Wednesday, 3 March 2010

English Winter Vegetable Kimchi

Kimchi is Korea's famous fermented cabbage dish.  Famous for being very, very spicy and also for having a perpetual presence on the dinner table, whether as a side to accompany everything else or as a small course on its own, it's said that there are as many recipes for kimchi as there are households in Korea such is the revered status of this humble-sounding recipe.  It's usually made with Chinese cabbage, something more akin to our white cabbages with quite a pale green colour and thin leaves which are brined and then smeared in a potent mixture of chillis, garlic, ginger, fish sauce and other odds and sods before being left in a tightly-sealed container to start fermenting.

I've been in possession of a lot of cabbages these last few weeks.  The particularly harsh winter has buggered up a lot of the crops from the small farms that supply the veggie bag that I pick up each week, but our seemingly indestructible Savoy cabbages have risen proudly to the challenge and it has now become a weekly ritual for me to sit in the pub after picking up my veggies with my head in my hands trying to think what the hell I'm going to do with them this week. Fermentation and pickling are ancient methods born from the need to preserve a surplus whilst preparing for the lean times of the year ahead and, frankly, any recipe that'll knock a whole cabbage on the head in one go is a recipe that's just shot to the top of my to-do list.


1 Savoy cabbage
3 medium turnips
3 medium beetroot
small bulb/head of garlic
2-inch piece of ginger
80ml fish sauce
100ml hot Korean chilli paste
100g salt
1 tsp sugar
4 or 5 spring onions
pair of rubber gloves

Start by brining the cabbage: dissolve the salt in about 3 or 4 litres of water.  Slice the cabbage into quarters, cut out the core from each quarter and then slice each quarter lengthways into thirds.  It's a bit of personal preference here whether you want to keep the dark outer leaves or not: they're certainly tasty but pretty thick and chewy.  I'd definitely suggest keeping them in but you could possibly slice them more finely if you're planning on having this more as a side dish to accompany something else.  Plunge the leaves into the brine and leave them for 2-4 hours.  Overnight won't hurt, but give them at least a couple of hours.

Once the leaves have finished brining, drain and rinse them.  You should be able to feel straightaway the difference in the cabbage leaves, they should feel very crisp and squeaky to the touch.  Prepare the chilli mixture by peeling and grating the turnips and the beetroot (use a very coarse grater) peel and mince/finely chop the garlic and the ginger (that's a whole bulb of garlic by the way, not a whole clove) slice the spring onions into one-inch pieces and then halve them and add all this into your biggest bowl with the chilli paste, fish sauce and the sugar.  Some recipes call for more sugar, some have honey added, I think the sweetness of the beetroot and the turnip compensate for some of this, but it's still worth adding a teaspoon or so of sugar or some honey if you prefer.

One of the common ways of preparing kimchi is to leave the base of the cabbage intact during brining.  This allows you to slather the chilli mixture in between the leaves quite quickly like flicking through the pages of a book but I don't think it works very well with Savoy cabbages since they're a lot more ridged and wrinkled than the smooth leaves of the Chinese cabbages.  It's a bit more effort to work with the individual leaves cut off from the stem like this but I think it's worth it, and also the page-flicking method is only really worthwhile when preparing vast, industrial, quantities of the stuff - something most Korean women seem to do from what I've seen on the internet, but doesn't really apply here.

Put on the rubber gloves and smother the cabbage leaves in the chilli mixture making sure you rub it into all the nooks and ridges on the leaves.  There's quite a lot written about whether you do/don't/should need to wear gloves, I've made it with bare hands and never had the chilli burn to my hands that is one of the most common reasons cited for needing them but trust me: wear them.  Maybe it's different for women but you just really should wear them whilst you're doing this.

It's best to do this bit by dunking batches of leaves into the bowl and giving them a good slathering, once each batch is finished put them into a container large enough to hold them all that you can seal tightly, a glass jar or tupperware tub or whatever.  Once the leaves are all done scrape in any remaining chilli mixture, seal and leave for a day or two somewhere reasonably cool/room temperature (i.e. not the fridge.)

Check it after a couple of days and you might see some little bubbles and smell and kind of mild pong which means it's started fermenting and you've got some kimchi magic going on!  This is always quite exciting and you should taste a little bit just to see where it's got to.  You can put this into the fridge now, or serve it up there and then, I've found it's better to leave it for another couple of days before putting in the fridge just to let the fermentation have a good go, I think this is probably because the Savoy cabbage leaves are that bit thicker, making this with Chinese cabbages you can really tell those extra couple of days fermentation, it all tastes a lot stronger quite quickly but that doesn't really seem to happen with Savoy cabbages in my experience.  Obviously once it's in the fridge the fermentation rate goes down but it will still keep going and the rule of thumb seems to be that after about 3 weeks it's probably going to be a bit too fermented to be very pleasant, although I've never had any last that long.

As we're starting to see the first signs of Spring this week I imagine I'll soon start seeing fewer and fewer cabbages in my veggie bag which is kind of a shame, I love the way this works with Savoy cabbages and the turnips and beetroots.  And I've still got a sodding big celeriac that needs something doing with it.

If you're in London the Korean/Japanese grocers in the Centrepoint building sell a good variety of freshly made kimchis if you can't be arsed with all that.

Cabbage field photo courtesy of pizzodisevo

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