Thursday, December 22, 2016

The (Over) Loaded Roast

I'm afraid you'll have to wait for dessert.
       Earlier this month, the New York Times published a roundup of its most popular recipes of 2016, one of which was the infamous Mississippi roast.

       Forgot about the Mississippi roast? I’ll refresh your memory: Sometime circa 2001, a  Mississippi woman named Robin Chapman put a piece of beef chuck in a crockpot with a stick of butter, a packet of Ranch dressing mix, a packet of au jus gravy mix, and some bottled pepperoncini. Eight hours later, her family was chowing down on what would become known as the Mississippi roast. Chapman’s roast proceeded to become a huge hit with “the mom blog set,” thanks to a church cookbook, a blogger in Arkansas, and Pinterest. Based on the demographics of Chapman and the cooks who seem to have embraced the dish with the most enthusiasm, I will call this original roast the Red State Mississippi Roast.

At some point, New York Times food columnist Sam Sifton got wind of this recipe and last January wrote a story about its genesis and popularity. Good piece. Different. Id love to read more stories about how everyday people around the country cook. But when it came to including the actual recipe, Sifton just couldn’t. He expressed some mild distaste for the artificial ingredients and “faint chemical bite” they imparted to the meat. So he devised his own recipe for Mississippi Roast that eliminated the offending powdered mixes. 

I have to pause here to say that while I understand why he did this (as you will see), I think this was a questionable editorial decision, like writing about the popularity of kale salad then featuring a recipe that substitutes iceberg lettuce because you find kale unpleasant.

        Based on Sifton’s demographic and the paper he works for, I’ll call his version the Blue State Mississippi Roast. 

        Here are a few of the choice comments Sifton’s piece inspired:

Jim Propes Oxford, MS January 27, 2016

There is an unsettling tone of condescension running through the story. . . . Once again, we see the reluctance of "experts" to acknowledge the source of their subject. I chuckled at the "improvements" made by the writer. Really? Call it a variation based on culinary correctness.

Been There, Caught That NC mountains January 31, 2016

Wow, the NYT, that bastion of political correctness, has allowed Ivy-Leaguer Sam Sifton to use its pages for a blatant example of cultural appropriation, taking a down-home, wildly popular, Mississippi-born recipe and turning it into a New York-ified culinary mashup designed to appeal to food snobs. . .  Who but an effete easterner would try to tart up a humble Southern recipe that is monumentally popular due to its simplicity and great taste, and then try to tell readers doing so is a good idea. 

cbahrcbahr Southwest January 31, 2016

This turns out to be a wonderful article... rich (if tinged with snotty) in itself but the comments are where the truth (unknown at the NYT) emerges: there actually is a real America still out there!! Congratulations, AMERICANS.

         When I first read Sifton’s story in January, I too rolled my eyes. There was something that seemed slightly prissy and, yes, condescending. Good grief, are readers of the New York Times so fine they cant survive a little MSG? I might live in a bastion of food snobbery, but I was, to quote cbahrcbahr, a real AMERICAN.
At least until I made the Red State roast. 

Mississippi roast was an insult to cattle. No steer should have lost his life for this cloying, salty, brown abomination that tasted like a hospital cafeteria smells. Two shiny $1.89 envelopes of chemicals had completely vanquished the noble flavor of beef, replacing it with something ersatz, aggressive, and smarmy. This was truly one of the grossest things I’d ever cooked. You couldn’t pick around the bad parts as the bad parts had impregnated every molecule.  Now I knew why Sifton hadn’t included the original recipe. Not because he was an effete Ivy Leaguer snob, but because it was awful. 
        Maybe he should have just said so. Maybe he was too polite about everything. Maybe his diplomacy read as condescension. I dont know

        But the result was that a lot of the ensuing conversation had nothing to do with the quality of the roast itself. It was about perceived slights, phoniness, snobbishiness, political/culinary correctness. The roast became an innocent football in a little pick-up game of elite-bashing.

I thought no more about the Mississippi roast until Mark’s sister visited this past weekend and I was looking for something to make for a small crowd with minimal effort. I happened to see the Blue State Mississippi roast in the Times’ “most popular recipe” roundup. This’ll do, I thought.

