Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Holidays 2014!

I love end-of-year holidays.  I used to think it was Christmas I enjoyed so much, but I have come to realize that there isn’t anything very institutionally religious in my joy over the end of the year.  Instead it’s the mostly mythical, magical image of “Christmas in Connecticut”—think Currier and Ives prints!—that I look forward to.   I’d always wondered if my interest in Americana has a lot to do with the immigrant’s idealized image of the host country, but that’s for another post.

In the past few months, I flew through reading a series of “cozy” murder mysteries by Canadian author Louise Penny.  The novels are set in a tiny Quebec village near the border of Vermont, and this village has everything I’d ever dreamed of: one bakery, one bistro, one general store, one book store, café au laits, steak frites, Friday potluck candlelit dinners with friendly neighbors, kids playing ice hockey in the winter, adults hiding Easter eggs in the spring.  An awful lot of murders for such a tiny and welcoming village, but that comes with the “cozy” genre…

Anyway, these mysteries offer an escape to a lifestyle that was probably always a fiction, but that fiction is very attractive during the holiday season when you wish good will on everyone and hope that everyone could enjoy their favorite things.  Like pine wreaths, winter flowers, and dessert with loved ones.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Pre-Emptive "Cleanse" for the Holidays

We decided to start the “cleanse” a little earlier this year.  We usually wait until after we return from visiting my family in California, but then we got the January 2015 issue of Bon Appetit and got inspired by the idea of actually eating healthy.  So, we thought: Why wait for two weeks to start something we know is good for us?

We limped through Thanksgiving—though being 3 pounds heavier now than before Thanksgiving doesn’t really sound like we’ve survived that eat-fest—but that was just a sprint.  Now we have an ultra marathon coming.  Friday we have our romantic holiday dinner out (with lots of food).  Sunday, we have our holiday brunch (with lots of food).  Then Christmas Eve we have a long-standing tradition of a dinner out with another couple (with lots of food).  Then Christmas day, Will makes a special breakfast for us (with lots of food).  Then we fly to LA and enjoy/endure seven days of doing NOTHING but eating.  (Yes, lots and lots of food.)  By the time we return to Chicago on New Years day, we're sure to resolve to consume nothing other than water and gruel for two months.

So, for dinner tonight, I thought that maybe some vegetables and grains might be the way to go.  We had a Wild Rice Salad with Pecans and Cranberries (above) we prepared as a side for another dinner, and we parboiled broccolini (below) for a simple room temperature salad with olive oil and lemon juice (or a sherry vinaigrette, if you wish).

Our “main” dish (pictured at the top of post) is one I used to prepare all the time and then completely forgot about.  I don’t even remember anymore, but I think I got the recipe originally from a Moosewood cookbook years ago.  In any case, you slice cleaned portabella mushroom caps into ½ inch thick slices.  Then you whisk together an Asian-fusion style thick dressing of miso, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper, and a bit of water (to make whisking together easier).  I think I’m the one who added minced garlic—it’s the Korean in me, and I cannot help it!—but I really do like the dish with or without the minced garlic.  Brush both sides of the slices with the dressing and then put under the broiler for 3 minutes, turn after 3 minutes and brush on some more dressing, and broil another 3 minutes until it’s slightly browned.

Portabella mushroom is always a nice substitute for meat, and this meal had everything I could ask for.  Think about the flavors: sweet (cranberry), salty (sea salt in the broccolini), spicy (red chili flakes in the broccolini), tart (lemon juice in the broccolini and also in the wild rice salad), and umami (miso in the mushroom dressing).  It also had so many textures: chewy (al dente rice and cranberries), crisp (parboiled broccolini and the toasted pecans), and soft (mushroom).

If we eat like this all the days we are not gorging ourselves, we might just be able to survive the holidays!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Our Most Excellent City Adventure

Last weekend, we took advantage of a more-than fair trade.  During our two summer drives across the country, between Illinois and Colorado, we stayed at a number of Best Westerns since they (and Comfort Inn) often allow pets.  After staying at Alton, Illinois and then Wakeeney, Kansas—neither places that we’re eager to return to any time soon—we found that we had two out of the three required stays at a Best Western to make us eligible for a promotional free night of stay at another Best Western. 

