Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I love breakfast

It's not seemly to gloat about your own breakfast, that you eat alone on a sunny Saturday morning, but I can't help it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Another Korean disappointment

My last night in Madrid, I ended up tapas-hopping with a fellow chowhound from the New York region. He had seen my blog and was very complimentary. I was particularly flattered when a week or so later, he suggested that I submit my blog to the James Beard Foundation awards, in the category of new media. He even offered to pay the $100 application fee. I turned him down, partly because the previous winners were real food journalists, but mostly because I don’t really want to be a food writer. I don’t think food is really that important.

I write about food, in a world where every schmuck has a blog, because right now, I don’t know how else to talk about the things I care about. I don’t know how else to show and not tell that I love my mother, that I miss my friends who’ve moved away, that I value things made with care and by hand, that I love traditions that are proud but alive with change. It’s like the most over-used MFK Fisher quote, “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and intertwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it…and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied…and it is all one.” Such a poor example of her writing. It’s so much better to read the rest of “Gastronomical Me,” and see what a filter and prism food is for the things that really matter to her. And it’s so much better for me to stop this paragraph now and tell you what I ate in Koreatown last Friday.

I asked my friend to meet at Gam Mee Ok on 32nd Street because I’ve been craving Korean food like a pregnant woman since I left Seoul. Even if I don’t eat a Korean meal everyday, I dip into the kimchi in my fridge almost everyday, the way I used to snack on olives or bits of cheese. I’m sitting here now with a glass of wine and a bowl of my homemade radish kimchi.

Everything looked fine. There was their famous kimchi, fiery red-orange, with cabbage all mixed in with the giant chunks of radish. There was the clay jar of sliced scallions, the little pot of salt to add to the sullongtang, or beef stew, the specialty of the house.

But the soup tasted flat. The rice in it clumped unappetizingly together. The broth had no body, and no amount of sharp scallions or salt or pepper was going to save it. The noodles were mushy. I ate nearly all of it anyway, beggars can’t be choosers, but I was so disappointed. Even the kimchi was bad, sour and not in a good way. Gam Mee Ok had always been one of my favorites, the best place to go if your Korean friends have kept you out till 4 a.m. in a seedy karaoke room. Clearly, those memories of fabulous hot beef soup are very, very old.

It may be that the place has gone downhill, or it may be that I am too fresh from memories of my mother’s superlative cooking. But it’s definitely another spur to make Korean food happen for myself.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A long Korean weekend

With all due respect to Martin Luther King, Jr., the best thing about this long weekend was that I finally had time to sit down and make some kimchi. I can’t tell you how it turned out, as I need to wait a few days for it to ripen, but I’m not very hopeful. Right now, it tastes sort of raw and angry, not too spicy, but perhaps a bit too much ginger. Maybe its flavors will mellow and blend as time goes by. But it was my fault, I didn’t follow any one recipe, sort of picking and choosing among two different recipes and then ignoring instructions when I felt like it.

I started with a big daikon radish, about 3.5 lbs., that I peeled and cut into large chunks, feeling gratitude towards my friend Diane who gave me a giant cleaver for my 30th birthday. Then I tossed it all with two tablespoons of salt and let it sit for 20 minutes, draining it at the end.

In the meantime, I minced 1 teaspoon each of garlic and ginger and 6 stalks of green onions. I measured out the Korean fish sauce that’s used specifically for kimchi making and 6 big tablespoons of ground Korean red pepper. I ignored the instructions to add shrimp because I didn’t have any, and I didn’t know what kind to buy.

It was fun, if a little scary, to rub all the ground red pepper into the radish cubes. Then everything else got tossed in, I packed it all into a big Tupperware I’d bought just for this purpose and set it on the windowsill. According to my cookbook, I would have to let it sit for 24 hours in room temperature to begin the fermentation process.

So after 24 hours, what can I tell you? It’s started, but I don’t know yet how it’ll taste 2 or 5 days from now. To a certain extent, kimchi will just keep changing and there’s a certain joy in eating new kimchi and a different joy in eating riper kimchi. But there are kimchis where there is no joy at all. In a way, this kind of cooking is particularly good for the anxious soul—you have to learn to let go and just see what happens, and then be willing to try again.

