SALSA & KIMCHI // elspeth

I broke a jar of salsa a few weeks ago in the basement, reaching to put one last Christmas decoration away. It fell behind the shelving where we keep our pickles and wine and jam and dried beans and grains, and the glass shattered. It was awful to clean up—chunks of peppers and glass stuck behind a piece of insulation and on the back of a shelf and tomato juice and vinegar oozing across the concrete. I was furious with myself, but in a strange way it was also nice: to remember the hot day in August when I made it with my friend Audra, our girls running around sticky with peach juice.

Audra and her wife and their girls moved away a few weeks later, only twelve months after they'd come to town. We'd become fast friends, the kind of friends you make for life, and for both generations it was a move that left a hole.

But it was also a friendship cemented on food and place, and those kinds tend to hold. We saw each other in Boston just before Christmas and at our grain and bean CSA pick up a few weeks ago, and this past week here for a walk and some bike tuning instruction and tuna melts. We talked about the proper placement for brake-pads and the best chain lube and the terror that is currently being an American and the parent of a child in school. And we traded jars of kimchi, because last year we made it together but this year our versions are different.

Audra taught me about keeping a food notebook—I'd always kept one for the garden, but I'd never combined it with writing recipes down. Most recipes I use are from cookbooks or blogs or the Internet-at-large, and I catalog the ones I like well enough in my recipe box and weekly column and here. But I now see that there are some recipes that are more organic and fluid and have an element almost of oral history, and that these belong in the garden notebook—the ones that are big and annual and have to do with big leaps of effort to preserve. Just after Christmas when I had time and the right ingredients I called Audra to reference her kimchi notes from last year, and then I pulled out my garden notebook and wrote it all down.

For confidence' sake, I'm going to give you the 2017 and 2018 amounts. Both batches were very different, and both were excellent, and sometimes it's a boost to see that written down. You can see how little it matters if you're off a bit here or there—what's really important is that the salt matches the vegetable weights. Otherwise so long as you follow the gist you can chop and wait and jar and lump kimchi in with the small stuff, and sweat something bigger, something else.

KIMCHI 2017/2018

If you’ve never fermented anything and you don't have a knowledgeable friend to start alongside, I highly recommend the book The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz. It’s a great reference and an excellent confidence booster. That said, once you realize it’s all about salt and patience and pungency, it’s hard to go wrong. The single most important rule of thumb is to add 1 heaping teaspoon salt for each pound of vegetables. This is why quantities here are measured in weight rather than cups. If you have, say, 9 ounces of ginger instead of 7, nothing should go wrong—just try to keep the general proportions similar. And try to buy very fresh and moist looking vegetables—the longer they’ve been in storage, the less water they’ll have in their cells, and you want them to have plenty. You’ll need a 3-gallon crock and a kitchen scale for equipment. One last note: be sure to work with generally clean hands and surfaces, but don't get nutty with worry about it. The 2018 version filled a 3 gallon crock and yielded around a dozen finished quarts.

amounts 2017 // 2018 

5 ounces // 7 ounces ginger, peeled
8 ounces // 7 ounces hot peppers, seeds and stems removed
1 pound 12 ounces // 1 pound 3 ounces peeled garlic
1 pound // 1 pound onions, peeled and finely chopped
2 and 3/4 pounds // 4 pounds carrots, peeled and grated
14 pounds // 9 pounds Napa cabbage, very thinly sliced
5 and 1/2 pounds grated turnips // 1 pound purple cabbage, very thinly sliced 
----------------- // 2 ounces scallions
always ! 1 heaping teaspoon kosher salt per pound of vegetables

First make the “paste.” Put the ginger, hot peppers, and garlic in a food processor and pulse until they form a smooth paste. This is your base, the flavoring for the kimchi. These plants also slow down bacterial growth, which is good for keeping the kimchi relatively shelf-stable and preventing rotting. You can’t really go overboard in terms of safety, it’s more a matter of taste. If you like things really spicy, feel free to add more hot peppers—this makes a kid friendly kimchi, so it’s not particularly spicy.

Set the base aside and start working on chopping. Depending on how distracted you are by other tasks, it takes a long time to slice and grate the remaining veggies—likely a few hours—one reason it’s more fun to make kimchi with a friend! As you chop, put the veggies in a kitchen bowl that fits on your scale. Weigh the bowl ahead of time or zero out the scale if it’s digital, so that you get the weight of the veggies without the bowl. Keep a notepad nearby and make a tally for each pound of veggies each time you fill it up and put the veggies in the crock. As you work add a heaping teaspoon of kosher salt for each pound of veggies, including the paste. Once you’ve got a good mass of veggies in there add the paste and mix everything around with your hands. Keep chopping, adding, salting, and mixing by hand until you’ve exhausted your veggie supply—remember, all the veggie weights don’t need to be exactly as written above as long as you’re adding the teaspoon of salt for each pound.

As you work, since it takes a while, liquid should start coming out of the veggies. By the time you finish there should be enough brine that you can push the veggies down below the liquid level. Don’t panic if this doesn’t happen—wait a few hours, checking periodically, and keep trying to push the veggies below the brine. Once you can, weight them down so they stay there—I use a plate and a large mason jar filled with water—and cover the crock with a clean dishtowel. Leave it to ferment at room temperature, checking periodically, for at least two weeks. You know things are happening when you start seeing bubbles (this is CO2 being released). It should smell pungent and a bit stinky; that’s normal. Taste it every few days until you hit the two week mark. When you’ve passed two weeks and the flavor is to your liking, decant the kimchi into clean jars, making sure each jar has plenty of liquid and the veggies are still below the brine. Don’t tighten the lid all the way—remember this is fermented, and you don’t want the pressure to build up and explode—so leave the lids a little bit unscrewed. Store in a cool place. This time of year it should be fine in a cool spot in the basement; the fridge also works. Enjoy the miracle of fermentation!

I had some keep 6 months, I think Audra's kept it over a year. It truly doesn't seem to go bad.


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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.