If you ever make a Mississippi roast, remove the stems from the pepperoncini. I learned the hard way.
And boy did it. You salt and pepper a chuck roast, dredge it in flour, brown it, put it in a low oven (or slow cooker), with some butter, pepperoncini and a homemade ranch dressing that takes about a minute to stir together in a cereal bowl — mayonnaise, vinegar, paprika, dill. Go decorate the Christmas tree or read comments on the New York Times web site and come back many hours later to a pot of the richest, beefiest beef youve ever put in your mouth. It was not significantly harder than the Red State Mississippi Roast (I am super lazy these days and would not lie about this) and it was several million times better.
        My point? The Sifton version of the roast is awesome and you should try it, but mostly this: I have read dozens of essays on Donald Trumps mystifying (to some of us) popularity, and it was amazing last week to find all of it right there, seething in the comments on a seemingly innocuous piece about pot roast back in January. 
a wicked, wicked, wicked cake

 On another subject, after many years of wanting to, I finally baked a Harvey Wallbanger cake, named for a vile-sounding cocktail popular in the 1970s. (Funny history of said cocktail here.)  Into your butter cake batter go orange juice, Galliano (a lurid yellow herbal liqueur), and vodka. Bake in a bundt pan. Remove from pan, cool, drizzle with a sugary, boozy glaze. Slice. Overeat. There was a faint metallic edge of alcohol under all the butter and sugar — and while that sounds potentially nasty, it was wonderful. Dangerous. A very subtle flavor, like that elusive flavor of the alcohol in the Harvey Wallbanger cake, makes me want to keep going back for more to see if I can finally catch it. I loved this cake to distraction and on Tuesday afternoon ate such a big, fattening, filling chunk for a snack that I could not face making or eating dinner. I used the scratch recipe from Vintage Cakes  because that’s the first recipe I saw, but apparently the original was made with cake mix and vanilla pudding mix. I wouldnt hesitate to go with the mix version. Yes, I know this whole post was about my dislike of a dish made from mix, but cake mix is different. Only an effete Ivy Leaguer easterner snob would object to cake mix.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Interesting times

Metaphor? Or just a bleak picture I took the other day?
A kind reader emailed inquiring whether I was ok because I hadn’t posted in a while. I’m fine. I haven’t been posting because I haven’t been thinking about cooking, I’ve been thinking about . . . you know what I’ve been thinking about!

It’s been some pretty intense thinking. I foresee more of same in the months and years to come. If you’re cursed to live in interesting times, you might as well take an interest. I have been doing so. 

The effect on my gastronomic life has been that I make the same easy, delicious dishes again and again, stuff that won’t distract from vigilant monitoring of Twitter. Endless rotation of Korean spicy pork, Nigella’s fattening crustless pizza (with extra cheese on top), these lamb meatballs (minus the fussy romesco sauce),  Thai stir-fried beef (minus the egg, but with spinach added towards the end), and Marcella’s tomato-and-butter pasta. Sometimes as I’m casually stirring a skillet of sizzling meat while watching Keith Olbermann on my phone, I think, wow, what a nonchalant, badass cook I’ve become.

I love Keith Olbermann. Hes nuts, but I love him. 

Some stuff that I thought about when I wasn’t thinking about, you know:

*I was totally inspired by this lecture by a University of Toronto professor. About chaos, order, and how to live. Highly recommend. The professor, Jordan Peterson, is in the news right now over the issue of personal pronouns, but this isn’t about that. Not controversial, just fascinating and relevant. 

*Owen has asked me to assemble a collection of all his favorite recipes so that he’ll be able to cook for himself when he moves out in a year-and-a-half. This is pretty damn funny for a lot of reasons, but particularly because he still makes retching noises when he walks through the kitchen and sees me cooking. I will happily oblige, of course. 
vintage Owen
*Do you find it uncanny that both Elizabeth Gilbert and Molly Wizenberg came out this autumn? Two gifted writers who published thoughtful best-selling memoirs about falling in love with their husbands have now left those husbands for women. Is this just a curious coincidence? Or is there something about the temperament of a memoirist that requires new chapters? Would the response of their fans (appropriately warm and supportive) be different if they had left those husbands for other men? I think the answer is yes, but haven’t come to a firm conclusion as to why. Just something I thought about for a few days.

