Monday, September 27, 2010

Chromatic Kimchi

     Until I went to college I did not realize the diversity of my Dad's palate. The fact that he regularly consumed and incorporated international ingredients never really occurred to me. The dried anchovy snacks in the car, the 12 inch pieces of stretched dried bean curd in the cabinet, the "crab crackers" that inflate when you deep fry them; all seemed a little random, but exotic wasn't really a word that occurred to me. Since then international students have been continuously surprised at my knowledge of ingredients from their homeland. Unfortunately, I can't say being familiar with these things has always eliminated my being intimidated by them.
    Enter kimchi. A smell that will drive you away, like sauerkraut only spicier and more complex, and more nose crinkling. Dad ate kimchi, but he did it alone while we all wondered why.
     As I got older I figured one day I would probably like it, but I was in no rush, and it seemed more fun to tease than to be daring. One day Dad finished the last bits of cabbage in his kimchi jar after dinner and left it on the table while Melissa and I were cleaning up. I was in a silly mood (Melissa and I always have fun in the kitchen together), and I began acting out something ridiculous with an altered voice and dancing around the kitchen shaking the kimchi jar. Only when I realized Melissa couldn't possibly think I was that funny did I notice that the lid of the jar had been screwed on crookedly...and that I was covered in garlic rich, deep orange kimchi sauce. Melissa and Mom were merciful (and didn't want to smell me) and let me skip out on dishes to go shower.
     Last year was a big turning point in my relationship with kimchi. My friend Young Wha and I began cooking together once a week; she would teach me to make Korean food and I would help her fine tune her English. Our times together were always amazing and delicious. I am sure there are phrases she would still like to learn, but it seems as though we talked about all of life without any hindrance. Still, cooking words not being on the top of the ESL list, we had a lot of moments that made both of us laugh.
"Sarah! What am I doing with the noodles?"
"You are tossing them."
"Ah! Toss!"
She could probably have a cooking show now.
Kimchi and anchovies were ingredients I was skirmish of at first, but she convinced me.

Despite kimchi being the most ubiquitous thing in Korean kitchens, not everyone makes their own. Young Wha's mother made a big batch every so often and sent it to her daughter (and perhaps other family members). But, curious as I am, I thought I would attempt it. The recipe I chose is from the Momofuku cookbook. Momofuku is a noodle bar owned by the Korean-American chef David Chang. He shared this recipe on NBS's The Today Show, but in case of dropped links I have copied it here. (Orange notes are my own.)

Momofuku Napa Cabbage Kimchi (aka Paechu kimchi)
Yields Makes 1 to 1½ quarts
1 small to medium head Napa cabbage, discolored or loose outer leaves discarded
2 tablespoons kosher or coarse sea salt
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
20 garlic cloves, minced
20 slices peeled fresh ginger, minced
1/2 cup kochukaru (Korean chile powder)
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup usukuchi (light soy sauce)
2 teaspoons jarred salted shrimp
1/2 cup 1-inch pieces scallions (greens and whites)
1/2 cup julienned carrots
Cut the cabbage lengthwise in half, then cut the halves crosswise into 1-inch-wide pieces.


Toss the cabbage with the salt and 2 tablespoons of the sugar in a bowl. Let sit overnight in the refrigerator.
Other recipes recommended placing the cabbage in a large colander to prevent it from sitting in the water that drains out of the leaves. I didn't have one big enough, so I placed a cereal bowl upside down in my big mixing bowl to lift the cabbage off the bottom.

The next day, prepare the sauce.

One of my favorite cookbooks taught me the easiest way to peel ginger. Believe it or not, the edge of a spoon peels off the skin, but very little extra. Try it. It's magical.

After peeling it is best to slice ginger into rounds and then smash the rounds with a mortar and pestle, or with your garlic press.

Combine the garlic, ginger, kochukaru, fish sauce, soy sauce, shrimp, and remaining ½ cup sugar in a large bowl. If it is very thick, add water 1/3 cup at a time until the brine is just thicker than a creamy salad dressing but no longer a sludge. You can see that kochukaru (Korean chile powder) is not the same as other varieties found in the United States. I found mine at a Korean food market. The owner told me to let her know how the kimchi turned out. Despite having a lot of kochukaru, the resulting kimchi is only medium spicy, and not especially hot.

