Entries from December 29th, 2013

Homemade Sriracha

Sunday, December 29, 2013

How were your holidays? What did you do? I hope you were surrounded by people you love and like at the same time. Christmas brings a mix of emotions for me, as I would guess it does for many of you, too. Flo (my maternal grandma) was always a huge part of the holidays. She had an attic full of decor that she’d put up like a professional, and Christmas hasn’t quite been the same without her and her house. But the passing of old traditions leaves room for the new, and this year was great. I spent it in Hong Kong with my friends Jackie and Doug, their son, Gavin, and Jackie’s mother, Millie. Jackie and I have known each other as teenagers in Ohio, as adults in New York, and now, as adulter adults on this side of the planet. We went to the beach, cooked Christmas Eve dinner in under two hours, and battled holiday traffic for last-minute victuals. We played at least two dozen games of Heads Up after a lot of champagne. On Christmas Eve, Millie had a hankering for chai butternut squash soup, so we dug out Jackie’s immersion blender and made a big pot of it to drink out of tiny glasses with shards of fried sage. It is five days later, and now it’s me with the hankering for chai butternut squash soup. Someday I’ll put the recipe up with Millie’s permission, but today I want to tell you about something else. Homemade srirachaaaaaah, yeow!

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Why would you make a homemade condiment when you can buy it in a bottle? Well, if you’re asking, I probably can’t convince you. I would have the same retort regarding ketchup, and as my loyalty to Heinz runs deep, I will probably never attempt it at home. But this particular condiment makes an excellent gift (New Year’s? A January birthday? Belated holiday? Present for you from you?) and standing by the stove has become a way of staying warm in our cozy but underheated apartment. Also! The color. Just look at that color! Bright enough to inspire a new name for paint: Sriracha Red? Rooster Orange? Now, it’s been awhile since I’ve tasted bottled sriracha, so this endorsement comes without any current authority on the subject. But I have always had luck with recipes from Food52, and that’s where this version came from after Eda of Edamame Eats entered it in a Food52 contest for Best Chili Pepper Recipe. Eda’s rendition calls for palm sugar and red Fresno chilies, but I didn’t have either, so I used brown sugar and Korean red chilies with delicious success. This homemade condiment is a bullseye. Promise.

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Homemade Sriracha adapted from Food52 and Edamame-eats

1/2 pound fresh red chilies (in Korea, you can use the same thin long chilies that are dried and ground for gochugaru)
4 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup distilled white vinegar
2 tablespoons brown sugar

Roughly chop chilies and combine them with garlic, sea salt, and white vinegar in a jar. Let sit overnight, or for the equivalent. According to the original recipe, this helps soften the spice of the peppers. Don’t worry, heat lovers, the sauce has plenty of it even after the brine. Put the mixture in a saucepan with the sugar, and heat to boiling. Then reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes. Set aside and allow to cool to room temperature. Next, blend in batches until smooth. Finally, pour blended mixture in a sieve and push sauce through to catch all the skins and bits of seed. You’ll be left with a gorgeous and silky, fire-hued, vinegary hot sauce that is the perfect cure to the peak of winter when everything feels a little too colorless and cold.

Cooking in Kyoto

Sunday, December 8, 2013

One of the reasons I love to travel is to have the opportunity to learn about what people around the world eat. Part of that is learning how people have adapted to the topography of their place, honored traditions not always born of favorable circumstance, and made the best out of what’s been naturally available and what’s been carried across borders. The act of building and sustaining customs through and around food is one of our strongest cross-cultural links. And when we have the fortune to connect to a certain corner of the globe, taste can be powerful kindling to bring us back from home, no matter the distance between.

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I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to backtrack a bit to tell you about one more morning in Kyoto. I didn’t plan on saving the best for last, but that’s how it happened. Actually, it was only supposed to be my last day–I’d planned on spending one night in Osaka before my flight back to Seoul. I liked Kyoto so much that I decided to stay one more night.

It was before noon, the day silver-skied, when Emi Hirayama met the three of us at a bus stop near her home. Philip and Martin had come together from Montreal, the other two guys in our class of three. We were about to become acquainted over a three-hour, multi-course meal that we’d all have a hand in preparing. Emi would teach us the basics of obanzai ryori, the name for home cooked Japanese food passed down within generations of Kyoto-bred families. I was charged.

We walked up a hill to Emi’s home, happy to tuck into the warmth of her kitchen. While we took seats around her table, Emi poured us tea. Her handwritten recipes no more than outlined what we would soon learn by doing, and what I would later realize were as simple as she interpreted the dishes to be.