*Gabrielle Hamilton also fell in love with a woman after divorcing the husband she wrote about in her memoir, but that wasn’t such a surprise. For one, she seemed to hate him. For another, she’d been gay before she married him.  This account of her recent wedding banquet is a snappy, fun read thanks to Hamilton’s writing style which is straightforward, vivid, decisive, slightly aggressive. I love the sound of that veal breast — “a succulent, fatty, tender magnificence.” But what about the salt-baked pears. Yea or nay?

Until recently I had never liked Prune, Hamilton’s restaurant. On a visit a few years ago, I ordered fish and received an ugly, blistered whole fish on a plate. No garnish or vegetable. Not impressed.

But when I went to New York last month on business, a friend and I met at Prune and this time it all clicked. Hamilton’s cooking is just like her writing: straightforward, vivid, decisive, slightly aggressive. Dont those adjective pretty much describe a salt-baked pear? 

At the Prune dinner, we started with some austere steamed vegetables with a little bowl of anchovy sauce. Delicious, if not dazzling. Simple duck breasts with some beans — perfect. My dessert was a slice of crusty bread spread with melted chocolate. Very plain, very frugal, very good.  I heard the music. It’s not my favorite music, but I heard it. 

Mark says I have to blog three or four times a week or not at all. I have truly enjoyed the time I spent writing this today as it kept me away from other things, so I’m going try for the former. If I have any readers left, apologies for the long absence.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Seaweed, rice cakes, Christine, Paterson . . .

delicious rice cakes
Korean persimmon tea is simmering on the stove as I type and the whole house smells like cinnamon and ginger. Very cozy and autumnal.

Korean dishes cooked this week:

*Sauteed tofu. From Robin Ha’s Cook Korean! Sauté tofu, top with a sauce of soy and sesame oil. Nice. Bland. Simple. Little else to say. Recipe here.

*Seaweed salad, also from Cook Korean! You rehydrate dried seaweed, mix with julienned cucumber and carrot, dress with a sugary, vinegary dressing, and eat. Or don’t eat. This recipe does not yield the dainty, finely shredded seaweed salad you’ll find at sushi restaurants, but a salad with biggish, dark, slippery leaves. (Though obviously you could go ahead and shred the seaweed.) I liked it. Mark: “It doesn’t look good, it doesn’t taste good. I think I might have fatigue from challenging meals.” 

*Spicy rice cakes. I’ve tried two recipes for Korean spicy rice cakes now, Maangchi’s and Robin Ha’s. They look almost identical, but Maangchi’s recipe is more precise and better.* The dish consists of wonderfully chewy cylindrical rice cakes cooked in a light, easy fish broth and spiced exuberantly with red pepper flakes and gochujang. Traditionally, it calls for fish cake but I have learned that I don’t like Korean fish cake, which is flat, with the texture of fabric. So for my second try at spicy rice cakes I omitted the fish cake and fried a half pound ground pork, salted it, and folded it in to the rice cakes at the end. Ravishing. Those are the changes I made to the recipe here. (Although Maangchi says otherwise in her headnote, you could use chicken stock if you are not prepared to track down dried anchovies and kelp. However, keep in mind that both ingredients are readily available at Asian markets and the broth could not be easier to make.)

*Butter dumplings from Koreatown by Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard. So outlandish I had to try this recipe which you’ll find along with a little backstory here. This is basically the standard formula for Chinese and Korean dumplings except that in addition to ground pork, cabbage, ginger, and garlic, it calls for a pound of butter. 

You read that right, friends. A pound of butter. Hardcore.

You knead that pound of softened butter into the meat the best you can and stuff your dumplings. Some of the butter leaked out in the cooking, but there was plenty left inside the dumplings and you could see it and taste it. I watched the butter run down Owen’s chin after he bit into a dumpling and there was congealed butter on the plates when I went to put them in the dishwasher. Yes, it freaked me out. The dumplings were buttery and delicious, but not delicious enough to outweigh my qualms. Fun. Never again.

I have to take a short break from cooking Korean food this coming week, given that both Mark and Owen are rebelling. But I’ll be back to it soon. 


