Saturday, August 27, 2011

Can I Call It Kimchi?

I've been threatening to make kimchi for years now. It's probably the pickled product I eat most frequently, above sauerkraut or even (cucumber) pickles. I eat it in soups, fried rice, stir-fries, tucked inside dumplings and right out of the jar. If you're not familiar with it, kimchi is the broader name for the ubiquitous class of Korean pickled vegetables that comes in many forms seasonally and regionally. The most instantly-recognizable version of it, paechu kimchi, is primarily composed of napa cabbage, usually with daikon radish and scallion, liberally dosed with ginger, garlic and ground chile and, often, ground, dried shrimp and anchovy sauce.

Most versions of it contain at least one of the above ingredients. However, as most is true with many beloved culinary archetypes, such as pierogi and gumbo, the authenticity of which are fiercely defended, it's "authentically" made with whatever's available at the time. Spring tends to bring radish-based kimchi and summer kimchi often includes light greens and cucumber, while fall is dominated by cabbage. Additionally, chiles were not introduced to Korean cuisine until about the 17th century, while kimchi dates back to at least the 13th century, so much of the history of kimchi exists without chiles, as do some varieties of the dish.

Paechu kimchi is often made in large quantities during the November cabbage harvest, to store up for the winter. Historically, this kimchi is made during kimjang, events where a family or community will gather to process truly impressive quantities of cabbage and other ingredients. While an increasing number of Koreans buy most of their kimchi, the practice of kimjang is still alive and well in many families. Saveur magazine chronicled one family's kimjang process in a 2009 article, "The Art of Kimchi".

I'm not entirely sure what's taken me so long to try it out myself. In many ways, it's more simple than many pickling projects. Here's the process in 5 easy steps, including eating:
  1. Cut vegetables.
  2. Brine vegetables.
  3. Season vegetables.
  4. Ignore vegetables.
  5. Eat pickles.
I think part of my reticence is that I'm wary of projects that may involve me ruining large quantities of food, and it seems a little silly to make just a tiny amount of kimchi. However, when I found myself staring down an 11 lb. cabbage from the farmshare that had been languishing in the vegetable drawer for a couple weeks, just taking up space, I knew it was time. Looking at my ingredients, I found that, aside from the aromatic trio of garlic, ginger and chili, I had none of the traditional ingredients. The cabbage wasn't even an Asian variety, but a rather sweet, but more traditionally European type. I also decided to use beets, in place of radish or other crisp rooties. As I've mentioned here previously, I have a thing for beets.

The next obstacle was a fermentation vessel. The most traditional forms of kimchi are fermented in earthenware vessels buried in the ground to keep them at a cool, consistent temperature (à la root cellar). Metal, which can react and interfere with the fermentation process, is out. Most of my large glass containers are currently being used for grain storage or for Maria's kombucha babies. Plastic is workable, but I spent a while ogling various, purpose-designed earthenware fermentation crocks, which are gorgeous and well-designed, but rather expensive. Then, in my preliminary research, I came across a stunningly elegant suggestion from wild fermentation guru Sandor "Sandorkraut" Katz: a crockpot is a glazed earthenware vessel - with a lid, no less - and if you don't have one, you can probably find one at the thrift store for $5 or less.

Armed with cabbage, beets and my crockpot, I finally got started. I sliced up about 5 lb. of cabbage and three big beets and set them in a salt solution (¼ c. salt:1 qt water, shake vigorously until salt dissolves, repeat as necessary to cover veggies) overnight, half in the crockpot and half in a big plastic bowl. For weights, I found two different plates that fit neatly over the top of each vessel and pressed them down, weighting them with jars full of water. The next day, I drained off the brine (reserving the brine from one of the two bowls), and dumped all the veggies into the bowl to be mixed with the aromatics. They had reduced in volume somewhat after their night in the brine, and fit into one of the two containers. I didn't have any of the traditional Korean chile powder, but was determined not to go buy something specifically for this project, so I took the suggestion of the Tigress, whose basic recipe I was using for guidance, of using a blend of equal portions cayenne and sweet paprika. I also minced up a whole head of garlic about an equal volume of fresh ginger. I put on a pair of gloves and went to town massaging the spices and a little sugar into the veggies. I loaded the whole mess back into the crockpot, poured in just enough of the reserved brine to cover, weighted it with a small plate and a bowl of water, put the lid on and stuck it in a dark corner of the counter to be ignored.

