Kimchi and Beyond!

By Katherine Selberg, UMass Sustainable Food and Farming student

A study in kimchi seemed like a simple enough project when I started. A brief history, some food science, and a killer recipe with pictures would do. And that is, mostly, what I have done. What I did not plan for the hidden lessons to be learned through fermentation. It was not totally new to me; it turns out most of my favorite foods are fermented: cheese, wine, pickles, kimchi, yogurt. But a little background reading on kimchi turned into a fascination with fermentation as an approach to food.

kimchi1But first, the basics. Kimchi is a traditional Korean food, so ubiquitous that a 2010 shortage of the main ingredient, Napa cabbage, was declared a national crisis. There is not an equivalent food in American cuisine. Perhaps if you accounted for all of the different condiments you use in a day it would equal the amount of kimchi present in the average Korean diet. There is not, however, a single definition of kimchi. Some options would be: spicy fermented cabbage, not spicy fermented cabbage, not fermented cabbage, fermented vegetables other than cabbage, and so on.

The different versions of kimchi have evolved in different regions, different seasons, and different communities, yielding infinite variations on kimchi. However, the most mainstream iteration of kimchi today is fermented Napa cabbage spiced with hot pepper, garlic, ginger, and something fishy. The simple procedure is:

  1. Chop vegetables.
  2. Salt vegetables and bruise until liquid accumulates.
  3. Rinse.
  4. Smear with spice paste.
  5. Pack tightly into a container.
  6. Wait.

kimchi2The details of these steps are highly variable and subjective, as are the ingredients in one’s kimchi. My first task in developing my recipe for kimchi was to determine how I wanted to interpret these steps and what exactly I wanted with my cabbage. So I prepared to make my first batch of kimchi. I scoured the internet for all the kimchi recipes to be found. I zeroed in on a core recipe of Napa cabbage, carrots, daikon radish, onion, scallions, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, and gochugaru, a Korean chili powder. I planned to do test batches to see the effects of adding sugar, shrimp paste, or a flour paste, all common amendments to kimchi recipes. I also wanted to test to see whether I preferred rolling quarter segments of cabbage the traditional way or chopping the cabbage into 1 inch strips, and whether I preferred salting in a brine or dry salting.  It was a good plan, with a 3×4 grid to record the results from well-labeled Ball jars. But we all know what happens to the best laid plans.

The crucial mistake came while trying to find the ingredients. First I went to the World Food store, where I found none of the things I was looking for and left a bit flustered. So I decided my recipe would only include ingredients that could easily be found at a health food store, my store of choice being Whole Foods. It seemed like a noble goal. Most things were easy to find. But gochugaru, the all-important flavoring in a traditional Korean kimchi was nowhere to be found. I substituted with a big bag of regular chili powder, and went happily on my way not knowing the heartache I had just signed up for.

The actual assembly of the kimchi went reasonably well. I managed to pack 12 jars with dark red, spicy kimchi. I left them out on the counter overnight, to allow for 12 hours of unhindered fermentation. The next morning, I opened each jar just enough to vent the CO2 that had built up as the bacteria had started to devour the sugars in mix. Then I put all of the jars into the fridge to slowly ferment for the next week.

And what a disgusting mess I found when I came back in a week. Not an actual mess; this was not a fermentation horror story ending with exploding jars. Instead, this was just a case of mistaken spice identity. The kimchi had a heavy taste to it, not the light, refreshing, effervescent taste one hopes to find in a kimchi. It was dense and almost gelatinous. Wholly unappealing. An ironically simple Google searched confirmed my fear that chili powder is widely regarded as the worst thing anyone could ever do to a batch of kimchi. So much for those 12 jars.

To be fair, I did learn a lot of useful things from that batch. I learned that I prefer dry salting vegetables as opposed to brining. I felt like I had more control and could more easily gauge how much water had come out of the cabbage. I decided that the shrimp was not worth having a jar of stinky paste in the fridge, and I could see no difference in the kimchi that had a flour paste in it compared to the kimchi that didn’t. I decided chopped cabbage was much easier to stuff into jars than rolls of cabbage segments. Sometimes tradition must be sacrificed for convenience. Mostly, this first batch told me that my initial, super scientific testing approach to the perfect kimchi recipe was maybe the wrong way to go. I had some ingredients left over, so that same weekend I threw together a much more relaxed batch of kimchi. One head of cabbage, some carrot, daikon, ginger, garlic, onion, an apple, some fish sauce, and a couple hot red peppers fresh from the garden all packed into a jar with 2 inches left at the top for the CO2, so no venting was required. What a delightfully fresh and simple counterpoint to my original operation.

