The Delicious Joy of Fermented Foods: A Step in My Food Journey and a Kimchi Recipe

A little over a decade ago, I had a self-described “black thumb” and managed to burn soup made from a powdered mix. Fast forward to today, and you can’t shut me up about food, unless perhaps you’re putting something delicious in my mouth. I’m actually a bit shocked that this is my first food-related post on this blog, as much as I am involved in learning everything I can about the food industry, what is really in our food, and growing, making, and preserving it. It’s a miracle that I do not weigh 400 pounds, as much as I love to eat and share food.

Next month is my ten year “veggieversary,” which is a very important date for me not just because it was the moment when I decided I didn’t want to support factory farming or eat the flesh of my fellow animals any longer, but it’s the moment  I really started paying attention to what I was feeding myself; the very beginning of a lifelong journey. I was halfway through college and at my first Rainbow Family Gathering in Modoc County, California. Over the course of the week I spent at the gathering in beautiful national forest, I had my heart and eyes opened by the amazing community I encountered, and I learned so much. At Rainbow gatherings, everyone is fed (for free) each evening in the main meadow. Thousands of people sit on the ground in a circle and are fed by groups of their brothers and sisters with big ladles out of buckets and coolers. And to ensure that everyone can eat (and also to make food storage and preparation in the forest easier), all of the food served is vegan. “If I can enjoy hippie stew and rice & lentil schlop served out of a bucket, eaten out of a dusty bowl out in the woods, for a week straight and still think each meal is delicious and nourishing,” I thought, “why can’t I do this all the time at home?”

I had been thinking about going vegetarian for some time as I learned more about the food industry and factory farming, and had stopped eating fast food several years before, but had never really been exposed to how vegans and vegetarians eat until Rainbow gathering. I had my last piece of meat at the gathering, and from that point forward I made a conscious effort to think before I ate. I began learning more about food and nutrition so that I’d be sure to stay healthy on a vegetarian diet, began reading labels and books, doing research and trying recipes. The following year, I switched from shopping at a supermarket to buying the majority of my food from the co-op and farmer’s markets, and I started eating mostly organic. I started a garden and added to my cookbook collection. I got involved in animal rights and was vegan for some time, always adding and subtracting from my diet as I researched more and learned what made me feel healthiest. As of today, I’d describe my diet and food philosophy as “whole foods organic vegetarian locavore with vegan tendencies” or perhaps “octo-lavo vegetarian foodie gardener,” but labels are tricky, and my diet is always evolving. (Never devolving though, I’ll never eat meat, seafood, or GMOs now that I know better).

My most recent food obsession has been the wonderful world of fermented foods. My friend Elika started a local cultured foods swap group, and after hearing and reading about the benefits of fermented foods and beneficial bacteria for years, I jumped at the chance to join and learn more.  This small group meets once a month to learn about making some kind of fermented food, and we each make a big batch of something to divvy up and share with the group. It’s like a potluck but we get to bring 12-15 jars of delicious fermented foods and other bounty home with us!

Treasures from my first fermented foods swap

Fermented foods have been a major part of the human diet since the beginning of human history (until just recently, in the age of pasteurization and the mass production of food). We have historically fermented foods to preserve them and prolong the bounty of harvest, make them more digestible, and to add the many health benefits that live cultures provide. Microbial cultures are essential to our digestion, immunity, and our very lives – our bodies are full of them and we are constantly in a symbiotic relationship with billions of bacteria and single-cell life forms. Modern food culture, with its sterility and obsession with cleanliness (and the very long-range transport and shipping of food) demonizes bacteria when in fact our health and lives are dependent upon them! Almost every ancient culture has a staple cultured food associated with it – truly putting the culture in cultured.

My sister sent me Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz for my birthday, and since my sweetie is half-Korean and loves the stuff, I was immediately drawn to making kimchi for the swap group. This spicy Korean traditional condiment is ridiculously easy to make, as many fermented foods are, with a little practice, patience, and research. Simply put, it’s spiced pickled cabbage. But boy can it be more exciting than that sounds!