Stir in the scallions and carrots.
Drain the cabbage and add it to the brine. Cover and refrigerate. Though the kimchi will be tasty after 24 hours, it will be better in a week and at its prime in 2 weeks. It will still be good for another couple weeks after that, though it will grow stronger and funkier. Some people leave their kimchi at room temperature for 24-48 hours before refrigerating in order to encourage fermentation. This recipe does not call for it, but it is really up to you.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Funny little things

I have noticed a lot of funny little things since we arrived a month ago. Some are a little disappointing, but a number are interesting or quite nice.
    The first thing Nathanael and I did when we entered our apartment, was fill our water bottles and taste the water. For one thing we had been awake almost since we left Wisconsin, and had then spent the morning roaming campus because there were some computer glitches preventing his registration, and all of this worked up a pretty strong thirst. Also, we were both very curious as to what it would taste like. The result was more surprising than we expected. No chlorine. After having abandoned the glories of well water the moment I left home seven years ago, I was not expecting to stumble upon it in a city of over 200,000. And, not only is it devoid of chlorine, but instead of being flavorless it is slightly sweet. I have begun to enjoy the flavor very much, in fact. There is a third thing about the water, which I suppose I should have expected, but which took me utterly by surprise. I actually laughed at myself when I ran the water upon our arrival. The water is warm. No matter how long you run the tap marked with a C, it will always be cooler once you have left your glass full on the counter for a while. I wouldn't trade our water in, though; warmth beats chlorine by miles.
   Before we left Wisconsin, Nathanael and I had been discussing how products sold in the state/region/locality where they are produced should be less expensive since they do not demand as much transportation. Most products are not priced that way, and the example I used was Stoneyfield yogurt. All around the country the price hovers around $3.96, even when I was in graduate school in the same state and the CEO was our commencement speaker. However, now that we are here instead of in the dairy state, a gallon of milk ranges from $3.99 to $7.15. I am doing my best to refrain from complaining now that what I wish has come true (while I slowly use our $3/lb butter), and instead have been trying to find the things that are less expensive because they are locally produced. I don't have a super memory for the prices of non-dairy items, but it makes me smile that most of the rice in the grain aisle is produced in the town where Nathanael works at the rice research station. The farmer's market has been a source for vegetables at significantly less than grocery prices (which has not been true in other cities where I have lived), especially for pecans. Pecans! Those emblems of the South and its rich desserts. They were one of the products sparking my hopes of lower prices locally, and though the store shelves don't show it, the farmers market provides local pecans for a good bit less than $9/lb.
  My last surprise--for this post, though I certainly have more to share--was how much we miss our garden. For the first few days when we knew not what to cook I blamed it on our missing pans and silverware. Once they were unpacked I realized the difficulty was no longer having vegetables motivating our menu in large quantities. In two days we moved from 2 or 3 enormous zucchini a week, to one six inches long for $0.50. The effects on cooking are pretty dramatic.
    In Wisconsin, our garden is in the loving hands of Kristy and Paul, who have been creating all kinds of ways to enjoy the vegetables (even zucchini pancakes). We are so glad for their hard work and for the pictures they have sent us of the produce. Below is one of the pictures Kristy sent us, which I think is probably my favorite picture of vegetables, so far in life!

    In the on campus apartments, where most of the residents are international students, a number of the graduate students have their parents living with them. One older Chinese lady in particular is always outside with her tiny grandson, but every so often I noticed her walking back from the parking lot alone. One day I saw her huddled between the edge of the asphalt and the chain link fence, digging; which in the moments before my eyes glanced around made my brain think, "Secrets? Burried treasure? Small dead animals?" Then I saw the real reason. A garden bustling with produce. This determined little lady has turned a small strip of littered sand into beautiful thing. She has peppers, long skinny eggplant and the most enormous squash I have ever seen, which are draped over the fence and the plant still holds them up. I smile whenever I think about it.
     Now Nathanael says if he could find a place to keep a goat, he'd be happy staying here pretty much forever.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Refrigerator Pickles

