Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Homemade Kimchi

Kimchi, a fermented cabbage dish, is a staple of Korean cooking. "Staple" might be a bit of a misnomer since when I think of staples, I think of eggs, cheese, raisins, and oatmeal--all ingredients that show up fairly regularly in the foods I eat each week. But I don't include all of them in most meals, which seems to be how kimchi figures into the Korean diet. The only analogous food I can think of for myself is peanut butter.

Kimchi's importance to the Korean diet has recently propelled it into the world of big media. (As a political aside, I find it absurd that The New York Times covers the kimchi beat but has ignored the testimony of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Winter Soldier II.) Kimchi, which on Earth is a live food teeming with good bacteria, could apparently turn evil in space. Sort of like Spawn infesting Spidey. Yes, scientists are worried about mutant kimchi (taking over the space station?) and exploding kimchi (getting all over the equipment). The last point I understand: only last week I was making sauerkraut-apple-millet soup when I opened a fresh jar of sauerkraut and suddenly had bubbling, fermented cabbage juice spewing all over me.

I recently attended a kimchi workshop at our local co-op. Cramped into the small conference room that barely passes for a workshop space, we talked a lot about the friendly bacteria in fermented, "live" foods and how healthy they are for your digestion. What a bonus for those of us with sensitive innards! She had already completed steps 1-3 (see below) so we were left to add our choice of spices and pack it all into our jars. I went home with a happy little jar of kimchi ready to do its thing on my counter.

I put it into the fridge after about a week. I was worried that I hadn't let it ferment enough because it didn't particularly smell bad to me. It turns out my concerns were groundless: the Science Teacher took some in his bento dinner to his weekly snowboarding trip with his middle school students. Their comment? "Woah, it smells like my locker..." Sounds (smells?) like kimchi success to me!

Homemade Kimchi
This recipe was adapted by Sandra Lory, a Vermont herbalist, from Sandor Katz's Wild Fermentation.

Makes: 1 quart
Prep Time: 20 min.
Fermentation Time: 1 week or more, depending on room temp and how fermented you want it

4-5 tbsp. sea salt (not iodized table salt)
non-chlorinated water (boiled and cooled water)

1 lb. green cabbage (any kind)
1 med. daikon radish, sliced or grated
1 med. carrot, sliced or grated

1 med. onion, finely chopped
1 bulb garlic, peeled and minced
3 tbsp. ginger, minced
fresh and minced hot pepper or cayenne, to taste

1. Make a brine: mix 3-4 tbsp. sea salt with 3-4 c. non-chlorinated water until dissolved.

2. Mix the veggies together and pour the brine over them. Cover with a plate (or something with a little weight) and leave for a few hours or overnight. This step allows the veggies to soften by themselves.

3. After the veggies have softened, drain off and save the brine. The veggies should taste salty. If they don't, add some salt--up to a spoonful (note: adding too much salt will slow down the fermentation).

4. Mix together the onions, garlic, ginger, and hot pepper in a separate bowl. Add to the softened veggies. Use your hands to crush them, which will help release the juices.

5. Pack the kimchi tightly into a quart jar with a wide mouth. Press down on the kimchi and try to get all of the air bubbles to rise to the top. The brined juices should cover the veggies when you're done. Add a little brine if necessary.

6. Place a small jar filled with water on top of the kimchi (which is left open to the air) to weight it down and make sure the brine continues to cover the veggies. This step prevents spoiling.

7. Allow the mixture to sit for at least a week unrefrigerated. Press the kimchi down each day to make sure it stays submerged in the brine. You can adjust the seasonings at any point. The longer the kimchi ferments, the sourer it becomes. The more salt, the slower it ferments. You'll smell it beginning to ferment. Allow it to ferment until you achieve the flavor you like (1-3 weeks).

8. Cap the jar and place it in the fridge. It will last for months if kept cool. Mold and discoloration on the top is normal; just skim it off. Don't tighten the jar too much or you'll end up with an exciting kimchi eruption.

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