A few months after I started living in a small Russian city as an impressionable university student on study abroad, it was getting late in the year and the crunchy cucumbers and luscious tomatoes of late summer had disappeared. All that seemed to be left for the eating were mushrooms, apples and potatoes. I was interested in that familiar veggie crunch and it really wasn’t anywhere to be found. That was until my host mother brought out a giant glass jug-like vessel filled with fermented cabbage, onion and carrots. It was incredible. Slightly salty, but the closest thing I could get to a fresh vegetable. She explained that it had been salted and packed and to my American ears it was shocking to hear that food could be preserved with salt alone.
I ended up eating that cabbage concoction for nearly every meal for the remainder of the year and have not had anything quite like it outside of Russia. So last week with two medium head of cabbage in our CSA, it occurred to me that it might be time to attempt my Russian delight at home. I looked around online to see if there was anything available that might offer some guidance for my quest. I found several different recipes and instructions–some with various spices, some that claimed to be the Uzbek version of this mixture that included whole peppercorns and bay leaves, some that had currants, some without. So, I took the common aspects of all of these and attempted my own.
I started by chopping two medium head of cabbage into ribbons. I pulled off the top leaves if they had gone bad and cut out the core. At the same time I chopped up an onion (also from the CSA) and put a few carrots (from the local farmers’ market) through the shredding plate on the ol’ cuisinart. Setting the carrots and onions aside, I laid out the cabbage ribbons on a large cutting board and sprinkled on some salt.
The recipes I read all suggested that about 3 Tbs of salt was appropriate for 5-6 cups of cabbage, so I used approximately that much. The most important thing is having enough salt to make the cabbage “sweat.” That is, produce moisture. After I sprinkled the salt, I started working it into the cabbage like I was kneading it. After a few minutes, the cabbage started sweating as the salt was beginning to extract the water from the cabbage.
After the salt was thoroughly worked through the cabbage, I put it into a large pot with the
carrots and onions mixing everything up with my hands. Then, I pushed everything down as hard as I could to pack it as tightly as possible. One is supposed to weight down their mixture when it is ready to be set aside for fermentation. I used a dinner plate and a bottle of wine then I covered the whole thing with a thin wash towel so to let it breathe.
After about three or four days it was good to go! It does well in a cool place, but it’s more important to keep in a room where the temp is consistent. I put it in our utility room because the sulfuric scent the cabbage gives off is less noticeable among the piles of dirty laundry.
There really isn’t a science to this so much as a sense of intuition. It’s cabbage soaked in brine, after all, not a souffle so the need for precision is not particularly great. I just checked it once a day, poked a few holes in it to make sure that the
bubbles had a place to escape and tasted it starting on day three to see if it was ready. I decided that the flavor was right on day four and then pulled it out, packed it into jars and they are currently in my fridge and will be moved to our root cellar* when the temps drop below the 100s next week.
The nice thing about this little salatik is that the carrots sweeten the pot a bit so it’s not just full on cabbage and brine sour in your face. Also, the veggies keep their crunch which is great in my opinion. It makes this dish especially appealing in the winter and it pairs well with potatoes or roasted beets. I imagine that it would be good to include some dill, or some recipes had red currants in it, which is a common variation and something I’d like to try but I don’t have my hands on any currants at present. Maybe some will turn up at the farmers’ market?
I would say that this run was successful and I look forward to making it in small batches and
storing it as the summer and fall wear on. I fully expect that we will continue to get cabbage in our CSA and I will continue to want to preserve it in some way for later in the year when local produce is scarce.
So that’s that. I’ll probably be making this again soon and if I learn anything new in future iterations I will post it. In the mean time, I’m gearing up for a mega dose of veggies in our CSA this week and I’m trying to figure out the best ways to prepare and preserve everything we’re getting!
*We live in a split level and late last summer Cam realized that we have a low crawl space under the main level of the house that can be accessed through the basement. It’s an underground magicland where canned goods, onions and potatoes can be stored until they are ready for use.