Archive for the ‘Vegetarian’ Category

Broccalafel Casserole

February 20, 2010

Ingredients: falafel mix, broccoli, red bell pepper, onion, pine nuts, egg, crème fraîche, flour, butter, soup mix, za’atar, black pepper, salt.

I needed to use up a rather large head of broccoli, so I decided to make a casserole. Despite the deserved reputation as bland cafeteria food,* I actually love casseroles. In my life, excitement over that first tasty forkful has been responsible for many a burnt palate and/or tongue.

The best part of a casserole is, of course, the crusty top layer. Having no crackers to crush, I went in search of an appropriate substitute. What I found was a box of falafel mix. I’m happy to report that this worked beautifully! I was a little paranoid that the moisture from the broccoli would prevent the falafel from setting properly, so I pre-baked a slab of it in the same dish, with a layer of foil underneath for easy lifting.

Normally I would use some sort of cheese in a broccoli casserole, but I was leery of clashing with the falafel. Instead, I came up with an original (but not particularly risky) sour cream and pine nut sauce.

Toasting pine nuts is a precarious ordeal, so I did that first while my attention wasn’t split. I simply tossed the nuts around in a hot pan until they began to pick up some color, then set them aside.

Next, I browned some diced onion in plenty of butter, and turned it into a roux by adding flour and stirring for a while longer. I added milk to the roux and brought it to boil before turning off the heat and blending in a package of crème fraîche (thick sour cream). A trick here is to temper the cream first; do this by gently warming it in a separate bowl, using small amounts of the saucer’s hot contents. This lessens the danger of curdling the cream when you add it later.

I flavored the sauce with powdered soup and za’atar, which is a Middle Eastern combo of thyme, sumac, salt, roasted wheat, and sesame seeds. [Check this stuff out if you can. It makes a nice bread acccompaniment when mixed with olive oil, and works wonders as a rub on proteins.] I also added my pine nuts, and a raw egg for binder.

I assembled the casserole by pouring the sauce over a bed of broccoli florets and red bell pepper. Then I carefully placed the giant falafel disk on top, covered it all in foil, and baked it for about 40 minutes on low heat. I removed the foil during the last 5 minutes so as to crisp the falafel.

This casserole came out really great. The broccoli and sauce had condensed into a solid layer which was chewy and dense, but not overly so. The pine nuts added a flavor that matched the falafel really well, with nice tart sumac accents from the za’atar. My falafel was a bit overdone, so next time I will let the lower half of the casserole cook for a while before topping it. Another thing I will try next time is to add toasted whole coriander seeds to the sauce, since ground coriander is one of the primary flavor components of falafel.

* — I’ve found that the cure is more salt during the cooking process. The liquid component of a casserole will be absorbed by (and thus must support) the starchy component. In other words, the “sauce” for a noodle casserole typically needs to be quite a bit saltier than what you’d pour over noodles.

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Palak Paneer

February 10, 2010

Curry ingredients: spinach, tomato, green chile pepper, gram flour, chickpeas, ghee (clarified butter), onion, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric, garam masala, ground fenugreek seed, salt.

Rice ingredients: basmati rice, ghee, garlic, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, bay leaf, mustard seed, cumin seed, coriander seed, turmeric, salt.

Served with: paratha bread.

One of my culinary goals (life goals?) is to figure out how to make homemade Indian food taste like restaurant Indian food. I suppose that’s what I’m always trying to do in my kitchen: recreate a dish such that it tastes like the best time I paid for it.

Sometimes I throw in the towel. [No pizza oven, no pizza.]

Sometimes I’m so pleased with home results that I actively spread gospel for years afterward. [Hey all you Katz’s fans, ever try to make your own corned beef? It’s incredibly easy and totally foolproof.]

With Indian cuisine, I’ve had mixed results. Try as I might, I’ve never been able to make tikka masala sauce that matches the transcendent balance of flavors from House of India in St Louis, or from Khajuraho or Jaipur in Philadelphia. I don’t even wanna talk about it. Seriously, it’s depressing.

