A Kwik Lesson on Kontinuous-Brew Kombucha

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You’ve probably heard of kombucha, which is essentially a fermented sweetened tea. Our farmer’s market sells small, locally made bottles, and natural foods stores like Whole Foods and Fresh Market generally have single-serving bottles, usually costing about $4 to $5. Kombucha is definitely an acquired taste, but Sylvia and I have acquired a taste for it, and I’m now making it at home for about $1 a gallon. It takes probably ten minutes of hands-on time to get that gallon. The live cultures in kombucha, like in yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and other living fermented foods carry beneficial bacteria that your body needs and that many of us don’t get in our ultra-pasturized, antibacterial world. Intrigued? Let’s brew some kombucha!

A few basics. Just like you can’t make soap without lye, you can’t make kombucha without a scoby, also referred to as a kombucha mushroom. Scoby is short for Symbiotic Culture of Bacterial and Yeast (I had to look that up), and it’s a little funky looking. Let’s get that out of the way: It’s funky looking. To start making kombucha, you need some kombucha and a scoby, which is where having a kombucha-brewing friend comes in, because every batch of kombucha produces a new scoby, so anyone who has been brewing this for a bit is likely drowning in scobys.

Truthfully, while I’m a kombucha-brewing fool now, it took me three tries to get this down. First, I started with a dehydrated scoby and followed the instructions for rehydrating and brewing a first batch. The first batch was fine, but the scoby never really took. Then a friend gave me a scoby and some starter tea, and this never took either; in fact, it grew mold, which is incredibly rare and necessitates throwing out the whole thing. The third time, I ordered a hydrated scoby, packed with starter tea, from here, and it worked like a charm.

I keep a big glass gallon container of brewing kombucha on my kitchen counter all the time. When a batch of kombucha is ready, I bottle most of the brewed kombucha, leaving some for the next batch, and add more sweetened tea to the container. That’s it. Here’s how.

First, I make the sweetened tea that will become kombucha. For my gallon container, I use two half-gallon jars. I add 1/2 cup sugar to each jar.

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Then I add about six cups of boiling water to each jar and stir until the sugar dissolves. The sugar is necessary for the yeast to eat; you can’t make kombucha without a scoby and sugar.

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After that, I add four tea bags to each jar. Sometimes I use green tea (jasmine green when I’m feeling extra fancy), sometimes just black. You can use pretty cheap tea here; no need to pull out the Yorkshire Gold. Lightly cover the containers — I use upside-down coffee filters — and let the tea steep in the boiling water until it comes to room temperature. I typically make this in the morning and let it cool all day, or make it in the evening and let it cool overnight. You never want to add hot tea to the scoby or it could lose its magical powers.

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When the tea is cooled, remove (compost!) the tea bags. Now you’re going to bottle the last batch of kombucha; it’s ready for drinking.

Here’s something that’s pretty nifty about kombucha: Every time you make it, the batch makes another scoby. And the scoby grows to the circumference of the container. So here’s what the top of the container looked like when took off the cloth napkin that was covering it:

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If I’d only started with one scoby, I’d have this new scoby and the original scoby. So I could compost or give a friend the extra. In this case, I offered some scobys to friends, so I have a ton of them in my kurrent kombucha, but they have friends’ names written on them. (Scoby shout-out to Lindsay, Stephanie, Johnna, and Tracy!)

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So I remove this pile of scobys from the container and remove and bottle about 3/4 of the kombucha, leaving the remaining 1/4 to start the next batch. Because I’m holding these scobys for friends, I kept all of them for the kombucha. At other times, I’ve composted all but one or two.

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I bottle my kombucha in screw-top wine bottles (Simple Life Pinot Noir is currently my favorite, in case you’re curious), refrigerate it, and Sylvia and I drink it until the next batch is ready.

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To finish the new batch of kombucha, I pour the tea I’d brewed and cooled into the container, add back the scobys, put a covering back on, and forget about it for a week or two. Regarding the covering, you don’t want your kombucha airtight, but you do want it covered to keep out bugs and such. So I cover it with a cloth napkin held on with a rubber band.

