Lacto-Fermented Squash and Apples
By the time winter really sets in, I like to make sure my refrigerator is well-stocked with the memories of an abundant fall harvest: Jars of kraut, pickles, and kombucha line the door of my refrigerator. This strategy is two-fold. First, the colorful, flavorful jars keep me company and trigger pleasant memories of the days I spent harvesting or shopping for the vegetables and fruits I intended to preserve. Second, I get tired in winter — kind of bored, and unmotivated — so it makes a big difference to have prepared healthful ferments I can easily use as a condiment, chopping it up and eating it like a relish alongside a simple roasted chicken or spreading it on a sandwich made from cold cuts or canned fish.
One of my favorite ferments is a mix of squash and apples, which is a hearty and grounding combination. The gentle sweetness of the butternut squash is coaxed from its vibrantly orange flesh by the tart sweetness of the apple. The addition of onion and spices like ginger, cinnamon, black peppercorn, and clove pack a lot of dynamic flavor into the ferment. Sweet and savory is among my favorite combinations: the best of both worlds.
Why Fermenting Is Better in the Fall and Winter
The variety and abundance of warm-weather produce might make you think that summer is the ideal time to ferment. Let me assure you, it’s not. I look forward to fall all year because the conditions are ideal for fermenting. Fermentation, or slow pickling, is one of the most exciting transformations to take place in the kitchen. It is an art and science that requires time. Over days and weeks simple recipes of salt + water + vegetables and/or fruit encourage the growth of friendly microbes that turn our vegetables softly crunchy and sour-sweet.
Wait, what are microbes? When we consume fermented pickles or kraut, we are inviting those microbes to establish themselves in our gut. Our bodies are home to trillions of microbes or bacteria. Our gastrointestinal systems have their own bacterial habitat called a gut microbiota. Beneficial and harmful bacteria live within our digestive tract: the human body and “friendly” bacteria work together to our benefit.
What does a healthy microbiome do for us? A healthy gut microbiome means we are better able to fight pathogens and support healthy digestion, which can improve everything from how we absorb nutrients to how we regulate emotions. A properly made ferment discourages the growth of unfriendly microbes that would spoil and ruin our food and simultaneously encourage friendly microbes that establish a healthy gut microbiota, which plays an important role in the health of our entire bodies and minds.
My fermenting season runs from late fall to early spring during the time when the conditions and ingredients are ideal. Mold, bland, and mushy pickles and jars bubbling over — all those things that can and do go wrong with summer ferments become way less likely in the cooler season. Mold thrives in hot and humid environments, but once the weather turns cool the likelihood of mold ruining your ferment is very low. Cooler temperatures also means a longer ferment, and a longer ferment means a more dynamic flavor profile.
Fermenting in the fall and winter, when the natural world slows down, is also a personal reminder that change takes time, commitment, and attention. Just like transitioning between seasons won’t happen overnight, that habit I want to kick isn’t going to leave on its own, and working to make the world a more humane place for all people isn’t like pulling the stopper out of the drain and watching everything gross magically wash away. Some ferments I make are wildly successful; others ask me to scrap the whole thing and start again. Fermenting is a small lesson in flexibility, patience, and determination. A lesson we can practice over and over again.
This tangy condiment is great chopped and spread on your favorite sandwich.
For the brine:
- 1 (1-inch) piece
- 2 cups
heaping tablespoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon
- 1/8 teaspoon
For the ferment:
small butternut squash (about 1 pound)
small yellow onion
medium honeycrisp apple
Make the brine: Peel and thinly slice 1 (1-inch) piece ginger and place in a medium saucepan. Add 2 cups water, 1 heaping tablespoon kosher salt, 1 cinnamon stick, 3 whole cloves, 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns, and 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg. Bring to a simmer over low heat, partially cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, uncover, and let cool to room temperature, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, prepare the equipment for fermenting.
Place 1 quart-sized canning jar, it's lid, and canning rocks (if using) into a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes to sanitize the equipment. Let sit in the hot water until ready to use.
Make the ferment: Peel, halve, and scoop the seeds from 1 small butternut squash. Thinly slice crosswise into 1/8-inch thick slices, or use a mandoline for slicing. Peel , halve and slice 1 small yellow onion into 1/4-inch thick slices. Peel and cut 1 medium honeycrisp apple into 1/2-inch pieces.
Remove the jar from the hot water. Layer the squash, onion, and apple in the jar, pressing down lighty to reduce space between layers. Pour the cooled brine through a fine-mesh strainer into the jar. Use the rocks to keep the fruit and vegetables weighted down below the liquid line. (Any squash, onion, or apple exposed to the air may mold.) If you don’t have rocks, fill a small ziptop bag with water to act as a weight instead.
Seal the jar and let sit at room temperature for 3 days. Move the jar into the refrigerator where and continue to ferment for 2 to 3 weeks. I like to eat my ferments as a condiment, treating my creation like I would a relish: chopping and eating it alongside the main event at dinner or spreading it on a sandwich.