Go with your gut
July/August 2015 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Megan Alpers
Photos by Richard Green and Dan Reidel
Fermented foods pack a probiotic punch
More online: Kefir water
Fermented foods span the gamut of dishes, from tried-and-true to truly unique. At the Monterey County restaurant Passionfish, choices include whole-grain tabbouleh with sauerkraut, asparagus and parsnips.
In the kitchen of Passionfish, a fine-dining restaurant on the Monterey Peninsula, Ted Walter checks the progress of two of his favorite menu items: sauerkraut and kefir.
"I love making fermented products," said Walter, a French-trained chef who opened the Pacific Grove restaurant in 1997 with his wife, Cindy. "It is amazingly easy to do. You just need a few things to get started, but you sure can make do with whatever you have on hand."
Thanks to a growing interest in fermentation, foods such as sauerkraut—made from cabbage—and kefir—made from milk—are experiencing a bit of a renaissance throughout California and beyond. Fermentation is the process where sugars are converted into acids, gasses or alcohol, which often brightens flavors.
Chef Ted Walter enjoys a glass of mulberry kefir water with his meal.
Preserving the harvest
Scientists are researching the specific health benefits fermented foods bring to a balanced diet, but the history of the practice dates back to ancient times. As a means of preservation, fermenting the harvest allowed people of diverse cultures and regions to store and then consume their food throughout the year.
Today, fermented turnips, eggplants, carrots, onions and squash are part of everyday meals in some parts of Asia. Koreans place vegetables and spices in jars, leaving them buried underground to ferment for months to make kimchee. In India, a chilled yogurt drink called lassi is flavored with salt, mint, cumin, sugar, fruit or fruit juices—or even ground chiles. Kefir, first made from camel's milk but now more commonly from cow's milk, originated in the mountain range between the Caspian and Black seas and remains popular in Bulgaria.
Here in the Golden State, virtually all the ingredients for the fermented foods Walter serves at his Monterey County restaurant are California-grown.
"Just about every fruit or vegetable we serve is local or from the Central Valley," he said. "Most of it is purchased freshly picked at farmers markets or direct from the farmers."
The process of fermentation for vegetables and dairy products is very similar to that for beer and wine, but instead of adding yeast to speed fermentation, the bacteria already present are left to their own devices.
"To make my sauerkraut, I use this process: cut cabbage, add spices, salt cabbage, block out oxygen and wait," said Siskiyou County entrepreneur David Edmondson, who ferments his Salt and Savour brand products in stainless steel wine tanks and sells them at Northern California farmers markets and through retailers in the region.
"The process is called wild fermentation," he explained. "This means that I rely on the bacteria that exist on the cabbage to do the work. The salt and (lack of oxygen) keep the 'bad' bacteria from proliferating while the 'good' bacteria take over."
Edmondson, who uses California-grown cabbage as well as horseradish from his home county, noted that the sour taste of his sauerkraut is not from vinegar, but from the lactic acid produced as the good bacteria consume the sugars in the cabbage.
Fermentation is not the same as pickling, where vinegar is used as a brine for preserving. While some sauerkraut is pickled, scientists tend to agree that the bacteria byproducts of fermenting provide the dish's health benefits.
David and Kathay Edmondson of Siskiyou County sell their handmade saurkraut at Northern California farmers markets and through regional retailers.
The pros of probiotics
More than four hours from Edmondson's kitchen and his latest batch of sauerkraut, researchers at Stanford University are investigating the value of probiotics—the live bacteria and yeasts good for your health—found in fermented foods.
Associate professor of microbiology and immunology Justin Sonnenburg and his colleagues study the collection of bacteria that lives in the digestive tract and what happens when that system undergoes changes, either positive or negative.
"Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut are a great way to introduce probiotics into your diet," Sonnenburg said. "Understanding how these beneficial bacteria in food interact with our resident gut microbiota (the ecosystem of microorganisms living within our bodies) and our immune system is just starting to be explored by scientists."
His book, "The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-term Health," includes a chapter dedicated to probiotics.
"We do know that probiotics have a number of health benefits—ranging from helping with digestive issues associated with antibiotics to reducing the chance of getting a respiratory infection," Sonnenburg said.
Because an estimated 80 percent of the immune system is located in the digestive tract, a healthier gut can improve overall well-being and prevent disease, he said. In addition to probiotics, vitamin K2, which can reduce plaque buildup in the coronary system, is found in some fermented foods.
In addition to the Morro Bay oysters with kimchee and ham shown here, nearly every dish on the Passionfish menu includes a fermented ingredient, whether it is wine marinade or a kefir drink.
Added dimension of flavor
While relishing the health benefits, foodies have also found fermented foods to be a flavorful addition to meals.
"Almost every dish we serve has some fermented products added," Walter said. "That could be wine added to a lamb marinade or beer added to a pork stew. Cheese enhances many dishes and sauerkraut brightens a grain pilaf. Pickles, kimchee and other fermented products are bright and extremely flavorful. They add a dimension to the dish that otherwise would be flat and boring without it."
Edmondson agreed that fermented foods bring a lot of punch to the plate.
"Our taste buds are capable of detecting five distinct tastes: sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami (savory)," he said. "Our standard American diet seems to focus on using sweet and salt, while sour and bitter get overlooked. If you like to cook, if you enjoy a fine-dining experience and you're ignoring the sour and bitter aspects of your meal, you're cheating yourself."
Sauerkraut is not just for hot dogs and Reuben sandwiches, Siskiyou County sauerkraut maker David Edmondson said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, I pair sauerkraut as a cold dish, not cooked."
He offers these ideas for adding more sauerkraut and similar fermented foods to your diet:
- Toss with salads to give a refreshing zing.
- Use as a topper for potatoes.
- Eat a spoonful with sardines.
- Spoon into half an avocado.
Make your own kefir water
Kefir water is a great use for an abundance of fruit from your garden, according to Monterey County restaurateurs Ted and Cindy Walter.
"I start a new batch of kefir water each day, and it takes me about 10 minutes," said Cindy Walter, who makes kefir water for the couple to enjoy at home.
The process is easy, she said, but one vital step is incorporating live kefir grains. These provide the starter cultures necessary for fermentation.
Her husband raves about the fermented beverage: "Kefir water is a simultaneously explosive sweet, sour and fruity refresher in your mouth. I drink one a day."