Mark’s parents lived in Korea for a couple of years just before he was born so it is no surprise that it is through him and his family that I first fell in love with Korean food. When Mark and I were living in Baltimore and his parents were an hour north of us, near the Delaware border, we’d often meet at a Korean restaurant halfway between us. Now that Mark’s family has moved to Charleston, SC (where there are apparently no Asian grocery stores, a fact I find perplexing and upsetting), we live in a part of Northern Virginia that has a huge number of Korean restaurants and grocery stores, which I find reassuring and great. I honestly don’t think I can live further than 10 minutes from a Korean grocery store.
I will soon have to put up a tutorial on my favorite Korean dish, dolsot bibimbap, but today I bring you instructions on making a food even more important: the ubiquitous kimchi. Kimchi is often, but not always, made with fish sauce. Although cabbage kimchi is the best-known in America, there are many different kinds, including radish and cucumber kimchi. I usually stick to making cabbage kimchi, although I think I may start branching out. The mysterious ingredient I posted earlier in the week was Korean chili pepper flakes.
Kimchi originated when Koreans of long ago – as many as 3,000 years ago – learned how to ferment vegetables to in order to prolong storage time. Special pots of the prepared vegetables would be buried underground to regulate the temperature (thus controling the rate of fermentation), a marker placed in the ground to facilitate location of them after snowfalls. Many modern Koreans have special kimchi refrigerators instead: they sell them at Super H, one of my favorite haunts, for hundreds of dollars. You absolutely do not need a special refrigerator or even pot to make kimchi. I bought a kimchi pot when Mark was going through one of his kimchi phases: he’d eat bowls-full at a time morning, noon, and night and even a gallon-sized jar didn’t hold a week’s worth of kimchi. Before I bought the kimchi pot, I used a huge gallon-sized pickle jar that I recycled during Mark’s earlier dill pickle phase. If you have something like that, great. If not, you can use four quart-sized jars instead, and then you can share a jar or two with a friend if you don’t happen to eat as much kimchi as we do.
1 head Napa cabbage
1/3 cup kosher salt
1 bundle mustard greens (optional)
1 daikon, shredded (optional)
1 large or two medium carrots, shredded (optional)
1 bunch scallions, cut into 1″ pieces
1 head garlic, pressed or minced (I recommend pressing in order to exude the juices)
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, grated on a microplane grater or minced
1/2 cup Korean chili pepper: go out of your way to find Korean chili pepper as it tastes different than others, but you can use either flakes, coarse, or fine
1/4 cup soy sauce
Remove any unappetizing-looking outer layers from the cabbage, then cut it in half.
Remove the core from each half.
It happens that the prepared kimchi I find that is fish-free is often “whole cabbage” kimchi, which means I have to cut it into bite-sized pieces before serving, which irritates me. So I find one of the benefits of making my own is I can cut it to size before it’s marinated. Although you have to do some preparatory chopping, you also save yourself time later when you can just stir the marinade into the chopped cabbage instead of painstakingly coating each cabbage leaf with it. So I therefore cut each half into half again so I have quarters.
Then I cut each quarter into bite-sized pieces. Place a sieve into the kitchen sink (or a large bowl if you need to keep your sink free) and put the chopped cabbage in it as you go along. Periodically sprinkle some of the kosher salt over the cabbage pieces and toss thoroughly.
Most techniques I’ve seen instruct you to soak the cabbage in salted water for one to four hours, however, I like the technique I saw in this article (although I don’t particularly care for the rest of the recipe): place a weight on the rinsed, salted cabbage and wait 24-48 hours. It takes longer, but you end up with nice crisp, dry cabbage. As the article suggested, I use a large Ziploc bag filled with water:
Meanwhile, make the paste. Take the mustard greens, if using, …
… and chop.
Grate the carrot, if using …
… as well as the daikon.
Then take your scallions …
… and chop into 1″ pieces. I start off shorter at the white part and make larger lengths as I get to the tips.
Press or mince the garlic:
And grate the ginger. Place all of these ingredients into a large bowl.
Measure the chili flakes …
… and add to the bowl along with the soy sauce. Mix everything together.
Place into a jar until the cabbage is ready.
When the cabbage is ready, place it into your kimchi pot, a gallon-sized jar, or if you are using four quart jars, a large bowl (it’ll be easier to mix everything together at one time and then divide amongst the jars). Then add your paste ingredients.
Mix everything up very well.
Divide amongst the four jars if using quart jars. If using any type of jar with a lid that screws tightly, be careful not to pack the kimchi in too tightly, and leave some room at the top of the jar. It may bubble up as it ferments. I once filled a jar too full and woke up in one morning to find kimchi juice spilling all over my kitchen counter. Which is another reason I talked myself into buying a kimchi pot.
Set the jar or pot aside for a few days. I generally give it three days. It will look like this when it’s ready:
If you used a pot, transfer to clean jars. Otherwise, simply move your jars to the refrigerator.
I keep reading that kimchi is good for about 3 weeks, and after that it becomes too strong and you’ll only want to use it in soups and other cooked dishes, but I haven’t really found that to be the case. Of course, we both really like kimchi, so maybe the stronger taste doesn’t bother us. Frankly, I have a hard time keeping kimchi around for three weeks because Mark turns into a kimchi monster. I do make a lot of kimchi ramen though. You can also eat the kimchi before it ferments, although it will really be more a salad in its pre-fermented state.
Serve with anything. Particularly Korean food.
My mother-in-law said my kimchi is very good, and as her time living there qualifies her as an expert on the matter in my opinion, I was very flattered. Of course, my mother-in-law is the greatest mother-in-law ever and tells me everything I cook is very good, which can’t possibly be true, so you’ll have to make it for yourself and form your own opinion. Mark really does eat it by the bowl-full, though, so it can’t be too bad. (He’s also never gotten bird flu. Coincidence? I think not.)
On the subject of fermenting things, in bread baking, there is a technique in which you use a pÃ¢te fermentÃ©e, which is a starter dough that ferments for a few days before the rest of the dough is prepared. Because it seems I am always fermenting something, be it kimchi or bread or whatever else, I suggested to my friends that Renae FermentÃ©e might be a good nickname for me. However, like Rimmer from Red Dwarf, I found that people don’t usually glom onto nicknames you choose for yourself, and the friends seem to be sticking with a resurrected nickname that was bestowed upon me in high school: Rogna Pasta. Which is fine. At least I’m not Ace-hole. But I still think that if I ever record an album, I’ll use the stage name Renae FermentÃ©e.