Mountain View Voice

Eating Out - August 26, 2011

Kitchen culture

Local offers workshops on fermented foods and beverages

by Karla Kane

For Palo Altan Lisa Herndon, lacto-fermentation is a way of life.

If you're saying to yourself, "lacto-what-now?" no worries, Herndon is here to help.

Lacto-, or lactic-acid fermentation, is a simple anaerobic reaction and a traditional method of preparing and preserving foods (think sauerkraut, pickles and kefir). Herndon offers workshops on lacto-fermentation, along with other cooking and food-preparation skills, from her home.

"Lacto-fermented foods are whole, nourishing, full of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and beneficial bacteria necessary to maintain a healthy gut, immune-system support and optimal nutrition. They increase the efficiency of digestion by providing enzymes that help do the work for you," Herndon said.

Common conditions including asthma and irritable-bowel syndrome have been linked to a lack of healthy bacteria in the digestive tract, she said. Fermented foods also aid in nutrient absorption, are cheap to create and keep for months. Plus, she added, they're zesty and rich in flavor.

"These are deeply rooted in our food traditions and I believe it is time to make them mainstream again," she said.

Herndon's been into healthy eating for about a decade, since she was pregnant with her first child and found herself suffering from gestational diabetes. She began researching and practicing a more traditional diet (including plenty of fresh, local ingredients and food blooming with live, active cultures) and found that her health vastly improved. Doing her own lacto-fermentation was a natural next step.

She first learned to make sauerkraut and found that common condiments such as ketchup, mustard and pickles were traditionally made with lacto-fermentation. Mayonnaise made with fresh egg yolks and olive oil, she said, is divine.

"Then," she said, laughing, "I got obsessive." From sauerkraut and pickles she moved on to kimchi (Korean fermented veggies), kefir (a fermented drink that is often dairy-based), beet kvass (a digestive tonic), kombucha (a "tea" made from a yeast culture), salad dressings, dips and other items, all of which are the subjects of workshops she's taught.

"I haven't yet tried miso, or sourdough," she said, adding that she tries to steer clear of gluten and grain-based foods.

Her personal favorites include the naturally carbonated fizz of kombucha tea, which can be flavored with fruits or herbs and offers a tangy, natural alternative to soda — a particular past weakness, she said. "It was really hard to quit Fresca."

Now, she said, "I rarely get sick and my kids are way healthier than the other kids."

Herndon's two children, both in elementary school, have grown up eating a locally sourced diet, mostly free from processed foods. "They think 'regular' food tastes like junk," she said. The family raises chickens for eggs, grows vegetables, keeps honeybees and gets raw milk from a goat they board in San Jose.

She's been teaching workshops since last summer under the name Lisa's Counter Culture, at the urging of friends. "I was doing it for free but people kept asking," she said, and through word of mouth, demand for her workshops grew. She usually teaches classes of six to eight students in her kitchen but has recently expanded to workshops at local Whole Foods markets.

"My main job is being a mom but now that my kids are older I'm hoping to do more workshops," she said.

Her introductory workshop covers what lacto-fermentation is, different methods such as closed versus open-air systems, using pickling jars, temperature requirements, and how to make brine. It also includes samples. After taking one of her classes, "usually people come to more," she said.

Recently, Herndon taught a $75 workshop on dosas (traditionally fermented Indian crepes) and chutneys (fruit-based condiments common in Indian cuisine). Her dosa batter was made from lacto-fermented lentils, long-grain rice and salt, plus seasonings such as tumeric, black pepper, cilantro and fenugreek.

She demonstrated all steps in the process, from soaking the lentils to frying them in olive oil in a sizzling pan until they're golden brown. The chutneys included spicy mint, mango and mixed fruit. The class included tastings, hands-on dosa cooking and a recipe booklet. She also offered the pickling jars she recommends and baggies of Indian rice and lentils for sale after class.

What's the easiest choice for a newbie looking to get into lacto-fermentation?

"Pickles!" Herndon said, adding that all they take are fresh cucumbers, a suitable jar, salt brine and seasonings and herbs as desired. "In three to four days they're ready, nice and crisp."

And don't even think about throwing away leftover brine or pickle juice, she added. It makes a nutritious and tasty source for salad dressings and dips.

A class on condiments and veggies is coming up on Aug. 30. More fall workshops will soon be posted at lisascounterculture.com.

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