On another subject, I’ve seen lots of great movies in the last few weeks, thanks in part to the Mill Valley Film Festival. A couple of these haven’t opened yet, but here are my recommendations, both whole-hearted and qualified: 

American Honey, directed by Andrea Arnold, got under my in in big way.  It’s about a crew of kids who drive around the country selling magazines, drinking mezcal, falling in love, getting in trucks and convertibles with strangers, dumpster diving, and other good stuff. It’s long and meandering and I can see all its flaws but I could have sat there all day watching the story, such as it is, unfold, and listening to the music. It was like being inside a strange yet mysteriously familiar dream.

Christine, about a Florida newscaster who shot herself on air in 1974 just before her thirtieth birthday, was like being inside a strange yet grimly familiar nightmare. The nightmare of those rancid moments/days/weeks in your life when you couldn’t seem to do anything right, when you were at war with yourself and your mother and the world and increasingly sure that nothing good — not professional success, not love, not peace of mind — was in your future. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, count your blessings!) The film featured an incredible lead performance by Rebecca Hall and was the most deeply unpleasant good movie I’ve seen in recent weeks with the possible exception of A Quiet Passion. 

You probably know that Emily Dickinson had a hard life but if you didn’t A Quiet Passion will fill you in on all the sad details, from the romantic frustrations to the seizures. (It also shows the rapturous joy Dickinson took in her work, which she did in the wee hours of the morning, by candlelight, before the rest of her family got out of bed.) Like Christine, it features a powerful performance from a lead actress, in this case Cynthia Nixon. Like Christine is its wrenching to watch. If you have a robust appetite for harrowing movies, see both of these films. If you have a limited appetite, just see Quiet Passion. If you have no appetite skip these two and go see Paterson, about a sweet-natured New Jersey poet/bus driver who finds grace in everyday life. Paterson, set in Paterson, New Jersey, is lovely, offbeat, and droll. Fans of Adam Driver will want to see this for sure, as will fans of William Carlos Williams.

Another lovely movie: California Typewriter, a documentary about a typewriter shop in Berkeley, California and the universe of typewriter enthusiasts, which includes Tom Hanks and Sam Shepard and a lot of delightful weirdos. I dragged Owen to this one and I was pretty sure I was going to have to do something nice to make it up to him afterwards, but we both loved it. We both want a typewriter now.

Everyone I know who’s seen Certain Women thought it was boring but, as with American Honey, I wouldn’t have minded if this film, which stars Laura Dern and Michelle Williams, had lasted all day. It tells the stories of three women dealing with crushes, careers, and construction projects in wintry Montana and I concede, it was kind of boring. For me, it was the right kind of boring. 

Not at all boring: Moonlight. As all the reviews have argued, this movie about a sensitive black kid growing up in the projects, is brilliant. If you think you might have trouble getting inside the head and tender heart of a silent, muscle-bound drug dealer with gold grillz and a do-rag, you haven’t seen Moonlight. You should. The Terry Gross interview with the writer and director was fascinating.


Monday, October 17, 2016

"I'm not going to be nice to you until you stop cooking Korean food"

those noodles
Fifteen minutes ago, as I was finishing this post, Owen wandered by and asked what we were having for dinner. When I said “spicy Korean rice cakes,” he kindly shared his thoughts on Korean food with me. Verbatim: 

“Seriously when are you going to stop making Korean food? I just want to know when you’re going to be done with this stupid project. Fine! I just won’t eat dinner. I hate having Korean food EVERY SINGLE NIGHT. I don’t know why you don’t get bored by it especially because you’re the one cooking it. Can you make good food for once? You never do, except for that one thing, those noodles, and the dumplings were pretty good too. Maybe I’ll just hide all your Korean cookbooks. Tomorrow you won’t be able to find your Korean cookbooks.” 

making a costume and trashing his sister's bedroom
Here are my thoughts on Korean cooking and cookbooks:

-On Saturday, I made the easy seaweed soup from Robin Ha’s Cook Korean! with plans to eat it on Sunday for lunch. On Sunday at lunchtime I took the pot out of the fridge, opened the lid, gazed down at the shiny seaweed undulating gently in murky liquid, and decided I wasn’t hungry for lunch after all. I put it back in the fridge. At dinner time, I took the pot out again, steeled myself, heated it up, and served the soup with rice. To my surprise, no one complained, not even Owen. Once you get past the fact that it looks like seawater, seaweed soup is tasty. Brothy and full of beef and slippery, yummy, slightly disconcerting seaweed. This isn’t the recipe I used, but it’s similar. 

