When the raindrops of storm Nemo turned to icy sleet, then light, puffy snow at an increasing speed, I knew that it was the perfect time to hole up in the kitchen and cook something good. I was expecting a long, drawn-out affair once I’d decided on kimchi jigae, a homestyle Korean dish. This versatile stew features kimchi in a bubbling pot with great hunks of tofu, often soft mounds of potatoes, sometimes mushrooms, sometimes eggs, and it’s usually simmered with pork. But if you leave out the pork for a Buddha-friendly rendition, as I did, then I guess this is one of the fastest stews in the world to make. It was ready well before the sun set, and as the flurries piled up to soft mountains of snow, the warm, pungent aroma of kimchi broth infused the whole night.
I guess I’ll just have to wait another half-century or so to pick out a dish that will keep me occupied all throughout a historic, record-breaking blizzard. To be sure, we didn’t have it so bad here in NYC with Nemo. I feel I’ve dodged another bullet from weather this year. And I’m not really complaining about how quick and easy this dish was to make; that freed up my time to start another batch of kimchi.
You don’t have to use homemade kimchi in this recipe, as the spicy, lacto-fermented cabbage can be found in Asian markets, specialty food shops, and even many bodegas throughout the city. This recipe is especially good for those old half-jars that you might have in the back of your fridge, as its more powerful kimchi flavor will be mellowed by cooking, and it will be absorbed in the tasty broth. If you do decide to whip up your own kimchi from scratch, it’s simple, but just give yourself five days before making this stew. I’ve posted an easy recipe of my own for it here, and there’s plenty more reputable sources from cookbooks and online. You can also snag a no-fail kimchi kit recently launched by my pal Kheedim Oh of Mama O’s. Ever since scoring one of those before Christmas, I’ve rekindled a fond habit for fermenting at home.
a less-traditional, waxy and purple-skinned potato variety
Although it was the perfect type of night for meaty stews that stick to your bones, I went with a vegetarian kimchi jigae in part just to see how well the flavor of kimchi would stand up alone. I was excited to use potatoes in it also, as those were some of my favorite pieces to dredge up in the kimchi stews I’ve gotten to try before (notably Kheedim’s). I’m fond of tofu, especially when stewed as firm chunks to soak up all the spiciness, so I added this too, but you could always leave out and add more potatoes if you like. Lastly, I tossed in some big leaves of baby bok choy (from the outside of the heads, the ones you might normally discard) toward the end of simmering. This added an interesting contrast to the briney-tasting, softened napa cabbage of the kimchi.
Like most homestyle comfort foods, there is no one true recipe for kimchi jigae; its only quota is that there’s kimchi, cooked in liquid, really. So I’ve interpreted the formulas I’ve learned from friends and published recipes in order to come up with the vegetarian, potato-studded one below. I am not myself Korean so I hope that it doesn’t offend. On the contrary, I hope it delights and warms the soul, as it certainly did me one very snowy night.
Kimchi & Potato Stew
(makes 3-4 servings)
1 cup packed kimchi along with its juice
3-4 small-medium, waxy potatoes (such as red or Yukon gold), chopped to about 1-inch wedges
half a pack (4 oz.) firm tofu, cut to rectangular blocks (or any size you want), optional
1 head baby bok choy
1 small or 1/2 medium onion, sliced
1-2 scallions, chopped, for garnish (optional)
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon Korean gochujuang, or fermented chili paste (optional)
6 cups vegetable stock (or substitute with water)
1/2 cup cooking rice wine or sake
In a large pot, heat the sesame oil and add the onions. Cook, stirring, over medium-low heat 2-3 minutes or until just softened. Add the optional gochujuang paste and stir in to combine thoroughly. Add the kimchi and potatoes and cook, stirring, over medium-high heat another couple minutes to warm through. Once mixture is hot, add the sake and let boil while stirring. Add the stock or water and carefully place in the tofu blocks (so as to avoid breaking them much). Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Let cook 20 minutes or until the potatoes are very tender. Add the bok choy and cook another 5-10 minutes. Season with salt to taste if desired (the kimchi is salty so you’ll need little). Serve with rice and the chopped scallions for garnish.
(for 3-4 servings)
1 cup homemade kimchi: $2.00
3 small potatoes: $1.00
4 oz. tofu: $1.00
1 small onion: $0.50
1 small head baby bok choy: $1.00
2 scallions: $0.30
6 cups stock (homemade): $2.00
1 tablespoon sesame oil: $0.25
1 tablespoon gochujuang: $0.50
1/2 cup rice wine: $0.50
Two brownie points: Although heating kimchi kills its active, beneficial bacteria, the napa cabbage is still high in vitamins and minerals, like Vitamin C, which will help you get over a cold. Adding fresh(-er) greens such as the bok choy is a great way to boost that percentage as well. The potatoes add filling power as well as potassium, and the tofu lends protein in place of pork. There are hardly any fats here, but instead lots of flavor; dig in.
Seven brownie points: This can easily be a very local and low carbon-footprint dish despite its exotic heritage. You can use locally-made kimchi such as Mama O’s or Mother-in-Law’s, two great artisanal brands in NYC, or make your own using locally-grown, seasonal cabbage. The exotic ingredients such as the gojuchuang paste and rice wine can be omitted, or substituted for your own chili paste or powder. Finally, potatoes are always in season, often in great variety, too, so it’s a great time to enjoy these in winter, when few exciting fresh veggies are around.