Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Orange Monster is Contained

by Andy

Our kitchen counter has several zones. There is a section with about 20 unfinished supplement jars. There is the section where the cats' raw food is divvied up. There is also a separate section for cat supplements. There is section for empty kombucha bottles. There is a dish-drying section. There is a corner that contains 6 cutting boards, 8 knives in a block, 4 trivets, 3 oil jars, 2 vinegars, and salt and pepper grinders. There is a place for chicken eggs that have not been washed yet. There is a potted plant zone. And, until tonight, there was the "orange monster" area - my habanero/carrot fermentation experiment zone. I'm pleased to have the counter space back, and even more pleased to have success with the hot sauce.

In early October, two Farm Stay 1 students wanted to make some hot sauce. So we chopped up some habaneros, carrots, onions and garlic and poured a brine over it in a decorative crock and watched it ferment. Within days the salty water had extracted enough fire from the habaneros to burn lips with a little sip. It was dangerous stuff. We tried to keep the veggies submerged using plastic bags full of water, but they kept trying to float. The interface between the veggies and the air would develop a whitish film. We would discard any veggies that were touching the air and skim off the film and re-submerge our future hot sauce. This worked okay. When the students left after 2 weeks, most of the carrots were still crispy, so I decided to continue the ferment on my own at home. This was when the orange monsters appeared on our counter.

I packed the fermenting peppers and veggies into a gallon-sized glass jar, and then added more peppers. Then I did another half-gallon jar with new carrots, habaneros, garlic, shallots, and brine. I filled ziploc bags with water and used then as weights to keep the veggies submerged (tried and true fermentation method). Then I covered each jar with a kitchen towel to keep out household indoor insects (surprisingly abundant here). There was still the floating/filmy issue, so we had to add just enough water and risk overflows to keep them submerged. They weren't exactly orange monsters, but they were close enough, because the fiery spice soon pervaded everything in the zone as overflows necessitated catch plates under the jars, making it an area to work around gingerly.

Then I forgot about the jars. Well, I didn't exactly forget. They were right there on the counter. Rather, they just became one more thing on the counter. They soon blended right into the landscape. Every once in a while I would lift the towel and look at the progress. By adding more peppers and starting a new jar, I had to restart my mental fermentation clock. Even though we were three weeks in with the first batch, I knew I eventually wanted to combine them. So I was checking the progress of batch number two, while making sure batch numero uno did not over-ferment into mush. Sometimes we would get a bloom on a jar to skim off and cull the top items. Over time, I noticed the bottoms of the jars filling with about a 1/2 inch white/yellow layer of sediment. I hope that layer is probiotic. But just in case, we left that behind when we bottled.

A couple weeks ago I realized that fermentation was complete and it was time to deal with the orange monsters. I was cautious. I have never made fermented probiotic habanero sauce, but I have plenty of experience with regular habanero/vinegar/lime juice sauce. Not all of my experience is good. One time, we were cleaning up after making the sauce and we used the sprayer and hot water. The steam volatilized the spicy compounds and soon we were all gasping and coughing. Yikes! We could have died from inhaling the fumes! Or not. Then one time we used the food processor to make sauce, cleaned it out thoroughly, and put it away. The next week, when Jen made her raspberry smoothie, it picked up lingering compounds from the plastic and made her smoothie to hot to handle. Sorry! Then there are the contact injuries. Red swollen hands from touching the hot sauce, and crying eyes from accidentally touching them after handing habaneros. Ouch! I was so cautious, I was immobilized and put it off entirely.

There is nothing like a deadline to focus energy, and with the craft fair looming, I was determined to finish the sauce. My trusted friend Laura gave me courage and support. We donned surgical gloves to protect our hands. We used an immersion blender to spare the food processor. We washed the glass fermentation jars in cold water. Now we have a beautiful blended sauce that is the consistency of apple sauce, but I wouldn't want to confuse it and take a whole spoonful. The bright orange color should be a warning. Laura and I each sampled a few drops and our faces were red and our eyes were watering. It definitely tastes incredible - fruity and spicy and complex. But only a little drop will do you. Once blended, we contained the sauce in quart jars for now and put them in the fridge.

I was surprised how much space was opened, both on the counter and in my mind. Thanks to Laura for helping me tame this monster.  

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