Without a doubt, kimchi is a love-it or hate-it food. I’m pretty fond of it. Arne is crazy for the stuff, but even he admits it’s a strange thing to love. Many foods are based on controlled spoilage – cheese and beer, for example. Like blue cheese with its veins of mold, though, traditional kimchi won’t let you overlook that background. Its distinctive funk comes from a fermentation period (as well as large amounts of garlic, chile, fish sauce, and sometimes other forms of preserved fish). In Korea, where a meal is not a meal without kimchi, you can buy special refrigerators that maintain the perfect temperature for fermentation of different kinds of kimchi. (If you doubt the seriousness of this industry, check out this model that claims to be made of jade.)
This, however, isn’t traditional kimchi. This is… starter kimchi. I’m always pleased to be served cucumber kimchi at restaurants. Though traditional kimchi is delicious, a little goes a long way. It’s a spicy, funky condiment – not a salad. Cucumber kimchi, though an authentic kimchi style – kimchi is made with all kinds of vegetables – is sweeter and friendlier than the hard stuff. I ate that whole plate at the top of the page by myself for dinner last night, with a few Korean-flavored shrimp and some plain short-grain rice. (Kimchi is so good with rice!) And you can make a batch in an hour, with only about 15 minutes of hands-on work.
Before we get to the main event, I’ll give you the “recipe” for the shrimp, which were delicious with the cucumbers. For each diner, toss 4 to 6 ounces of peeled large shrimp in a mixture of 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 teaspoon sesame oil, and 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce. Throw in a little ginger or garlic if you like. Refrigerate for 20 minutes or so, stirring a couple of times. I cooked these with a little peanut oil in a very hot steel pan just until they browned and curled, but you could also grill them.
The kimchi recipe is from David Chang, the man behind the Momofuku restaurants and the punk-rock food magazine Lucky Peach. I got to eat a masterful bowl of ramen at his Noodle Bar in NYC – for me, that was one of the highlights of my week-and-a-half visit to the city. His recipe specifically called for Kirby cucumbers, but I used what I got from the CSA – one Kirby and one regular old cucumber – and both were fine. Use what’s fresh and on hand. I did make some other changes, skipping the carrot because I felt lazy and the green onion because I didn’t have any, and replacing the dried shrimp with a little anchovy. All remain in the recipe below as options. I also chopped the garlic and ginger in a mini-chopper instead of carefully slicing them.
Korean red chile flakes are more finely ground and milder (at least the kinds I’ve tried) than crushed red pepper. You can find the Korean style at Asian markets, or use regular crushed red pepper with care.
Quick Cucumber Kimchi
Time: 45 minutes Hands-on: 15 minutes Servings: 2 to 8, depending on use
1 pound cucumbers
1.5 teaspoons salt, divided
2.5 tablespoons sugar (or somewhat less, to taste), divided
1.5 tablespoons Korean red chile flakes or 2 teaspoons (to taste) crushed red pepper
1.5 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 canned anchovy fillet, minced, or 1/2 teaspoon minced dried shrimp (optional)
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce (I use Squid brand)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
4 tablespoons finely sliced or minced red or yellow onion
1 small carrot and one scallion, trimmed and sliced into 2-inch matchsticks, optional
Trim off the ends of the cucumbers and slice in half lengthwise. Scrape out the seeds with a spoon, then cut the cucumber into batons about 2-3 inches long by 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide. Place in a colander, sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon each of the salt and sugar, and place the colander in the sink to drain for 10 minutes to half an hour, whatever is convenient.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, stir together all the remaining ingredients except carrot, scallion, and onion. You’ll have a stiff paste, especially if you used the Korean chile flakes. Don’t worry, it will loosen up when the cucumbers macerate in it.
Stir the cucumbers and sliced onion into the chile paste, tossing to coat thoroughly. Let rest 15 minutes or until you’re ready to eat, stirring a couple of times. Stir in the carrot and scallion or, for a fancier presentation, place the cucumbers on a plate and scatter the carrot and scallion over the top.
Serve with any Korean food, or grilled meats or seafood. I hear it’s awesome on hot dogs (I plan to find out for myself soon). And you’ll never go wrong serving it with a pile of rice, or using it as a seasoning for fried rice.
Follow Unfussy Epicure on Facebook!