I was born on an ashram. If you saw the documentary Wild, Wild Country
, about the cult in Oregon in the early 1980s, you’ll have a pretty good vision of my childhood. After my mom escaped with me she went to a number of other communes. The communities were always vegetarian; they grew and cooked their own food together. The meals were an important part of their spiritual life. A staple of breakfast, lunch and dinner was fermented foods. Often they would take their foods and sell them at farmers’ markets. My mom was always inventive and came up with interesting products to sell that the collective could make together. Long after we left the ashram she continued to develop her own recipes. One classic was a dessert called the ‘no-Bake fruit cake’ which was made with smashed graham crackers and concentrated orange juice and raisins - she prayed over the ingredients to give it ‘love’ and then she mixed them together and pressed it into moulds. She would carefully make each one, wrap them in Saran Wrap and tie them with a ribbon. Then she would pack my brothers and I in her car and drive to farmers’ markets and crafts fairs to sell them for $1 each. Another recipe was kombucha which was a scary creature that would brew for weeks in a large glass bowl in our living room shelf next to books about yoga. To say that I detested both fruitcakes and kombucha as a child would be an understatement. I understood they were a commodity that allowed my mom to pay the bills but otherwise I found them supremely gross.
Which is why I grew up cooking for myself... because I wanted ‘normal’ food. There were always jars of strange concoctions in the fridge and it was the late ‘80s and I wanted packaged foods or foods that looked recognisable. I learned to roast, sauté, broil, bake and at nine years old would comb over cook books I bought for 50 cents at Bart’s book store in Ojai, collecting recipes for dishes that I couldn’t afford the ingredients to make.
I started directing as a teenager but if I wasn’t a director I would be a chef. Come to my house for dinner and I will make you rack of lamb, crusted with hazelnut and rosemary, with roasted red potatoes and a roasted romesco cauliflower with capers, salad fresh from the garden with a truffle dressing and dessert of gluten free apple crumble.
As a young adult, I achieved much of the normalcy that I wanted as a child: money to afford to cook what I wanted and the ability to make foods that my children could recognise. I could cook for eight or 80 people. And yet, last year, I found myself becoming increasingly obsessed with the strange and wonderful world of fermentation. I experimented in the kitchen till late at night. For months I came home from shoots and would cut and dice organic vegetables and let them sit to ferment.
And I now have mason jars in my cupboards and fridge filled with items that my own kids can not recognise. I fantasise about putting labels on my fermented wonders (Idyllic Farms is the name) and sending them to farmers’ markets and Erewhon to be sold. It’s that good. Really. I can’t explain how this has happened but it’s clear that the forces that hold the universe together have a very big sense of humour because I’m essentially now my mom.
So, I decided I will share the simplest, yet most enjoyable recipe I have with you - my recipe for making sauerkraut. It couldn’t be simpler but the ingredients are key, the temperature of the room you make it in is key and the care, time and attention you give the process is crucial.
What you will need:
- 1 head of organic cabbage. Must be heavy, like a bowling ball.
- 2 tablespoons of Himalayan sea salt.
- Spring water as needed (absolutely no other water will do. Don’t use tap!)
- One large glass bowl.
- 3 large mouth mason jars (super clean - preferably right out of the dishwasher).
Make sure your hands are clean and have no soap on them as soap will stop anything good from happening. Peel the first three outer leaves of the cabbage and set aside. Slice the cabbage thinly and place in a glass bowl. Sprinkle with half the sea salt and massage the cabbage for four minutes. Yes, that’s right. Use your hands to massage the salt into the cabbage. Add the rest of the salt and massage for another three minutes.
Take large fistfuls of the massaged cabbage and distribute it in the mason jars. The jars should be filled no higher than two inches from the top and packed firmly.
Now during this process, the fermentation has already begun. The salt is breaking down the cabbage and you should find that you have a natural liquid brine from the cabbage rising in each jar. Important note - ultimately you must have liquid above the cabbage within 24 hrs. The cabbage must be submerged below the liquid. If after 24 hours the cabbage isn’t complete under liquid add spring water so that there’s at least 1/2 an inch of liquid above the cabbage.
Then place the cabbage leaf that you originally set aside inside each jar and press it down. If you have a perfectly sized sea stone put on top to hold the cabbage down under the liquid. If not, you can buy 'fermenting stones' on amazon. Then cover the jar with a cheesecloth or napkin and put a rubber band around the neck of the jar to hold it in place.
If you believe in magic, which you must if you’re working in advertising, whisper motivational, positive messages to the jars like “love,” “joy,” “good health” because the batch will be imbued with this and I think, because I am my mother’s daughter, it actually will affect the quality of the taste.
Then place the jars in a dark cupboard that is room temperature. No warmer than 74 degrees (23 celsius) and no colder than about 60 degrees (15.5 celsius). Every 24 hours, check to make sure that the liquid is still above the cabbage. If necessary add more spring water. If you live in a drier climate you will need to add water regularly.
In four days open your batch and taste your cabbage. It will smell quite funky but that’s the fermentation happening and it means only good things. The taste at the four-day mark should be a little sour and have a nice snap. You could stop here and put it in the fridge and voila! But I prefer to go for eight to 14 days. This gives the good bacteria time to do its job, working through some important levels of fermenting which means that you will end up with a sauerkraut that is better for you than any probiotic pill. Pull the cabbage leaf off, add the mason jar top and place each jar in the refrigerator. I’m pretty sure it will last forever. I make dozens of jars and we eat sauerkraut with EVERYTHING. It’s now a staple of every meal.
Keep in mind that the key is to be sure the cabbage is covered with water. If you have a little mould or slime on the top protective leaf that is totally fine - just toss it. You don’t want mould underneath - and if you neglected to add enough water you may end up with a wasted batch of mouldy cabbage. So be diligent about making sure there’s enough salty liquid.
You can ferment just about any organic vegetable with this recipe and I do. You can add bay leaf, fresh ginger, turmeric and hot pepper at the beginning of the process to end up with flavoured versions. I have made some pretty delicious concoctions with a variety of spices.
If the steps sound just a bit too far out to you, and the process of waiting for a week or more sounds frustrating, let me know... maybe I will start that company and sell you a jar of my sauerkraut. And then the family circle will truly be complete.