Saturday, March 12, 2016

Springtime Crayfish Happiness

Okay, here’s a real “Opulent Opossum” subject for you: the glory of crayfishes in early spring! Plus, the Missouri Department of Conservation has just published a new booklet to help you learn to identify our state’s 36 crayfish species!

Chris Riggert, the Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Coordinator for the Conservation Department’s Stream Team program, headed up the project. The new booklet is an excellent introduction for identifying the state’s crayfishes—a good “jumping in” place to get you started in learning about (and thus appreciating) our beloved crawdads.

I love to see rocky creeks come alive in early spring.

In early spring, with the leaves still off the trees, light penetrates through the bare branches of the forest canopy and shines on the creekbeds. This light creates a short-lived “bloom,” first, of a matlike brown algae (I think it’s a diatom), and then of a wispy filamentous green algae—like flowing green tresses, wafting in the current. That algae is to creeks what bloodroot, trilliums, and spring beauties are to the springtime forest floor.

And though the water’s pretty cold, it’s no longer frozen, so the animals start getting active. I have spent hours and hours by streams, watching the snails crawl around on the rocks, minnows glide and dart hither and thither, and crayfish explore the miniature aquatic caves and canyons.

It’s our midcontinent version of tidepooling, and it’s a fun as all get-out.

Last weekend, when we had some really nice weather, Sue and I visited Clifty Creek Conservation Area (which is fast becoming my favorite hikin’ place; click here for the MDC web page on it).

When we were there, we saw lots of golden crayfish (Orconectes luteus) scooting around in that crystal clear water. They were nearly all about one and a half inches long.


One of the things that the new MDC brochure (and their other printed crayfish publications, and the online Missouri field guide) emphasize is that crayfish identification involves more than just colors, spots or stripes, and body shape. First, you narrow your search by habitat and geographic range.

Although a handful of our crayfishes are found nearly everywhere, most are restricted to certain parts of the state, and certain watersheds within those regions.

Some crayfish species occur only in the glaciated and unglaciated plains of north and northwest Missouri, where they live in streams that are rather sluggish and turbid, or where they tunnel clear down to the water table in prairies. Others occur only in the Ozarks, where the streams tend to be clear, brisk, cool, and rocky. And others are found (in our state) only in the Bootheel, where swamps and ditches prevail.

And within those broad ranges and habitat types, many crayfish species are confined to certain particular river drainages. An example is the Neosho midget crayfish, which occurs only in the Spring River and Elk River systems, so in our state, you probably won’t find it anyplace besides our far southwestern corner.

So if you want to identify a crayfish, first, identify the region, habitat, and watershed, and then start looking at the color, the spots or stripes, and peculiarities of pincer shape and so on. The new brochure organizes our crayfishes by location: Ozarks, Prairie, Lowland (Bootheel), and Statewide, and each entry has a distribution map showing watersheds, which helps you immediately narrow down your search.

This, by the way, is the same situation when you’re trying to identify fish, particularly minnows and darters, which are also numerous and diverse—unless you know where they’re from, they can be kind of a pill to identify to species.

I love being able to identify plants and animals. It’s not so much that knowing the name has some kind of magic (though it helps me remember)—it’s that the process of identifying forces me to look, really look, at the organism, and see things I might not notice before. That’s the value; that’s the fun.

For example, did you know that one of the keys to identifying crayfish can be the shape of the rostrum? Crayfish bodies are quite different from ours, so you have to learn a little “Crayfish Anatomy 101.” The rostrum is the triangular little beaklike structure between the eyes. It’s shaped differently in different species of crayfish—pointier or less pointy, long or stubby, ridged or furrowed (or furrowed with a little ridge within), with or without spines flanking the tip . . . Isn’t that fascinating? Now, you can really see it!

Anyway . . . these and many other thoughts pass through my mind as I peer into a creek like Clifty, watching the crayfish explore like little armored vehicles among the rocks and crannies. Crayfish happiness!

It’s my happiness, too.

Do you want a copy of this nifty booklet? It’s hot off the presses, so it hasn’t been promoted much yet. Send an e-mail to, and ask for A Guide to Missouri’s Crayfishes FIS011.”

Friday, January 22, 2016

Haben Wir Zusammengewesen!

