and interest.

(Cabbages in the sink.)

I’ve had a few weeks to rest in the knowledge that my upstairs freezer is full.  It’s filled with peppers.  I won’t have to chop any peppers this winter, that’s for sure.  A friend gave me some of her blueberries and a mix of green and wax beans to help replace a little of what we’d lost, so I was pretty content with what we had.

But those cabbages kept cropping up every now and then.  I’d think, “Hmmm…. if I can put together malt, hops, and yeast and come up with a decent beer, why not cabbage and salt for a decent sauerkraut?”

(After the first cut.)

Indeed.  Why not?

M’s father and step-mother used to make their own sauerkraut.  The first time I tasted homemade sauerkraut was from one of their batches, served as part of their traditional New Year’s pork and sauerkraut dinner.  Nothing I’ve bought has ever compared to their homemade sauerkraut.  Ever since that first taste I’ve carried the wish to make it myself.  It seemed so complicated at the time, when I first asked how to make it, but now that I’ve aged, gained a bit of experience, and learned a little about fermentation through beer making, maybe it’s time to give sauerkraut a try.  I searched the internet for recipes and finally found something that was close to how my father-in-law makes it.

M and I went out yesterday and bought ourselves some cabbages.  33 lbs. worth of cabbages.  And a bushel and a half of apples.  Buy local, buy fresh, nutritious, and delicious.  The cabbages came from the farm down the road and the apples from an orchard just another mile or so away.

Leaving the apples aside for now, the big, beautiful cabbages we bought today were sold as “kraut cabbages.”  Tight, heavy, crisp and ready to be shredded.

(A few more cuts.)

Ideally, we’d have a cabbage slicer for this endeavor.  I’ve been pricing this stuff over the past few years and an investment in sauerkraut means you better plan on eating a lot of it.  The slicer alone cost as much as $75.  Forget about the crocks.  Majorly expensive if you buy them new.  Add to that the other paraphernalia — wooden plate, weight, tamper, etc.  — and it can really add up.  Sauerkraut isn’t a big part of our diet, no matter how much I like it, so it hardly seemed worth the investment.

(Slicing the cabbage.)

Since I don’t have a slicer and didn’t want to do it by hand, we used the food processor.  We won’t have the typical long strands of cabbage that you get with a slicer, but it’ll do.  It made fast work of the slicing, too.

We worked one head of cabbage at a time.  Slice, salt and let sit for 10 minutes, put it in the bucket, crush the cabbage until liquid appears, repeat until all the cabbage is in the bucket.  This Mother Earth News article tells you a bit about the process if you’re really interested.

(Looking into the bucket.)

We topped the cabbage and salt mixture with a bag filled with 2 gallons of water.  That will not only serve as the weight, but also makes a nice seal to keep out the air during the first phase of fermentation.

We have to wait 4-6 weeks before finding out if our experiment in sauerkraut worked.  I don’t see why it wouldn’t, but who knows?  We might have done something wrong somewhere in the process.

If all goes well, I’ll be eating a lot of sauerkraut this winter.  I’m looking forward to it.

(View of the pond later in the day.)

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