Korea’s Kimchi—the New Kale
No doubt about it, we’re in an era of food fads—perhaps we always have been, but this one seemed so sudden: overnight every new recipe book, food magazine, blog, and newspaper article I scanned somehow managed to include recipes that incorporated that leafy green called kale. Why, it almost nudged cupcakes off the top of the current “gastronomic darlings” heap. Maybe it’s because this vegetable’s many nutritional benefits have been widely touted. I can see editors and food writers rushing to their computers to hail kale. Me? I can take it or leave it. I usually toss it in a bean soup, or shred it and add to cooked lentils and sausages. If I still have some on hand I cut the kale in smaller pieces, then add it to just wilt in an otherwise rich pasta dish. When I leave it, it’s because an article has urged me to use kale-in-the-raw as a salad ingredient. It’s okay, I guess, with a creamy salad dressing but that, for me, is it. I’d even choose iceberg over it at a salad bar.
Kimchi and Moi
So when I read about the new darling of the food-forwards, called kimchi, I was transported back to when I was a Forward—a Forward Observer (Artillery) that is—in Korea circa 1958-60. The Seventh Division was headquartered just south of the Demilitarized Zone (the 38th parallel for you history buffs) and our “home” was a clutch of Quonset huts without indoor plumbing. (I gratefully accept your sympathy.)
One great perk for us peacekeepers were the houseboys, the base’s tailor, barber, and—most notable—the bartender at the Officer’s Club. (That plus the fact that a bottle of good gin set you back seventy-five cents!)
When lunchtime rolled around our Korean friends would open their receptacles and the air was suddenly permeated with the pungent smells of kimchi; no surprise, it’s the Korean national dish. Back then I never really knew all the ingredients, but I do know there were two types of kimchi: “winter” kimchi was made during the waning days of summer/autumn when fresh produce was still on hand. It was cooked, placed in a receptacle, and then buried in the soil to preserve it. (“My Dinner’s in the Cold, Cold Ground” could be the theme song here.)
Since most of Korea was off-limits to the G.I.s then, and we were strongly encouraged not to sample the local fare at all, I never tasted “authentic” summer or winter kimchi. Who knew that in 2015 kimchi recipes would be popping up everywhere and that you would find them on so many restaurant menus?
Dealing with the “Aura” of Kimchi
Imagine a barber leaning close to your face and asking, “How you like it?” or the tailor adjusting the lapel on your Army fatigues or khakis (always worn fitted over there) and, literally, breathing down your neck?
I took evasive action in order to deal with “kimchi breath” in everyday confrontations with the otherwise devoted, charming, and talented Koreans.
Our division’s PX was a short walk away. Unfortunately, the only aftershave lotion in the place was Aqua Velva—a scent that still haunts me, and not in a good way. Mom had sent me some of the Irish linen handkerchiefs I invariably received at Christmas over the years. I would sprinkle one of them with the accursed AV and, fearing a breath-taking experience, I’d feign a cold and hold the hanky to my nose during the trim or the altering or the close conversation. (Thank goodness I’d seen the technique with Garbo in Camille.) Thus I survived the worst of the wafts.
Ideas for concocting kimchi at home can now be found in new cookbooks, online, in blogs—all over. As I said, suddenly it’s hot. Figuratively and actually. To make it: start with shredded Napa cabbage, lots (I emphasize lots) of chopped garlic, minced ginger root, fish sauce, daikon radish, green onions, Korean chili powder (if you can find it), sugar, dark sesame oil, and (also if you can find it) Korean salted shrimp. Naturally there are variations, but imagine what the dish would taste like. I’ll bet most of what we read now are Americanized versions but, either way, it really packs a punch.
I rather like the idea of a versatile condiment this time of year, especially if fresh eggplant, tomatoes, and even celery are still around. This may not be Italy’s National Dish, but versions of it pop up in most good Italian cookbooks. Like kimchi, it’s better made ahead and allowed to mellow—for a day or two versus kimchi’s months of fermenting. Just think—no need to dig holes or get crock-ed up.
This recipe is from The Loaves and Fishes Cookbook, circa 1980. It’s timeless and a great thing to have on hand to accompany grilled anything, or roast anything, or just as a topping for a cracker. I’ve adapted this and you can, too, adding canned chopped fennel, (canned) white beans, zucchini, basil, tarragon—go wild!
- 4 medium eggplants
- 2 Tbsp. sea or kosher salt
- 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
- 1 1⁄2 c. extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 yellow onions sliced (I use a mandolin on these, or a very sharp knife)
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
- 1 (16 oz.) can whole tomatoes such as Muir Glen or the equivalent fresh tomatoes
- 4 stalks celery (coarse strings removed with a peeler), diced
- 12 green olives in pieces (from the deli bar)
- 1⁄2 c. pine nuts*
- 1 Tbsp. dried oregano, crushed between your fingers 1⁄2 c. red wine vinegar
- 1⁄4 c. sugar
- More salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Chopped parsley, preferably Italian, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
Peel the eggplants and cut them into cubes. Toss them with the coarse salt and lemon juice and put them in a colander balanced over a bowl. Cover the eggplants with a plate and top with a 5-pound weight (unopened flour or sugar are my choices). Let the eggplant stand for 30 to 45 minutes to extract the extra water and remove any bitter taste.
Heat about 1⁄4 cup of the oil in a large skillet and sauté the eggplant one layer at a time, for 1 to 2 minutes on each side to barely brown the cubes. Continue to add more oil to the skillet as necessary. You may need as much as 1 cup. Transfer the eggplant to a large shallow baking dish.
In the same skillet add the remaining 1⁄2 cup of oil and, over low heat, sauté the onion for about 10 minutes until limp but not brown. Add the garlic and cook about 2 minutes until fragrant—the dish, not you. Break up the tomatoes with your impeccably clean hands and add them, with their liquid. Or simply chop the fresh tomatoes and add. Then add the celery and continue cooking until the celery is tender. Add a little water if necessary to prevent sticking. Scrape into the baking dish along with the olives, pine nuts, and oregano. Mix with the eggplant. Set aside.
In a 4-cup glass measure, mix the vinegar and salt. Microwave for 1 to 2 minutes and then stir until the salt dissolves. Stir this into the eggplant mixture. Pop the baking dish into the preheated oven and cook for about 2 hours at a slow simmer (adjust the oven heat if necessary and stir several times).
Correct the seasoning. Serve warm or at room temperature sprinkled with chopped parsley.
*For even more flavor, add the pine nuts to a skillet and heat on medium low, stirring constantly until the nuts just begin to brown.