. . . But wait, there’s more!

I’m still talking about our New Year’s Eve traditions. Here’s another one: We have a family theme song! I’ll bet you think I’m kidding—but I’m not!

Actually, it’s a “parting song,” and we sing it not just on New Year’s Eve, but at the end of potentially any family gathering. Indeed, we sang it out at Riverview Cemetery in 2000, after Grandma Schroeder’s interment ceremony—undoubtedly confusing to any who were unfamiliar with our customs!

But especially, we sing it at the end of the New Year’s Eve party. After the food, the drink, the conversation, the singing, the bell-ringing, and one-too-many mützens, this song is the cap to the evening.

When the first departing guests start brushing the powdered sugar from their clothes and putting on their coats, it is time to form a circle, join hands, and sing the family parting song. It was taught by my great-grandpa Albert Thomas to his daughters, who always sang it with great glee and vigor:

Haben wir zusammengewesen
Haben wir uns gefreuet
Ist der Vater kommen
Hat ein Stock einnommen
Hat uns wieder mal durch gebleuet
Ist der Vater kommen
Hat ein Stock einnommen
Hat uns wieder mal durch gebleuet.

We all got together
We had a good time
Then father came
Took up a stick
And thrashed us many times
Then father came
Took up a stick
And thrashed us many times.

I would love to know more about this song—where it came from, when it was composed, and who composed it, if that’s known. Does anyone else in the entire world even know of this song? (Click on it to see it bigger!)

I suspect it’s a children’s or “novelty” folksong, kind of like “John Jacob Jinkelheimer Schmidt.” But maybe it’s a Vaudeville or beer hall song. Maybe my great-grandfather picked it up in his boyhood in Germany, or maybe he learned it when he visited his family there in the 1920s. We don’t know.

If you are reading this, and you know this song or a version of it, please, please contact me! I want to learn more about it!

At any rate, he taught it to my grandma and her sisters, and they started the tradition of singing it at the end of our family gatherings. I can't tell you how tickled they were to sing it!

The style is remarkable: It is generally sung quietly, as if by children who are sharing a deliciously fun and mischievous secret . . . but the iterations of Hat! (pronounced like “hot!”) are sung explosively, vociferously, mimicking the blows of father’s stick and heightening the song’s novelty and excitement. Yeah, we really do shout it! (Again, it’s a lot like the explosively loud “La-la-la-la-la-la-las” in “John Jacob Jinkelheimer Schmidt.”)

It’s possible that the “stick” in the lyrics could be a reference to the switches Knecht Ruprecht shows to children before Christmas, to threaten them into good behavior.

But it makes me think of the story Grandma told of how she and her lifelong best friend, Marie Korsemeyer, at about age five, were naughty and picked a bunch of green apples, ate them—then promptly felt sick!

Traditionally, our family repeats the song once or twice. After the first rendition, Grandma or one of her sisters would generally sigh, shake her head, and explain, “We sang it too loudly; that’s not the way Papa taught us; we have to sing it softer.” (We still always make that complaint: “We sang it too loudly—we’ve gotta sing it again, only a lot softer, okay?”)

Then, after another, much quieter run-through, the comment is: “We have to do it over. Someone wasn’t singing that time.” We do this in part to perform some mild, Schroeder-style hazing on any new members of the group (such as girlfriends and boyfriends), who are usually entirely bewildered by the song and its German lyrics. (I feign exasperation, and make a point of staring directly at the newcomers!)

. . . But in truth, we repeat it because we have so much fun laughing and singing it, and because we want to be together just a few more moments—before we must hug goodbye and go out into the bracing early air of January the first.

A technical note on my music transcription above: I couldn’t decide if the “Ist der” of the first “Ist der Vater kommen” should be a pickup to the repeated section, or beat one of it. If the latter, then the accented Hats would fall on the first beat of the measure, which I suppose is more straightforward. Hey, I don’t know. I guess it’s how you hear it. It could go either way.

Finally, as with everything else on my blog, please don’t copy this without giving credit to me and my blog. For one thing, I really do want people to be able to contact me if they know anything about this song!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Mützens of Elm Street: Mützen, Müzen, Mutzens, Mootsens

By any other name (or spelling!), a mützen would still taste as sweet . . .

