Entries from May 31st, 2013

75 posts and lunch for 1

Friday, May 31, 2013

I can’t believe it, but this post marks my seventy-fifth. Seventy-five! The number always makes me think of my grandma’s birthday when all the children and grandchildren pooled together to make her a book. As I think of it now, that might have been for her seventieth. Anyway, today was her birthday. She would have been ninety-two.

There is a simple place in my old neighborhood that caters nicely to the solo diner. Most of its patrons are men who go alone for a quick bowl of haejangguk, or hangover stew, and during the weekend morning hours, an open seat is hard to find. Many varieties of hangover soup exist, but this restaurant serves only sunji haejangguk, called so for its inclusion of congealed cow or pig blood. Served in individual earthenware bowls, the soup arrives bubbling. I took MJ and our friend Richard there last summer, and it was the first time for each of us. We had spent the night and the better part of that very morning dancing in Hongdae, and we each needed our own bowl of stew once we woke up, to say the least.

Usually when I go alone for lunch, like yesterday, I order bibimbap. It is the only other option. I sit down at a long wooden table on a short plastic blue stool. A woman standing in front of the kitchen window asks me what I’d like. I tell her, she tells the kitchen, and then she dips a ladle into a gigantic vat of kongnamulguk, or beansprout soup, also known to be good for a hangover. No matter my state, I finish my bowl of it.

In another minute, she calls out my order and delivers a sizzling bowl that sears the steamed rice inside. Crowned with a single fried egg, this hot pot is all I really need, save for a final dousing of hot pepper paste. Nevertheless, I’m here for bibimbap, so I meet her at the buffet of namul, or seasoned vegetables where I will do the rest.

“Don’t touch here, it’s hot,” she warns. I obey and slide the bowl by the cradling carrier. A pair of tongs leans at the ready in each metal tray of namul. There are ribbons of dried and seasoned seaweed, matchsticks of cucumbers, radish salad, seasoned bean sprouts, and bracken fern made tender by hours soaked in water. I add some of each, beginning at the top and moving clockwise until the rice and egg are both buried. At the end of the line are five plastic squeeze bottles of gochujang, a few pairs of scissors, and a giant electric rice warmer for extra hungry lunchers. I squeeze the hot pepper paste in an outward swirl. By the time I sit down, the rice that touches the bowl has begun to get crispy in true dolsot fashion. Bibimbap, this way, is magical.

I am one of two women in the whole restaurant. The place is full of men who watch Korean baseball and hover over their bowls. I look up and see a guy snipping the contents of his bowl with scissors, and I realize I forget this step again. This means I end up fighting to get the long strips of vegetables from spoon to mouth in a way that doesn’t cover my face with red sauce. I don’t fight too hard, though. I am, after all, dining solo, surrounded by older men who are slurping their food and burping with great satisfaction. I head back to the buffet line for more gochujang, and my lady laughs with surprise.

“You like it spicy?” she asks. I nod, and I reach for a napkin to wipe my nose.

Homemade Yogurt

Monday, May 27, 2013

It was four, maybe five years ago when my friend Eric and I had our first and last discussion about yogurt. His parents were born and raised in Macedonia, and his mom had been making plain, sour yogurt forever, he told me. Her parents had made it before then, and so on. The process was much simpler than I’d thought, and made so much sense – it all blew my mind. I made his mom’s version once while living in Hoboken, and if I’m right, it turned out fine, though strangely there was no follow-up attempt. I’m certain I called Eric to report (maybe we talked about yogurt twice?), and I’m also certain I felt both proud and small. I can’t explain it, but you know the moment you learn you can make something yourself that tastes better than what you’ve been used to your whole life, and then when you also realize people have been doing exactly that for ages and ages without a second thought? That, there, is humbling.

