Posts Tagged ‘chicken’

The power of chicken (and ginseng)

October 1, 2009

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I was reading a book on Korean food history the other day and came across this gem:

“The last king of the Baekje Dynasty was so energized and nourished by samgyetang made from Baekje chicken and Geumsan ginseng that he was able to bed 3000 court ladies.”

I’d heard 삼계탕, samgyetang was revitalizing, but I had no idea it had Viagra-like powers.  (I guess that Baekje king was onto something, though—a 2002 study demonstrated that ginseng, a root long prized in Asian traditional medicine, can “enhance libido and copulatory performance.”)

Anyway, enough about sex.  Baekje was one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea and lasted from 18 B.C. to 660 A.D., which means Koreans have been eating samgyetang, one of my favorite soups, for over 1300 years.

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It’s essentially a whole, young chicken, small enough to fit into a single-serving stoneware bowl, stuffed with sweet, sticky rice, plenty of garlic, and ginseng. The chicken is simmered in water right in that bowl, along with jujubes, more ginseng and other “good-for-you” ingredients, if you like, until the meat becomes incredibly tender and the bowl is filled with a rich, fragrant broth.

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If you have a source for delicious, quality chickens, the kind that have real flavor, it’s very easy to make at home.  It may be blasphemous for me to say so, but I think it’s delicious even when you can’t find ginseng.  You essentially stuff the chicken, pin it up with toothpicks or sew it up if you’re less lazy than I, and stick it in a pot.  A more detailed recipe will be in the cookbook, I promise.

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But the best place to try it in Seoul (and possibly the world) may be Seoul Samgyetang, otherwise known as Seoul Nutrition Center.  (Nearly every restaurant in Korea that sells samgyetang calls itself a “nutrition center.”)  Located in downtown Seoul, it’s in the old-fashioned alley of restaurants behind the Plaza Hotel.

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I can’t give you a street address because Seoul is only starting to name its streets—hence the little map printed on the back of all restaurant cards—but the phone number is 775-4300.  (If you have a Korean relative, this map will help you.  If not, ask your hotel concierge.)

Because chicken is the central ingredient in samgyetang, the restaurant is also a great place to try other iconic Korean chicken dishes, like 안동찜닭, a braised chicken and noodle dish made famous in the city of Andong, and 닭도리탕, spicy chicken and potato stew.  We ordered one of each, jjimdak, doritang, and samgyetang.  The waitress told us it was too much food for the five of us and not to order the samgyetang, but we ignored her.

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The first dish to appear was the Andong jjimdak, a giant platter of sweet potato dakmyeon or glass noodles, tossed with pieces of bone-in chicken and vegetables, including cooked cucumbers, which tasted much better than I expected.  The sauce was a light one, yet spicy, which wasn’t surprising given the copious amounts of dried red peppers.  It was more of a dry heat that hit me a bit in the back of my throat, which sounds unpleasant but wasn’t.  The chicken was tender and flavorful, even the white meat, and the chewiness of the noodles complemented the meat very well.

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The second plate they put on the table was full of dakdoritang, red and spicy in a completely different way.  The heat here came from ground red pepper and probably a touch or more of red pepper paste, so that the sauce was slightly sweet and wonderful mixed with rice.  The quality of the chicken was apparent in this dish as well.  I loved how the potatoes soaked in the flavor and gave the dish a warm, starchy, comforting quality.

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Both dishes served the chicken in the Korean way, the whole chicken chopped up, not a part thrown away, which is why as we rooted around, each platter yielded that curved piece, the chicken’s neck.  The sul anju, or the snack served with the complimentary cup of ginseng wine, was sautéed chicken gizzards, chewy to the point of being almost elastic but surprisingly tasty.

But the dish that highlighted the flavor of the chicken best was, of course, the samgyetang, the chicken-ginseng soup.  While the dakdoritang and the jjimdak was the kind of food that’s fun with a crowd, the samgyetang was the kind of dish you want for yourself and yourself alone.  The broth was clear and rich, with a noticeable ginseng, rootsy flavor, but without overpowering the familiar and delicious chicken flavor.  It was one of the most balanced samgyetangs I’ve ever had, as so many places overload the ginseng, as if to prove they used that expensive ingredient.  Compared to the spice and heat of the Andong braised chicken or the potato and chicken stew, the samgyetang didn’t create any fireworks in my mouth.  But it tasted so right.

