In praise of sweat and preservation | Feral Citizen | Chicago Reader

In praise of sweat and preservation 

It’s time to let our hands remember what our ancestors knew.

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click to enlarge Dried homegrown Bartlett pears - NANCE KLEHM
  • Dried homegrown Bartlett pears
  • Nance Klehm

Summer is a time for us to celebrate our bodies and their metabolisms. We can expect the summers to be hot, and, just like many people around the world and in generations past and a few by ecological choice or economic need, find relief in fans, open windows, breezy stoops, the shade of trees, and cool drinks.

Our skin is the largest organ of our body and is porous (literally) to our environment, both containing what we need and expelling what we don't. Spending a lot of time outdoors allows one to acclimatize to seasonal shifts in temperature and humidity. Allowing one's body to sweat cleans the pores, facilitates skin-cell regeneration, helps process alcohol and air-borne pollutants, keeps your skin's microbiome protected, and, yes, helps others near us meet our pheromones. Dig it.

So with our outer microbiome staying healthy in this hot weather, we can support our inner one as well. Loads of fresh herbs, veggies, and fruit, grown in real soil with real sun and real rain, grow into our gardens, come to the farmers' markets, and manifest in our urban wildlands and parks. It's time to gather the good stuff and do some preserving or you will find yourself eating food grown indoors in greenhouses or on farms and orchards located in the southern hemisphere or other faraway places.

I want to stick to two passive means of food preservation, drying and simple fermenting, as they both take advantage of the season, especially in nonacclimatized homes. This is the tip of the melting iceberg. These preservation processes are best in non-air-conditioned houses and apartments, on back porches, outdoors in the backyard, on a window ledge, or in a car. (Yes, I said car.) When you find something particularly tasty at a market or stumble upon it on a walk, gather a bit extra with preserving in mind.

Drying

When you dry something down, you don't want it gummy or even bendable (unless it's fruit—then some flexibility is fine). Depending on what it is, you want what you are drying to crumble or snap. When it's leaves or flowers, I put small amounts of what I want to dry down in paper bags and crimp them shut. Or I put them in folded sheets of newspaper so they form a sort of envelope and attach them with paper clips or tape and hang them from a clothesline to dry. Drying must not be done in light, which will bleach and deplete the quality of what you are drying. The paper keeps dust off and allows some air flow.

If drying fruits or vegetables, I put thin slices on a window screen or string them like old-timey popcorn strings, making sure each wheel of zucchini or green bean or whatever has some air flow space between them. Fruit is trickier without a dehydrator, especially berries and more juice-heavy fruits in humid climates. Unless these quickie rain showers and summer thunderstorm cease, fruit might be better to ferment at this time.

One of the best solar ovens is a car. We know not to leave kids or pets in vehicles on a day over 70 degrees, not even with the windows cracked while we dash into a store or run an errand. But in this case, I am advocating you use one for what it is this time of year: a mobile hot box. Again, take small amounts of herbs, leaves, and flowers in bags or newspaper envelopes and park your vehicle in a nice sunny location. Toss your bags onto the dashboard or seat, roll up the windows, and return after the sun has gone down. Presto—dried tasty treats, herbal teas, instant soup mix for your next camping trip, and preserved cooking ingredients to remind us of our abundant and beautiful place in the Great Lakes in the still cold of winter.

Summer temperatures activate bacteria, yeasts, and molds, meaning compost piles are more active and we merely need to set up a habitat they like and let the microbes happily do their job. Here are a pair of home fermentation projects to keep your inner microbiome working.

Fermentation

Tepache

This is a fruit-scrap vinegar process using pineapple rinds, but it can be applied to any fruit scraps you have left over. Tepache originates from Mexico.

Method: Enjoy an organic or well-washed nonorganic pineapple and save the rinds. Put the rinds in a bowl and add a cup of sugar or shaved piloncillo (a traditional raw, pressed sugar found in almost any Mexican grocery store). Cover with a half gallon of water, top with a cloth to keep the fruit flies out, and allow the bowl to sit at room temperature for 24 to 48 hours, until the liquid is frothy. Strain out the rind, pressing it to get the last flavor. Add cinnamon and clove to taste, and maybe a bit of chile de arbol or other fresh or dried chile. Drink over ice.

Homemade yogurt

You'll need a thermometer for this one.

Method: Obtain a tablespoon of plain yogurt made without pectin or gelatin and with as many beneficial bacteria listed on the label as possible and leave out on the counter. Before bed, bring already pasteurized animal milk such as cow or goat to a gentle simmer without boiling for a few minutes (your milk is already pasteurized, so this is precautionary). Allow it to cool to between 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Pour it into a glass jar and add a dollop of the room-temperature yogurt to the jar. Give the mixture a quick stir with a nonmetal spoon, cap the jar, and wrap it in a towel or sweatshirt. Wake up in the morning to find that your milk has been educated into yogurt.

Become porous to your environment and allow the summer heat in. If you get rocking on these countertop fermentation projects, I encourage you to keep going. Go beyond kombucha and kimchi, both fairly mainstream DIY projects, and expand into herbal-water kefir drinks, other fruit-scrap vinegars, fruit wines, yeasted breads with store-bought or wild-caught yeasts, simple farmer cheese, tempeh, and lacto pickles, as well as koji and miso.

Our grandparents and ancestors knew and practiced this stuff. It's time to let our hands remember.  v

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