The wait is over! The secret is revealed!

Full disclosure: I’m sitting in a hotel room right now, on day one of a whirlwind business trip, and I’ve had a very long day and I’m just a little loopy. This post may be slightly more, um, idiosyncratic than usual. You’ve been warned.

On to the good stuff. After two three weeks (whoops!) of waiting, I can finally tell you about the Thing that I made (wait for it…) three weeks ago. In the wake of the Great Salsa Verde Fiasco of March 2011, this has now restored my faith that I am, in fact, kind of a badass. Give me a head of cabbage, some chili paste and a whole lotta salt, and I will do science to it.

That’s right. I made kimchi. And it’s awesome.

Reason number 75834752 why my parents are the cool parents you wish you had: they are total, unrepentant yuppie hippies, who do things like holding a kimchi-making workshop at their house on a Wednesday night. [EDIT: I should probably add that this workshop was not designed to teach the authentic Korean method of making kimchi, but to present a basic and fairly adaptable home fermentation method. For what that’s worth.]

I think I’ve already discussed my overweening love for all things pickled; I should also put it out there that I’m pretty much a spice nut, to the point that I’ve probably already blasted my taste buds into irredeemable oblivion at the tender age of 24. So naturally, pickled + spicy + mashing things into jars with sticks = I want to go to there.

I dragged along Sam, who shares my love for pickles and chili (if not to the same terrifying degree), and Audrey, who, despite being a Real Live Korean(TM), had never actually made kimchi before. Audrey and I got into a kimchi-making race with my mom, while Sam took photos–lots and lots of stunning photos. So many, in fact, that I made a Flickr stream devoted to to them, which you should check out posthaste.

We laid out our ingredients–Napa cabbage, ginger, garlic, scallions, sea salt, and chili paste–while the workshop leader, William, explained the mechanics. This is a ferment based on nothing more than ambient bacteria, from the surface of the cabbage, from the skins of the aromatics, even from your fingers. It may sound counter-intuitive, he said, but don’t wash the produce once you get it home from the store–at least not in tap water, since the bleach or chlorine in it will kill the little beasties. (This is one of those cases where organic is unambiguously better. One head of cabbage will make a lot of kimchi; the bang for the buck is pretty substantial.) And, as a bonus, there’s no need to sterilize the jars.

As a side note, did you know that ginger comes in “hands,” and the individual knobs are called “fingers?” This fact makes my life better.

Now comes the fun part. Starting with an empty one-liter jar…

…cut the cabbage into strips, then chunks, and mince the garlic, ginger, and scallion. Then put a small amount of the cabbage, aromatics, and salt into the jar. (Don’t be stingy with the salt; it’s practically impossible to over-salt, and there are consequences if you skimp. I’ll explain later.)

Take your implement of choice–a wooden spoon or a pestle or a cocktail muddler or, in William’s case, a spurdle, which was originally designed for scraping oatmeal out of a pot and is both the coolest wooden implement I’ve ever seen and my new favorite word. I think I’ll just keep saying it. Spurdle. Spurdle. You can’t not giggle.

Anyway. Take your chosen weapon, and mash that cabbage until it starts to shrink:

Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s almost meditative.

Workshop attendees had been instructed to bring one head of cabbage apiece. Napa cabbage heads are big. Nobody believed that a whole head would fit in a single jar. But as the packing and salting and mashing progressed, and the mixture started to soften and release a pinky-red brine, the cabbage on the table steadily dwindled until we were swapping the last few leaves around to top off our jars. William suggested reserving the heart of the cabbage–the last few inner leaves at the core–to place on top of the kimchi just before lidding, so you could open the jar to a lovely, briny, flower-shaped surprise. He also warned against filling to the very top of the jar, since the kimchi expands as it ferments (mmm, carbon dioxide) and the result would be, in his words, a “kimchi fountain.”

With that, we popped the lids on our jars.

And then came the waiting. And waiting. And waiting. As William explained, kimchi is best eaten either within 24 hours–before any potentially sick-making bacteria have time to grow–or after two weeks–after they’ve bloomed, flourished and died out. Obviously, we chose the latter approach. Not that I was particularly patient about it.

Now, here comes the warning. In the three weeks we let elapse between making the kimchi and tasting it, two of our three batches–Mom’s and Audrey’s–went bad. They turned sour and stinky, stringy and white, and finally we had no choice but to throw them out. Mine, meanwhile, is still gorgeous and fragrant. The difference? I used about twice as much salt. So don’t be scairt. Sea salt is good for you. It is your friend.

Now I have a jar of my very own home-fermented kimchi, with a glossy scarlet brine, crunchy shards of cabbage, and a one-two-three garlic-ginger-chili punch. It’s got lots of bite and gusto, but also a hint of sweetness and a subtle funk (for lack of a better word) that places it well beyond any storebought or restaurant kimchi I’ve ever had. Next time, I might try adding some sliced carrot or daikon radish, or maybe even some cucumber slices, for my own Jewish-American twist.

But for now, I’m just going to nom on my first real kitchen science project. This was totally worth the wait.

Kimchi

1 head Napa cabbage, cut into bite-size pieces

1 head garlic, peeled and minced

1 smallish hand of ginger (two or three big chubby fingers), minced but not peeled

1 bunch scallions, minced

Korean chili paste or chopped dried chilies, to taste

Sea salt to taste (look for a package that lists “sea salt” as the only ingredient)

Special equipment: a clean 1-liter glass jar

Combine the garlic, ginger, and scallion in a small bowl (this just makes it easier to work with). Put a handful of cabbage, a sprinkle of the garlic-ginger-scallion mix, a dollop of chili paste or a couple pieces of chili, and a few heavy pinches of salt into the jar. Use whatever implement you like to mash it down into the bottom of the jar, just until the cabbage starts to lose its shape and begins to release liquid. Repeat, adding new layers of cabbage, aromatics, chili and salt and mashing everything down; the mixture should form a brine that eventually covers the cabbage. Stop when the mixture is about an inch away from the rim of the jar. (If you’ve saved the heart of the cabbage, put it in last.)

If your jar has a metal lid, put a piece of wax paper between the lid and the kimchi before sealing it. If it has a glass lid, like mine does, just seal it directly. Place the jar in a shallow bowl or pan in case of kimchi fountain–we used a disposable pie tin–and leave at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, for at least two weeks. If the cabbage rises above the brine as it’s fermenting, use your mashing utensil to push it back down. When it’s ready, pop open the lid and enjoy the fruits of your mad-scientist labors!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The wait is over! The secret is revealed!

  1. Jess Chung

    How did I not know about your love for kimchi while we were both at Amherst? (A tragedy given the fact I stuck around for three more years after I graduated!) Looks delicious. I remember my grandma making kimchi sitting on the floor of her home. I can make quick marinated psuedo-kimchis, with cucumber or daikon, but that never done the real fermented product, though my mom has shown me once or twice. Props. 🙂

    • Shameful secret: I don’t think I actually ever even tried kimchi until shortly before I graduated. Probably at Korean Restaurant on Route 9, in fact. I’m a late bloomer.

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