The dish that does seem to come out right, at least most of the time, is palak paneer. This is fortunate, as it happens to be my second-favorite (behind tikka masala). In fact, I often ordered palak paneer before becoming a vegetarian. That says something, doesn’t it?

Palak paneer production is a 4-part process. There’s the spinach curry itself; plus the chunks of fried paneer cheese mixed in; heaven-scented basmati rice; and some sort of bread, be it naan, roti, or paratha. I freely admit to cheating on the bread here. We often purchase frozen parathas that crisp up nicely on a griddle, so that’s what I used.

First, the cheese. Paneer is a blocky fresh cheese that browns rather than melts, much like halloumi. I make it myself by boiling a gallon of whole milk, then curdling it with the juice of a lime (lemon or white vinegar work too). I strain the curds from the whey using a cheesecloth, then press it between two plates and chill it overnight. Simple, delicious! Before incorporating it into my curry, I slice the paneer into cubes and pan-fry them in ghee (clarified butter). This last step is optional, but I love the crispy texture.

To make the rice, I begin by assembling the necessary spices. These need to be toasted quickly in a pan, which involves very little margin for error, as overly-burnt spices are offensively bitter. I use whole cumin seeds, whole coriander seeds, whole mustard seeds, whole cloves, whole cardamom pods, and a stick of cinnamon. Once the seeds begin to pop, I add a heaping spoonful of ghee, minced garlic, a bay leaf, turmeric powder, salt, and a cup of raw basmati rice. Toasting the rice itself adds a nice nutty flavor, though this step can be omitted by adding the 2 cups of water immediately. When the rice is cooked through and gets a chance to steam a bit, I try my best to remove the cinnamon, clove, bay leaf, and cardamom pods. Those are not fun to chomp into.

For the curry, I start by roasting green chilies. This time I used Cubanelles, but any somewhat-spicy variety will do. Chile peppers really bring out the mild flavor of the spinach, so I highly recommend making the effort. It’s also important to roast and peel them first, or else you will end up with tiny flecks of skin in your curry, almost as if you diced up a plastic bag and added that as well.

To the chilies, I add plenty of spinach, cook it down a bit, then liquefy with an immersion blender. When I make palak paneer, I like to use a mix of fresh and frozen spinach. The fresh leaves have a marvelously “green” flavor, but their consistency feels a bit too slippery in large quantities. This is easily remedied by mixing in an equal amount of thawed frozen spinach, which also cuts down on the cost.

In a separate pot, I sear up some sliced onions in ghee, then add a paste of mashed garlic and ginger. As this begins to brown, I sprinkle in fairly heaping quantities of cumin and coriander. This also needs to brown, but takes very little time, and is important not to burn completely. When I see smoke begin to appear, I dump in a can of diced tomatoes and let the mixture reduce over low heat, for about 10 minutes. Then I add the spinach, plus hefty pinches of garam masala (premixed Indian spice blend), turmeric (mostly for color), and ground fenugreek seed (for a pleasant earthy depth).

The last step is to thicken up the curry, which can be done in a few ways. In the past, I’ve used ground cashews. This time I used ground dry-roasted chickpeas (also called gram flour, though I could not find this for sale and thus grinded my own). I was very pleased with the results. My palak paneer was just thick enough to retain its shape on a plate, and the chickpeas enhanced rather than distracted from the overall flavor.

I’m not going to pretend that this is a simple, easy process. However, until I find myself within the delivery perimeters a good Indian restaurant, palak paneer will remain a homemade favorite.

Ćevapi & Sataraš

February 7, 2010

Ćevapi ingredients: Match® vegan beef, bulgur wheat, egg, onion, garlic, Vegeta, ghee, black pepper, salt.

Sataraš ingredients: tomato, bell pepper (red/yellow/green), eggplant, onion, garlic, sugar, Vegeta, vegetable oil, salt.

Served with: chopped onion, lepinja-style bread.

According to Senka, the joke goes like this: “What do Bosnians do when they’re hungry? … chop onions, then decide what to make for dinner.”

Having traveled south with her to Sarajevo last summer, I can now say that I’m in on the joke. They put onions in everything, and they don’t stop when the cooking’s done – a modest pile of chopped raw onions accompanies your food to the table, in case you want more.