A week later, I came home to that light, fresh vegetable, fizzy taste I was hoping for. The apple was a nice dose of sweetness that also fueled the bacteria in its fermentation. The fresh peppers were a perfect source of heat and color. Better management of the salt content allowed for better fermentation and for a more even experience of all of the flavors. I decided I could probably do without the daikon; I’m not a huge fan of radishes. I am, I learned, a fan of putting kimchi on a beef hot dog or on chips instead of salsa. All in all, this was a success.

kimchi3Since then, I’ve been sure to keep a batch of kimchi in the fridge. The peppers, now out of season, have been replaced with crushed red pepper. But the core of my recipe is about the same as that second batch. Even more importantly, the calm, resourceful, no-worries approach has fully permeated my fermenting life. Taking the stress out of the kimchi making process made the kimchi itself taste more light and carefree.

This relaxed approach, it turns out, is pretty central to all fermentation. Sure, there are recipes and careful instructions; vintners and brewers probably consider their fermentation to be a careful, scientific process. But the world of home fermenters—a world that is much larger than I had realized—is much less rigid. The first step to becoming an amateur fermenter is to forget everything you have ever been taught about bacteria, sanitation, and decomposition. After all, fermentation is, simply put, rotted food. The bacteria naturally present—which in the case of kimchi are lactobacilli—eat away at the ingredients and create acids and CO2. Different bacterial strains follow one another as the environment becomes more acid, creating a domino effect of rot for as long as the ferment is allowed to do its thing. Bad bacteria and molds are unable to survive in the anaerobic, acidic mix. Eventually, a ferment will be far too acidic to be eaten, but until that point, it becomes a means of preservation that takes advantage of the hostile environment created by the bacilli. In a world of antibacterial soaps and pasteurization, fermentation embraces the natural processes that most people fear.

checheh_kimchiAlong this journey, I found two books that soon became my guides in the kitchen. The first was The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz. This tome is a truly daunting account of all fermented food to be found around the world and throughout history. Kimchi was but a scant few pages, but the credos of fermentation are woven throughout the book. A love and longing for experimentation and health benefits combined with reverence for tradition make for an interesting read. My second reference book was Cooked by Michael Pollan. The book is divided into four sections, each devoted to an element and its corresponding type of cooking. Kimchi is earth in Pollan’s eyes. It connects the forces of nature—bacteria and decay—with the people eating its product. The consumer of fermented food becomes closer to his own mortality and the world in which he lives with every bite.

These overwhelming feelings of tradition and connectedness are repeated in all of the writings I have found on fermentation. It is a hobby that, once found, inspires. However, for me, perhaps the biggest lesson of fermenting thus far, has been to accept failure. After my first, disastrous batch of kimchi came an horrifically salty sauerkraut, some foul smelling fermented peppers, and an iffy attempt at mead. There have been more than a few moments in recent months when my foray into fermenting has seemed like fruitless folly, and as my experimentation continues so shall the mistakes. Yet, as with so many things in life, a sense of humor and humility are just enough to move past the pitfalls and arrive at a delicious success.


This essay is the final product of Kat Selberg’s one credit practicum in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture.  You may send questions or comments to Kat at:

Guest Workshop on Cooking with Local Vegetables and Seasonal Fruit on Saturday

Grow Food Amherst is pleased to invite you to a special workshop by renowned local author, Claire Hopley, on Saturday, February 22 at the Amherst Winter Farmers Market.  NOTE:  Claire will also have copies of her book Valley Vegetables for sale and signing at the workshop!  Please join us!

Cooking with Local Vegetables and Seasonal Fruit

with Claire Hopley

Saturday, February 22

12:00 noon – 1:00 pm

Amherst Winter Farmers Market

Amherst Regional Middle School

Claire Hopley writes… “We have to wait for the first rhubarb in May and the strawberries of June for locally grown fruit, yet we do have seasonal fruit in winter because it’s the season for citrus. They are now at their best and least expensive! This workshop will be about ways of teaming citrus and other in-season fruit with local farmers market vegetables to create zingy and nutritious dishes”

According to a recent article in The Republican

The push to “buy local” is strong these days, and few local products offer more benefits in that regard than food.  Cookbook author Claire Hopley, of Leverett, says it just makes sense to buy local vegetables in season.

