Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Can I Call it Kimchi? vol. 2

Do you ever get the impression that the contents of your fridge are judging you? That the longer an item has been there, the harsher its critique? Or is that just me?

A surprisingly high proportion of my cooking and eating habits are based around trying to make it up to that half cabbage languishing in the vegetable drawer or that barely-scooped pint of rice that came with the take-out food and has outlasted its compatriots, or whatever else is languishing forlornly in there, in the cold and the dark. Okay, so maybe I'm overdramatizing things, but I'm also making myself feel guilty digging into that overanalysis of why I hate wasting food.

But I digress. Pickling is a great solution to this important moral dilemma on just about every front. Not only is a great direction for leftovers, namely those tragic survivors of the vegetable drawer, but, once pickled they stay good for far longer, meaning you can take them off the fridge worry list. You might even be more inclined to use them.

My first adventure with kimchi
late last summer really opened it up as a flexible, accessible, exciting framework, both in research and in practice. Research revealed the breadth of things that fall under the heading of kimchi, and highlighted the degree to which, like many beloved dishes whose authenticity is fiercely defended, it is traditionally made with whatever is available. I'm not trying to a go down a postmodern garbage disposal and say that anything is kimchi if you say it is—it must include some kind of salted vegetable and feature flavor as a function of time—but if you want to put an umbrella over it, you're going to need a pretty big umbrella. In practice, I tossed together the green cabbage, beets and carrots languishing in the veggie drawer with healthy doses of garlic, ginger and chili and made a tasty, spicy mixed pickle.

I struggled with whether to call it kimchi or not, however. Though inspired by the flavors of a more traditional kimchi, I had virtually none of the classic components on hand, and lack the authority of Korean heritage or training to stamp it with that word. And yet, there is no word that better communicates the concept I was aiming for. The linguist in me loves the efficiency of it: aside from the non-descript mixed pickle, which I used above, we don't really have a good phrase in English to describe it. Beyond efficiency, what I made almost certainly has more in common, spiritually if not substantially, with what Korean grandmas keep in their special fridge than, say, most powdered chai mixes have with actual masala chai or, to get up on the cultural high horse available to me, those frozen pierogi have to do with what I make for Christmas Eve dinner every year. With some apology, until we get a better phrase to describe it, I will continue to use kimchi to describe my savory, fermented mixed vegetables.

While the last batch used paechu kimchi, the most instantly recognizable, chili powder and cabbage focused version of the dish as a template, this interpretation looked to baek kimchi and dongchimi as its models. Like the earliest iterations of kimchi, which predate the introduction of chili to Korea, they lack the ruddy, chili powder-induced hue often associated with kimchi. The primary components, which stared me down from the vegetable drawer are several simulacra of the daikon radish (cabbage sibling kohlrabi, hakurei turnip, and european radish), carrot
and napa cabbage. I also picked some garlic mustard greens that I had been ogling on a trail near a friend's house. The last component was the aromatics: a healthy dose of garlic and ginger and a little fresh jalapeƱo.

With all ingredients assembled and washed, the first part of the process is to cut them up into bite-sized pieces and mix them up. This is the most labor-intensive part of the process, but not the hardest. That would be waiting.

Before the waiting begins though, the vegetables are soaked in a salt solution overnight. I use a 16:1 water:salt ratio (or, ¼ c. salt to 1 quart water). The vegetables should be loaded into one or two large, non-reactive vessels (glass, plastic or ceramic; no metal). My favorite to use is my crockpot, unplugged. It's like the large fermentation crocks only somewhat smaller, significantly cheaper and more multifunctional. Pour the brine over them until submerged, then weight and
cover. The weighting is to keep the vegetables submerged and lightly compressed. I find a plate wide enough to fit inside the rim of the bowl, wash it thoroughly, and place it right on top of the brining veggies. Then, I put a nonreactive container full of water on top of the plate to weight it down. Ideally, the container shouldn't be so tall as to make it hard to cover the bowl.

After letting the veggies sit in the brine for 8-12 hours, drain, reserving at least half of the brine. Mix in about 1 tsp. of sugar for each quart of vegetables and any other last minute seasonings (if you wanted to add chili powder, shrimp or fish sauce, now would be the time). The veggies should fit into about half the space they did when fresh. I typically start with two containers and condense down to one, making 2-3 quarts of kimchi. Pour the reserved brine over until just covered, re-weight the contents and put it in a space out of direct sunlight. Now the hard part begins.

It will take 2-3 days for it to start developing any sour tang, dependent on the
weather, and could take 6-8 days to reach full potency. If your fermentation vessel is particularly full, you might want to put a pan under it; it bubbles up some when the fermentation kicks in and can spit up on your counter. You can and should taste it regularly to check on its progress; the process isn't inhibited by being opened up and poked at. The brining liquid will become a little cloudy as the fermentation takes hold. This is normal. Once it's reached your desired level of sourness, load the kimchi into glass or plastic jars and store in the refrigerator. The low temperature will slow microbial growth to a snail's pace. Which is to say that it will get more sour over time, but over a matter of months rather than a matter of days.

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