From picking to pickling

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

Most nights just prior to preparing dinner, local foodies Cheryl and Anthony Munoz, with kids in tow, enjoy picking vegetables fresh from their front yard edible garden in Oak Park.

Cheryl, the co-founder of Sugar Beet Cooperative, said they either eat them right away or she makes them shelf-stable by pickling or canning the fruits and veggies.

"I have pickled asparagus, but for me this starts at the very beginning of the season, when the garlic's green edible scapes come up. There are some really great recipes for that," she said. "I don't invent my own recipes because pickling is really much more scientific than cooking and baking. You don't want to monkey around with canning recipes because the pH, the acid and the base have to be perfect."

Meanwhile, Anthony is letting his cabbage get good and rotten, so to speak.

Yep, he's gone gaga for a pungent and vitamin-rich fermented Korean side dish called Kim Chi — so much so, he makes it from scratch himself.

In a big jar in the refrigerator he assembles layers (lasagna-style) of cabbage, spicy red chili paste and garlic, plus various other specialty Asian add-ins. Mixed in with that are quantities of vinegar and salt, which catalyze the "controlled rot" that is the fermentation process, he says.

"With fermented things, there is always that effervescent vinegar kind of profile," said Anthony, the marketing director of the National Hellenic Museum. "I like to say that my Kim Chi often sparkles, in that when I open the lid to check it, it is bubbling, which is part of the fermenting chemical process. Kim Chi is great on eggs or grits in the morning, and amazing in soups, stews, on salads or as a garnish to any entrée."

His Kim Chi never lasts long enough, but in Korea, as it gets older, they tend to cook with it rather than eat it fresh, as he does.

"Traditionally, you would take your leftover rice, fish, vegetables and vinegar, and put them in large pots and bury them in your backyard," Munoz explained. "Those pots would be there fermenting, sealed, because it was a clay pot with a clay top. Then when special company would come, they would dig it up and open it and it would be this pungent, fermented thing. There are many variations on the theme, as there are with curry, and mine always has this great spicy, intense flavor, just like sauerkraut does. … It's a flavor that stays with you."

All this talk of Kim Chi being buried in someone else's backyard makes Cheryl's nose crinkle, as she is not a fan of the strong-flavored condiment.

Instead, she prefers the sour crunch of her refrigerator pickles, which Anthony points out is a very minimal fermentation, at best.

"The definition of fermentation, in the context of food, is the conversion of carbohydrates to alcohols and carbon dioxide, or organic acids," he explained. "So the process does occur in pickling, but Cheryl and my daughter tend to eat the refrigerator pickles fresh (in the first day or so). The pickled vegetables have little chance for fermentation. But if left alone, soon after that, they will begin fermentation."

In the meantime, Cheryl said, these are among the favorite foods of herself and her daughters. They taste good in just a few hours, better after a couple of days and can cure and last in the refrigerator for up to three weeks.

"Cukes are sweet, so once you put the brine on them, within minutes they are tasty," said Cheryl. "The longer you leave them sit, the tastier the pickles are, and after a week or two in the fridge, they taste like you would expect to get from the deli."

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