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