kimchi chili

The remains of the pretzel croissant is always a very sad sight.

Hi, friends. I have a chili recipe for you today* — and then I’m off to San Francisco. Andrew is attending the biggest earth science conference and I’m tagging along with my own list of to do’s. I hope to come back with a full report of new, awesome things I’ve discovered. And I’m taking not one but two cameras with me.

The chili today is slightly different: it’s kimchi chili. Some of you might have gasped in horror, and some of you might have gotten really excited. Chili purists will probably give me a wag of the finger. I’m not sorry.

You might have heard on the interwebs or Twitters or Facebooks that a book that I co-authored came out last Tuesday. It’s funny to have to tell people about a book you wrote that’s on a subject that still requires plenty of explanation.

“You wrote a book on what?? Kim-what??”


“Oh, what is that?”

“Well, it’s a Korean way of fermenting produce to preserve it.”

“Is it spicy?”

“It can be but it doesn’t have to be. It’s very flavorful.”

“Well, I’m probably not going to like it then. I don’t like anything spicy. Or anything that smells funny.”

Yes, folks, those are actual conversations I’ve had (as in many conversations). And it always delights me when, on a rare chance, I hear, “I looooove kimchi. I’ve been playing around with making it at home.”

Honestly, just having to not explain what kimchi is, is a joy in and of itself.

Baked beans. Eggs. Toast. Coffee.

Esoteric as it may be, it’s a book I am enormously proud of. Lauryn and I worked our butts off – we tested and retested (and then retested some more) each and every recipe. We pored over every line. And we wanted to, as much as possible, take the intimidation out of making kimchi at home. We wanted everyone who picks up the book to feel that they can make delicious kimchi at home without much fuss. I’d like to think we’ve succeeded.

A few weeks ago, I went to the Pickle Festival where I sampled kimchi from every vendor who was selling it – in total I sampled about ten different kinds. And Lauryn’s (and I am not saying this because we wrote a book together) was the tastiest by far. Which is why I think that the book is fantastic – because her kimchi recipes are incredible and full of lively and complex fermentation notes. Lauryn refers to kimchi as “the champagne of pickles” and once I tried her kimchi, I realized why.

So today, in this post, I was going to tell you more about the book: How hard we worked on it; how this recipe, actually, didn’t make it into the book, making it kind of a bonus recipe for you all. A preview of what is inside the book, if you will. But then I got sucker punched by reality right before Thanksgiving and my mind went elsewhere.

Right before we left for Maryland to spend the holiday with my brother-in-law’s family and my in-laws, I was asked by my accountant to calculate my earnings this year and send him an excel file. And like a dutiful student, I started to plug my invoices into the spreadsheet. When I got to the final number, I stared at it in disbelief. It was so abysmally low, that I instantly burst into tears. And friends, when I say low, I mean below-the-poverty-line-low.

Genuinely confused about its origins...

The calculation and the resulting number felt like a slap in the face. This year was the year I had worked harder than ever before. I endured months without a single day off, I postponed my honeymoon because I had a book manuscript due (a honeymoon we have yet to plan and take), I felt like I was doing everything right, but the bottom line seemed to suggest otherwise. Slowly, I was eating through my savings (which I’m lucky to have), but nothing was galvanizing. In a moment of panic, I felt as if this life I have chosen, this dream of mine, writing about food and developing and testing recipes—just wasn’t sustainable. I felt as if my only choice was to return to finance—at least it was predictable. At least, I wasn’t worried about making rent. I felt like my great, daring experiment was an utter failure.

We live in a society where no one really talks about money. It’s bad form. Poverty is discussed as an abstract or a news story. Something that happens to someone we heard about on the news. But to admit your own financial woes, to talk about your own financial anxieties and frustrations – is considered a gigantic no-no.

Naturally, they go together.

You know how to really quiet a room?? Tell them about the time you burst into tears after you got your surgery bill because you realized, at that point, that maybe you didn’t have enough money for a honeymoon. Or a pair of jeans. Or that you were petrified that you had failed so utterly that now you felt you were stuck: you think yourself un-hireable in your latter role because almost two years have passed since your former career and no one would want to hire you in your current role because you don’t have “adequate” training.

