Thursday, September 08, 2016

A lazy bum and some bulgogi

Yesterday I was ferociously productive, accomplished everything I set out to, made a Korean dinner (more on this later), watched the penultimate episode of Stranger Things, finished reading Iphigenia in Forest Hills by Janet Malcolm, and was exhausted and contented when I turned out the light. As the CrossFit people say, I left it all on the floor

Today, well, I didn’t.

Today, I woke up and decided to read a few pages of Janet Malcolm’s Journalist and the Murderer with my coffee since I seem to be on a Malcolm kick. This was a mistake. In case you’re not familiar with Janet Malcolm, she is the author of precise, chilly, and absolutely riveting dissections of topics that have included a murder trial in Queens and the challenges of writing the biography of Sylvia Plath. I have read most of her books at least once, and yet when I pick one up again, I can not put it down. I must know what happens next, even though I vaguely remember what happens next. I must know what happens next even though mostly what happens next is that Janet Malcolm sees some tiny detail in the subject she is reporting on that changes everything. 

Really, you just need to go read one of her books. I’d start with The Journalist and the Murderer. It was my first and I remember exactly where I was when I read it, the slant of light, the time of day. I think I was 23.

So, this morning I was having trouble putting the book down. What the hell, I thought, it’s not like the fate of the free world rests on my shoulders or any fate at all except my own and possibly (though probably not) my younger child’s. So I stretched out on the sofa and read. It was wonderful wonderful wonderful until it was terrible. When I stood up at 3 p.m. I was enervated and exhausted. Where did my day go? Why am I not wearing mascara? Why is the coffee pot still full of coffee grounds? Why are there mangled cantaloupe rinds on the counter? What about my goals? What if people knew what an idle, lazy, and useless woman I have become?

Well, now a few people do. And I’m pretty sure none of them care. 

So back to last night’s dinner. It was my first attempt at bulgogi, the delicious marinated Korean beef that is often eaten with a jammy, soy-based sauce and wrapped in lettuce leaves. The recipe looked very straightforward, but my bulgogi was a TOTAL DISASTER.

I have no idea what went wrong, though I think it had to do with the meat. I had gone to the Korean grocery the day before in search of beef that had been cut specifically for bulgogi, but there was nothing in the freezer so labeled. They did have some very thinly sliced beef labeled “shabu shabu” and I asked the woman who was back there if this was appropriate for bulgogi. I thought she said yes.
I bought the meat. Last night I made a marinade of pureed Asian pear, onion, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil and a few other ingredients and took the meat out of its packet. It was tissue thin. Truly, tissue thin. I put the meat in the marinade and it was as if I had put tissue in that bowl. It fell apart. I would lift a soggy piece out of the marinade and it would stretch and disintegrate. I cooked these little meat scraps anyway and they didn’t taste bad, but they were ugly, gray, flimsy, and damp.

Mark said after dinner, “Looking back over this Korean phase, what are your conclusions?” 

I said, “This is just the beginning of the Korean phase.”

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Cheese buldak. Deep breath. Contain excitement.

Maangchi is a delightful Korean-born food writer whom I started following on Instagram recently. When she posted a picture of her cheese buldak last week, I shivered with happiness. This, I was going to make. This, I was going to love.

Buldak is the Korean word for “fire chicken. According to wikipedia’s vague and suspicious entry on the topic, buldak was invented by an entity called Fuyuan Foods which patented the name buldak “around” the year 2000. The patent expired in 2008 and now there are a number of buldak chains in Korea. Buldak was particularly popular during South Korea’s economic downturn as “people seek spicy food in order to relieve stress.” 

If that’s true, buldak would do the trick. Maangchi calls for 1/2 cup of chili flakes plus 3 tablespoons chili paste in her buldak. Read that last sentence again if you were skimming or daydreaming. 

Apparently, buldak is well known to American aficionados of Korean food. A year ago, Jonathan Gold called it “faddish.” 

But I had never heard of buldak until Maangchi posted about it.

There are various approaches to buldak, but here is Maangchi’s: chop chicken breast  into cubes, mix with a brick-red sauce of chili paste, chili flakes, corn syrup, oil, soy, garlic, and ginger. Buldak is often fried, but Maangchi has you cook it with no added oil in a cast iron skillet. Top with delicious little toasted rice cakes and cook some more. Blanket with a full pound of mozzarella cheese. Broil until the cheese is melted and starting to blister. Devour.

