Fresh Looks at Old Favorites

A month into ‘The Great Korean Adventure’, I’m realizing that this experience is less adventure and more ‘new spin on old life’. Don’t get me wrong, much of my life here in Seoul is different than it was in Seattle, but the formula is still the same: long work week + winter daylight hours = definite routine. As much as I try to break it up with Wow Moments (those heart-expanding do-it-for-the-first-time awesome experiences), routine and monotony kind of cling to winter like Ramen noodles and cheap beer do to college freshmen–it’s not your first choice, but hey, sometimes you do what you have to to survive.

Speaking of Ramen, and survival, to break it up and keep the creativity flowing I’ve been experimenting with food. On a minimal budget and able to read about a quarter of the labels in the grocery store, my shopping list is pretty mundane. I’m embarrassed to say that I still haven’t figured out which dark bottle is soy sauce, although whatever it is I purchased is quite delicious. Cooking for myself has also been a challenge. In Seattle, cooking when I got home (from cooking) was like asking a garbage man to take out the trash. Er, not. I think I’ll sit on the couch, thanks. Now, with a full day of teaching, cooking dinner is a creative release and the time of my day when I get to focus on something that I love. True, the menu rarely changes given budget and fridge contents, but with a paycheck later this week that is sure to change. In the meantime, surrounded by the amazing culinary profile that is Korean food, I’ve been attempting to change old favorites into new flavors.  Tonight’s menu? An egg salad sandwich.

egg salad

If I was back cooking in the states, I’d give this some ridiculously fancy write-up to make it sound complicated and exotic. Think, “Free-range quail and king oyster mushroom salad with fresh chilies, sweet mustard and toasted sesame seeds on freshly baked whole-seed bread.” In reality, it’s egg salad with a bunch of stuff in it on the only wheat bread I can find. We tend to experience food long before it hits our taste buds, often using all of our senses to enjoy a good meal, and a good write-up can make anything more delicious. Try it next time you serve a basic dish. It can be fun, at least to see how pretentious you can sound.

You’ll need:

Quail eggs  (a lot of them) or regular chicken eggs if you’re too lazy to peel a dozen bite-sized delicious cholesterol balls. Also, please ignore the foodie blasphemy surrounding the use of quail eggs in an egg salad. I’m not sure how to describe the difference in taste, but quail eggs are delicious. Also, they’re not as expensive as you’d think. You can probably find an 18-case in a produce vendor or good grocery store for around $3. Granted, that will probably make about 3 sandwiches. My favorite way to hard boil eggs is to put them into the pot with cold water, turn the burner on high, and once the water is boiling turn off the burner and set a timer for about 6 minutes. With quail eggs, you can set the timer for 3. They’re tiny. The shells should peel off rather easily. I’ve found that when peeling quail eggs, it’s important to get that inner membrane going otherwise the shell will just shatter.

Some kind of fresh chili, be it a jalapeno or something less spicy. If you’re not in the mood for chilies, green onions will do the trick. And then this will just be a normal egg salad sandwich. Depending on the spice level you can handle, remove the pith and seeds carefully. Be sure to wear gloves or wash your hands well.

The Korean mustard I happen to have in my fridge is yellow, but on the sweet side. Think yellow mustard with some honey in it. Since you have access to it in the States, and are going through the trouble of buying quail eggs anyway, I’d recommend some kind of whole-seed mustard or a sweet Dijon. (Pretentious theme continued). In my book, any egg salad isn’t really worth going out to buy ingredients for, so on second thought, use what you got, buddy. Make it your own. Lately I’ve steered away from mayonnaise, so mustard is really the only addition I use and it helps to keep it healthy and fresh.

I like egg salad with a bit of texture, but I’m not a pickle relish egg salad fan. Things like cucumber, celery or shredded carrot can be delicious, but today I chose mushrooms. I thought the texture would mimic the egg white, and fluff it up without having to use more eggs. It worked! Clean the mushrooms by rubbing the tops with a paper towel (water will make them soggy), then cut the mushrooms into small cubes. Use whichever variety you prefer, but a denser mushroom will more accurately mimic the egg white’s texture. White or crimini mushrooms work well, and king oyster mushrooms are so prevalent here in Asia that it was the logical choice for this recipe. they have a similar dense texture (like the cap of a white mushroom), and a delicious delicate earthy flavor. Goes quite well with the quail eggs.

Lastly, toast some sesame seeds in a dry pan. Coat the bottom of the skillet (no oil!) with seeds, turn the burner on medium, and basically just wait. Once they start to toast, begin  mixing them so all the sides get a nice toasty color. A delicious smell should develop, which lets you know they’re almost ready.

Feel free to add other ingredients, (obviously, I won’t be there to stop you, not that I would), and mix everything together. Be sure to add a dash of salt and pepper!  I like to mix in some of the sesame seeds and put more on top. They’re tasty! Save some on the side to mix into rice, or put on salad. Yum.

Be sure to toast your bread and add lettuce, etc. for some extra crunch. Enjoy!

