Posts Tagged ‘rice’

Rice Memories and Meanings

January 14, 2013

I grew up eating rice only occasionally, and when my mother did make it, it was simple: one cup of rice with one cup of water, with half of a jalapeno thrown in. It was so unmemorable that I don’t even remember what we usually ate it with. I was exposed to your standard beans and rice, the rice that comes on the side of Mexican food, but it wasn’t until I moved to Washington, D.C., that I started to discover the magic of Persian and Afghani polows, Cuban Moros y Cristianos, and the delight of Teaism’s coconut rice pudding.

In the Middle East, rice often holds near mystical rank on the dinner table, where it can come as a simple staple, mounded around a whole roasted lamb, or jeweled with nuts, dried fruit, herbs and meat. Nearly every dish has a traditional rice side it is served with. A delicious Egyptian lunch of fried fish would not be complete without a side of rice prepared with onions and tomato paste.

In Iraq, rice can be an emotional subject. When you talk to Iraqi expatriates and refugees and about their home, the topic of Iraq’s aromatic, unique and sadly disappearing rice might come up. Ethnic strife, repeated wars, water politics and environmental degradation have combined to decimate Iraq’s agricultural production, forcing Iraqis to import rice from countries such as India, China and the United States. However, Iraqis never stop longing for the aromatic allure of Amber rice, grown in small quantities in the country’s south. Those from Mosul might speak of the large, dark grains of Naggaza rice, produced in the north.

My favorite Iraqi rice dish is Timman Bagila, or fava bean rice. Whenever I see fresh fava beans and dill at the farmers market I want to make this, though I rarely see them both at the same time. While living in Lebanon, I wrote a blog post featuring my own Timman Bagila recipe using lamb shanks. This dish is a bit of a process, but none of the steps are complicated or difficult. While not as traditional, using chicken thighs produces a bit lighter but just as tasty meal!

Timman Bagila with Chicken


1 12-ounce bag frozen fava beans (lima beans work too!)
pinch turmeric
2 pounds boneless chicken thighs
olive oil
2 cups basmati rice, rinsed and soaked in cold water (at least an hour)
1 medium white onion, diced
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup finely chopped fresh dill
1 lemon
2 cups hot chicken broth
toasted pine nuts or almonds (optional)

Serves 4-6.

1. Turn on your broiler, and position a rack about 8 inches below.

2. Bring a medium pot to a boil and cook fava beans with a pinch of turmeric, until the beans are soft enough to chew but not mushy. Drain the beans and set aside. Rinse out the pot — you can use it again to assemble and finish the dish.

3. Place the chicken thighs on a baking sheet and rub with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. When your broiler and oven are warm, place thighs in the oven for 12-15 minutes until cooked, turning them over about half way though. Remove from the oven and set aside.

4. While your chicken is cooking, heat a medium pot over medium heat and add drained rice, a tablespoon of salt and a pinch of turmeric. Pour in water to cover by half an inch, stir the pot, and bring to a boil. Cover the pot, and turn the heat to low. Cook for approximately 15 minutes, or until the rice has softened and most of the water is absorbed.

4. When you pull the chicken out of the oven, heat a large pan over medium heat with a tablespoon of olive oil. Add onions and a pinch of salt and sauté until translucent. Add  2 teaspoons of cinnamon and minced garlic, and stir to combine. Roughly chop the chicken, and add to the pan along with the lightly cooked fava beans and the chopped dill. Squeeze the lemon juice over the mixture, stir to combine, and cook for for 2-3 minutes, and turn off the heat. This is a good time to heat up your 2 cups of chicken broth- you can throw it in the microwave or heat it up on the stove.

5. Place the medium pot you rinsed and set aside earlier over medium-high heat, and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Let heat for about a minute, and evenly spread a scoop of  your parboiled rice in the pot- you want enough rice to cover the bottom. Let the rice cook for about 30 seconds- you are hoping this turns into a crust when the dish is done!