Of course, it’s about much more than a delicious “donut”; it’s about our tradition of eating them. The pictures in this and the previous post hopefully give you a sense of how we associate them with fun and family.

I described our tradition of eating mützens on New Year’s Eve in my previous post, and I encourage you to read it first if you haven’t already.

But a quick recap: Apparently my grandma Edna Schroeder learned to make mützens from her mother, Wilhelmine Caroline Thomas, who grew up in the German-Dutch border region. In Holland, there is a similar recipe called Olle bollen (“oil balls”). In Germany, mützen are associated with Fastnacht (Mardi Gras) celebrations. Apparently the Thomases traditionally made them at New Year’s Eve.

I hesitate to call this “Grandma Schroeder’s Mützen Recipe,” because it’s only an approximation. Grandma Schroeder never seemed to use a written recipe for mützens; she generally cooked “by feel,” but for years we all knew that mützens were incredibly special, so some of us had made notes, following Grandma around the kitchen, during various years. Fortunately, then, I had someplace to start when Sue and I first tried to make them in 1997.

Particularly, we had three different versions of Grandma Schroeder’s “recipe” that were all written by different people at different times: My aunt Carole Schroeder, my mom, Pat Schroeder, and my brother, Paul, who was a kid at the time (his notes are especially entertaining). All these recipe notes were made approximately in the middle 1970s.

These recipes all differed (greatly!) in the relative amounts of various ingredients, particularly in the amount of flour. (Of course, flour is the one variable that changes the most, depending on humidity, how you spoon or scoop it out, etc.; you will just have to develop a feel for how much flour is sufficient for obtaining the “gukky” consistency young Paul described in his notes for the recipe.) Because of the meticulousness of her notes, we mostly followed my mom’s version.


Small batch; good for about ten people, with plenty of leftovers to send home with them for breakfast.

Scald 3 cups milk, with
  • 1/2 stick of margarine (or butter), and
  • 3/4 cup sugar, and
  • some salt.

Let cool. (Allow time for this to happen; it can’t be too hot, or it will kill the yeast when you add it.)


Dissolve 1 package of dry yeast with
  • a little warm water (ca. 1/4 cup), and
  • 1/2 tsp. sugar.
This will get foamy.


Slightly beat 2 eggs, and add
  • about 1 tsp. of ground mace to them. (Mace quantity varies depending on how strong or fresh your mace is. It is probably better to add a little too much than not enough.)


When the milk part is cool enough, combine the milk, yeast, and eggs mixtures in a big mixer bowl. Using a hand mixer, start adding flour gradually, about a 1/2 cup at a time. (Have plenty of flour on hand; you will need approximately 4–6 cups.) The batter should be sticky and thick enough to not be runny. It should be cohesive enough so you’ll be able later to nudge it off the spoon in globs or blobs and not in runny strings.

Fold in the currants: About one cup, more or less, to taste.


Set the dough aside in a big bowl someplace warm and preferably humid. Cover with a damp clean dish towel. We put it in our oven, whose pilot light keeps it nice and warm. In the past, with small batches, we have heated a Pyrex measuring cup with water in it in the microwave to make it humid, then put the bowl of batter in beside it. With the microwave door shut, it made a nice environment for the yeast to work.


Let rise until double in bulk; then stir it down and let it rise again. You can repeat the rising and “punching down” until it’s time to fry! Thus, you can prepare the dough in late afternoon before your guests arrive. Just check on it every once in a while and punch it down.

Frying. Grandma used a big pot on a burner, but we recommend using a FryDaddy or other frying appliance that will keep the grease at a constant temperature. We started using one of these in 2006 or 2007, and it makes deep-frying a lot easier. Or you can do it the old-fashioned way:

Get a big pot. A thermometer will help, if you have one that can clip to the edge of the pot. You’ll want the Crisco to be between 350 and 375 degrees F. You’ll need about 2–3 inches of hot grease so the batter can bob around, so you will probably need an entire (large-sized) can of Crisco.

Nudge the batter off of a spoon and into the hot grease, taking care not to splash. Remember, the dough will puff up a lot as the mützens cook. So smaller blobs are better: They will cook faster and more evenly, and they will serve more people; larger blobs will become “belly bombs,” especially if they are still doughy in the center.

