• Sally Miller, B. S., N. E.

Celebrating cultures this St. Patrick's Day

Mock corned beef on a bed of fermented kraut

Month to month we await the next celebration of good food and drink. We enjoy something to celebrate, especially if it involves food that helps us remember special times in our lives.

As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, I have memories of my mother dying her hair green along with the green beer that was part of our Pittsburgh family celebration. Corned beef and cabbage was part of the festivities.

I have Polish and Irish ancestry. I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in the Bloomfield area of Pittsburgh. We celebrated every ethnic tradition.

I have never allowed my plant-based food choice to interfere with a celebration that included fond memories of food and tradition. I use the traditional foods and colors of the festivities as an inspiration to create a healthy, plant-based meal. In this case, mock corned beef and cabbage.

The two foods I want to highlight this month are both fermented foods; tempeh and traditional sauerkraut. Fermented foods are amazing and some of the healthiest foods you can consume for you digestive system and your body. Another term for this type of food preparation is “cultured”.

Tempeh originated in Indonesia and is a plant-based, high protein food source. Because the whole soybean is utilized to make tempeh, there are more fiber, and micronutrients than standard tofu.

The process of making tempeh is actually quite interesting. Whole soybeans are first soaked in water, de-hulled, and partially cooked to soften. The soft beans may then be mixed with whole grains and seeds such as brown rice and flax seed and a starter culture (spores of fungus).

The mixture is then spread out into a thin layer to ferment at 86 degrees for 24-36 hours. Because tempeh is fermented, the carbohydrates that may cause abdominal bloating and gas are easier to digest.

Tempeh has a chewy texture and a somewhat earthy taste. I love it soaked in a sweet/salty marinade, or in this case a spicy brine and pan fried to make a mock corned beef for my sauerkraut.

Sauerkraut is the other fermented food for this article. Traditional sauerkraut is thinly sliced or shredded green cabbage mixed with salt and left to ferment at room temperature for several days/weeks.

Sauerkraut is naturally sour in taste from the lactic acid produced during the fermentation process. Lactic acid is a helpful bacteria that ferments the sugar in the cabbage creating the sauerkraut. This form of fermentation is raw, which preserves and increases the bio-availability of vitamins and minerals in the cabbage and creates live active cultures of probiotics, specifically lactobacilli, in the final sauerkraut.

According to an article titled "Kvass and Kombucha: Gifts from Russia" on a website of The Weston Price Foundation, which disseminates the research of its nutrition pioneer and namesake, “Beyond just the culinary choices and preservation advantages of fermented foods, is the natural process of fermentation that is performed by the cells within our bodies that helps to keep us healthy. There is basic science behind this and historically, fermented foods have played an important role in the diets of most every culture throughout the world."

You are enjoying some of the more common fermented foods from around the world when you eat the following cuisine:

  • Yogurt, grape leaves and kefir from the Mediterranean

  • Kimchee, pickled ginger, tempeh, natto, tamari, Kombucha and miso from Asia

  • Chutney, dahi and pickle from India

  • Kvass made from stale rye bread or beets from Russia

  • Yogurt originated in Turkey, but can be found in many cultures

Unfortunately, the foods that were formerly naturally fermented in the United States are now pasteurized, so they don’t contain the healthful bacteria that can help your gut. Pickles and relish found at the grocery stores today are not the same products that our ancestors made. Most pickling is done with vinegar to gain predictable results. There is no lactic acid in these products. Choose brands that are “raw” or contains “live cultures” on the labels.

Include cultured foods every day. Cultured foods are natural sources of beneficial bacteria. Every world culture has its “culture” – that is, some food that it ferments (or cultures) to help maintain good health. Before refrigeration, fermentation was a very important way to store food safely.

Allowing foods to ferment, or sour, is a natural way to preserve food for extended periods of time. Adding salt, lemon juice, whey, vinegar or probiotic capsule powder creates an environment that encourages many healthful bacteria (such as lactobacillus) to make lactic acid, which prevents harmful microorganisms from growing.

In “Wild Fermentation”, a book I highly recommend, Sandra Ellix Katz writes, “Eating fermented or cultured foods promotes the growth of healthful bacteria in our intestines. Letting healthful bacteria break down foods for us makes digestion easier, increases the nutritional value of food, allows the food to keep longer and often improves the flavor”.

Various strains of these bacteria are present on the surface of all plants, especially those growing close to the ground, and are also common to our gastrointestinal tract.

Lacto-fermentation does not necessarily have to involve dairy products. Lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria.

Lacto-fermented foods are considered probiotic in nature. (Probiotic means “for life”, Antibiotic means “against life” and destroys all the bacteria in your intestinal tract, both good and bad). Lacto-fermented foods will continue to ferment during storage.

