Firefly Kitchens

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topping carrot jars

The flavorful ferments of Firefly Kitchens

BY ALIDA MOORE
PHOTOS BY RINA JORDAN

 

The little red door of Firefly Kitchens beckons much like the tiny glow of their namesake insect. You might expect a kitchen full of fermenting foods to have a strong smell, but this tiny factory is homey, like walking into a friend’s kitchen. A large, family-sized table sits in the center of the room, where owners Julie O’Brien and Richard Climenhage will invite you to sit. And, as they set out a plate of homemade crackers, opening a jar of their delicious Cortido Kraut to go on top, you’ll barely notice the office tucked away in the corner.

A mutual friend introduced Julie and Richard in 2007, recognizing a trait they shared: unabashed reverence for raw, fermented food. For Julie, this love began when she entered the Nutritional Therapy program at Seattle University, out of a desire to do something outside of her nine-to-five production marketing gig. The nutrition class led to fermenting small batches at home, while her kids complained about the smell. “When I started fermenting in mason jars, I was making carrots and plain kraut and I started adding spices and herbs and I was blown away at how tasty it was. I had tried sauerkraut out of the jar or at the ball field but I’d never really had fresh, unpasteurized kraut,” she says.

Likewise, Richard extolled the health virtues of eating naturally fermented foods for years, after heart flutters led him to a doctor who explained that his healthy lifestyle was essentially starving his heart. On his doctor’s orders, Richard added lean meats and fermented food to his diet. He began an apprenticeship at Three Stone Hearth, a community-supported kitchen in Berkeley, where he learned how to ferment his own foods. When Richard and Julie met, they realized they had found in each other someone with whom to attend The Church of the Raw, singing hymns about probiotics and digestive enzymes. Firefly Kitchens was born.

 

Health is important, but taste is everything. It didn’t take long to perfect Firefly’s first kraut, a raw twist on the classic pickled cabbage. Using organic vegetables from Pacific Northwest farms, Julie and Richard spent hours chopping and prepping and adding naturally mineralized Celtic Sea Salt, creating huge vats of mixed vegetables that ferment for nearly two months. “The bacteria that [forms] naturally on the vegetables eats the sugars and starches and the result is lactic acid, which is the ‘sour’ you taste. It creates the flavor and protects the food.”

As they continued to experiment with recipes, their friends took note, asking for more jars of kraut. “We got overwhelmed and said let’s just pick one food Seattle needs. It was clear it was classic sauerkraut,” explained Julie. “Once we made that decision, things started happening. We didn’t need heat; we just needed space to let it do its thing.” They started slowly, renting kitchen space in a catering company a floor below an architecture firm, selling their first jars at farmers markets in Seattle. Tasting the kraut inspired nostalgia in some of their customers. “People were so excited. We got all these New York Bronx stories, people talking about the barrels of kraut in their basements growing up,” Richard remembers.

 

As Firefly added more farmers markets to their schedule, they needed to boost their production without adding much to their costs—shredding vegetables and packing jars are labor intensive, but not necessarily highly skilled work. Firefly began with volunteers, who chopped mountains of cabbage, beets and carrots in exchange for free jars of kraut.

As the barrels of fermenting food began piling up, the architects started to complain about the smell. Serendipitously, a friend mentioned a spot in Ballard for lease, a space that offered both privacy and plenty of room to grow. Firefly had a home, and today they have seven varieties in their kraut line, including Firefly Kimchi, a vegan version of the Korean culinary essential, and Caraway Kraut, the tangy classic that’s ideal for homemade Reubens.

 

Before I met Julie and Richard, my only experience with sauerkraut involved hot dogs. I asked how they eat the kraut, what recipes they recommend, and how versatile they think these tangy condiments are. They both came alive, talking over each other, scrambling to open my eyes. Richard gushed, “You open a can of tuna, put your favorite kraut in, add some mayonnaise, and you’re done!” Julie broke in, “You can put it on everything. People go nuts for kimcheese, which is cream cheese, Firefly kimchi, and a bit of goat cheese. Whirl it up, add some crackers and it’s a go-to gourmet appetizer.” Their blog includes recipes for everything from breakfast eggs to enchiladas to paté, and it’s clear Julie and Richard believe in their product not just as a health food but as something that’s delicious. People who have tasted their krauts seem to agree. In 2011, their Yin Yang Carrots (tangy-sweet, with a pleasant ginger flavor) won a Good Food Award, which recognizes responsibly produced, delicious small-batch foods. In 2012, their Cortido Kraut (a spicy mixture of cabbage, carrot, onion and jalapeno) won a Good Food Award with a special Gold Seal, indicating Firefly Kitchens has reached the highest level of creating a certified organic product.

Julie and Richard are expanding their business with the goal of selling their product wholesale, to restaurants and caterers. They are also experimenting with new products, like the crackers they served me—soaked in kimchi brine and dehydrated, rather than baked. Wherever Firefly flies next, you can be sure Julie and Richard will work tirelessly to introduce the world to their kraut, hopeful to expand the Church of the Raw. The question is, will you be a convert?

 

 

Firefly Kitchens can be found at Washington and Oregon Whole Foods Market stores and PCC Natural Markets, as well as at the Ballard Farmers Market and Dean & Deluca and a small selection of Western Washington seasonal farmers markets, food festivals, retailers and restaurants. Visit fireflykitchens.com for the latest information.

Alida Moore has modified her after-work ritual to include eating Firefly kraut straight out of the jar.

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