“They taste better, and you can get them at a better price,” says Hopley. “When a vegetable or other food is shipped, it’s simply losing flavor and nutritional value.”

hopley_coverHopley’s new book, “Valley Vegetables: Recipes for 40 of the Pioneer Valley’s Vegetables” (Levellers Press, about $19), offers readers more than 100 ways to prepare area bounty.

The cookbook is arranged alphabetically from acorn squash to zucchini, and includes lesser-known valley produce such as fiddleheads and fennel.

Hopley has lived in the Pioneer Valley for more than 35 years, but she comes from Chester, England, where her grandfather had a vegetable garden and her grandmother cooked professionally.

“I grew up with fresh vegetables,” she says, “so I’ve always gone to farm stands and farmers’ markets.” Her husband, Robert, tends a large vegetable garden in Leverett, often challenging her creativity with abundant crops.

Author of four previous cookbooks, Hopley frequently gives talks on culinary history at the Quadrangle in Springfield. Her cookbooks mix erudition and common sense.

Readers will learn, for example, that Thomas Jefferson loved fennel, that archaeologists have found 8,000-year-old dried beans in Peru, that peas were all the rage in the court of France’s Louis XIV, and that Medieval cooks liked to use spinach juice as a green dye to color food.

chicken with snow peas.jpgHopley’s book is called “Valley Vegetables,” but some of the recipes include meats.

An example is the following Chinese-style dish, which makes good use of leftover chicken breast.

Photo by Robert HopleyPictured here, a Chinese-style dish with Pioneer Valley ingredients, Stir-Fried Chicken with Snow Peas and Broccoli.

Stir-Fried chicken with snowpeas and broccoli
Serves 2

For marinade:
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine, white wine or sherry
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil (optional) 

Other ingredients:

1 cup cooked chicken breast
1-1/2 cup snowpeas
4 scallions
1/2 cup small broccoli florets
2 Tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped shallot or onion
1 tablespoon chopped or sliced fresh ginger
3/4 cup chicken broth 

In medium bowl, mix cornstarch to a paste with soy sauce and wine. Stir in sugar, sesame oil and 1/2 cup water.

Cut chicken into strips about 2 inches long and 1/2 inch wide. Add these to the bowl of marinade and set aside for at least 1/2 hour. Trim ends of snowpeas. Discard roots and green leafy ends of scallions, then slice white and tender green parts diagonally and set aside.

Heat canola oil in a wok or frying pan over medium heat. Stir in chopped shallot or onion, then garlic and ginger. Stir for a minute, then add snowpeas and broccoli. Add about 1/4 cup water and stir over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Now put in the scallions, chicken and its marinade. Stir liquid until it thickens, then add 1/2 cup chicken broth.

Continue cooking 2 minutes until chicken is heated through and vegetables are crisp-tender. Add remaining broth for thinner sauce. Serve with rice.


Hopley says the following soup is delicious with just one scallop in each bowl, with a mix of scallops and shrimp, with a 4-oz. fillet of haddock or cod, or even with no seafood at all.

fennel scallop edit.jpgPhoto by Robert Hopley. Here is Celeriac Soup with Scallops.

Celeriac soup with scallops
Serves 4

1 one-and-a-half to two-pound celeriac, peeled and cut in chunks
1 medium onion, chopped
1 6-inch stalk celery, chopped
1 small clove garlic, chopped
1 bay leaf
4 black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 cup half and half or whole milk
1 teaspoon butter or oil
Scallops (4 for lunch, 16 for supper)
1 Tablespoon chopped celery leaves
2 teaspoons snipped chives

Put the celeriac chunks, onion, celery, garlic, bay leaf, peppercorns and salt into saucepan. Add 4 cups of water or enough to cover the vegetables. Cover and bring to a boil. Simmer for 25 minutes or until celeriac is tender. Drain off and reserve the liquid. Discard the bay leaf.

Put the vegetables into a food processor and whizz them until smooth, or simply mash them by hand. Return the vegetables to the pan. Add the reserved cooking liquid and the milk or Half & Half. Bring to simmering point and taste. Add more salt if necessary, more milk or water for thinner soup.