-Korean cuisine abounds in porridges, sweet and savory. I haven’t made any Korean porridge yet, but have my eye on the pine nut porridge, sesame porridge, and, above all, the sweet pumpkin porridge. This is the perfect season to make sweet pumpkin porridge and I even have a pumpkin sitting on the counter for just this purpose. I think I’ve been putting off making sweet pumpkin porridge because once I taste it I will no longer be able to imagine what sweet pumpkin porridge tastes like. I imagine it will taste like the rich, mellow essence of autumn. It can’t possibly be that good.

-Korean cuisine also abounds in pancakes — seafood, scallion, chili pepper, zucchini, pollock, sweet. So far I’ve only tried the ultra-easy kimchi pancake from Cook Korean! Mark and I liked it a lot. I thought Owen liked it too but he says no. Owen: “I only ate it because I was really really hungry and hadn’t eaten anything the whole day.” To make this pancake, you chop 1 1/2 cups kimchi, mix with 1 cup flour, 1 cup water, 1/3 cup kimchi brine, and 1/4 cup ground pork. Dollop into a hot, oiled skillet, spreading into a pancake shape. Fry until crisp on the bottom, about 5 minutes. Flip. Fry another minute to crisp on the other side.  Salt lightly. Cut with a pizza cutter into wedges. Serve with a dipping sauce of your choice — or no dipping sauce at all. Robin Ha notes that you can replace the pork with any meat you like, including canned tuna. In future I would choose something with more flavor than plain ground pork. 

-In my books I have several recipes for a sweet Korean rice cake that you steam on a bed of pine needles. 

-As I mentioned in a previous post, I made Maangchi’s japchae (glass noodles with vegetables and meat) a few weeks ago and it was superb. I made the japchae from Cook Korean! last week and it was only ok. The ingredients are almost exactly the same, so what was the difference? Maangchi calls for three times the sugar, double the sesame oil, and almost double the soy sauce. She also calls for 3 dried shiitake mushrooms in addition to fresh. In other words: dried mushroom umami + extra sugar + extra fat + extra sodium = better japchae. Quelle surprise.

-Rice cake soup (tteokguk), is a lovely dish that, according to Robin Ha, Koreans eat on New Year’s Day for the same reasons we eat hoppin’ john.  Ha: “The clean white color of the soup signals a fresh new start and the coin shape of the rice cakes is believed to bring good fortune and good luck.” You cook some beef in water to make a stock, then add rice cakes which become meltingly tender as they simmer. They also throw off enough starch to turn the broth thick and white. Friday night I felt sick and was deciding whether to skip dinner or heat up the leftover rice cake soup. I heated up the rice cake soup and my stamina was completely and instantly restored.

Stamina. That’s one of the many words it will be hard to use with a straight face after this election. I realized as I was writing this post that I’m no longer comfortable ending a paragraph with a short exclamatory comment because I sound like a Donald Trump tweet. Sad!

And what I just did (sad!) is already a cliche. 

On another subject, I reviewed the first-ever biography of the great Betty MacDonald, a book I’ve been waiting years for someone to write. You can read my review here

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Molly Yeh and Jessica Koslow: First Impressions

It is always a good idea to share your first impressions of cookbooks so you’re on record with opinions you will later need to take back, like how a few years ago I announced how much I hated Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune only to realize shortly thereafter that it was a masterwork, one of the great, spiky, original cookbooks of all time. 

A couple of hot new cookbooks arrived the other night and here are my thoughts after spending an hour or so looking through them. 

Molly on the Range by Molly Yeh

In case you do not know already, Molly Yeh is a gorgeous, exuberant, and very young food blogger who once studied percussion at Juilliard and now lives with her adorable husband on his family farm in North Dakota where she bakes a lot of really tall, really cutecakes. She is immensely popular. Popular as in 172,000 Instagram followers. She doesn’t use capital letters, she’s always smiling, and everything she photographs looks dreamy.

That sounds insufferable, but somehow isn’t. She’s just too bubbly and happy to be insufferable.