Ignoring it and waiting: this is really the hardest part. Thankfully, it's not a project that also bears the "leave alone; do not touch" instruction; you can and should poke at it and sample it daily until it's fermented to your taste. It should start to bubble and develop a sour tang after about 2 days, and should reach fermented fullness after 3-6 days, depending on temperature and other conditions. Mine got so excited when the fermentation really kicked in on Night 2 that it burped up some of its liquid on the counter. Once it's sour enough for your taste, you can load it into jars and put it in the fridge, which will slow the fermentation drastically, so it won't get more sour.

Unlike many other preserving projects, like jams or the recent watermelon rind pickles, you don't want to process this one in a hot water bath; that would kill all the happy little probiotic beasties, namely, Lactobacilli bacteria. This is the same family of little guys that also help make yogurt, beer, wine, and sourdough (there is actually a specific Lactobacillus kimchii!), and are responsible for many of the numerous touted health benefits of kimchi. Kimchi has been reputed to help everything from colds to UTIs (both of which, interestingly, have research to back them up) to cancer and stress, and many ailments in between. As far as nasty bacteria that could make you sick, salting the vegetables prevents the growth of harmful bacteria. If you think about the process, it's similar to making yogurt, and no more likely to make you sick.

We'll see what the next round will bring; now that I've gotten over the initial hump of worrying that I'll mess up and waste a bunch of ingredients, I'll try adding more flavors. I have my eyes on the little dried shrimp used in many traditional kimchi preparations. Both Sandorkraut and the Tigress stress the generous flexibility of lacto-fermentation, and its long history of being done almost entirely to taste. Archeological evidence suggests that laborers working on the Great Wall of China 2000 years ago were eating fermented cabbage and that it was introduced to Europe by Mongol hordes after the Great Wall wasn't quite great enough. Or, maybe I'll just come up with some other concoction that can only dubiously be called kimchi.

    New England Late Summer Kimchi

    vegan, grain/gluten-free, raw
    makes about 3 qts

  • 5 lbs cabbage, sliced into 1" strips
  • 3 med-large beets, peeled and cut into ¼" sticks

  • The seasoning:
  • 2 Tblsp. Korean chili powder OR 1 Tblsp. each of cayenne pepper and sweet paprika
  • 1 smallish head garlic, minced (about ¼ c.)
  • ¼ c. fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • 1 Tblsp. sugar
Prep veggies and load into non-reactive containers. Make a 1:16 (6¼%) salt solution and pour over veggies to cover. I mixed it a quart at a time, using ¼ c. salt to 1 qt. water in a lidded container and shaking until the salt dissolved, and ended up using about a gallon. Cover with a plate and weight down to squeeze the vegetables. I used a quart jar filled with water as a weight. Let sit overnight.

The next day (or 8-12 hours later), drain the veggies, reserving at least half of the brine for the fermentation. Dump drained vegetables into a large bowl with room to mix. Prep seasonings and add to bowl. Using gloved hands (don't make me tell you horror stories about chili hands!), massage the spices into the vegetables to get even distribution and good mojo going. Load your proto-pickle into fermentation vessel(s) (e.g. crockpot, glass jar), add reserved brine to cover, and cover with plate/weight as for salting.

Check daily. Fermentation should start to kick in on day 2 or 3, and probably won't take more than 6 days to reach full flavor. Speed of fermentation will depend on temperature and other conditions. When kimchi has reached desired level of doneness, pack into clean jars and refrigerate. Refrigeration will drastically slow fermentation, but it may get a little more sour over several months of storage.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Return of Soup Weather

While talking about what to have for dinner at a friend's house several years ago, in the depth of oppressive July heat, my friend's husband suggested making beef stew. When I protested that it wasn't soup weather, he seemed puzzled, first retorting with a chuckle that he didn't know there were weather prerequisites for making soup. Engineer that he is, he then tried to lay out a strict definition of the concept by asking increasingly specific and self-consciously silly questions about what made for soup weather: What is the highest admissible temperature for soup weather? Is there a set ratio of temperature to humidity? Must there be cloud cover for a designated span of time? All of these, as if we could create a standard soup index, possibly to be jointly regulated by the National Weather Service and the Food and Drug Administration. For months after, he persisted with the question: "So, is this soup weather?" asked with varying degrees of a smirk on his face. Every so often, the question still comes up.

The truth about soup weather is that you know it when you see it; some intuitive combination of cold, damp and gray. It's the same kind of weather that inspires staying inside with a sweater and a book - conditions which are, incidentally, perfect for tending a slow-simmering pot. A good soup is more the product of time than of effort (slow cookers are great for vicariously living the slow life, especially as it applies to making soup).

