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Recipe: Kimchi, quickly

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                From left, grape tomato, fennel and smacked cucumber kimchi, in New York, in 2020. When you want the flavors of kimchi, but don’t want to wait for it to ferment, you could try a quicker alternative.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    From left, grape tomato, fennel and smacked cucumber kimchi, in New York, in 2020. When you want the flavors of kimchi, but don’t want to wait for it to ferment, you could try a quicker alternative.

In 1904, Japanese military authorities arrested American novelist Jack London. Three times. He was covering the Russo-Japanese War for the San Francisco Examiner as a war correspondent in Korea and drew from his time overseas in a 1915 novel, “The Star Rover.”

“I know kimchi,” London writes, speaking through his characters. “Kimchi is a sort of sauerkraut made in a country that used to be called Cho-Sen. The women of Wosan make the best kimchi, and when kimchi is spoiled it stinks to heaven.”

This is one of America’s earliest written encounters with kimchi. London was right in the first regard: Kimchi is “a sort of sauerkraut,” a fermented dish that most often starts off with cabbage and salt.

As for the last comment, kimchi almost never spoils. Prepared correctly and with enough salt, it can ripen for months, even years, until it becomes mukeunji — kimchi that’s so concentrated in flavor that it burns the tongue and tastes wonderful when stewed.

Outside Korea, it took at least 100 more years for kimchi to go from so-called spoiled stink to it-girl pantry staple and poster child for gut health. Today, some would say that it’s not just a cornerstone of Korean cuisine; it is Korea itself.

Most people think of the red-hot, fermented cabbage dish as a singular noun. But I think of kimchi as a verb. And, as one of the few Korean food words to make its way into English dictionaries (along with gochujang, bulgogi and soju — “a pint of which would kill a weakling and make a strong man mad and merry,” as London writes), kimchi is an umbrella term for a much larger world of dishes you can find on any given Korean table.

HERE’S THE thing: You can make kimchi out of just about anything. Napa cabbage (won bok) is traditional, but radishes, scallions and cucumbers are also popular. Nutty, grassy perilla leaves (part of the mint family) make for great kimchi, as do apples and even raw squid.

And here’s the other thing: When you want the flavors of kimchi but don’t want to wait for it to ferment, you could try a quicker alternative.

I like to combine vegetables with vinegar to achieve kimchi-like results, which I think of as “quick kimchi.” Technically this is not kimchi, but muchim, which can refer to any number of “seasoned” salads.

Since these quick versions bypass fermentation, they use a master sauce that is all-purpose and absolutely versatile, borrowing from pantry stalwarts like gochu­garu (chile pepper flakes or powder that’s sweeter and fruitier than it is spicy); funky, savory fish sauce (use soy sauce if you’re vegetarian); and toasted sesame oil (for gosoham, which roughly means “nuttiness” in Korean — although there is no perfect translation).

The vegetables choices are entirely up to you. Juicy logs of smacked cucumbers pick up the fire-bright sauce in their craggy crannies. The light aniseed flavor of thinly sliced fennel, which stays crunchy days after, gains a buttery sweetness when marinated in the gochugaru and fish sauce. Snappy grape tomatoes perk up once treated like kimchi. Toss these umami bombs with bouncy rice noodles for a quick lunch. The light aniseed flavor of thinly sliced fennel, which stays crunchy days after, gains a buttery sweetness when marinated in the gochugaru and fish sauce.

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QUICK KIMCHI WITH SMASHED CUCUMBERS, GRAPE TOMATOES OR FENNEL

  • 1 pound vegetables, your choice: cucumbers, cut in 1-inch pieces; trimmed fennel (2 or 3 bulbs); OR grape tomatoes (about 2 to 3 cups)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Coarsely chopped chives, thinly sliced scallions, or cilantro leaves, for garnish (optional)
  • >> Dressing:
  • 2 tablespoons white distilled vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely grated garlic
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon gochugaru (Korean chile powder)
  • 2 teaspoons fish sauce
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar

>> For cucumbers: On a large cutting board, crush each cucumber piece using the side of a knife until it cracks in the center, splits in half or splinters completely. (The variety in textures is a delight.)

>> For grape tomatoes: Cut each tomato in half lengthwise.

>> For fennel: Cut each bulb in half, then slice thinly (about 1/8-inch thick) from root to stem.

In a medium bowl, toss prepared vegetables with salt, transfer to a colander and let drain, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make dressing: Combine vinegar and garlic in large bowl. Add sesame oil, gochugaru, fish sauce and sugar; whisk.

After 30 minutes, pat vegetables dry, then add to dressing and toss until well coated.

Garnish with herbs and green oinon, if using, just before serving. Best eaten right away but can be refrigerated up to 24 hours. Makes 2 to 2-1/2 cups.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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