The best commercial yogurt I ever ate was in Buenos Aires. Not the meat, not the wine. The yogurt is what I remember. Sometimes I’d make a trip to the nearest market just for one miniature glass jar of it. Probably, it was heat treated after it was cultured, a process that destroys the healthful probiotics, prolongs its shelf-life, and gives it the texture of pudding – uniform, smooth and without a trace of whey. When I want yogurt, which is often, I always think of that kind, or Eric’s mom’s recipe, but I think I’m about to start a ritual of my own.

The Internet is loaded with advice on yogurt-making endeavors. If you’ve ever searched online, you know what I mean. People swear by instant dry milk, full fat milk, fat free milk, Greek yogurt starters, homemade yogurt starters and special yogurt making equipment. Really, all you need is a quart of milk, a tablespoon of yogurt with live cultures, a saucepan and a towel.

Over the weekend I made yogurt twice using the same kind of low-fat milk and Greek yogurt starter. The first batch incubated for six hours before it was whipped and chilled. The end product was thin and sour, perfect for making dips or cold soups or pouring over granola. I let the second batch sit overnight and then drained it with cheesecloth for a thicker consistency, like Greek yogurt. If you want a voluptuous form, you probably shouldn’t skip this step. Whey can be saved, too, and used elsewhere around the kitchen, like for caramel yogurt spiked with cardamom. I love that sort of closed-loop cooking.

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I can’t remember the proportions to Eric’s mom’s recipe, but I think it called for a mix of full fat and low fat milk. Anyway, I searched online for directions this time. Salad in a Jar is a site with great tips, and if you’re still not sure if homemade yogurt is worth the effort, spend a few minutes over there. Paula is serious about her yogurt, and she’s written several helpful posts on the subject. Here’s what I’ve learned:

*You can use any yogurt starter as long as it has active cultures. Heat-treated yogurt won’t produce the same probiotics your homemade yogurt needs to properly start, or grow, itself. Your yogurt will taste different than my yogurt every time because we’re probably using different starters and different milks. That’s part of the beauty of it.

*An instant read thermometer is the safest, surest way to success. It’s important to heat the milk to the right temperature, and a thermometer will tell you if you have easier than your eye on the first try. I didn’t use one, though, and things went alright. Do what you feel comfortable with, heat your milk to boiling, and you’ll be fine too.

*An easy place to incubate your yogurt is in the oven wrapped in a towel. Keep the light on and the temperature will remain where it needs to for your yogurt to set. Don’t disturb it. You can peek after six hours.

*Making yogurt is ritualistic – it takes time, and it goes well with music. My mix included this and this. Yours may be different, but they’re all good in the end.

Homemade Yogurt

1 quart lowfat milk

1 tablespoon yogurt with live cultures

Set a double boiler by placing a metal bowl atop a pot of boiling water, making sure the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl. Heat the milk slowly, whisking periodically, until just before it comes to a boil (between 175-180 degrees). When the milk looks as if it’s about to roll, it’s ready.

Remove the pot from heat and cover with a dish towel. Let it cool to between 100-115 degrees, which takes about 30 minutes or more. The milk should be warm to the touch, but not at all hot (slightly warmer than body temperature).

Then whisk 1/2 cup of the milk with the yogurt in a separate bowl and add it back to the pot of milk. Wrap the pot with a towel. Preheat an oven to 350 degrees, and once it’s up to temperature, wait one minute and then switch it off. Put the pot in the oven and keep the light on and the door closed.

It can take six to fifteen hours for yogurt to set. Shake the pot gently back and forth – if the yogurt looks firm and not runny, it’s had enough time. A thin yellow layer of whey should have formed on top. You can whisk this back in, or drain it out with cheesecloth, a laundry bag for delicates, or a fine mesh strainer. Just be sure to rinse out any form of strainer you use immediately – it’ll be much easier before any residue has a chance to dry.

Yogurt is the foundation for so many dishes, and when you have it on hand, you have a kind of freedom. I would love to know what sort of foods you make or twists you take with yogurt, too.