Though we were not at all sure that we would indeed be staying at another Best Western before January 31, 2015 (the end date of the promotion), we decided to reserve a third night at a Best Western on our return trip to Chicago in August.  That landed us in a Council Bluffs, Iowa, Best Western which was the worst of the three stays.  I’m sure upper floors might have been superior, but our first floor room, right next to the noisy ice machine and the busted open door to the outside—and the only place allowed for people with pets—had seen better days.  But, ah well, we stayed the night and duly received the free voucher in an email.

A few weeks ago, I remembered that we needed to use the voucher soon.  I didn’t think they’d allow it, but I wondered if the well-reviewed Chicago River North Best Western would allow us to use the voucher.  Will was excited enough about the idea that he called them up—despite hating to call businesses—and sure enough, we got a reservation.  So, in return for paid stays in Alton, Il, Wakeeney, KS, and Council Bluffs, IA, we got a free stay in River North area of Chicago!

We dropped off Katie with her dog-sitter, took the el down, and walked the 3 blocks to a much nicer (and, yes, much more expensive) Best Western than the ones we stayed at in order to earn the free voucher.  And we had a glorious 22 hours in the city.

We started with a late lunch snack at Xoco (really only two blocks away from our hotel), then we walked down to the Christkindl Market in the Daley Plaza (above).  It was so crowded that we were barely able to get in before we found ourselves desperately attempting to get back out somehow.

Then we walked to State Street to look at Macy’s windows, a holiday tradition with us.  I snagged a picture of the famous clock and the plaque (above) that marked the old Marshall Field flagship store (before it was bought by Macy’s), and generally enjoyed the festivities of being in the city.  We popped into Macy’s for a little bit of warming up and to look at gourmet goodies in the basement floor.

Deciding that we’d like a little more to walk and a hot chocolate at the end of that walk, we made our way over to the Art Institute of Chicago.  Because we have membership at the museum, it’s fairly convenient to stop over there for an hour or two at a time.  We caught a mini-exhibit on Japanese prints of ghosts and demons, but honestly we were really there for the Member Lounge’s free coffee and (for the holiday season) hot chocolate.  We spent a blissful 20 minutes just relaxing and soaking in that refined artsy atmosphere until we saw that large families with children were swarming around the hot chocolate pot.  We decided that we’d better give up our prime lounge chairs to the groups scouting for seating.

As planned, we stopped by the line forming at Frontera Grill on the walk back to the hotel.  After a short wait, they took our name and cellphone number, and told us to come back in 40 minutes for our table.  Perfect!  We went back to this unexpectedly convenient Best Western, changed our clothes, and got back to the restaurant in plenty of time.  Will particularly loved his striped bass dish (below) which had an almond-jalapeno mole sauce and which was also grilled to perfection.  We both thought that the broccoli florets were especially well-flavored with the charcoal grill aroma!

In the morning, we had a delicious breakfast of spicy chicken “tinga” and light and fluffy lemon pancakes with a side of brown sugar cured bacon.  We also loved that coffee from La Colombe which they poured generously at Beatrix, a place we will definitely return to on our next visit to Chicago.

After breakfast, we walked all around the city, along the river, past the Wrigley building, down upscale shopping districts, and back towards our hotel on Ohio St.  Just east of our hotel, we saw that we had been unwittingly just minutes away from Eataly.  We stopped in, savored food porn—bought nothing—and decided that we’ll at least visit the wine bar there on our next visit.

Did we mention that we enjoyed our brief sojourn so much that we’ve vowed to make a habit of overnight stays in the very city we call home but never actually visit?  

Friday, December 5, 2014

Breakfasting at the Bryn Mawr Breakfast Club

Some of our favorite weekend breakfast places: M. Henry, Marmalade, Alexander’s Breakfast and Lunch (click here for review).  A new breakfast and lunch place opened by the guy who helped created menus at these aforementioned favorites: Bryn Mawr Breakfast Club.

Add to these credentials that this place transformed a former dive into a gourmet dining option with quaint and minimalist and comfy decor.  (Look at what the place looks like inside now!)

And add to that minor miracle that this place is in the middle of a stretch of land contested in an eminent domain fight with much bigger political powers.

And you have…?  An amazing place with creative dishes that pay tribute to the surrounding Korean and Latino neighborhoods.  A place with good coffee served in thick ceramic mugs.  A place with sweet and savory dishes that make you wonder why you would want to fight crowds at 8am to go to M. Henry in Andersonville when you can stroll in and be made comfortable on Bryn Mawr and Kimball, a much less hip and congested area.