Today’s post is my attempt to reproduce two typical Bosnian dishes: ćevapi (chu-VAHP-y) and sataraš (sattah-RASCH). Ćevapi are little hamburger-fingers, served hot off the grill with distinctively airy rounds of lepinja bread (and plenty of onion). This is the ubiquitous Bosnian fast food of choice, beloved by locals and mandatory after a night on the town. Sataraš, on the other hand, is more of a homestyle dish, a rustic stew of simmered garden vegetables.

The sataraš was simple to prepare. We diced up garlic and onion, sautéed them in plenty of oil on low heat, then added large chunks of eggplant and bell pepper. When the eggplant had absorbed most of the oil, we added a can of whole tomatoes to the pot, plus a hefty pinch of sugar and a sprinkling of Vegeta (all-purpose soup mix). I crushed up the tomatoes and let the mixture simmer for about 25 minutes, at which point Senka claimed the taste and texture were correct.

Our sataraš was shockingly good. It was silky and rich from the oily eggplant, texturally balanced by the tomatoes’ bright acidity. The peppers lent their deep yet subtle bitterness, while the pinch of sugar tied everything together by bringing out the vegetables’ own natural sweet flavors.

Given the cheap, foolproof, and practically labor-free preparation of sataraš, I will certainly be making it again. It even tastes great straight from the fridge!

Reproducing authentic ćevapi was more of a challenge, considering we don’t eat meat. I substituted a package of Match® vegan beef (a souvenir from one of my trips home to Philadelphia), which does a fairly good job imitating raw hamburger. I seasoned it with plenty of grated onion and garlic, black pepper, Vegeta, and salt. I also fortified the texture with some cooked bulgur wheat for chewiness, and mixed in an egg for binding.

I tried to roll the ćevapi into skinny cylinders, but eventually gave up (too soft) and settled for rectangular patties. I pan-fried these in a bit of ghee (clarified butter). I like using ghee for jobs like this, because it can be raised to higher temperatures than butter, while still providing a nice brown crust.

For the bread, I took a shortcut and used a similar offering from the local bakery. The texture should be like puffy pizza dough, chewy and full of air pockets.

While not exactly authentic, our ćevapi were meaty and delicious, accented in true Bosnian fashion by crisp raw onion.

Kolokithokeftedes

November 17, 2009

Ingredients: zucchini, Travnicki cheese, bulgur wheat, egg, scallion, lemon, bread crumbs, oregano, mint, black pepper, salt.

I came across recipes for kolokithokeftedes (Greek for “zucchini meatballs”) a few times while browsing other people’s food blogs, and finally got around to making them at home. This was an instance of being fairly sure I’d enjoy what I was cooking, yet with hardly a clue as to what it would taste like.

I started by preparing some coarse wheat bulgur. I love the chewiness of bulgur, and figured it would blend into and fortify the texture of my fritters. Most recipes suggested either breadcrumbs or plain flour, but I wanted more “tooth.”

When the bulgur had cooled, I combined it with the rest of the ingredients: an entire grated zucchini, an egg, chopped scallion, oregano, mint, a big squeeze of lemon, and plenty of salt & pepper. I also crumbled and blended in a block of Travnicki Sir, which is a Bosnian brined sheep’s milk cheese similar to mild feta. Although it surely didn’t matter for this particular recipe, I just love the texture of Travnicki. It’s light, nowhere near as dense as feta, yet with a stiff integrity and springy resistance to the bite. I often enjoy it with sliced cucumbers and tomatoes.

Many of the kolokithokeftedes I saw online were flat patties, like latkes (Jewish potato pancakes, the only fritters Mom used to make). For some reason I wanted mine to be spherical. Another common feature I wished to avoid were the dark burned bits of zucchini flecking the outside of the fritters. So, before frying, I shaped the dough into golfballs, and gave them an extra roll-around in some bread crumbs. This provided a protective layer that saved the zucchini bits from blackening.