Cacik adapted from Turkish Cookery by Inci Kut (makes just over two cups)

My friend Paolo lived in Turkey for awhile, and he made cacik (sounds like ja-jik) a lot while we lived together here in Seoul. Paolo didn’t bring a winter coat to Korea from Canada, but he did carry over a small stack of cookbooks. Love that kind of prioritizing. The recipe below is from one of those books.

2 cups (500 grams) thin yogurt (or thick yogurt thinned with water)

1 English cucumber, peeled and cut to a small dice

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon or more grated garlic

dried mint (or fresh mint, minced)

paprika or dried red pepper powder (like gochuggaru, or Korean red pepper powder)

extra virgin olive oil

Sprinkle the cucumber with salt and leave aside. Mix yogurt with garlic and cucumber. Sprinkle with dried mint and red pepper powder. Finish with a slow drizzle of olive oil. Serve chilled as a soup or with bread to dip. Or both.

Caramel Yogurt from The New York Times (makes four half cup servings)

The original recipe suggests serving the finished yogurt with a sprinkling of cardamom or cinnamon. I used cardamom sugar (hi Niki!) instead of regular sugar, which made an incredibly delicious and unexpected caramel. To make cardamom sugar, pop the seeds from 6 cardamom pods and grind to powder, then mix into 1/2 cup granulated sugar (or mix 1 teaspoon ground cardamom with 1/2 cup granulated sugar). Or, follow the recipe below with plain sugar. Goes exceptionally well with bitter black coffee. Just be careful not to spill it while its hot.

1 quart yogurt

1/2 cup sugar

pinch salt

Drain the yogurt until thick and dry to yield about two cups of yogurt and over one cup of whey. Bring sugar, salt, and one cup whey to a boil in a pot. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly. Cook 20-30 minutes until the caramel is frothy, the liquid has boiled off and the syrup is a shade of deep brown.

Add two tablespoons whey back to the pot of caramel and stir quickly to incorporate. If the mixture is too stiff or thick to stir, add more whey in small amounts. Allow caramel to cool a bit, then stir in 1/4 cup yogurt and whisk well to blend. Add the rest of the yogurt and stir to blend all the way. Cover and chill for 30 minutes or more.

how to make kimbap

Monday, May 20, 2013

Once a week, I go to my friend Helen’s apartment and we cook. She shows me the ropes of traditional Korean food, the only food she’s ever cooked, and I show her how to make something else. After nearly two years of eating Korean pancakes, or pajeon, at restaurants and a couple of wobbly attempts at the stove, I finally (!) learned how to mix and fry good pajeon at home. I taught her how to make buttermilk pancakes and tomato sauce, neither of which I’ve been making very long myself. Our approach in the kitchen is similar, in that we’ll both dive in headfirst, and that makes the whole thing a blast. I try to record her measurements, but nothing is ever precise. She uses paper coffee cups, metal soup spoons, and the spot between the top knuckles on her index and middle fingers – her pinch – to measure. The rest is all instinct.

She taught me to roll kimbap last week, which is as important to a Korean picnic as the sandwich is to the American. Most Westerners are more familiar with makizushi, or sushi rolls, and kimbap is similar, conceptually, but different. Instead of vinegar, rice for kimbap is seasoned with roasted sesame seed and sesame oil (I’ve read that some people do use vinegar for their kimbap rice, but it isn’t very common). Crabstick, pickled radish, fried egg, cucumber, and ham make up the most popular components. Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume you don’t find that mix particularly mouthwatering? Neither did I until a bitter and blustery night last December. I needed dinner on the go, so I ducked into one of the city’s most beloved kimbap spots, unbeknownst to me, and ordered The Seoul Roll. It was fresh, so it was warm, and I could eat it with my hands as I walked. When a food and a place are so intertwined, you can only love one while resisting the other for so long.