6. Add a scoop of your chicken/dill/fava bean mixture, followed by another scoop of rice, and then another scoop of your chicken mix. You want to form these layers into a bit of a pyramid- don’t smooth it out or pack the layers together. Continue this layering until you are out. With the back of your spoon make 4-5 tunnels down into the bottom of the rice layers, and pour in your hot chicken broth. When the liquid starts to bubble, cover the pot and turn the heat to low. After 20 minutes, check to see that the rice has absorbed the liquid and is cooked- if not, put the lid back on for 5 minutes and check again.

7. When you are ready to serve the dish, scoop it out onto a platter. Scrape out the pieces of crust on bottom and arrange on top of the rice. If you can’t get the crust out, fill your sink with a bit of cold water and hold the bottom of the pot in the water to help loosen the crust. I like to garnish the dish with some toasted pine nuts or almond slivers.


Coming home in autumn

September 25, 2009

I come home to Korea at least once a year, but this is the first time in 15 years that I’ve been back in the fall.


The persimmon trees are bearing fruit, even in my neighborhood in urban Seoul.


The rice fields down south, in Jeollanam-do, are a vivid yellow-green, almost fluorescent in hue.  When they turn fully gold, they’ll be ready for harvest.


This is the only time of year you can find fresh jujubes, sweet and crisp and light, like tiny oblong apples.  I’d only seen them dried before, dark red and wrinkled.  And you can still catch the last of the summer’s peaches, which are stay crisper than American peaches even as they ripen and turn honey-sweet.

I’m so happy to be home.

I’ve heard that adopted children, when they meet their biological parents, feel a shock of recognition that’s almost physical.  I wonder if they feel the way I do here, when I look at the signs with their hangul lettering or hear snatches of conversation with the intonations I know so well.  Everything feels familiar, even when I think it’s strange.  There’s the Korean love of cartoon mascots, the googly eyes and smiles they like to put on inanimate objects, donuts, coffee cups, even fermented blocks of soybean paste.  Girls walk by, giggly and made-up, and even though I’m too tall (and too crass) to ever have that Korean girl look, I feel like I know who they are.  I walk into a bakery, a branch of the Paris Baguette chain, and as I bite into a sugary donut, still warm, I know instantly the texture and flavor—sticky rice flour, or chapssal, filled with a sweet cream cheese.  It’s delicious.


Even when I sit drinking coffee at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, it feels like such a Korean place—the way they place your coffee on a tray, the way they offer green tea lattes.  I flip through a fancy food and travel magazine, and I realize I know one of the dapper, cosmopolitan men featured for their good taste–my friend’s father.  (I won’t say whose father it is, as she’ll be mortified enough when she sees this.)  He’s heading the Cultural Ministry’s tourism marketing, which reminds me, I should try to find out what he knows about the Korean government’s fellowships for studying Korean food.

I know this country.  I don’t know who the pop stars are today, I didn’t know about the famous Chunhyang folktale of Namwon until yesterday, and I have no idea where the most famous Buddhist temples are.  But I still know this country better than I thought I did.   I’m so thankful that through this cookbook project, I’ve not only learned more about this country, but also come to see how much is already familiar to me in the most intuitive and fundamental ways.

I’m so happy to be home.

Grown-up rice cakes

June 7, 2009
The tteokbokki Diane and I had in Seoul in February.

The tteokbokki Diane and I had in Seoul in February.

I tried to make 떡뽂이, tteokbokki, this past Sunday.  The street food version, slick with an almost too-sweet spicy sauce, plus fish cakes and hard-boiled eggs.