It’s good to cut into one of the first ones to make sure it’s cooking right.

Drain mützens on paper towels or paper grocery sacks. (I hoard paper grocery sacks in December for this purpose!)

Take one large paper grocery sack and dump a bunch of powdered sugar in the bottom.

Batch by batch (about 6 at a time), shake the hot, drained mützens in the paper sack with the powdered sugar in the time-honored tradition. This is a great job for young people. Make sure they understand they need to roll the top of the bag and hold it closed while shaking it! Watch for holes developing in the corners; but then, hey, resign yourself to having powdered sugar dust everywhere. It always makes me smile the morning after.

Of course, you could try sprinkling on the powered sugar with a sifter or sieve. But what fun is that?

We have an enormous circular platter that we pile the finished mützens onto. At midnight (after we’re done outside making all kinds of noise), we carry the platter of mützens into the living room for everyone to enjoy with their champagne.

Happy New Year!

Mützens: Doubled Recipe for a Larger Group

This is a thumbnail recipe; see above version for important notes regarding dough consistency, etc.

1. Scald together, and then let cool:

  • 6 c. milk
  • 1 stick margarine
  • 1 1/2 c. sugar
  • some salt

2. Dissolve together:

  • 2 packages dry yeast
  • ca. 1/2 cup warm water
  • 1 tsp. sugar

3. Slightly beat together:

  • 4 eggs
  • 2 tsp. [actually, more like 2 Tbsp.; see note above] ground mace

4. When milk is cool enough, combine all of the above. Then starting adding the flour, 1/2 cup at a time, to desired consistency. Fold in currants.

  • ca. 6–8 cups flour, added gradually
  • ca. 1 box of Zante currants

5. Set aside in warm moist place to rise; punch down occasionally, until time to fry.

6. Fry in hot grease, ca. 350–375 degrees F; drain on paper grocery sacks; shake with powdered sugar; serve immediately.

  • Crisco
  • powdered sugar

Hey, if you make these, I hope you’ll let me know how they turn out!

Finally: This is a very special recipe that belongs to my family. Please do not copy it and pretend that it’s yours, or republish it without crediting my blog and this post. Thanks!

Monday, January 18, 2016

New Year’s Eve on Elm Street

Hello, friends—happy new year! It’s a little belated, but I wanted to write a bit about the process of starting a new year, and bidding adieu to the old. I realize if I don’t post this belatedly, then I’ll never post it at all, because each year, I’m far too busy before Dec. 31 to spend time writing about it.

In our diverse American culture, the phrase “happy holidays” has become the most useful and inclusive way of articulating the joy of our mutual year-end celebrations. Yet whether we observe the winter solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwanzaa, nearly all of us do something on December 31 to recognize the night—the instant—that we cross over the bridge spanning the past and the future.

I’ve found an intriguing diversity in the ways people celebrate New Year’s Eve. Some people don’t do more than get out a new wall calendar. Others watch the “ball drop” on TV, or go to parties (private or public). Often, people eat special foods, supposed to bring luck or money, such as black-eyed peas or bean soup, hoppin’ John . . . or black bun, oatcakes, and whiskey (as they do in Scotland).

I’m partial to pickled herring, because everyone knows you need to eat that on New Year’s Eve in order to have some money in your pocket!

My family has a tradition of having a New Year’s Eve party each year. In many ways, it’s a fairly normal party, in that we have an array of snack foods and beverages, and amicable and animated conversations develop and overlap as people move about, mixing, sharing one another’s news and ideas.

By the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, the bulk of the holidays—the decorating, the gift-giving, the churchgoing, the entertaining—is over, and everyone is relaxed and ready to have a good time. But what really distinguishes my family’s New Year’s Eve party from all others is the mützens.

The Thomas/Schroeder family of Elm Street in Jefferson City has been celebrating New Year’s with mützens for at least four generations. My great-grandparents Albert and Wilhelmina Thomas came to Jefferson City from Germany around 1895 and raised their family (a son and four daughters) on West Elm Street, in the little “Germantown” of Muenchberg, or Old Munichburg. In 1930, the youngest of their children, my paternal grandmother, Edna Thomas, married my grandfather Walter A. F. Schroeder, and the couple moved, with Albert and Wilhelmina, into a duplex created for them by Albert. This home—formerly the German Methodist Episcopal church the Thomases had been members of—still stands at the northeast corner of Broadway and West Elm. It’s where I live today.