Owen had seconds. Mark had thirds. I kept eating scraps out of the pan while I was cleaning the kitchen after dinner. It was even better heated up for lunch today. I want to be clear: This is not some mysterious and miraculous culinary feat. It’s exactly what it sounds like: spicy chicken, starchy tidbits, and a ton of melted cheese. And if that sounds fabulous to you, you will think this is fabulous. 

Would buldak be better with beef or pork or chicken thighs? Possibly. But chicken breast feels right to me, a bland, sensible counterweight to the bounteous fats and flavors of the sauce and cheese. Maangchi says that the rice cakes are optional, but I would disagree. Find a Korean market and buy some if you want this dish to rise to its full, decadent glory. I served it with rice but that was like serving nachos with rice, lasagna with rice, pizza with rice. No rice.

Maangchi’s cheese buldak. Recipe here. If you make it, let me know what you think.

On another subject, I want to thank the person who recommended Cook Korean! Robin Ha’s comic book with recipes. (The illustration at the top of the page is from the book.) I love it! I would recommend Cook Korean! to anyone who is interested in an accessible introduction to Korean home cooking. It is clear, precise, thorough, lively, and charming. I’ve only made one recipe so far, the stir-fried pork, but it was the best of the three version I’ve tried. 

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Korean curry & Sicilian watermelon pudding

If the internet can be trusted, the history of Korean curry rice goes like this: The British colonized India in 1858, acquired a taste for curry, and developed their own version of the dish that relied on a mild, dumbed-down spice powder. They passed their bastardized curry along to the Japanese towards the end of the 19th century. The Japanese occupied Korea in the early 20th century and passed along the Anglo-Japanese curry tradition to the Koreans. But curry only become popular in Korea with the introduction of Ottogi curry powder in 1969. As far as I can tell, there is no Korean curry without Ottogi curry powder, just as there is no Shake n’ Bake chicken without Shake n’ Bake. This curry powder appears in every Korean curry recipe I’ve seen. It isn’t like the curry powder we buy in a little jar from the Safeway spice rack. Ottogi curry powder comes in a large, shiny envelope and is full of thickeners, sweeteners, oils, spices, salt, and MSG. You stir this into a pan of cooked meat and vegetables, simmer for a few minutes, and voila: thick, glossy, salty, sweet, cloying Korean curry that you serve with white rice.

I served it the other night for dinner. Recipe here. It was easy, filling, starchy and satisfying in the way of a casserole made from cream-of-mushroom soup. Unsurprisingly, Mark and Owen liked it a lot. 

I’m very glad I tried it.  Curiosity satisfied. I will never make it again.

Twenty years ago, I bought Clifford Wright’s Cucina Paradiso, which contained a recipe for gelo di melone, a dessert that, on paper, blew my mind. Every summer I thought about making gelo di melone but never did, in part because I didn’t want to be disillusioned. I pulled that book out again the other day to see what had so captivated me. A  paperclip was still affixed to the watermelon pudding page and it had rusted onto the paper. 

Here is Wright’s headnote to his recipe for gelo di melone:

“What an exquisite summer dessert! The main ingredients were all introduced by Arab agronomists and traders of medieval Sicily -- watermelon, cinnamon, jasmine, candied orange, and pistachios. . . . The traditional recipe calls for jasmine water and cucuzzata (candied squash), and the pudding is decorated with jasmine flowers.”

If you don’t think that sounds thrilling, there might be something wrong with you.

To make gelo di melone, you puree watermelon, cook it down with sugar and cornstarch until “velvety,” pour into dishes, chill, and top with chopped chocolate, pistachios, and candied orange. Unfortunately, I accidentally cooked my pudding well beyond “velvety” all the way to “pasty.”  

This definitely detracted from the pudding’s charm. But I think the real problem was that cooked watermelon has a faintly vegetal taste. I’m sure that if I were on vacation in Sicily I would fall madly in love with this cool, beautiful, exotic dessert. But in a messy suburban California kitchen when three people were in a hurry to go watch Stranger Things, gelo di melone just didn’t play that well. Both of my dining companions had a bite and pushed away their dishes. One of them promptly opened a beer and the other toasted a PopTart. I ate my whole serving, but really only out of duty.

I’m glad I tried it. Curiosity satisfied. I will never make it again.

