The Quarantine Diaries:
with Caraway and Juniper
April 6, 2020
This morning, I managed to drink coffee without having heart palpitations afterwards. In these times of unpredictable anxiety attacks and unwanted solitude, it feels like a win. I seem to be on an every-other-day kind of rotation. One day will be unmanageable. I’ll feel short of breath and unable to concentrate. I can’t read, I can’t write, I can’t answer emails. The next will feel motivational. I’ll think about how to make the best of a bad hand and tackle projects with gusto that I’d normally let linger.
The trick, I’ve found, is to have an extensive grab bag of possible activities, which at any one time might help squelch the threatening upwell of panic. The other trick is that there’s really no trick. It’s a free-for-all of emotional management.
When things get really bad, the only thing I’m capable of doing is paint by numbers. A while ago, a friend sent me a link to a company that had a 50-50 chance of being an internet scam, but which I paid anyway to transform a photo I took into a paint by numbers. It took a solid three months for my canvas to arrive, at which point I was out of the temporary apartment (I thought it would be a good post-fire activity) and busy with settling back into the old apartment. I forgot about it until Corona Quarantine, but oh man, has the mind-numbing minutiae of applying tiny little brushstrokes of paint inside itty-bitty outlined blobs saved my mind from scarpering into an apocalyptic landscape.
The other trick is that there’s really no trick. It’s a free-for-all of emotional management.
When the paint by numbers has me breathing at a relatively regular rate again, I put on my headphones and have a free-flailing dance party in the living room, keeping my fingers crossed that my neighbors aren’t currently enjoying their balcony (which has a pretty clear view through my living room windows). I mostly listen to music through headphones, because I’m that type of really annoying music listener who listens to four songs on repeat until everyone in my immediate vicinity knows all the words. My current four on-repeat-corona-dance-jams are: “Wondering” by M.O. and Chip, “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd, “Ticket” by Seeed, and “Rojo” by J Balvin. Bonus song: “Feel Me” by Selena Gomez.
Other things I’ve been doing to entertain myself include:
* Planting the balcony and otherwise getting it ready for spring, since soon it’ll be the only place I’ll be allowed to sit outside.
* Writing fiction: I’m writing again, which is very, very exciting to me. And though I can tell I’m rusty, it feels so good to want to want to again.
* Cutting all the cat claw marks out of the really nice designer carpet I bought with insurance money.
* Cleaning, excessively.
* Catching up on all the issues of The New Yorker I’m behind on. I’m so far behind, they haven’t even started mentioning corona yet.
* So many cooking projects, like yukgaejang (spicy Korean shredded beef soup) and Okinawa-style soba with pork belly and katsuobushi.
* Reading, of course. After chugging my way through The Chronicles of Narnia series for the third time, I’m finally slowing on my enthusiasm for children’s fantasy and craving grownup books. I’m now halfway through Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, and it’s A+ reading.
The other project I’ve been working on is fermenting. I’ve been collecting books on fermenting and thinking about fermenting and enjoying fermented foods for long enough that I figured it was time to start making my own. Long ago in another lifetime when I lived in Brooklyn, my favorite special treat was to splurge on some GT’s kombucha and a syrupy bread pudding from the bodega on my way home from work.
Instead of starting with kombucha, I figured I’d start with something one of the books I read about fermenting promised me was foolproof: sauerkraut. Also, Germany! This is sauerkraut’s home!
Turns out sauerkraut is blindingly easy to make, and if you consider finely chopping cabbage for about an hour soothing, also very soothing to make. You don’t need any fancy equipment. All you need is a large jar and friends who will steal rocks for you from the park to weight your kraut and keep it below the brine. (Here’s the thing: I felt guilty stealing rocks, but I didn’t feel guilty watching friends steal rocks for me. Also, this was before social distancing was a thing we were all doing, and I’m glad I had the foresight to have my crimes committed in advance.)
Sauerkraut is blindingly easy to make, and if you consider finely chopping cabbage for about an hour soothing, also very soothing to make.
In any case, if you, too, are looking for a thing to occupy your restless mind and spirit in times of global crisis, watching a ferment grow is a lovely way to ease the passage of two weeks. And as a bonus, it’s super good for your gut, too. Healthy body, healthy mind… and soon, I hope, healthy world.
Classic Sauerkraut with Caraway and Juniper
This makes about a gallon of sauerkraut. That’s a lot of sauerkraut. If, like me, you are a single person living in social isolation, that’s too much sauerkraut to eat by yourself. Maybe halve the recipe in that case.
2 heads cabbage (ca. 3 kg/6.5 lbs)
3 tbsp. salt
2 tbsp caraway seeds
1 tbsp juniper berries
Gallon glass jar or crock
Weight (like rocks stolen from your local park and washed thoroughly)
Remove the outermost leaves of the cabbages (about 4 total), rinse, and set aside to use as your cover.
NOTE: Unless you have a massive, industrial-sized bowl in your kitchen, you’ll likely need to do this in three batches. It’s all going to the same place in the end, so just roughly divide the salt, caraway, and juniper into thirds as you work through each of the batches.
Cut the cabbage into quarters and finely chop into thin ribbons, discarding the solid central stem. Place into a large bowl. Add salt, caraway, and juniper.
Massage the cabbage for 10 minutes with steady, gentle pressure until the leaves have softened. Make sure you’re working your way through the entire bowl. After about 10 minutes, the cabbage should release brine when you give it a squeeze, and there should be a small puddle of brine at the bottom of the bowl.
Pack the cabbage into a jar and repeat the above steps until you’ve processed all the cabbage.
Once all the cabbage is in the jar, press down on it to pack it tight until its covered by a layer of brine. I found the best technique was to stand on a stool (so I could get my whole weight behind me) and use my knuckles to push down repeatedly on the kraut. Tuck the reserved outer leaves of cabbage overtop of the kraut and continue pressing down until these leaves are also submerged. You don’t want any of the sauerkraut itself to be in contact with the air. Place your rocks on top of the outer cabbage leaves to keep them down.
Cover the jar with a tea towel and secure with a rubber band to keep out dust and bugs. Place the jar somewhere out of direct sunlight and let it do its thing. The warmer the temperature, the faster the ferment.
After about a week, taste the sauerkraut to check on the tang. I fermented mine for two weeks total, but what’s good for me might not be right for you. You may want to ferment it for less time – or more. Once you like the flavor, cover it with a lid and store it in the fridge. There, fermentation will continue at a much slower rate.
NOTE: Yes, it is okay if the brine that’s been exposed to the air comes into contact with your sauerkraut as you’re tasting it. If there’s white mold growing on top of your sauerkraut, remove it from the top of the ferment before tasting. If it’s green mold, remove the top inch of sauerkraut.