Apparently, they wanted to make sure that Korean patrons would feel welcome, so they included a dish called “Pajun Pancakes” (at top of post)—savory scallion pancakes with jalapenos and minced kimchi and a soy dipping sauce—with eggs, Brussels sprouts and pork belly (so, that last bit was more like some bacon pieces).  It was a lot of excellent food and a great deal!

Their Chilaquiles (above)—served here with a verdes sauce, but also available with a rojos option—are served with eggs, plaintains, rice and beans, and tortillas.  I love how slightly soft but still crunchy their tortilla chips are when cooked in the sauce, and the dish is a substantial vegetarian offering.

While smallest of the dishes ordered, Will’s “Cinnamon Hotcakes” (below) were really very special.  The apricot glaze was not terribly apricot-y (and I mean that in a good way), and the pancakes were shaped and swirled like a flattened cinnamon roll, but also fluffy at the same time.  The “frosting” was the vanilla mascarpone cream that is ubiquitous in breakfast places these days—and for good reason too!

Now we don’t know where we should have our weekend breakfasts!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Another Thanksgiving Meal Reflection

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone, and I’m now reflecting upon the relative merits of the various components of our dinner yesterday.  All in all, it was one of the better Thanksgiving meals we have cooked, and that success might have something to do with the fact that I decided to keep the menu on the fairly familiar side. 

The only new dish we tried was a “Silky Chestnut Soup”—recipe by Wolfgang Puck can be found here—and that was mostly because we came across packages of roasted and peeled organic chestnuts.  Since the package was from Costco, that meant we had 4 bags of chestnuts to use up somehow.  Chestnut soup to the rescue!

We tried a different chestnut soup recipe before, but we liked better this Wolfgang Puck recipe.  The soup was flavorful, nutty, rich, and super easy to make.  How can you ask for more?  The recipe called for 1 cup of ruby port, and we only had ¾ cup of tawny port around, but I actually liked the tawny (supplemented with ¼ cup more chicken broth for extra liquid) since the caramel notes of the tawny port nicely complemented a chestnut soup anyway.   Along with Will’s trademark Rosette Buttermilk rolls, the first course—soup and rolls—was a great success.

Really, the preparation and cooking for the rest of the courses turned out to be easier than usual.  Having dispensed with the only new item (the soup) with an easy recipe, I found myself preparing the rest of the meal without having to consult a single recipe.

We’ve made roast chickens and bacon-wrapped tenderloin roasts so many times before that those two meat dishes are now on auto pilot.  Then the sides consisted of: Whipped Sweet Potato Casserole, Pan Roasted Mini-Peppers, Caprese Salad with Haricot Verts, and Caramelized Brussels Sprouts with Shallots and Toasted Pecans.  We’ve tried new veggie sides before for other Thanksgiving meals, but these four turned out to offer a great combination of traditional veggies (sweet potatoes, beans, and Brussels sprouts) in new and simple preparations (pan roasting peppers, quick sautéing Brussels sprouts, green beans in a room temperature salad).

Since we had our friends Debra and Sandy bringing desserts, we reduced our workload substantially.  Debra brought her favorite apple pie with her famous flaky crust, and Sandy brought the always popular—and seasonal—pumpkin chiffon pie with whipped topping. 

Two slices of pies (since we all tried both!) and a pot of excellent, dark decaf coffee rounded out the evening of thanksgiving in a lovely fashion.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Sola: Sometimes So Good, Other Times So So

Will and I got married in Kauai, so we have a nostalgic fondness for Hawaiian cuisine.  When Sola Restaurant (3868 N. Lincoln Ave.) opened in Chicago many years back, we were among the first there to enjoy Kalua pork and other distinctly Hawaiian dishes. 

We’ve returned to Sola several times, often times marveling at how amazing some flavors are.  However, other dishes don’t quite measure up to the price point they occupy.  In a recent trip with two friends, I had a similar experience.

We started with Artichoke Fritters—with “truffle aioli, soy-lime sauce.”  It’s a good dish I’ve enjoyed several times, and a safe dish to order with vegetarians.  Perhaps it seems there could be more artichoke fritter halves, but I’m willing to believe that perhaps these are organically sources artichokes and therefore more precious. 