I guess deep summer isn't a total dead-zone for soup. I spent some of the hottest days this summer eating gazpacho, cucumber-yogurt soup, and naeng myun, a light, spicy-sour, cold, Korean noodle soup. They're all fabulous, but don't quite satisfy the same craving: the fragrant steam, the rich, hearty spoonful, radiating warmth from the belly out. Part of it is that it's the weather as much as the soup. Maybe it's just my Northern blood: hot weather tends to make me cranky and I'm too stubbornly cheap to pay for air-conditioning, and so the first cool fingers of fall pulling me back into myself are a relief. Here at the end of August, with the first rumors of Hurricane Irene smacking against the windows, it's finally soup weather again. So I made lentil soup today.

Lentil soup is one of my favorites because it's a versatile, hearty and healthy base. Nutritionally, lentils make for a filling, heart-healthy choice, not just as a lowfat source of protein, but also loaded with dietary fiber, folate and magnesium. Serving for serving, lentils have as much iron as beef and help stabilize blood sugar levels. Not only that, but they're cheap and don't require the presoaking that most beans do.

As far as versatility in seasoning, there is one school of thought around it which involves pulling the vegetable drawer out from the fridge and upending it into the pot. I'm never one to speak harshly against folks concocting to use things up - it's a valid approach, and sometimes sparks a certain kind of delicious, if unreproducible, alchemy. However, there's also a lot to be said for more consciously building a focused flavor from what you have available. They easily pair with the flavors of the Middle East, where they originate, but have been adopted all around the Mediterranean and along the Silk Road deeper East and South into Asia, and are a staple in many regions of India. With or without meat, lentils work well with a summery dress of peppers and tomatoes or with winter squash and sweet potato.

As I tend to this time of year, I let my bag of farmshare goodies guide the dish, using onion, carrot, bell pepper, hot pepper, kale and cherry tomatoes. I also took the opportunity to use up some languishing Italian sausage. While my flavoring scheme varies, there's a few things that are pretty consistent: about a cup of dry lentils to 5 or 6 cups of liquid, which is plenty to get a fairly thick consistency after cooking for a while. I've also become a fan of building up the body a little bit more by throwing in a couple tablespoons of rice that I've toasted in a dry skillet over medium heat. I usually grind this up for a slightly smoother texture, but you'll still get some thickening and toastiness with whole, toasted rice. I usually include some kind of mushroom, with varying levels of sneakiness, as mushrooms help support the savory richness of lentils, especially in meatless versions. Even without the addition of these last two items, you will still come up with a soup that is rich in texture and flavor, but they do add a little more oomph.

Of course one of the best things about soup, to which this is no exception, is that not only does this work well reheated for days after, it gets better the longer it sits around and lets the flavors get to know each other a little better.

    Lentil Soup in August

    gluten-free, dairy-free
    Serves 4 people for 1 meal or 1 person for 4 meals
  • 2 Italian sausages (about 6 oz. total), sliced or crumbled
  • 1 med. onion, medium dice
  • 1 large or 2 med. carrots, small dice
  • ½ large or 1 smaller bell pepper, red or green
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 hot pepper to your taste, minced or red pepper flake to taste
  • ¼ c. toasted rice, ground (optional)
  • 2 Tblsp. Magical Spice Blend
    • 1½ tsp. cumin
    • 1½ tsp. fennel seed
    • ½ tsp. ground black pepper
    • 1 tsp. thyme
  • 1 c. brown lentils, dry
  • 3 c. chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 c. water
  • 1-2 dried shiitake mushrooms, ground or chopped fine
  • 1 tsp. salt (or to taste)
  • 8-10 leaves kale, stemmed and chopped/ripped into smaller pieces
  • 6-10 cherry tomatoes, halved
In dutch oven or other deep, lidded pot with at least 4 qt capacity, start cooking sausage over medium-high heat. When sausage starts browning and releasing some liquid (about 3 minutes), add onion. Stir occasionally for another 3 min. or so until onions start to soften. Add carrot, peppers, garlic, salt and spices. Stir occasionally for 3-5 minutes more, then add toasted rice (if using) and dry lentils. Stir to combine, then add stock and water. Cover and let simmer for at least an hour or transfer to slow cooker and set on low for all-day cooking. If using a slow cooker, also add kale at this point. For stovetop cookers, add kale about 45 minutes into simmering. Add cherry tomatoes just before serving. Goes well on its own or with a nice stout bread.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Pasta Ricotta: What Summer Tastes Like

Since the last post didn't contain any actual recipe, here's a quick one to keep you going. I read about this dish years ago at a friend's house in a cookbook that I couldn't pick out of a lineup of Italian cookbooks if my life depended on it at this point. The book's long-winded description of it essentially boiled down to: this is an ideal food to make during a long night of drinking. Its appeal is actually wider than that, though. Its precious few ingredients and simple composition mean that not only can you make it when you're half in the bag, but that each of those few ingredients shine.

