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Life's short; eat more kimchi

Shannon Kuhn
Spice up your cheese quesadilla with some kimchi for an easy snack. Shannon Kuhn

I have a big ol’ garlicky spot in my heart for kimchi.

In my opinion, the national dish of Korea is one of the world’s best-kept secrets. It’s salty, spicy, satisfyingly crunchy and also good for you -- what’s not to love?

I was born in South Korea and raised in Alaska, and I’ve watched as the state’s Korean population has grown. Nationally, kimchi is showing up on trendy restaurant menus, glossy food magazine covers and even in bloody mary bars.

Yet, I’ve talked to many Korean restaurant owners who decided to start restaurants focused on Japanese or Chinese food because they feel there is more local demand for it.

Alaska is usually a few years behind when it comes to food trends. While we do have a few standout Korean restaurants already, it would be a stretch to say we have anything near a Korean food scene. But from Barrow to Bethel and Juneau to Anchorage, it is a cuisine standing in the shadows, waiting for its moment to shine. It’s my hope that in the near future Korean food will be commonplace throughout the state.

In the meantime, it’s easy to make your own kimchi at home and incorporate it into your cooking.

Kimchi is a super-spicy fermented cabbage condiment (think sauerkraut marinated in hot sauce) that is served at breakfast, lunch and dinner in Korea. Kimchi is a staple of the high-fiber, low-fat traditional diet that has kept the country’s obesity at bay. Kimchi is used in everything from soups to sandwiches and as a topping on pizza and burgers.

Alaska-made kimchi is truly spectacular because our homegrown cabbage is sweet and crunchy, perfect for pickling and fermentation. I received a head of Napa cabbage in my Community-Supported Agriculture share of vegetables from Chickaloon this week and have a few quarts of kimchi fermenting on my kitchen counter. It makes my mouth water to think about eating homemade kimchi in the dead of winter.

You can make kimchi with any vegetable, or even fruit if you are feeling adventurous. Some of my coworkers recently made delicious kimchi featuring beach greens and wild edibles.

Kimchi is also a probiotic powerhouse and an excellent antioxidant. It is loaded with “healthy bacteria” called lactobacilli, found in fermented foods like yogurt and miso soup, as well as vitamins A, B and C, and fiber. It really is a superfood, and adds a flavorful kick to anything.

Kimchi is a fun ingredient to be creative with in the kitchen. Kimchi-salmon tacos, kimchi grilled cheese, reindeer-kimchi dogs … the list goes on. Here are some (very non-traditional) recipes for adding kimchi into your diet.
 

Basic kimchi

(makes 2 quarts)
 
1 head napa cabbage
½ cup salt
1 gallon water
1 small head of garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 (2-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1/3 cup chili paste or 1/2 cup Korean chili powder
1 bunch green onions, cut into 1-inch lengths (use the dark green part too)
1 medium daikon radish, peeled and grated or finely sliced
1 teaspoon sugar or honey (or agave nectar)

1. Slice the cabbage lengthwise in half, then slice each half lengthwise into 3 sections. Cut away the tough stem chunks.
2. Dissolve the salt in the water in a very large container, then submerge the cabbage under the water. Put a plate on top to make sure it stays underwater, then let stand for 2 hours.
3. Mix the other ingredients in a very large metal or glass bowl.
4. Drain the cabbage, rinse it and squeeze it dry.
5. Mix other ingredients to make a paste. Add cabbage and mix together.
6. Pack the kimchi into the jar, pressing down on it until the brine rises to cover the vegetables. Leave at least 1 inch of pace. Seal the jar with a lid.
7. Let the jar stand at room temperature for 1-2 days. You may see bubbles inside the jar and brine may seep out of the lid; place a bowl or plate under the jar to help catch any overflow.
8. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator.
 

Kimchi fried rice

1-2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
½ pound protein (chicken, pork, shrimp, moose or salmon would taste great)
4 scallions (the white part -- use green parts to garnish), finely sliced
1-1½ cups kimchi, chopped
3-4 cups cooked rice (old rice is best)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons soy sauce
pinch of salt, to taste

Optional additional ingredients:

1 fried egg (per person), to serve on top
shredded seaweed, for garnish
 
1. Heat oil in a large, deep frying pan over high heat. Then add your raw protein until cooked through. Add more oil if necessary.
2. Add the scallion whites and cook while stirring for 1 to 2 minutes. Next, add kimchi and cook while stirring for 3 to 5 minutes until it starts to get soft. (If using pre-cooked protein, add now and stir to coat with kimchi flavors.)
3. Add the rice, sesame oil and soy sauce. Then mix well until the rice is coated with the kimchi. (You can always add a little bit of the briny liquid from the kimchi jar if it seems like there’s not enough color or spice for all of your rice.)
4. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, for just a few more minutes until the rice is warmed through. Add the garlic chives in the last minute of cooking and stir well until they start to wilt. Season with salt, to taste.
5. Serve topped with a fried egg and sprinkled with scallions or shredded seaweed.
 

Kimchi quesadilla

1 (10-inch) tortilla
1/2 cup Monterey Jack blend shredded cheese
1/4 cup kimchi, chopped
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
 
1. Heat your tortilla in a large skillet, generously buttered. Flip it over and sprinkle 1/4 cup of cheese onto half the tortilla.
2. Top the cheese with kimchi, cilantro and the rest of the cheese.
3. Fold over the other half of your tortilla and brown the quesadilla to your liking.
4. Serve with Sriracha lime sauce (sour cream, sriracha and fresh lime juice).
 

Bacon-kimchi pizza

Makes one 10-inch pizza

About 1/2 pound of pizza dough (you can order dough to go at Bear/Moose’s Tooth in Anchorage or find it at the deli counter of many grocery stores)
1 cup kimchi
3 cloves garlic, sliced
3 strips bacon (and fat!)
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons Hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon Sriracha sauce
1 teaspoon mayonnaise
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
2 scallion stalks
2 teaspoons olive oil
 
1. Place bacon in a cast-iron skillet and cook until crispy on both sides, about 6-7 minutes. Transfer bacon pieces to a plate. With the fat that is already on the pan, turn the heat to high. Add kimchi with garlic and cook. Continue to stir and cook until there is no more moisture left in the pan. Once the kimchi and garlic both turn slightly brown, remove from heat.
2. Place flour on your surface and rolling pin. Roll out the dough slowly into a circle. Take the dough in your hands and stretch it out as evenly as possible. Continue rolling until the dough forms a circle.
3. In a small bowl, mix Worcestershire sauce, Hoisin sauce, Sriracha sauce (optional) and mayonnaise. Adjust seasonings to your liking. Set aside.
4. Place pizza dough directly on the cookie sheet or cast-iron skillet. Spread 1 teaspoon of olive oil on the dough. Add sauce, leaving a little bit of space on the edges. Add kimchi. Use kitchen scissors to cut scallions and bacon right onto the pizza. Finish with cheese.
5. Place pizza in the middle rack of the oven and cook for 7 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and the dough has a crispy brown color.