A sort of vinegary slaw, curtido is easy to make--just combine cabbage, onion, carrot strands, oregano, vinegar, salt, perhaps some chile and you have a quick version.
However, there's another style of curtido that you won't find in a Salvadoran restaurant or in a busy household. It's naturally fermented and requires no vinegar, because it forms its own tangy juices as it stands. Vinegar is a quick fix so that curtido can be eaten right away. Natural fermentation takes days.
How to get natural curtido? Make it yourself. A container is on my kitchen counter right now, thanks to a class in fermentation at Melissa's Produce.
The hands-on session was taught by Ernest Miller (above), master preserver, co-leader of Slow Food L.A., educator and chef. In front of him are sauerkraut-pickled deviled eggs and muffaletta with fermented giardiniera, showing how handy fermented ingredients can be.
Fermentation is easy. I had expected something complicated, like canning. But there's no fussing with sterilizing jars and boiling them in a water bath. You don't even have to sterilize the container you use, just wash it well in soapy water.
For the little work involved, you get a load of benefits, such as vitamins and natural probiotics. "Fermented food is actually more nutritious than raw," Miller said. It's safer too, because proper fermentation kills bad bacteria. "And It just darn tastes good."
After cutting up the vegetables, we sprinkled them with salt to extract the juices. Then we packed the vegetables in jars and added brine to cover. This is where you have to be accurate. The salt and water must be pure, with no additives. The amount of salt is critical. And the brine has to be prepared according to an exact formula.
You do need the proper equipment, like Miller's airlock lacto-fermentation kit, which you can get through his company, Rancho La Merced Provisions, and from some stores. The airlock that you see on top of the jars lets out gasses and prevents oxygen from getting in and spoiling the contents.
Here is my curtido, before the brine was added. It won't be ready for more than a week. But it looks so nice on the kitchen counter that I'd like to leave it as a decoration, except I have to move on--to kimchi.
There's no point in giving Miller's curtido recipe here, because to make it successfully, you have to have the correct equipment and follow instructions. Toss the ingredients together in a bowl or jar, add some brine and let it stand and you won't have curtido. You'll have a mess.