Fermentation is always a welcome guest in my kitchen.
Beer, wine, cheese, salami - I love them all. The list of products we owe to microbial action reads like the answer key to a “Things I Want to Put in My Mouth ” category on Jeopardy.
But vegetables? I wasn’t so sure.
Sure, sauerkraut's got its own thing going on, but when I'm talking about fermented vegetables, I'm talking about kimchi - the dish that's driven hundreds of Western mouths to the water pitcher at your neighborhood Korean restaurant.
I didn't really have a reason for my hesitation, as I’ve had kimchi a handful of times before and always with pretty favorable results. I’m a fan of spicy foods and the sharp, fermented tang pairs well with the heat. I’m far from a kimchi enthusiast, but what I’ve tried, I’ve liked. Despite these positive first impressions, there was still something oddly foreign about kimchi in my eyes, that is until I buckled down and finally made a batch of my own.
And, man, was it good.
Good enough to satisfy the cravings of a kimchi purist? Probably not, but it’s definitely good enough to add a flavorful kick to soups, stews and rice entrees, or even stand alone as a side dish.
The first thing you’ll notice about this recipe is the lack of cabbage.
While Napa cabbage is obviously the most famous variation, kimchi can be made with almost any vegetable. The kind we’re making here is Jook Pa Kimchi, a springtime variation that calls for green onions as the central ingredient. Green onions don’t really fit the whole invasive theme, so I used three cornered leek instead. The end result retains much of the garlic-onion punch of the leek, but adds layers of spice, tang and salt with some wonderful results.
A word to the not-so-wise, if you ever find yourself have over-indulged the night before, this kimchi will shake a hangover like no one’s business.
With that, let’s get down to it.
Ferment time: 4 days minimum
Prep time: 45 minutes
25-30 three cornered leeks, tops and bottoms trimmed away
¼ cup fish oil, (anchovy not shrimp)
¼ cup cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons ginger, finely chopped
3 tablespoons garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
2 tablespoons rice flour
1 cup water
As noted above, you’ll want to make sure you’ve trimmed away the tops and bottoms of the leeks, and obviously, rinsed them clean of any dirt or debris they may have picked up in the field. Once trimmed and cleaned, lay the leeks down in a shallow, nonreactive pan. A glass serving dish works well. Take the fish sauce and drizzle over the leeks, trying to evenly coat them as you go. Let sit for 30 minutes total, being sure of toss and rotate the leeks every 10 minutes.
During this time, the fish sauce is going to be working its magic on the leeks, drawing out water and causing them to wilt to the perfect consistency. Fish sauce is also the product of pressed, fermented anchovies, and will be the catalyst in the fermentation process for your kimchi. While the sauce is working its microbial magic, combine the cayenne, ginger, garlic, sesame seeds, sugar and rice vinegar into a food processor or blender. Pulse the ingredients together, slowly adding water until you reach the consistency of a very thick chili paste.
Next, take your rice flour and water and add them both to a small saucepan. Whisk them together over medium heat, until a thick consistency is reached. This is the "glue" that will help your chili paste cling to the vegetables. Let it cool before adding to the chili paste. Stir everything together.
At the end of your 30 minute wilting period, you’ll want to slather your chili paste on top of the leeks. Once all the paste is has been removed from the food processor or blender, you’ll use your hands to evenly coat the leeks with the chili paste. If you think the spice will bother your skin, feel free to wear gloves for this step. If you don’t wear gloves, resist the urge to brush away that eyelash that just so happened to drop in front of your eye as you grabbed your first handful of leeks. Trust me…
Once everything’s coated put some tinfoil over the pan and leave your leeks on the kitchen counter for 24 hours. You’ll be moving your kimchi to the fridge at some point, but this day spent at room temperature is essential to the fermentation process. Move the kimchi to the fridge and let sit another three days minimum. This allows time for the flavors to properly blend, and you could go much longer if you like.
Before serving, I like to take a handful of the leeks, probably about 4 or 5, bend in half and then wrap the top of the shoots around the bunch to make a nice little package.
Enjoy them on their own, with rice or in any dish calling for kimchi to be added. Just be sure to a glass of something cold nearby!