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Kombucha

When I started my own personal blog, Smallmeadowfarm, one of my first posts was about soda pop and the challenge I had given myself to try and stop drinking it. My purpose was to try and eliminate most gmo supplied high fructose corn syrup from my diet of which soda accounted for quite a lot. Unfortunately for me, “kicking my habit” wasn’t as easy as I hoped and I soon found myself standing at the soda pop door begging to be let back in. Even then, when I was writing my blog post, I realized it really wasn’t the sweet sugary part of the beverage I liked so much though, but the carbonated fizzy poppy “crisp” part . I mean…I absolutely won’t drink the beverage if the fizz is even half way reduced. Yik! It just isn’t the same. Double Yik! Also, sometimes you just want a bit more flavor than “plain ole water” and how much easier is it to reach for a soda—I mean they are every where!

Since then my struggle has taken a different road. One of searching for a beverage that I like. Mostly carbonated since that is what I prefer but also sometimes just flavorful and/or low calorie (no fake diet anything for me please). Needless to say there are a few out there that are HFC syrup free and use real sugar but most are still just junk food in a bottle and don’t do much for you other than sparkle on your taste buds. However there is one drink that fits my bill to a T. It’s fizzy (some say with a bit of tart), can be fruity and flavored and is low calorie but with reverting to the use of chemical sugar. This drink is known as….Kombucha. (KOM -boo -CHA) Better even is that Kombucha actually has health benefits. Of course…don’t make any and bottle it with that particular claim because the FDA will come and shut you down. The most they will say is that Kombucha won’t harm you—if properly made.

So, what is Kombucha? Well, for those of you that have never heard of or seen it, it is a fermented beverage made from plain old tea. Black, green with or without herbal (your choice), and a bit of sugar to feed it. It is very similar to yogurts, natural non pasteurized vinegars, and the fermented veggies of Asian origination called kimchi. Sometimes sweeter than other times, some brands can have a tad of vinegar type taste to the first sip—which can be noticeable or completely absent. That particular “trait” is a length of brewing time issue that is correctable—if you don’t like it— and not unpleasant even when it is there. Though Kombucha may not be what I will substitute for my Dr.Pepper on burrito and taco night—most people actually find Kombucha very pleasing to the palate.

One of the biggest pros of Kombucha is that it is something you can make at home AND it’s good, very very good, for your digestive system because of the many beneficial bacterias/yeasts in it. Supposedly drinking some each day can help with allergies, digestive issues, headaches etc. —but don’t tell the FDA I said that.

It can also, with the addition of a bit of sugar or fruit juice at the end of fermentation be bottled and turned into a fizzy, carbonated style drink. Though it’s not quite the same as Dr Pepper or Coke— as I mentioned above—it is “crisp” none the less. Done properly you can “blow the top” off your bottle upon re-opening. Now THAT’s the kind of crispy fizzy I am talking about!

As we all know a healthy digestive tract is a plus. Of course I always thought that meant not having smelly gas all the time or diarrhea. But more and more often we now hear that about 80% of our immune system actually starts and resides in our gastrointestinal tract and fighting things like colds and flu is dependent upon it functioning correctly. This really came home to us when we began to raise sheep and cows. The beneficial bacteria in their system is in a fine balance. Upset that bacterial ratio with incorrect feeds (as in too much corn for CAFO fed cattle) and they can become sick…over and over again. Sick as in requiring antibiotics all the time. Worse even is that antibiotics then kill off most of the bacteria in the digestive tract thus creating a potential for a vicious cycle. Our complete and total health (and the ruminants mentioned above) starts in our gut and relies upon us feeding our good bacteria and flushing or starving our bad bacteria. Hows that for encouraging you to eat right?

Now that I have started you down the path to why you should drink Kombucha….I am going to switch topics of a sorts. Kombucha, along with yogurt, kimchi and apple cider vinegar (vinegar with culture only—-not that pasteurized crap at the regular chain grocery store) and a few other foods are considered probiotic. Probiotics of course feed the health of our system—they are the good bacteria of which I have been speaking. We’ve all heard that a lot in the past years— but did you know there are also PREbiotic foods that you should eat? Prebiotic foods are those foods we’ve been told to eat for many many years now and our grandparents took for granted: whole grains, high fiber foods and more fruits and veggies with their skins on. These foods, using oat fiber as an example, are somewhat indigestible and create bulk which pushes along the digestive tract some of the bad bacteria, so it can be eliminated, while “feeding” the good bacteria. Yes, this is a bit simplistic of an explanation….but I need to keep my posts down to a reasonable size . Prebiotics, or basically a good diet, is just one thing that influences our health. Stress, age and genetics are some of the other key factors. However, I personally like to think most poor health is more of a by product of incorrect eating than any thing else but I am sure there are exceptions to that.