If it sounds like this was a disappointing week in the kitchen, au contraire! Curiosity is a more powerful drive than pleasure. I was very pleased with my cooking experiments. I have some really exciting projects for the coming week. Like this

Monday, August 29, 2016

Never resist a generous impulse

How I came to acquire seven Korean cookbooks is a long and eerie story that I struggled -- and failed! --  to write about it in its full, bittersweet richness. I told Mark it was like I was trying to do a twisting flip and kept falling off the beam. Too many feelings, too much backstory, too complicated, taking way, way too long. I was driving myself nuts and we can’t have that, can we. 

Here, then, is the short version of the story of how I came to acquire seven Korean cookbooks: Someone who was very important to me when I was young died a month ago. Russell Miller dated my mother in the 1980s and he became a great friend of mine as well. An unforgettable man, Russell. Tart, candid, energetic, full of ideas, unlike anyone I’ve ever met. I still can’t believe that someone so vital could die. He called me “kiddo” and he believed in me a lot more than I believed in myself when I was 24. He gave me a piece of advice that I have thought of on a weekly basis ever since: Never resist a generous impulse. 

I learned of his death via Facebook. Has that happened to you yet? Coming across a post about an old friend’s death on social media amid pot belly pig videos and anti-Donald Trump rants?

A few days later, I received an email from Russell’s lawyer. Russell had left me a $1,000 bequest “to buy some books and bake something special.” 

I do not get remembered in wills every day. There’s something incredibly moving about receiving an unanticipated gift like that from beyond the grave, from someone who owed you nothing and expects nothing from you, someone who thought of you not just with affection, but with such precision. He knew me well.

It was like I had been touched by a magic wand. I can’t explain it better than that. I still feel like I’m living in this little bubble of grace.  It has nothing to do with the money. 

But there was money and I plan to spend it all as directed. Which brings me to my stack of brand-new Korean cookbooks. Korean food, which I love, has always seemed an impenetrable and forbidding cuisine to tackle at home. I was ready for a challenge and have been cooking industriously and happily ever since the beautiful books arrived. Why have I not posted about my Korean cooking adventures? See paragraph one. 

Over the last couple weeks we have eaten Korean meat loaf and Korean roast chicken, hand-torn noodle soup, two versions of fiery stir-fried pork belly (this one was really good), black bean paste noodles, pan-fried dumplings, and a spicy soft tofu stew. Last night I made kimchi fried rice, easy and unbelievably satisfying. Mark said, “You’ve really hit a sweet spot with the cooking, don’t you think?”

I do think. My fixation on Donald Trump has given way to a fixation on jjangmyeon. This is much healthier.

Here is the list of books I bought:

Eating Korean by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee
Dok Suni: Recipes from My Mother’s Korean Kitchen by Jenny Kwak
Koreatown by Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard
Discovering Korean Cuisine ed. Allisa Park
Growing up in a Korean Kitchen by Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall
A Korean Mother’s Cooking Notes by Chang Sun-Young
Maangchi’s Real Korean Cooking by Maangchi

It’s a motley collection, ranging from the hyper-masculine Koreatown to the Korean Mother’s Cooking Notes, a wonderful and eccentric little volume that includes recipes for baby food and instructions on the proper scrubbing of pots. 

I’m not going to write in detail about everything I’ve cooked so far, I’ll just try to do better going forward. I plan to stick with Korean for a while. These books are precious to me because of the way they came into my life and I want to do them justice. 

It was a beautiful cake until Owen and that tub of frosting got involved.
On another subject, I finally watched The Great British Baking Show, which I loved, of course. 

pretty much

Friday, August 05, 2016

Orange hair, red tomatoes, green rhubarb

Life, early August, 2016:

Wake up, coffee, read headlines to catch up on Donald Trump news that erupted overnight, check Talking Points Memo to see what they have to say on the Donald Trump news, then Politico, then Slate, then the National Review, then Twitter. After this, it’s time for Facebook to see which friend chose today to post an impassioned call for everyone to come together and vote for Hillary, no matter how we feel about her, because the alternative is unthinkable. A fight in the comments inevitably ensues, ignited by either a representative of the small number of Trump supporters in my universe or a progressive who announces that he/she will under no circumstances vote for Hillary to prevent Trump, that’s like choosing between Pol Pot and Hitler, he/she is voting for Jill Stein. These fights go on for dozens, even scores, of comments. By the time I’m done reading them, Trump has almost surely said or tweeted something new and amazing so I go back to the headlines and the circuit begins again. Round and round it goes. Soon it is time to start making dinner and I feel like I have just wasted a whole day because I have.