And I felt so virile.  Just kidding!  But I did feel warm and happy and fully nourished.

Here’s one last photo of samgyetang you can get in New York, at Arirang on 32nd St.  To me, the flavor is a little muddy, especially compared to the clarity of the samgyetang I had at Seoul Samgyetang, but in a pinch, it’ll do.

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A bowl of chicken laksa

May 26, 2009
Roti telur, or roti with egg, and incredible sauces.

Roti telur, or roti with egg, and incredible sauces.

Despite its beef pie history, Sydney is truly a Pacific city. Like Vancouver, or San Francisco, it wears its Asianness pretty nonchalantly.

Great Vietnamese food isn’t trapped in some hard-to-reach ethnic neighborhood; you can find it right in Darlinghurst at Phamish, which is as spiffy and cute as its Vietnamized spelling implies.

Fish Face, with its incredible seafood, serves up a menu that lists fish and chips side by side with nigiri without any self-consciousness. Why should it be self-conscious, when Australian kingfish on rice melts like butter in your mouth?

Mamak, a new Malaysian darling in Chinatown, is a long, skinny space with a short, sweet menu, heavy on rotis.  It’s as cheap as a first-generation restaurant, but so obviously with the assuredness of a second-generation one. Also, there is a guy swinging roti dough in the front, more thrilling than any pizza throwing I’ve ever seen.

Of course, there’s also Japanese, Thai, even Nepalese, and Korean. (I would try the Korean food except I’m pretty sure of what I would find, good-enough food to satisfy the hungry Korean students, and not much more.)

Food court chicken laksa!

Food court chicken laksa!

But I think the moment I was most impressed by Sydney’s Asian food was when I had this bowl of chicken laksa at a food court. I’d been working on my day job at the Customs House, it was damp and rainy, and all I wanted was an easy, cheap lunch before I went back to work.  I chose the food court of a random office building; I’m not even sure I could find it again. There weren’t any recognizable franchises, just clearly marked sections for “sandwiches,” “coffee,” and “Asian.”

“Asian” in American food courts usually means something called Panda Wok or Great Wall, and it always serves very sweet orange chicken, sometimes with some steamed broccoli if you are lucky. At this food court, there was Hainanese chicken, dim sum, barbecued pork, and Singapore noodles. The dim sum looked like plastic in the display case, and to me, pan-Asian normally means nothing in particular is very good.

But the woman next to me was ordering a bowl of laksa, and it looked incredible. The menu said it was “a spicy, coconut milk broth,” and it looked as rich and oily as all good coconut broths do. When I sat down with my chicken laksa, I initially just stirred the soup, amazed at what was in it. The red-specked soup kept shifting color as I stirred, turning up big chunks of dark chicken meat and such a bounty of skinny egg noodles. The noodles tasted as good as they looked. My nose was so congested but I could still smell it!

It cost AUS$9, about US$7. A good value anywhere, but especially so in Sydney, which feels expensive to this New Yorker. And in a food court! I’ve had Asian food this good in food courts, but in places like Seoul and Richmond just outside Vancouver, which is almost as Chinese as Hong Kong. To me, the quality of food in a food court says more to me about a country’s culinary values than the food at a five-star restaurant. And to have chicken laksa this good in a non-Asian city…Sydney should be proud.

Korean food, your way

April 17, 2009

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You see here a plate of chicken in Oaxacan mole rojo, served with some Korean red beans and rice and a couple of squares of Korean radish pickles.

It was a lunch of convenience, my attempt to get rid of at least some of the funny little packets of food I have in my freezer.  (The mole rojo paste, in particular, was embarrassingly old.)  I’d originally planned to cook up the last bit of Mexican rice I have as well, but then I remembered how much Korean red bean-rice I had leftover and thought, hmm, beans and rice!

Honestly, it wasn’t very good.  Korean red beans and rice have a hearty, wholesome flavor that’s a little too strong for smooth, sweet mole rojo.  Even white Korean rice would have been better.  But my little attempt to marry Korean and Mexican flavors reminded me of a conversation I’d had at a Passover Seder last week.