Kimbap is adaptable and approachable once you have the right setup, and it’s especially appropriate now that picnic season’s in full swing. The first thing you need is a package of dried seaweed in big sheets, specifically for rolling kimbap. Look for the photo on the front of the package. All Asian groceries will have it. Note: once the package is open, it needs to be used right away. Gim doesn’t keep.

You could also use a mat like the one below. Supposedly this tool is the difference between loose rolls and tight rolls, but Helen didn’t use one when she taught me, and I have an easier time without it. If you use one, your rolls might be beautiful and tight, but they might be that if you don’t use it, too. Put a piece of plastic wrap between the sheet of gim and the mat if you do (more on the subject further below). Otherwise, a clean, flat surface is great.

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Rice. You need it! Sticky, short grain rice. I’ve tried quinoa and brown rice, but white rice works best. Cook it and mix with roasted sesame seeds and a scant teaspoon of sesame oil.

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Spoon a layer of rice on the gim, thinly and gently. Spread to the edges and leave an inch of free space at the top.

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Add your ingredients one by one. Layer bulkier, heavier components at the bottom, and go for a balance of textures and flavors. Cut long strips of vegetables and other ingredients, or overlap shorter strips like the peppers below.

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I like kimchi, and I add it to everything. Like kimbap.

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Avocado is not traditional, and neither is lettuce. But fusion can be really fun.

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After you’re finished layering your ingredients, brush the top of the gim with water or sesame oil to help the end of the roll stick, and you’re ready. I started to roll with the matt for the photo, but then I got flustered, and I finished rolling without it. There’s a panoply of videos online showing how to make it work. Like here, starting at 1:43.

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A sharp knife with a straight blade works best to slice the roll into pieces. A dull or serrated knife will tear the gim, and that, says Helen, is the mark of a poorly rolled kimbap. Mine ripped, and I didn’t cry about it, but a sharp knife definitely helps.

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Brush the top with sesame oil and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Wrap the sliced rolls in foil to transport to a picnic.

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Mike and Ashley came over last weekend, and the four of us made a spread of fusion kimbap, like so:

Jambalaya (Mimsie) : sausage, peppers, cajun-spiced tomatoes, rolled with brown rice

Ballpark (Mike) : sausage, mustard, relish, onion

Chicken Salad (Ashley) : chicken, lettuce, mayonnaise, avocado

BLT (me) : bacon, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise

Health Nut (me) : spinach, radish sprouts, carrots, cucumber, hummus, rolled with quinoa

Kimchi Breakfast: kimchi, cheese, egg

Invite some friends over, deal a deck of gim, and roll to the beat of the South (or whatever you’re listening to these days). Then go on a picnic and sit on the grass in the sun. Now that’s some fusion.

Banana Almond Smoothie

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Smoothies don’t make the breakfast docket often around here. I guess it has more to do with an instinctive, totemic belief and less to do with preference: Mainly, that a cold breakfast is not a proper one, especially not on a weekday.

To me, eggs are the most perfect food, but they’re more of a treat these days and less of a given. We had eggs of all denominations as kids, and often. My dad either fried them over-easy or whisked and folded them into omelets. My Aunt K is an expert soft boiler, and her eggs had yolk that pooled over the crust and around the plate after the quick prick of a fork. Heaven. My grandma scrambled. So did my mom, and she’d somehow char bits of cheese in the process for a taste I’ve tried to capture since I was a teenager. I spent my college years hard boiling eggs to oblivion, turning the outer edge of the yolks that unappealing shade of greyish-green. Swamp Water Eggs on Toast! I should patent that.

