Andrea Mattson-McGaffey, one of the locavores behind Pilsen food cooperative Edible Alchemy, has always loved pickles. “My mom would always tell the story of how when I was 5 or 6, if there were pickles on the table for the family, I would eat all of them,” she said.
Throughout the years, Andrea has cultivated her fondness for that briny crunch by learning to pickle and ferment vegetables and fruits herself. “I got into fermenting and lacto-fermenting when I was doing an internship with a friend in Indiana, back in 2008,” she said. That friend introduced her to DIY ways of making wine, beer, and kimchi—a traditional Korean dish made by fermenting chopped cabbage and spices in tightly sealed jars for weeks or months at a time. The two were motivated not only by a taste for those provisions but also by a desire to reduce waste. “We would pick up bags of preshredded iceberg lettuce, cabbage, and onions that would have been thrown out by local restaurants and ferment them to save them.”
These days, Andrea teaches others how to work with fermentation during playshops that she hosts at the co-op. Groups craft kimchi from seasonal ingredients that grow in the Midwest—ingredients that aren’t always found in traditional Korean recipes. “I’ve made one with garlic and onions as its main ingredients and one with apples,” she said. When she can, she also incorporates herbs and edible flowers, which she forages from the city’s green spaces.
Kimchi is a refreshing snack when eaten on its own, and its bright flavors stand out beautifully when it’s paired with meat, simmered in soup, or griddled into savory pancakes. But there’s more to like about kimchi than its taste. “The health benefits of fermented foods are incredible,” Andrea said. “Cultures that eat them have longer lives, healthier lives. The process of fermentation utilizes microorganisms that exist in your gut. And when you eat them, you’re repopulating with good bacteria that helps you to digest.” Fermentation also helps extract nutrition from the tough structures of cabbage and root vegetables. “They’re microdigested beforehand, so our bodies can get into those cells and extract nutrients, B vitamins, and minerals,” she said.
Andrea is such an expert on kimchi that in March 2013, the organizers of Chicago’s Good Food Festival & Conference asked her to help judge a new culinary competition: the Kimchi Challenge. She and four other judges tasted traditional and inventive batches and eventually selected a winning batch crafted by Elizabeth David of vegetarian restaurant Green Zebra in West Town.
“[Her] kimchi was awesome,” Andrea said. “It had an awesome texture, a really good brine, and everything was very nicely cut.” But there was one thing that really made it stand out: “It was massaged,” she said. It may sound strange to a novice, but massaging chopped vegetables between two hands is one way that kimchi makers extract their moisture, a necessary step in the fermentation process. Alternatively, they may pound or press the veggies. Andrea believes that this hands-on approach also leads to a deeper appreciation for food. “When you take the time to connect to your food, by fermenting it, squeezing it, pounding it, you become more attached to it,” she said.
What You Need:
1 head of cabbage
1 head of garlic
Ground ginger, crushed red pepper, and salt to taste
What You Do:
1. Chop ingredients and mix them together.
2. Massage or pound the veggie medley and place it in a tightly sealed glass or ceramic jar (a Mason jar works perfectly).
3. Leave the jar on your countertop or hidden beneath your boss’s desk for a week.
4. Check periodically to make sure that the vegetables are exuding water, and push the vegetables beneath the watery brine so they’ll ferment properly.