The Waygu Beef Tartar appetizer special was very prettily presented.  As you can see in the picture on the top of this post, instead of the usual raw egg (or raw quail egg), there is a tempura soft-boiled egg sitting on top of a small mount of beef tartar.  Ultimately, the egg was somewhat disappointing because it was quite cold inside—perhaps something they needed to do in order to tempura fry it without overcooking the egg?—but it was a beautiful presentation.  The pickled green beans you can see on the left side of the picture was an unexpected big hit for our table.

One of the main dishes was a vegetarian burger, but that didn’t seem very special.  I’m not sure any of us would go out of our way to order this dish again at a slightly upscale restaurant.  My Waygu Burger was better, and one of the diners at our table declared it not only her favorite dish of the evening but one of the best things she’s tasted in years.  I'm not sure I'd go quite that far, but I enjoyed it.  I love Cambozola cheese (Camembert with Gorgonzola), and caramelized onions, and bacon, and pretzel buns, and Kobe beef, but as another friend mentioned, perhaps all that resulted in a little too much flavor competition.  I might skip the bun next time and go the way of Prairie Grass’s award-winning sirloin burger.

The third main course sort of represents what is both “so good” and “so so” about Sola.  I loved the very crisply fried green beans on top, and the edamame puree on the bottom was a clever idea on making the dish more Asian-inspired.  But the salmon itself didn’t taste very “ginger-glazed.”  And while I’m not normally one who complains about portion sizes in fine restaurants, I thought the dish was fairly insubstantial at $27.

So, a mixed-positive review with great appetizers and some winning main courses.  What’s not mixed, however, is the experience of being able to relax with refills of coffee towards the end of a Friday evening.  Even though the restaurant seemed mostly full, it wasn’t packed with hungry and hip diners eyeing our table at 9:15pm.  The atmosphere—with a fireplace and convivial people—was a great addition to dining enjoyment. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Flaky, Simple Apple Galette for the Holidays

Bon Appétit calls it a “Salted Butter Apple Galette” (from their November 2014 issue), but I think of it also as a rectangular crostada.   Whatever you call it, I think it’s yummy!  Surprisingly, Will—who actually baked it, and bakes most desserts in our household—wasn’t as keen on this.  I—who usually roll my eyes when Will wants to try yet another new recipe—thought that this was definitely a winner.

So, click here for the original recipe, and then let me tell you why I like it.

Simple Crust
There’s something simpler about crusts for crostadas and galettes and tart tatins.  “Apple Crostada” and “Apple Galette” and “Tart Tatin” all seem to have in common the idea that the “Apple Pie” is just as tasty when the crust isn’t labored over and crimped and double-layered.  (Though, of course, the pie is also delicious!)

Apple Slices
Perhaps it’s the fact that apples don’t have to be peeled.  Or perhaps the fact that it gives us another excuse to use one of our cheapest and favorite kitchen implements: the plastic mandolin.  Anyway, the combination of not having to peel and being able to use the mandolin (for those lovely layers of apples!) makes the work for this dessert less laborious.  (Hmmm.  I sense a common thread in all this.  Less work!)

Brown Butter
I love brown butter flavor in desserts.  I love it in Brown Butter Poundcake, in my favorite Pumpkin Pie recipe (click here), and here in this galette.  It lends flavor without having to add too much sweetness.  In this recipe, you only sprinkle 3 tablespoons of sugar on top of the apple slices!  Yet you get a nutty, slightly salty, slightly sweet, buttery concoction.

But I wonder whether that’s also the reason why Will isn’t as fond of this recipe as I am.  (He couldn’t quite identify why, himself.)  There are people who need sugar more, and people who need fat more.  While I personally like both, I’m more a fat person.  I don’t mind the less sweet, as long as there is plenty of fat.  Perhaps those who grew up on sweet and syrupy pie fillings don’t like the idea of NOT having the extra dose of sugar…?

Anyway, I think you should think about this as a possible addition to your Thanksgiving meal, especially if you want something lighter at the end of a heavy meal.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Dove's Luncheonette: Not Your Typical Diner

It looks like a diner.  It calls itself a “luncheonette.”  It serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  And coffee.  But this isn’t your typical diner.  (And if it is, you are a very lucky eater.)