The results were spectacular, if a bit hard to describe. The outsides were crispy of course, but gave way quickly in the mouth to a creamy-yet-chewy filling, almost like risotto. There was no zucchini texture, but its flavor lurked in the background, providing a slightly bitter “healthy” taste. The foreground of the flavor profile was all Greek: herby from mint & oregano, tangy from lemon and feta, rich from the olive oil I used for frying.

Porcini-Sunchoke Risotto

November 16, 2009

sunchoke-risotto

Ingredients: Arborio rice, sunchoke, parsnip, carrot, button mushroom, porcini mushroom, shallot, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, sage, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Pecorino Sardo cheese, dry sherry, vegetable stock, butter, olive oil, black pepper, salt.

Last time I made a risotto, I remarked that it could have easily been served on its own as a complete meal. This time, I decided to do just that, and was very pleased with the results. My risotto was rich, creamy, herby, and filled with the woodsy flavors of mushrooms and root vegetables.

One particular root vegetable, the sunchoke, was my source of inspiration for this dish. What’s a sunchoke? I really didn’t know either, but damned if those Top Chefs don’t drape their steaks over sunchoke purée every single time. So I looked it up; sunchokes are the tubers of the sunflower plant! They can be roasted or mashed like any other root vegetable, or even served raw and crispy like jicama. They taste like artichokes, which is what led to their name.

[Sunchokes are also called Jerusalem artichokes. From what I can tell, this term is slowly being phased out, as these tubers are neither artichokes nor are they from Jerusalem. The latter is simply a corruption of the Italian word for sunflower, girasole. If you find this interesting, I’m sure we could be friends.]

For a simple dinner one night, I hacked up and roasted a variety of root vegetables in the oven. There were potatoes, sunchokes, parsnips, and carrots, seasoned only with salt & pepper. This was the first time I’d tasted a sunchoke, and was really impressed with its deliciously-concentrated roasty artichoke flavor. I figured the leftovers would match well with an earthy mushroom risotto, so I made that for lunch the next day.

The first step was to sherry-soak a generous portion of dried porcinis. We’re periodically sent bags of these mushrooms by my girlfriend’s parents, who hand-pick them up north. I like to think of this as the vegetarian version of having hunters in the family — not that I’d actually prefer deer jerky. The flavor of wild porcini mushrooms is hard to beat, especially in “meaty” soups and stews.

When the porcinis had softened sufficiently, I diced them up, along with a handful of regular button mushrooms. I puréed the leftover roasted sunchoke, carrot, and parsnip chunks, and set them aside for later. I also prepared a nice mound of grated cheese, using both Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Sardo (an amazing sheep’s milk cheese, softer and much less harsh than Pecorino Romano).

To get the risotto started, I heated olive oil in a heavy pot and sautéed 2 cups of raw Arborio rice until very slightly brown in color. Then I added my chopped mushrooms, plus a bay leaf and some minced garlic & shallot, taking care not to burn anything. Next, I poured in the sherry I had used for soaking the porcinis. When that got absorbed, I added ladles of hot vegetable stock, stirring all the while, encouraging the rice grains to release their natural starch into a creamy sauce.

For the final step of the process, when the rice had cooked through, I mixed in the vegetable purée, followed by a hunk of butter and the grated cheese. I also added a pinch of thyme and sage, for an herby accent. The risotto was delicious. I especially liked the artichoke flavor lent by the sunchokes.

Cranberry-Halloumi Burrito

October 8, 2009

cranburrito

Ingredients: cranberry-studded halloumi, orange and green bell pepper, jalapeño pepper, black bean, cranberry, bulgur, cumin, black pepper, salt.

Served with: whole wheat tortilla, sour cream, cilantro.

I wrote about halloumi before, here. An excerpt:

“You might not be familiar with halloumi, but you should be! It’s a salty, somewhat rubbery cheese from Cyprus, a bit like a super-firm block of mozzarella. What’s unique about halloumi is that it doesn’t melt, so you can pan-fry or grill it. This puts a delicious brown crust on the surface and takes away the rubberiness. In fact, the resulting texture is very similar to grilled chicken, so it makes a great meat substitute.”