Yeh’s first book is, at first glance, charming. I have not read all the stories about her life and I’m not sure I will, but I love the look of these recipes. Yeh likes to pile a lot of delicious things into a dish. You could call these “embarrassment of riches” recipes. Walnut crusted brie mac and cheese with apples and pancetta. Dark chocolate marzipan scone loaf. Scallion pancake challah. Butter and salami pizza. Tahini blondie ice cream sandwiches. What could be better than a steamed Chinese bun? A steamed Chinese bun folded around crispy schnitzel. What could be better than that? A steamed Chinese bun folded around crispy schnitzel with Sriracha mayonnaise.

I’m not Molly Yeh’s perfect reader. I’m too old. Will I soon find myself smiling indulgently and patiently and mailing this book to Isabel?

Only time will tell. 

Everything I Want to Eat by Jessica Koslow (a.k.a. the Sqirl cookbook)

Jessica Koslow is not quite as young as Molly Yeh, but she’s pretty darn young. She owns the exquisite little Los Angeles restaurant Sqirl where I once ate a very nice breakfast, some kind of crunchy savory rice dish the details of which are vague but the overall wholesome goodness of which remains vivid. Her book is harder to warm to than Yeh’s, more serious, edgy, modern arty. I find the design a bit off-putting, the unsmiling faces of striking or semi-famous people who stare out from the photographs disconcerting, like I just arrived at a party where everyone is cooler than I am.

I’ll get over that.

Where Yeh tries to pack as many crowd-pleasing ingredients into a single dish as she can, Koslow is more apt to pair the pleasant with the not-so-pleasant. Koslow will often emphasize something slightly “scary” about a dish, be that a color or an ingredient, something that will turn some people off (like my husband), but excite and challenge others. Beet-cured salmon. Kohlrabi tzatziki. Stinging nettle cavatelli. Black cod ceviche with purple yam. Carrot ginger black sesame loaf. Just the colors in the names of those last two dishes would make Mark anxious.

I don’t want to overstate this tendency. You might not even notice it if you hadn’t just been romping around in the marzipan fairyland of Molly on the Range.

Based on my lukewarm first impression, I will probably end up cherishing Koslow’s book. The cookbooks (and people) I end up loving the most are the ones I have trouble with at first.


And in Korean cooking news, japchae, the classic slippery dish of sweet potato noodles with meat and vegetables was a giant hit. Owen went crazy for it and asked me to make it again and so I shall. Leftovers reheated beautifully in a skillet. I used Maangchi’s recipe from her book, but the version on the blog is not all that different. Just double it. I skipped the egg. Highly recommend.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

A birthday, Spam burritos, acorn jelly, and other good stuff

Even I can't mess up a picture of THAT.
What happened to the Korean food, you ask?

In reverse chronological order, here’s what I’ve been up to for the last few weeks. Some food in there, not that much. 

Owen turned 16 a couple days ago. He did not want bulgogi or japchae so we went out for pizza. Gifts he received: the Everybody Wants Some! soundtrack, a vintage Dolly Parton album, a venus flytrap, The Wide Sargasso Sea, a notebook, an amazon gift card, The Dude and the Zen Masterand an Indonesia guidebook.

That somewhat reflects the range of Owen’s enthusiasms -- and in the case of a couple of those gifts, what his parents hope will become his enthusiasms. 

At 16, Owen has a lot of fine qualities, but above all, he is a creature of passionate enthusiasms. The enthusiasms constantly rotate, but currently include ABBA, comic books, cosplay, Goats of Anarchy, his plants, Kenny Rogers, our cats, building sets for school theater productions, The Big Lebowski, cereal, and computer games. When Owen loves something he loves it ardently and learns everything about it. In the car the other day I was treated to a long, almost scholarly lecture about the artistry of ABBA, including meditations on the voices of Frida and Agnetha  (Owen prefers Frida’s voice which is more “majestic”), the way the group’s sunny early albums gave way to darker works culminating in their brooding masterpiece The Visitors and a sadly unreleased final album. The disquisition lasted 25 minutes and I enjoyed every minute of it, although I think it’s time he choose a new band as he appears to have sucked ABBA dry. Plus, his father can barely stand to hear the word “ABBA” let alone their music and would be pleased if Owen moved on to something he can relate to, like Led Zeppelin.

I think Dolly Parton is a better bet, a shorter leap.

