RaeSet

Homemade kimchi at RaeSet restaurant in Napa.

Whole fresh foods are desired today more than ever for their nutrient density, lack of processing, and authentic, farm-to-table sourcing. Fermented foods, on the other hand, are nutrient-dense in a different way; they’re not just cooked; they’re broken down, soaked, soured and brined for weeks, months and even years.

But their popularity mirrors the rise of farm-to-table fresh whole foods, because they have their own health benefits to offer.

Enter the microbiome, a vast community of bacteria that lives within us. Fermented foods are rich in live bacteria that replenish the microbiome, helping it maintain the right proportion of friendly bacteria for optimal health and weight loss. I call fermented foods part of the new generation of superfoods. But we don’t want to get crazy with a label again, because if your body is sensitive to a particular ingredient (for me it’s raw garlic), then substitutions should be made.

Fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha, contain probiotics because of the way they are produced and preserved. The breaking down of sugar, the addition of acid, and the use of lactobacillus are all pathways to probiotics.

Another form of homemade probiotic is by pickling. While both pickling and fermenting create different results, there are some areas that can easily spark some confusion. Pickling involves soaking foods in an acidic liquid to achieve a sour flavor; when foods are fermented, the sour flavor is a result of a chemical reaction between a food’s sugars and naturally present bacteria — no added acid required. Again, my gut responds beautifully to fermented foods, but often reacts to the acidic nature of pickled products. Always reminding us to listen to our bodies.

Homemade Kimchi

(adapted from “The Kitchn” — yes, typo intended)

Kimchi is made by lacto-fermentation, the same process that creates sauerkraut and traditional dill pickles. In the first stage, the cabbage is soaked in a salty brine that kills off harmful bacteria. In the second stage, the remaining lactobacillus bacteria (the good guys!) convert sugars into lactic acid, which preserves the vegetables and gives them that wonderful, tangy flavor. (If you want to learn more about fermentation, I highly recommend “The Art of Fermentation” by Sandor Katz.)

You can ramp up or reduce the “fire” in your homemade batch, depending on taste. But taster beware: too much garlic or pepper flakes can turn burn into bitter.

1 medium head (2 pounds) Napa cabbage

1/4 cup sea salt or kosher salt

Filtered water

1 tablespoon grated garlic (5 to 6 cloves)

1 teaspoon grated ginger

1 teaspoon sugar

2 to 3 tablespoons fish sauce or crumbled nori (sea veggie)

1 to 5 tablespoons red pepper flakes

8 ounces daikon radish, peeled and cut into matchsticks

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4 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

Cut the cabbage lengthwise into quarters and remove the cores. Cut each quarter crosswise into 2-inch-wide strips.

Place the cabbage and salt in a large bowl. Using your hands (gloves optional), massage the salt into the cabbage until it starts to soften a bit, then add water to cover the cabbage. Put a plate on top and weigh it down with something heavy, like a jar or can of beans. Let stand for 1 to 2 hours.

Rinse the cabbage under cold water 3 times and drain in a colander for 15 to 20 minutes. Rinse and dry the bowl you used for salting, and set it aside to use in step 5.

Meanwhile, combine the garlic, ginger, sugar and seafood flavor (or 3 tablespoons water) in a small bowl and mix to form a smooth paste. Mix in the pepper flakes, using 1 tablespoon for mild and up to 5 tablespoons for spicy.

Gently squeeze any remaining water from the cabbage and return it to the bowl along with the radish, scallions and seasoning paste.

Using your hands, gently work the paste into the vegetables until they are thoroughly coated. The gloves are optional here but highly recommended to protect your hands from stings, stains and smells!

Pack the kimchi into the jar, pressing down on it until the brine rises to cover the vegetables. Leave at least 1 inch of head space. Seal the jar with the lid.

Let the jar stand at room temperature for 1 to 5 days. You may see bubbles inside the jar and brine may seep out of the lid; place a bowl or plate under the jar to help catch any overflow.

Check the kimchi once a day, pressing down on the vegetables with a spoon to keep them submerged under the brine. Try a little at this point, too. When the kimchi tastes ripe enough for your liking, transfer the jar to the refrigerator. You may eat it right away, but it’s best after another week or two.

Karen Schuppert is currently fermenting a batch of beet sauerkraut in preparation for the next home Giants game. For more tips and recipes visit www.karenschuppert.com.

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