Anyway, if you would like to try and make Kombucha it is really not that hard. It just requires getting a culture from a friend or purchasing one on-line and a large enough glass jar. The actual brewing of Kombucha is so well documented that I am really not going to tell you how to do it here—though I did add a few pics of a mother culture and my container with it brewing away in. I have listed some links at the bottom of this article for you to explore for yourself. Also, to answer Gina’s question from last week—yes we do use filtered water (not distilled) and never regular tap water. Why? Well, one reason is that we have a Big Berkey counter top water filter that we love love love. I mean it– is awesome and no longer do I get the occasional stomach ache when I drink a glass of water (Google stomaches and chloramine if you want to know more about that subject!). Also, for those of you that don’t know about fermenting products and mother cultures: mother cultures are made up of yeasts and bacterias—two things city water is meant to kill with it’s chlorine or chloramine and lots of other supposedly good for us “junk”. Since you just never know what your city water will do to your culture (supposedly well water is in the category too), it is always better to use filtered or distilled water. Both are considered more reliable for the long term health of your mother culture. She can get sickly and weak too and well…you wouldn’t want to negatively affect the growing mother of your future Kombucha and possibly kill it.

So, even if you aren’t ready to take the leap into making Kombucha yet…..look for it at your health food store next time and try it out. You might be surprised at how well you like it. Brands do vary a bit and I personally favor those with fruit juice in them as they have a tendency to be a bit “sweeter” (leaning more towards my style of drink) however my husband, a life long un-sweet tea drinker all his life, also likes the plain. To each his own right?

http://www.happyherbalist.com/kombucha_brewing_guide.htm –basic brewing instructions

http://www.happyherbalist.com/continuous_brewing.htm – continuous brewing instructions if you aren’t interested in bottling

http://www.happyherbalist.com/index.asp?PageAction=VIEWPROD&ProdID=210 – second stage fermentation for getting more fizz.

http://kombuchatea.tribe.net/thread/e04c5d5f-f994-48b2-891a-15cee65e1a44 — also about secondary fermentation but specifically includes adding a teaspoon of sugar and/or fruit juice for the process to create a sweeter fizzier beverage.

* as a note….I listed mostly the happy herbalist as a reference because their site is well organized and has lots of details. There are many others though and since I acquired my culture from a friend I can not say which mail order place I recommend. I did not, in my search, come across any references that any particular one was a bad place to shop though.

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No, this isn’t a post about throwing in the trowel…it’s about looking right under our noses for the edible plants most often thought of as weeds, and instead to begin understanding them as food.  What are the hardiest, most tenacious, weatherproof and enduring of plants?  Weeds, grasses, trees…the things that grow right in our yards, fencerows, disturbed sites, roadsides…and ditches.  The very plants that Roundup seems to have been invented to eradicate.

What if we found ways to see these places as a greater extended garden, and found ways to harvest and use the bounty just underfoot?

Most of us are aware that herbs are about the closest plants to their wilder cousins whose categorization summarily gets lumped together under the all-encompassing term “weeds.”  I suppose the main difference between the two designations is perception…some plants are perceived as being useful to humans, while others are perceived (or have become so in our times) as being pests.  (The same could be said about insects…they’re usually either perceived as friend or foe.)

It seems these less popular grasses and herbs…weeds…have real staying ability.  They survive their own unpopularity and grow right where nature wants them…and often where we do not.  They are the hardiest of survivors, thriving despite mowers, herbicides, neglect, drought, temperature extremes, waterlogging.  They have a reputation of appearing on the scene in just the places we had other ideas of their belonging.  With their vigor and determination, you’d think we’d find a way to utilize and appreciate them.   Recently, I’ve discovered that throughout history, “weeds” have been utilized in delicious ways by many peoples, and oftentimes depended upon as dietary staples.

I’ve very curious about food that can be harvested from the wild.  I never got to be a girlscout, but I think I’d have loved it if it meant traipsing through the woods and learning to identify trees and plants, finding what’s edible and avoiding what’s poisonous.  I love the Foxfire books for their record of similar skills and disappearing traditional wisdom.  I ran across some quotes from Linda Runyon and recently was able to purchase her book The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide, which used to be titled something along the lines of Crabgrass Muffins and Pine Needle Tea.  She had me at Crabgrass Muffins …

Reading some of the online descriptions of the book (prior to ordering) further captivated my imagination, especially when I read a list of weeks that have edible uses.  Among those was the mention of cattails, and I got pretty excited because we have about a straight mile of those in our back ditch. 

I was also excited because I can easily identify them, unlike other plants.  (I’m just not all that plant-educated yet.)  I also can easily identify the cattail’s poisonous look-alike  (yellow flag plant) and avoid it.  (IMPORTANT NOTE:  With ANY plant harvested from the wild, being SURE of correct identification is a MUST…when in doubt, leave it alone.  Never taste or serve plants unless absolutely sure it’s correctly identified and researched…some plants have edible and inedible parts.  I’m not going to mess with plants that have any poisonous part.)

Linda’s writing refers to cattails as the “supermarket plant of the swamp”…and in her book she shows how they can be harvested (or harvested from) at different stages throughout the year for eating raw, pickled, steamed, boiled, ground into flour, as a baking additive (the pollen), as well as for handmade items (baskets, torches, etc.)  I ordered the book, then waited.