Much of New England had a cool, rainy spell at the end of May/beginning of June this year, which means that tomatoes have been a little slow coming in. While we've been picking cherry tomatoes for almost a month now, the big slicers from the farmshare just started coming in last week. Et puis, la déluge: We brought home nearly a dozen big slicing tomatoes this week. The basil's been going strong for a while now, both at the farm and in our specialized home herb planter (right). Finally, they get to come together. The dish is as simple as this: pasta, tomato, basil, garlic, ricotta. It's hard to get closer to the taste of summer without just eating a slice of tomato with a basil leaf on top.

    Pasta Ricotta

    Serves 2-3

  • ½ lb. pasta, shape of your choice, cooked
  • 1 med-large tomato, large dice (1½-2 c.)
  • 1-1½ c. basil, washed and torn
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • drizzle of olive oil
  • 1-1½ c. ricotta
  • salt & pepper to taste

  • A few variations that don't meaningfully increase the amount of effort:
  • Replace all or part of the ricotta with chèvre.
  • Add red pepper flake or sliced fresh hot pepper.
  • Mash a few anchovies in with the garlic.
  • Include toasted, rough chopped pine nuts or walnuts, à la pesto.
  • Toss in a little chopped fresh spinach.
Cook pasta. All other prep can be accomplished while pasta is cooking. Prep tomato, basil and garlic as indicated. Mix those three in a bowl and drizzle with olive oil. When pasta is cooked and drained, empty in to large bowl and add vegetables and ricotta. Toss until combined and add salt and pepper to taste.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Mom's Birthday Cake: A History

To start with, here's two very different birthday songs:
The first, "Birthday Cake." is from avant-garde Japanese hip-hop duo Cibo Matto's 1997 album Viva la Woman! (the band's name, Italian for "Food Madness" turns on '70s Italian movie Sessomatto, "Sex Madness"). I find it strangely addictive, but listening to a Japanese woman yell over a dirty bassline doesn't work for everyone. The second is from Soviet stop-motion series Чебурашка (Cheburashka), about the adventures of a the titular cute little animal, his accordion-playing crocodile pal, and a rotating cast of others. This song is one of the primary Russian birthday songs.

Now, on to the food. Our Mom's birthday was last week, along with all of the hullabaloo surrounding her grad school commencement (she is now a Master of Social Work, hood and all). Before she went to social work school, Mom had a long career as a baker, and is pretty well to blame (in the best possible way) for our own cibo matto.

She encourages our more out-there creative sensibilities, so her birthday cakes turn into notable creations. This year, her birthday was supposed to take place at a local drag bingo night, so our challenge was to come up with a confection equally stylish. The working description was "Disco Cupcakes." As it turned out, the bar advertising drag bingo was no longer holding it, and hadn't changed it on their website, but we had a grand time of it anyway. However, the celebratory dessert we came up with held up its end of the stylistic bargain, with both the cake and decorations (the large ones at least) styled after a tropical drink. To accommodate all of the folks coming along, we turned half the batter into more simply styled mini-cupcakes.

What's actually in the cupcakes is going to have to stay a mystery for now. I often say that our family recipe secret is that we don't keep recipes secret. And that's still true - it will be revealed later as part of a larger project Maria's working on.

So, to quench your thirst until then, here's a more detailed description of Mom's birthday cake from a few years ago, another one we're pretty proud of conceptually: the Chocolate Pesto Cake.

The actual meal she requested was a picnic that would assist her in her quest for the perfect cucumber sandwich. Maria and I each also took on salad, hers a corn and black bean salad, mine a Med-inspired roasted veggie one, to which the Extra Happy Theory applied. In any event, there wasn't a whole lot of room for us to go batshit crazy experimental in the cucumber sandwich request.

So we turned our experimental streak on the cake. It's a little-known fact that bittersweet chocolate (the darker, the better) and fresh basil are an amazing combination, a discovery I actually made with my mom. Mom being such a chocolate fan, and it being basil season, I really wanted the cake to play into this.

