Laura eating a "pickle dog"

Home to millions of bacteria

This post here is by my dear friend Laura in Madison, infirm just hours before boarding a plane for a long journey to the southern hemisphere. Here she shares a favorite kimchi recipe, a ballast during the winter months in this cold Wisconsin college town. Laura – rest up, drink lots of water before flying, and keep eating fermented cabbage.

Kimchi helped me survive my first winter in Wisconsin, and today we’re at the end of the batch. Shortly after we moved into our new place, a five-liter Harsch ceramic crock arrived in the mail, a wedding gift from California. I could hardly lift the box. And it actually went to the neighbor’s house because I had misremembered our new address in Madison.

Fermentation is a magical process. Pressing colorful vegetables into a dark ceramic hole and days later hearing bubbling and popping noises coming from the kitchen is both exciting and disconcerting. The formation of some rotten mutant poison vegetable might be happening in my kitchen. But this bacteria is the good kind.

I followed an online video by Maangchi for easy Kimchi. The definitive moment is when Maangchi says that two cups of crushed red pepper is “spicy”. And was it ever. This kimchi was so red hot that everyone who devoured it had tears, either of joy, tolerance, or anguish. Next time, I might try Sandor Katz’s book Wild Fermentation, and use half as much red pepper.

I didn’t follow the recipe very well. I left out the squid and the fish sauce and didn’t really measure most of the ingredients. Instead of eating it fresh, I let it ferment in the crock for an entire week. Fermentation might be magical, but it’s also forgiving. You don’t even need the ceramic crock; a glass jar will do the trick if you are brave enough to occasionally remove bacterial surface scum.

This red, warming, spicy concoction helped on days that were icy and gray. We gave much of it away to friends and family, but the batch has lasted for months. I usually get nervous about aging groceries, tupperware at the back of the fridge and unwelcome chemical reactions transpiring in my kitchen, but there is something so mysteriously comforting when good bacteria does its magic.

The last few bites