Before Andrew noticed my shock, I stole away into our bedroom where I quietly sobbed until Andrew found me there crying into my knees. Andrew is a sensitive guy. In fact, I’d say that if we’re watching a sad movie, he’s likelier to tear up than me. He’s got the emotional thing figured out (unlike some, ahem, more closed-off people, not to point any fingers). But as Andrew stood there watching me cry, as my whole body heaved from sobbing, he seemed utterly lost. All I could breathe out through my tears, as he held me was, “I worked so hard. I worked so hard.”

Melissa calls it my “transition year” – the year when I finished one book, wrote another one (the second book consuming every single waking minute of the first nine months of the year) and made little money because I’m just starting out. She told me, point blank, not to give up. It gets better, she said, just wait and see. And the thing is – I don’t want to. I don’t want to walk away from this and will do my best to make this life sustainable.

Contemplating a new look: 50 shades of awesome. #forrestthecat

But the next few months will be telling – will I land a new book to co-author or will there be a steady job writing or editing or testing recipes out there? In trying to figure out how I can make this lifestyle of mine sustainable, how I can make it work, and if I can make it work, I will have to get creative about my options, answer some difficult questions, and keep an open mind.

I’m enormously grateful to all of you for coming here to this corner of the interwebs and sharing it with me. It’s nice to have you all here indulging me in my periodic emotional woes. I thank you for listening and hope you give this chili a try. It packs a serious punch, and the acidity gives the chili the kind of complexity I haven’t tasted before. Authentic by Texas standards it might not be, but it’s every bit delicious and I hope you love it as much as we do here in our kitchen.

Sunday begins

*You must forgive me for not having a picture of the actual kimchi here, but let’s be honest, chili looks like chili. When we tested the recipes for the book I didn’t expect the recipe to be cut – because it was one of my favorites. But when it didn’t make it into the final manuscript, I decided to share it with all of you here, and I had every intention of retesting it. Sadly, the last few weeks have somewhat taken the wind out of my sail and I have been a little short on time. So, I’m hoping to distract you with pictures of Forrest and other ephemera. Look, isn’t my niece super cute?

Kimchi Chili

There are as many chili recipe disputes as there are chili recipes, if not more. I’m adding to the chili controversy with this recipe by not just using kimchi, but including two kinds: Napa cabbage kimchi and daikon radish kimchi. The heat in this chili is subtle and warm, and the kimchi add their own tanginess rounding out the flavors. Who knew kimchi would lend itself so well to this American classic?

1 pound dry pinto beans
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1/2 pound Italian sweet sausage, casing removed
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons chili powder (or a blend of chili peppers you normally use)
1 tablespoon gochugaru (Korean chili pepper)
1 1/2 cups Napa cabbage kimchi (xref p000), chopped and divided
1 1/2 cups daikon kimchi (Kkattuggi xref p000)
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2 dried bay leaves
Sour cream, for serving
Chopped scallions, for serving

1. Place the beans in a large bowl, cover with enough water so that there is 2 inches of water above the beans and let soak overnight. In the morning, drain the beans and set aside.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large Dutch oven over high heat. Add half the beef, reduce the heat to medium high, and cook until the beef browns, about 5 minutes. If you find that you need to break the beef into 3 batches, go ahead. Better to you’re your time and getting your meat properly browned than steaming it. Steamed meat doesn’t taste very good. Season with salt and black pepper, remove from the pan, and set aside. Repeat with the remaining beef.

3. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sausage meat to the Dutch oven. Using a wooden spoon, break up the meat and cook until the sausage is browned, about 4 minutes.

4. Add the remaining olive oil. Add the onion and pepper to the sausage, and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium, add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in the chili powder and gochugaru, and cook, stirring, for 2 more minutes. Return the beef to the pot, and add the 2 1/2 cups of kimchi (both kinds, if using two kinds – up to you how you divide the proportions), tomatoes, 2 1/2 cups of water, beans, and bay leaves. Stir to combine, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer about until the beans are soft 1 1/2 hours. Remove the lid, taste and adjust seasonings, and simmer for 30 minutes, uncovered, until thickened. Add remaining 1/2 cup kimchi during the last 10 minutes of cooking. Ladle into bowls (the chili will resemble a thick soup) and top with generous dollops of sour cream. Garnish with chopped scallions and serve.

