Life in the upside down has pushed me into some kitchen adventures I might not otherwise have entertained. One of them is membership in an “ugly” fruit and vegetable delivery service. Every two weeks a box of fruit and vegetables that weren’t pretty enough to make it to market arrives on my doorstep. A few days before each delivery, I get a message reminding me to make my selections. The trick is to respond immediately or be left with a boxful of oddballs.
Due to our lamentable internet connection on Old County Road in Truro, I am now staring down three heads of napa cabbage — that’s a lot of leaves for Christopher and me.
I flirt with the idea of kimchi, which I love in everything from savory oatmeal to fried rice. Then I hesitate because I know that the endless jars of pickled beets, preserved lemons, and sweet and sour onions that cycle through our refrigerator drive Christopher a little crazy. He doesn’t complain, exactly. He just notices: “Do you think this is still good?” But, the cabbages.
Kimchi is a staple of Korean cuisine that encompasses many varieties of fermented vegetables, cabbage being the most traditional. It’s eaten as a side dish, a condiment, and an ingredient in hundreds of other dishes (one of my favorites is kimchijeon, or kimchi pancake). It’s popular both for its punchy, earthy flavors and its probiotic properties, which are thought to keep the human gut healthy.
Home-fermented kimchi is entirely different from what’s available commercially. The flavor is more subtle and layered and the texture, while crunchy at first, becomes silken as the cabbage ferments. And making it is an easy feat of kitchen magic. The beauty of fermenting vegetables is that they do the hard labor themselves and require minimal assistance beyond the initial preparation. The resulting flavor — a little spicy, a little funky, a lot delicious — will make your weekly round of pandemic meals sparkle (think kimchi omelets or kimchi potato salad).
A basic recipe includes some unusual ingredients. Some have easy substitutes, others don’t. If you can’t find daikon, turnip works fine. But there’s nothing just like the Korean red chili pepper flakes known as gochugaru, and they do stock it at Friends’ Market in Orleans. Dashima is an edible kelp used widely in Korean cooking, but the recipe is fine without it. Glutinous rice flour is not the same as regular rice flour, which should not be substituted in this recipe. The glutinous flour doesn’t actually contain gluten, but it contributes body. If you can’t find it, just omit it.
This recipe for traditional pogi (made with whole heads of Napa cabbage) kimchi is adapted from the blog Korean Bapsang: A Korean mom’s home cooking, started in 2009 by Ro Hyosun. I’m working my way through the thousands of Korean recipes she has compiled — she has 15 for kimchi alone.
Napa Cabbage Kimchi
Makes one quart
1 to 2 napa cabbages, 4-5 lbs.
1 cup kosher salt
5 cups water
1 lb. daikon radish or turnip
¼ large Asian pear
The spice mix:
1 3-inch square of dashima (optional)
1 Tbsp. glutinous rice flour (optional)
½ cup gochugaru (Korean red chili powder)
¼ cup fish sauce
3 Tbsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. grated ginger
Cut the cabbage in quarters lengthwise (or if using small ones, cut them in half). In a bowl large enough to submerge the cabbage entirely, dissolve ½ cup of salt in the water. Bathe each cabbage quarter in the salted water, then shake it off and place it in the second bowl. Beginning with the outermost leaves, sprinkle the remaining salt over the thick white parts of each leaf and gently massage to spread; use up all the salt.
Once salted, leave the cabbage in the second bowl and pour the salted water from the first over it. Cover the bowl with a cloth and leave on the counter for 6 to 8 hours for the cabbage to soften and the fermentation to begin. If the cabbage quarters are stacked, rotate bottom quarters to the top midway through the soak.
The cabbages will be ready once the thick white parts of the leaves are easily bendable. Remove the cabbage from the soaking water and rinse, washing away any residual salt from between the leaves. Drain the quarters, cut side down.
The rice flour and dashima — if you have them — become a paste that adds body to the kimchi. Make it while the cabbage drains. First boil the dashima in 1½ cups water for 5 minutes. Discard the kelp and reserve the broth. Mix the rice flour with the dashi broth (or 1½ cup water) and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until it forms a thin paste. Cool.
In a small bowl combine garlic, ginger, gochugaru, fish sauce, and the rice flour paste, if using. Mix well.
In a large bowl combine the radish and pear, both cut into matchsticks, and the scallions, cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces. Add the spice mix and combine thoroughly by hand. Let the mixture sit for 30 minutes to allow flavors to meld.
Trim the cabbage quarters of any tough stems, leaving just enough to hold the leaves together. One at a time, spread some of the mix over each leaf, pulling the leaves apart without separating them from the quarter, and rubbing the spice mixture over and between the leaves. Once well-seasoned, fold the top leaves over toward the stem, wrapping the quarter into a small package.
Lay the package, cut side up, in a quart jar or other airtight container. Repeat with the remaining cabbage quarters. You should be able fit the entire softened cabbage in one quart jar. Press hard on the kimchi to remove air pockets. Pour ½ cup water and any remaining dashi broth into the bowl that contained the radish, pear, and spice mix, rinsing the sides to capture the remaining spices, and pour over the kimchi to fill jar to within ½ inch of the rim. The cabbage should be completely covered.
Screw on the jar lid but do not tighten — the fermentation process will give off gases that must escape.
Leave the kimchi to ferment at room temperature for a day or two and then move to the refrigerator. Allow it to develop for 2 weeks (the lid may be tightened after the first week). The kimchi would last a couple of months in the refrigerator, if you didn’t eat it all up first.