I’d ended up sitting next to a researcher and writer at a food magazine.  She wasn’t Korean, but she’d noticed something I’ve been mulling over for awhile: Koreans are really open to new flavors.  She was thinking historically about how the New World chile pepper had become such an integral part of Korean cooking, but it’s still true today.

Korean kids eating street food in Seoul love putting slices of processed American cheese in their instant ramen and kimbap, or rice rolls.  There’s a whole stew built around Spam: budae-jjigae, otherwise known as Army Base Stew—where do you think they got the Spam? (Oh, this is awesome: it’s also called Johnson-tang, after Lyndon B. Johnson.)  And somehow, somewhere, someone got Le Cordon Bleu in Korea to create these horrific kimchi-French fusion dishes.  If anyone makes any of these and brings them to one of my Sunday dinners, I will give you a prize, with an extra-special prize if you make Camembert and Kimchi Fritters.

So it doesn’t surprise me at all to hear about Kogi, the Korean taco truck that’s Twittering all over L.A., or to watch David Chang’s star rise higher and higher.  (Kogi makes “inside-out” hotteok–brilliant!)  For all our Confucian values, Koreans, at least in our food, have never been afraid of change, newness, and foreign influence.  And for all my pooh-poohing about kiwi in galbi marinades, I think this openness is incredible and exhilarating.

More than anything else, my desire to respect this spirit is driving recipe development for this cookbook.  I am not a chef, neither is Diane.  We won’t be coming up with THE ultimate recipe for bulgogi.  But we will provide a strong, basic structure with which you can experiment and play and create recipes that are completely your own.

And if you tell me, as my friend Lina once did, that kimchi lasagna actually tastes good, I will try my hardest to believe you.

Tteok-guk, comfort food for kings

April 13, 2009

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I almost forgot about the rice cake soup on Sunday night.

I had decided to reprise the fried chicken, in honor of my friend Sharon’s visit from New Haven, and given how long it takes to fry 5 pounds of fried chicken plus the amount of food we’d already eaten, it wasn’t surprising I forgot about the beef broth just simmering at the back of the stove.

Scallion-seafood pancakes, also in Sharon's honor

Scallion-seafood pancakes, also in Sharon's honor

When I finally did get around to serving it, it was warmly appreciated it, the way it always is.  떡국, tteok-guk, or rice cake soup, is one of the milder Korean soups.  There’s no fiery red pepper or fermented soybean paste in it.  It’s just a beef broth in which ovals of sliced rice cakes are simmered until soft but still chewy, often along with some dumplings.  On fancy occasions, it gets garnished with thinly fried eggs cut in elaborate diamonds or strips, shredded meat, and strips of roasted seaweed, for a very colorful presentation.  But growing up, it was also what my mom made when she was pressed for time.  She’d worked out an everyday version, in which she would sautee strips of beef in soy sauce and pour in some water for a surprisingly tasty broth.  When the rice cakes were tender, she would break the eggs straight into the pot and stir it up into ribbons of white and yellow.  I found tteok-guk boring and tiresome until I left home and realized there was nothing I would rather eat when I am tired or sad.

Greens waiting to be tossed in a spicy-soy sauce-sesame oil dressing.

Greens waiting to be tossed in a spicy-soy sauce-sesame oil dressing.

Given how everyday it was in our house, though, I’d always wondered why rice cake soup is a celebratory food.  It’s always served on New Year’s Day, and given that traditionally, Koreans celebrated turning one year older collectively on New Year’s as well, it’s a birthday soup, too.

King oyster mushrooms tossed with shredded scallions--a big hit with the Koreans!

King oyster mushrooms tossed with shredded scallions--a big hit with the Koreans!

It turns out, it’s all about rice.  Even though rice is a central part of the Korean diet, it’s only recently that it’s become so common as to be a background food, something to eat with everything else on the table.  For most of Korean history, it was too expensive to eat everyday.  Most people ate barley or millet, sometimes mixed with rice, but often without even a grain of rice.  In the north, noodles made out of buckwheat, arrowroot, or sweet potatoes were the common starch.  So to take that precious rice, grind it into rice flour, and then make rice cakes out of it, which is no easy thing itself, that was the height of luxurious living.  To eat like a king one day out of the year—what could be more celebratory?

