Nurturing milk kefir, burping jars of saurkraut and using the sniff test to suss out whether an accident has occurred – being a cultured club member is quite motherly work indeed, I can confirm having spent the past month turning my kitchen into a low key laboratory. Dearbhla Reynolds, author of The Cultured Club Cookbook, inspired many the kitchen experiment and I can now proudly say everything fermenting and bubbling with bacteria in my cupboard is deliberate and intentional, rather than neglectful and gross.
Taking on the persona of a responsible adult capable of cultivating and nurturing would be a challenge, but one look at the breath-taking food styling of this beauty of a book, thanks to the fabulous Jette Virdi, and I was determined to boldly explore the frontiers of fermentation. The promise of less food waste(of which I am consistently guilty), positively glowing gut flora (the hot accessory you never knew you needed) and tasty ways to incorporate curious things like scobies into my diet was too tempting to dismiss and so I began my quest to join the cultured club eagerly.
I am quite the garlic lover, opening more conversations with a hand over mouth utterance of ‘sorry, garlic breath’ than I should really admit to. In a quest to be less Van Helsing like breath-wise, I figured an easy peasy way to get away with eating yet more garlic without losing friends and alienating people would be to chance the Fermented Garlic recipe. This would be my first foray into brining, as it takes 4-6 weeks to achieve the desired result, but is otherwise rather laissez-faire. Three weeks in, like a child on Christmas morning, I cracked open the jar and popped a prized clove into the mix for a butter bean hummus I was making. All the garlicky flavour I crave, none of the pong breath. Revolutionary. And tasty to boot. Cue an evening spent peeling cloves to fill yet more jars – these are officially going in everything.
Vegetable Slices isn’t a recipe title that immediately draws you in, but upon reading that this cauliflower and parsnip based bake makes a decent bread replacement, I was lured into the prospect of finally having a passable vessel for things like Baba Ghanoush, which low and behold you can also ferment! This recipe permits replacing eggs with aquafaba, or chickpea liquid to you and me. While I have had mixed success with aquafaba in the past, the though of using up every last bit of my carton of chickpeas appealed to my new earthy, hipstery persona so I went with it, adding the slimey liquid to riced/grated cauliflower and parsnip along with ground almonds and psylium husks.
Baked as a flat bread style rectangle, the finished result could have browned more (a spritz of oil next time perhaps) but was, to my great delight, sturdy enough to slice into squares and pick up. This reminded me of my many adventures in cauliflower pizza making, except far and away a better result, without having to add numerous eggs and masses of cheese to hold the base together. Triumphant, I opted to top some of mine with masses of cheese (less cultured, admittedly) as a little lower carb pizza slice.
The rest I popped in the oven to crisp further and served as a dipping device. The recipe itself lacked mention of seasoning, but I went with my gut (see what I did there?!), added some sea salt and nutritional yeast and mine turned out scrumptiously good, an instant must repeat recipe. As a bread avoider, I often miss having a vessel for mopping up dishes like Preserved Lemon Tagine, which was another stellar, straight forward and satisfying dish from this bible of health-focused deliciousness, with a pop of brined lemon adding an edge.
Kimchi is an addictive substance I have cringed at the price of recently – handing over the bones of ten euro for a jar of gone off cabbage seemed a little excessive but my god, is it tasty…I had to find a way to make my habit more economical and Dearbhla would be my saviour. Issues – cannot wait five days and inevitable picking occurs throughout the fermenting process. Insights – the flavour on day 5 is worth waiting for, if at all possible. My solution – make jars and jars and jars full. I’ll never have to buy it again. The book is worth buying for this godsend recipe alone and Dearbhla’s festive brussel sprout Kimchi is definitely on the agenda for next month.
Milk kefir is something I have long been intrigued by and have often picked up a bottle if passing a Polish supermarket, along with some saurkraut. I am often mistaken for an Eastern European, so I always feel obliged to stock up on treats from my would be homeland. Armed with the how to guide to whipping up my own, I set out to fill jars.
