Friday, 21 August 2009

The best Kim Chi, at last

After months of experimentation and kilos of cabbage eating, I finally have a kim chi recipe I am happy with. This probably sounds ridiculous, I mean, its kim chi, how hard can it be? Cabbage, chilli, garlic, ginger - mix it up and Bob's your uncle, right? Apparently with me, wrong.

With a vegetable as watery and bland as Chinese cabbage (really, its only redeeming quality is its crunch), a few flavourings go a long way, and for weeks I ended up with batches of Korean pickle that veered between having waaaay too much salt, sugar, chilli (creating 'Atomic Kim Chi'), ginger, garlic or any combination of these. You name it, I overdid it.

I have finally learned my lesson and realised that less is more, but the rate at which I am churning and fermenting kim chi at a rate is still being overstripped by how quickly I eat it. Want some crisps? Kim chi! Feeling peckish? Kim chi! Feel like breakfast? Kim chi! Hell, any time you feel like munching? Kim chi!!

My method is not the traditional way of preparing classic kim chi, but I think it suits modern kitchens as it is significantly less stinky than fermenting the cabbage whole in a cool dark place, with seasonings layered between each leaf. I'm no expert but I thought this was a pretty interesting round up of general kim chi related info.

Try to find Korean chilli flakes and fish sauce. You could substitue fresh or crushed dried chillies with no seeds, and Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce, but the results won't be quite the same. I'm afraid I have no idea how to pronounce the names for the ingredients you need in Korean, but here's a picture - I showed a similar one to a nice lady in Korean supermarket and she was able to help.

You could leave out the daikon and/or the spring onions, but I think they both really add to the final flavour of the kim chi.

1 large Chinese cabbage, approx. 1.25kg, cut into thick 5cm rounds, then quartered into squares
10% of the cabbage weight in sea salt, so 125g in this case
1 fat clove of garlic, crushed or finely grated
A small chunk of ginger (equivalent to half of the garlic), finely grated
3 spring onions, finely sliced
an equivalent amount of daikon, peeled and cut into 1cm wide batons
2 tsp Korean fish sauce
2 tbsp Korean dried chilli powder
1 tbsp sugar

Combine the cabbage and salt together in a large bowl, or two, and toss together until all the leaves are well salted. Leave the bowl(s), uncovered, for four hours. If you happen to be passing by give them a quick stir. Fill the bowl(s) with cold water and let the cabbage soak in the brine for one more hour. Try a leaf - it should be very salty, but not so salty it is unpleasant to eat. If you find the latter, drain the cabbage, rinse and soak in cold water again for half an hour or so before trying again.

Drain the cabbage and while it is in the colander push down on the leaves with your hands. You want to squeeze out some of the moisture. You will see the cabbage turns from opaque white to a more translucent clear colour as you squeeze. The cabbage should now be about half its original size, having lost about a third of its weight in salt water.

Put the cabbage into a bowl and add the rest of the ingredients.

Now, using your hands, get right into the cabbage and squish, squelch and squeeze away so the dried chilli powder bleeds red into everything and the garlic, ginger and onion flavours are mashed into the cabbage and daikon. Take the time to do this thoroughly so that you really work the seasonings into each piece of cabbage. Wear plastic gloves if you don't like the garlicky, onion-y smell on your hands as it can linger a bit (I love it). Definitely wear gloves if you have any kind of cut, even a paper cut!

When it looks and smells delicious, taste a piece and then put the whole lot into an airtight container, seal and leave for up to a week or so, depending on the ambient temperature. Right now in my relatively warm London kitchen, three days is enough.

You'll know it's ready when your cabbage changes in taste and takes on a lovely sourness. The chilli might taste a little hotter, and all the flavours will have melded into one - kim chi!

Thursday, 13 August 2009

A jar of Asian pickles, or four

Its taken me a while to post this recipe because the very nature of it is always changing. I have finally realised that, rather than trying to produce the perfect brine immediately, this is something that has to evolve slowly over time, like a personality.

I have been eating pickles all summer long, while watchjng TV, for breakfast, dipped in chilli sauce, rolled into Vietnamese spring rolls, or to add a sour crunch into any recipe. In fact I'm eating them right now.

The beauty is, if you're not happy with the taste of one batch, you can change the seasoning and taste the difference in less than a day. Keep eating and changing the mix and you get a feel for how to achieve what you want. You can experiment with added a sliced fresh chilli, a spoonful of spices, some garlic, or anything else that takes your fancy. I have four jars of pickles now and each one tastes different depending on what I feel like.

You can use any crunchy vegetable. Daikon is my favourite as it soaks up the vinegar quickly, in just a day, and has a lovely crisp crunch and clear taste. I also like carrots although they usually need to sit for a day or two more. I bet you could use any radish, cucumber would be lovely, cabbage of course, just to name a few options. I have been so in love with daikon I haven't wanted to try anything else yet, but I will...umm...soon?