Serves: 4 to 6


  • ann

    Damn girl, that’s a lot to deal with. And while I haven’t been in exactly your shoes, I have been very close (unemployed for two years with very few prospects), and I have got to tell you have one very, very important ace up your sleeve; Andrew. I had no one during those dark days, and that makes it doubly, possibly even triply hard. Having emotional and intellectual support will get you through this. You are talented, hard working, and very good at what you do! If you keep trying, and it just doesn’t click, (and I know this is hard to hear), there is no harm in trying something else. I am a perpetual work chameleon, and if there is one thing I believe to be entirely true it is that being employable is all about the skills you acquire through each iteration of your career. If you decide to re-enter the mainstream workforce, whomever snaps you up will be luckyluckylucky to have you. You rock, keep your head up, and keep doing what you’re doing. You make your own luck and I honestly think you have it in spades. 2013 will be an excellent year for you, I have little doubt.

  • Casey@Good. Food. Stories.

    Olga, I want to give you a big hug right now – I am right there with you in that same fearful, fetal-position paralysis over the very little money that comes from the huge effort we expend in this business. My husband has been telling me the same thing – that it will get better, that all of this is going to pay off – but we just don’t see it because we’re living it and consumed by it every day. Keep the faith; please don’t walk away. You’re too awesome and talented a colleague to abandon it all.

  • Ashley

    Ditto, ditto to what they said. It’s hard to trust the future being better, but sometimes that’s what you have to do. You’ll figure out what to do to hold you over. Just know we’re all here to listen to you and to support as much as we, relative strangers, can.
    You’ve got tons of talent with your writing and your recipes. It inspires me in my own attempt at a blog. And I will most certainly support any food-related effort you put out there, whether it’s blog or book. Chin up, and know you’ve got this!

  • Luisa

    Oh, dear. I wish I could just give you a hug. The freelance life has so many perks, but this is one of the biggest drawbacks – the insecurity and worry about money. I’m so sorry that things are so shaky right now. You are doing such an incredible job, though! I hope you find clarity soon – and I don’t doubt that whatever path you take (paths! because life is long), you’ll excel at all of them. I know it. xoxo

  • olga

    Ann, Casey, Ashley, and Luisa – thank you, ladies. I am so so grateful for your supportive comments, I can’t even begin to describe it. Hugs back to all! xo

  • phi

    I’m going through the same money pains – but it helps me put things in perspective and the important things in life seems dearer now more than ever.

    San Francisco is a beautiful city that I call home, I also have tea and cookies, so feel free to hit me up if you are feeling a bit down due to the weather.

  • Lydia

    Don’t despair!! You’re good at this. And people obviously love to read what you have to say. And one of the big reasons behind marrying someone is to *support* them in their endeavors, even when – dare I say it? – those efforts might not be immediately fruitful. This is the time to try to make this work; you’re a family, and families do what they have to for each other’s happiness. Give it some more time.
    – A faithful reader :)
    PS – I’m also in San Francisco (Berkeley, actually) – and if you need anything please do reach out. Your community’s not *just* virtual. :)

  • Harriet

    This can’t have been an easy post to write – I was always told to never discuss money, politics or religion – but thank you for writing this. It’s honest and refreshing to read about this side of freelance writing and not just the lovely, own-schedule, own-boss side of things. I’m studying writing and our lecturers tell us in a brisk, matter of fact way “you will never make any money as a freelancer.” It’s heart wrenching to hear considering the debt I am incurring to go to university in the first place! But I much prefer your way of looking at things – that it will get better with perseverance and determination. I wish you all the best :)

  • Jennifer

    Thank you for sharing your story so honestly- it was very touching. Don’t give up! I love your blog, your writing and your food recipes! I can’t wait to try this kimchi chili! You ARE having an impact, so hang in there! Much love and success!

