Entries from December 31st, 2014

Adieu, 2014

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

It is before noon on New Year’s Eve, and I am writing this from my sister T and my brother-in-law S’s place in the suburbs where I’ve been housesitting for the past four days. Their three small dogs are curled up in a line to my right, from hip to ankle. Four days feels like four weeks when you’re in someone else’s house, sleeping in someone else’s bed, and with three living things to take care of. When I lived here twenty years ago, there was a different dog, two cats, and two parrots who’ve since left this realm for another. I was an angry and grief-stricken middle schooler. T and S were newly married and the same age I am now. But we survived. It is negative four thousand degrees with a six-inch snow cover today, HOWEVER, the sun shines. Glory be.

Six months ago, I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do for a job, a place to live, a social life. Knowing that soon the answers would come, that there is little else we can guarantee, I tried to stay content with the unknown and without a longterm plan or an exit strategy from Minnesota. I started substitute teaching for public schools in Minneapolis. During the month of September, I cried at the end of the day on the car ride home at least three days a week, sometimes five, until I found a sweet spot and a handful of schools that clicked. This has been the toughest job I’ve ever had, but I needed it. I started some contract culinary work for a woman who is a respected nutritionist in the Twin Cities, and this has filled my well personally and professionally beyond expectation. My longtime friend Annie and I moved in together, and despite a few bumps in the road, we’re still close friends. In fact, we probably make each other better. It’s been a trip.

So here we are, at the end of another year. Whenever I make a resolution, I break it within the first week of the new year. This time, instead of thinking of resolutions, I’ve thought about what made 2014 distinct, what made it challenging, and which patterns were easy to repeat. Instead of resolutions, I’m setting intentions. I’m going to get them out now, and then I’m going to step away from this space for a bit to absorb a fresh start. More practice, less plan. More heart, less critical thinking.

Happy 2015 to you. I hope your new year overflows with light.

To work through the fear.
I’ve typically dealt with life through a prism of fear that the worst scenario is bound to occur. Since my mom died, I’ve believed and feared that I would eventually lose everyone important to me. This is especially true in relationships, and it keeps me trapped in a cycle of creating friction. By creating fiction, I’ve always got problems to solve, and when I can solve problems, I maintain an illusion that I am in control. Ouch. What if the boundaries were fluid? What if I rode the wave? What if I allowed something to happen without a timeline, an expectation, or an attachment to the outcome? The fear will always be there, but what if it were just a filter I learned to work with instead of against? What if I could remind myself that I have survived, and will survive again? All relationships have a timeline, and not all are meant to last a lifetime. Loss is painful, but those relationships are usually worth what they teach.

To own this experience.
I overheard a couple talking the other day. Fine, I was eavesdropping. He was telling her about experience vs. baggage, and how we can either shoulder one or carry the other. It’s so obvious, but yet so amazing how a small switch in vocabulary can make such a big difference to an idea. I wanted to high-five him, but instead I walked in the other direction a little lighter.

To continue to be flexible.
With my ideas of success, progress, stability, and purpose.

To attune to the underlying emotion.
It is so easy to react, but not so easy to respond. Most emotions that hurt are carried by pain–anger, disappointment, sadness. To have more patience with myself, and with others, and to try to understand this sequence.


To recognize when I am putting up barriers.
Up until about six months ago, I was having a lifelong recurring dream that I was running away from something with invisible weights strapped to my ankles. I couldn’t move with any kind of speed–it felt like the air was full of jello, like a force was pushing me back to the starting line. Six months ago, the dreams stopped. Since I surrendered, essentially. If I put up an intellectual barrier to a deeper heartfelt instinct, I give myself permission not to try. And if I don’t try, I won’t risk losing anything. This is when self-love comes in handy. Sweet girl, says this wiser, patient voice. What if you had a daughter and she was sharing these things with you? You would wrap your arms around her and whisper to her that she deserves to live, that she has felt the difference between an open and a shunted heart, and that whatever happens as a consequence of choice or circumstance, she will survive.


Doenjang Jjiggae

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Out of all Korean food, I miss the stews the most. For whatever reason, stews at home never taste the same. Restaurant doenjang jjiggae is often so aggressively seasoned that the homemade stuff never seems to compare, and that’s probably why I never liked it when I made it in Seoul. The broth seemed weak, the vegetables never cooked evenly, it wasn’t hot enough, etc etc.  A big part of the experience is sensory. Barbecue restaurants clatter with silverware, soju glasses, and KPop, and people cram around charcoal grills that hiss with the sizzle of meat. Every day of the week, these restaurants are busy for dinner. At barbecue restaurants, you can count on at least two standard stews to be present on the menu: kimchi jjiggae, a stew made with mature, sour kimchi, soft tofu, and pork, and doenjang jjiggae, a salty vegetable stew seasoned with fermented soybean paste.

Doenjang (pronounced dwen-johng) is comparable to miso in consistency and function. The process of making doenjang is time-honored and complex, and not many modern households make it from scratch anymore. Hye Rae’s mother-in-law still does, and before I left in June, Hye Rae packed a plastic container with enough to last me the year.

Restaurant doenjang jjiggae always comes in an earthenware bowl big enough to share, and it is always boiling as it hits the table. My doenjang jjiggae at home is different. I don’t have a ddukbaegi, so just before it’s time to eat I heat the soup to a rolling boil and quickly ladle it into bowls. The first taste could burn the tongue, and that’s the way it should be.

doenjang jjiggae

These days, you can find doenjang in any Korean mart and most bigger East Asian marts. It’ll come in a bigger container than you think you’ll need, but it can last a year in the fridge. Sempio makes non-GMO doenjang (and gochujang, a spicy paste made from red chilis) that you can find online. Wholly Doenjang makes a gluten free version.