Will and I—normally fuddy-duddy individuals who don't get much south of Andersonville for our dining—have found ourselves frequenting Wicker Park and Bucktown and Logan Square for our recent restaurant outings.  The average age of other diners in these restaurants (Xoco in Wicker Park, Wasabi, Yusho, and now Dove’s Luncheonette) hover around 23—and it’s even that high only because occasionally there are others (like us) who leave their comfort zone to try new places.

Well, our verdict on Dove’s Luncheonette is a definite thumbs up.   The atmosphere is relaxed—once you are able to get seated.  (Otherwise, there really isn’t a great place to “wait” for seating.)  The space is fairly small, with communal larger tables and then stool seating hugging walls, windows, and the bar.  We luckily landed two spaces by the window and (dorkily) felt quite cool being able to see all the hip, young people with their bright futures spread out before them.  Spaces around the impressive tequila bar (pictured above) seemed lively and fun as well.

Having done some research beforehand, we had a good sense of what we wanted to try.  I have to say that I’m really glad I pushed us to order the potato and pepper hash (above).  Potatoes were mashed and then fried such that the we got lots of surface area that got crispy.  The slightly hot peppers—and only slightly hot, and nicely mellowed by the roasting—added a nice complement of soft to the potato’s crisp.  A drizzle of creamy sauce and then chopped cilantro added just the right additional touches.  This side is a definite winner.

Will was warned that the smoked brisket “taco” (above) was in fact ONE large taco—and it was!  You got a large, thicker-than-usual flour tortilla with a fairly substantial slab of smoked brisket, tomatoes, avocados, and other condiments.  His favorites were the chincharron pieces that topped the dish!  Essentially, you use fork and knife to cut off pieces of tortilla and meat, and then make smaller taco bites from the whole tortilla.

We enjoyed my Pozole Rojo but also agree with some yelp posters that the temperature of the soup could have been hotter.  Even without putting in the sides (tortillas chips, shredded cabbage, disks of radish, and avocado pieces—on the left of the picture above) the soup was not quite hot enough.  So I had to make sure that I didn’t drop the temperature to merely tepid by putting in condiments too quickly.   It was good, but I have had cheaper and more flavorful—and hot—pozole at mom-and-pop Mexican taco joints.

Though our meals were filling, we decided that we needed to order the famed Mexican Cholocate Crema pie mentioned in reviews (on both Chicago Reader and Yelp).  It was a thick and fudgy and cinnamon-y concoction with a nice little cayenne pepper heat.  If you like Mexican hot chocolate, you’ll enjoy this dark chocolate pie version (below) as well!

On the whole, it was a pleasant and relaxing experience with lots of good foodTypical diner?  No. But, it’s the kind of diner we’d like around our own neighborhood.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Katic Breads at Our Local Farmer's Market

Last month, we visited our local farmer’s market for the first time in a while.  I’m not quite sure why we forgot that we were within 5 minutes walking distance of our really quite decent market (more on that in another post), but alas we did forget.  And that’s really too bad.  For we discovered—apparently new for this year?—a new stand that we love so much that we’ve been kicking ourselves for not having enjoyed it the rest of the market season!

Katic Breads has some of the most wonderful croissants and breads that I’ve had in the United States.  Yes, I know, that is pretty serious praise.  I will be clearer about this.  We like Katic Breads’ croissants better than any croissants we’ve had with the exception of a place in the north Marais neighborhood of Paris which received the first place prize for croissants in the Paris croissant competition.  (You should know that we visited MANY boulangeries and patisseries during our 4 weeks in France the last two summers.) 

We also like Baker and Nosh which has very buttery and caramelized croissants, but they tend to be on the small side, and are more expensive to boot.  Katic’s croissants (pictured above), while not quite as caramelized on the bottom, still have beautiful crusts on top and bottom and have the MOST lovely layers and are large and flaky and an absolute bargain at $2. 

Their chocolate croissants (at $2.50) have some seriously good dark chocolate, and it’s best served slightly warmed so that the chocolate could melt a bit and expand into more crevices. 

Their almond croissant ($3) is reminiscent of the first really good almond croissant we had when we visited a boulangerie near Rue Cler in the 7th arrondissement in Paris in 2003.  Katic’s almond croissant (pictured below) has sweet almond filling in the middle as well as covered over the top and crusted over and then sprinkled with toasted almond slices.  Heavenly!  They also offer an almond-chocolate croissant for the same price as the almond croissant, but really that’s almost too much.  We like enjoying each flavor separately—for maximum effect.

