Lightning in a Bottle: Easy Summer Ferments


We came home yesterday from a restorative trip to the cottage of some dear friends, and went straight to dinner – our first dinner out since March – on the patio of a favourite Toronto restaurant, Actinolite.

Actinolite specializes in local, natural, seasonal food and quirky, interesting wines. The chef, Justin Cournoyer, has a strong program of preservation and fermentation during the summer and fall, and the resulting ingredients make welcome appearances in his dishes year-round.

Despite moving from a tasting menu to a less formal, more wallet- and patio-friendly dining concept in response to the pandemic, the dishes still have that spark of “what the heck did he put in there?” that speaks to careful use of fermented liquids, unusual herbs, local flowers and other goodies.

One of our favourite dishes this time around was a tomato salad with red currants, lemon thyme, flowers, and a deeply savoury-salty-sour vinaigrette that Justin urged us to drink once we were finished. He didn’t need to remind us! We were alllll over it.

Back home today, a bowl of overripe cherry tomatoes and the memory of that salad inspired me to rifle through my library of fermentation recipes. I put two recipes together this morning in anticipation of the first tomatoes from our garden, which should be ready just as these ferments are ripe. That’ll take about two weeks, but the recipes themselves took a grand total of 15 minutes to assemble. That’s low-effort, high-reward kitchen craft, my friends!

First up was a lacto-fermented tomato water. This takes the usual lacto base formula of 100% veggies and 2% salt. We had about 400g of overripe cherry tomatoes, so that called for about 8g of uniodized sea salt.

I halved the tomatoes and layered them with salt in a clean mason jar. A small square of parchment, a round glass pickle pebble weight, a couple of firm taps with a pickle packer, and a fermentation airlock on top, and that was that. In about 5 days, the resulting tomato water will be tart and complex, and I’ll drain it off and store it in the fridge.

The second recipe comes from one of my all-time favourite mind-blowing cookbooks: Bar Tartine: Techniques and Recipes, by Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns. This is an absolute treasure trove. If you took a wizard specializing in alchemy and gave him only foods available in 18thC Hungary, you might end up with such a book. It’s full of unexpected ferments, powders, sprouted grains, oils, syrups, and the like, and finished recipes that use them to great effect. And for all that, it manages to be earthy and soulful rather than gimmicky and technical. So good.

The hardly-a-recipe I chose today is fermented honey. Normally, honey has slightly too high a sugar-water ratio to ferment… that’s why it’s shelf-stable. But throw that slightly out of whack with a bit more H2O, and you’ll end up with a slightly tangy, runny super-honey with an undertone of fermented complexity.

Take a quantity of good, unpasteurized honey. Stir in 10% of its weight of filtered water (the chlorine in unfiltered water could frustrate your microbes). I had 500g of honey, so I used 50g (i.e., 50ml) of filtered water. Cover it tightly with closely-woven cheesecloth or a coffee filter, and set it aside in a not-too-hot-or-bright place for a couple of weeks, and you’re done.

Stay tuned. These recipes may or may not come together in a vinaigrette for our home-grown tomatoes. I may decide to use Japanese plum vinegar and fresh tomato water. Maybe red currant juice will find a role, as it did in the Actinolite version. In any event, these easy fermented ingredients will get used quickly in one way or another.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Julia says:

    It sounds like you are having fun in the kitchen. I think I could borrow Bruce’s beer fermentation lock for fermenting tomatoes!

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