Sometimes I can successfully avoid the vortex, but this only happens if I go cold turkey, zero internet starting from the moment I get up. A productive, peaceful day is then possible unless, mid-afternoon, I decide to go to Whole Foods and there’s a line at the check-out counter. After I’ve studied what the person in front of me is buying and concluded yet again that I really can’t afford the 200 calories in an Ocho chocolate-coconut bar, I remember my phone is in my bag and . . .  he said what?

The rest of the day is lost.

The other salient feature of my life, early August, 2016: cherry tomatoes. We struggle to grow big tomatoes, but the cherry tomatoes are flooding the kitchen. I can’t keep up with the buggers. This week I made two dishes that employed cherry tomatoes to excellent, very different effect, and yet there are still several pounds of cherry tomatoes attracting fruit flies in a bowl on the counter and hanging off the bushes out back. Those bushes show no signs of knocking off. Hardly something to complain about, too much food. I’ll stop.

Here are the cherry tomato dishes, both of which I recommend. As it happens, both also contain kale. 

*Toasted bulgur bowl from Lukas Volger’s Bowl. I don’t hate or even dislike tabbouleh, but I could happily give it up for the rest of my life. Not quite salad, not quite starch. Watery. Insipid. Not Volger’s version! It’s a robust meal. Nutty, toasted bulgur fortified with kale and chickpeas and enriched with toasted almonds and garlicky tahini sauce. I made it even heartier with some feta. Try it. You’ll be pleased. It keeps, too, so you have healthy lunches for the next couple days. Recipe here.

*One-pot tomato and kale pasta. Many thanks to the publicist who sent me A Modern Way to Cook by Anna Jones. What a lovely surprise, coming home to find this handsome book full of vegetarian bowl recipes on my doorstep. Last night I tried Jones’s version of that one-pot pasta youve probably heard about. I’m talking about the pasta you make by putting uncooked spaghetti, sauce ingredients, and water in single pan and boiling for 8 minutes or so.

Cool, no? 

I may have actually tried this before, but I can’t remember. Too much cooking, getting old. It was easy and worked beautifully. The pasta and lemony tomato sauce marry in a wonderful way when they’re cooked together and the kale, which you add at the end, eliminated the need for a salad. Not that I would have made one anyway. I loved this and Mark did too. Recipe here.

The final noteworthy event in my August so far: I baked the ugliest cake ever. Our rhubarb patch is almost as fecund as our cherry tomato plants, but, alas, the rhubarb variety we grow is green. It tastes exactly the same as pink rhubarb but if it is true that we eat first with our eyes. . .

I think it is true.

The recipe comes from the irresistible Vintage Cakes and consists of a rich, yogurt batter that you top with hot rhubarb compote and bake.

This soft, tangy cake tasted fine, but not as fine as the Food52 rhubarb cake of a few weeks ago, which had the added advantage of hiding the color of the rhubarb. I will never dig up our rhubarb patch, which has been going strong for about 8 years now (I started with seeds), but I might have to plant some red rhubarb next year.

Friday, July 29, 2016

These happy almost-golden years

I would be insulted if I were Julia Roberts.
Our children have been gone for weeks and weeks. Mark and I flew down to Phoenix last weekend, like the peppy middle-aged couple enjoying their almost-golden years that I guess we are. Damn. I don’t like the sound of that one bit. But the reality isn’t bad at all.

So, Phoenix. It turns out to be a cheap destination in July. Can you guess why? We had two goals and accomplished them both with ease on our 30-hour vacation. Both were delightful experiences that I highly recommend should you ever find yourself in that hot and lunar city. 
Goal #1: Eat at Pizzeria Bianco. I reported a story about pizza several years ago and the sources kept mentioning Chris Bianco in Phoenix as pioneer/guru/forerunner of American pizza. His pizza was reputedly amazing. Amazing pizza in Phoenix? This was like hearing that the best pulled pork can be found in Anchorage, or the best Thai food in America in Las Vegas. The latter is actually true, or used to be. But it’s bizarre.

We headed to Pizzeria Bianco straight from the airport. We went to the branch in an open-air mall. (There's another downtown.) The restaurant was pleasant, unfussy, and uncrowded, with flea market paintings and mismatched school chairs. It was surprisingly feminine for a pizzeria, but not at all precious. 