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That morning, Emi shared tips for cooking smarter, like how to evenly blanch spinach by submerging the stems first in simmering water before letting the leaves go. We could see the tools that were essential to a Japanese kitchen, like a nutcracker for shelling ginkgo and a mesh box with a wooden handle for toasting nuts and seeds over an open flame. She told us that creativity is the key to lure flavors from the short, core list of ingredients in obanzai ryori. The food we cooked wasn’t overly decorated, but symphonic, nuanced, and subdued. The techniques were approachable, the plating wasn’t fussy, and the essence of the food was coaxed forth by an intuitive use of each ingredient: fish marinated in miso and mirin, blanched spinach with toasted sesame and grated yuzu, kabocha and lotus root simmered in dashi. Emi gave generously when we asked, and even when we didn’t. If we wondered why a certain cooking step was necessary, she’d tell us, and more often than not, the explanation would be the same: To make the flavor more beautiful, she’d say. If that’s not as luminous a reason as any, I don’t know what is. That’s what Emi was like.

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To expose us to the range of flavors in regional Japanese cuisine, Emi pulled out tubs of miso from her fridge. Aka miso from Nagoya was dark burgundy, rich and sour. Kyoto recipes call for shiro miso, a young and pale yellow paste made sweeter by double the amount of fermented rice. Miso between these two grades are various shades of brown and depth of flavor depending on fermentation time and whether the skins of the bean are left on or not during production.

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We learned how to make dashi, or stock flavored with kombu (dried strips of kelp) and katsuobushi (dried flakes of fermented bonito). Traditionally, dashi is made by soaking kombu and katsuobushi in water overnight. We cooked ours on the stove in minutes by steeping both ingredients in boiling water. Dashi is the base for miso soup and a core ingredient for salad dressings, noodle dishes, and boiled vegetables, like this dish of kabocha squash and sliced lotus root that we simmered in dashi and ate warm in bowls with rolls of tender yuba:

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We made horenso no goma-ae, the name for blanched spinach dressed in sesame, soy sauce, dashi, and sugar. I toasted our sesame seeds at the stove, worried I’d burn them and be sent packing. They came out fine, though, and when they did, Emi made me feel like a million dollars. Philip ground them to powder with a wooden pestle in a wide, ridged mortar called a suribachi. Martin made a teaspoon of fine zest from a yuzu that we sprinkled over the spinach so that each bite tasted of sesame, citrus, and salt.

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We made fish. The night before, Emi had begun marinating pieces of yellowtail in miso and mirin so that they’d be ready for us to cook during class. Japanese groceries sell ready-marinated fish for lack of time, but she showed us how to put together an easy overnight marinade by whipping shiro miso with mirin until, she told us, it looked like mayonnaise.

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We broiled the fish so that it darkened at the edges to the color of maple syrup. Just before the end, Emi covered the skin with torn bits of foil so that it would crisp but not burn. She overlapped two pieces of fish on each plate and topped them with a bud of rosy ginger called myoga. As I rediscovered throughout that week, miso is seductive in all forms: pungent and cloudy in soup, lush like cheesecake when marinated and served like dice on a plate, and straight up cosmic when lacquered to slabs of broiled fish. This fish was something to remember for life.

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There was more, and it was sautéed beef, shitake and leeks glazed with pan sauce. First Emi rolled thinly sliced sirloin like a cigar, then cut it match the leeks in length. After we’d pan-fried some ginkgo nuts, Martin rubbed off their skins with a towel. While we whisked together soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar, Emi encouraged us to taste the sansho berries from a bowl on the table. When you bite into a berry, it laces your mouth with a tingle that hints of citrus. Earlier in the week, I’d tasted ground sansho pepper sprinkled over grilled eel, and the same numbing sensation sent me on a hunt for a jar at the market the next morning.

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And there was still dessert! Oh yes, we had room. Had it been chocolate cake or blueberry pie or an ice cream sundae, maybe not. But like the rest of the meal, dessert was……well, perfect. (I sat on that last sentence for awhile, trying to come up with a better word to describe dessert, but it turns out there isn’t a better word. Perfect it was, perfect it is). We pressed sticky rice powder with a little water until it felt like play dough, and from that we rolled mochi balls. Half we mixed with mashed pumpkin, the other half with matcha. We dropped them in boiling water, and when they popped to the surface like gnocchi, they were ready for an ice bath. We ate them chilled with plump peeled grapes and chunky azuki paste.