What I did not mention previously is that halloumi usually comes folded over a bit of torn mint leaf. It’s a nice touch, and solidifies the cheese’s Cypriot/Greek identity. So, I was taken aback recently when I saw a package of halloumi featuring cranberry instead of mint. I gave it a try on the grill and was pleasantly surprised by how nicely the tart & sweet flavor of the fruit had permeated the salty cheese. The result was a nuanced yet exceptionally balanced product.

It would not be inappropriate to call this cheese inspirational, considering that’s literally how it affected me. For days, I woke up thinking about new and better ways to enjoy cranberry halloumi. One recurring idea was to construct a sweet & savory “Tex-Mex” burrito, with halloumi replacing grilled chicken strips, and dried cranberries mixed into the rice and/or beans. Does that even sound good? I had to find out one way or another, because I couldn’t get the idea out of my head.

To begin preparation, I fired up the grill-pan and blackened a jalapeño and a pair of bell peppers (orange & green). To remove the charred skin, I let the peppers steam inside a sealed plastic bag for a while after grilling, then let them cool. This process allowed the skin to slip off easily.

Next, I made a quick “rice” & black beans using bulgur (coarsley cracked and parboiled wheat). To this I added cumin, salt, pepper, and a sprinkling of dried cranberries. It was tasty, and reminded me of Moroccan couscous dishes, which often feature raisins or other dried fruit.

I divided the halloumi into thick slices, grilled them carefully, and began to assemble the burritos. For a finishing touch, I tossed in a little chopped cilantro and a dab of sour cream. The whole wheat tortillas I used seemed a little raw, so I sat the finished burritos on the grill to pick up some color and texture on their outsides.

I enjoyed my burrito, but I think a Top Chef judge would say that it “needed refinement.” The flavor basically worked, but it was missing something(s) despite having probably too many unique tastes. My proportions were also a bit off, which resulted in a fairly dry burrito. I will probably try this again sometime, perhaps with a sauce to moisten it up.

Crispy Potatoes, Cheesy Spinach

October 1, 2009

creamedspinach

Ingredients: potato, spinach, butter, olive oil, flour, milk, lemon, aged Gouda, black pepper, salt.

I’m not sure if my dinner here qualifies as an actual meal or just 2 side dishes on one plate. This exact dilemma comes up quite a lot as a vegetarian, at least in my experience. It’s so hard to let go of the protein-veg-starch model. At any rate, the potatoes and spinach came out very tasty and satisfying.

To make the potatoes, I cubed them (with skins intact) and tossed them in olive oil, salt, and pepper. Then I scattered them on a foiled baking tray and popped them in the oven for an hour. Halfway through the cooking I shook them around because the bottoms were getting much browner than the sides. This procedure worked out fine, but I suspect there are better ways to achieve evenly-browned roast potatoes. Anybody have tips for me?

For the spinach, I simply made a Mornay sauce (Béchamel plus cheese) and drizzled it into the pan where my thawed frozen spinach was cooking. The Mornay was really tasty. My cheese of choice was a grainy aged Gouda, which has a marvelous caramel flavor and a sharp bite. Then, as I usually do with anything heavy & creamy, I added a little lemon juice at the end to freshen it up.

Bleu Cheese Salad with Falafel Croutons

August 21, 2009

falafel_salad

Dressing Ingredients: bleu cheese, mayonnaise, crème fraîche, heavy cream, lemon, shallot powder, scallion, parsley, black pepper, salt.

Served with: falafel, iceberg lettuce, tomato, cucumber, corn, carrot, sriracha.

Falafel is basically a chickpea croquette, flavored with onion, cumin, and coriander. It’s traditionally served tucked into pita bread with raw or pickled vegetables and tahini sauce. I do love a fresh crunchy falafel sandwich (and I frequently sought them out even before going vegetarian), but lately I’ve been wondering something: why is falafel always served exactly the same way?

