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.