Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Kefir Madness

Lately I've been going a little crazy making kefir. I blame Wildwood Farm for this.

It all started innocently enough when I was over there one day, doing sheep chores or something - I don't even remember what. S announced that a friend of hers had given her some kefir grains. Now, I've had store-bought kefir, and it was more or less like liquid yogurt. I liked it fine, so I was mildly intrigued by the thought of making my own. However, both becuase S seemed entirely too excited about this, and I was confused by the term "kefir grains", naturally I had to learn more. I thought maybe that the kefir bugs came in a little granulated powder like baking yeast or wine-making yeast or something, but what S was spooning out of her fermenting kefir looked a lot more like some mutant cross between cottage cheese and a cauliflower, with maybe a little alien brain matter mixed in.

However, I was game to try it. I must first point out that it was NOT like the store-bought version - it was not sweet, nor fruit-flavored and -colored. It had a tang and texture more similar to buttermilk (which I quite like), although it had a little bit of a fine-grained spritz on the tongue, like barely-fermenting fresh-pressed cider. It also had some deeper notes to the flavor, something that reminded me of certain kinds of ripe French cheeses. And there was something else: It made me feel sort of.... good. Like it was making me cheerful and peaceful and all... good-like.

Eventually S gave me some kefir grains from her culture so I could start my own. Now, here I must point out that making kefir is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT and not for the faint of heart. The instructions follow:

1. Pour some milk in a jar.
2. Put your kefir grains in.
3. Put the lid on the jar and set it somewhere in your house.
4. Wait 2 days.

See? Extremely difficult. If you try it, you should probably lie down for an hour or two afterwards and make people bring you food and hot buttered rum so you can recover from your labors. A foot massage would definitely aid the process considerably, so be sure you mention that.

Ideally, the kefir should (supposedly, and if you can wait that long) be refrigerated (after you scoop out the kefir grains on the top to inoculate your next batch) for an additional 2 days. This is because apparently, if you put it in the fridge, the little kefir bugs will keep metabolizing and making nutrients for you to drink, but they produce different nutrients in the cold than in the room-temperature. Or so I hear.

Having done a little reading, it appears that the reason kefir makes you feel all good-like is that it contains significant amounts of protein, vitamin B and tryptophan - and small amounts of alcohol. It also has all kinds of other goodies in it, including several different strains of beneficial microbes (the home-made kefir, I mean; the store-bought kind usually only has 2 strains of microbe and no appreciable alcohol.) Originally, it seems that kefir was made of camel milk, but if you don't happen to have a camel - or if you do, but don't feel up to milking it, which in my view just shows good sense - it also appears that you can kefir a lot of things that aren't camel milk: cow milk, sheep milk, goat milk, soy milk, rice milk, coconut milk, fruit juice, ginger beer, sauerkraut, (which I guess would be kefirkraut, actually), even water and sugar. Some people believe that kefir can cure cancer, initiate world peace and intimidate harmful yeasts and bacteria and viruses right out of your body. Which may or may not be true - I have no proof either way - but I have to say: I'd drink it anyway, because I find it all yummy and stuff.

It's been like a little biology project. The kefir bugs seem to grow at nuclear speeds, so I can make many many different batches and mess around with them as much as I like. I can put in raspberry jam (which several of my clients bring me in the home-made version because they know I'm a complete maniac for raspberries.) I can put in agave nectar. I can put in strawberries and bananas and make smoothies. I can put in all KINDS of stuff - and as I have some congenital abnormality which makes me absolutely incapable of following a recipe as written, God only knows what might end up in there. But it'll probably be yummy.

Actually, Alaska is a good place for someone with my particular mental defects. That thing about not following recipes - it's really true. Ask anyone. I can do it once, if I force myself, or if I've never eaten anything like the recipe in question and I'm not sure how it's supposed to taste.... but the second time (and often the first) I'll be standing there thinking: Hmm, I bet a little bit of nutmeg would taste really good in this... [OOOH! Kefir with nutmeg and apricots! - Ooops. Sorry about that.] At any rate, it's quite annoying to people who have certain expectations about their food, like that you will not make their grandmother's famous chocolate cream pie with crushed pecans for the crust, nor shave chocolate and nutmeg over the top of it. But up here, there are LOTS of people who screw around with the recipe - or just make up their own. There are whole Alaskan cookbooks like that. One time I invented something called "moose baked in wine and apples" (which also included birch syrup and pine nuts and garlic, and if I ever make it again, will also include Craisins) and nobody up HERE thought I was nuts. I did get a lot of remarks from "certain people" in the lower 48, however, even though I specified -SPECIFIED! - that any meat could be used, if you didn't happen to have a moose handy. I ask you.

I don't know why we like to invent our own up here. Maybe it's because we don't have "normal" stuff that people in the lower 48 take for granted, or we only have it for a short time. Maybe it's because we have a lot of stuff that's normal for us, but is pretty unusual for people Outside, so Betty Crocker had no idea how to tell you to cook it. (First, take one pound of canned beaver, half a cup of dried lowbush cranberries, and 20 to 30 fresh fiddlehead ferns...) Maybe it's because we get snowed in and have to invent something out of whatever is in the pantry, which might be a can of smoked salmon, some pickled green beans, and - and KEFIR. Yeah. That's the ticket. Maybe it's because while our growing season is short, it's violent. Just today Dr. P brought in about 11 enormous squash which are "extras" (as in, they can no longer think of new things to do with squash, or else have run out of freezer space). I expect that sooner or later he'll be bringing in some "extra" cabbages, most of which will weigh in excess of 20# (that is, if the moose didn't eat them again this year). In years where I feel like gardening, I can grow enough sweet basil to make pesto literally by the pound, and still have enough to chop up into salads, layer on sandwiches or fresh sliced tomatoes, dry for later use, and freeze in olive oil for future use in soups and sauces. And that's not counting the live plants I gave away, or sprigs I bring to work and pass around.