But my cattails in the ditch called to me.  They reminded me that the County likes to cut them all down right to the roots at different times of the year.  So during my wait for the Wild Foods book to arrive, I decided to try my hand at harvesting a few cattails.  It was time to experiment!

I saw a homemade video online that demonstrated how to harvest them by reaching down into the individual cattail and grasping the main shoot (the straight part) and simply pulling upward, which dislodges the central stalk without pulling the plant loose from its roots.  This method leaves the outer leaves intact, and they can regrow.  The video showed the plant being cut at the point where the white stalk section ends and the green begins.  So off I went to tromp in the ditch…

I’m not a big fan of surprise snakes and ankle-gnawing critters, so I trod gingerly into the standing water and knee-deep grasses, not quite the fearless Marlon Perkins I thought I’d be.  I didn’t even go very far in, but gathered from the nearest side, which was plenty wet and snaky without fully committing myself to the wild things.  One thousand mosquito bites later, I emerged from the edge of the ditch (I wouldn’t venture further without some sturdy rubber boots) with a handful of cattails…enough to experiment with before trying a bigger harvest. 

I did as the video had instructed and trimmed the stalks where the white parts became green.  The green went into the compost, and the white parts were hosed down and then washed more thoroughly in my kitchen.

This picture is a close-up.  I cut the white stalks into small lengths, hoping I’d harvested them the right time of year.  I’m looking for what’s described in the instructions as the pith…the inner edible heart of the stalk, said to be good raw, steamed, or sauteed.  These seemed to me to be woody, but I tasted an end anyway.  It couldn’t be bitten through, but the taste was very clean and mild and vegetable.  Rather like clean cucumber, no slimeyness.  I though I’d try to soften it by sauteeing it slowly in just a touch of olive oil, pinch of salt, dash of pepper.

Touch of olive oil…

Salt and pepper.   Mmmmmm…

This is the point at which the outer sections began separating from the innermost.

The outer sections are as tough as corn husks.  I was at a loss to tell what part was the inner pith just by looking at it, even at the cut sections.  I picked up a section and bit down.  It was husk-y, except for a very thin pencil-like core.

Sorry, it’s out of focus, but you can see it if you squint.  That little cylindrical interior piece was…delicious! 

I have no idea if harvesting them at a different time of year would yield a far bigger piece, or if you have to harvest a whole bunch of stalks at a time.  I suspect I’m off-season at least somewhat, since Florida has a strangely-prolonged climate. 

The flavor of the cattail interior was that of a roasted vegetable, and distinct, like the flavor of leek or garlic or onion is distinct.  I found it simply delicious, with a mild flavor like a grilled plank of zucchini or roasted shallots…hard to put your finger on, but quite mild and enjoyable.  I’d imagine most palates would like it…there was no grassy or herbal flavor to it, no strange texture.  When sauteed, it was similar to the consistency of roasted garlic.  It was not highly aromatic and would not overwhelm any particular dish, I’d imagine.  If I can’t determine how to harvest enough of the piths at the correct time, I will play with using the stalks in clear soups as a flavoring much like leeks or onions, and then removing them before serving.

A day or so after my cattail experiment, my book arrived, hooray!!!  (I’ve read it cover-to-cover several times now…blissful sigh!)  I’m overwhelmed with the variety of “weeds” that are nutritious and so available!  Included on the list are birch catkins, blue asters, chamomile, red and white clover, dandelions, fireweed, goldenrod, maple flower buds and seed pods, meadowsweet, milkweed, mint,mustard, pine, prickly pear, queen anne’s lace, roses, thyme, and wintercress.

It’s important to know that several of these have “lookalikes” that are poisonous…I’m reiterating the importance of correct identification.  That’s why I’ll be sticking to the ones I’m SURE I know…for now, cattails, clover, mint, pine, maple and so on.  Plants such as queen anne’s lace and goldenrod MUST be distinguished from their lookalikes.  The book gives a lot of pointers about the differences.  Another caution is to avoid environmentally-polluted plants.  The book advises never harvesting any plants closer to a road than 200 feet, or from water or land areas with runoff that would harbor pesticides, herbicides or other pollutants.  My ditch, thankfully, has no pollution tainting it as yet.

This hunt-and-discovery process should be a continous source of some fun, food, and hopefully a storehouse of nutritious pantry items with no worry about shortages.   Did you know that clover can be dried and ground into flour?  did you know that 5 large clover leaves are said to have as much protein as an ounce of cheese?  I’m not writing this post as a pitch for this book, but I am delighted to find an entire section of it devoted to recipes incorporating “weeds” as the stars of the show!  Breads, noodles, salads, sautees, flavorings, desserts, teas, cold drinks and hot drinks, wines, vinegars, oils, soups…the list goes on and on.  

Now when I see my yard, I see salads, flours, and soups, and when I see my back ditch, I see a garden of possibilities.  Maybe some small part of solving a food availability shortage would be learning not to overlook the “weeds,” and rather than dousing them with herbicides, mining nature’s nutritional pantry….surely the best sort of “roundup!”

What’s in your yard, fencerow, ditch??

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