Chestnuts Fermenting In An Open Jar

Originally—back when I gathered these chestnuts in October—this was going to be the sort of spot-on, autumnal af post that you’ve come to expect from this establishment. But the thing about fermentation is that it proceeds at its own pace. We can goose it by raising the ambient temperature (within reason) but any food that relies on the metabolic processes of a complex microbial ecosystem AND concurrent enzymatic chemical reactions is going to need some time to achieve the magical flavors we expect it to deliver. This is more true of miso than just about anything else.

Now if you keep your salinity around six percent and use equal weights of koji and legume, you’re making what’s known as a sweet (shiro) miso, one that will be ready in four to eight weeks. Note that most traditional miso taxonomy assumes you’re using soybeans, often with some rice or barley (which was inoculated with koji), so when you voyage out into the improvosphere with your substrates Japanese terminology may not serve you especially well. The blend I want to talk about today was 50/50 chestnuts and brown rice koji (organic, ordered in one-pound bags from an outfit in Vermont).

I simmered the chestnuts until tender, then used the cooking liquid (cooled to room temp) to hydrate the koji until plump and soft. Then I blitzed it all hard to make a thick, smooth purée and spatulated the paste into a big (gallon) jar, taking care not to leave any air pockets. Finally, I poured a thin layer of inexpensive sake on top, loosely lidded the jar, and sat it on a basement shelf to bubble. I came up with the sake method to impede mold growth on the surface for these shorter-term ferments. The longer types require a year or so and need to be weighted down so they stay submerged under whatever liquid they throw off (tamari was originally a byproduct of miso-making) but these quick ones do just fine with a little sake on top; the liquid keeps the paste under cover, the alcohol keeps mold at bay, and sake is made with koji so the flavor profile doesn’t interfere with the result in any noticeable way.

The thing about having all of these various jars of pickles, preserves, and ferments filling the shelves in the basement is that I walk by them regularly as I grab one of their number or fetch something out of the chest freezer for dinner. They are very much in sight, in mind, and as a result occasionally I connect some dots or make an association that otherwise might have eluded my imagination. Besides the various misos, and I’m not done posting about them, this year’s bumper crop of peaches resulted in many jars of peach jam, canned peaches, and peach syrup all lined up there in plain view next to the assorted tomato products. The chestnut miso, apart from its salty, sour miso-ness, still retained some of the richly earthy sweetness we love in a good chestnut. That sweetness seemed like it would mate enthusiastically with peaches, and there they sat on adjacent shelves while my miso-cured bacon sat a-curing nearby, and bacon likes sweet and fruit, so…

I steamed some parsnips, then blended them smooth with chestnut miso and a spoonful of the salted peach paste I made in the summer (like umeboshi paste, but with peaches instead of plums). I made a smooth purée with some of the peach chutney I developed years ago, and which I made a lot of this year because the prodigious fruit broke two branches off one of our trees and I needed to use up a whole bunch of unripe peaches quickly. It features habañeros, lemon basil, onion, maple syrup, and cider vinegar along with the fruit. It’s good, and about as close to a vividly tropical condiment as I can make with local produce. I sliced the bacon into transverse squares, which I tend to prefer over long strips, and browned them pretty hard, reserving the fat in my trusty fat jar.

And that was it: belly, parsnips, purée, and half a canned peach for emphasis. The miso played beautifully with the parsnips, which also have a delicate, earthy sweetness, and the various peach preparations cast various flattering shades of light—salty, spicy, sour, herbal, funky—on that magnificent flavor. And the bacon, while cured in regular old store-bought miso (the shame, the shame) nonetheless picks up an irresistibly umami-rich tang from that cure which makes it pair especially well with other lacto- and koji-fermented things.

I love eating this way. The practice of making various ferments is its own reward, especially since II have a particular connection to the ingredients; I grew the peaches and parsnips and butchered the pig and collected the nuts from a friend’s property. I know their stories. Gathering the chestnuts gave me a reason to spend an hour outside on a perfect fall day, working on my two-foot shelling technique, and then to take some pictures of them in and out of their extremely sharp outer armor (thus the need for deft footwork to bust them open). And most of all, I enjoy that moment when I walk by the shelf of jars for the fifty-ninth time and suddenly see exactly what these products—some classic, some invented through a mix of inspiration and the exigencies of the harvest—want to become for dinner that evening.

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