These recipes provide two simple methods to use fermented foods. There are many tricks for success in trying other recipes. Visit http://www.culturesforhealth.com for more extensive information.

The best way to be sure that you are getting those wonderful bacteria gems is to make your own!


Fermented Raw Sauerkraut

No culture is needed. The salt will make its own bacteria when combined with the cabbage and submerged in water. The good bacteria will become dominant.

Yield: 4 + cups

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes + 5-7 days fermentation time

You will also need a wide mouth canning jar or fermentation container of choice, cheesecloth and paper coffee filters, potato masher or pounding device. (Optional air-lock fermentation lid)


1 head of cabbage

1 carrot

2 tablespoons Celtic Sea Salt or Pink Himalayan Sea Salt

Optional: other vegetables, chopped, 2 teaspoons caraway or fennel seeds


Discard the outer leaves of the cabbage and the core.

Shred the cabbage and vegetables to desired length (by hand or with a food processor)

Add shredded cabbage and carrots into a clean mixing bowl. Mix in the salt a little at a time, squeezing mixture and working in the salt as you go. The salt pulls the water from the cabbage creating a brine in which the cabbage can ferment and sour without rotting. The salt also keeps the cabbage crunchy. Other veggies or herbs and spices (or chopped apple) can be added, if you wish.

Use a gallon glass or ceramic jar that can be securely sealed. Pack the cabbage into the jar. Pack a bit into the jar at a time and tamp it down with something clean and sturdy. I use a potato masher. The tamping packs the kraut tight and helps force water out of the cabbage.

Cover the cabbage with a few saved outer cabbage leaves. If you have something weighted (that can be cleaned) that will sit inside the opening of the jar, on top of the cabbage leaves, place that in the jar. (I used another small canning jar filled with water).

Press down on the weight to add pressure to the cabbage and help force more water out. Continue doing this occasionally for a few hours until the brine rises over the cabbage. This can take up to 24 hours. If the brine does not rise above the cabbage the next day, add enough salt water to bring the brine above the cabbage. (1 tablespoon of salt to 1 cup of water). Always leave 2-3 inches of headspace for the cabbage to bubble and expand as it ferments.

Seal the container and let it sit (out of direct sunlight) for 5-7 days. (I cover with a piece of cheesecloth with a rubber band over the opening and finish with the coffee filter and jar lid.

Check every day to make sure it is fully submerged in water. If it has risen above the water, push kraut down below the water. (opening the jar once daily will not hurt the fermentation process).

After 5-7 days, transfer to refrigerator. The Sauerkraut can be stored in a covered airtight glass or ceramic container in the refrigerator for up to one year.

Note: Once complete, plate about ½ cup per person for this dish with the “Mock” Corned Beef, potatoes and carrots. Do not heat this cabbage. Heat will destroy the good bacteria and the enzymes.

If you are unable to make your own Kraut, find a good fermented Kraut like Bubbles or Wildbrine in your grocery store or health food store.

Mock Corned Beef

Serves 4

It is going to take a few bites to taste and appreciate all of the amazing flavors in this dish, and once you do, you will feel like you are celebrating St. Patrick! Add some roasted carrots and potatoes and a green beer!


Mock Corned Beef

8 ounce tempeh, sliced thin

2 tablespoons beet juice


3 whole cardamom pods

1 teaspoon whole allspice berries

1 teaspoon whole cloves

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

6 cups water

2 bay leaves

1 cinnamon stick

¼ cup coarse sea salt

¼ cup coconut sugar

1 teaspoon ground mustard

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon caraway seeds


Prepare the brine by toasting the cardamom, allspice, cloves and peppercorns in a dry pan over medium heat until fragrant. Toss often, and take care to not burn them. This should take a little less than 1 minute.

Pour the water into a stockpot and add the toasted spices, along with the remaining brine ingredients.

Simmer for 3-4 hours.

When the brine is done, place the sliced tempeh in a bowl and strain enough brine into the bowl to cover the tempeh. Add the beet juice. Let sit overnight in the refrigerator. (You can marinate the peeled sliced carrots and chopped potatoes the same way in a separate bowl.)

Heat a frying pan and transfer the tempeh with enough of the brine to sauté it for 5 minutes.

If you are making the potatoes and carrots, have those roasted in the brine in a 350 degree oven ahead of time. Roast for 1 hour.

Place everything on a platter or serve on individual plates placing the sauerkraut on the bottom, the potatoes and carrots on the side and the sliced tempeh on top of the sauerkraut.

Note: The beet juice makes the tempeh look like corned beef. It can be omitted if you prefer. This recipe makes more brine than you may need. You can strain and freeze the left overs.

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