And, my goodness, the raisin walnut bread!  When I overheard the lady at the stall talking about a Winter Share program, I signed up right away.  I sent in my order form with a check and will be waiting with bated breath for my first pick-up of Katic Breads in mid-November!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Wasabi: A Review

That would be Wasabi, the restaurant on 2115 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago (click here for their website)—not “wasabi” the green horseradish paste dabbed on sushi.

Will and I were a bit apprehensive about whether we should try this restaurant since it seemed so “hip.”  We are getting to that age where we are either annoyed by the super-hip young people, or—more usually—we are annoying to them.  We were made both more hesitant and more emboldened by a review of the restaurant on Yelp that included this description: “the crowd can be kinda hipster-ish.  Feel a little uncomfortable without facial hair, flannel shirt, or visible tattoos.  but I forgot about it after the first slurp of the ramen.”

We thought that we would not be able to get in without a long wait since we didn’t get an early start after our Friday workday was over.  However, we seemed to time the highway and lights ok—and even found a parking space opening up right in front of the restaurant as we were pulling into that block.  (Sure, we had to pay a lot for parking, but that’s a reality of living in Chicago these days.) 

Once we got to the restaurant, we put our name down on a clipboard, where we were also asked if we would be willing to be seated at the bar.  Seeing a crowd formed already, we agreed to do so.  Only about 15 minutes later, they called my name and asked if we wanted to sit outside.  It being what we thought might be the last pleasant weekend in Chicago, we heartily agreed.  It was a little chilly, but we enjoyed sitting outside.  The el screeching to a stop every few minutes was something of a distraction, yes, but it was fun to people watch in an area we don’t normally frequent. 

Even before we got our food, we were feeling positive about the hordes of twenty-something Asians milling outside with their non-Asian partners and friends.  (And since when was it so cool to be a young Asian?  Clearly I was in my twenties at the wrong time!)  The Asian presence boded well for the authenticity of the flavor, and the mix of crowd also suggested that this was a new, young, bold kind of pan-Asian flavor.

We ordered a variety of grilled skewers since Will was feeling reminiscent about all the yakitorias he visited during the years he taught English in a little Japanese village.  Pork belly was his favorite, but the chicken skin was not nearly cooked as crisp as it should have been.  The fried chicken lollipops were fun, and the pork belly and kimchi spring roll (pictured below) was another fried bit of yummy.  We were glad to have gotten both recommendations from all the yelp reviews (click here for reviews.).

The other item that reviewers raved about was the Spicy Garlic Miso Ramen (pictured at the top of post)—with the obligatory Berkshire pork belly.  (Notice a theme here?)  That dish was hands down our favorite.  The broth was amazingly flavorful, the egg just perfectly soft-boiled (where you can see the glistening center of uncooked yolk), and the generous pork slices just melting in your mouth.

I asked Will whether this ramen reminded him of his years in Japan.  He quickly replied that this ramen was far better than any ramen he had in Japan.  There you have it.  That's as hearty a recommendation as one could get.  

Friday, October 17, 2014

Wherefore Kimchi Chigae?

After Thanksgiving one year, I celebrated the original part of my heritage by making some kimchi chigae.  (You can read the post here.)  But while that post has step-by-step photos about how to make this quintessential Korean “stew”—there really isn’t an equivalent word in English language for this type of food—I didn’t really explain why such a dish is so popular and so entrenched in Korean cooking.

The other members of my family are almost strictly Korean-food consumers.  The men—my father and brother—are particularly so, and cannot conceive of going two meals without kimchi.  I’m not even sure that they actually EAT a lot of kimchi when they finally get it, but it almost seems as if the term “kimchi” is a short cut representing “comfort food.”  Sort of like the way the word “rice”(bop) is synonymous with “food.”  In case you’ve never heard this, it might interest you to know that many Asian cultures greet people by asking: “Have you eaten (rice)?”