Now, it takes nothing to go to the store and buy a bag of pre-sliced rice cakes.  We’ve lost something in not knowing what kind of labor it takes to grow rice and to pound it into chewy cakes.  I wonder how it must have felt, to sit at a table on New Year’s waiting for your wonderful bowl of tteok-guk to appear.  But I like to think that for those who appreciate good food, no matter how simple and easy and everyday, we will always recognize when we are eating like kings.

This is a very simple write-up, as the amounts are still estimates and the final version will have some more detailed explanations.  But if you get a chance, it’s a nice soup to eat in these last cool nights of spring.

Serves 6-8

4 quarts of water
1 lb. of beef brisket
5 cups of sliced rice cakes, rinsed in water and drained
3 tablespoons Korean soup soy sauce
1 tablespoon Korean dark soy sauce (you can use Kikkoman for both but it’s saltier so be careful and taste as you go along)
1 teaspoon ground red pepper
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
4 tablespoons chopped green onions.
4 eggs
freshly ground pepper
1 sheet of roasted seaweed for garnish

1.  Put the brisket in a large pot with four quarts of water.  Bring it to a boil and skim off the foam and fat at the top.  Simmer for at least two hours, skimming off the foam occasionally, until the beef is tender.  (Last night, I added some oxtail and more water, ending up with an incredibly rich and golden broth, complete with globules of fat floating on the surface.  The beef broth experimentation continues…)

2.  Take the brisket out and let it cool.  When it’s cool enough to touch, shred it into thin pieces about 2-3 inches long.  Toss the shredded brisket with the dark soy sauce, ground red pepper, chopped garlic and chopped green onions.  Set aside.

3.  Bring the broth back to a boil and then let it simmer.  Season the broth with soup soy sauce.  Taste as you go along, as the saltiness of soy sauces can vary a lot by brand.

4.  Add the rice cakes.  Simmer for 10 minutes.  Taste and make sure that it’s soft.  It should be tender but still chewy.

5.  Add the shredded beef.  Break the eggs into the pot and swirl with a pair of chopsticks.  Let it simmer just a minute more for the eggs to set.

6.  Ladle the soup into bowls.  Garnish with thin strips of roasted seaweed and add freshly ground pepper before serving.

(Is it totally confusing to have pictures of food we ate, but I don’t describe in the post?  Let me know.)

Frying chicken is a messy business

April 2, 2009

img_2554Frying chicken is a messy business but always a worthwhile one, though I did wonder a little when I woke up the next morning and smelled fried chicken in my hair.

For this last Korean Food Sunday, the menu was as follows: my mom’s fried chicken, fried sweet potatoes, seaweed soup, tangpyeongchae or mung bean jelly salad, cubes of pickled white radish, sautéed anchovies, dried radish strips tossed in a spicy sauce, and kimchi, as always.

My plating is a disaster.

My plating is a disaster.

It was only the second time I’d tried making this fried chicken.  It’s an interesting recipe, involving a batter made only of potato flour and water.  The chicken gets seasoned earlier, with lots of garlic, green onions, salt, pepper, and a drizzle of sesame oil.  Making the batter is like walking a tightrope—too little water, and the whole thing solidifies like cement.  Too much, and you feel like nothing is getting coated on the chicken.  But as finicky as the batter feels, it isn’t really.  Even a glaze of potato starch batter on your chicken will crisp up instantly.

It was the first time I’d tried frying the chicken with a candy thermometer attached, and I was also surprised to see that the best frying temperature seemed to be about 250-275 degrees Fahrenheit, about 50-75 degrees less than usual recommended temperature for fried chicken.  At about 350 degrees, the garlic on the chicken burnt to a crisp and the potato flour batter got scarily dark instead of staying light and golden.  The lower temperature might also work since the recipe calls for wings, small pieces of chicken that cook up quickly.   I have no scientific reasoning to back me up, only that I know that it works.