This house has been the setting for the family’s New Year’s Eve mützen celebrations for about seventy-five years. The tradition apparently started in the 1930s as a gathering for Walter and Edna’s bridge club, which had formed in the 1920s.

As the couple’s children grew and married, and as grandchildren came along, the New Year’s party evolved into a family-and-friends gathering. Serving mützens at midnight has been a part of the celebration all along.

What are mützens? As far as I’ve been able to tell, mützen are a festival food, a kind of fritter or donut, eaten in Germany the same way we in America enjoy funnelcakes. I understand that German mützen are enjoyed particularly at Fastnacht (Mardi Gras) celebrations. I’ve seen similar goodies called Fastnachts, which are sometimes rolled out, then sliced into diamond shapes before frying.

Indeed, there are some basic similarities between mützens and funnelcakes: Both are made with a sweet dough that is fried and served topped with powdered sugar, and both are especially good when they’re hot and fresh. Mützens, however, are made with a much thicker and stickier yeast dough than funnelcakes, and in my family they are flavored with mace and currants.

Some recipes I’ve seen for mützen incorporate raisins, apple chunks, cinnamon, and/or nuts. The mace and currants, however, combine for a unique flavor, which for me powerfully recalls New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Anyway—nudged off a spoon into hot oil, the dough bobs, rises, and puffs out into a ball, but often taking bizarre shapes with odd “appendages.”

Across the German border, in Holland, a similar treat is made called Olie Bollen (“oil balls”; sometimes called Dutch donuts). Edna—again, my Grandma Schroeder—lived under the same roof as her German immigrant parents and therefore learned to prepare their favorite foods. It makes geographical sense that she learned to make this pastry from her mother, who was raised in northwestern Germany, where German and Dutch cultures form a gradient. To our knowledge, Edna never used a written recipe for mützens.

Edna’s reputation for her mützens grew. Albert and Wilhelmina passed away in the 1940s; Walter, my Grandpa Schroeder, passed away in 1966, but Edna’s sisters and their families, her sons and their families, and a number of dear friends continued the New Year’s Eve tradition of getting together and having mützens at midnight.

At some point, the job of applying powdered sugar to the outsides of the freshly made mützens (that is, shaking them in a paper sack with the sugar) became the general responsibility of any grandchildren who were old enough to perform the task. It felt like a great honor to be enlisted to help in the kitchen—especially since kids can get kind of bored with hours of grown-up conversations as the clock ticks toward midnight.

Grandma was an enthusiastic entertainer. In between punching down the dough and, as the evening progressed, frying batches, she would dance through the living room, singing “Here comes a duke a-riding, a-riding, a-riding . . . !” She also circulated among her guests, making sure everyone had enough to eat and drink.

There was always plenty to drink!

At midnight, Grandma would bring out a huge platter full of mützens. By this time, the deliciously sweet mützen smell was all over the house, so getting to finally eat them has always brought a climax to the evening, which is a climax to the year. In a sense, mützens are like a dessert to the year passed, and breakfast for the year to come.

Yes, we continue this tradition—and yes, in my next post I’m gonna tell you how to make mützens yourself!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

No-Bake Peanut Butter–Oatmeal Cookies: The Christmassy Version!

Middle of December: As you can imagine, in addition to work and all the other stuff I’m doing, I’ve been completely busy making cookies, which is a great deal of my overall holiday “gift-giving” effort. I’ve made three kinds of lebkuchen; I’ve made springerles; I’ve made billy goats. I’ve made date-nut bars, rum balls, orange balls, and more. (Wait: I haven’t given you the recipe for orange balls yet? That’s another “must-have” cookie!)

This year, in part because Mrs. Ferber is feeling much better than she did last year (yay!!!) and is making her own cookies again, I’ve decided not to make a bunch of the ones she usually makes. Which frees me up a little to make some other types.

