I just love preserving vegetables! Certainly, eating fresh ingredients is a must, but for me, the ability to extend an ingredients shelf life just really intrigues me. In the last 15 years or so, I have applied many techniques that have allowed me to enjoy ingredients well past their season. It was sometime in the late 90's when my best bud's grandmother taught me how to "can" tomatoes. We'd cook our sauce, heat the jars in the oven, pack em, apply a lid and let them seal themselves. For a kid who grew up eating tomato sauce several times a week, cracking open a jar of tomatoes you grew and processed yourself truly trumped anything you can find in a tin can.
As the years went by, I'd learn to smoke meats, cure fish, culture dairy, and create the funkiest ferments from dozens of vegetables. This process has helped me deepen my connection to each individual ingredient, as I learn how they react to certain applications.
Last week a friend came for a visit who was recently traveling through Japan. She brought us several goodies from her travels, most of which I couldn't identify. She handed over a large bag filled with what looked like really thick peanut butter and covered in a language I couldn't make out. "This is sake lees", she said, as I tried to figure out what I was holding in my hands. Being a totally new ingredient to me, I didn't quite know what to make of it. A few days later, I cracked open the bag to pour the contents into a glass jar. The dark paste was quite rich, salty, and very umami!
As with most new things these days, I went to the net for more details about this intriguing ingredient. Eventually, I would learn that the brown mush of sorts I had in my possession is referred to as sakekasu and is very often used for curing vegetables. To start, the lees is simply the sediment left over from winemaking, or in this case, sake production. As I continued to look around, i found that the dark paste I had was a mixture of both sake and mirin lees, which helps give it the darker color. Although most folks may consider this byproduct more worthy of the compost, some thrifty folks along the way turned it into another means of preserving food. Traditionally, a Japanese melon is pickled and preserved in the lees, which is served in a variety of ways.
In the spirit of trying new things, I decided to see what would happen to a few vegetables after being submerged in sakekasu. I grabbed a beautiful purple daikon and vibrant watermelon radish from the root cellar and got to work. Both vegetables were peeled and sliced about 1/4 inch thick.
I spread a layer of lees into a Pyrex than added a row of vegetables. Another layer of lees and repeat. I ended up with three layers of vegetables before fully covered in the lees. I placed the container down in the basement and let time do it's thing. It's not likely I will take it as long as some of the traditional recipes, but it will be fun to see how this product can be used in the future.