A little Googling revealed that there are lots of recipes for making fried chicken with potato starch, in the Japanese karaage-style, but no one does what my mother does, which is to add water.  Just potato starch is definitely something to try next time, though the splattering can really be minimized if you use a nice, deep Dutch oven.

This time, I also battered and fried slices of Asian sweet potatoes, which taste like chestnuts and fry up beautifully.  I’m sure some people would season them with salt, but I like the very simple, almost wholesome flavor of plain fried sweet potatoes.  My friends liked them, too, maybe almost as much as the chicken.

The cubes of pickled white radish were completely experimental.  I came home from the farm late on Saturday night, stressed and a little overwhelmed by my life, but I had already bought the radishes earlier that week and I really wanted something light, bright, and not-spicy to eat with the fried chicken, like the sweet and simple 무, or muh, they sell at Korean fried chicken places.  It turns out cutting up radish cubes at 11 pm is very therapeutic, as are two glasses of wine.  I couldn’t find a recipe, so I salted the cubes with as much salt as I would for kkakdugi, or spicy radish cubes, and added about a cup of vinegar, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and enough water to cover it all.  The flavor wasn’t quite the same, but I liked that you could taste more of the slight natural bitterness of Korean radishes with the easy sweetness of the sugared vinegar.

Because I had to fry the chicken in batches, I spent most of the dinner standing by the stove, with my back to the table, passing chicken and sweet potatoes behind me every 10 minutes or so.  But I could still hear people saying things like, “This is delicious!’ and “How did you get it to be so crispy?”  One friend had been in Portland, Maine, and when his flight on Sunday got cancelled, he jumped on a bus to get back in time for the chicken.  When he promised me that it was just as good as the last time he’d tasted it, when another friend who calls herself a vegetarian kept eating wing after wing, I felt very gratified.

I’m still learning how to cook for a crowd.  Nine people don’t eat as much as eleven, and I still have almost 4 lbs. of chicken thighs in the freezer, already marinated and only momentarily relieved from their deep-fat destiny.  I’m not so good at taking notes for recipe development when I’m harried about a dinner party, and I was so worried over the chicken, I forgot to taste the mung bean jelly salad with all its vegetable accompaniments.  I can tell you now the photos of these dinners will always be haphazard.

But it is a lot of fun to feed people.

The spicy chicken of Chuncheon

February 28, 2009

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We arrived in Chuncheon, a small city of about 260,000 people, on Thursday afternoon.  The drive up from Gyeongju was lovely.  The mountains were brown and bare, but I could imagine them green and gorgeous in just a month or two.  All the farms we passed were charming, small patches of land surrounded by hills and misty mountains, groves of small fruit trees, and here and there, even some fields green with tiny shoots, to remind us that spring is really on its way.

The city of Chuncheon itself is a funny little place.  Its biggest claim to fame is probably that it was the setting of a hugely popular mini-series called Winter Sonata.  You can tell just by the title the amount of schmaltz there was in the show.  I think the town is trying to be a romantic getaway.  The hotel we’re staying in, Chuncheon Bears Tourist Hotel, certainly seems to be playing up this angle, with its faded floral wallpaper and floral curtains.  (Good Lord, I found a red light bulb setting on the lamps.)  It’s a very crass view of romance, don’t you think?  That you might feel amorous because there’s so much pink around you.  It’s definitely not working for me, though it might also be that Diane is my roommate.

(FYI, we are not staying in a “love motel.”  According to Lonely Planet, one of the love motels in town has an underwear vending machine.  There is no such thing in our lobby.)

Chuncheon and Gangwon-do, the province it’s in, do have a special culinary claim to fame, though, that is far from cloying and delicate.  Since we’re in the province on the northeastern end of South Korea, we’re right next to North Korea.  The climate and terrain are similar to what you find across the border—lots of mountains, less arable land for rice, and so more foods that are made out of buckwheat, potatoes, and corn.  Wild pheasant also seems to be a big deal, just as in the North.  The tourist map for Chuncheon even has a picture of smiling hunters with a pile of pheasants at their feet.

