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.