East Asian, Random Thoughts, Vegetables


If you live in a cave, you haven’t heard that the Eastern Seaboard is being buried by an historic snowstorm right now. As of noon Saturday, we’ve received 25 inches (!) in Baltimore, and the snow continues to fall thick and fast.

I’m from the Midwest and know better than to go out in these conditions, especially because Marylanders don’t know how to drive in the snow. We have plenty of food at home, anyway. In times past, you had to plan for the winter – you couldn’t buy hydroponic tomatoes and arugula year-round, or find blueberries grown in Peru in December. You kept apples and potatoes and rutabagas in a root cellar, and, in the summer, you put up jars of fruit preserves and pickles to eat once the ground froze.

Without romanticizing that era – which sounds artisanal and quaint from a twenty-first century perspective mostly because we’ve forgotten the many hardships – I do appreciate a good pickle. These days, the only pickles available in most grocery stores are pickled cucumbers and peppers, even though the term “pickle” means any vegetables (or fruit) preserved in brine or vinegar. That’s a shame, because the world of pickles extends far beyond sweet cucumber slices, banana peppers, and zesty dills. In fact, if you travel the world, you’ll find that pickle and preserve appreciation continues unabated, even in these days of refrigeration and out-of-season produce.

Korea may be ground zero for vegetable preservation. The mainstays of Korean cuisine are rice and kimchi 김치, which includes brine-pickled cabbage, radish, and cucumber. Kimchi usually is fermented as well as pickled. In addition, Korean cuisine features numerous other types of pickles – some vinegar-based, others soy sauce-based.

Kimchi fermentation is the same type of lactic acid fermentation that occurs in yoghurt, which makes kimchi pungent and tart as well as salty. The most common types are baechu 배추, or napa cabbage, kimchi and kkakdugi 깍두기, or mu radish 무, kimchi; oi오이, or cucumber, kimchi also is popular in the summer. Although kimchi owes its pungent tang to the fermentation process – often helped along by saeujeot 새우젓 (salted shrimp), briny fish, or oysters – most varieties also are spicy due to the use of kochukaru (Korean red chile powder) or gochujang 고추장 (red chile paste). Fall and winter kimchi preserve baechu or napa cabbage for the cold months; as it is high in vitamin C and fiber, it provides an excellent source of nourishment.

Refrigerator garlic dill pickles

I confess that this cucumber pickling is all happening out of season. I came upon a huge display of Kirby cucumbers at the H Mart before the storm. My husband has a colleague whose sister makes amazing garlic dills down in Texas, hands them out as holiday gifts, and refuses to share the recipe. Leaving aside my feelings about people who don’t share (what, is she planning to become the next Vlasic? I’m not going to steal her freaking recipe and open a pickle factory), dill pickles are my favorite, they’re easy, and there’s no reason not to do this at home.

I have given two options – the first is for refrigerator pickles, not canning pickles, which must be stored in the refrigerator and eaten relatively soon – within a month. The second method is for canning pickles, which may be processed and stored on the shelf.

2 lbs Kirby cucumbers, sliced vertically into spears
2/3 c distilled white vinegar
3 c filtered water
1 tsp sugar
1/2 c kosher salt or pickling salt (do not substitute table salt)
8 cloves garlic, halved
1 tsp crushed red chiles
2 tsp dill seed
2 tbsp pickling spice

Combine liquids, sugar, and salt, and heat to boiling.

If using the refrigerator method, place the cucumbers, garlic, and spices into a container with a lid and pour the hot liquid over the ingredients. Allow to cool at room temperature, seal, and store in the refrigerator.

For the canning method, tightly pack cucumbers into hot, clean quart jars. Add to each jar equal quantities of garlic and spices. Fill the jars with the hot liquid up to about 1/2″ from the top of the jar. Screw the lids onto the jars. Process in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes, making sure the water in the bath covers the tops of the jars. When the jars cool, check the seals. The pickles should age for at least a month before eating but will keep much longer.

Oi kimchi 오이 김치(fermented cucumber pickle)

This pickle, based on David Chang’s technique in Momofuku , doesn’t keep as long as the other kinds of kimchi as it uses somewhat less salt. You can enjoy it for up to about two weeks, at which time it will become too pungent to eat. Again, I’m making this out of season – it’s really a summer pickle, to be enjoyed shortly after preparation, rather than a preservation method to store cabbage for the winter.

Galbi (marinated grilled short rib) with oi kimchi and vinegar pickled mu radish

1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
1 lb Kirby cucumbers, cut into 6 spears each
1 tbsp soy sauce (preferably white soy, usukuchi)
2 tsp fish sauce (preferably Korean, but any fish sauce will do)
1 tbsp kochukaru (Korean red chile powder) or 2 tsp gochujang (red chile paste)
scant 1 tsp saeujeot (salted shrimp), optional
6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 carrot, julienne
1 scallion, julienne
1/2 onion, sliced thinly pole to pole

Salt the cucumbers in a colander. Allow to drain for about fifteen minutes.

Meanwhile, combine all the other ingredients. Once the cucumbers have drained, add them to the mixture. Toss well and allow to combine for at least an hour. This kimchi is best within the first couple of days; it becomes increasingly pungent, which is not such a problem, but the cucumbers become soggy after a few days.

Vinegar pickled mu radish

I have no idea what this is called, but on a number of occasions, I’ve encountered this pickle at Korean barbecue joints, sliced thinly and served apparently as a wrapper for a type of ssam 쌈, wrapped foods. I can’t be sure this is how it’s made, but it tastes exactly like the radish pickle I’ve eaten. It is absolutely delicious with barbecued short rib, ssamjang 쌈장, and scallions.

Mu radishes

If you can’t find mu radish (and you probably won’t unless you live in an area with a Korean market), daikon will work just fine, as will any other large, solid radish. In the summer, if you grow watermelon radish, you can enjoy a spectacular version of this pickle, which is ready to eat within an hour.

1 pound mu radish, peeled and sliced thinly (less than 1/16″) on a mandoline. The slices should be thin enough to be totally flexible
1 c hot water (about 150F)
1/2 c rice wine vinegar
1/4 c sugar
1 tbsp kosher salt

Place the radish slices in a container with a lid. Combine the water, vinegar, sugar, and salt, ensuring that the sugar and salt have dissolved completely. Pour the liquid over the radish slices and seal the lid. Allow to stand for at least an hour before eating. The radish pickle will be ready to eat after an hour; try to eat it all within a few days for optimum flavor.

Kimchi bokumbap 김치 볶음밥

Who doesn’t like egg-topped dishes? And who doesn’t like fried rice? This dish, which translates literally as “kimchi mixed rice,” combines the two – a spicy fried rice that uses up bits of kimchi before they become too pungent to eat, leftover rice, and the runny yolk of a fried egg. Or a poached egg, which I prefer.

2 c cooked short-grain rice
1/2 onion, diced 1/4″
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 scallions, minced
1/2 c (or so) baechu kimchi, diced, with any liquid
1 1/2 tsp soy sauce (preferably usukuchi, white soy)
vegetable oil
4 eggs

Place a large skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp oil. Add the onion, garlic, and scallions, and sauté until tender and barely golden. Add the kimchi and saute a minute more.

Add the rice and sauté, breaking up the rice, adding any remaining kimchi liquid and the soy sauce.

Poach the eggs or pan-fry them, sunny-side up. Serve the rice in individual serving bowls, each with an egg, with a generous quantity of gochujang mixed in.

Kimchi bokumbap