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A kouple of other kombucha tips to pass on:

  • The kombucha contains live bacteria and yeast cultures. In fact, if you left a bottle of brewed kombucha at room temperature, it would grow a scoby from these cultures. This means that there are little… I don’t know… threads in the brewed kombucha, and these get more pronounced the longer you keep the bottled kombucha. I let these settle as much as possible before I pour a glass of kombucha, but drinking them certainly won’t hurt you.
  • I know people who are very comfortable with fermented foods, but kombucha scares the bejeezus out of them. To each his own. Just know that if you have a good kombucha go bad, it isn’t going to be subtle about it. Here are some examples of moldy scobys. See? Not subtle.
  • I like my kombucha plain, but Sylvia prefers hers with some fruit juice. We usually go about three or four parts kombucha to one part juice.
  • I read about a neat way to make fizzy, fruity kombucha on this post at Nourishing Days. I haven’t tried it yet, but plan to.
  • During this gardening fruit-flypalooza season, I’ve been making eco-friendly fruit fly traps by filling a bowl half with water, half with kombucha, and adding a couple of drops of dishwashing liquid (to trap those buggers when they go for a drink of kombucha). I took a picture of a bowl with a zillion fruit flies drowned in it after a day or so, but thought better about posting. Just know it’s effective.
  • If you have any kombucha kuestions, KombuchaKamp.com is an amazing, enthusiastic resource for all things kombucha.

Bottoms up!

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Quick Preserving: Pickled Green Tomatoes

Last night was busy. We had all the normal school night chaos, along with a few more substantive chores and a hard stop at 9 p.m. to watch the first presidential debate. But during this pre-frost time, the tomatoes, they don’t wait for debates.

In 20 minutes, I dealt with some of them. First, I froze yet another gallon Ziploc’s worth of ripe tomatoes that had again overtaken our kitchen counter. The freezer is so full of tomatoes I’m a little worried we won’t have room for the quarter cow a local farmer will have ready for us in a month. Guess we’ll have to work harder at eating through the ice cream.

Then I turned to the green tomatoes still in the yard. We’re getting overrun with green tomatoes that have little time before the frost sets in. I’m seeing my girlfriends this weekend for our dozen-years-running knitters’ weekend. If you’re wondering, we really do knit — between glasses of wine and plates of cheese and going for walks. I look forward to it for half the year. But it’s timed just as the green tomatoes need dealing with. Last night I didn’t have time for some of the green tomato treats on my to-do list (green tomato jam, green tomato relish, fried green tomato BLTs…). So I made some quick refrigerator pickles. Tonight I’ll make another quart of them to take for the weekend. Little known fact: Knitters love pickles!

Here’s how to make them. This recipe is a slightly modified version of one in the fabulous sewing title Alabama Studio Style.

Quick Pickled Green Tomatoes

1 quart of green cherry tomatoes (you can also use larger tomatoes and cut them into quarters or eighths)
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1-1/2 cups water
2 tsp. course sea salt
1/2 tsp. coursely ground pepper
1/2 tsp. dry dill (you can use fresh; I just didn’t have any)
6 garlic cloves, peeled and thickly sliced
2 split hot peppers

Prick the tomatoes through the stem end and through the other end so that the brine will absorb into the tomatoes. Fill a quart canning jar with the tomatoes. Combine the vinegar, water, salt, pepper, dill, and garlic in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Pour this brine over the tomatoes in the jar. Top with the hot peppers, screw on the lid, and let the tomatoes cool on the counter. As the jar cools, shake it a little so some of the garlic pieces fall into the jar. When the pickles get to room temperature, put them in the fridge. They should rest in the fridge for a day or so before eating. They’ll get stronger the longer they sit before eating.

Shaking Up Friday Night Pizza Night: Slow-Cooker Pork Tacos

So this Friday we got crazy and took a turn from our long-standing pizza night tradition: Phil made pork tacos, a request from Max. Not only did we break with our end-of-the-workweek tradition, but Phil fooled around with the recipe. We have been using this recipe for Citrus Pulled Pork Tacos for a while, even pulling it out when friends are over because it’s so delicious and super-simple. But Phil shook things up by adding orange juice and cumin, and it was even better than usual.

And, not to get too insane, but I tried something I’d read about recently: Using raw collard leaves as a wrap. I planted collard when some of the summer vegetables were finished, and the plants are at a nice size now. I loved the collard instead of traditional taco shells; I doubt I’ll go back.

Here’s Phil’s amended recipe. (Be sure to make the slaw on the link above; it’s fabulous on the tacos or on the side.)

Pork Tacos

2-3 pound boneless pork roast
3 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 Tbsp. black pepper
1 Tbsp. granulated garlic
1 Tbsp. onion powder
1 Tbsp. cumin (or more)
The zest of 2 lines
2 or so tablespoons olive oil
1 – 2 cups orange juice
Taco shells of your choice — or collard leaves!

