I want to make more enormous food. Goat roasts, fish fries, manicotti parties…. I loved Gabrielle Hamilton‘s description of her wedding cake in her recent book Blood Bones and Butter, an enormous ball of barrata for which each guest was given a soup spoon to carve out their own hunk with. I was also inspired by the book Food of a Youngerland, that depicts a turn of the century american food culture which was full of enormous food celebrations. Clam bakes in New England required trenches to be dug, filled, covered, tended to for days, and then consumed in great mass. In Long Beach, (where I’ve lived for 6 years and had no prior knowledge of this history) Grunion Runs used to be celebrated events when locals rolled huge friers out on the beach so that families could grab the fish in buckets and eat them real time. What happened to these big rockus pig roasts, fish fries, harvest festivals? I tried to convince Steve the other day that I might be able to make a good sum of money having a restaurant only open for Sunday brunch if each brunch was always some enormous memorable event. Tia Adelita makes her living making barbacoa in a hand-made bbq pit under a trap door in the floor of her garage every Sunday morning for fellow neighbors to enjoy after church.
An opportunity to scratch this itch came when my korean american friend invited me to learn to make Kimchi with her korean mother-in-law. Kimchi I learned is made in enormous batches every 3-6 months. The batches are then distributed across the family in huge jars that live on countertops or in the fridge for daily consumption. Having a big jar of kimchi seems a bit like making 30 pounds of french fries ahead of time so that you can throw a pile along side anything you happen to be eating. The Kimchi making process is thus an event within itself. It took an evening and one full work day, 3 people (one of whom was an expert), a garden hose, a bowl the size of my kitchen table, and a line-up of huge glass jars. The sheer volume of ingredients shocked me. I am not even sure where you can buy a pallet of napa cabbage, leave it to LA, you really can find anything here.
In true family cooking style we had 3 generations of Lee’s helping out. Except little B did little to contribute besides squirm and escape from his rubber seat.
The process kicked off the night before I arrived. As I understand it the cabbage was quartered, covered in salt, and left out over night. When I got there we rinsed each head out three times. Exactly 3. After each rinse the head gets a shaken hard. I don’t think our matriarch was satisfied with the quality or ferocity of either of our shaking styles and we learned months later that it may have been a bit wet.
Four enormous radishes were shaved to shreds on a mandolin while a big vat of red chili paste was being created. I chopped green onions, mustard greens, and garlic. All of this went into the radish shred and was mixed until thoroughly coated. My abnormally large hands came in quite handy for the mixing process. I was given some latex gloves which I realized way later had protected me from a slow chili burn and stain.
This table-sized bowl of mixed radish was tasted and adjusted as I mixed. Astounding. I can barely taste and adjust a sauce or dressing that I’m going to eat in an hour. I tried to imagine tasting something now that would be fermented for weeks before consumption and then continue to ferment and change shape and flavor along the way. Great Kimchi evolves well through each stage of consumption to the point where at the very bottom of the jar you are cutting it up and cooking it in stew or stir fry. As far as I could compute these adjustments would take a hell of a lot of projection. You’d have to make a lot of kimchi to know what it should taste like now so that it tastes like x or y later. I just watched and mixed. Each triple washed cabbage head was then stuffed leaf by leaf with this spicy radish sludge. It was much like stuffing a book with peanut butter, you’d slather a page, try to jam some crunchy bits into the binding, and then flip to the next page, slather and jam, and so on until you had a cabbage bursting at the seams with firey red radish goop. Binding first, the cabbage was rolled onto itself into a cylinder and stuffed into a jar. Ester and I got in trouble for making rolls that were too lose and jars that were not packed tight enough.
Right as I was beginning to feel like this was a completely unrepeatable process I learned that we were making the traditional kind of kimchi and that we would also make a lighter more snacky version that could be consumed more or less right away. This one was like making a salad. Cut the cabbage up into bits, mix it with spicy sauce, and throw it in a jar. Ah ha! Repeatable. Kind of. I’ll have to get to the point where I can taste the future, but for now this is what I’ve been able to adapt from what I learned in our family Kimchi marathon and David Lebovitz.
Fresh-Snacky Kimchi (in bits, not rolls)
1 Napa cabbage cut into 1″ bits
Wash, Cut, Sprinkle with 2T salt
- 3-4T Korean chili powder
- 2 cloves of minced garlic
- 5 chopped scallions
- 1/2 bunch mustard greens (chopped)
- 2 T fish sauce (the type that looks like biti shrimp with the heads)
Coat dry cabbage in mixture, adjust to taste, fill jar (leave ~2 in from top for expansion), leave out for 2 days, refrigerate for longer life.
A week helped it mature, but I ate some the day of and the next day. It was a bit like kimchi & tonic because it fizzed and bubbled in my belly, but the flavor was right on.
The beauty of enormous food though is that it really isn’t repeatable. I couldn’t make 11 jars of kimchi by myself if I tried. The day for me will be ‘the day we made kimchi’ and that will be its own memory. In this memory, Little B will forever be 6 months old and a squirmy little tike, Ester’s mother-in-law will always be the wise elder, and I will be the human hobart. My gloves were fantastically bright red by the end of the afternoon.