So this year one of my “extras” is the famous chocolate and peanut butter no-bake cookies I told you about back in 2009 when this blog was only three months old!

I won’t repeat the recipe now, since you can find it on my earlier post.

However, because these cookies, though delicious, aren’t very attractive, or Christmassy-looking, I did want to show you how I doctored them up, so they’ll look nice on the cookie platter I set out for guests!

And here’s the fun part: Back in 2009, if you recall, I wrote about how Sue’s brother-in-law referred to these shapeless chocolate-brown, gooey-looking blobs as “yard sausages.”

You know—“yard sausages” is a euphemism among dog owners for the “presents” that dogs leave in the yard for you to inadvertently step in.

So we’d be sitting around the big dining room table, and the cookie tray would be there, and Gene would say, “Please pass me one of the yard sausages.”

It’s true that they aren’t much to look at, but this year, with the decorations, I think they’re much prettier!

But I suppose it could simply be that the dog “got into the Christmas decorations”! I’ve heard of dogs having glitter in their poop after the holidays. If fact, I chose the silvery sprinkles because it kind of looked like tinsel.

There! Now you have another lovely picture to go with these cookies!

But seriously, now, these are really good! Bon appétit!

This post is dedicated to the memory of Buffy Davis: Gone but never forgotten.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Easy and Reliable Kimchi

My kimchi is ready! It finished fermenting and I packed it into jars: Now I’m having a hard time keeping out of it! The recipe comes from my friend Bonnie, who calls it “bomb-proof”—but even more compelling than that is the addictive, fresh flavor of the finished product.

Before I pass along the recipe, I want to give you some sense of its provenance. Bonnie’s brother Jim, who lives in Washington, D.C., sent the recipe to her about a decade ago. He created the recipe from instructions he got from two people: An octogenarian named Mr. Woo, who owned a dry cleaning shop and convenience store in Dupont Circle, and a friend’s wife, Sue, who is Korean.

Bonnie suggests we call it “Jim Woo Sue’s Kimchi,” or perhaps “Woo Sue Jim’s Kimchi,” for a more chronological lineage. Or, I suppose, “Woo Sue Jim Bonnie’s Kimchi,” since I got it from her!

And I’m grateful to her for sharing it with me!

I’ve amended a few details, not very important ones (for example, I prefer smaller chunks, so I’ve given a range of chopping sizes).

See the notes below the recipe for additional ideas.

Easy and Reliable Kimchi

3 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. Kosher salt (divided)
6 c. water
1 lg. head (approx. 2 lbs.) Napa cabbage, cut in ½–2 inch squares
6 green onions, slivered lengthwise, then cut in 1–2 inch lengths
1–2 tbsp. minced fresh ginger (see note below)
2 T Korean ground dried hot red pepper (see note below)
3–4 minced garlic cloves (I use a garlic press)
1 tsp. sugar

1. Dissolve 3 tbsp. salt in water to make a brine. Put the cabbage in a large glass bowl and pour the brine over it. Weigh the cabbage down with a heavy plate or glass pie pan (or similar nonreactive object). Let it stand (at room temperature) for 12 hours.

2. Drain the cabbage, reserving the brine. Mix the cabbage with the remaining ingredients, including the remaining 1 tsp. salt. Pack the mixture into a 2-quart jar (or two 1-quart jars) (wide-mouth jars are a good idea). Pour enough reserved brine over the mix to cover it. Push a freezer bag into the mouth of the jar and pour remaining brine (or fresh water) into the bag to seal it. Set the jar(s) in a Pyrex baking dish (or similar nonreactive tray) to catch any brine that might bubble out. Let it ferment in a cool place (less than or equal to 68 degrees F) for 3 to 6 days, or until it’s as sour as you like.

3. Remove the brine bag and cap the jar(s) tightly. Store it in the fridge, where it will keep for months.


What do I eat it with?
Bonnie says this pairs well with foods that are spicy, smoky, or rich, such as barbecue, chili, smoked fish, canned tuna, and so on. Basically, think of this as another kind of pickle or relish to enjoy. Plus, of course it goes well with Korean foods!

Minced fresh ginger. Asian recipes got a whole lot easier for me when I started batch-processing fresh ginger ahead of time and freezing it flat in a thin layer in a freezer zip bag. I described the process when I told you about a cantaloupe sorbet recipe.

