how to begin

Monday, May 6, 2013

Maybe I should rename this blog to Something for Someday, since I miss just about every Sunday deadline that’s ever been set. In the beginning when I decided to set aside time each week to cook and record it, I chose Sundays because I didn’t like the day and I wanted to love it. I’m learning to, and maybe that’s part of the issue. Read: beer.

While I taught in Seoul last year, I wrote a few articles for a local publication, and those articles have led to a more permanent opportunity. This week, I joined a fantastic creative team in Seoul and took on the responsibility of Food Editor for Seoulist, something I’m super excited to share. I’ll be here, and there, and hopefully a few other places once I get the ball rolling. Baby steps. That’s how you begin. When you feel like leaping, you will.

Five years ago I worked in New York for a small design company. Our team felt like a family, a day of work like a privilege. On Fridays when the weather was nice, we’d climb the spiral staircase in the middle of the showroom and barbecue on the roof. I could barely pay my rent, but for a raw girl from Minnesota, that job was a dream. One day without warning, the company president summoned us together and announced he’d sold us to a pair of profit-driving, well-dressed smooth-talkers with slippery ethics and slicked-back hair. We would all come along, but soon after the merge, the new owners cut our original team by half. The old and the new had polarized philosophies, though no one knew until it was too late. I still miss that original group and the camaraderie we had.

Later, when I could pay my rent and eat and have some money leftover, I wanted out of the fashion business entirely. I thought of other jobs that might fit better. I researched psychology graduate programs and registered to take the GRE (the test date of which I missed, subsequently). I picked the brains of a holistic nutritionist and the founder of a sustainable tourist startup, and I emailed a stranger-turned-friend in Australia to get her input. I joined a club and geeked out among fellow food nerds. To Harlem I rode for weekly harmonica lessons. Well, two harmonica lessons. I considered culinary schools in New York and a graduate program in gastronomy from a university in Australia. After years of avoidance, I finally summoned the courage to see a shrink, and she helped me work through some buried paraphenalia – all gross and painful, but ultimately, necessary. Self-help and career counseling books gave the same advice, though it took awhile for me to hear it: to quit the outward search and start looking within.

Those days, I traveled without getting on an airplane by tasting global flavors, like Sri Lanken whole roasted goat and ox tongue at San Rasa in Staten Island, slow-cooked rabbit ragu and burrata mozzarella straight from Puglia at Frank. I ate congee and dim sum in Chinatown, spare ribs in Flushing, banh mi on Orchard Street, xiao long bao in Chelsea, and blood sausage and grilled tomatoes in Hoboken. I fell in love with a Russian-born, Peruvian-bred man who showed me salchipapas and tostones. We’d travel to Jersey City for chana saag and saag paneer. We ate golubsty and olivier, and he took me to his favorite grocery in Brighton Beach for sour cherries and yogurt that he taught me to layer and eat for breakfast.

Looking back, I realize my curiosity for world culture and food was born earlier. In eighth grade a group of students and I would visit a different restaurant every month – places like Gardens of Salonica for lamb gyros that dripped with tzatziki. Our teacher was retired, and he taught the class voluntarily. He believed in the benefits of exposing young people to culture and art, and though I fell asleep at every opera we saw, I will always be thankful for his dedication to the cause. He passed away recently, but I saw him almost two years ago in Minneapolis. I was waitressing, and he was eating lunch with his wife, always lovely. When I told him I was about to leave to teach English in Seoul, he suggested I make a true difference by applying to work at a high-needs school in rural America. He had a point, and I lost the words to respond appropriately at the time. I should have told him that I wanted to be a food writer, and that he and his class had planted the seed.

I found several well-established food blogs while in New York, too, and I spent hours reading through their archives. Here was a whole food and writing community and finally, something that clicked! I felt like I’d found treasure. Ultimately, the discovery of those writers paved the way for everything since. I started my own wee blog and nervously sent a link of the the first post to a few close friends, who were each unconditionally supportive.

In 2009, I took a trip to the Philippines to visit a good friend, and when I returned, thoughts of a career in food left an acrid taste in my mouth. I lacked clarity and felt paralyzed by Manhattan’s excess and momentum. Hoping to ease the break, I left New York quietly in the summer of 2010. I held onto the illusion of the city like an unrequited love, all the while attempting to reconnect with family and friends I hadn’t lived near in years. On my best days, I was right where I was supposed to be. On my worst days, I was a failure without direction. Twenty-somethings can be so dramatic, can’t they?

I pitched an idea to a Twin Cities publication, and the editor-in-chief graciously gave me a chance. The night I got her email, I had a dream that all my teeth fell out. But I finished the assignment, and two more after that. I visited friends in Colombia, Peru, and Argentina and I learned about the people of these places through the food they ate. In Peru, I met a woman who invited me on a quick trip to a Quechua community outside of Cusco, and though I’d visited Machu Picchu the day before, it didn’t compare to the day in the mountains with them and the lunch they’d prepared. In Argentina, my friend Joanna and I traveled to San Rafael, a place brimming with vineyards and small town charm. We met Sebastian, and he invited us back to his house. We sat at his kitchen table for hours and drank bottles of red wine made with grapes grown on his family’s plot. I turned twenty-eight that day, and I learned to slow down during that trip.

It’s hard to imagine over two years have passed since I started this project. To you, whether it’s your first or tenth or hundredth visit, thank you. You could go anywhere, and I’m really (really) grateful you’ve chosen to come here.

Caramelized Onions

I’ve been spending long bouts in the kitchen since returning to Seoul, slowly stocking the pantry and fixing simple and foolproof meals. Onions take a good while to caramelize, but the results are completely worthy of your time and effort. In a world of uncertainty and consistent, rapid change, isn’t it nice to have a few guarantees?

Tips: Make sure to use a pot that hasn’t been coated with a non-stick surface. The onions won’t caramelize otherwise – they need a chance to adhere to the bottom of the pot. You can certainly use butter or half butter/half oil as your frying fats, but since olive oil since has a higher smoking point, the onions stand less chance of burning. Resist the urge to stir too much. They’ll finish properly when left alone for several minutes at a time.

How to begin: Cut the ends from two or three onions, then slice through the belly of each from end to end. Lay each half onion cut side down on a chopping board, and slice again from end to end, as thin or thick as you prefer.

Heat a pot over medium-high heat, then pour in three tablespoons of olive oil. Let the oil get hot, then toss in the onions. Stir until all slices are coated with oil. Stand close and stir occasionally. After five minutes, turn the heat down. After ten minutes, add a teaspoon of salt. Salt draws water from the onions, and waiting a bit before salting encourages the caramelization process.

Let the onions continue cooking. Stir sporadically. At the twenty minute mark, add a teaspoon of honey. If the pan becomes dry, add a splash of water or a touch more oil. Scrape the bottom with the edge of your tool if the onions get too attached to the bottom of the pan.

After the onions have colored to mahogany and wilted completely, turn the heat up to medium and add a splash of red wine. Stir, taste, and add more salt if needed.