Meanwhile, grease a frying pan with butter or oil and heat over high heat. Put scallops in the pan in a single layer, reduce the heat and cook scallops for 3 minutes on first side and 2 minutes on second side.

Serve soup in shallow soup plates with scallops positioned in the center of each serving. Mix chopped celery leaves and chives, and sprinkle some over each serving.

Recipes are from “Valley Vegetables: Recipes for 40 of the Pioneer Valley’s Vegetables” (Levellers Press, about $18.95), available at

Home Cooking is Important for a Sustainable Life

Home cooking 2Adapted from The Sustainable Table

Economics 101 -Home cooking beats all of the competition hands down when it comes to saving money. Whether you’re considering dining out or bringing home prepared food, you’re paying for someone else to do something you can do yourself — and, with a little practice, probably do better.

Do’s and Don’ts -Think about what you DON’T want to find in tonight’s dinner — sickening bacteria, toxic pesticides. When you cook, you have more control over what goes into your body.

It just tastes better! – We’re losing our palates to our industrialized food system. Not so long ago, herbs and spices and sugar were used to enhance the flavor in our food. But in recent decades our taste buds have been corrupted through the use of cheap chemicals and corn syrup to fill that role.

Involve Your Family – If the good food movement is to succeed, it will be through our children. Invite them to participate in cooking. Kids love to “play” in the kitchen and there are dozens of ways they can be involved — from reading a recipe to washing produce to mixing ingredients to decorating cookies.


To help you become a better sustainable cook, Grow Food Amherst is offering a…

Butternut Squash Gratin Workshop

Saturday, December 14

12:00 Noon – 1:00 pm

at the Amherst Winter Farmers’ Market

Peg Thibbitts, owner of Harvest Market, will present a workshop on using a locally grown butternut squash to make an easy and delicious gratin.  She will also offer advice on “make-ahead” dishes for the holidays!



And if you missed last week’s workshop of Amanda Wasserman presenting on how to use local products to make pop tarts, check out this video!

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More jammin

Thanks to everyone who came to our second Jam Making Workshop.   Peg asked me to share this recipe with everyone.  Thanks Peg!


To make excellent fruit jam….

Wash 5 half-pint jars, lids, bands. Heat jars & lids in water heated 
to boiling point.

3 cups whole blueberries
3 cups peeled, pitted & chopped peaches
1 cup apple juice or water
1 Tbsp lemon juice (optional for tartness)
1 cup sugar (or 0-3 cups to taste)
3 Tbsp Low/No Sugar Pectin

Jam directions:
Warm fruit, lemon juice and juice/water in med saucepan.
Mash or use immersion blender until texture is as you like it, 
from chunky to smooth.
Sprinkle pectin in while stirring and bring to a boil that 
you can't stir away. Boil, stirring for 1 minute.
Add sugar if using, bring back to boil and continue stirring. 
Boil for 3 minutes.
Ladle into hot jars, add lids and tighten bands just to tight.
Put jars in rack and process in boiling-water canner for 10 minutes.
Start timing when water returns to boiling. Remove from water & 
cool completely. Check that lids have sealed. Unsealed jars should be 
refrigerated or re- processed.

Jammin in Amherst

Grow Food Amherst sponsored a strawberry jam making workshop on June 20 at the Bangs Community Center.  Twenty intrepid “jammers” joined Peg Thibbits to learn to make jam!


Peg wants to share the following message with her jammin friends and others!

Greetings Jammers!

Thanks so much for coming to the strawberry jam-making workshop last week!  Here is an outline of what we did and also some links to very helpful websites that might spark your interest in other canning & preserving activities that are easy to do at home.

 Helpful equipment:  canning rack, jar grabber, long handled spoon, ladle, funnel.

 Strawberry Jam Recipe

  •  4-5 cups of cleaned/hulled/chopped strawberries
  • 1 cup of juice or water
  • optional for tartness: 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 3 Tbsp. no-sugar/low-sugar pectin
  • optional: up to 3 cups sugar


You need: 4 or 5 half-pint jars, new lids & bands

First, get your jars, lids and bands washed & rinsed.  Put the jars into a pot of water, and start it heating up towards a boil.  When it boils, shut off and add the lids and bands.


