Lacto-Fermented Pickled Chard Stems (gluten-free, vegan, raw, ACD, vinegar-free)

I've been curious about vinegar-free pickled chard stems for quite some time.  I saw a recipe while perusing books down at the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, and thought it sounded like the most brilliant idea. I think the recipes was in the book Preserving Foods without Canning or Freezing, a wonderful collection of wisdom from the gardens and farmers of Terre Vivant in France. This book has been on my wishlist for ages (hint, hint), but I just haven't gotten around to purchasing it.  

Despite my lack of a recipe for these phantom chard stem pickles, I couldn't shake the idea, and knew I'd have to try it out someday. I generally incorporate chard stems into whatever dish I'm making with our trusty leafy friend. Waste not, want not, right?  Then the other day I made an experimental batch of collard, kale, mustard and chard greens sauerkraut with homegrown produce from my garden, and ended up with a ton of leftover chard stems. Finally, fodder for pickles!

filling the jar...

I looked up a few recipes online, but most of them used vinegar and weren't actually fermented. Since I prefer happy bacteria in my pickles rather than loads of vinegar, I decided to freewheel a recipe.  They turned out beautifully; a full rainbow of color, a complex flavor, and a lovely crunch. I made a great brine using sea salt, a bit of evaporated palm sugar, and a mix of spices. A sucker for spices, I used a mix of bay leaf, fennel, juniper berries, allspice, mustard, and coriander; the combination lends a wonderful flavor that transforms as you chew. You get hit first with allspice, then coriander and juniper, and it finishes with fennel.  Awesome.

While the sugar isn't necessary for the pickles to do their thing, it provides just a hint of sweetness and some sugars for those happy little bacteria to eat.  Since the bacteria feed on the sugar, very little sugar content remains in the finished pickle. Palm sugar is a very low glycemic sweetener, with only 9 grams of sugar per tablespoon, so it is already a pretty harmless source of sugar for those of us who are sensitive. Hooray!

For best results, I recommend using very fresh chard stems that are nice and crispy.  Farmers markets should be chock full of chard right now, so if you aren't growing your own, head out and support your local growers. This recipe really couldn't be simpler, and costs very little to make.  But the best part is that they are really great for you! Fermented food is full of beneficial lactobacilli bacteria, which helps strengthen your immune system, regulate digestion, and aid in detoxification.  It is a great source of beneficial probiotics, especially if you can't eat things like yogurt due to lactose intolerance or a dairy allergy.  Serve these pickles alongside wraps or sandwiches, chop them up to make relishes or to use in salads, or sneak one all on its own for a little salty snack. A few of these would be killer with some Tuscan Chicken Liver Paté.  

If you've never fermented food before, check out this post for some helpful tips and tricks before you start. It is just basic stuff, but makes a difference.  Go forth and ferment! Embrace bacteria and make some awesome food. Like they say, “Support bacteria - they're the only culture some people have.”


Pickled Chard Stems

yield 1 quart

This is a recipe in progress - I think the addition of slightly more palm sugar along with addition spices like cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, or star anise would really make it pop. However, it was really delicious as I made it. Feel free to follow my recipe to the letter, or make changes as you see fit. Enjoy!

stems from 2-3 big bunches of chard (it depends on the size of your stems)

1 1/2-2 cups water

1 1/2 Tbsp unrefined sea salt 

2 Tbsp evaporated palm sugar, or other natural sweetener like date sugar, maple sugar, or coconut sugar (or more, for a sweeter pickle)

1 bay leaf

1/2 tsp fennel seed

1/2 tsp coriander seed

5 juniper berries

1 tsp yellow mustard seeds

optional: cardamom seed, star anise, stick cinnamon, and/or sliced fresh ginger 

1 1-quart glass canning jar

Clean jar well with hot soapy water, or better yet, sterilize with boiling water.  Set aside.

Strip leaves from chard stems (wrap up leaves and save for other meals).  Wash stems well and pick off any remaining bits of leaf.  Trim off the bottom and the skinny little tips, then slice chard stems to 3-4" lengths, or just slightly shorter than the height of your jar.  Place spices and bay leaf at the bottom of the jar, then pack in cut stems firmly, leaving about 1" of free space at the top of the jar.  Dissolve salt and sugar in 1 1/2 cups of water, and pour over stems, adding additional water as necessary to cover, still leaving about 1" of free space at the top. Cover tightly, place on a dish to catch any drips, and let sit at room temperature out of direct sunlight for 3-4 days.  

Open jar after 3-4 days and try a stem.  It should tasty salty, sweet, sour, and "pickled". If it isn't sour enough to your liking, place over back on and ferment another day or two.  Once pickles are done, place in refrigerator and store there for up to 6 months. Always use a clean, non-metal utensil to retrieve pickles from jar in order to keep it uncontaminated. Flavor will get better with age.  

After pickles are gone, leftover brine can be used to make flavorful sauces, salad dressings, and marinades, or added to other batches of cultured vegetables.