Sunday, August 6, 2017


Korean Dinner

I took a break from the politics and music this past week to cook a dinner served Saturday. I started my "birthday dinner" tradition back in the mid-1990s, where I would take a national cuisine and try to make as many varied dishes as I could muster. I suppose the original idea was just to show off: the first two dinners were Chinese, which I largely figured out in the early 1980s while living in New Jersey. Then I moved on to Indian -- another old interest although I didn't get to be really good at it until the birthday dinners started up -- and then Turkish. Later on I started using the dinners as research projects as I attempted to figure out other cuisines: Spanish, Thai, Moroccan, Lebanese, Japanese, Iranian, Italian, Greek, Brazilian, Cuban, Russian.

I've long felt like Korean would be worth trying. I've dabbled a bit, mostly from working from Charmaine Solomon's The Complete Asian Cookbook. My first Korean food came from a restaurant in Cambridge (MA): small nuggets of intensely flavored beef. A decade later, I had a friend in Boston who several times fixed huge feasts of homemade Korean food. One of the first times I tried cooking at a relative's home, we bought beef short ribs and I marinated and grilled them. But I never got out of the rut of habitually ordering bulgogi when I got the chance. A couple years back I bought a copy of Young Jin Song's The Food and Cooking of Korea, but until recently it languished on the shelf.

A few months ago I decided to give it a go. I planned out a menu, and knowing I'd need some lead time I went ahead and made a batch of classic kimchi. I did some shopping to figure out what could be found, but we couldn't schedule the dinner I had hoped for, and I wound up making a "practice run" with what I had bought -- a pretty substantial dinner in its own right. I finally got a chance to go all out this week. I started shopping on Wednesday, and made the first batch of kimchi that night. More shopping Thursday, plus an emergency run on Friday. Cooked some things on Friday, and finished up on Saturday, producing the spread (not very artfully laid out) photographed below:

I made an image map to identify the various dishes, but it only works on the unscaled image here. As I understand it, one can write some JavaScript to work around the rescaling problem, but I've wasted enough time on that already.

In addition to the Song cookbook mentioned above, I bought two more Korean cookbooks: Deuki Hong/Matt Rodbard, Koreatown: A Cookbook, and Maangchi's Real Korean Cooking. I ordered the latter after finding several promising recipes on the author's website. I built up a long shopping list with a tentative menu (16 dishes), noting what I already had and what I would need. Then I added various things as I looked through the books, trying to expand my options or just to get a sense of what's available. For example, I never found perilla leaves, bellflower root, or dried file fish (although I did something labeled "filetfish"); I found but didn't buy fresh burdock and dried fernbrake.

I started my shopping at Thai Binh, the largest Vietnamese grocery in town. They cover Chinese and Thai pretty well, with a smallish specifically Korean section where I had previously bought chili paste (gochujang), bean paste (doenjang), coarse chili powder (gochugaru), and coarse sea salt. They have a substantial produce section (although no water chestnuts this time) and a tremendous variety of frozen fish so I figured they'd be my best shot. Then I stopped at Dillons to get the beef, pork ribs, and some more conventional vegetables. Still, I came up short in several respects, so I googled for Korean groceries and found two more: Grace Korean-Japanese Market and Kimson Asian Food Market. I went to them on Thursday, and that evening went to Sprouts and Dillons. I didn't actually have much on the list by that time, other than English mustard, which I finally found at Dillons (Rock/Central).

Grace was small but had a couple things I hadn't picked up before. They also have a small cafe area which seemed pretty inactive. I picked up a couple "homemade" batches of seaweed and shrimp salads, but didn't particularly like either. Kimson only had about a third as much space as Thai Binh but was packed so they had almost as much stuff, including some things I had never seen locally (like frozen sea urchin for sushi). I wound up having to go out again on Friday -- Thai Binh and Dillons -- as I couldn't find the short-grain (sushi) rice I was sure I had plenty of.

Notes on the menu: Most Korean food is very hot (spicy, but aside from chilis, garlic, and ginger there are virtually no spices). The heat comes from chili powder, chili paste, or (much less often) chili oil or fresh peppers. I can barely tolerate hot peppers, so in all of the following recipes I either cut them way back or completely out (though I usually kept the garlic and sugar which are probably included just to draw out the heat). I thought about serving a hot sauce on the side, but doubted any of my guests especially wanted it. (The kimchis were still pretty hot in my book.) Also, virtually every Korean dish is topped with sesame seeds, which I also omitted (although I offered black sesame seeds on the side).

