Uri Laio, proprietor of Brassica and Brine, which calls itself a micro-craft food business, stands at the front of a small crowd gathered to learn from this master artisan how to make kvass, or fermented beet juice. The event, organized by a new eco-kosher buying club called Common Ground, is taking place in the club’s cleared storeroom, where some members also daven on Friday nights. Laio wears a full beard and a workman’s cap. Tzitzit hang from beneath his neat, blue shirt. He seems at ease in front of the crowd. He suggests that making beet kvass is a traditional part of Passover preparation, because the probiotics in it were known to our ancestors to help them survive the “festival of indigestion.”
In 2008, Laio took part in a environmental leadership program on the Isabella Freedman Center’s Adamah Farm in Connecticut. The farm had just begun to pickle its fresh produce: cucumbers, beets and cabbage. Laio said he “fell in love with the taste of real fermented sauerkraut.” He was fascinated by the alchemical process and the nutrient dense products and eventually left law school to pursue what he came to see as his “avodah,” the Hebrew word that includes service, worship and simple work, “by supporting local farms and organic farming practices and creating food which heals people.”
He begins his talk by passing around three different samples of homemade kvass. The recipe is simple: coarsely chopped beets, water, a little salt if you like, and time. The beets have to be organic, because pesticides can kill the bacteria that creates the fermentation. The water must be unchlorinated for the same reason. Laio uses unrefined Celtic sea salt for its micro-nutrients but any uniodized salt will do. It goes into a clean glass jar, no sterilizing needed; you put a lid on it and wait. The time, somewhere between two and four weeks, is up to the taste of the maker.
The audience sips dark red liquid from little plastic cups. The first sample is too salty. The second sample is too simple. The third one tastes just right: sour and pleasantly salty with just a little deep, dark earthiness. Good and good for you.
Kvass, Russian for “leaven,” might seem like a strange topic for Pesach preparation, but the hametz we rid ourselves of for this holiday refers to fermented grain — the product that results from the meeting of water, sugar and hungry yeast. The dark, syrupy drink called kvass in Ukraine, made from fermented rye bread, is not at all pesachdik, but homemade beet kvass is vegan, parve and kosher.
As Laio explains, almost everything ferments. The process at work on the beets, the rye bread, the yogurt we eat for breakfast and Brassica and Brine’s popular kombucha, sauerkraut and kimchi products, is lacto-fermentation. The bacteria on the surface of the beet are called lactobacilli. As it digests available sugars, it creates lactic acid. This lactic acid, along with the salt, is what keeps these foods from putrefying. There is some evidence that humans were preparing foods this way before we discovered cooking.
When people inevitably ask about the safety of fermented foods, Laio quotes U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist Fred Breidt, who says properly fermented vegetables are actually safer than raw vegetables, which might have been exposed to pathogens like E. coli on the farm. “Depend on your senses,” Laio advises. “It should smell delicious. If it smells bad, it probably is.”
Like all interesting projects, making kvass allows for experimentation. Cooks in the crowd suggest adding ginger or lemon. When fermentation is done, the beets can be eaten — they will be sour — or they can be used for a second batch of kvass.
The kvass can be taken as a probiotic, used in salad dressing or made into tasty borscht, although heating it will kill the friendly bacteria. A woman in the audience recommends the Russian practice of putting a hot boiled potato into unheated borscht to solve this problem.
Taste, nutrients and impact on the planet are all important to Laio: “[P]art of my avodah as a Jew is making the world a better place,” he says. These concerns led him to join with about a dozen other knowledgeable, passionate, food-as-medicine adherents in the creation of the Common Ground buying club. Their guidelines are: always kosher, always organic, limited ingredients — preferably local, small manufacturers, packaged in glass, and from those who choose sustainable sources for their ingredients.
At the end of the presentation, energized people crowd around a table in the back to buy kosher kimchi and sauerkraut from Brassica and Brine. The company logo reminds buyers that these are “nutrient dense, living foods.” Every glass of kvass or serving of kraut, kimchi or kombucha literally contains life. L’chaim.
Uri Laio’s Beet Kvass
Quart-sized glass jars are available for about $1 at stores like Smart and Final or Ace Hardware.
1-2 medium-sized organic beets (peeled if you prefer)1 teaspoon sea salt (optional)filtered water
Cut beets into 1/2-inch cubes. Put the beets and the salt in to the jar. They should take up about half the jar. Add water to about 1/2 inch from the top of the jar. Shake to distribute and dissolve the salt. Cover with the lid and let sit for 3 to 4 weeks at room temperature, then transfer to refrigeration. The longer the beets are left to ferment, the more sour and piquant the kvass will taste.
Makes 1 quart.