by Bazile Booth
Come early November, I have a few important rituals: wishing my kid sister a happy birthday, visiting my polling place when applicable, and meeting the deadline to plant next year’s garlic crop. Three years ago, it was pushing 70 degrees on the day I ushered hundreds of cloves of Allium sativum into well-loosened topsoil. The ease of digging and planting helped me disperse a lot of collective nervous energy that first week of November 2016, but I recall that the warm temperatures still felt unsettling and unseasonable. This year, well, I’ll just say that I am glad that I pre-dug the beds on the afternoon of Nov. 4, because by the morning of the fifth, the first inch of topsoil felt as flexible as a frozen pizza, and my fingers nearly went numb from tucking the last of 200-odd garlic cloves into small holes in the ground.
I’d love to say that I am so in touch with the seasons that I anticipated that first hard freeze. It would be more honest to admit it was sheer luck. Regardless, it is quite likely that my beloved garlic, one of the most forgiving and adaptable of all garden crops, will emerge next spring and be ready to harvest by late July. For insulation, I placed extra straw mulch on the beds, and I expect plenty of snow to top those for much of the winter.
So, it’s been a cold autumn, with winter’s sworn enemies already dreading the season to come. Despite the complaints I hear around me about shoveling the walk, slippery roads and the seasonal onslaught of coughs and colds, I find great relief in winter’s arrival. I delight in stowing the lawnmower in the rear of the garage, exhuming my warmer layers of clothing from the cedar chest and dusting off my cross-country skis. The coziness of winter inspires me to make continuous batches of soups and sourdough breads to pair with sharp cheeses and spicy condiments, and to share these nourishing meals with friends who enjoy strong flavors.
I dug up this year’s garlic patch at the end of July, and hung the heads to dry in the garage. By August it was ready to be braided, trimmed and stored, with the largest heads put aside for my early November planting. Over the years I’ve decided to plant exclusively softneck varieties of garlic as they both hang and store better. Softneck garlic does not send up a flower stalk aka a scape, hence the aerial parts have the flexibility to be braided. I thought I’d harvested most of my crop, and then in early October I noticed there was still a small corner patch I’d overlooked. Good friends are those who will hang out with you at twilight, and with one shovel between the three of you, they’ll trade off digging garlic bulbs until together you haul a tarpful to your dimly lit side porch and proceed to skin every last clove.
Everyone who helped me glean the patch took home fresh peeled garlic for immediate use or freezing. I stared at the quart containers in my fridge for a couple of days, and then I remembered how much I’d been wanting to try recreating a sublime flavor from my childhood: pink pickled garlic, or Shiso katsuo ninniku. Sushi Zanmai, one of the oldest Japanese restaurants in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, is the only place I have eaten a handroll loaded with pink pickled garlic, and to recall the taste memory of that ingredient is like conjuring up the taste and smell of fresh falling rain. I searched online for this obscure recipe, and landed on the blog of Miss Mochi. Mochi has been on a quest to make her own shiso katsuo ninniku ever since her local Asian grocery store stopped carrying it, and in several years of searching, she still hasn’t found a comparable recipe.
Back in June, I had been regaled with a hefty bundle of shiso leaves from a friend’s CSA box. This thrilled me, because it came with the admonition, “This tastes terrible, do you want it?” Little did this friend know that I had tried germinating shiso a few summers ago from seed, with no luck. Shiso, also known as perilla or beefsteak plant, tastes way strong if eaten raw. Comparisons to basil and mint were lost on me, I found it almost inedible. So, I made a salty, sweet rice vinegar brine to ferment the shiso leaves and packed some thinly sliced ginger in with them. The pink color gradually filtered out of the formerly green and purple leaves and infused into the ginger, just as I had hoped. The result was a little jar of homemade gari, aka ginger tsukemono pickle, the pink stuff that’s served with sushi alongside the dollop of wasabi mustard.
I then took the spent pink brine from the gari, added a few tablespoons of kelp, and re-used it to pickle a jarful of fresh garlic cloves. The full flavor and pink color are taking a while to infuse, but it’s getting there. I also put up a jar of honey-fermented garlic, which is exactly what it sounds like, cloves of garlic smothered in raw honey and left alone to be transformed. This is a passive fermentation that apparently will only taste better over time.
The coziness of winter inspires me to make continuous batches of soups and sourdough breads to pair with sharp cheeses and spicy condiments, and to share these nourishing meals with friends who enjoy strong flavors.
Meanwhile, I made a bunch of sriracha, and am enjoying its serious heat on everything. Using a mixture of jalapeno and cayenne peppers from a friend’s surplus crop, I attempted sriracha from two different methods, both lacto-fermented. For one batch, I pickled whole peppers and garlic in a salted brine, and after three weeks I pureed them into a paste, preserving it with a touch of sugar and vinegar. In the other recipe, I pureed the peppers and garlic prior to fermenting them, added salt into the mash, and it is still sitting on my countertop two weeks later, bubbling nicely. When the bubbling slows, I’ll add some sugar and vinegar and place it into the refrigerator.
Lastly, there is a half gallon of fire cider brewing in a dark cabinet under the countertop, with about a week left to go. Fire cider is another simple process (like the fermented honey), made by infusing everything spicy and immune-boosting into a vat of apple cider vinegar. The current batch contains onion, garlic, lemon halves, jalapenos, turmeric, thyme, rosemary, black pepper, ginger and garden horseradish. The Internet abounds with fire cider recipes right now, just like chai tea was all the rage a few years ago. This medicinal tonic is strained and enjoyed after a minimum of four weeks steeping time. A couple of tablespoons of the infused spicy vinegar are diluted with hot water and sweetened with a spoonful of honey.
To your health!
Bazile Booth is a native of Boulder, Colorado, who chose Wisconsin as her adopted home in 1991. Bazile’s Driftless garden and kitchen inspire her to concoct nourishing food and drinks. These meals help fuel her Nordic skiing habit and her day job as a clinical social worker.
Driftless Terroir (ter-WAHR) is a series featuring guest voices celebrating the intersection of land and culture — the essence of life in the Driftless Area — with topics including art and architecture, farming and gardening, cooking and eating, fermenting and drinking, and more. To read past columns, see voiceoftherivervalley.com. To contribute to Driftless Terroir, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.