Napa or Chinese cabbage is traditionally used for making Korean winter kimchi, but it’s far from the only vegetable you can use for that purpose. At this time of year, good old green cabbages are available from Minnesota and Wisconsin growers in sizes ranging from the very small to the immense. While making kimchi from these is a little different from using the thinner-leafed, flexible napa cabbages, it can be done, and the results are just as tasty.
Traditional Korean kimchi varies by season, as you’d expect, but it usually includes several common elements: ginger, garlic, and a pleasing array of colors. Some incorporate fruit; others are limited to vegetables; many incorporate fish or fish pastes. One of the delights of kimchi is tailoring it to your own taste or to that of the people you feed. I’m fond of kimchi that’s heavy on ginger, garlic, and chiles. But because most of the folks I feed homemade kimchi to are Minnesotans, I add less heat than I did in California.
Traditional Korean kimchi that uses dried peppers incorporates varieties grown in Korea (gochugaru). You can buy gochugaru at United Noodles, Shuang Hur, Dragon Star, and other Asian groceries in Frogtown. Contemporary Korean kimchi plays with the much wider variety of dried peppers now available worldwide. A visit to El Burrito Mercado on the West Side will reward you with an amazing array of dried chiles from Mexico, some mild and deeply flavored, others medium or very hot, all flavorful.
If the thought of incorporating chiles into your kimchi makes you feel faint, don’t bother with them! You can create zingy kimchi with nothing more formidable than fresh ginger, some Wisconsin hardnecked garlic, and scallions to spice it up. This wonderful ferment can be as traditional or as personal as you want it to be. Just be sure to choose vegetables that create a lively melange of colors.
Like other fermented foods, kimchi needs to be kept away from air while it undergoes its transformation. To start with, I suggest you use a 1-quart/liter lightning jar (the kind with a glass lid attached with a wire bale). With green cabbage, salt the cabbage first in a big bowl so it becomes flexible enough to cram into a jar, add the other vegetables/fruit and seasonings, then pack everything into the jar as firmly as possible. Within 24 hours, the brine should provide a cap to the ferment. Keep the jar as close to 60° as you can; a counter near a north window is a pretty good place, as is a cool basement. Your kimchi should be ready to taste in about 3–6 days; as soon as you like its flavor, simply refrigerate and enjoy it.
Kimchi is the food of a thousand uses: you can add a dollop of it to scrambled eggs, omelets, tacos, burritos, vegetable and/or meat stir-fries. A bowl of rice or rice noodles with kimchi and some soy sauce makes a quick, tasty, and healthy lunch or breakfast. Add a little kimchi brine to a soup to brighten its flavor. A jar of homemade kimchi in the fridge is like having a culinary ace up your sleeve!
A simple & mild green cabbage kimchi
This kimchi is quite mild—its heat comes chiefly from ginger, not chiles. Don’t overlook other vegetables when you assemble it. You can add bok choy and other greens, radishes other than daikon, carrots, turnips, scallions, tat choi, fennel. If you’re a chile head, go for dried reds, but be sure to grind them into small bits before adding them.
Makes 2 quarts.
1 pound of green cabbage
1 pound of daikon or other radishes (e.g., watermelon, black Spanish), sliced thinly
3 tablespoons of kosher salt
3 tablespoons or more of finely minced, peeled fresh ginger (I use about half a cup)
1½ tablespoons or more of tasty minced garlic
5 scallions, white and green parts, finely crosscut
1 teaspoon of brown sugar
1½ teaspoons of kosher salt
1 tablespoon of ground pepper , Mexican chiles, or fresh hot peppers, slit
lengthwise and left whole
1. Core cabbage and cut crosswise very thinly; place in a large mixing bowl, add salt, cover, and allow to sit until salt pulls the moisture from the cabbage, leaving cut cabbage flexible (about 3–4 hours).
2. Peel radish, cut in half lengthwise, then into narrow crosswise slices.
3. Mix ginger, garlic, scallions, brown sugar, and salt in second bowl; add cayenne or peppers and mix well. Mix in with cabbage.
4. Sterilize two 1-quart (or one 2-quart) canning jars at a rolling boil for 10 minutes. Cool on a wooden surface or towel.
5. Push the cabbage mixture into the jars as compactly as possible; cover with enough of the brine to top the kimchi. Leave at least 3 inches head space below lip of jars. Attach a lid, loosely; stand the jar in a glass bowl or saucer, because it may drool while fermenting.
6. Put your jar in a cool corner of the kitchen for 3 days. Watch for bubbles, which should start rising in your kimchi; fermentation is slower at this time of year because houses tend to be cooler. Once you can see bubbles at work, wait 3–4 days, watching for the bubbles that signify fermenting. Thereafter, you can start tasting your ferment. When it tastes good to you, store it in the fridge. Kimchi is almost immortal: it keeps well and becomes more complex and tasty with time.
Find more recipes for kimchi in our 3 Days, 3 ways recipe program - cooking tips designed to help your food purchases go further, featuring a new ingredient each month.