P.S.- As a side dish alternative that you’d be more likely to serve on real plates than paper ones, try using all the same ingredients, but cut them into long strips. (Mushrooms, chilies, maybe add some thinly sliced carrots) Pan fry them slightly until browned in sparse canola oil. Add salt and pepper while they are cooking, and toss in the sesame seeds at the end once you’ve turned off the flame. Instead of mashing the quail eggs, peel them and quarter them lengthwise with a sharp knife to make them pretty and bite-sized. Serve on lettuce, with a thin drizzle of mustard and topped with more sesame seeds. Yum!

 

 

Kimchi jjigae!

528695_796113909505_2009643140_nIf I’ve learned anything in my brief time in Seoul, it is that if you open yourself to the world, the world will do the same. What a whirlwind of experience, all condensed into a few short weeks. Moving into a new apartment, New Year’s eve and day, my first experience making home-cooked Korean food and a jimjilbang… the ‘Wow Moments’ just keep coming and each one is unique. I feel myself adapt to a new life, a new city, a starkly different culture.

New Year’s weekend rolled around and it was finally time to move into my school-appointed apartment. At last! Tim had been a wonderful host, but living out of two suitcases got old really fast. What should have been a smooth transition quickly proved to be a huge mess, in more ways than one.  My contract replaces that of RJ Teacher (everyone is a teacher here, even the accountant and the janitor), meaning that I take over his classes and his apartment. Basically, I come and he goes. Well, he went alright… without leaving me any information on his classes, and (dun dun duuun) without a key to the apartment. Jump to: Me standing on the landing with all my things and no way to get in. I’ll spare you the details of that day, except to say that it just kept getting worse and worse. When I finally did open the door a few hours later, it was to a scene out of a horror movie. RJ had basically just packed the things he wanted and left everything else. Cigarette butts, spilled cat food, dark dried stains on the floor, piles of stained bedding… despite the custom of not wearing shoes indoors I ended up throwing out the first two pairs of socks I wore inside.

Luckily this was on the Saturday of a four day New Year’s weekend. Translate: plenty of time to get on my knees and start scrubbing, but what a way to spend a holiday! With a faucet-like head cold to top it off, the whole scene was a nightmare.

 

Around five in the evening of my second day of cleaning I hear a knock on my door. I lay the scrub brush on the floor of the bathroom, hastily wipe my nose on the nearest piece of tissue and try to pull the dish gloves off my hands enough to be able to open the front door. My neighbor and co-teacher Jennifer is there, eyes straining past me into the apartment, searching for confirmation of the rumor that RJ had left the place a mess. Her eyebrows go high and stay there when she sees me; I must look pretty insane after two days of intense cleaning, nose-running and general fuming.

Jen had heard that I was interested in learning Korean cooking, and is here to invite me to another co-teacher’s house to make kimchi jjigae. My savior! A break is exactly what I need, not to mention some spicy Korean soup to clear my sinuses. I literally can not get out the door fast enough to meet John Stephen and Jen at the market for supplies.

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Now when I say market, I mean the grocery store in the subway station. I know. Apparently there are many other markets and grocery stores in Seoul, but I have yet to go to them as this one is the most convenient. It’s your basic small grocery store, stocking everything from cleaning supplies to snacks, to a small selection of alcohol and some meat and very expensive produce. That is definitely one thing to note: produce is the most expensive food group here by far. And the selection is slim to none, mostly onions and sweet potatoes, with some imported tomatoes and peppers. Lettuce is nearly impossible to find, and ridiculously expensive when you do. So much for salad.

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When they don’t have exactly what we want, John Stephen suggests we go to the outdoor market for the bulk items, like kimchi. We step out of the subway station, go down a main street I pass every day on my way to school, and turn right into a narrow alleyway. Suddenly we are in a different world, surrounded by late-night shoppers, stalls of salt fish, buckets full of grains, garlic, ginger, chilies, literal wooden tree stumps used as chopping blocks covered in fish scales with a cleaver slammed into the center like something out of a morbid still-life painting. Everything from the last two days of depressive scrubbing evaporates instantly. THIS is the foodie Korea I want to see! The stalls are so close together, their awnings nearly touching overhead, and each has thick sheets of plastic hung over the entrances with an overlap for a door to keep in the heat. I’m not sure if Jen and John Stephen are entertained or thrown off by my enthusiasm, maybe just surprised. The smell of ground ginger is in the bitterly cold air and I am in culinary heaven.

The old lady that John has bought kimchi from before has already closed her stall, so we go in search of another vendor. I find a man with two tables covered in kimchi of various kinds: cabbage, green onion, radish, cucumber, grass… you name it. I don’t see the kind we are looking for, however, so I ask him as politely as I can, bowing, “Kimchi jjigae kimchi, juseo?”

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He nods, and reaches under one of the tables to pull up an enormous bucket. Motioning to me with his hands to ask how much I want, he winds the opening of a clear plastic bag around a wire loop, slips kimchi in through the opening, and pulls it back off, tying it with a clean swish. Simple. Effective. Korean. He holds up four fingers, I hand him 4,000 won (about $4), he hands me a football-sized bag of kimchi, and the deal is done.

