Kimchi is considered the national dish of Korea. This broad category of lactic-acid fermented pickles is made of a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and sometimes seafoods, all brined in salt, flavored with herbs, garlic, ginger, and often, liberal amounts of red chili peppers. Some people find the array of types of kimchi intimidating; I find them fascinating.
However, I must confess that while I adore kimchi, and am not intimidated by the thought of making it, until last night, I have been far too lazy to do it myself.
Which is odd, because it isn’t as if I am unfamiliar with the mysteries of fermented vegetables.
I mean, I grew up helping to make huge batches of saurkraut, kimchi’s blander (but still tasty) European cousin every autumn.
Mom and I would go out to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm on a drizzling, cool October morning, and help harvest bushel after bushel of cabbages. Mom, Grandpa, and Grandma would range up and down the rows, wielding machetes, which they used to hack the heads of cabbage off just above the damp red clay soil. With quick, deft cuts, the tough outer leaves would be trimmed, flopping to the ground waiting for me to scurry along and gather them into a basket. When the basket was full, it was my job to ferry it out to the field and dump them over the fence for the patiently waiting cows, who gladly grazed upon the parts of the cabbage which we found inedible. They found them delicious.
Uncle John would ferry the heavy, full bushel baskets of cabbages to the ends of the rows, where Grandpa would pick them up with the tractor, and he’d carry them to the house. Down in the basement we’d go, to cut the heads into quarters, core them and wash them very carefully in the big sink. We’d fill the sink with water, and then dissolve salt in it, and put the quartered cabbages in it to purge them of any bugs, slugs or other creepy-crawlies. Grandma was adamant that she didn’t want any extra added protein in her kraut.
Then Grandpa would shred the cabbage with his own mandoline, which he made out of a sharpened piece of machete blade, cut and mounted in an oak box he constructed. I was never allowed near the “kraut cutter” as he called it, as it was frighteningly sharp and had no safety features, unlike modern mandolines. My job was to take the shredded cabbage, bowl by bowl, and sprinkle the pale green ribbons into the huge forty-gallon crock in even layers. After about an inch of cabbage ribbons went in, Grandma would sprinkle the kosher salt over it all, in a proportion that her hands knew better than her head, and Mom or Uncle John would take up the “tamper”–a huge turned flat bottomed cudgel made of oak, once again by Grandpa–and beat the cabbage down, smashing it and releasing the juices, packing it tightly into the crock, forcing out the air.
This went on all day, until two or three huge crocks were packed full of pounds and pounds of salted cabbage. Then, Grandma would put a layer of cheesecloth over the opening of the crock, cover that with a clean dinner plate she had sanitized with boiling water, and on top of the plate went a carefully wrapped cinderblock which acted as a press, weighing down the cabbage, helping to extract the juice and keeping excess air out.
And that was it. We left it for a few weeks to ferment in the cold basement, and then Grandma would pack it into sanitized jars and process it in a hot water bath, and we’d end up with many quarts of delicious, nutritious saurkraut to keep us healthy all winter long.Making kraut is easy, but long and tiring work, especially if you make a large amount of it.
Kimchi, because it requires more ingredients than just cabbage and salt, requires more work still, though none of it is particularly hard. I made it in culinary school and loved it, but then, that was an entire class of twenty students making it. Many hands make the work lighter, you know, and until recently, I could only count on my own pair in the kitchen.
So, what was it that shook me out of my laziness?
Well, I was minding my own business, wandering through the farmer’s market on Saturday, and I saw this just cut head of napa cabbage. And it was huge–larger than Kat. And I could smell its fresh verdant sweetness from across the table, and it just looked lonely there, the last one left, bereft of its fellow cabbages. And I looked at it and thought to myself, “What a lonely looking cabbage. I bet it would make some fine and tasty kimchi.”
So, I bought the thing, which with the big, tough outer leaves weighed probably seven pounds, and lugged it home. Along the way, I also picked up some purple and pink radishes, some mustard greens, some tender new scallions, ome Japanese white globe turnips, some green garlic and some ramps (Appalachian wild garlic) to go in the kimchi. In fact, the only non-local ingredients that went into this kimchi were the fish sauce and chili peppers, the garlic and ginger and the kosher salt. In celebration of the fact that I was using mostly local Appalachian Ohio ingredients, including ramps (which, if they grew in Korea, would be used in kimchi–I just know it. They are so tasty, and so good that there is no Korean grandma who would turn her nose up at them. I am sure of it.), that I named this recipe, “Appalachian Springtime Kimchi.”
I figured that Morganna (also known as Chibichan) would help me make the kimchi, and since our kimchi jar was perilously low because I had been feeding it to her to fend off a cold, it seemed only fair.
As for a recipe, I will tell you the truth: I combined the recipe I found here, with one I read in the excellent cookbook, Eating Korean by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, and the method Chef Hector Lipa taught me at Johnson & Wales, added my locally grown and gathered ingredients and came up with my own concoction. Since I just made it last night, I won’t know for a few days how it is going to taste, but I will say it smells really, really good.
