I cut my fermentation eyeteeth on fermenting napa cabbage, so I am particularly proud of producing these pickles each winter. Initially I used a food-grade plastic pickling barrel, but after switching over to a wooden barrel, I have never looked back. There is something incredibly empowering about slapping the cabbage wedges back into the barrel if you decide to rotate the bottom cabbage to the top. I follow Katchan’s method on this with a little advice from other sources as well. (Katchan is Tadaaki’s aunt and is often at our house.) This is the first Japanese preserved vegetable that I would suggest tackling because even if the souring does not happen, the salty cabbage will be delicious. And you will learn an invaluable lesson in the process. These pickles should be made in the winter when napa cabbage is in season and the days are cool.
From Preserving the Japanese Way: Traditions of Salting, Fermenting, and Pickling for the Modern Kitchen, by Nancy Singleton Hachisu/Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC
small heads Chinese cabbage, quartered vertically (about 1 1/3 pounds/600 grams each)
sea salt (3% cabbage weight)
small garlic cloves, thinly sliced
small dried Japanese (or 6 árbol) chile peppers
Peeled strips from 4 small yuzu or Meyer lemons (avoid the white bitter pith)
In This Recipe
Remove any outside wilted leaves of the cabbage. On sheets of newspaper set directly on the ground, dry the cabbage quarters for 1 day.
Line a plastic or wooden pickling tub with a large pickling-grade plastic bag. Pack one layer of the slightly dried Chinese cabbage, cut side down, on the bottom of the pickling container, rubbing each one with salt before you set it in the tub. Sprinkle the layer of cabbage with some of the sliced garlic, chile peppers, and yuzu zest. Continue until all the cabbage quarters have been rubbed with salt and packed in the pickling tub. Don’t forget to throw in some garlic, chile peppers, and yuzu peel before you start each new layer. Make sure the cabbage is snugly packed and flatten the excess portion of the plastic bag across the surface of the cabbage, pressing out the air to create a seal. Set the pickle tub’s drop lid on top (or find a suitable substitute), weight with a rock or other heavy object (about the equivalent weight of the cabbage), and cover. Let sit outside in a cold shady spot, out of direct sunlight, for a couple of weeks. (Check after a few days to make sure enough brine has been exuded to cover the cabbage. If not, sprinkle in a little more salt.) If mold forms, lift it off the pickles gently and wipe any mold spots on the plastic bag or wooden tub with a neutral alcohol such as shochu or vodka.
The pickles can be eaten any time, but perhaps better to wait at least 2 weeks. They reach optimum flavor after 1 or 2 months, and stay good while the cold weather holds (store in the refrigerator if the days turn warm).