First it was restaurants with house-made yogurt, salumi, sourdough breads, and lacto-fermented pickles; then home cooks began aging kimchi and sauerkraut, or keeping cheesecloth-draped jars of kombucha cozy in sunny kitchens, and devotedly nurturing their own starters.
The technique of fermentation began as a way of preserving the harvest bounty to last us through the year. Now that people are eating more in accordance with the seasons, it has seen a resurgence in popularity, going from culinary trend to a household practice.
During fermentation, naturally present microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and yeast convert sugar and starch into alcohol or acids. The process transforms grape juice into wine, cabbage into kimchi, soybeans into miso and milk into yogurt. Sources far more knowledgeable than I can offer specifics regarding the benefits of consuming fermented foods; but, in the most general of terms, the fermentation process can aid in digestion and increase the bioavailability and absorption of certain nutrients.
For those who cannot digest lactose, fermented forms are sometimes viable to them. In Tartine All Day, Elisabeth Prueitt notes her consumption of naturally leavened breads despite her gluten intolerance. Unpasteurized fermented foods also contain probiotics, or microflora (bacteria), which are beneficial to the digestive tract, immune system and overall health. Science aside, fermented foods simply taste good. They often boast a funky, soured depth, and are especially complimentary to fats and starches. Consider sauerkraut on a grilled sausage, or how soy sauce on rice offers a savouriness far more nuanced than salt ever could.
With the increased availability of fermented foods, there is the opportunity to incorporate them into our daily meals. Here, I pair a store-bought beet and red cabbage sauerkraut with brackish, lemon-soused vegetables. The combination of sauerkraut and fresh vegetables is twangy, crunchy and bright, and the ideal counterpoint to a delicate brown rice and celeriac cake. Both the celeriac and rice have a natural sweetness, amplified by confident browning. Cooked until chestnut, the celeriac tastes almost like popcorn. A tender pear offers some textural contrast. The plate makes for a quick, filling lunch that happens to be vegan and gluten-free to boot.
For those not looking for a vegan option, add a beaten egg to the celeriac and rice. The resultant cake will be firmer, making for an easier flip and heartier all around.
The recipe as written serves two. I find it easiest to wrangle a pair, as the cakes take about 10 minutes to cook each and demand a large skillet. That said, the recipe can be doubled, keeping the first two cakes warm in a low oven while the others cook.
1 small celeriac, trimmed and peeled
1/2 cup sweet brown rice (also known as “sticky brown rice” or “brown sushi rice”) cooked as per package instructions (about 1 cup cooked)
Medium-gained kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper, as needed
Olive oil, for frying
Half a fennel bulb
1 celery stalk
1 small pear, such as Comice or Forelle
1 lemon, preferably Meyer, plus wedges for serving
Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
1/2 cup prepared sauerkraut, see headnote
Nutritional yeast to garnish
Using a spiralizer, the shredding attachment on a food processor or the large holes of a box grater, shred the celeriac into a large, microwave-safe bowl. Cover and microwave for 2 minutes on high. Set aside until just cool enough to handle. Tip the celeriac onto a lint-free kitchen towel and wring out any excess moisture over the sink. Flip the squeezed strands back into their bowl. If measured, you should have about one compact cup of steamed celeriac. Fold in the brown rice, 1/2 teaspoon of medium-grained kosher salt and 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper.
Heat a large, well-seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Once hot, pour in enough oil so that the surface of the skillet is evenly coated, albeit thinly. Carefully mound half of the celeriac mixture on the hot pan. With the back of a spatula, press and flatten the mound into a rough circle, about 1/4-inch thick. If you have enough space, form a second cake beside the first, or use a second heated skillet. Fry, undisturbed, for 3 to 4 minutes, then gently start to loosen edges of the cake from the pan with a thin spatula, working around the perimeter systematically. Do not force the blade, or it invariably will tear the crust. Once the cake is freed, check for colour – if should be quite golden with chestnut brown spots. If needed, fry for one minute more, then flip. Cook the second side until similarly browned, four to five minutes more.
Slide each cake onto a serving plate.
While the cakes cook, thinly slice four of the radishes. Place the slices in a small bowl, then squeeze over the juice of half the lemon, along with a good pinch of salt. Set aside. Cut the last two radishes into quarters. Trim the fennel, reserving the fronds for later. Peel off any thick, dry outer leaves and then slice thinly. As with the radish, place fennel in its own bowl, with the juice from the second lemon half and a pinch of salt. Pick the leaves off the celery if there are any, then slice the stalk thinly on the bias. Core and slice the pear as well.
When the cakes are ready, divide the vegetables between each; fork the sauerkraut into piles, then add fans of radish and pear, a clump of fennel, then the celery and quartered radish, followed by the celery leaves and fennel fronds. Dress the vegetables with olive oil, salt and pepper. Tuck the quartered radishes and a lemon wedge onto the salad. Sprinkle with nutritional yeast and serve.
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