Thursday, May 17, 2012

Cultures with Cultures - Fermented Foods from Around the World

Fermentation is the art of allowing microbes - such as bacteria, yeasts or molds - to consume, flavor, and preserve organic matter intended for human consumption. Essentially the microorganisms process the matter to improve shelf-life, nutritional value, taste, or all three. Fermented food and beverages have been a popular part of the human diet since prehistoric times and today nearly every human culture consumes fermented matter in one form or another.

There are a number of fermented foods and beverages that are commonly consumed in western society including salami, vinegar, sauerkraut, pickles, cheeses, yogurt, wine, and beer. Some less obviously examples of fermented foods include chocolate, sourdough, and baguettes. Who would have thought?

Fermentation was born of necessity. Throughout most of human history, we were not able to keep all the bacteria out of our food – it was simply impossible. Bacteria was an inevitable part of our everyday lives, so humans discovered ways to use these microorganisms to our advantage. We discovered (though we did not always understand the how or why) that these microbes helped preserve food – a fact that was vitally important prior to refrigeration. We also found that many of these foods also yielded health benefits. The beneficial bacteria found in some fermented foods and drinks enhance both the digestive and immune systems, making these foods as important today as they were hundreds of years ago. In fact, in recent years fermentation has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in western society, making a comeback in the form of various yogurt cultures, kombucha (fermented tea), and popular ethnic cuisines. And after several decades of over processing our food, there has been a recent movement back towards creating our own fermented foods and drinks in the home. Some popular homemade fermented foods include cheese, yogurt, beer, vinegar, and various pickled vegetables and fruit.

Travel the world and you will find that each culture has their own unique relationship with fermented foods. Sara Dickerman, a contributing editor at Saveur Magazine, once noted, "I feel like when you give a fermented food a try, you sort of taste the thing that is very specific to a region, and it’s almost like giving you a chance to travel the world even if you can’t hop on a plane." So, if you want to experience a culture, food is a great place to start, and fermented food from that region gives you a very specific insight into a culture’s history.

Looking to explore world cultures in a new an interesting way? Try these interesting fermented foods:

  • Kombucha (fermented tea – central Asia)
  • Kafir (yogurt drink – central Asia)
  • Pulque (cactus plants – Mexico)
  • Trahanas (yogurt used to thicken soup – Greece)
  • Sorghum beer (sorghum – South Africa)
  • Qula (milk – Tibet)
  • Poi (fish – Hawaii)
  • Salami (sausage meat – Europe)
  • Soy sauce (soybeans – Japan)
  • Miso (soybeans – Japan)
  • Natto (soybeans – Japan)
  • Tempeh (soybeans – Indonesia)
  • Douchi – (black bean paste – China)
Fruits and Vegetables
  • Kimchi (fermented cabbage – Korea)
  • Gundruk (sinki – a regional radish-like vegetable – Himalayas)
  • Tibi (fruit – Mexico)
Starches and Breads
  • Daal (lentils - India)
  • Injera (tef- Ethiopia)
  • Gari (casava – Nigeria)
  • Fufu (casava – Africa)
  • Chicha (maize – South America)
  • Leavened bread (yeast – Central Europe)

Monday, May 14, 2012

How to Grow Nutrient Dense Food – A Beginner's Guide

Nutrient dense food is the organic farmer’s Holy Grail. The key to achieving a nutrient dense harvest is making sure the plants have ready access to the nutrients themselves. This can be achieved by setting up the right ecology for your garden. If you are somewhat new to gardening, here are three highly effective strategies that you may not have considered.

Balance Calcium Levels
All animals and plant life require calcium to survive. Calcium reduces soil acidity, returning it to a healthy pH and plants use calcium for cell wall development which not only protects the plant from foreign pathogens, but also allows the plant to grow. Calcium also contributes to the plant’s metabolism, nitrate uptake, and enzyme and beneficial microbe activity.

Simply put, calcium-deficient plants have difficultly absorbing nutrients, making them less nutritious and robust. Calcium is often accompanied by phosphorous, which is also necessary for plant health and contributes to moisture regulation, photosynthesis, respiration, and the plant’s metabolism. If you notice that your garden is particularly weak or frail, it is very possible that you have calcium and phosphorous deficient soil.

To determine whether or not your soil has a calcium deficiency, get your soil tested at a soil lab. Testing is crucial – and you should do so prior to adding in calcium as it is much easier to add in calcium than subtract it. A full soil analysis will also show you all macro nutrients (N,P, K) and major trace minerals for plant growth (B, Cu, Ca, Na, Mg, Mn, etc). If you find that pH levels are too high (acidic), you can add calcium into the soil to return it to a healthy level. The ideal soil pH is 6.8-7.2. The preferred methods for increasing calcium are adding in granular or pulverized limestone, egg shells, or gypsum. Measure your soil's pH levels again prior to planting your next crop to unsure that everything is just right and check it in the spring of every year.

Enhance Your Soil’s Biology
Most folks who are new to gardening understand the value of adding in nutrient rich hummus, compost, and fertilizer to their soils, but they may not think of the soil as a complex, living ecosystem. This is an important concept to commit to memory and live (garden) by. Your soil is home to a wide array of microbes, enzymes, worms and insects, and the many of these critters live in symbiosis in a way that is beneficial to your garden's health. A healthy ecology will result in robust crop yields and contribute to your plant's ability to resist disease and pests. The end result is a more beautiful garden with higher quality fruits and vegetables.

In addition to adding in nutrient-rich hummus – we recommend the bokashi fermentation process – you should also add in an organic microbial inoculant amendment to your soil. A quality microbial inoculant will enhance the soil with valuable microbes, enzymes and minerals, which in turn support a healthy ecology for healthy plants with a strong nutrient uptake. The result is more delicious, nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables. The best time to add in a microbial inoculant is in the evening. Simply add in the recommended amount to the reservoir of a hose-end sprayer and moisten the soil.

Explore Regular Foliar Feeding
Plants do not exclusively absorb nutrients through their roots; they can also drawn in nutrients through their external stems and leaves. Research has shown that applying nutrients directly to the leaves – a process also known as “foliar feeding” – is an effective way to increase micronutrient absorption and overall plant health. Just as you did prior to planting, moisten the crop with a water-fertilizer mix (preferably organic) with your sprayer. You can ramp up the effects by coupling the liquid fertilizer with a microbial inoculant – the very same product previously mentioned. The microbes will enhance the process by introducing additional antioxidants, bioflavinoids, vitamins, and other micronutrients, all of which are natural byproducts of these microorganisms. The result is nutrient-dense crops that are healthy, robust and disease resistant.