This basic recipe makes enough to fill one 850ml jar.

300ml rice vinegar
300ml water
2 tbsp Chinese rock sugar
1 tbsp sea salt
400g daikon, peeled and sliced into finger sized sticks
2 tsp rice wine

Combine the vinegar, water, salt and sugar in a pan, cover and heat until all the crystals dissolve. Bring the liquid up to the boil then remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature, still covered.

While the liquid cools, put the jar and lid into a big pot of cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes or so to give them a good clean, then drain and allow to cool. Its best not to try pouring in cold liquid when the glass is hot as it could crack.

When everything is back to room temperature, pack the jar loosely with the daikon, add the rice wine and fill it with liquid up to the neck. Make sure all the vegetables are submerged in the vinegar before sealing tightly, then put it in the fridge.

The daikon only needs a day to marinate before it's ready to eat. This is when the fun begins - each time you eat, top the jar up again with more vegetables, taste the brine and add more vinegar, sugar, salt, wine or any other seasonings depending on your tastes.

Over time the pickling liquid takes on some of the characteristics of the vegetables you put it. I have one jar exclusively for daikon, and others are a mix of daikon and carrot. You can also add garlic, spring onion, chillis, Sichuan pepper, star anise, cinnamon, green peppercorns, or anything else that takes your fancy.

You could try packing the jars while they are hot and pour in hot liquid - this gives the pickles a more translucent appearence, different texture and stronger flavour. I prefer using cold jar, cold vegetables and cold pickling liquid as I find the taste is fresher, more raw.

This method of pickling is perfect if you eat the pickles fairly regularly, and is not meant for long term preservation. The pickles should always be kept in the fridge or they may spoil. Sometimes I find one of my jars tastes a little fizzy - the result of lactic bacteria fermenting the sugar in the liquid. It is not harmful, but if, like me, you don't like the taste, strain the liquid, bring it to the boil, allow to cool and return.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Mmmm....little crabs

No recipe, just a bunch of teeny little crabs we caught, sizzled in hot oil and sprinkled with salt. Sort of seafood popcorn!

Juicy, salty, black bean clams

My idea of how black bean clams should taste is so addictively delicious that it is heartbreaking when the actual dish I have made does not taste as I imagined. In my mind, you should have bouncy, juicy clams, scented with garlic and undertones of ginger, enlivened with the crunch of spring onions, warmed with chilli and spiked with salty nubs of mashed black bean.

I've tried making this before and often ended up with either an imbalanced sauce (too weak or overly salty) or over/undercooked clams. Finally I realised that trying to get both things right at the same time was too difficult. Instead I tried splitting them - there's an extra step in this recipe but I really think it helps give good results.

We used clams dug of of the sand on Pearson Island's only tiny pebble beach, rinsed and left in seawater with a spoonful of rolled oats for a day to purify.

1.5kg clams, large fat palourdes are ideal
50 ml shaoxing wine, or white wine/dry sherry
3 tbsp groundnut oil
5 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2cm ginger, peeled and finely chopped
5 spring onions, thinly sliced, white and green parts separated
1 chilli, finely chopped
1 1/2 tbsp fermented black beans, rinsed and roughly mashed
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
3 tbsp chicken or vegetable stock
1 tsp cornstarch, dissolved in a little water

Put the clams into a dry wok or deep saucepan, add the wine, cover and steam over a high heat, shaking the pan every now and then, until the clams start to open. Remove opened clams and transfer to a covered bowl to keep in the warmth and moisture. Discard any stubborn clams that refuse to open after 10mins or so of cooking, and reserve the leftover liquid.

Heat the wok over a high heat until smoke rises. Add the oil, swirl then add the garlic and ginger. Stir fry quickly until they smell fragrant without starting to burn, then add the white spring onion and chillis and stir fry again until you can smell their aroma. Turn down the heat if they start to burn too quickly. Add the mashed black beans, then the reserved clam juice and the stock. Allow the liquid to come to the boil, taste and add the dark soy sauce bit by bit, tasting as you go. You may not need it all. If the broth tastes too salty, add some sugar, barely teaspoon as a time. The sauce should not be a little sweet and not too salty, depending on your tastes.

When the seasoning is adjusted to your liking, stir the cornstarch and water mix and add, then return the clams to the pan. Keep stirring and tossing for 5 minutes or until the clams are cooked but still juicy and tender and lightly coated with glossy black bean sauce. Add more water or stock if the sauce becomes too thick, and adjust the sugar and soy sauce balance one last time.

Scatter over the green spring onion slices and tip onto a large serving plate, scraping out all the remaining sauce and dribbling it over the clams. Eat immediately with your fingers, sucking the clam meat and sauce off the shells.