I hate describing pizza. I’ve been forced to do it in the past and finding new ways to say that pizza is delicious will drive a writer to verbal extremes that contradict the uncomplicated essence of the thing itself. Here’s a description of a Chris Bianco pizza from an Eater story: “the crust’s lip was full but not puffy, more Julia Roberts than Angelina Jolie, and the lacy mozzarella, butterscotch-tinged onions and hunks of fennel sausage showed a generous hand.”

The second part of the description is fine. The first part? Points for effort.

We returned the next day on our way back to the airport and ordered two more pizzas, including my favorite, the Rosa, an austere pie topped with Parmesan, red onions, rosemary, and pistachios. To quote from the Eater story again, there was an “intricate chemistry between the stinging red onion, the piney rosemary, and the earthy-sweet pistachios.” 

That works, though I think “intricate chemistry” is a stretch. It’s pizza! 

Freaking great pizza. 

Other than a donut, pizza was all I ate in Phoenix. Mark might have also eaten a banana.
Goal #2. Taliesen West. This was Frank Lloyd Wright’s live-work compound for the winter months, a magnificent network of stone buildings in an expanse of cacti, rattlesnakes, javelinas, and rock. There are a few pools and some Chinese pottery integrated into the design, as well as a small auditorium and screening room, but the angular structures were designed to meld with the stark, sere landscape. Gorgeous and strange. I know nothing about architecture but have always loved touring FLW buildings. Mark and I decided that a project for our dotage will be to take short trips to tour FLW sites in Wisconsin, Chicago, and Pennsylvania. At least one of them even offers a senior discount.

Incidentally, we stayed at the Phoenix Biltmore, a stunning hotel that Wright helped to design. Very affordable this time of year. We thought we’d go cool off in one of the many Biltmore swimming pools, only to discover that even pool water is hot in Phoenix in late July. So we sat in lounge chairs in the shade where I drank diet Coke, Mark drank frozen margaritas, and we read our books. 

It’s fun and peaceful being a couple without kids around. You forget. 

In other news, last night, I made this zesty pasta to deal with the cherry tomato bonanza in our backyard. It’s a delicious dish with the gutsy, swarthy flavors of mint, garlic, Pecorino and caramelized sweet tomato. Intense, but not overwhelming, more Robert De Niro than Al Pacino. . . 

Biltmore statuary

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Who are you and what have you done with Jennifer?

Nigella would call this "temple food."
Had I carefully read and considered the recipe for the dish pictured above I would never have made it.  I would have thought: vegan, steamed vegetables, grains, “clean,” no one will like it. 

But I didn’t carefully read or consider the recipe, made it, and as clever readers have already surmised from this set-up, we loved the dish. Mark finished and said, “Wow, what a great dinner.” 

To put that in context, the night before last Mark finished the dinner I had served, a Thai beef stir fry, and loutishly announced, “I give that a B.”

The recipe for this bowl comes from Bowl by Lukas Volger. Given my recent enthusiasm for bowls, the book caught my eye when I was at the library. 

Given my longtime enthusiasm for Laurie Colwin, this recipe caught my eye when I was idly flipping through the book:

The dish is simple: mixed grains topped by steamed vegetables, quick-pickled radishes, toasted walnuts, and a sauce that consists primarily of leaves.

Sounds dreadful, at least to me, but that sauce is improbably magical. Four ounces watercress, 1/2 cup leafy herbs (basil, cilantro, parsley), 1/3 cup olive oil, 1 clove garlic, the green part of a few scallions, and a pinch of salt go into a food processor or blender. Puree until satiny. I used arugula as I couldn’t find any watercress and added a little extra olive to make the sauce smoother. You could serve this powerhouse sauce on plain steamed vegetables and be very happy, but if you aren’t on a low-carb diet, I would go for the full-carb package. I’d never made mixed grains before, but I will be making them again: 2/3 cup medium grain white rice, 2/3 cup millet, 2/3 cup quinoa. Rinse, put in a pot with  3 1/2 cups water and a big pinch salt, bring to a boil, cover, lower heat to bare minimum, and cook for another 15 to 20 minutes. It’s fluffier than quinoa or millet and has more protein and character than white rice. 

This is an early version of the recipe that appears on Volger’s blog. It’s a bit different from what you’ll find in the book, but not in any important way. (The sauce recipe I gave above reflects the changes in the book.) For topping I went with steamed broccoli, steamed yellow squash, and steamed sliced sweet potato, along with some quick-pickled radishes Volger provides a recipe for. I loved the sliced sweet potato, liked the broccoli, was indifferent to the squash and the radishes. Avocado would work well as would some zestier pickle. Good stuff.
so depressing