Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Courtesy of ecofriendlymag.com

In the dimly lit basement of University of Oregon student Andrew Hitz, rows of empty beer bottles of various sizes stand neatly against the wall. Next to the bottles loom three large carboys on a table. Placed in the darkest depth of his basement, one carboy filled with a double IPA batch ferments at room temperature. A closer observation shows this exact process in motion. Yeast is eating away at fermentable sugars, swirling inside the vessel.

Upstairs in Hitz’s room, he has also set up a station for a fermented tea called Kombucha. More than a dozen empty store bought bottles of Kombucha are aligned underneath his desk. Two large jars are wrapped with cheesecloth to allow oxygen to a Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast, or a SCOBY. Hitz prefers to let his green tea Kombucha sit longer for a stronger sour taste, which he then plans to refrigerate after about five days.

“It’s cool to see how things change after you put them in a controlled environment,” Hitz says. “After you let a strain of yeast or bacteria takeover, it’s cool to see how things change on a flavor level.”

Hitz has been fermenting at home for two years. Starting through homebrewing websites and simple guidebooks, Hitz became attracted to crafting his own microbrews. He later moved to other types of fermentation like Kombucha and kimchi.

“Fermented products have a lot of pretty awesome benefits,” Hitz says.

Kombucha for example, has essential B vitamins and organic acids. He adds soy in its unfermented form carries evidence of estrogen and isoflavones. But he says, “When you take that soy and ferment it into something like tempeh or tofu, you are tying down all those bad things.”

Fermentation is enjoyed across the Northwest as a low energy preservation method to transform flavors. It reduces the need to rely on commercialized goods, which fits into the Northwest’s sustainable lifestyle. With the allure of creating a personalized product, fermentation is gaining momentum for its health benefits and cost effectiveness. Foods such as wine, beer, cheese, yogurt, sauerkraut and pickles are fermented to bring out essential nutrients that nourish the human body. Whether focusing on homebrewing or different types of fermented foods as a hobby or profession, the movement provides a rewarding experience.

“In the Northwest, we are particularly meant for this activity because there’s this whole idea of trying to do-it-yourself and getting out of the industrial food system,” says Jennifer Levin, Adjunct Instructor of Literature at the UO and food blogger at Culinara Eugenius.

Levin has been fermenting types of jams and pickles for five years. After completing courses on food preservation at the Oregon State University extension program, Levin learned a more “stable and predictable way of doing preservation.” Her approach to pickling and jams blends aspects of safe practices and certain traditions of fermentation.

“I’m always thinking about ways to make things safe – cleaner surface and sterile pickle jars,” Levin says. “And then letting the natural process does its work.”

When preparing a fermented product, knowledge of sanitation practices helps improve efficiency.  The natural process of microorganisms to thrive on selected foods and beverages runs a risk of bacterial contamination. This can lead to spoilage or producing harmful molds. Maintaining food safety practices – pre-boiling water for homebrewing and sanitizing all equipment before inserting foods – can improve chances in both taste and nutritional quality.

For pickling, she explains the process of allowing a fresh produce like cabbage cure in a bath of salt. The lactic acid will start to break down the cabbage, resulting in a sour and crunchier taste. Preserved cabbage transforms into a “sweet, juicy cell wall,” she says, and develops a change in its chemical composition over time. Levin pasteurizes her fermented pickles in a low temperature boiling pot, which removes any remaining pathogens and readies them for canning.

“Canning is very quick, efficient and regulated manner to make foods shelf stable.” Levin says. “You put it into a little jar and can see it, and that aspect of food safety is really neat.”

Fermentation is popular because it allows total control over an environment for microorganisms to grow. Combined with the importance of food safety, enthusiasts experiment with a larger variety of fermented foods, adding certain amounts of preservatives for dietary needs. Whereas grocery stores typically have limited selections with unknown quantities of preservatives, fermentation opens a creative side of making unique products. And depending on the growing season, fermented foods can have a different taste and texture every time.

“We make [foods] go bad in a controlled way,” says Jason Carriere, owner of Valley Vintner & Brewer. “In a way that turns into something we want through the microorganisms of our choosing to act on it.”

In the case of homebrewing, a specific style of beer depends on yeast selections, sugar compounds and the ratio of grains and hops. Valley Vintner is a local homebrewing shop in Eugene, aiming to educate new brewers and winemakers. Carriere, also a researcher in the biology department at the UO and in the toxicology department at Oregon State University, is a 13-year veteran in beer, mead and wine crafting. He works to give the community basic information in fermentation techniques and beer recipe kits.

In “Homebrewing: A Marriage of Science & Art,” his Powerpoint presentation to interested student clubs on campus, he says different types of yeast make different beers. Carriere believes a certain level of experience isn’t necessary for craft brewing. However, understanding how to pitch yeast strains is a good starting point for beginners wanting a certain flavor and alcohol percentage.

Carriere’s Powerpoint explains the stage of adding a starch-filled seed called barley before fermentation. The starch is converted to sugar through mashing a combination of barley and milled grain under a heated temperature. The mash feeds on yeast, which produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. This can vary in alcohol level based on the amount of fermentable sugars. Depending on the style of beer, a perfect blend can contribute to body, head or foam, and mouth feel.