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But Chuncheon’s most famous dish is probably 닭갈비, dakgalbi, a spicy mix of chicken, rice cakes, cabbage, and sweet potatoes.  Everything gets poured onto a giant griddle right on the table.  After about 10 minutes, they come by with a platter of onions, perilla leaves, and more red pepper paste, which also gets poured onto the griddle.  It’s really impressive how much the rice cakes get infused with the flavor of chicken, a rich and slightly sweet flavor.  The restaurant we were at, 우성닭갈비, Oosung Dalkgalbi, uses “squash” sweet potatoes, which is how Koreans describe American orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.  (The only kind of sweet potatoes you used to be able to get in Korea were the ones that taste like chestnuts, the ones labeled “Japanese sweet potatoes” at my local grocery.)  I think I would personally prefer regular potatoes, and let the sweetness come only from the red pepper paste, but Diane and her mother liked it very much.   No complaints about the chicken, though, which was all juicy thigh meat.

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If all this food isn’t enough, and you feel the need for some starch, you can ask for a bundle of noodles to be added while the chicken cooks, or you can ask for a bowl or two of rice to make a spicy fried rice right on the same griddle after you’ve finished eating the chicken.  The rice at the bottom will take on that crispy quality that Korean people love in nurungji, a word devoted solely to describe the browned rice stuck at the bottom of the rice pot.

I can’t say that dakgalbi is my favorite food.  There’s something about its uniform sweetness and spiciness that gets old for me pretty quickly.  (It might also have been that we were close to the end of our trip, and I was starting to feel like I couldn’t eat another bite.)  At the same time, though, I appreciate how easy dakgalbi is to eat, that it’s the kind of food that goes well with a big group of friends and a couple of bottles of soju.  It would be great party food for sure, especially for people who own giant griddles they can set in the middle of their giant tables.  Maybe we could start a trend of giving giant griddles as wedding gifts instead of fondue pots, with the accessory of a metal paddle.  I should call the Chuncheon Tourism Office.

My mom’s fried chicken

December 21, 2007

1) Fried food is delicious. 2) Fried food is at its most delicious when it has just come out of the fryer.

These are two difficult truths, when one is eating fried food at home instead of a restaurant. It means the smell of hot oil and whatever has been fried can’t dissipate before the dinner guests arrive. It means that the cook will not be a gracious host when the dinner guests do arrive, because she will still be frying and frantic. The best way to deal with this problem is to only fry for those you love and who love you. These people will not care that you are still in an apron splattered with batter, they will not care that they will also smell like fried potatoes or chicken or codfish potato balls. Best of all, they will be willing to just stand around the stove and eat the hot little goodies with their fingers.

I know this is the best way because the best fried chicken I’ve had at home was last week with my mom, when we fried chicken wings on our portable stove and ate them right in the kitchen.

My father was out to dinner with his friends, and I wanted to learn how to make the dish I have loved my entire life. Our camp stove has never seen a campsite, but it is very useful at home when you want to avoid grease splatter all over your real stove. My mom laid out a bunch of newspapers on the kitchen table and placed her wok and the camp stove on top. She quickly made a crisp, raw salad for me, but we didn’t bother to set the table or make anything else. Instead, we focused on the chicken. She showed me every step and we sat together in the kitchen, alternating frying, eating, and laughing.

I don’t know if this is a particularly Korean way to fry chicken, as it’s different from the “Korean fried chicken” I had with my cousin. My mom couldn’t remember how or why she had started frying it this way, only that we all loved it. I think the key is that the chicken is seasoned with garlic, green onion, salt and pepper, before the potato starch batter is applied. Or it might be that my mom has always used wing meat and eating such small pieces makes it as addictive as popcorn. Maybe it’s just something I love because it’s from my childhood, as it’s quite simple and sometimes a bit greasy if we wait too long to eat. But when I bite into it fresh from the fryer, and my mouth is burning from the heat and the juices squirting from the meat, I can’t stop because it tastes so good.

I’m sorry the amounts and directions are so approximate; that’s the way my mom cooks.

Ingredients:
2 lbs. chicken wings
1 T. chopped garlic
1 T. chopped green onion
1.5 t. salt
pepper to taste
1/2 T. sesame seed oil
1.5 cups of potato or sweet potato starch
corn oil

1. Prepare the chicken by removing excess fat and making small cuts in the chicken meat to help it cook faster.

2. Add garlic, green onion, salt, pepper, and sesame seed oil to the chicken. Let it sit for 30 minutes to an hour.

3. Prepare batter by adding water to potato starch. The batter should be slightly thick, like pancake batter. Add more starch or water as necessary.