This being the case, I did sort of feel I was letting down my heritage when I recently looked in the fridge and saw two jars of kimchi sitting in the back corner.  It appears that I got a bit over-zealous in my estimation that we’d be able to finish our first jar and then purchased a second when I was last at H-Mart.  Since that shopping trip was over a month ago, that meant that the older jar was much older than a month.  (Unlike the rest of my family, Will and I don't go through jars of kimchi that quickly...) Hooray for fermented foods that don’t really “spoil” quickly!  But upon opening the jar, I realized that the older jar was at a fermentation stage even most die-hard kimchi eaters would look askance at.  Hooray for kimchi chigae!

I sometimes have to explain why many Korean food items tend to be so heavily spiced and salty.  For those who know Korean food only via vast quantities of grill-it-yourself-bbq restaurants (featuring bul-go-gi and kal-bi), it comes as something of a surprise that most traditional Korean food is not terribly meat-centric.  After all, for so many decades (centuries…millennia) Koreans were a poor culture.  They had to stretch any bit of expensive protein by putting them in soups, as side dishes, and as chigae. 

While I am not an expert on comparative food histories, I would venture to guess that most nations with a history of depressed economies, war, and occupation would have cuisine that would similarly attempt to make a little bit of meat or fish go a long way.  Certainly, I’m sure many in these cultures wouldn’t have said “no” to sushi and steaks—and many are now consuming those very items in a gluttonous fashion—but most people didn’t really have those options.

That explains the popularity and prevalence of something like kimchi chigae.  “Chigae” (or “jjigae”) would be analogous to something like any Thai curries or Indian stew-y dishes like dal mahkani or chicken tikka masala or lamb vindaloo.  You do not eat any of those dishes—or kimchi chigae—like you would American beef stew or French boeuf bourguignon.  These Asian stews are much more heavily seasoned, and a little bit of it is supposed to accompany a lot of rice.  In fact, it would likely cause some gastrointestinal discomfort should you attempt to consume a whole bowl of any of the above by itself.

For instance, kimchi chigae’s main ingredient is (ta-da!) lots of kimchi—usually fermented to the point where your family members wouldn’t want to eat it fresh, without some tampering (or tempering).  But why dump it when you can still whip up a family favorite out of otherwise “spoiled” food?  You simply need to add—for flavoring, just in case it’s not spicy enough as it is!—staples of Korean cooking like Asian red pepper flakes (much like Turkish Aleppo recently popularized in cooking magazines) and brick red Korean chili paste called gochujang. 

Then you top up with water and—if you have it—pork belly (picture above).  If not, then you can still make the dish with an item from your pantry, a can of tuna broken up into chunks (picture below).  Boil, boil, simmer, simmer.

Then you add some cheaper protein by slicing up some tofu.  I like to use either soft or medium firm.  I find “silky” tofu breaks up too easily (and you can save that for when you make another spicy stew called soon-dubu (“soft tofu”), and I’m not usually a fan of “firm” tofu unless I’m frying it up.

Now you know how and why a jar of pickled cabbage otherwise consigned to a kitchen disposal or a garbage dump becomes another variation of a national dish! 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Nueske's Ham, Kale, and Gruyere Cassrole

Since we seem to be on the topic of ham-and-cheese bakes, here's another one that might be an appealing early fall dish...

In September, we like to go apple picking in Wisconsin orchards (click here for a related post) and then buying up goodies in their “country” stores.  Smoked sausages (check), smoked Mozzarella (check), Nueske’s bacon (check), etc.   When we find ourselves struggling to go through all our excellent ham—having sort of gone off eating meat…—we turn to an old stand-by recipe from our Food&Wine Quick from Scratch One-Dish Meals Cookbook.

While we enjoy the “Canadian Bacon, Potato, and Swiss-Chard Gratin,” you might notice (if you click for the recipe here) that it is not rated terribly highly.  And I agree that the dish is a bit salty.  But there are other elements that I think can improve this recipe—elements I essentially stumbled upon while improvising with ingredients I had available to me at the time.

Try it my way and see if you like the dish any better.  I’m providing step-by-step photos for best visual guides, along with what I did differently—and why:

1) Turn oven on to preheat to 425 degrees.  Sauté torn leaves from 1 pound bunch of Kale along with 1 minced garlic and ¼ cup thinly sliced onion or 1 julienned leek (only the white part) in 2 T extra-virgin olive oil until wilted.  Lightly salt and pepper.

