The idea of any kind of pickled cabbage tasting good with a milk derivative–yeah, I sound like I should be locked up for even suggesting it, right? But contrary to popular belief, kimchi and cheese are agreeable bedfellows in a crazy variety of dishes.
When James and I lived in Denver, a [sadly, now closed] Korean restaurant in Aurora offered a ‘kimchi and cheese dolsot bibimbap’ on the menu. I had always been intrigued by the listing, but couldn’t bring myself to order it until my sister-in-law tried it on a lark one evening. (She and I have an almost masochistic streak regarding weird flavor combinations.) It was absolutely delicious–the creaminess of the cheese carried the tangy, spicy flavor of the kimchi very well. And despite the odd texture combination of crunchy (kimchi), creamy (cheese) and mushy (medium-grain rice), I was a fan.
Apparently this ‘match made in heaven’ wasn’t a secret; Kogi BBQ came into prominence in LA a year after I tried the bibimbap and a kimchi quesadilla was a featured item. I decided to try making the recipe Roy Choi provided to Gourmet soon afterward and found myself addicted to the kimchi + cheese combination. I’ve subsequently made kimchi quesadillas for potlucks, snacks and late-night cravings.
When you look at that eventual progression of foods, kimchi mac n’ cheese doesn’t seem like such an oddity now, does it? Well… it’s okay, I understand that it’s still a crazy idea. It was born out of a “I want kimchi quesadillas, but don’t have tortillas or cheese… but I DO have this instant mac n’ cheese box…” whim. And after I discovered it was indeed delicious, I whipped up this recipe on the fly.
So what does it taste like? Rich, sharp cheddar cheese sauce with flecks of crunchy, tangy kimchi with a slow burn of heat, all carried atop the al dente consistency of shell pasta. I like to top it with smoked paprika, which gives a hint of smokiness to the cheese and compliments the slightly caramelized kimchi cabbage. If you’d prefer even more spice, you can mix in cayenne pepper to taste at the end–but I find that less spice is more when balancing the flavors together.
Give the recipe a whirl and let me know what you think! It’s so crazy that you just might like it too. Be careful though–if you like it a lot more than you think, you might start dreaming up crazy ways to put kimchi in everything! (Not that I’m speaking from experience of course…)
Kimchi Mac n’ Cheese
- 1 1/4 c. kimchi, chopped into 1-in pieces
- 2 1/2 c. medium shell pasta
- 2 Tbsp. butter
- 2 Tbsp. flour
- 3/4 c. milk (I used 2%)
- 1 c. sharp cheddar cheese
- salt and pepper, to taste
- smoked paprika
- olive oil (optional)
- Boil a pot filled with water on high heat. Be sure to throw some salt in the water to give the pasta some flavor.
- When the water is boiling, add the pasta and stir every few minutes to make sure the shells don’t stick to each other. Test the shells for consistency after at least 5-7 minutes–I like my pasta al dente, so I usually check for doneness a minute or two before the packaged directions.
- When the shells are at your preferred consistency, empty the water over a colander in the sink. DO NOT rinse with cold water, just place it in a bowl. You can toss with a little bit of olive oil to make sure the shells don’t stick. Set aside.
- Use a frying pan or wide saucepan to warm the butter over medium-high heat.
- When the butter has almost melted, throw in the chopped kimchi and mix thoroughly with the butter. Spread evenly over the pan and wait for the white cabbage parts to become translucent, ~5 minutes.
- Turn the heat down to medium-low and add the flour. Mix gently into the kimchi–it will get clumped, but it’s okay!
- Slowly pour the milk into the pan while stirring constantly. If you have difficulty doing both at the same time, it’s okay to pour in a little bit of milk then stir–and take turns between the two. The most important part of making this sauce is that the heat is lower and that you mix the liquid completely into the flour. At first, the milk will form a thick paste–but will eventually become a nice, creamy sauce (roux).
- After the milk has been added and stirred into the flour and kimchi, add the cheese. Stir gently until the cheese has been fully incorporated into the sauce.
- Taste the sauce and add salt and pepper as you prefer.
- Turn off the heat and remove the pan from the stovetop.
- Mix your pasta into the pan full of cheese sauce, then pour into a serving dish or individual bowls and top with smoked paprika.
- Kimchi mac n’ cheese is delicious reheated, and can keep in the fridge for 3-4 days.