kimchiKimchi: king of condiments. Photo: April McGreger

I love how my cooking business binds me to the seasons. The seasons change, and I fall in line. August provides me more work than I can complete in a day; late January cuts me some slack. Every year I seem to overdo it as the busy harvest season runs right into the busy holiday season, and I end the year utterly exhausted and frazzled. And then, at last, January brings the cold and darkness t that I have come to crave.

Winter is also the season for comfort food, but all too often our favorite comforts foods leave us feeling sluggish and, well, uncomfortable. It can be a struggle to find foods that are deeply satisfying as well as nourishing. As we are experiencing record-breaking low temperatures in the North Carolina piedmont this week, I find myself turning again and again to foods that warm me from the inside out–garlic, ginger, spices, and steaming bowls of noodle soups and stews. No meal answers the call better than kimchi stew.

In Quite a Pickle
If this is the first you’ve heard of kimchi, you’re in for a treat. Kimchi at its simplest is a Korean fermented vegetable pickle, in the same family with sauerkraut. It is most well known as a red, spicy Nappa cabbage pickle seasoned with garlic, ginger, onion, Korean red pepper flakes, and fish sauce. Kimchi can be made, however, from a wide variety of vegetables, such as Korean radishes, cucumbers, scallions, or even fruits like Asian pears.

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Kimchi has been around since ancient times, as long as 3000 years ago, and is still eaten daily in most every Korean home and increasingly, in non-Korean homes as well. Kimchi was originally a way to preserve vegetables for consumption during cold winter months and still wintertime produces the widest varieties of kimchi in Korea. Many continue to put up large quantities of kimchi for winter consumption, but the traditional method of storing the kimchi underground in a huge stone pot has given way to modern kimchi refrigerators.

The health benefits of eating kimchi have been widely heralded. Delivering a jolt of immune-boosting and circulation-increasing garlic, onions, and ginger, kimchi is a raw, fermented food full of beneficial enzymes and probiotics, which make for a happy and healthy digestive tract. It is also high in fiber and contains lots of vitamin C and vitamin A, which have traditionally been scarce in winter.

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Kimchi is available at many Asian markets and health food stores, but it’s not too difficult to make your own. The process requires a fair amount of time, but the payoff is considerable. With its bracingly tart, spicy crunch, kimchi can transform a simple plate of rice and beans into an extraordinary meal–and work the same magic on everything from eggs to pizza.

Kimchi 101
Kimchi is endlessly versatile, so when you make it yourself, you can have it just the way you like it. If you are vegetarian, leave out the fish sauce or replace it with about 2 Tablespoons light soy sauce. You can leave the sweetener out as well if you prefer, but your fermentation might be a bit slower since sugar feeds the process. There is no rule that kimchi has to be spicy either.

White kimchi, or kimchi without any red pepper at all, is very popular and one of my favorites. In fact, the popular addition of red peppers to kimchi is thought to be a relatively recent (circa 1500) development since chili peppers are a New World ingredient and would have been introduced sometime after European contact with the Americas.

This recipe is the kimchi that I make most often and is the best-selling variety at my farmer’s market stand. Here I call for making a rice paste or slurry from sweet rice flour and water that you mix your spices into. A lot of recipes, even traditional recipes, leave that paste out so feel free to skip it if sweet rice flour is hard to find. The paste is especially helpful, however, when making stuffed-cabbage kimchi because it sticks well between the leaves of the cabbage. I also like that the rice flour acts as a thickener when used in kimchi stew.

There are several ingredients, like the Korean red pepper powder and the glutinous rice flour, that are difficult to find unless you visit an Asian, preferably Korean, market. Most metropolitan areas have one. I seek them out in every city and suburb I can find them in because they are full of delicious ingredients and provide endless hours of education and entertainment. If you cannot find an Asian market near you, no need to fret. You can simply skip those ingredients and you will still be able to make delicious kimchi. Just be careful when substituting chili or red pepper flakes found in most supermarkets. They are generally made from the much hotter arbol chiles, so add sparingly.

Basic Kimchi

Vegetables for Brining
1 large head Nappa cabbage (about 4 pounds) OR you can substitute 3 pounds of Daikon or Korean radish OR 3 pounds of Apples or Asian Pears OR use your imagination
Sea salt (about 1/2 cup)

1 cup water
2 tablespoons sweet (or glutinous) rice flour (not the same as regular rice flour)
Seasonings (to be added to the Paste)
4 tablespoons fish sauce
1 cup Korean hot red pepper powder; or 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper; or to taste
1/4 cup sugar, honey, or agave nectar
1 tablespoon Lemon juice or rice vinegar
1 heaping tablespoon grated ginger
4 cloves garlic, smashed and finely chopped
1/4 cup grated white onion (or ½ onion ground up in food processor)
1 cup finely julienned Daikon radish
1 cup finely julienned Carrots
1 generous bunch of scallions, thinly sliced on a diagonal

Other Possible Additions:
Apples or asian pears, optional, julienned                       
Greens–watercress, mustards, or collards, thinly sliced
Seaweed, chopped or crumbled into small pieces
Peppers–red, green, sweet, or hot, sliced
Chestnuts, Walnuts, or Pine nuts, chopped
Raw Ooysters, chopped
Chinese chives or leeks

To make Nappa cabbage kimchi, you have the option of chopping the leaves into bite size pieces or cutting the cabbage in half and stuffing the filling between the leaves of the cabbage. The latter, called whole cabbage kimchi is considered superior, but requires a bit more time, and means that you will have to cut your kimchi later before serving. You decide.