Combine the dry ingredients and zest to make a rub. Rub this on the pork roast; you might not use all the rub. Sear the pork roast in a saute pan lightly covered in olive oil; brown all sides. Once the meat is browned, put it in the slow cooker and pour on the orange juice and any remaining rub. Add enough water to cover the roast completely. Cook on high for about six hours in the slow cooker; the meat will tear apart easily with two forks when it’s ready.

Serve the shredded meat with taco shells (or collard leaves!) and whatever toppings you like on tacos: shredded cheese, sour cream, hot sauce, lettuce, diced tomatoes, black beans — you name it.

Try shaking up your own traditions this week!

Uncle Brent’s Patented Moon Smoothie

When I was at my brother’s house a few weeks ago, he excitedly introduced us to his favorite breakfast, which is now in my rotation. Sylvia loves these, too — just like she loved the Mean Green juice when Brent talked me into a juice fast. It’s pretty much just fruits and vegetables for breakfast, but tastes more decadent.

Uncle Brent’s Patented Moon Smoothie

2 peeled, frozen bananas, cut into chunks
2 cups cold water
A big handful of greens, chopped into large chunks*
1 Tbsp. cocoa
1 tsp. cinnamon
Some sweetener (a tiny scoop of stevia, a package of Splenda, a tsp. or so of honey, etc.)
4 cups ice

Put everything but the ice in a blender and blend until smooth. Then add the ice cubes a couple at a time to thicken the smoothie. Fight Sylvia, moon smoothie junkie, for the biggest glass.

* If you use mild greens like chard or spinach, you can use a really big handful. Stronger-tasting greens like kale will flavor the smoothie, so you have to go a little lighter unless you like the tast of a chocolate-kale smoothie.

Freezing Tomatoes

We don’t have a bumper crop of tomatoes, but we have more than we can keep up with. So I haven’t had marathon canning sessions, but have periodically put up salsa or tomato sauce for next winter as the pile has increased. This weekend I knew I had to deal with the tomatoes before we started losing some, so I went to bed Saturday night planning to can tomatoes first thing Sunday morning. When I got up, however, I simply couldn’t bring myself to spend a chunk of time prepping them, and then another hour-plus processing them in a hot water canner. So I spent five minutes prepping them to freeze, and now we have another gallon Ziploc bag of tomatoes waiting for next winter.

To freeze tomatoes: Cut out the stem end, as well as any blemishes (such as slight brown spots that are starting). Don’t worry about imperfections on the skin because you’ll be peeling them later. Freeze the tomatoes on a tray; they shouldn’t be touching. In several hours when they’ve frozen to hard balls of summer goodness, put them in a zipper bag in the freezer.

To use frozen tomatoes: Take out the tomatoes you need and run them under warm water for about 15 seconds. The skin will peel right off. Then chop up the still-frozen tomatoes and use them in whatever’s for dinner: soup, stew, risotto. I like chopping them frozen because the pieces unfreeze quickly, and I can chop them quickly and evenly. In recipes, the chopped frozen tomatoes act just like canned chopped tomatoes.

Aesthetically, I like having jewel-toned jars of frozen tomatoes lining our shelves in the basement. Practically, I liked having the extra hour on a Sunday morning to read the paper.

If you are thinking of canning tomatoes, I love this tutorial at Prudent Baby.

Thoughts on the Dinner Hour

Most nights we eat dinner, together, as a family. We didn’t always.

Dinner together pre-kids happened maybe three or four times a week. After we had Max, we found it easier to throw something at him that he’d eat and eat ourselves later, often scrounging what we could find. Sometimes taking the time to prepare something really good. Too often ordering in. When Tommy came along, we would find ourselves buying the boys fast food a couple of nights a week and filling in with easy meals for them, often ourselves eating later or grabbing bites, standing up, while shoveling food into a toddler’s mouth.

At some point, I realized dinner needed to change. It needed to stop being the utilitarian execution of food and become the central time of the day when everyone gathered. By the time Sylvia came along, we’d established at least the intention to eat home-cooked meals. Phil and I still would often find ourselves at 5:00, finishing work, and neither of us with a plan for dinner. There was too much fast food and too many meals out, but we were making progress.

When Phil became a stay-at-home dad, I do admit for a while I assumed I’d come home from work to a Phil-styled version of June Cleaver, who would have the table set, flowers overflowing from vases, and dinner about to be served.