  • Classic Cabbage Kimchi (Song): I made this several months ago, and had enough leftover for the rice and to serve on the side. Start with a Chinese (napa) cabbage, split into quarters and soak in salt water 2 hours. Then dry, sprinkle with salt (working between the layers), and let stand 4 hours. Mix seasoning: daikon, Asian chives, garlic, ginger, onion, Asian pear, scallions, water chestnut, chili powder, fish sauce, sugar. Recipe called for a couple oysters. I think I used some smoked oysters, not really the same thing. Rinse the salt, then stuff the seasoning between the cabbage leaves. Then it's just a matter of setting, initially at room temp, later in refrigerator -- no need to bury in back yard.

  • White Kimchi (Song): Same basic idea minus the chili powder (chopped fresh chilis provide heat without color -- I used small Thai peppers, one red and one green). I just did half a head of napa cabbage: salted it, rinsed it, soaked it 24 hours in a kelp stock (with apple, pear, and a red date), then drained and stuffed with daikon, scallions, ginger, red dates, garlic. I didn't have fermented shrimp, so soaked some dried shrimp, chopped it up, and added a little shrimp paste. Also didn't have watercress. This then needed to sit another day.

  • Diced White Radish Kimchi (Song): I took about half of a very large daikon, peeled it, cut into half-inch cubes, and salted it. For seasoning I used sugar, chili powder, garlic, onion, scallions, sea salt, fish sauce, ginger, and brown sugar. Recipe calls for 5 tbs chili powder. I used one, plus some Spanish smoked paprika to keep the color up.

  • Boy Choy Kimchi (Hong): This cookbook has a "five quick kimchis to keep in your fridge" section, which all use the same basic cure (sugar and kosher salt) and the same marinade: Asian pear, chili powder, fish sauce, garlic, sugar, ginger. I cut the chili down to about one-third, and this wound up being the hottest dish I served. I cut the bok choy in half, sprinkled the cure, waited an hour of two, rinsed, then added the marinade and refrigerated.

  • Pineapple Kimchi (Hong); I bought a pineapple core, cut it into chunks, added the quick marinade, and refrigerated. Not a traditional kimchi, but something that struck the authors' fancy, and actually pretty tasty.

  • Griddled Beef with Sesame and Soy (Song): Aka bulgogi. Dillons has 12-oz. packages of thin-sliced steak which work perfectly for this (I've made it several times), so I bought two. Sliced the beef into 1-inch squares. Marinade: scallions, onion, Asian pear, dark soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, black pepper, garlic, a little lemon juice (recipe calls for lemonade). Recipe warns against marinating over two hours ("becomes too salty"), but Hong calls for overnight (and uses the saltier thin soy sauce, and more of it). To cook, I heated up a cast iron skillet and dumped the bag in. In retrospect I should have dumped the bag into a collander to drain more liquid from the marinade, as it almost turned into a braise, and I wound up cooking the meat longer than I would have had I not had to boil off so much sauce.

  • Deiji Kalbi (Hong): I originally planned on making Griddled Doenjang Pork (Song), using pork loin and fermented bean paste, then saw this recipe and merged them. I bought a side of spare ribs -- about three pounds -- and separated them. Mixed up a marinade in the food processor: Asian pear, apple, onion, chili paste (about 1 tbs), fermented bean paste (about 4 tbs), black pepper, mirin, soy sauce, garlic, sugar. Recipe called for 1 cup of chili sauce + 1/4 cup of ground chili (for about 50% more pork), with none of the bean paste, so they were looking for super spicy. I wanted something earthier, with just a little kick. I marinated this overnight, put it on the rack of a roasting pan with some water, and baked it at 350F for about an hour.

