There's been a food renaissance in the last decade – a triumphant return to our agrarian, nomadic roots. A rejection of the corporate brainwashing we endured throughout the 80s, sandwiched between two sugary McDonald’s buns, washed down with an extra large soda. I welcome all of it–the discussions, the debates, the questions, the tomes on fermentation, and even the new-age blissed out farm-to-table evangelists. Kefir, hemp milk, rooftop gardens – let’s be friends.
I hate it when curmudgeony haters dismiss this important movement as being a hipster fad. Sure. It can be hard to wade through jars upon jars of lacto-fermented cabbage, homemade hot sauce, and basement-brewed beers, without a little bit of an eye-roll. Or not find the intentional rusticity of some of the packaging design to be overly precious. But if you can get past all of that, you’ll find that the faddishly sustainable approach is good for your health (and soul).
Lucky for me, Po-Po was way always ahead of the game. Back in China, pre-Cultural Revolution, her father owned rice paddies and had a thriving rice wine business. Women were expected to stay at home and pick up useless skills like embroidery. Po-Po followed her grandmother around instead, learning how to ferment and pickle things. Needless to say I never had embroidered anything but I ate a ton of homemade, homegrown fermented and pickled veggies.
For my recent pop-up at the Tradesman in Brooklyn, I decided to ferment mustard greens for one of the dishes. Certainly one can easily buy the greens in ready-to-eat vacuum-sealed packs at any Asian market (which is what I used to do). But it was time for me to grow up. And growing up means staying in on a Saturday night to ferment things.
Six days later, I ended up with a jar of deliciously sour, probiotic-rich mustard greens. I could have eaten right from the jar, but I chose to sautee the greens with garlic, sugar, salt, and chili peppers, which became a perfect garnish for a bowl of rice. The smell of pickles lingered on my hands and in my kitchen for a few days. I’m sure Po-Po wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Fermented mustard greens 酸菜
Makes 1 jar
4 bunches of mustard greens, leaves and stems
3 or more heaping tablespoons of salt
2 cups of water (optional)
1 red serrano pepper
Rinse mustard greens and let dry. Tear or chop the greens into large pieces. Sprinkle with a generous amount of salt, ensuring that greens are covered. Let sit for at least 30 minutes.
Salted greens will likely yield some liquid. Thoroughly massage the greens in it the liquid. Let sit for another 30 minutes. Add serrano pepper.
Prepare your sterilized jar. (Learn how to safely sterilize glass jars!)
Start packing in the salted greens tightly with a set of chopsticks or a cup that’s smaller than the jar, to close up any air pockets. Pour the remaining liquid into the jar, which should fully cover the greens by about an inch. If there isn’t enough liquid, bring more salt and hot water to boil over the stove, let it cool down, and pour it over the greens until covered.
Wrap the jar’s opening with Saran wrap, and close the jar tightly. Let it sit in a shady, warm area for the fermentation to begin. Monitor closely and make sure the greens are submerged in brine through the whole process. When it starts turning yellow-green, sample a piece to decide if it needs more souring. If not, pop it in the fridge to halt the fermentation process. It can be eaten up to 3 months.