“I have a new best friend — napa cabbage,” said farmer Madalyn Warren. “I do not have a day without napa coming up for as far as I can see.”
Madalyn and her sister Jenny, who make the Korean condiment kimchee on a farm in Roxbury, have found their best-selling variety is the one made from napa, also known as Chinese cabbage. They launched their company, Kimchee Harvest, six months ago and have been selling the popular condiment at the Woodstock Farm Festival on Wednesdays as well as at farmers markets in Kingston, Delhi, and Halcottsville.
Napa and other organic vegetables are grown on Madalyn’s East Branch Farm and made on the day of harvest into mixtures that are fermented in a sauce of garlic, ginger, red pepper, and other herbs and spices. The Warrens learned to make the condiment from their Korean mother, Ji, who helps out in the kitchen. The day I visited the farm, Ji was on a trip, doing Christian missionary work in homeless shelters and prisons.
In the wide valley of the East Branch of the Delaware River, space and sky abound. Unlike Ulster County to the east, where the mountains loom close over the valleys, the peaks of Delaware County undulate gently in the distance. The Warrens grew up in Speculator, a town in the Adirondacks where their parents owned a resort on Lake Pleasant. Madalyn, Jenny, and their brother, Arthur, the third partner in the kimchee business, inherited their parents’ entrepreneurial spirit and talent for feeding people.
Madalyn caught the farming fever one August 14 years ago from spending time in a kitchen garden. “Food that’s fresh,” she explained, “and by that I don’t mean fresh sitting in a cooler for a week, but straight from the ground — it’s a different product. Especially when you see it growing, and then you eat it. I thought, I have to do more of this.”
She grows all her vegetables from seed. “They’re in the greenhouse until they’re just old enough to walk,” she said. “Then I hold their hands, walk them across Route 30 to the field, and tuck them into their beds.”
For several years, she grew vegetables for community-supported agriculture (csa) deliveries, both upstate and in New York City, as well as supplying restaurants in the city. Now she has only two csa subscribers, who come to the farm to pick up vegetables weekly. This year, most of her growing goes into the new kimchee business, which is already taking off, thanks to the popularity of fermented foods, a healthful addition to the diet because of the probiotic content, nourishing the billions of beneficial bacteria in the human gut.
In the kitchen, Madalyn opened up a four-pound head of napa — an “old” one, picked three days earlier — to display the wide white ribs that are filled with moisture. Traditional kimchee is heavily salted to draw out the liquid, then drained before packing with spices. The Warrens lightly salt their vegetables and do not drain off the liquid, preserving complex flavors and nutrients. “The grandmas were not trying to preserve the juice,” said Jenny. “They were storing as much biomass as possible.”
While modern-day American consumers are attracted the health benefits and tangy flavors of fermented foods, kimchee was invented to preserve food for the winter, or to stave off famine in case of crop failure. People are always asking if the Warrens bury their kimchee in a crock in the ground, a traditional method of storage to keep the product cool. “We have refrigeration now,” Jenny pointed out. “But okay, yes, we’re thinking to bury some, just so we can say yes.” She observed that another reason for burying may have had to do with the invasion-riddled history of Korea. If the invaders didn’t detect the buried kimchee, there would be more for the family to eat.
Kimchee Harvest offers three lines of products. Red-label kimchee is made according to traditional recipes using napa, radish, cucumber, or buchu (Asian chives). Green labels indicate “farm select” kimchee, using whatever vegetable is available in quantity on the farm, even though it’s not traditional: rhubarb, dandelion, ramps, garlic scapes. The yellow-label products have been aged for more than five months, deepening the flavor and complexity. A big batch of garlic scapes is currently fermenting to sell this winter.
Most varieties also include scallions, hot pepper mix, garlic, ginger, local honey, crushed apples, salt, black pepper, and anchovy sauce. Vegan versions dispense with the fish and substitute maple syrup for the honey. Jenny is in charge of blending the sauce for the vegan products, using a careful ratio of garlic, ginger, cilantro, and shiso. “Each batch has its own personality and requirements,” she said. “You don’t want two people working on the spicing. It just doesn’t come out right.”
“You have to understand the relationship of the different ingredients,” agreed Madalyn. “You add them one at a time. If you pre-mix the sauce, you get a different taste.”
Some people may find raw kimchee a bit too spicy, but the condiment can also be used to add flavor to soups, stir-fries, or fried rice.
Making kimchee requires careful washing of the vegetables, chopping, salting, packing, and addition of sauce ingredients. “It’s time-consuming,” said Madalyn, “but it adds so much value. And all of a sudden, I have a four-season job, making a product we can sell through the winter.”
For more information on Kimchee Harvest, see https://straightoutoftheground.com. Kimchee may be purchased at the Woodstock Farm Festival on Wednesdays or the Kingston Farmers Market on Saturdays. This summer, the Phoenicia Diner has included the Warrens’ kimchee in a weekend special.