Maria and I spent a long while discussing how the "pesto" concept could be best expressed in a sweet form. We decided on buzzing fresh basil and toasted pine nuts in the food processor, and stirring it into a simple pastry cream, so as to keep the basil flavor as fresh as possible. It looks pretty ugly, but tastes great. However, if I was going to do it again, I'd use ricotta or mascarpone cheese as the base, not that it would make it any prettier.

The other tough part was the cake. We wanted a dense, dark chocolate cake, but none of the recipes we looked at seemed to approach it quite right. So we took a simple cake recipe and adapted it to have 3 oz. melted unsweetened chocolate, and replaced about ⅓ c. of the flour with cocoa powder. We also used strong coffee to bring out the dark, bitter flavor. Along the way we discovered that the blend we ended up using for liquid (strong coffee, blackberry brandy, and evaporated milk) is pretty damn tasty in its own right. The cake didn't come out quite right. Maria and I realized that we'd come pretty close to brownie batter somewhere along the way, and had to add in more eggs (separated, whites beaten up and folded in) at the end. Next time, less flour, and maybe not making up cake recipes on the fly at 3 AM. Still pretty good though.

For on top, we decided just to do a superdark ganache. Ghirardelli is now selling 100% cocoa liquor bars in stores, which is awesome because I don't think anyone else has been doing that in the general market, and since Mom isn't a baker anymore, I can't snitch hers. We did basically equal parts that and their 60% bittersweet chips, with milk and a pinch of chili. We didn't realize at first how much liquid chocolate this dark eats up though, and on the first round thought it was binding something wicked, to the point where we poured it out and started over (and then proceeded to pick at it all weekend. Maria tells me she melted it later, added more milk, and it smoothed out nicely).

Decorating-wise, we went back out to the garden, put the whole thing on a bed of nasturtium leaves, then topped the cake with blackberries, more fresh basil, and orange nasturtiums.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Making the Most of Melon: Watermelon Rind Pickles

A melon – especially a watermelon – often seems like a mountainous task. Even before it's cut open, the plotting to use it up begins: How much melon can I eat on my own? Who can I get to help me eat it? Can I do anything else with it? Really, how much melon can I eat?

If you're asking that question nutritionally, the answer is quite a lot. Not only is it roughly 90% water, but, per pound (~3 cups, several slices), it contains about 130 calories, 60% of the RDA of Vitamin C, 50% of Vitamin A, and a wealth of antioxidant and anticancer compounds (read more about watermelon nutrition). Cantaloupe is even more of a nutritional powerhouse. Also, they're tasty and refreshing and go down real smooth.

Most of the time, they're really big though.

What do you do after the first 3 slices? Increasingly, I'm seeing more varied uses of it as an ingredient, from grilled watermelon dishes to savory cold salads to its inclusion in stir-fries, SE Asia-style, and it's really exciting! If I get a chance to photograph it, I will post my recipe for black bean and watermelon salad, one of my favorite uses for old watermelon that's picked up some weird fridge taste.

But here's one more incentive to finish eating the beast: you get to make watermelon rind pickles.

I'd been thinking about it when a friend said she had designs on making them, inspired by a favorite memory of a boarder her family had in the summers when she was younger. Every watermelon was accompanied by the ritual of passing back the rinds to be trimmed and stored for pickling. Before you're grossed out by the use of chomped-down rinds, remember that not only is that part trimmed off, but it is subsequently salted, boiled and soaked in vinegar. It will be as free of germs as the surface of the moon, and significantly tastier. I won't be offended if you prefer to cut the melon off the rinds first, though. A big bowl of melon chunks in the fridge is a great snack.

Which brings us to the process, in 5 easy steps, including eating the watermelon on both ends:
  1. Eat watermelon (save rind).
  2. Salt rind.
  3. Boil rind.
  4. Brine rind.
  5. Eat watermelon.
As an extra added bonus, we found that the leftover brine made a killer drink, just this side of a Dark & Stormy, when paired with dark rum and seltzer, which has yet to be named.

    Watermelon Rind Pickles

    Vegan, grain/gluten-free
    Makes ~3 pints of pickles

    Salt Soak:
  • 2 qts watermelon rinds, trimmed and cut into 1" chunks
  • 1½ qts water
  • ½ c. salt

  • The Brine:
  • 5 c. sugar (we split 3 c. white, 2 c. brown)
  • 3 c. water
  • 3 c. white or cider vinegar
  • 6-8 sticks cinnamon
  • 1 Tblsp. whole cloves
  • 1 Tblsp. whole allspice berries
  • Thumb-sized piece of ginger, cut into thin sticks.