Note: The original recipe called for ½ pound Swiss chard with the addition of only garlic.  I switched to kale mostly because I had it around, but I also liked the fact that kale is a bit hardier and therefore stood up to the long cooking time better than chard.  I went to a full pound because ½ pound of greens didn’t seem to go very far (especially once you remove the kale stems).  The addition of leek was purely by chance since my CSA box had it that week and I hadn’t another chance to go through it.  However, I liked the way the leek/onion added another dimension and took away from the overall impression of saltiness as the main flavor profile of this dish.

2) After using your mandoline (or thinly slicing by hand) 2 pounds of peeled baking potatoes and grating 6 ounces of Gruyère cheese, grease an 8x10 or a deep 8x8 casserole dish.

Note: I use Comté for the cheese (since it’s my favorite, nutty, Gruyère), and I increase the quantity of potato and use a slightly larger dish to accommodate the greater amount of potato and kale.

3) Have ½ pound lightly smoked ham slices ready to go, and you can now compile the layers.  Place 1/3 of potato slices on the bottom of the pan, lightly salt and pepper, and then top with 1/3 of cheese, and then about ¼  pound of lightly smoked ham slices.  Then spread the kale mixture all across the top.  Then top with another 1/3 potato slices, some more salt and pepper to taste, 1/3 more cheese, and ¼ pound ham slices.  Then top with the rest of the potatoes, more salt and pepper (only to taste!), and then the rest of the cheese.  Pour ¾ cup chicken broth over the casserole.

Note: To my knowledge, we’ve never used Canadian Bacon for this recipe.  It seems to me that the texture of Canadian Bacon, especially if used with the less hardy Swiss chard, would be too tough.  And while I understand wanting to season each element, I would also go very lightly with the salting and peppering between each layer of potatoes since you will have salted and peppered quite a few times by the end of the layers.  And, yes, I would use low-sodium chicken broth.

4) The rest is just cooking and following the original recipe instructions.  You should cover the casserole dish with aluminum foil to let potatoes steam bake for 15 minutes before removing the foil and letting the cheese melt and brown for the next 30 minutes. 

Note: As with most casseroles—especially those with buttered bread crumbs or cheese—feel free to run the top under a broiler if the potatoes are done and the top is not browned to your liking.

After you let it settle for a couple of minutes, carefully cut into big lasagna squares so that you can see the layers of potatoes, greens, ham, and the crusty cheese!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Leftover Special: Cheddar, Ham and Pasta Bake

From one of our favorite cookbooks, Hay Day Country Market Cookbook, we make the Vermont Cheddar Chowder at least once a year.  It always seems to be just when the weather gets a little chillier—and when the Fall semester is fully on its way, with lots of grading ahead.  Perhaps there is something very comforting about this soup or perhaps it’s just become a tradition, but we can rely on a late September or early October week bringing with it a large pot of white cheddar soup with potatoes and carrots and chives.

But it’s just the two of us in our household, and a big pot of soup can get a little tiresome.  Boring.  So we appreciate the fact that our cookbook suggests other ways to use the soup left over after the first day of enjoying it.  They call it a “Creamy Cheddar Pasta Bake.”  I call it a life-saver when I’m trying to find an easy weeknight solution between grading.  Here are my steps:

1) Have ready 2-3 cups of a cheddar cheese soup of your choice, depending on how creamy you like pasta casseroles.  Soup does not need to be warmed up.

2) Cook ½ lb of dried pasta of your choice, and turn oven on to 350 degrees.

3) In the meantime, add ½ cup grated extra sharp cheddar cheese.  (Because Vermont Cheddar Chowder is a white cheese soup, I actually like to grate orange cheddar at this step so that I could get some interesting contrast in color, but you can stick to additional white cheddar if you’d like.)  Chop up or cut ham into chunks to equal ½ cup.  Add cheese and ham to the soup along with ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. 

4) Mix pasta into the soup mixture and combine.

5) Stir 1 tablespoon melted butter into ½ cup panko bread crumbs, and then grind fresh salt and pepper into the crumb mixture.

6) Lightly grease (oil spray) a medium casserole dish, spread pasta mix in the dish, and then sprinkle bread crumbs evenly over the pasta. 

7) Bake for 30 minutes.  If the pasta mixture is bubbly but the top is not browned, turn the broiler on and brown the top for 3 minutes.  The casserole should end up looking like the picture above.

We actually go out of our way to find recipes that transform themselves into other main dish courses later in the week.  I suspect this is the way most people survive the hectic workweek, right?