Dried hot red pepper.
The recipe calls for the Korean kind, but I used a combination of “regular” crushed red chili flakes and Indian ground red chilis. You must use your best judgment, based on your own heat preference and how hot your dried chilis are. (You can always add some chili and make it hotter, but it’s hard to do the reverse.)

Alternate veggies.
Bonnie says this recipe works with lots of different kinds of cole and root vegetables. I’ll bet thin-sliced bok choi, turnips, or cucumbers would be good variations.

On a grilled cheese sandwich. Bonnie loves to caramelize the kimchi and put it on a grilled cheese sandwich. She caramelizes it by chopping ¼ cup of the kimchi rather finely and mixing it with 1 tsp. brown sugar, 1 tsp. rice wine (I think mirin would do nicely), and 1 tsp. soy sauce. Then, she heats a little oil in a skillet and cooks the mixture until it bubbles.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Pickled Cabbage, Kimchi, First Steps

There are lots of reasons to enjoy food preparation. In addition to producing something that people can enjoy, the process itself can be pleasant and fun.

This is true whether the cooking is challenging or simple. When it’s challenging, the process can provide the satisfaction of mastering something hard. When it’s simple, then sometimes it’s about witnessing a miraculous, synergistic, seemingly alchemical process.

The latter is what I’m up to today.

Making kimchi is ridiculously simple: Basically, you just throw a bunch of stuff together in a bowl, and let it sit. But the results are bafflingly good, thanks to some biochemical “miracles.” In lactic acid fermentation, naturally occurring bacteria convert carbohydrates (sugars) in the cabbage into lactic acid, raising the acidity of the whole, which helps preserve the cabbage. The process of brining softens the cabbage and also helps preserve it. Both the fermentation and the brining make it tasty!

In addition to being a practical, cheap, no-cook method of preserving and flavoring foods, lactic acid fermentation—when you do it at home and don’t heat-sterilize the jars—provides so-called probiotics that assist and improve your digestion. It’s very similar to the process that creates yogurt, sourdough bread, Japanese miso, and many other dishes.

To our ancestors, to our grandparents, this method of pickling was a boon for surviving and enjoying winter. Fruits and vegetables had to be preserved, if you wanted them at all. In western Europe, fresh cabbage was turned into sauerkraut. In Korea, China, and other southeast Asian lands, kimchi and its variants were about the same thing, only flavored differently—with ginger, garlic, green onions, chilis, soy and/or fish sauce, and so on.

In Europe, the finished kraut can be served straight up, or it can be drained, rinsed, and drained again, then simmered with sautéed onions, tomatoes, and/or chicken stock, flavored with such things as juniper berries, caraway seeds, peppercorns, and bay leaves. Meat, such as pork chops or sausage, can be cooked in a bed of this kraut. Or you can make sauerkraut salads or other dishes out of it, using drained kraut as an ingredient and not an entire dish in itself.

I hear it’s pretty much the same way in Asia, where kimchi can be served right out of the crock, or it can be sautéed or otherwise further prepared, and used in other dishes.

I’ve often entertained fanciful ideas about the parallels of Germany and Korea—proud mainland nations divided into two by war, yet united in language, culture, and family ties; nations historically dominated by a hard-working peasant agriculture economy, now transformed into industrial powerhouses; nations whose most famous (or notorious!) dish is funky, fermented, pickled cabbage. Isn’t that interesting? Do you suppose there are other shared cultural characteristics, as well—a similar mind-set, similar outlooks and attitudes?

Anyway—my musings aside—a friend gave me her brother’s recipe for kimchi, and I’m finally trying it!

I’ve never made kimchi or sauerkraut before, and I’ve been wanting to try making both for a long time. Especially once I figured out that homemade krauts are much tastier than the “store-boughten” kind!

Last night, I chopped up a big head of Napa cabbage and set it to soak in a salt solution (brine) overnight. This morning, I combined the various ingredients, packed it in two quart-size wide-mouth jars, “sealed” them loosely with a plastic bag of water, so bubbles can escape . . . and now we wait.

If it turns out well, and if my friend says it’s okay with her, I’ll share her recipe with you!

More to come!