Korean food isn’t hard to make. Fermentation, or pickling, just happens if you put the right things together. The hard part is figuring out which combinations make for best balance of flavors. My little Korean lunch, a spicy soft tofu stew, was the same way, not bad but not great.

I miss my mother more than ever.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cooking again, home sweet home

I had all this stuff I planned to write about, even video footage of bulgogi bubbling away on a copper grill at Sariwon, but nothing made me want to write until I tasted the pasilla chile-honey sauce on the seared pork I made last night. Rick Bayless calls it “Borrego (o Puerco) al Pasilla Enmielado.” The Spanish syllables just roll off your tongue as smooth as the sauce, no? Be sure to roll the double “r” in “borrego.”

I’d been easing my way back into cooking. One of the first things I did when I got back was to sign up for a new shift at the Park Slope Food Coop so I could get back into the store—I am now “food prep,” which I am told secretly means “cheese taster.” I made a trip to Koreatown to stock up on Korean groceries, including a daikon radish the size of my calf that I plan to turn into kimchi. But I started with cooking just one-plate meals, feeling sort of overwhelmed by how busy life is when you actually have to work.

Soon, though, I felt sort of itchy but also scared. I needed other people to eat what I cooked, but I needed them to be people I could treat as guinea pigs without fearing the loss of their friendship. My original supper club of Brooklyn friends was perfect, appreciative yet forgiving.

They raved about the tomatillo-avocado guacamole, which was really excellent, with a subtle but lingering kick from the roasted serrano chiles. They didn’t say anything about the jicama sticks with chile powder, lime juice and salt, but they ate almost all of them. Magda said the Mexican white rice was cooked perfectly, and truly it was, baked according to Bayless’s precise directions. The black beans were not so exciting, despite the epazote I went all the way to Sunset Park to find, but it wasn’t a total waste of trip since I got to practice speaking Spanish. I’ll have to keep trying and find out. The homemade tortillas were similarly, at best, an inspiration to keep trying, they were so sad and small. But the chocolate pound cake was a hit with the birthday girl, whose husband had tipped me off to her favorite flavor.

The star of the table, though, was the seared pork and sweet potatoes in pasilla-honey sauce. It was worth every little thing I had to do to get in on the table:

1) Scrub my cast iron griddle with steel wool and reseason it after my sublettor left it rusty.
2) Take the R train to Sunset Park on a Sunday morning to find flexible, fresh pasilla chiles.
3) Slice open the chiles to remove the seeds and stems.
4) Lay them flat and toast them on the griddle one at a time, pressing on each side for a few seconds.
5) Rehydrate them in warm water for 30 minutes.
6) Put them through the food processor with roasted garlic, a bit of cumin, freshly ground pepper, and Mexican oregano.
7) Sear chunks of pork in batches.
8) Add the chile sauce, fry, and then simmer with beef broth for 30 minutes.
9) Add the sweet potatoes and simmer for another 30 minutes.
10) Add just enough honey for an “edge” of sweetness (Bayless’s very precise wording) and salt to round it out.

Seriously, it was worth it. (For the full recipe, buy his book, “Mexican Kitchen,” as the man deserves every cent of his royalties.) The pasilla chiles had a bitter flavor that tasted almost like ash when I first ground it up into a paste. It had me considering a last-minute pizza delivery order. But it magically took on an amazingly smoky, rich flavor as it cooked and absorbed the flavors of the meat and the broth. Even before I added the honey, it tasted insane—I had been crazy to consider pizza. When I added the honey, my head exploded. It was like Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry, except it was pork.

Decorated with slices of white onion and cilantro, it looked quite pretty, too.

Along the way, this blog became a travel food log, with little amateur assessments of empanadas on the streets of Oaxaca, tripe stew in Barcelona’s La Boqueria market, and the Kimchi Field Museum in Seoul, but I'm so happy to be reminded that what I love best, what really makes me glad I’ve come home, is cooking for people I love.