For whole cabbage kimchi, cut the cabbages in half. Rinse the cabbage halves in cold water, then sprinkle them all over with salt. Be sure to salt between each leaf and to salt the thicker core of the cabbage more heavily than the leaves. It should take about ½ cup of salt. That may seem like a lot, but you will rinse the cabbages before combining them with the seasoning paste.

Sit the cabbage aside in a large bowl for two hours. After two hours, turn the cabbage and let it sit for two hours more for a total of four hours.

For chopped cabbage or any other vegetable, cut into bite size pieces. For the cabbage, cut the head in half. Then cut each half into thirds. Then cut those thirds into 2-inch slices. For radish or apple kimchi, 1-inch cubes are best. Toss the pieces with ½ cup of salt and set aside for two hours. Toss again, then set aside for two hours more.

While your vegetables are brining, prepare your other ingredients. First, in a medium sized saucepan, whisk the sweet rice flour into 1 cup of water until dissolved. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, whisking constantly. When thickened and translucent, remove from heat and pour into a large mixing bowl. Set aside to cool.

Peel your radish and carrot for your seasoning vegetables. Julienne the vegetables by cutting them into thin vertical slices, then stacking those slices and cutting them into matchsticks. Next, rinse your scallions and cut them into thin slices on the diagonal. Combine these vegetables and set aside.

Next prepare you finely chopped garlic, ginger, and grated onion. If you have a food processor, it will save time by using it to grind these ingredients together. Set aside.

Now that your rice paste has cooled, mix in your Korean red pepper powder. If you are sensitive to spice, place it safe. You can skip the spice altogether, or you can add more later. If you were not able to find Koran chili powder, use your chili flake very sparingly. It is generally MUCH hotter than Korean chili powder.

To you rice-pepper paste, stir in the fish sauce, sugar or other sweetener (you can skip that altogether if you insist), lemon juice, garlic, ginger, and onion paste. Next, stir in your radish, carrot, scallions, and any other vegetable seasoning that you wish. Your seasoning paste is now complete. Set aside.

After a total of four hours, you will notice your cabbage or other vegetable looks soft and shrunken. It will also have produced a fair amount of brine. Rinse the salted cabbage, radish, or other vegetable with cold water 3 times to remove the salt and place in a colander to drain off the excess water.

Now it is time to either stuff your cabbage, or simply toss your vegetables with your seasoning paste.

To stuff the cabbage, spread the kimchi paste thinly onto each leaf of the cabbage individually, and a little extra on the outside of the cabbage. Work gently to keep the cabbage whole and in tact. Place the seasoned cabbage into an air-tight glass jar. Sit the kimchi out on the countertop at least overnight and up to 4 days depending on how sour you want it, then refrigerate it. I like it best after about two days. It will continue to ferment slowly in your refrigerator. Most kimchi will keep for months in the refrigerator. Saltier and sourer versions keep longest.

You can use your kimchi to make kimchi stew at any time, but traditionally it is made with kimchi that is older, a little too sour or that has lost its crunch.

kimchi stewKimchi stew: defeats even the coldest of winter nights.Photo: April McGregerKimchi Stew
Kimchi stew can be simply kimchi cooked with a flavorful stock seasoned with a bit a sesame oil and a pinch of sugar. Here I have called for a few additions that I really like–pork and Korean rice cakes, which seem to perfectly complement the spicy and acidic kimchi. This is my husband’s all time favorite meal, and one of my favorites as well. We always serve it with a side of rice and a cold beer. You can adapt it to suite your taste as well as to what ingredients you have on hand. Look for rice cakes in the freezer or refrigerator section of Korean markets. They are shaped like flat footballs and often labeled “rice ovalettes.” The Korean word for them is ddeok, which is pronounced sort of like “dock,” but asking for rice cakes for soup should get you pointed in the right direction.

4 cups rich pork stock or chicken stock, mushroom stock, seafood stock, or beef stock
1/2 pound of not-too-lean pork, cut into 2 inch chunks; or, equivalent amount of chicken, seafood, beef, or a few handfuls of mushrooms
Salt and pepper
2 cups kimchi, chopped with juice
1 white sweet potato, optional, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 large handful Korean rice cake ovalettes (ddeok), optional but delicious!
1 teaspoon Soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar, honey, or agave nectar
1 cup sliced green onion
3 tablespoons sesame oil
1/2 package cubed soft organic tofu

In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons sesame oil over medium heat. Lightly salt and pepper your pork or other addition, and add to the sesame oil. Cook for about 5 minutes, until brown all over, then add your stock and chopped kimchi (both cabbage kimchi and radish kimchi make wonderful soup). Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the sweet potato cubes, if using and simmer until tender. Then add rice cakes that have been softened first in cold water (according to package directions), soy sauce and sugar. Simmer another 3-5 minutes until rice cakes are tender, then add diced tofu, green onion, and sesame oil just before serving. Serve with a side of rice, which can be added to the soup to temper the spiciness.