Back at John Stephen’s apartment, we slip off our snowy shoes at the door and Jen and I sit on the floor as John starts to prepare the meal. I’m taking copious notes on my iPhone until I realize that kimchi jjigae is really incredibly easy. If you like kimchi and can find a decent variety, you should definitely make this. It is spicy (depending on your kimchi) and tasty and filling. Oh, and CHEAP.

 

 

What you’ll need:

A good chunk of cabbage kimchi (standard kimchi)IMG_3717

Some pork cut into 1 in. cubes

Firm tofu

Pork or beef bouillon or seasoning

Water

That’s it.

First, sauté the pork in a deep pan until mostly cooked. Don’t get it too brown or overcooked or it will be tough. Add your kimchi, mix, and cook until everything  is heated through. Fill the pan with water so that the kimchi is pretty much covered, add a small amount of bouillon/ seasoning, cover and simmer for about 15 minutes. Stir well, then cube your tofu and layer on top. Cover again and simmer for another five minutes. Kimchi jjigae!

As the kimchi is really the main ingredient, I’d only recommend making this in the States if you can find some good kimchi at a local Asian market. If you do stumble on some, make this immediately. In a Korean restaurant it is served in a hotpot, literally boiling like lava and much too hot to eat at first. Torture… the smell is so appetizing that I always burn my tongue anyway. It is also always served with rice, which is delicious to mix in to soak up the broth. Also recommended: Soju. Kimchi, soju, rice. TIK.

This is Korea.

Auntie Em’s AdLib Pulled Pork

My favorite thing about cooking is how creative it lets you be in the kitchen. I am not a recipe follower. In fact, I avoid sticking to a recipe like I avoid romance novels. There is definitely an allure; I just can’t make myself go there.

That said, if I’m wondering how to make something, or what ingredients go in a traditional dish, I will look up a recipe. No, this does not make me a hypocrite. There are certain aspects of cooking that don’t just come naturally, usually the more difficult techniques, and I understand that in order to be at your creative best you need a foundation of skill and knowledge. However, once I look up a recipe and read it, I usually just close it right there. Time for the creativity to begin. Screw the rules.

Yesterday, I made pulled pork. We’ve made this quite a number of times at Phinney Market (my former employer in Seattle), but I was never directly responsible for it. Ah, the luxury of having multiple talented chefs in one kitchen! I decided it was my turn to take a stab at finger-lickin’ awesomeness.

I knew I needed a slow cooker, or an oven set-up that would allow me to cook the pork for at least five hours. No Crockpot, but I did find a Le Creuset Dutch oven in the bottom drawer. Perfect. After doing some research on the durability of the hard plastic lid handle, I opted to cover the base with aluminum foil and cover the whole thing with a cookie sheet. Improvised lid. Voila.

At a local butcher shop I asked for some pork shoulder. All they had was pork butt. Rolling with the porky punches, I bought half of what looked like a giant pork ass. Mmm, tasty! Once home, I decided to make a rub for the meat. Leslie’s spice cabinet had two spice rubs in it, but stubbornly (or creatively) I decided to make my own. Here’s my rule about spices: Once you pick a flavor profile (smoky, Asian, sweet, spicy), use whatever you have. I wanted something savory, a little spicy, smoky, with a hint of sweet (so, basically everything. I’m difficult like that). I started pulling things off the shelf: mustard powder, chili powder, paprika, Lowry’s seasoned salt, cinnamon, sea salt, white pepper, black pepper… whatever looked good. I mixed some of each into a small bowl, going heavy on the paprika, chili powder, salt and pepper, then got a flash of brilliance. Ground coffee! In it goes. Once the mixture smelled like the idea I had in my head, I put it in a small, dry frying pan to toast up. Toasting your spices first makes a HUGE difference. It allows them to release their aromas, and like toasting bread, it helps create a new, unique, toasty flavor. Turn the skillet on low and wait for the smell. You’ll know what I mean.

Once the spices had cooled, I rubbed them rather violently into the hunk of pork. (Handling my ingredients is also one of my favorite things about cooking. I was hoping that by slapping the pig butt around a little it would get nice and tender. Muahaha!) When it had reached toasty sienna-colored submission, I wrapped it back up in the butcher’s paper and put it in the fridge for at least two hours.  Many thumb-twiddling minutes later, I put my earthy-smelling, raw pork perfection in the crock pot. In went most of two bottles of hard apple cider (some for the pork, some for the chef!), a splash of apple cider vinegar and a splash of water. (Really, it was mostly just hard cider). Two bay leaves, some extra salt, and a bunch of carrots and mini potatoes (because hey, you might as well cook the rest of dinner at the same time) later, it was ready for my improvised lid and the oven.

Then the real wait begins. Afraid the impatient, hungry sounds coming from my stomach would wake the neighbors, I started reading. And whaddaya know, six hours later I was halfway through a book and we had pulled pork for dinner.

Who knew a pig’s ass could taste this good?!