4. Add the chicken to the batter and mix well. The batter will not completely cover the chicken and obscure its meat, though it will when cooked.

5. Heat oil for frying. The oil should be sufficient for the chicken to float in it. (My mom doesn’t bother with a thermometer, but it is important to wait until the oil is hot enough and not to use an oil like olive oil that will start to smoke before it gets hot enough. When I try this back in NY, I will definitely reread the oil section in Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking” and make sure my oil is at the right temperature.)

6. Once the oil is ready, add the chicken to the pan. Don’t crowd the pan and fry the chicken in batches, taking all the chicken out before putting more in as that will cause greater fluctuations in the temperature of the oil. After 10-15 minutes, the chicken should be done. It won’t be completely golden brown, more brown in spots, as the potato starch makes a mainly white batter.

7. Eat while hot!

Korean fried chicken with my cousin

December 17, 2007

I don’t know anyone like my cousin Young. She’s a writer, a former award-winning journalist who’ll urge me to read James Salter and Henry Miller, almost in the same breath as she’s pressing upon me a mix CD consisting mainly of Charlotte Church. She’s a good Korean girl, a daughter who respects and honors her parents in a way that makes Mulan seem selfish, and yet she also holds her liquor better than anyone I have ever met. She once did an oil painting of a bag of Funions—without irony. The girl loves Hot Pockets. The most amazing thing is that she doesn’t surprise herself at all, nor is she trying to surprise anyone else. Young is simply who she is.

It’s hard to say what I enjoyed more the other night, her company or the delicate, crispy skin on the fried chicken we were eating. It may sound as if I am not respecting my cousin as much as I claim, but Korean fried chicken is spectacular. I could explain how it is different from the Southern-style fried chicken Americans know, except the New York Times already did it last winter. It caused a minor sensation, at least in my food-obsessed world. Chowhounds from all over the world were asking desperately, “Where, oh, where can I find Korean fried chicken?” Although in New York, you have to go specifically to Koreatown in midtown Manhattan, or to Queens, it is possibly in Seoul to simply decide, as we did, that you want fried chicken and wander until you find it.

This particular place was called TO:UR Fried Chicken, a classic Korean-English abbreviation of “Top Our Fried Chicken,” close to the Shinsegae Department Store in Myungdong, a very young neighborhood of energetic shopping and drinking. (As a general tip, any place with the sign “Hof,” a bastardization of the German word “hofbrau,” will serve beer, soju, and fried chicken.) As hofs go, it was spiffy, with a bright red and black décor that was reasonably clean and attractive. As the night went on, it got more and more crowded with a good mixed crowd, businessmen, middle-aged women, and us, all happily eating fried chicken and drinking beer.

The chicken was just as it should be, moist, ungreasy, and delicious. Koreans fry the whole chicken and then cut it up into pieces, serving it unadorned with just a dish of salt and pepper for dipping or coating it in a sticky, sweet, slightly spicy sauce. For 14,000 won, or about $15, we got half an order of each, as well as the usual accompaniments of shredded cabbage-cole slaw and cubes of pickled radish. We each got a big stein of beer, simple and refreshing. The more we drank, the hungrier we got, so we ordered another half order of plain fried chicken and shared another large mug of beer. I am not ashamed to admit we ate one and a half chickens in total.

It was a lovely dinner. We talked, we laughed, we drank, and we ate. Even though I’ve always loved and admired Young for all the ways in which she differs from me, it was nice to learn that we do share a key core value, a passion for Korean fried chicken.

Bragging about my soup

September 6, 2007

One of the things I love most about my friend Mimi is that she does not believe in hiding one’s light under a bushel. Hanging around her, it has started to rub off on me, and I can say, without hesitation, that I made a fantastic black bean soup the other night, and that I also made tacos of chicken and Mexican greens in a tomatillo-serrano sauce were both complex and soothingly delicious.