  • The Rest:
  • 1 lemon, halved, thinly sliced and seeded
  • 1 orange, prepared as lemon
  • 3 one-pint glass canning jars with lids
Trim rinds by cutting off green edge and chomped-down rim and cut into 1" chunks. Soak the watermelon in saltwater overnight or at least 6-8 hours in a 2+ gal. stockpot.

Drain through colander and rinse well in cool water. Return to stockpot, add water to cover and set to boil for ~15 min, or until fork-tender.

Meanwhile, prepare brine in a 4 qt or larger saucepan. Drain the rind pieces, then return to stockpot and add brine and citrus slices. Cover and let stand overnight, or at least 6-8 hours.

Pickles are now ready for canning. Bring them back up to a simmer, and boil a water bath to sterilize jars. Into each sterilized jar, scoop the rind/citrus with a slotted spoon until mostly full, then top up with brine to the base of the mouth. When all pickles are scooped out, process jars in a water bath for 10-15 minutes. Don't forget to stick something like a vegetable steamer in the bottom of the pot so the glass doesn't touch the bottom. Otherwise you run the risk of cracking the bottom out. If this happens, those jars make neat candle-holders. Not that I've ever done that before.

    As Promised, a related drink recipe

  • 2 oz. watermelon rind pickle juice
  • 2 oz. dark rum, such as Gosling's or Kraken
  • ½ c. seltzer

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Shiitake Part 2: Hot Cucumber Salad

As the last post discussed, we returned from Tuesday farmer's market with a pint of fresh, local shiitake mushrooms and were determined to make them shine in simple dishes.

Two days later, a friend of ours showed up for dinner with a flat of fresh veg. from the farm where he's been living. He turns up occasionally with interesting selections of ingredients in search of a good home. Friends like this are good friends to have. This haul included a few pints of different tomato varieties, several colors of summer squash, a half-dozen cucumbers, some mismatched eggplants and a tiny, heart-sized watermelon. While compulsively munching little, orange, crack-laced tomatoes, we described a dish another recent dinner guest had shared with us that we found astonishing: hot cucumber salad. Something she had picked up in her travels in Western China, primarily Gansu province, the dish is hot in both senses of the word: served hot from the wok and liberally dosed with chili and garlic.

Up until then, it hadn't occurred to me to do a cooked dish composed primarily of cucumber; it seemed anathema to the vision of cucumber as cool, crisp crunch. Most of the hot cucumber I'd eaten involved throwing some into a fried rice in its very last moments on the stove, or including it al minuto in a brothy soup. This dish totally sold me on the idea, though. Remembering a languishing, slightly wilted half-head of greenleaf lettuce, we decided to add that, making it somewhat of a hot reimagining of a green salad. Also, it seemed a perfect foil to our plan for the second half of the fresh shiitakes, cooking them with Korean rice cake.

Korean rice cake (dduk) is a little like a giant, glutinous rice noodle (which, despite the name, is gluten-free), which we buy sliced on the bias into rounds. It has a thick, chewy texture and pairs well with all kinds of things. In fact, between that and gochujang, a thick, chili-based condiment that has been near indispensable in Korean cuisine since the introduction of chili in the 18th century, you have a kick-ass base for a stir fry which you can plug almost anything into. But that's a story for another day: gochujang would have overwhelmed the delicate little mushrooms.

Instead, we cooked the rice cake with a little bit of onion, oil and salt over high heat to get a little bit of toasty char flavor (contrary to what some may say, burnt is a flavor; you just probably don't want it to be the dominant flavor of your dish), took it out, cooked the mushroom similarly, and then tossed them together. And we saw that it was good. It's so simple, it's almost redundant to write a formal recipe to follow that.

    Hot Cucumber Salad

    vegan, gluten-free
    Serves 2-3
  • 2 med-large cucumbers, halved, seeded and bias-sliced med. thick
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 whole, dried red chilis, broken loosely
  • OR
  • 1 tsp. red pepper flake
  • 2 tsp. peanut or neutral oil
  • ½-1 tsp. salt

  • Optional:
  • 1 small head leafy lettuce, sliced into 1" strips
  • 1 Tblsp. rice vinegar
Prep vegetables. Heat wok over high heat. Swirl in oil. Add red pepper and about half the garlic. Tossing until the garlic smells toasty, about 10 seconds. Add cucumbers and toss. Sprinkle with about half the salt. and toss occasionally until cumbers start to get slightly soft, about 2-3 minutes. Add lettuce and vinegar, sprinkle with remaining salt and garlic. Toss to combine and cook until lettuce is somewhat wilted, 1-2 minutes.