I forget about smoothies, how easy they are to make, and how good I feel afterward. I’ve yet to find the perfect recipe, but I shall persist. Too often, a smoothie can taste like powdered Flintstone vitamins. Ice makes a smoothie cold and refreshing, but watery. I think a smoothie should be thin enough that you don’t need a straw to drink it – and what’s more irritating than a thick, blockheaded mass of fruit and ice that gets stuck midway up the straw, anyway? If you can remember to stick a few bananas in the freezer before bed, do it. I added almonds for protein, and they didn’t blend completely. That didn’t bother me, but you could blitz them separately if you want. Also! I froze the bananas with the peel on, and had quite the time trying to peel them this morning. Next time I’ll peel them first, then stick them in a plastic bag to freeze. This recipe made enough for one, with a little left at the bottom of the blender (which I tipped upside down to drink, double-handed, in front of an open window). Good morning.

Banana Almond Smoothie

2 small bananas, or 1 big one, frozen

½ cup milk

½ cup plain, unsweetened yogurt

2 tablespoons raw almonds, chopped

½ teaspoon honey

Blitz everything together and pour into a glass. While I encourage you to embrace the chance of a smoothie mustache, it is, by no means, required.

Rosewater, optional.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Every year on Mother’s Day, my dad calls me, and every year, I inevitably miss the call. He leaves a voicemail to tell me how much he misses his mom, and that he can’t imagine how much we must miss ours. Then his voice cracks, and then I lose it. I don’t know that we’re ever prepared for the vulnerability of a parent.

Trivial things are what I ache for the most, like if she had the choice between chocolate cake, a nightcap or a joint for dessert, which would she choose? Why didn’t she wear perfume? Or did she? Did she love roses? Was she indifferent?

Would we have talked on the phone daily? Weekly? What did she love about herself? What was she proud of? How old was she when she began to realize her own mother was human?

I do remember some things. I remember that her fuse was short, but so was the turnaround time from when she’d lose her temper and when she’d be laughing again. For years, I could summon the sound of her laugh as often as I wanted. Time blotted it out, until one day the sound was gone, the space it held hollow, silent. Her sisters laugh the same way, evenly and without restraint, and when they do, everything becomes exponentially funnier. If you make a joke and it makes them laugh, you feel like you’ve won the lottery. That kind.

She let my brother and me watch Dirty Dancing years before most kids our age were allowed, and I learned the value of wit and individuality through her and her affinity for Joan Rivers and Richard Simmons. She cried when she was happy, sad, or moved, and she swore like a fucking sailor (or maybe only when she stubbed her toe). She married my dad because she loved him, even though he said he didn’t want any more children, and she did. She kept diaries and medical records and every letter and card anyone wrote to her, or so it seems. When I was seven, I wanted the world from her, and I remember feeling disappointed a lot. But also safe and blissfully happy, and when she tucked us in at night, I’d think, “This, right here, is perfect.”

I wanted the sour, jelly-filled fruit snacks other kids brought to school, but she packed us plain yogurt and strawberries. Maybe that’s why I never developed the insatiable sweet tooth that runs rampant with the women in our family.

Sometimes when I cook for one, I pretend that I’m also cooking for her. Today, with yogurt and strawberries in mind, I made us a fruit fool, or a dessert with sweetened cream that’s been whipped by hand to soft peaks and swirled with macerated fruit. Gooseberries are the classic fruit of choice, but strawberries, rhubarb, and raspberries are common substitutes. For the occasion, I spiked the berries with rosewater, and it edged away some of the sugar, though it was still too sweet for me. Next time I’ll mix in some plain yogurt, like Nigel Slater suggests. Another summer without this ‘soft, lazy-day pudding?’ I pity the fool. (My mom would have been alllll over that).

Strawberry (Rosewater) Fool (for 2), adapted loosely from Nigel Slater

1 1/2 cups strawberries

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup plain yogurt

sugar

1/2 teaspoon rosewater (optional)

Wash and hull the strawberries. Mash them lightly with a fork. Mix in 1-2 teaspoons sugar and rosewater. Set aside. In a chilled bowl, whip the cream until it’s developed soft, not stiff, peaks. Sweeten if you want, then fold in the yogurt. Spoon 2/3 of the strawberries in the bottom of the glasses. Top with cream/yogurt, then finish with the rest of the strawberries.