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Before we knew it, three hours had passed. Besides that the food was inspiring and delicious, the experience of being inside of Emi’s home, in her company, and at her kitchen table made the trip to Kyoto so much more personal. If I didn’t watch how these dishes were made, I would have never guessed how approachable each of the recipes would be. She said I could share her way of making sesame dressed spinach–hop over to food52 to find it! (Actually she said I could share all of her recipes, isn’t she great?) When I made her spinach for lunch last week, I was right back in Kyoto. Right back in Emi’s kitchen, too.

Emi-san’s cooking class is called Kyoto Uzuki. Contact her through her website to find out about available classes, and see photos of her food here.

 

Kohlrabi Soup

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Life an as expat comes with its own share of frustrations, but when I step back and put it all in perspective, this shit seems trivial and unworthy of mention. So I don’t really talk about the annoyances much, but they’re there, and if they do nothing more than remind me of my own character flaws, well then, I guess they’ve done their job.

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Yes, there are things I’m not so good at as an expat. Here’s one: I’m no good at keeping a bright attitude while commuting by metro transit during the peak of rush hour. Christ almighty. If I were a practicing Catholic, this would be prime time to belt out a few Hail Marys. And what blows me away isn’t the volume of people who can stuff together in each car. Or that even with their bodies wedged like canned sardines, most people still manage to finger their phones, arms bent up stiffly like chipmunks. No, what’s more astonishing is that I am always the lone person who is pissed off, the only one with steam shooting out of her ears, shaking her head and muttering obscenities under her breath. Most other people are quiet and composed, even while they’re being pushed and elbowed from all directions, because really, how is freaking out and resisting the inevitable going to make a damn bit of difference? I get it. I look like the asshole. It’s infuriating.

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The other day I was commuting on one of the busiest lines, getting ready to transfer along with the rest of Seoul’s mobile population. I could have nibbled the knuckle hair of the man I was spooning without straining my neck, and because his arms were pinned to his sides, he wouldn’t have been able to retaliate. Not by much, anyway. When we got to my stop, I tried to wriggle free. No one else around was getting off, and unless someone was going to raise my ass and pass it above the heads, I was trapped. The doors closed, then opened, then closed again. The old woman to my left could tell I had a problem, and she started sputtering on my behalf, at least I imagined it was for me, and I appreciated that to the high heavens since everyone else was averting their eyes. We made eye contact, that lady and I, and we both smiled. When we reached the next station, I carried her across the threshold, out the exit and onto firm ground, in a flurry of sharp elbows. Not really. I left and she stayed. This soup is for you, sweet lady.

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So what does soup have to do with it? Nothing, really, except that soup has a steadfast ability to ground a person, I think. So do gifts of food. Last Sunday my friend Sonja gave me a bag of provisions she wasn’t going to use, including one very handsome kohlrabi, a new favorite winter vegetable and the inspiration for a new recipe, which is yours, Sonja, too. One more thing I’ve got to tell you, don’t go yet. Do you know about adding leftover parmesan rinds to soup? Never throw out a parmesan rind. Here’s why: when you add it to a broth, it melts and infuses the liquid with a rich saltiness, better than salt itself. At one point while making this soup, I thought I smelled pizza, which was confusing until I remembered about the rind that was by then melting into irresistible bits that I kept fishing out to chew, like treasure.

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Kohlrabi Soup

1/2 kohlrabi (about 1 1/2 cups, chopped into cubes)
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
few stalks of celery, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
stock + water (I used turkey stock, but you could use chicken or vegetable instead)
parmesan rind
salt to taste
olive oil

Into a pot heated with oil, add the onions, garlic, celery, and carrot. Cook until onions have softened, then put into a separate bowl and set aside. Into the same pot, add a bit more oil and the chopped kohlrabi. Sauté for a while, maybe 7-10 minutes. Then add back the other vegetables, mix, and add in the stock plus water to cover. (Since kohlrabi takes longer to cook than the other veggies, it’ll need more time. It probably makes more sense to give the kohlrabi a headstart and cook it first, then just add the other veggies to the same pot. By all means, do that if it sounds right to you. I wrote by the steps that I took). Add the parmesan rind. Cover the pot and turn the heat to low. Simmer until all the vegetables are fork tender, without any resistance to the tooth, adding more liquid when necessary. Take the soup off the heat, and let it cool. Then, purée in batches or with an immersion blender. Put back on the stove, reheat, and season with more salt if needed. Garnish with whatever you have. Here: dried shallots, sansho pepper, and ribbons of celery leaves.