Right now I'm having lurking thoughts about making stuffed yellow squash tomorrow for dinner - since I DO have a pound and a half of moose burger in the freezer, and thanks to Dr. P I have a yellow squash big enough that I could probably use it to stun a 300# hog, if I were to tap it smartly over the head with it. I have some home-grown rosemary and thyme and sweet basil, and I might even have dried apricots and Craisins, and some pine nuts and Parmesan cheese.... and I DEFINITELY have some kefir.


MaskedMan said...

So... This Kefir thing. You say you like it? And it's good?

I'm right there with you on the recipe, or lack thereof. Fortunately, I married a woman whom is every bit as food-instructiosn challenged as I am. Maybe that means we should be moving north..?

Holly said...

*giggle* the kefir is getting to you!

"I expect that sooner or later he'll be bringing in some "extra" cabbages, most of which will weigh in excess of 20# (that is, if the moose didn't eat them again this year)."

ooooo, can you imagine the nuclear explosions from a moose that ate too much giantic cabbage???!!!

AKDD said...

MM, I remember some of the things your wife invented to eat. You're a lucky man. As for moving north... there's plenty of space up here, and you'd like the weather, but I'm not sure about the rest of your family!

Holly, I don't think the moose are so bad with cabbage - after all, they have a rumen to deal with such things, and they know how to eructate (which means to burp softly through the nose, so as not to appear boorish... or attract predators). What would really be bad are when the bears eat all your cabbages. Bears are monogastrics, just like us, so.....! But, hey - at least you'd be able to hear them coming so you could get out of the way. It would be like a bear-safety device.

MaskedMan said...

Ah-ha! Bait the town's outer perimeter with monster cabbages! Br'er Bear will never raid another trashcan again! Or, if he tries, we'll hear him a'comin'!

Mind you, this might have an adverse impact on Br'er's social life, which may make him a touch on the testy side. Especially when Br'er Moose starts looking down his long nose at Br'er Bear and his uncouth ways...

In a possibly related question:
Does monster cabbage make for monster Kimchee? And how does one defend oneself against monster kimchee? Should I call Br'er Moose to take a hand?

On a slightly more serious note... Unfortunately, my wife, having grown up in the midwest, has quite had it with snow, ice, and cold; It'd be a hard sell. But, then again, I *did* convince her to let not one, but TWO dogs into the house... I might manage to pull that off, too. ;)

Holly said...

Silly MaskedMan and AKDD!

Dragon43 said...

Cabbage is good... Yay !!!
Squash is Devil food... Boo Hiss.
Being an alcoholic in recovery, I'll have to pass on the fermented k-basil or whatever but all the other outlandish stuff you all have up there might be fun.... ;)

Della said...

After thinking for years that I would Never Ever like cooking again, I recently found out that I was wrong. I am constantly thinking of how I could have made something better also. Can't leave well enough alone, if it could be even better... lol

What is Kefir? I realize you defined it rather well... but I'm still clueless.

AKDD said...

Dragon: Me = devil, since I LOVE squash of all descriptions, most especially pumpkin, pretty much any way you care to make it. I'm with you on the cabbage, though (again, pretty much any way you care to make it). And much respect for your stand on alcohol; the kefir is pretty low - 2% maybe - but still: stick to your guns. Not worth it to try out of curiosity.

Della, kefir is a fermented milk product (well, usually it's made from milk). I think it was originally from the Caucasus region, which includes (I think) parts of the Russian Federation states, Georgia, Ajerbaijan, Turky, Armenia and Iran. Maybe some others I don't know. The fermenters are a variety of yeasts and bacteria which can act on other sugars besides milk sugars. They're not high alcohol producers - at least, not in milk. (I'm going to try some in apple juice, though, and see what happens). They do alter the lactose so that the lactose intolerant can usually tolerate it, though I'm not sure about those allergic to milk poteins; they might not change enough to become non-allergenic. The microbes produce a variety of metabolites which are beneficial to humans. There are some animal models which do show that the kefir microbes are capable of colonizing the GI tract and can out-compete pathogenic strains; whether this is true in humans I can't say for sure, but in some of the animal models, the kefir-fed animals (typically mice) show greater resistance to a challenge from pathogenic microbes than the control groups. Mind you, I have not read these studies personally, but the refernce cited was (IIRC) the Journal of Immunobiology, which I BELIEVE is a peer-reviewed journal like JAVMA (the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association) and JAMA (the human AMA version.) However... you must take this with a grain of salt - or maybe a grain of kefir - since I have not read the studies personally.

a.s. said...

For those of you looking for available kefir grains in your neighborhood, visit the international kefir list:

Texan said...

Where does someone who does not have a friend to get their Keifer start from... get the Keifer grains?

This sounds like something that would be fun to try...

Hey if you get the giant cabbages you can make the KeiferKraut LOL

Texan said...

oh I see someone has posted a comment on where to get Keifer grains... duh sorry didn't see that before I asked...