Take for instance, the popular North American ale yeast. After fermentation, the beer is “lighter, golden and fruiter,” Carriere says.  German ale kolsch yeast, he adds, produces a more malt forward beer with sulfur that disappears over age, leaving a lager like taste.

At Valley Vintner, Carriere says, customers can get recipes with suggested yeast strains. “But you’re not bound by that,” he says. “That’s how you figure it out – experimentation.”

For Hitz, experimentation allows him to explore new styles of beers and anything fermentable. Just a practical understanding of metabolizing sugars and converting yeasts to carbohydrates and alcohol, he says, allows for endless possibilities of fermented foods. Hitz has adapted fermentation to his daily life, now substituting a morning coffee for a fresh Kombucha.

But within the community of fermentation, sharing nutritious foods or beverages to others brings a wealth of enjoyment.

“It’s kind of something just cool to hand someone your stuff and say that you made it,” Carriere says. “More often than not, people are pleasantly surprised at what they create.”

Read Full Post »

The Health Guru On Wheels

In late August, my roommate called me about a new living arrangement. His friend named Craig, who was from Southern California, wanted to purchase a van and live in it. Eugene, Oregon was his destination. Until Craig found his desired home on wheels, we would have a temporary third roommate for Fall Term.

Courtesy of margaretnguyen.com

Craig was an expert in health-related issues. For example, he had a strong belief against ultraviolet light. Too much exposure to ultraviolet rays, he said, can cause cancer. To protect himself from the rays of the sun, he wore large hooded sweaters to cover his head.  He slung a green flannel over his arm to act as a shield against the light. Walking around with him during the day was a spectacle.

Aside from Craig’s choice to not enjoy the sun’s warmth, he lived a nutritious lifestyle which consists of a strict vegetarian diet. Craig always bought organic produce, marrying them with brown rice pasta and drizzling sunflower oil over it. He suggested similar meals to us, including a tasty looking brown rice, hard-boiled eggs and bok choy combination. He informed us about the different benefits of various foods – rich vitamins in soy sauce and antioxidants in bok choy – and in his favorite beverage of choice called Kombucha.

I was curious to learn about Craig’s affinity for Kombucha. “It makes you feel euphoric,” he said.

I didn’t like the idea of a drink that naturally stimulated your mind and body. The slimy culture floating inside also disgusted me. But he bought my first Synergy Divine Grape Kombucha. After drinking the bottle, I started to glow in a vibrant way, and as Craig described “euphoric.” I just discovered its sour goodness.

Craig eventually found his new home in a Ford Windstar and set off to explore the West coast. Hoping to keep his influences in our apartment, my roommate and I continued to buy organic foods and tons of Kombucha. But the cost of $4 for every bottle added up quickly. We needed an alternative to get our fix of the fizzy and buzz-worthy drink at an affordable price.

My roommate phoned the health guru for suggestions. Craig’s answer was to make our own Kombucha, recommending tutorials online and tips. The idea was very unfamiliar to me. But my roommate researched on the process of making Kombucha. He found a cheap Kombucha “mother” off a website. A few days later, our juicy “mother” arrived in a vacuum sealed package.

“Is it alive?” I asked reluctantly, poking at its squishy inside.

At first, I didn’t believe a living organism could produce such a wondrous drink. However, my roommate marveled at the possibilities of having different types of teas. He explained that our baby culture would grow, giving birth to new strains. This would begin a limitless source of Kombucha. Imagining a plentiful amount of Kombucha changed my skepticism instantly.

Our first experimental batch was a green tea mix of blueberry and strawberry. We examine the instructions inserted with the culture carefully – buying pure cane sugar and 100 percent juices to mix in. We sanitized our large pitcher and equipment. We boiled our tea and let it sit to room temperature. Finally, we transferred our tea into the pitcher and plopped in our culture.

As beginners, we didn’t know the proper amount of time for fermentation. We started our batch, and then went home for winter break. We weren’t worried. We believed close to a month of fermenting would be sufficient.

Days before Winter Term, we returned to our pitcher. Two cultures were now visible, floating at the top. My roommate poured us both a glass of our Kombucha. It was nothing like anything from the grocery store. Fermenting close to 20 days resulted in an unpleasant sour taste that burned upon swallowing. Trying to dilute the Kombucha with grape juice only thickened the mixture. We forcibly drank our batch, proud of the accomplishment but eager to make another.

Months after our first batch, we now have three separate containers of Kombucha. Friends have enjoyed our newer batches, wanting to take home a culture of their own. We’ve tried many out of the ordinary tea flavors, recently a mandarin orange tea and a green tea with white grape juice.

Kombucha is now a part of my daily diet. I drink one after dinner, and sometimes grab another for a healthy nightcap. My roommate also drinks three or more a day, raving about the quality of taste in each batch.  Although Craig stayed for only three weeks, he had an impact on our eating habits, introducing a new perspective for enriched foods. Along his travels, I hope the health guru finds another energizing drink or food to impart its wisdom.

Read Full Post »

Green Devil

Vegetables aren’t inherently evil.  Years of real world experience have taught me this seemingly obvious lesson, but when I was a little kid, it wasn’t as cut and dry.

I’ve never been very adventurous when it comes to food. This probably goes back to my understanding that kids were usually punished with vegetables.  I remember cartoons where kids were constantly threatened with Brussels sprouts.




Read Full Post »