A note about stock: The baseline of ingredients you use to make your stock is up to you. The simplest way is to dissolve doenjang in water, but you could also use prepared vegetable or chicken stock, and dissolve the doenjang in that. You could make a quick fortified stock by steeping water with two or three dried anchovies, a couple of dried oyster mushrooms, and a piece of dried kelp. The best way to eat this stew is with some sticky white rice, so I soaked one cup of rice in just over two cups of water, and used that starchy rice water for the stock. It worked great.

Doenjang Jjiggae
(makes enough for 2 or 3)

2 cups rice stock (made by soaking 1 cup rice with 2 1/4 cups water)
1 tablespoon doenjang
1 turnip (potato is traditional, but turnip is what I had)
1 green chili
fistful dried oyster mushrooms
1 zucchini
extra firm tofu (buy the smallest container you can for this)
paengi mushrooms (also known as enoki)

Prepare all ingredients first. Cut zucchini into half inch pieces. Peel turnip or potato and cut into half inch pieces. Chop oyster mushrooms into bite-sized pieces. Rinse tofu and slice into quarter inch thick rectangles (or whatever shape you prefer-cubed is fine, too). Slice green chili  into thin ovals. Rinse paengi mushrooms and trim the bottoms.

In a small pot, bring stock to a simmer. Add turnip or potato first and cook until soft, about three minutes. Then add one tablespoon of doenjang and stir until it dissolves. Taste. At this point, I added a bit more–about a teaspoon. Then add zucchini and oyster mushrooms and cook for a minute more. Check the vegetables, which should be nice and tender. Ladle into bowls and garnish each with enoki mushrooms and sliced green chili.

Pomelo Salad

Monday, December 15, 2014

About two weeks ago, I was wandering around the produce section of the grocery store in awe, as usual. I’m still not over the abundance of choice we get here. When I was fresh off the boat back in June, it was so easy to be critical of the size of everything, including the sky, and, apparently, the produce section at the grocery store. The first few times I mowed Mary Ellen’s lawn, I’d curse its enormity, and the invisible property line between her plot and her neighbor’s. Who needs this much grass anyway?! I’d mutter, while thinking of cancer and exhaust fumes and how crotchety I was becoming. Little by little, daily life chipped away at that, as it must, and I became a little more fun to have around. If you treat undesirable tasks as a chance to be mindful–mowing the lawn, washing the dishes, or segmenting a pomelo, say–it’s amazing how things change. I say this not because I’m the most mindful person on the planet, not the millionth most probably, but because I’ve learned to become mindful out of self-preservation. Without it, I’d be a ringer for Melvin Udall.


Pink pomelos are in season in the States now, and they are so much worth seeking. Have you seen them around? They look like oversized grapefruits, but they’ve got much thicker skin and sweeter flesh. Protected by thick and bitter pith, the pomelo becomes edible only when peeled and segmented, so it takes a little effort to prepare. A sharp knife with a non-serated blade makes it easier, but otherwise there’s no quick way to go about it. Segmenting citrus is a lot like butchering meat. You’ve got to slice through the tough sinewy bits with a delicate but steady hand to get to the gold, and it is so worth it once you do.

I didn’t know what I would make when I brought home that pomelo those few weeks ago, and it sat on the counter until last Saturday before I turned to Charles Phan’s Vietnamese Home Cooking. Tony and Niki lent the book to me when I’d just come home from Korea and a couple of weeks in Vietnam. I went back to the store for more pomelos just for this salad, which is the perfect example of the textural wealth of Vietnamese food. Bitter greens offset by flecks of mint, punchy citrus, crispy sweet shallots, and sweet, sour, hot vinaigrette. A good starter salad, this would be great before a hot bowl of pho. In fact, that’s exactly how we had it for dinner last Saturday (Tony made the pho, Niki made the cocktails, and I brought the salad). I urge you to try this at home while pomelos are in season. I’ll try to work on a recipe for pho in the meantime. Have a super week.

Pomelo Salad from Vietnamese Home Cooking (makes enough for 6 side salads)
2 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon shallot oil* (or other neutral tasting oil)
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon minced Thai chili
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
4 large pomelos
6 cups frisée (I couldn’t find frisée, so I used a combination of radicchio, romaine, and endive)
1 cup thinly sliced red onion
1/4 cup chopped spearmint
fried shallots

*to make shallot oil, heat 1 cup avocado oil (or your pick of high-heat oil) in a saucepan. When oil is up to temp (about 275 degrees F) add 1 cup sliced shallots and stir until golden brown (about 8 minutes). Remove shallots and drain on a plate lined with paper towel. Strain the oil to remove bits of shallot left behind. The oil will keep for several weeks in the fridge. The shallots should be eaten the same day.

First, segment the pomelos. Using a sharp knife and a cutting board, cut both ends off one pomelo so that it can stand upright. Then, stand the pomelo on the board and slice downward to remove the skin and outer pith. If you don’t reach the flesh on the first try, just restart at the top and slice downward again. The skin might be thicker than you first expect. Then, holding the fruit in your non-dominant hand, cut along both sides of each segment. Look carefully for thin lines of pith to find each segment–some lines will be paper thin. You’ll know you’ve cut away the pith when you’ve got pieces of clear, jewel-hued fruit in your hand. Don’t worry if the segments fall apart because you’re going to cut them into bite-sized pieces. Repeat with each pomelo, and discard all the skin and pith.

Second, make the dressing. In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, shallot oil, fish sauce, sugar, chile, salt, and 1 tablespoon water until the sugar dissolves.


Third, combine the frisée, red onion, mint, and pomelo chunks. Pour the dressing over it all and toss gently to coat. Drop fried shallots over the top and serve.

#cookwithmusic: Work Song by Hozier