I would quickly learn that being a part of this club was far more than becoming a jar hoarder. In my search for milk kefir grains, I headed confidently to one of my favourite spots, The Hopsack in Rathmines, assuming I would walk away with desired cultures in hand. Not so. It seems in leafy D6, fermentation is far from an alien concept and has caught on like wildfire, so much so that there is a waiting list for milk kefir grains, which the boss himself nurtures and sells. Your name goes on a list and you wait patiently for a text, which I am still hoping to receive.
However, my milk kefir crusade thankfully doesn’t stop there, as a positively lovely lady named Kasia came to my aid in the Hopsack, offering to bring me some of her own grains from home if I returned the next day. I did, and sure enough became the proud owner of a cupful of gooey grains, for which Kasia wouldn’t charge. This kindness in a way sums up fermentation and the cultured club ethos for me, spreading goodness and goodwill one grain at a time, minimising waste, maximising the physical and emotional feel good factor.
I decided that this burpy, thick kefir deserved to find a home in something a little sweet, not least because I didn’t have a cheese cloth to make the labneh recipe I was eyeing. Milk Kefir Brownies sounded like a fair compromise. With nearly half a kilo of dark chocolate, I can’t declare that these were a completely health conscious miracle dessert, but I was pleased to see no extra sugar was added on top of the masses of chocolate and oil and butter were replaced by my homegrown hero kefir. Coconut flour and my tangy kefir meant these were dense and moist and topped with a sprinkle of coconut a tray of tempting deliciousness was born. Goodness never tasted so naughty.
Keen to sneak a lazy breakfast recipe into my Cultured Club experiments, I opted to try out coconut flour crepes, which were the perfect use for leftover egg whites. I am always looking for pancake recipe variations that won’t leave me bloated and regretful after a glut of white flour so the coconut flour in these was very appealing to me. While this recipe wasn’t strictly a fermented one, I filled my crepes with some thick coconut milk kefir, which I made from recycled kefir grains from my above experiments, to add a boost of pro-biotic goodness. So long as you have a great non-stick pan, these are a breakfast treat worth getting out of bed for.
This is what I love about Cultured Club, it gets you thinking of ways you can add a fermented element to each and every dish you are planning not just for nutritional benefits, but for the unrivaled fizz of flavour they add. I had wanted to make Cabbage Rolls with Fermented Mushrooms, as I had taken on the challenge of fermenting them, only to discover I needed a dehydrator to ‘cook’ them. The same went for a delicious sounding Buckwheat Crispies, so a new gadget (which I realistically have no counter space for) is top of my Christmas list.
I found plenty of uses for my delicious, tart mushroom slices and their brine, my favourite being as a garnish and dressing for a rare steak, avocado and spinach salad, turning a bland plate into something zingy, fresh and tempting. Brine is the new balsamic for this dish and I am not ashamed to say the somewhat odd, funky flavour of a fermented fungus really appeals to me.
Spoiler alert, I shall be treating all my loved ones to a few jars…of gut goodness in their stockings this Christmas. They can thank me later, as I fiddle with my new dehydrator I am hoping Santa will deliver. The Cultured Club is a must read for the inquisitive cook, with or without ambitions to become a pro-biotic proliferator full time.
Look at any restaurant menu worth it’s salt, from Forest and Marcy to Ox Belfast, and you will see the influence fermentation is having on the cuisine developing on our shores, now considered contemporary but really a hark back to our humble roots. Don’t let the chance to add an edge to your home cooking pass you by, even if a gleaming gut isn’t your top priority.
Dearbhla, with her fabulously funky fermentation bible has won a place on my list of food heroines, alongside Susan Jane White and Domini Kemp – Irish women propelling the eating for wellness (and deliciousness) movement not just here in Ireland but globally. It is amazing what we can grow ourselves, isn’t it?
The Cultured Club is published by Gill Books. To get your copy of The Cultured Club, click here.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that(and greed) as the ultimate motivator, I realised that baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, fuelling my desire to focus on food in a serious way. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting.