To find out how to turn culinary projects into homemade holiday gifts, we turned to Karen Solomon, author of Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It and Can It, Bottle It, Smoke It and most recently, Asian Pickles: Japan. As the titles of her cookbooks suggest, Solomon is an expert in food preservation and DIY kitchen techniques. Here, she’s provided a couple of her favorite recipes and best tips for gifting handcrafted foods to loved ones this holiday season.
Two basic schools of pickling practice exist: vinegar, and fermentation. Both preserve food and add tang. Neither is terribly challenging, and both yield delicious results. But while the first variety can be revved into high gear by using watery vegetables sliced very thinly, fermented pickles don’t rush for anyone. This natural process, responsible for kraut, kosher dills, and kimchee like the two you see below, relies on airborne bacteria converting the sugars in the vegetables into lactic acid, acetic acid, and carbon dioxide for prolonged storage. And like most old school urban homesteading projects, the process takes time – depending on the vegetable and weather, roughly 1-4 days until completion.
I heart kimchee because of its spicy bold flavor, although interestingly enough, hot chili peppers weren’t introduced into Korea until the 18th century. But the heat brings more than just flavor. It, along with the garlic, ginger, and salt, is an antimicrobial, meaning that it also helps to prevent mold and preserve the food for long-term storage. Even if you’ve tried making a sauerkraut and you were unhappy with the results, I encourage you to try your hand at kimchee; it’s boldly flavored, less moody cousin. I much prefer the robust flavor of fermented pickles, but don’t be shy about tasting your kimchee fresh. Some prefer it this way, and it’s interesting to compare it to what it will become in a few days. And while kimchee may not win any beauty contests (to some, this is based on fragrance alone), I find the stuffed cucumbers to be especially attractive and pretty to serve. If you’re like me, you’ll never want to eat fried rice or stir fries without some kind of kimchee again.
Time Commitment: 1 to 3 days
Prep Ahead: You’ll need clean jars with lids. Make sure they are free of rust and odors and the lids seal tightly. Prepare a label that lists the contents and date prepared.
3 large heads Napa cabbage, chopped into 2-inch pieces
1 cup kosher salt
10 cloves garlic, sliced
1 (2-inch) piece ginger, peeled and minced
1 cup Korean dried chile flakes
1 bunch green onions, sliced
Instructions: Put the cabbage in a large colander set over a bowl or in the sink. Toss the cabbage with the salt; your hands are the best tools for this job. Let sit for about 40 minutes to express some of the excess moisture. You’ll notice that your cabbage has decreased in volume. Dump the liquid in the bowl, rinse off the excess salt, and pat the cabbage dry with a clean kitchen towel. Pour the cabbage into a clean bowl and add the garlic, ginger, chile flakes, and green onions. Toss well. Loosely cover, and let it sit overnight or longer, up to 3 days, with the flavor growing more intense and fermented. Stir and taste every 12 hours or so, and move on to the next step when the flavor is to your liking. Note that it will release a most fragrant perfume and a good amount of liquid. Both are desired effects. Pack the kimchee tightly into the jars, including enough liquid to cover all the solids. If you need more liquid, add the smallest amount of cool tap water possible. How to Store It Refrigerate, covered, immersed in the brine, up to 2 months.
Variation: Substitute 2-inch chunks peeled daikon for the cabbage. Makes 5 pints.
Stuffed Cucumber Kimchee
Time: About 1 1/2 hours
3 lbs. regular salad cucumbers (not pickling cucumbers)
2 T fine grain sea salt
1 medium sized carrot, peeled and trimmed (about 3 oz)
2 green onions, roots, tough tops and outer leaves removed
9 cloves garlic
1 1/2 inch by 2 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
3/4 cup Korean chili flakes
1 T fish sauce
1 T sugar
1/2 oz dried shrimp (optional)
Wash the cucumbers and trim and discard the ends. Cut them into 14 2’ chunks. Standing each piece upright, cut an X shape halfway down into each piece, leaving the bottom end intact – do not cut all the way through. Stand the cukes up in a shallow dish, salting them on the bottom, top, and down into the X cut. Let them sit upright for 1 hour to leach out some of their juice.
Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Dice the carrot and the green onion. You can do this by hand, or cut them into chunks and pulse about 20 times in the food processor. Move them into a small mixing bowl. In the bowl of the food processor, add the garlic, ginger, chili, fish sauce, sugar, and dried shrimp, if using. Puree into a paste. This should take about a minute or so, pausing to scrape down solids from the side. Once smooth, fold the carrots and the onion into the paste.
Once the cucumbers are ready, discard any liquid that has pooled in the bottom of the dish, and lightly pat them dry. Stuff about 2-3 teaspoons of the filling into each cucumber, working to get as much into the center as possible, and mounding a dollop on top. These pickles are ready to eat immediately, or they can be served at room temperature for about 12 hours. Unused portions should be refrigerated and eaten within 3 days. Makes 14 stuffed cucumbers.
Food and lifestyle writer Karen Solomon is the author of Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It, Can It, Bottle It, Smoke It, Asian Pickles: Japan, and a contributor to Chow! San Francisco Bay Area. She also writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and is a former editor and columnist for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Her writing has appeared in Fine Cooking, Yoga Journal, Prevention, the SF Zagat Guide, and dozens of Bay Area and national publications. Visit KSolomon.com.