I tried the classic (cabbage, carrots, and daikon radish) recipe in the book, then the radish and roots version. I don’t have a crock yet, so I just let the kimchi ferment in several quart jars in my kitchen, covered with a towel. I’d check the jars, pushing the veggies under the brine, each day, and after about a week, I’d move them to the fridge after deciding they tasted “ripe.” I now put kimchi on breakfast scramble, veggie dogs, sandwiches, salads, and just eat it plain – it’s SO GOOD!

I highly recommend Wild Fermentation or any book by Sandor Ellix Katz to begin your foray into fermented foods.  I am looking forward to making sauerkraut this afternoon for the next swap, and trying cheese, sourdough bread, ginger ale, tempeh, miso, yogurt, vinegars, and mead in the future. So many wonderful possibilities!

Here’s a kimchi recipe based on my favorite batch of kimchi so far, which was a combination of the regular and roots recipes in the book, with a little added variety because that’s how I like it!

ALL the veggies kimchi

ALL the Veggies Kimchi

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons sea salt
  • 4 cups filtered or spring water
  • 1 pound (1 – 2 large heads) Chinese cabbage (Napa and/or bok choy)
  • 1 – 2 daikon radishes
  • 1 – 2 carrots
  • small handful radishes
  • 1 -2 turnips
  • 1 – 2 beets (different colors are nice!)
  • 1 burdock root
  • a few sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes)
  • a small handful of snap peas (optional)
  • 1 small yellow onion
  • 1 small red onion
  • 1 – 2 leeks
  • 4 – 6 cloves garlic
  • 2 -3 hot peppers or chiles
  • 3 tablespoons fresh grated gingerroot
  • 2 – 3 tablespoons fresh grated turmeric root
  • 1 tablespoon fresh grated horseradish root

Process

Mix a brine of about 4 cups water and 4 tablespoons of sea salt. Stir well until salt is dissolved.

Coarsely chop the cabbage and slice the carrots, radishes, daikon, turnips, burdock, beets, peas, and sunchokes into thin rounds or bite-sized pieces (or grate them if you prefer a finer texture). Make sure the root veggies are well scrubbed, or peeled if the skin is tough. Put the veggies in a large bowl and let them soak in the brine overnight or for at least a few hours.

The next day or after a few hours of soaking, prepare the spices: mince the onions, garlic, leeks, and peppers, grate the ginger, turmeric, and horseradish finely, and mix them all into a paste.

Drain the brine off the veggies, reserving the brine. Taste veggies for saltiness – they should be pretty salty, but not unpleasantly so. If they’re too salty, rinse them, but I usually sprinkle in a bit more salt.

Mix the veggies with the spicy paste in the large bowl. Then stuff into your crock or jars (even a plastic bucket will work – just don’t use metal containers for ferments). Pack it tightly into the jars – pushing down with your fingers as you go so that the brine rises. Once the jars are near full, press down and add a little of the reserved brine if necessary so that the vegetables are fully submerged.

You’ll want to weigh the veggies down (with a plate that just fits in a crock, or with a smaller jar, and a weight of some kind like a boiled rock or brick or container of water) to keep them under the brine. One fancy way of keeping them nicely tucked under the brine is to take a napa cabbage leaf or two and tuck them into the jar on top of the veggies, tucking the corners under and then pushing down on the entire leaf layer so brine rises above it. Cover the jars or crock with a clean cloth or towel and ferment in an out of the way corner of your kitchen or other warm place.

Taste the kimchi daily and push the veggies down under the brine. Take out any moldy pieces and keep the jars covered to keep out dust and flies. After about a week of fermentation, it should taste ripe and spicy. Move it to the fridge when you think it’s done, and top it off with a little salt brine once in a while to keep it fresh if needed.

This kimchi was a big hit at the swap and it seems to disappear quickly, so I’ll definitely be acquiring a few crocks so I can keep a batch of this going all the time. Yum!

4 thoughts on “The Delicious Joy of Fermented Foods: A Step in My Food Journey and a Kimchi Recipe”

    1. I brew kombucha too, it’s just been a few months since I’ve made a batch. I need to throw out the months-old tea and see if there’s still a decent mother in there and start a new batch. 🙂

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