It’s a surprisingly rare gift, the capacity for great enthusiasm. But it is not a gift that people automatically envy or admire or even recognize as a gift. Brains, athleticism, charisma, beauty -- they all seem so much more important when you’re a kid. In the long run, though, I would argue that a capacity for enthusiasm is every bit as valuable, maybe more. Life is richer when you can really get into things. There’s always something coming around the corner to absorb you, to  keep the world sparkling. It’s how I get by, anyway.

If it sounds like I just suggested that Owen is enthusiastic but otherwise a loser, that is not what I meant at all! He has a lot of abilities, I just meant that to his mother, in 2016, it is his gift for enthusiasm that seems most likely to stand him in good stead throughout his hopefully long and happy life.

Moving on. What happened before the birthday?

Oh right, this.

The frozen pizza was lousy and Donald Trump was worse, but Hillary killed it and that was all that mattered.
I have nothing original to say about the election so I’ll say nothing, although like everyone I know I’m obsessed and can not wait for it to be over.

vintage photo of a woman making fry bread  
Before the debate, I was on a reporting trip for a magazine and my father came along for the ride. For five days we drove around the American Southwest talking, eating, staying in some wonderfully bad old motels and looking at 12th-century Puebloan cliff dwellings. It was a beautiful experience, but I will be writing about it elsewhere so should keep my powder dry, as they say. 

Some culinary highlights: I ordered Navajo tacos everywhere I went. Hot fry bread topped with meat (ground beef, chicken, pulled pork), beans, shredded cheese, lettuce and anything else the cook wants to throw on there. My father cringes at the word “fry” and refused to even taste a Navajo taco, preferring to stick with regional specialties like the turkey wrap and soup of the day. It was sad that he didn’t get to experience the pleasure of a Navajo taco and it is also sad that I will probably be dead before I reach his age.

But wait! I did get him to try a roast mutton taco. By the side of the road in Shiprock, New Mexico  a bunch of people had set up little tents with portable stoves and were advertising tacos filled with pork chop or roast mutton.  I said, “Let’s split one.” My father said, “Please just do me a favor, no mutton. And a regular tortilla, not fry bread.”

Obviously, I could not honor that request. We watched the woman at the stand of our choice stretch a ball of pale dough into a disc, drop it into bubbling oil, pluck it out with tongs a minute later, wrap this hot, golden bread around some strips of dark, super-tough, savory mutton and slather it all with fresh green chile sauce. I took one bite of this delicious thing, handed it to my father, and the next time I looked over he had finished it.
mutton = warm, gamy jerky
I thought I’d finally loosened his corset, but no. The next morning we stopped at a gas station and noticed a line of cars idling, hand-written menus affixed to the windows. They were selling Navajo breakfast burritos. To my father’s horror, I bought a Spam burrito, a steaming bundle of
mashed potatoes and crumbled ham wrapped in flour tortilla. I know how disagreeable that sounds if you think you hate Spam, as I used to, but it was very satisfying.  My father declined to even taste it. I guess some of you are probably with him on this one. Wimps.
My dad ate the serrano pepper.
And now we have finally traveled back far enough in time to get to some Korean food that I served before the trip to the Southwest.
If you grew up in California hearing about how the native people subsisted on acorn mush, you may understand the allure of acorn powder. 
The most interesting dish I made was the acorn jelly salad from Robin Ha’s  Cook Korean! You mix acorn powder with water, pour into a brownie pan, and chill until it sets into a firm jelly that has a mild, earthy flavor. You slice up this jelly and add it to a salad of cucumbers, lettuce, and lovely soy sauce dressing. I told Owen the strips of acorn jelly were noodles and tried to think of them as noodles myself, because what are noodles but starch and liquid?

That is no noodle.
But it didn’t quite work, the noodle trick. Acorn jelly isn’t exactly an acquired taste, it’s more of an acquired texture — cold, damp, slippery and strange to a Western palate. It wasn’t bad, but I will have to nurture my appreciation of acorn jelly.

I also made some superb spicy ribs from Koreatown, the appreciation of which required no nurturing, and a very enjoyable kimchi fried rice from Cook Korean!

Before that. . . well, I think I’m all caught up.  Sorry for the long absence. 

One of our cats liked the Korean ribs as much as we did.

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