Holly North is addicted to kimchi. It started with a problem; her wife Sarah is a baker, and Holly was having trouble digesting bread. Then pizza. Beer. (No !) Finally, a baker from Vermont told her fermented vegetables might be the answer. We don't let our grains ferment long enough, he said, and so we need good bacteria from other fermented foods to help break them down. Reluctantly, Holly tried sauerkraut. It seemed to work. So she thought, why not try eating a little bit of some sort of ferment every day? She did, and slowly she got hooked not only on the digestive benefits, but also on the flavors. Which explains how her fridge came to be completely full of fermentation experiments like the ones you see up there, and most of all full of kimchi.
Kimchi in its most basic form is fermented cabbage. Terrible sounding, Holly acknowledges, but once she tasted it, she got hooked on its pungency. She uses all kinds of different vegetables—daikon radishes, kale stalks, cucumbers—and also seafood like oysters, anchovy paste, and shrimp. The process starts with salting the vegetables, then depending on what they are, letting them sit for more or less time to let the salt start breaking down the skin and letting the lacto-bacteria naturally present colonize and grow. Then Holly packs on seasoning layers like garlic-chile paste, salted shrimp, more veggies, etc. Depending on what she uses, Holly says the kimchis have a different fermentation timeline—cabbages take a while, cucumbers are quick.
The best thing about discovering kimchi, Holly says, is that it's brought about this great culture of food-sharing in her neighborhood. It's hard to make small batches, which means she's constantly trading: kimchi for eggs, kimchi for veggies, kimchi for hot peppers to make more kimchi. It's an ancient food, and one that Holly, for one, thinks is about due for a comeback. Happy fermenting, everyone.
HOT & SPICY CUCUMBER KIMCHI
This is Holly's recipe, retyped by me. A few notes from Holly: Because of the nature of cucumbers, this kimchi is best eaten within a week. She likes it best after a couple of days in the fridge, once the fermentation has really gotten going. Also, for containers, you want to use all non-reactive crocks/pots/bowls/jars—whatever you choose. You can use plastic, but be forewarned that the chiles will stain it red!
6 pounds cucumbers
5 ounces coarse sea salt
1/2 cup rice porridge*
4 ounces fish sauce
3 ounces chopped garlic
1 ounce chopped ginger
1 ounce granulated sugar
3 ounces korean hot chili flakes
1 pound daikon radish (or substitute other hardy radishes), thinly sliced and julienned
1 carrot, thinly sliced and julienned
4 ounces scallions, thinly sliced
Trim the ends off the cucumbers, quarter and cut into 1/2 inch chunks. Sprinkle with 3 ounces of the salt and toss to mix. Set aside for 30 minutes in a stainless steel or glass bowl (you don't want to use anything reactive). Drain the cucumbers, reserving the liquid. At this point you can choose to rinse lightly in filtered water (tap may have chlorine, which kills the beneficial bacteria) and drain if you like a little less salt.
Combine the rice porridge, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, sugar, chili flakes, and 2 ounces of salt in a crock or glass jar. Add the radish slices, carrot slices, scallions, cucumbers, and reserved salted liquid and toss lightly to mix.
Serve immediately or refrigerate for up to a week.
*To make rice porridge: Dissolve 1 tablespoon sweet rice flour in 3/4 cup water. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, until it gets thick and "porridgy." Put the pot in an ice bath to cool the porridge quickly. Once completely cool, add to kimchi—do not use hot!