    Shiitake & Rice Cake Stir Fry

    Vegan, gluten-free
    Serves 2, unless you've been sitting around eating too many little tomatoes, in which case it may serve 3
  • ~1 lb sliced rice cake (½ the bag)
  • ½ med. sweet white onion, med. dice
  • 4 tsp. peanut or neutral oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 c. fresh shiitake, sliced
  • ½ c. baby bella/crimini mushrooms, sliced
Heat wok over high heat. Swirl in 2 tsp. of the oil and add half the onion. Toss and add the rice cake. Sprinkle with half the salt. Toss/stir occasonally, letting the rice cake get a few charry speckles and the onion get a little soft, about 5 minutes. Remove to serving bowl.

Swirl in the other 2 tsp, of oil, add mushrooms and remaining onion. Sprinkle with remaining salt. Stir/toss until mushrooms & onions start getting soft, 3-5 minutes. Turn off heat, add rice cake back to wok and toss until combined.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Do You Know the Mushroom Man?

With the farmshare, we don't end up at the local farmer's markets that often. It's always an eye-opener as to how much more than staple veggies is available! When we went this week, among the treasures that followed us home were some pre-Prohibition style ginger ale from Green River Ambrosia, red currant-topped shaved ice (which didn't make it home, let's be honest), and some fresh shiitake mushrooms. These were particularly exciting. I play with dried shiitake all the time, but the fresh deal has a more interesting, subtle flavor and less toothy texture. We got there late enough in the day that it was the only variety the Mushroom Guy had for sale (it's his display above with lobster mushroom, coral mushroom, vampire squid edible bolete, etc.).

We decided we needed to really make the most of the pint of fresh shiitake, and it ended up becoming two very simple East Asian-style meals, leaving very little to get in the way of the fungus.

Day 1: Shiitake Rice Bowl

The other thing that's been a big influence on our cooking this week was the appearance in the mailbox of vol. 1 of Lucky Peach magazine, the inaugural issue of a gonzo gourmet magazine ring-led by Momofuku executor David Chang. The whole issue is nominally dedicated to ramen, and, to be sure, there's enough ramen-related content in there to fuel both a dissertation and a serious noodle-jones. It also takes time to wander off topic long enough to document a shared drunken rant on mediocrity between Chang, Anthony Bourdain and Wylie Dufresne, ruminate on the nature and relevance of authenticity in food, and dedicate the final quarter of the issue just to eggs.

The egg section not only describes several out-there egg recipes, but dedicates several pages just to examining about 12 different stages of boiled egg. This seemed to feed into our collective vision of a simple mushroom dish. Chang let slip that his preferred egg cooking time is 5 min. 10 sec., just enough to set the white and thicken the yolk slightly into a silky, unctuous texture. The dish was as simple as this: fresh shiitake sauteed with a little salt and a soft-boiled egg over rice, topped off with a lightly sweet shoyu broth and slivered scallion. That's all.

And really, that's all it needed.

    Shiitake Rice Bowl

    vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free
  • 1 c. fresh shiitake mushroom (or dried shiitake, soaked), sliced
  • 1-2 tsp. neutral oil
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 2 c. cooked rice
  • 1 scallion, sliced thin according to preference
  • 2 eggs, boiled for 5 min, 10 sec, peeled

  • The broth
  • 3/4 c warm water
  • 1/4 c. soy sauce
  • 1 Tblsp. sugar
Heat wok or other wide pan over high heat. Swirl with oil and add mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and toss. Cook, stirring/tossing frequently until mushrooms are cooked soft, 3-5 min. Remove from heat.

Divide rice into two bowls and put half the mushrooms on top of each, along with one egg. Pour half the broth over each and top with a healthy pinch of scallion.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Okra Gumbo: My God, It's Full of Stars!

