bok choi

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You know how to pickle anything. Now know this: It’s hard to screw up your pickles. They are forgiving and they can take your abuse. Here’s an example from my current kimchi batch. (This isn’t a detailed kimchi recipe, but one is coming soon.)

Back in mid-January my housemates and I harvested more mustard greens, broccoli leaves, and radishes from our garden than we could stuff in the fridge, so I decided to make kimchi with some of them. I chopped them up along with some carrots, a daikon radish, and a head of cauliflower that also needed some attention. Not your usual kimchi combination, but hey, you can pickle anything.

I filled a 5 gallon crock about two-thirds full and covered the veggies with brine to soften them up for a few hours. Like this:

Kimchi veggies soaking

It looked like a lot, so I didn’t hold back on the spices:

Kimchi spices

In the food processor I blended up all the onions, most of the garlic, half the fresh ginger, and about 20 thai chili peppers. I poured off some of the brine and added the eye-watering mixture to the greens. To seal the spiced veggies from the air and keep them from getting moldy, I pressed them under the brine with a flat glass lid, then weighed the lid down with glass jars full of water.

Jars pressing kimchi under the brine

After it had spent two weeks in the pantry I tasted the kimchi. It was awful! It was way too strong, and the garlic especially was so powerful it made my mouth hurt. What to do? I added two large bunches of bok choi, another large chunk of fresh ginger, and a bunch of sweet paprika powder (because I wanted it to have a nice red color). After another week, the kimchi tasted much better and it’s still doing fine fermenting away in the pantry today, two months since it started.

kimchi fixed and ready to eat

The moral? Making pickles is kind of like making soup—you can always add something to make it better later on.

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When most people hear “pickle” they probably think of the classic sour dill cucumber, but you can get delicious results from almost any vegetable. I use one very simple salt brine recipe all year long to pickle whatever veggies happen to be in season and in my fridge.

Today, for instance my friend Jesse stopped by my office in San Francisco with a crate full of radishes, turnips, spring onions, and baby bok choi that he’d scored working at the farmer’s market at the Ferry Building. (“You have to take some, I have way too much!”)

When I got home, I started two jars of them pickling with ginger slices, garlic, and Thai chili peppers.

Here’s the basic recipe:

salt + water + vegetables.

That’s all there is to it! I like my pickles fairly salty, sour, and crunchy, so I use a 5.4% brine, which is 3 tablespoons of salt per quart of water. If you want half-sours, then you can use 2 tablespoons. For more info on salt brines and a recipe for traditional cucumber sours, see Sandor Ellix Katz’s page on making sour pickles. The more salt you use, the slower your vegetables ferment and the crisper they will remain. Note: sauerkraut often doesn’t need any water added. To find out more about making kraut go here.

Here’s what I started with for my winter variation:
Radish pickle makings

I filled two quart-sized jars, adding four cloves of garlic, five chili peppers, and half the ginger (in slices) to each. I like to spread the spices out, so I put them in now and then as I went along. I left the bok choi as whole leaves and the spring onions as full stalks with the tops and bottoms trimmed off. I also threw in the radish greens because what else would I do with them? I filled the space in between the greens with the quartered root vegetables. Radishes are beautiful:

Quartered radishes

When the jars were almost full I cut long, wide strips out of the largest radish and jammed them into the top in a cross pattern to form a kind of seal. This way the smaller veggies won’t float up to the surface where they might grow mold. Here’s the seal:

Radishes and greens ready for pickling brine

The veggies forming the seal may well mold, however, and you’ll want to toss them out when your pickles are done. If you want to avoid this, you can use a smaller jar full of water as a weight. To see how this works, read this post on sealing techniques.

Then I mixed up a quart of water with three tablespoons of sea salt. It was just enough to cover the veggies in both jars. I screwed on some lids, but only loosely since the fermentation process will produce carbon dioxide. If the lids are too tight the gas will build up and pickle juice will spray everywhere when I open them again in a few weeks. Just in case they leak a bit, I put them on a towel in the cabinet.

Here they are, ready to go:
Radish pickles with greens

They should take two to four weeks to get really flavorful, but how long you leave them depends on how soft the veggies are (cucumbers go faster than radishes and beets, for example), the temperature, your taste buds, and how long you can resist them!

You can use this technique with just about any veggies and all kinds of spice combinations, but here’s the recipe I used today, in short, for one quart-sized jar:

-Two heads of baby bok choi
-Two spring onion stalks (more if they’re thin)
-One bunch of small radishes
-Four or five larger radishes or other root vegetables
-Five small chili peppers, whole
-Four whole cloves of garlic
-Six healthy slices of ginger root

Note: This makes a spicy pickle! Use fewer chili peppers, garlic cloves, and ginger slices for a milder flavor.

Wash everything. Separate the leaves of bok choi. Trim the tops and bottoms of the onions. Quarter or halve the radishes, depending on their size. Save the largest radish to cut into stopper pieces to hold the rest under the brine. Pack in all the ingredients as tightly as you can. I like to stand the greens up around the edges and fill in the center with the roots. When the jar is almost full, cut slices from the large radish and jam them against the top curve of the jar to hold the vegetables in place. Mix 1.5 tablespoons of salt thoroughly into 2 cups of water and fill the jar until the vegetables are entirely covered. Top the jar with a loosely screwed lid or fix a towel to the opening with a rubber band to keep dust and flies out. Wait 2-4 weeks until they taste the way you like them, then toss the veggie seal at the top and you’ll have your pickles.

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