My senior year of college, while I was student-teaching my way into an education degree I already knew I didn’t want, I had an advisor named Heather. Heather was fantastic. She wore dark-rimmed glasses and crisp, collared shirts, and her short brunette hair was always cut neat and kept perfectly in place. Though I’d never taken one of her classes, I’d known her since the semester before, when one Saturday afternoon we’d both shown up to help a friend paint a new apartment. Moving her paintbrush against the wall like she was Mr. Miyagi in “Karate Kid,” she’d stood next to me in the living room, nodding for me to follow suit, “It’s like makeup, Shanna: blend!”
Some people who are quick to teach like this can be terribly off-putting, always demanding to be heard, but not Heather. Her brand of counsel combined with an otherwise warm and soft demeanor to make her the best kind of maternal, like a big sister who shared all her secrets. We’d have our weekly phone calls to discuss my kids and how they were taking to “Silas Marner” or what I should do about the funny boys who tried to flirt with me, and she’d have me both cracking up and taking notes while she dispensed adages like “monitor and adjust!” for handling a classroom. I loved her.
Those days are almost a decade ago now, but I’ve known a lot of other Heathers since then, people who have chartered a path in a way that makes me want to follow. There was Kelley who taught me about newspaper reporting; Liz, who showed me how to knit; my dad, who demonstrated firsthand the value in being self-employed. And when I met Tim, he’d stand next to me in the kitchen, baking cookies without a recipe or, putting cucumbers in a jar with water and salt to make pickles—the way hundreds of generations had set the example before us—and I learned what it was to lacto-ferment.
We’ve been doing a lot of lacto-fermenting in our kitchen this summer. This has been in part because of all the vegetables we’ve had on hand, in part because of a few fermentation cookbooks that have come our way. In addition to sauerkraut and pickled okra and garlic carrots, we’ve made a moist and dense chocolate carrot kefir cake, adapted from a zucchini version in “Cultured Food Life.” We’re experimenting with making our own mead as I type, the jar of it sitting at the bottom of our buffet.
Also, there was this lacto-fermented salsa, from “Real Food Fermentation.”
In my world, just as the concept of blending brush strokes came through Heather, the idea of lacto-fermenting came through Tim—but it originated far before us. Lacto-fermentation is basically just the natural process whereby the starches and sugars in vegetables and fruit convert to lactic acid through the presence of a friendly lactic-acid producing bacteria. It’s been used for centuries, since far before the advent of refrigerators and freezers came along to preserve produce shelf life. Lacto-fermented foods are tangy, delicious and loaded with probiotics, that buzzword you’ll hear us talking about when we say kefir or yogurt or kombucha.
This salsa recipe is, no question, going to be placed on regular rotation in our household, if not for the good bacteria, then for the taste. In the one or two weeks it lasted in our kitchen, we ate this salsa on sprouted corn tortillas brushed with coconut oil and toasted in the oven; piled it on top of tacos from Baja Burrito; and ate it with chips again. It’s hot enough to get your nose running but not so hot to have you crying, and in my book, that’s the mark of a winner.