Kimchi, like saurkraut. is one of those foods which demands that you pay attention and get up close and personal with the ingredients. There is a lot of hand work involved in the making of kimchi, and because it is a fermented raw product, it pays to start out with very clean hands, utensils, counters and sink. So, scrub your hands well, clean under your fingernails and roll up your sleeves, then follow these step by step photographs chronicling our first batch of Appalachian Springtime Kimchi, a dish which I hope will become a seasonal specialty at our house. (Morganna wanted to name it “Redneck Kimchi” but I overruled that suggestion. To me, “Redneck Kimchi sounds like it was made from iceburg lettuce, Frank’s Red Hot Sauce, Vienna sausages and Blue Ribbon Beer. Ick.)
Appalachian Springtime Kimchi
7 pounds Napa cabbage
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 heads garlic, peeled and sliced
4″ long chunk of fresh ginger 1″ thick, peeled and sliced
1 1/2 cups Korean ground red chiles
2 bunches scallions, trimmed, washed and sliced thinly (about a cup and a half)
1cup of ramp leaves, thinly sliced
3 fresh red chilies, stemmed and quartered
1 bunch of fresh mustard greens, washed and sliced into 1″ wide ribbons
1 bunch of radishes, washed, trimmed, cut in half and thinly sliced (about 1/2 cup)
3 medium sized Japanese globe turnips, peeled, trimmed, quartered and thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
1/4 cup fish sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
Gather your materials: you need a one-gallon jar, preferably glass, with a screw on lid or self-locking lid. Run it through the dishwasher and make certain to put it through the heat dry cycle. Or, wash it well by hand, then pour boiling water over it and the lid, then allow it to air dry. Also, you will need a very large bowl or basin and a large plastic bag. I used one of the giant Ziplock bags which are meant for storage of household items. It is tough enough to be rinsed out and used for later batches of kimchi.
You will also need latex or plastic gloves.
First, cut off the root end of the cabbage, and then strip away the tough outer leaves of the cabbage. Cut it in half longitudinally.
Then, making a v-shaped cut with your knife, cut the core of the cabbage, then pry it out with your fingers.
Separate all of the leaves of the cabbage, and carefully rinse each leaf individually, spraying away all of the little specks of dirt that like to hide out in the crinkly leaves. Pay special attention and watch out for ants, and especially slugs, which love to hide within the layers of the leaves and snack upon their sweetness. Slugs in kimchi are not my favorite thing.
Once the cabbage leaves are rinsed, cut them into about two-inch square pieces, and allow them to drain in a colander until all of the cabbage is cut. (Morganna would like me to mention at this point that all of this cutting, grinding and scrubbing goes well with music. She suggests that you listen to this. We did, and it had us dancing and bouncing as we chopped, shredded and ground our way around the kitchen.)
Then, you need to salt the cabbage. Open your plastic bag, and grab up some cabbage bits and sprinkle a thin layer into the bottom of the bag. Grab up a small amount of the one cup of salt, rub it between your palms, and then reach into the bag, and rub the salt into the cabbage leaves briskly. Repeat this process until you have used up all of the cabbage and salt, then squish the cabbage leaves, massaging the salt well into them.
Seal up the bag and set it aside for about three hours. Every now and then, check on the cabbage, swishing it around, and making certain that the cabbage juices that are being drawn out of it covers the leaves completely.
While the cabbage is brining, grind up your ginger and garlic with a food processor into a thick paste, and set them aside.
After the cabbage is brined, drain it in a colander, and squeeze as much of the juice out of the cabbage as possible. The texture should be similar to a dill pickle–soft but somewhat crisp.
Then, rinse the cabbage thoroughly with cold water, squeezing it and squishing it around, then allow it to drain again.
Put on your gloves, and mix together the remaining tablespoon salt, ginger, garlic, ramps, chili slices, and chili powder, fish sauce and sugar in the large bowl or basin. Get this mixed together well, then start massaging in the brined cabbage and mustard greens, in alternating handfuls. Please, please, please! Do not touch your nose, face, or any other part of your body with your gloved and chili infested hands. It is painful.
Mix thoroughly. Morganna and I found that putting the bowl into the sink kind of helps to keep the mess contained. We scrubbed the sink out well first so that if any bits escaped the bowl, we could just pick them up out of the sink and pop them back into the bowl.
After all the ingredients are squooshed into a big pile of kimchi goodness, it is time to start packing it into the jar.
Just scoop handfuls into the jar, and then gently pack them down in order to make sure there are no air bubbles. Don’t pack it tightly, it isn’t necessary.
After all of the kimchi is put in the jar, screw the jar on loosely. Strip off your gloves, then wash your hands thoroughly with soap and cold water, to remove any lingering residue from the chilies. Then, set the jar in a cool place and leave it alone for three days. Check it every day; if the fermentation is going correctly, you will see small bubbles moving up through the layers of vegetables.
After that, open it up and taste it, then store it in the refrigerator. It will last for a month or so, though it will continue to ferment. Some people do not like it as much after it ferments for a long time. I do like it, but some folks will only use very fermented kimchi in cooking, and will not eat it raw.
So, there it is. Appalachian Springtime Kimchi. Morganna and I are probably going to make a couple more batches of this while ramps are still in season, and give the jars away as gifts.
Stay tuned for more Korean recipes in the future, including some more kimchi varieties as the season progresses and other vegetables and fruits ripen.
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