  • Seafood Salad in Mustard Dressing (Song): Recipe for 2 so my plan was to scale it up 3X, but I wound up exceeding that, then I forgot about the scaling when I made the dressing, so wound up making a second batch (and now that I think of it, probably should have made a third). Recipe calls for squid, shrimp, whelks, jellyfish, and crab. I got a frozen package of small squid tubes that had been crosshatched, and I substituted pre-cooked periwinkles for the whelks. I found a 1 lb. package of shredded and salted frozen jellyfish. I got a little more than a pound of snow crab legs, so boiled them and extricated the meat. The squid, shrimp, and jellyfish were also boiled briefly. I initially started with a half-pound of shrimp, then decided they were so much better than everything else so I made the rest of the 1 lb. bag. And I wound up only using about 1/3 of the periwinkles and 1/4 of the jellyfish. I chilled the seafood, then added julienned carrots, Asian pear, and cucumber, plus some shredded napa cabbage. Then the seasoning: English (hot) mustard, sugar, vinegar, salt, dark soy sauce, sesame oil (instead of chili oil). I decided it was piquant enough but could use some more mild mustard, so added some dijon, then honey dijon.

  • Stir-fried Kimchi and Rice (Hong): I made a pot of short-grain rice the day before: soaked the rice through multiple passes, then boiled and cooked over low heat. I started with two cups of raw rice, and only used three cups here, so I have a lot leftover. I got some thick-sliced bacon at Dillons, and chopped up three slices. I browned them, added a chopped onion, about a cup of classic kimchi, chopped ginger and garlic, then the rice. One suggestion is to serve this with two sunny-side up fried eggs. I had the idea that I could push the rice to one side, add some oil, and fry a couple of eggs in situ. I covered them briefly, then when the bottoms had set, flipped them over, and before the yolks set started folding them back into the rice. Garnished with chopped scallions.

  • Spicy-Sweet Shredded Squid (Hong): I found some dried whole squids, about 8-inches long and flattened, that were still pliable. Cut them into thin shreds. Put them in a pan with a little water and cooked them until the water evaporated. Mixed up a sauce: chili paste, sugar, rice syrup, mirin, sesame oil. (I think I added some hoisin sauce and ketchup to the sauce -- or maybe that was some other dish.) Added the sauce to the squid and continued to cook until it was well glazed.

  • Sweet Potato with Almond Syrup (Song): Two sweet potatoes, peeled, quartered and cut into half-inch slices. I baked them for 20 minutes, then deep fried them. Made a syrup of brown sugar and water, and after it thickened turned off the heat, stirred in some ground almonds ("flour"), then added the sweet potato chunks, stirring to coat. Several problems here: syrup got too thick and the almonds were ground too fine (recipe calls for 2 almonds, crushed, which might have worked better) so they acted more as a thickener. I wound up needing to add some water to the syrup, which thinned it adequately but also cooled it down. Ultimately minor problems.

  • Steamed Eggplant (Maangchi): I used two Japanese eggplants, cut into quarters then sliced into inch-long pieces. Steamed them, then served them in a sauce: fish sauce, soy, garlic, scallions, sesame oil.

  • Black Beans with Sweet Soy (Song): Start with a can of cooked black beans, then rinse, boil, rinse again, and boil again -- this time with sugar, thin soy, and maple syrup, until the water is evaporated. This actually wound up becoming a bit crunchy, as well as much more salty than sweet.

  • Sweet Lotus Root (Song): Bought a package of peeled, sliced lotus root. Soaked it in vinegar water, then boiled it a few minutes, then returned to pot with soy sauce and boiled for 20 minutes, then added sugar and maple syrup and boiled another 30 minutes, then add sesame oil. Before the last step, I still wasn't getting the look I wanted, so I switched to a deeper, narrower pot, and added some dark soy and maple syrup (and the sesame oil) and boiled it down to a thick syrup.

  • Beansprout Namul (Song): Recipe calls for soybean sprouts, but I used mung bean sprouts. Soaked in salt water, then par-boiled, then sauteed with scallions and sesame oil.

  • Spinach Namul (Song): Steamed a bunch of spinach. Mixed up a sauce: dark soy, garlic, sesame oil, rice wine. Added the spinach to the sauce, and let it sit for a while. Heated up a skillet, added a bit of oil, and quickly heated up the mix.

  • Braised Shiitake Mushroom and Onion (Song): Chopped a half onion. Trimmed stems from a package of mushrooms. Mixed them with garlic and sauce: dark soy, sesame oil, maple syrup. Dumped them all in a pot and braised until the water evaporated.