I decided to do a little brainstorming. I knew I wanted to depart from the typical tahini sauce, but not too far, because un-dressed falafel is pretty dry. So, tahini sauce is made with lemon and garlic, and has a creamy consistency. That gave me the idea to try serving falafel with bleu cheese dressing, which is also lemony, garlicky, and creamy. I figured a nice garden salad would pair safely with the dressing, while the falafel balls acted as croutons. I also wanted to incorporate some hot sauce, since it’s used not only as a condiment for falafel sandwiches, but also in the mouthwatering combo of bleu cheese dressing and Buffalo-style chicken wings.

To make the dressing, I started by mixing mayonnaise, crème fraîche, lemon juice, and heavy cream. I then mashed in some room-temperature bleu cheese, and blended everything to a smooth consistency. I seasoned the dressing with salt, black pepper, and shallot powder, then added diced scallion and fresh parsley. [Can anyone out there actually taste dried parsley? It literally tastes like dust to me.] Finally, I crumbled in more bleu cheese, and stored the finished dressing in the fridge to let the flavors permeate.

I used a boxed mix for the falafel, which came out excellent as usual. I had a fresh ear of corn in the fridge, so I decided to boil that and slice it off the cob for my salad. I also used iceberg lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and carrot. I tossed the salad with the dressing, got artsy with the tomatoes and hot sauce, snapped some photos, then sat down to eat.

My first impression after one forkful of the salad was “wow this is good.” The dressing was perfect, right up there with Morton’s sublime (and inspirational) Iceberg Wedge Salad. The hot sauce was an interesting touch, too. The falafel … was a little out of place. Okay you win, Universe, I will just stick it in a pita with tahini sauce next time.

Or will I?

Tofu Pot Pie

August 13, 2009

potpie

Ingredients: tofu, onion, carrot, celery, green pea, flour, butter, cream, vegetable stock, dry sherry, thyme, parsley, egg, black pepper, salt.

Chicken or turkey pot pie, from the freezer of course, was one of my favorite meals growing up. This dish is a true celebration of starch. First you get the flaky, crispy upper crust, then the chewy shell soaked with floury gravy, followed by a procession of tender diced potato chunks. Like pizza, pot pie is pretty good even when it’s not that good, which bodes well for the home chef!

I recall that Mom worked up quite a mystique around pot pies. She purchased them  on what seemed like a quarterly schedule, regardless of whether or not I asked for them. When one appeared and I requested it for dinner, she’d frown and cock her head to one side, lecturing me that it “has more calories than you need in an entire day.” So why did she keep buying them? [Answer: they went on sale four times a year.] Either way, I regarded the humble North American pot pie as the height of decadence. In hindsight, it’s just sorta white-trashy and fattening.

I have been craving a nice pot pie, though. It seemed like something I could reproduce faithfully without chicken. Almost everything I’ve cooked recently has included seafood, so I decided to go with tofu this time. I used pressed (aka dried) tofu, which is essentially firm tofu with even less moisture. It’s a bit more difficult to find than firm or silken tofu, but well worth the hunt. Pressed tofu has the texture of Indian paneer, which is to say, it’s dense and chewy and meaty.

In the spirit of challenge, I decided to make my own pie crust. This was a first for me, as I don’t bake very often, being practically allergic to measuring. I did my best. Fortunately, the pot pie shell and crust came out fine, and the procedure wasn’t too difficult. It was, however, quite messy and not particularly rewarding. Therefore, I will probably just use ready-made pie shells in the future, or more creative options like biscuit dough or mashed potatoes.

For the filling, I prepared a basic cream sauce, flavored it with sherry and vegetable stock, then mixed in the tofu and some blanched vegetables (potato, carrot, celery, green peas). I poured the filling into my pre-baked shell, then draped an uncooked sheet of pie dough over the top. I brushed the dough with an egg wash, then baked the pie until the crust got nice and brown.

I enjoyed the pot pie, but it didn’t really hit the spot. The flavor was just too flat. I’m not going to be using chicken or turkey any time soon, so perhaps I will try again with some kind of seafood. Most likely I will turn to less-caloric endeavors.

Kimchi

August 5, 2009

kimchi

Ingredients: Napa cabbage, carrot, bamboo shoot, scallion, garlic, ginger, Thai dried chilies, glutinous rice, sugar, nam pla (fish sauce), salt.

