Saturday, August 31, 2013

Cooked by Michael Pollan

This month's Kitchen Reader book is Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan. Unfortunately I had some trouble getting a copy and only managed to start reading a few days ago. Little did I know that it is a massive manifesto on the main ways to cook food.

Pollan singles out four processes that humans use to cook food, naming them after the four ancient elements: fire, water, air, and earth. Fire is for grilling, the most primal of ways to cook food. Water is for boiling, steaming, and braising. Air is for the effects of the oven and yeast on bread. And earth is for fermentation, a chemical reaction that "cooks" food.

With the short time I had available, I decided to read the introduction and only one of the main four chapters. The one I am most interested in, by far, is about fermentation.

Pollan talks about the "earthy" fermentation of vegetables, dairy, and drinks. I think this is a naturally scary discussion for me and many of us, since it involves talking about bacteria and their effects. We have grown up in a time when sterilizing and anti-bacterial-izing are virtues. But recently scientists have come to see that over-sterilizing our hands, food, and environments is detrimental to our health. Pollan, over the course of about twenty pages, puts forward a compelling argument that we need good bacteria. The bacteria that ferments our food also lives in our guts, and it is hugely beneficial to us. One benefit is that good bacteria protects our intestinal lining. Also good bacteria help us fight off bad germs by improving our immune system.

More and more I have been reading that good gut health is correlated with overall good health. There are suggestions that gut health is connected to weight gain/loss, moods, mental health, metabolic syndrome, and many other health issues. The fervent "fermentos" that Pollan interviews lean towards the hippy side of things and see fermented foods as a panacea for all ills. Pollan examines the emerging studies and it seems that there is mounting evidence to show that bacteria in our food and gut play a much larger role in our health than anyone ever thought.

All of this has me hankering to try out some fermenting for myself. Here are some ideas to begin with.

1. Go back to making my own yogurt. I did this regularly a few years ago and it was so simple and tasty.

2. Try making sauerkraut or "kraut-chi" (a sauerkraut and kimchi hybrid). Pollan provides a recipe for this in the appendix of his book, but the one I have linked here (at Balanced Bites) is the one that first convinced me it would be worth trying.

3. Start making fermented cheese. In the past I have tried making ricotta and mascarpone. These fresh cheeses don't take long enough to develop any bacteria; instead they are curdled with lemon juice. I want to try cottage cheese, which is made overnight. The fermentation is started using a spoon of live yogurt or buttermilk, and then it is left on the counter for bacteria to develop.

Do you eat fermented foods regularly?
Do you make any fermented foods?

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