Monday, January 19, 2015

Cabbage Kimchi (배추김치)

Kimchi is a staple of (most) Korean homes. It's spicy, it's pungent, and it's necessary.

Back when I was a kid, my parents made a huge production out of kimchi making. Two to three times a year, my parents would buy an entire box of napa cabbage and an entire box of daikon radishes and the two of them (but mostly Mom) would spend the better part of a weekend making a season's worth of kimchi. My earliest memories of kimchi making are from when we lived in Long Island (in the 90s). Our kitchen was on the smaller side so most of the work took place in the dining room/living room. My dad would fetch a giant red cooler from the garage. My mom would lop the cabbages in half, generously salt them, and then put them into the cooler which my dad would then return to the garage (where it was cooler, ha). After a sufficient salt-soaking (usually overnight), the cabbage cooler would be retrieved and then Mum would rinse them off, one by one, in the sink and set them on a smattering of plates on the dining room table.

Then, she'd start making the spicy seasoning mixture. She and my dad would take turns sliding chunks of radish across the mandolin, tagging out when their arms got tired. The radish would be piled into an enormous metal bowl. Entire bulbs of garlic were peeled and placed into a mortar and got the crap beaten out of them by the pestle. Rice flour and water were mixed together and simmered on the stove until it formed a thick goop. Bundles of scallions were rinsed and chopped up. Then, everything got mixed into the radish matchsticks along with salt, fish sauce, and plenty of gochugaru.

Mum would then spread the floor with old newspapers. She would crouch on the floor, hovering over a second metal bowl, which would house the cabbages as they received their treatment. She'd peel each layer back and give each leaf a hearty massage with the seasoned radish. The red-painted cabbages were wrapped into little packages, nestled into clear jars (which were leftover from previous kimchi-making sessions - no idea where they came from originally), and set aside on the newspapered floor. Once all but two of the cabbage halves had been kimchi-fied and tucked into jars, my dad would grab a wet paper towel and clean off the mouths of the jars, slap a piece of cling film onto each one, screw on the lids, and then set the finished jars on the dining room table. The two remaining cabbage halves were chopped up and put into a glass serving dish for immediate consumption.
The kimchi jars were left out at room temperature for a few days to ferment before being tucked into the refrigerator for future meals. After a few months, when the kimchi supply would run low, my parents would do the whole thing all over again.

I don't subscribe to this kimchi making ritual. Not to sound like a bad Korean, but I eat store bought kimchi. It's convenient and it tastes fine and hey, I was born in America where we like to be coddled. But recently, I was gifted two really good looking cabbages and giant daikon radishes by my aunt who insisted I make kimchi. So, I did. But I did it on my own terms. I skipped that rice flour step because I think it's annoying and not super critical (it's just a thickening agent and doesn't offer much in the way of flavor) and I didn't meticulously massage each cabbage leaf and wrap it up into really adorable bundles. It's backbreaking work as it is; no need to fluff it up with pretentiousness, right?

Ingredients:
2 heads napa cabbage
¼ cup coarse salt
1 daikon radish, julienned
6 scallions, chopped
10 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons grated ginger
1 to 1½ cups hot pepper flakes (gochugaru; amount depends on spice preference)
¼ cup fish sauce
2 tablespoons salted shrimp (optional)
¼ cup brown sugar


You'll want to start by cleaning the cabbage. Sand and grit tends to get trapped in between the leaves so you'll want to soak it in cold water and give it a little shake. The cabbage will get rinsed again a few more times so it's not critical to get rid of all of the grit, but a headstart will help in the long run.
Chop the cabbage into halves or quarters and salt generously. Ruffle the layers a little to make sure the salt gets into the crevices and then set the cabbage aside for 4 hours or until the leaves are limp and flexible and no longer crisp or crunchy.
In a large bowl, combine the radish matchsticks with garlic, ginger, scallions, fish sauce, salted shrimp, hot pepper flakes, and brown sugar. If you wanted, this is when you'd add your rice flour paste, which is just 1/4 rice flour mixed with 1 cup of water, whisked together and heated over a low flame until thickened. The rice flour paste should be cooled before using.
Massage the ingredients together (using a gloved hand) until it becomes a lovely red mess of stringy radish pieces.
Once the cabbage has finished its salt soak, rinse them and shake off the excess water.
Grab a cabbage chunk and place it in a bowl. Massage the leaves with generous amounts of the seasoning paste.
Tuck the cabbage into airtight containers (preferably glass or metal; plastic stains easily). Leave the containers out at room temperature for one or two days, which will jump start the fermentation process, and then keep in the fridge until you're ready to eat.
Some people like their kimchi really ripe, some people prefer a little less ripe. So, the key is to taste test and figure out when the kimchi is at its peak ripeness for your palate.
About a week after you've made your kimchi, check on the jars. You'll that there's quite a bit more "juice" in the container. That's what you want. Give a piece of cabbage a little taste to see if the kimchi has fermented enough and if it has, it's time to eat. If it hasn't, let the kimchi hang out for a few more days.
Slap a little cabbage quarter onto a cutting board and cut it up into bite-sized chunks.
Nestle the pieces into a container and serve it up with a bowl of rice and a selection of your favorite Korean banchan.
Here's the recipe page:

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