    Four Interesting Facts:

  1. Okra, Abelmoschus esculentus, is a member of the hibiscus family, and, as such, has astonishingly beautiful blossoms.
  2. For some people, "okra gumbo" is redundant; gumbo is based on a Bantu name for the vegetable, okra comes from an Igbo word for it. Notwithstanding, gumbo the dish can be made without okra the pod, thickened just with roux/filé powder (dried, powdered sassafras).
  3. The phrase, "My god, it's full of stars!" doesn't actually appear in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but does appear in the Arthur C. Clarke book. Interestingly, both book and movie were conceived in parallel to each other, as collaborations between Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick.
  4. Okra will grow in Massachusetts.
I was surprised by this last point as well, when I heard from the farm last year that the pick-yer-own okra crop was coming in. I wasn't quite sure what to expect of the plant, and found myself hunting close to the ground (it doesn't grow tall in MA) for the pods growing bottom up from the stalk and watching beautiful, delicate hibiscus like flowers closing demurely against the afternoon sun. I was intrigued by the shapes of the plant, taken by the star-shaped cross sections of the gently curved pentagonal cones. Some of the pods too large and woody to eat I used to stamp stars on paper. The universe wanted us to make gumbo last week: in the space of days, pick-yer-own okra came in at the farm, I found a bag of frozen shrimp languishing in the freezer, and I found the spicy sausage I like on sale. There really was no way out of it.

Living in the Northeast for basically my whole life, I can't really claim any Southern authenticity in my cooking. The closest I come is a relationship I had in college with someone whose mother was New Orleans born and bred. For better or worse, the most consistently functional part of the whole deal was the way we cooked together; we worked at the same restaurant and lived in the same co-op, centered around the kitchen, and often cooked together in our off time as well. I can't really credit his mother's legacy here, as much as I'd like to. Except maybe in the roux.

Broadly speaking, a roux is a combination of roughly equal parts flour and fat cooked together as a thickener for sauces, stews, gravies etc. The classical French roux utilizes butter, while a Cajun roux, like that used here, uses neutral-flavored oil. The fat and flour are cooked together until they reach a desired level of browning. The darker a roux is cooked, the more it gains depth in flavor, but this also lessens its thickening power.

Ultimately, I couldn't help being a godforsaken Northerner and throwing a whole bunch of swiss chard in the pot. Also, I used some leftover rotisserie chicken instead of some kind of fresh chicken. In the end, though, it turned out pretty tasty.

    Okra Gumbo, redundant or no

    Dairy-free, gluten-free modification included

    The (modified) trinity:
  • 1 med.-large onion, medium dice
  • 1 green bell pepper, medium dice
  • 2-3 carrots, smaller dice
  • fresh hot pepper (I used 1 serrano pepper, seeded and minced)

  • The roux:
  • 3 Tblsp. veg. oil
  • 3 Tblsp. AP flour (for gluten-free, sub 1½ Tblsp each of cornstarch & rice flour)

  • The rest:
  • 2 spicy sausages (~3 oz. each), precooked ←spicy, smoked andouille sausage is traditional here, but substitute at your discretion
  • ½ lb. raw shrimp, deveined
  • 1½-2 c. chicken, raw and cut into chunks, or cooked and pulled (I used leftover rotisserie chicken)
  • 3 Tblsp. Magical Spice Blend, which gets back to its roots as a Cajun spice blend
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 10-15 okra pods, sliced into ¼" rounds
  • 1-2 tsp salt
  • 3-4 c. chicken stock (Ok, so I didn't actually measure this, and I used my own super-concentrated stock mixed with an indeterminate amount of water)
  • 6-7 stems swiss chard, cut into thick ribbons (optional, for silly Northerners like us)

  • Serve with:
  • 4½ c. cooked white rice (1½ c. dry)
  • Vinegar-based LA hot sauce, such as Crystal or Tabasco
In a dutch oven or other large, deep, heavy bottomed pan over med-high heat, start cooking the roux. Whisk together the oil and flour, then stir occasionally as it browns. Meanwhile, prep the onion, carrot and peppers. The classic Cajun trinity includes celery instead of carrot, but we had carrot and not celery. Swap as you see fit.

Once the roux has reached a warm chestnut brown, about 10-15 minutes, add the prepped carrot, onion and peppers. Add Magical Spice Blend and a teaspoon of salt. Slice the sausages into rounds and prep chicken. After the veggies have started to soften, add sausage and, if using raw chicken, chicken (cooked chicken should go in at the end). Once meat has started to brown, add chicken stock. Slice okra and add (see, it's full of stars!). Gumbo should start to thicken almost immediately. Turn heat down to medium. Stir in chard, garlic, shrimp and cooked chicken, if using. Cover for 3-5 min. or until shrimp are cooked through. Adjust salt/spicy and serve over rice with hot sauce.


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