Served with: white rice, sesame seeds, cucumber, egg, tofu marinated in soy/sugar/sesame oil.

I am a bit afraid to write this post. Kimchi is fiercely beloved by Koreans, and Koreans are a fierce bunch. They take their kimchi very seriously. Some of them read this blog, which means I have to do right by this spicy little side dish, or face consequences. I’m … probably in no physical danger, but I do want to keep my friends. After all, they introduced me to kimchi in the first place, and for that I’m thankful.

So, what is kimchi? It’s essentially a pickle made from Napa cabbage and/or other veggies. I’m going to pause and rewind here because until recently, I thought that pickle specifically referred to a salt-processed cucumber. Actually, when I was a kid, I didn’t think pickles and cucumbers were related at all. They sure tasted different! Eventually, I figured out that one comes from the other. Now, of course, I get it that a similar process can be applied to pretty much any food item, and that it can be done at home.

The basic idea is that perishables will not perish if they are kept in a salty, acidic environment. What does happen is fermentation, whereby “good” bacteria break down the natural starches and sugars in the vegetables, producing pleasantly sour lactic acid. This is also good news for the digestive tract, because the fermentation process has already done half the work. There are health benefits, too. Pickled vegetables are considered quite good for you, providing all the nutritional benefits of raw food. Kimchi in particular is supposedly one of the healthiest foods on the planet.

Making kimchi is labor-intensive and involves days of waiting around for it to ferment, but the steps are simple and the end result is certainly worthwhile. It’s incredibly spicy and pungently sour, but also salty, and a bit sweet. The garlic and fish sauce give it a nice savoriness too. My favorite way to enjoy kimchi is as pictured above, with some fresh cucumber slices, plenty of rice, and a just-barely-fried egg (so as to coat everything with runny yolk). This week I had some fresh tofu on hand, so I marinated that in soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil, then pan-fried it and served it with the rest. This kind of presentation is called bibimbap (“mixed meal”) in Korean, and is a ubiquitous menu choice when dining out.

The first stage of making kimchi is to brine the cabbage. I washed and chopped 2 heads of Napa cabbage (did you know this comes from China, not California?) into a large bowl, then covered the pile with a small mountain of coarse salt, followed by enough water to submerge it. This needs to sit for while, so I left it overnight and continued working the next day.

I washed and drained the brined cabbage, and added to it ample julienned strips of carrot, bamboo shoot, and scallion. The bamboo was an experiment that turned out great; I’ll definitely be using that again next time. I have also used daikon radish in the past, which is a more traditional kimchi veggie, but I honestly don’t care for its flavor.

The last step is to make a “starter” for the kimchi, like a baker would for a loaf of bread. This calls for a paste of glutinous rice flour. I didn’t have that, but I did have some glutinous rice, so I buzzed it around in an electric coffee mill until it couldn’t get any finer. [Doesn’t that sound like R&B-speak?] I boiled the rice powder gently, along with some sugar and a decent quantity of fish sauce, to make a thick porridge, which I then let cool. Next I pumped a few cloves of garlic and a hunk of ginger through a press and into the pot. Last but not least came the chili flakes. It’s incredibly important to use the right kind, that being Korean gochugaru, which is bright red and fluffy. You don’t want any seeds in the mix, and it has to be mellow, because you’ll be using a huge amount of it. Sadly, I couldn’t find any gochugaru in any of the stores here, so I substituted a handful of whole dried Thai chilies, which I deseeded by hand and pulverized in the coffee mill. I knew from experience that I would not be able to use very much of the Thai chili, for fear of rendering the kimchi inedibly spicy. In the end, I picked a good heat level, but there wasn’t much of that vibrant red kimchi color to be found.

I poured the kimchi starter over the cabbage, then used my (plastic-gloved) hands to mix it up well. At this point, it was time to seal the kimchi in an airtight plastic container, set that aside in a dark room, and relax. Kimchi needs about 3 days to ferment in its own juices. I know that sounds scary, but you will not die from leaving kimchi in the closet. You will merely help it achieve its pickly goodness, after which you will assist it to the nearest refrigerator shelf, where it will last for several weeks.