     I don't remember a whole bunch about my Dad's father, but I remember watching buggs bunny on a particular Thanksgiving, Grandpa calling me a "wise guy", and a crystal platter arranged with baby pickles. I don't remember any of the other food, though it is probably because pickles were the only thing I ate.
     My grandfather liked a lot of things; fireworks, Laurel and Hardy, pickles, photographs, and radishes. I didn't understand the radishes-- though the amount of zip packed into something so white was intriguing-- I approved of the other four. The biggest mystery to me was why my grandmother always insisted on draining the pickle juice out of the jar as soon as she opened it, thereby leaving the pickles high and dry for subsequent servings. It just struck me as odd. But then again, this week Nathanael has been doing his evening research with a jar of my pickles and a fork on his desk. Maybe pickles just bring these things out in people.
     Since Nathanael and I left our garden we have been purchasing cucumbers, three for a dollar, at the farmer's market. It's a little ironic since just a few weeks ago we were swimming in them, and even though we were making cucumber sandwiches and sharing them here and there, I seriously needed to make pickles. This was more than fine with me since I could probably live on pickles...if they had a little more nutrition. But, I was in search of a recipe for refrigerator pickles so that I would neither have to spend weeks waiting for them to ferment to perfection, nor store them and create one more box of food to bring South. I had enough cucumbers that I was able to try some different ratios, discovering that I did not really like any of the refrigerator versions I came across online. Usually they had more sugar than vinegar, which I think is preposterous.
Pickles are about the vinegar, people.  (Unless you are making the fermented variety, in which case they are not.)
Therefore, I would like to share with you my very own, fine tuned pickle recipe. I am not going to claim that it is going to make the "best pickles you ever had", because Nathanael told me people have offered him homemade pickles in the past while telling him that very thing, and he couldn't have agreed less. I will tell you that Nathanael, Asher, and a number of others I have shared these with have thoroughly enjoyed them and gone on to finish large jars of them within hours. This recipe is pretty simple and can be modified for zucchini (which we tried), carrots, and even grapes (I hear), but if you have cucumbers start with those.

Refrigerator Pickles
Makes 1 Quart jar or 2 pint jars or a number
of odd small jars (which must be glass)
For liquid
1 1/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup water
2 Tbs sugar
2 Tbs salt
For jar
3 Medium or 4-6 pickling cucumbers (pickling are better, but any work)
2 cloves of garlic, each sliced into two or three pieces, lengthwise
1/2 tsp mustard seed
1/2 tsp dill seed
2  (4 inch) branches of dill or  1 scant tsp dried dill weed
*If you don't have any of these spices the pickles are still worth making, they just will have a different flavor.

1. In a small pot, all of the ingredients for the liquid until the sugar and salt dissolve. Then remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. (It will smell so delicious, but amazingly strong too.)

2. While the liquid is cooling, cut your cucumbers into rounds that are 4mm thick (the ones in the pictures were a little too thin and were not as crisp as we like). Place half of the spices and garlic in the bottom of the glass jar.

 Cram the cucumber slices in as tight as you can until the jar is half full, then sprinkle the remaining spices and garlic, and finish filling the jar. (The dill and dill seed we used was also from our garden.)

3. Pour the cooled vinegar mixture slowly over the slices and screw on the lid. Refrigerate and let the flavors meld for 2 days before devouring.

(This is really just a tip, because I usually try a slice or five before the two days arrive, but they really are best after two days.) Eat all of your pickles within two weeks, and use the pickle juice for another batch of cucumbers up to one time. After that too much salt is gone and they won't really pickle.
4. Be sure to wash out your pot to prevent corrosion, even if it is stainless steel. Really.

(Notice the remnants of us still unpacking in the background.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A New Space

 Over the weekend Nathanael built a bed for us. He did a wonderful job of confronting a problem needing to be solved (this one being our short supply of storage space), and not only making plans and starting the project, but also seeing it through.

Without holidays or deadlines to motivate me I have seldom had such drive with my handcrafts. There are bits of almost finished shirts, dresses, and pants in the sewing closets of My Mother, my sister Melissa and now also here with me. But Nathanael has measured, designed, sawed, sanded and worked ceaselessly so that less than five days after we purchased our mattress, we are able to slide our cooler, tent, and winter clothes neatly underneath it. Actually, most of our things probably could fit under there, because he gave it two feet of clearance.

 The apartment we are now renting has little in common with the one we were renting a few weeks ago. Instead of plaster walls and wood floors we now have painted cinder block walls and vinyl tile floors like a grocery store. But I am so glad for these features, which are well suited to the moist climate and the prevention of termites and mold. Unfortunately, we no longer have a spacious kitchen and an enormous pantry to store our canned food and dry goods, so I didn't really know what to do with all of those things in our new and smaller kitchen. [We even have one of those baby stoves!] Seeing that I was a little baffled by all of it, Nathanael told me he was up to the kitchen arranging task. He organized my spices, the tea, and then built a small retaining wall for the cookie sheets and cutting boards. And then, since our largest cabinet is the enormous, shelf-less one under the sink, he built a completely amazing canned good case.

The shelves of which I will not be lining with the mushroom contact paper we purchased from the intriguing man running an eclectic garden/hardware/machete shop, who assured us it will work perfectly despite having been in his store since 1970. He actually recommended using it to cover a piece of plywood, and prop the piece up on some cinder blocks, thereby creating an executive desk.
There is your frugal furniture ingenuity tip for the day.

(I can give you directions to plant world if you need any sythes, cast iron cookware, or fascinating stories)
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