Shortly after I turned 20, my family moved from central Illinois to Southern California, swapping snow boots for sandals; we also traded in two apple trees for a grove of lemons, avocados, pomegranates, figs, and jujubes. A few years ago, I started my quest to grow heirloom vegetables, which frustrated and rewarded me in seemingly equal quantities—only a few hinona kabu turnips came up the first year, but the dan hobak (known as kabocha to most folks) immediately blanketed the backyard, flowering with dozens of sweet squashes-to-be.
My mother, who grew up on a farm in South Korea, was overjoyed that she could be outside all year round —even after she fell from the top of her fig tree and broke her little toe. “Look at all these figs I picked!” she exclaimed, sitting on the ground with her toe swelling up. “Make sure you take all the figs inside and wash them right away, or their juice will attract bugs,” she instructed my father when he deposited her on her bed, shaking his head and going to call the doctor.
For my mom and I, migrating gardening zones from 5b to 9b signified an explosive difference in our cooking. In California, crops come sooner, more abundantly, and sometimes, year-round—all reasons to celebrate, of course, but also a lot to get ready for. And the pests, from groundhogs to tomato hornworms, kept up their pilfering of our treasures year-round.
Over the last several years, my mother and I have developed a cooking style I call “Cali-Korean.” Our style applies elemental techniques of Korean cooking to Californian gardening, adding fresh flavors from herbs and seasonings that aren’t often employed in conventional Korean cuisine. In that spirit, we’ve dried native herbs that pop up spontaneously in our backyard (like California sage) and added Mexican seasonings (like Tajín) and ingredients (like nopales) to our favorite Korean dishes.
We try not to waste any ingredients, either, so there’s a flurry of preserving and prolonging activities all year round. “Putting up” for our family means making kimchi instead of pickles. Then there’s freezing, drying, seed gathering, and making long-lasting preserved salads with sesame oil or jangs, the fermented soybean sauces of the Korean culinary world.
Here are some simple Cali-Korean recipes to enjoy in your backyard with some tacos, burgers or sandwiches—and a heap of guacamole and chips, of course.
This puckery kimichi’s chock-full of firm green watermelon rinds and bold, bright accompaniments (like salted shrimp, garlic, ginger, gochugaru, and fragrant herbs). It’s an exciting take on everyone’s favorite summer fruit.
Tender, saucy eggplant, meet grill (or ripping-hot oven, if outside temps are cooling down where you are).
If you have zucchini coming out of your ears (hey, us too!), put it to good use in this simple-as-can-be side, complete with hefty nopales and a hint of garlic.