Of course, I have to admit that neither was very hard to make. Both recipes came from Rick Bayless’s “Mexican Kitchen,” and involved little more than patience and a good blender, though the availability of authentic ingredients like avocado leaves and Oaxacan chorizo was no small matter.

The black bean soup involved so little work, it’s almost embarrassing. I put Mimi to work picking out the ugly beans, while I roughly chopped a small white onion and peeled the casing off of three fat, round links of Oaxacan chorizo. I also toasted 4 avocado leaves very briefly on the burner, watching with fascination as dark spots spread almost instantly and completely across the leaf. Everything got simmered together for about two hours, until the beans were tender, and then salted to taste. I blended the soup in batches, and we ate it garnished with fried tortilla strips and crumbled queso fresco. There was no stock! And yet so much flavor came from the chorizo, the beans, and the unique anise-like scent of the avocado leaves. It was slightly spicy, in a deep, dark way, and utterly warming.

The chicken in tomatillo sauce had a completely different flavor, all brightness and verve. I began by roasting tomatillos and 2 serrano chiles on a metal comal, directly on the stove, until they had big, dark, soft spots. In the meantime, I sautéed half a white chopped onion until deep golden, adding some chopped garlic to cook for a minute more, and then blended the onions and garlic with the roasted tomatillos and chiles. This puree got fried in oil for 10 minutes, getting darker and richer. When it was done cooking, I stirred in 3 tablespoons of chopped cilantro.

In the meantime, I was simmering three chicken legs in plain water. I had been nervous about buying unrefrigerated chicken in the markets, and had wandered around for 2 hours looking for a rotisserie chicken, but in the end, I felt so lucky I had had a chance to cook those marigold-yellow chickens in the market. I didn’t put in an onion or a carrot, peppercorns or thyme, too lazy to try to make a real broth, and I even pulled off the skin in a fit of fat-consciousness, but nothing I could do could make the chicken taste bad. To think I just boiled the darn things! And yet they were meaty with flavor. Now that I think about it, chicken in the U.S. so rarely tastes like meat, it just tastes like filler or a flavor vehicle. When I think of all those people who only eat chicken, and even then only white meat, I have to blame them for creating a market for flavorless gum.

While the chicken finished poaching, I added thin strips of amaranth leaves, or quintoniles, in the tomatillo-serrano sauce, until they were only slightly bitter. I almost felt like they took on a bright tartness of their own. When I added the cooked, shredded chicken, the richness of the meat rounded out the tartness of the greens and sauce. All it needed was a little crumbled queso fresco.

We also had a salad of jicama, mango, and avocado, with some red leaf lettuce to bulk it up. Mimi and I ate most of it, as Alex didn’t even notice we had a salad until he was full of soup and chicken. (Thanks to them both for the glamorous close-ups; I was too frazzled to take photos.)

Chicken and clams

April 15, 2007

It’s been raining all day, big, fat, rain drops coupled with a fierce wind. It was the perfect day to lie in bed and read all day–sadly, that is not what I did. Since I had to go out anyway, I got a few groceries and made a proper dinner, another Sunday experiment.

There must be an Asian woman in the neighborhood who buys a dozen clams every weekend, because the fish guy at the Fort Greene farmers’ market seemed to think I was her. A dozen clams IS sort of a funny quantity, but such a good one for me. I bought them on a whim, along with my usual turkey thighs from DiPalo’s, and realized I had almost everything I needed “chicken and clams” from Bittman’s “The Best Recipes in the World.” It’s precisely what it sounds like, chicken with clams, and some sauteed onions, garlic, chicken stock, and parsley. Skinless turkey thighs were not a good substitute, because they did get a little dry, but oh, I loved the clams. The soupy, briny sauce, I ended up spooning directly into my mouth with an enormous ladle. A dozen clams supplies a surprising amount of meat, and for $5, a nice weekend treat.

I’ve been roasting potatoes in the way Marcella Hazan recommends for bluefish Genoese style–thinly sliced and tossed with olive oil, garlic, and parsley, in a cast-iron pan. You end up with all these lovely, crispy bits.

And one of my favorite salads, roasted beets with haloumi cheese, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, with a little parsley for color.

If only I could stay in bed all day tomorrow.