  • Sweet Rice with Red Dates (Song): Made this for dessert. Starts with glutinous rice, which is soaked, then put into a pot with brown sugar, a cup of water, chopped dates, chopped chestnuts, raisins, sesame oil, cinnamon, and a pinch of salt. Then "add water until it covers the rice by about 2cm (3/4 inch)"; bring to a boil, then turn low. I decided mejdol dates would be better than the dried red dates, and I missed the cinnamon, but the bigger problem was too much water. The result was a sticky mass with puddles of water. I dusted it with cinnamon, topped with pine nuts, and served, but it wasn't very good -- maybe not quite a disaster but the night's poorest showing.

I'm reconstructing this from memory, so I may not even have the right cookbook for several recipes that appeared on multiple books. I did what seems like more than the usual mount of fiddling, not just to adjust the heat and avoid sesame seeds. I did quite a bit of fiddling with various sauces to get an appealing mix of tastes. And aside from the dessert it pretty much all worked. Interesting that the dishes with the highest-percentage leftovers were the kimchi (although the rice, which is usually the least popular choice, was most nearly wiped out).

I scratched a half-dozen possible dishes at various points in the afternoon. I had bought groceries to make: zucchini namul, buckwheat noodles, braised bean curd. I could have done a chives namul. I had more bok choy which I could have fixed with the bean paste. I had cucumbers which could have been used several different ways (but I didn't have time to do proper pickles). I could have made the extra jellyfish into its own dish (similar to the squid). I also had dried anchovies that could be given the squid treatment. I bought red and green bell peppers and can't remember what they were for. I have a piece of barbecued eel in the freezer. I could have taken some of the rice, dressed it with sugar and vinegar, and made sushi, topped with wasabi, broiled eel, and sweetened soy. (Would have been better than the dessert I served.)

There's a lot more Korean food I could have made -- something to try out later. I wanted to have lots of little things (Koreans call them banchan) rather than a big main course. That's why I didn't consider doing a soup or a combo rice dish like bibimbap. In fact, I didn't want to serve plain rice, even though that's the foundation virtually all Korean meals are built upon. I also figured I should stay away from obvious Japanese imports like sushi, teriyaki, and tempura (all common in Korea). I figured the bulgogi was essential, and what sold me on the pork ribs was the possibility of sticking it in the oven and forgetting about it. Similarly, the seafood salad could be made early and out of the way, and having those three dishes really didn't leave much room for chicken or fish. One thing I was tempted by but figured was too tricky and/or marginally weird was the raw blue crabs -- Thai Binh stocks them, and they basically get kimchi'ed for a couple days before serving, so they wouldn't have presented a logistical problem.

Figuring out the logistics is a big part of these large-scale dinners. In fact, this one was relatively easy, the first critical task figuring out what I could (and could not) obtain, and where to shop for it. The kimchis had relatively long lead times (pickles were already out of the question), so that determined when I had to start. I've done meals so complicated that I've mapped them out using charts, but this one wasn't that mind-boggling. After I made the kimchis, on Friday I cooked the seafood, roasted the sweet potatoes, steamed the spinach and eggplant, cooked the plain rice, made the squid, and marinated the meat. Hardest thing there (by far) was picking out the crab meat. I got up a little after noon on Saturday and started working through the little dishes -- the braises sometimes took an hour or more, but I could plate them when they were done. While the braises were going on I julienned the vegetables and dressed the salad, then put it back in the refrigerator. I usually get desserts out of the way early, but this one could be cooked anytime, and there was very little prep to it. The final push could hardly have been simpler: put the ribs in the oven, fix the fried rice, then finish the steak. And I could wait until the guests arrived to do the latter.

So, a pretty memorable dinner. Learned a lot while doing it. The guests seemed pretty pleased. The dog tried crawling into the dishwasher to help with the prewash. I won't try to get into the dinner discussion and all that, which for me was probably the highlight of the evening. Had some leftover ribs and sweet potatoes for dinner this evening. Have some people coming over Monday to help clean out the leftovers -- and maybe I'll cook some of the scratched dishes then. Hopefully Trump won't start bombing Korea by then. I was born during the Korean War. I'd hate to suffer through a second one.