But while no one is vacuuming the house in pearls or serving fish preserved in aspic, we have finally fallen into a good dinner routine. We expect of ourselves that one of us will be making dinner, and that the kids will sit down with us, for even a short period, to eat and talk and tell us about their days before bolting out the door to see friends before the sun sets. On weekends we’re more casual, as we often have extra kids or are short some of ours, and Friday night pizza does sometimes mean feeding five kids on outdoor plates while Phil and I eat inside.

During the summer, Phil had the kids at swim lessons every day, so I would come home from work, pour a glass of wine, and make dinner. I usually knew by early morning what I’d be making that night. I had a moment of quiet to myself doing something I love, cooking (and drinking wine!), and the kids could come home from their lessons with food about to be served.

Now that the boys are back in school and lessons are over, Phil is responsible for dinner. Today we talked at around 3:00 and he said he didn’t have a dinner plan, so I suggested a simple night of quesadillas and salad left from last night. He added a topping of sauteed onion, black beans, and leftover grilled chicken (last night’s dinner was more of a production), plus garden tomatoes and an avocado. All simple, pulled together, but important.

And with our humble, pantry-pulled-together meal, we feasted. As a family.

Hot Pepper Jelly

This year I have about five hot pepper plants — some standby jalapeno, but also some other varieties like Scotch Bonnet, which means more pepper sauce, pepper vinegar, and my favorite: Hot Pepper Jelly.

If you’re new to canning but want to give it a whirl, this is a perfect first recipe. It contains few ingredients, is foolproof, and doesn’t take long to make. We use it in tons of ways throughout the year: As an appetizer with cream cheese, on a toasted English muffin topped with scrambled eggs, on cornbread during Chili Night. Depending on the variety, it can be super-hot, or just have a little kick. This year I combined several peppers, and it turned out hotter than plain jalapeno, but not remotely unbearable and sweat-inducing.

I also love giving this away because it’s a little unusual as far as kitchen gifts go, and if you use a variety of red and green peppers, you’re matching all the holiday decor come December. I made one batch a couple of weeks ago, and sent Sylvie with a jar to our new and already adored next-door neighbor. Sylvie told me a couple of days later that our neighbor, Heidi, told her the jelly was “rocket ships.” I think she said “the bomb,” but what do I know? I’m not hip enough to know the lingo these days. But I got the impression Heidi liked it.

If you’re new to canning, you might want to watch a couple of YouTube videos just to see the process in action, but know that it’s easy-peasy and very addicting. I didn’t grow up with a canning mom, and I was fairly certain this was rocket science when I first attempted it; fortunately my friend Martha, whose mom did can, p’shawed me 15 years ago and helped take the mystery out of canning. She’s right; it’s not intimidating once you try it.

Oh, but if you’re trying hot pepper jelly, do yourself a favor and wear rubber gloves to cut and deseed the peppers. Seriously. As someone who pooh-poohs those warnings every year and has to hold baggies  of ice for hours afterward, don’t be like me. Wear gloves.

So you wanna make some jelly? Here’s how.

Hot Pepper Jelly

1/2 cup finely diced and seeded hot peppers
1/2 cup finely diced and seeded bell pepper
6-1/2 cups sugar
1-1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 3-oz. package liquid pectin (such as Cert-o)

Sterilize 7 or 8 half-pint canning jars and their lids. They will also have rings that hold the lids in place, but these rings just need to be clean, not sterilized. To sterilize, stick the jars in boiling water for several minutes. Meanwhile…

Mix the peppers, sugar, and apple cider in a good-sized non-reactive pan. Over high heat, bring this mixture to a boil. Lower the heat and boil gently for about 7 minutes, give or take a minute, stirring frequently. The little peppers will get limp and the sugar will be dissolved. Pour in the liquid pectin and boil for another 60 seconds.

Spoon the hot jelly into the sterilized canning jars, leaving about 1/2 inch of space at the top of the jar; you don’t want to fill it all the way to the top of the jar or the jar won’t be able to seal. Don’t get greedy and overfill the jars. Also, if any jelly gets around the rim of the jars, wipe the jar rims clean with a damp cloth; the jars won’t seal if there’s if the jar rims aren’t completely clean. Put the sterilized lids on the canning jars and screw on the ring bands. To seal the jars, process them in a water-bath canner for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, take the jars out of the canner and wait for the satisfying *ping* telling you each jar has sealed. If any don’t seal, just store them in the fridge and use them first.

This makes about 7 half-pint jars of delicious, delicious jelly. Happy hot peppering!