  1.  Put berries & liquid in pan, and start to heat up on medium.  If you want to blend them or mash them up, do that now.
  2. Slowly sprinkle in the pectin and stir until dissolved.
  3. Bring mixture to a boil that you can’t stir down, and keep it boiling for 1 minute.
  4. Remove from heat and add sugar now.
  5. Return mixture to a hard boil and stir constantly for 3 minutes.
  6. Remove from heat and skim off foam.
  7. Remove the jars, lids and bands from the hot water, using your jar grabber (and lid magnet if you have one!)  Then turn on the pot again to get the water boiling for the canning process.
  8. Ladle into jam using the funnel into hot jars.  Leave at least 1/8 inch of space at the top of the jar. Wipe the rim of the glass. Place lids on top and screw on the bands until just tightened.
  9. Put jars in a canning rack and lower into boiling water. Make sure jars are covered by about 2 inches of boiling water. Keep at a gentle, but rolling boil for 10 minutes.  (If you put the jars in before the water is boiling, set the timer for 10 minutes after the water comes to a boil.)
  10. Remove jars from the water using your jar grabber.  Set out to cool on a rack.  Keep level and still until set.


 ** If you want to make Strawberry Rhubarb Jam, use 2+1/2 cups strawberries and 2+1/2 cups washed, chopped rhubarb.

Note: The acidity of the food you are canning is very important.  This recipe does not require adding lemon juice or citric acid to increase acidity, but some recipes do.  Make sure you follow a recipe when you are getting started, so that your canned food is safe and keeps for a long time in your pantry.

For more canning information, go to:

  1. National Center for Home Food Preservation:
  3. Mother Earth News:
  4. Ball Canning Company:

You can also cook the jam and put it directly into the refrigerator if you are going to eat it right up or give it away to be eaten within a couple of weeks.  One person commented that the freezer jam gets liquidy after a few months in the freezer, and I agree.  The best way to keep it long-term is by canning.

Have fun and contact me anytime to share your questions and successes!!



And don’t forget to mark your calendar for Peg’s next workshop on making jam with blueberries and/or peaches on:

Thursday, August 22: 6:00pm – 8:00pm

Bangs Community Center

Amherst, MA

The workshop is limited to the first 20 registrants, so please register with Stephanie Ciccarello, Amherst Sustainability Coordinator, at (413) 259-3149 or

Christmas trees to be recycled by goats in Amherst

goatsxxxThis is one of the coolest ideas I’ve heard of in a while.  Our friend Hope Crolius, owner of the local business, The Goat Girls, deserves our gratitude for this wonderful public and ecological service!

Michelle A. Chandler has been doing this for the past couple of years, too – South Amherst folks can drop their trees at Blessed Acre Farm, 326 West Pomeroy Lane!

Here is what it looks like when the goats are done:


Go Amherst Goats!



Thursday, December 27, 2012
(Published in print: Friday, December 28, 2012)

AMHERST — Seven goats that are part of a brush-clearing team during the warm-weather months will be consuming Christmas trees in the coming weeks.

Hope Crolius, who owns Goat Girls Brush Clearing, said she is inviting people to dispose of their Christmas trees by bringing them to Simple Gifts Farm, 1159 North Pleasant St., where she keeps her goats.

Crolius said the goats enjoy pine, balsam fir, hemlock, spruce and other evergreens, which contain vitamin C and other nutrients that help them get through the winter, while the needles on these trees can act as dewormers,

“They really do eat them,” Crolius said. “Over a few days they will gnaw it down to bare wood.”

But Crolius said she also sees this disposing of trees as a means of helping the town recycle and keep trees out of the landfill. Waste haulers in Amherst will be picking up Christmas trees curbside Jan. 11, and residents can also bring pine Christmas trees to the transfer station at no charge.

Crolius said she is formalizing a program she has run for a couple of years, including driving through neighborhoods and picking up trees that have been left at the curbside.

Already, her goats have been feasting on some branches cut from the trees sold by the Boy Scouts at Kendrick Park and some leftover trees not sold at Cowls Building Supply.

She isn’t sure how long the Christmas trees will be edible, as the trees will eventually dry out. But Crolius would like to see the goats be able to consume the trees at least through January.

To drop off a Christmas tree, call Crolius at 461-6832 or send an email to Limited pickups will also be made into January and can be arranged by calling or emailing Crolius.

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