  • Sarah

    I can’t tell you how incredibly refreshing it is to read such an open and honest post. You’re right – money is something we only talk about in the abstract, and in this day and age, I don’t know why! I have just taken a year’s break from my job in the UK to move to Boston to live with my boyfriend, who’s working here. It means having to reassess everything about how I use money, and also, really, who I am, because before I moved I was so much defined by my job. (Which I loved, incidentally..!)

    Please stick with it – I love your blog, and I can’t wait to read the book. I’ve just started my own food blog – one of my new projects since coming to the States. In my first post, I talked about my reasons for starting the blog and my inspirations, citing ‘several blogs which I’ve followed and admired’ as a reason. One of those blogs is YOUR blog – so you are making a difference to me!

  • Thien

    I always enjoy your posts and I love kimchi! My mom made the most awesome version and it will always be a fond memory of childhood.

  • Perry Perkins

    LOVE kimchi…but never in a million years have I put it and chili together in the same thought.

    Now I really want to try this!

    Thanks for the great idea,


  • katy

    Although your pain and disbelief could be felt in each word of your post, I feel inspired by your words. There’s something about your determination not to take the easy way out that makes me believe that you’ll make it…And that, with equal parts grit and determination, there might also be hope for those of us who similarly want to transition into something else.

    As a grad student who, because of a love of Dostoevsky and Chekhov, has occasionally worried about the cost of new jeans and my own toeing-the-poverty-line existence, I can relate to your worries. Sometimes I think that, as much as we all want to be successful and wealthy (at least to the point that we don’t have to worry about money actively), it’s just so much better to be happy. Maybe that happiness won’t translate into 6 figures, but that’s okay. A bowl of kimchi chili or almond cake may just be enough…at least on most days.

  • Melissa Lavrinc Smith

    That sucks, I’m sorry. You do such incredible work and I’m always happy to have your posts land in my inbox. Do you know if there is a way to donate directly to our favorite blogs? I listen to NPRs pitches every year and they make it really easy to donate by text, but the point is they make a really solid case, and I never mind kicking in $10 everytime they ask for it. I’d happily do it for you and the other few blogs I regularly enjoy and subscribe to. Maybe do a fund raising pitch, or not. It’s hard (especially for females) to ask for contributions or charge what they’re worth. It took me years to confidently tell my customers what I charge. Either way, reference this post, and put it out there. You’re awesome, and it sounds like your husband is awesome too.

  • merry jennifer

    What I hate most about my job — in fact, really the only thing I hate about my job — is that I miss important happenings in my friends’ and families’ lives. Like this post. I missed it entirely, until just now.

    You are amazing, and your worth is priceless. As a friend, to me, you are worth a six-figure salary, with bonuses accrued each time we chat on gmail.

    That’s all I have to say. I love you.


  • nicole

    Olga — Thank you for writing this, and for ‘keeping it real.’ Money is so often the elephant in the room, but we are all dealing with it. I hope you can take comfort in that you are doing what you love to do, even if it hasn’t necessarily been monetarily amazing just yet, and can continue to do so for quite awhile to come. Keep your head up – and best of luck!

  • Meg

    Just wanted to add to the messages of support. I have been reading your blog for years–I rarely comment, but I never miss an update. You are so talented and your warm personality shines through in the way you write; somehow I can’t help but think you’ll come out of this on top. Best of luck with your books!


    Can i use chickpeas instead of beans i think it will sound good. I like the kimchi chilli name as well as your recipie is. Thanks for the recipie.

  • olga

    Zahir – I think that to omit beans and use chickpeas instead, it’ll be a play on chana masala, but you know what – that’s okay. If it works and tastes good, go ahead!

  • Genie

    I made a variation on this chili for my office chili cook off. Even though I screwed up by using cayenne pepper and chipotle chili powder (holy smokes, bad idea) and spent the evening desperately trying to tame the heat with Beer and molasses AND I burned the crap out of the chili the next morning when I went to heat it up, I still won a prize! Granted, it was “Spiciest Chili” but I like to think that despite the disasters, the tastiness of the recipe still shone through. Thanks.


    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an incredibly long
    comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyways, just wanted to say wonderful blog!

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