It wasn’t hard to make.  You take a couple of cups of a simple anchovy broth and toss in the tteok, or long rice cakes.  When they start simmering, you add some gochujang, or red pepper paste, maybe a bit of gochukaru, or crushed red pepper, and sugar.  I didn’t have enough broth, and I’d made it a little too soon before my guests arrived, so the liquid kept evaporating on me, making the rice cakes stick to the bottom of the pan.  (I’d also forgotten to rinse some of the starch of the tteok.)  Honestly, it was kind of gross, and it didn’t surprise me that people didn’t eat much of it.  But the flavor really wasn’t that unlike what you can find at any pojangmacha, or street food stand, in Korea.

Unfortunately, that was the problem.  It tasted just as starchy and boringly sweet as I remembered it.  There wasn’t enough going on to make it interesting, no contrasting textures or flavors, which is normally what Korean food really prizes.  (And actually, the original palace-style tteokbokki is full of vegetables in contrasting colors and is flavored with soy sauce and sesame oil, so you can actually see the colors instead of just a sea of red.)

I think the love Koreans have for bright red tteokbokki is like the love Americans have for mac-and-cheese.  It reminds them of childhood, when life was easy and fairly consistent and nothing could be too sweet. It’s the kind of food kids eat after school, sharing a 2000-won plate with a friend.  It’s really one of the cheapest things you can make, which means the pricing of $12 tteokbokki in Manhattan is based completely on nostalgia.

But like mac-and-cheese, there’s room for adult modifications.  And I found my inspiration here. (Thanks for the tip, Nancy!)

Apparently, old-fashioned tteokbokki isn’t a soupy, slippery dish but one that’s crispy to the point of being almost charred.  I’m not sure what it would mean to “marinate” tteok, and I’ll have to check out this place when I go back to Seoul in the fall to see how it gets cooked in a big wok, but it reminded me of tteok’s magical capacity to be more than a soft, chewy piece of starch.

I was almost embarrassed I hadn’t thought of it earlier.  Growing up, my favorite breakfast was a big, fat piece of tteok that had been pan-fried, and then dipped in a sauce of soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, and crushed red pepper.  (My sister prefers to dip her tteok in honey, also very good.)  It’s incredible how much tteok can change when it’s fried.  The outside gets really crunchy and golden brown, while the inside gets very warm and soft.


So instead of simmering the rice cakes in liquid, I pan-fried the tteok straight, turning them occasionally so they got golden all over.  Then I threw in a couple of spoonfuls of gochujang, sugar, and sesame oil.  I had to toss the tteok quickly, because the sugars in the sauce started to burn quickly, but in seconds, the tteok had picked up a spicy-sweet flavor with smoky bits stuck all over.


I wasn’t thrilled with the proportion of gochujang, sugar, and sesame oil.  I think I’d like something a little sweeter and a little less dark, as much as I like smoky flavors.  But the basic idea worked!  It tasted so much more grown-up than the dish I’d made for dinner on Sunday.  Eating it, I knew I would want to make it over and over again until I got it right.

I’m posting my rough draft of a recipe because I’m curious to know if anyone has any suggestions for different ingredients I could add to the sauce.  I’m nervous about adding more sugar because that would just increase the quick-burn factor, but it definitely needs something to smooth out too-burnt flavor it has now.

Crispy, spicy tteokbokki
Serves two
8 oz. long, skinny cylindrical tteok or rice cakes, cut into two-inch pieces
1 tablespoon gochujang or red pepper paste
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon oil

1.    Heat oil in a pan, preferably cast-iron, over medium-heat.
2.    Mix the gochujang, sesame oil, and sugar together.  Set aside.
3.    Add the tteok and fry for about 5 minutes.  Flip over and fry on the other side, until golden-brown.
4.    Add the sauce and stir-fry quickly, coating the tteok with the sauce as quickly as possible, for about a minute.
5.    Eat while hot!  I didn’t bother doing this, but it would definitely look less haphazard garnished with some sesame seeds and maybe a few threads of dried red pepper.

Korean food, your way

April 17, 2009


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.

Chungmu kimbap, now and forever

March 19, 2009


This was my last meal in Korea.  It’s something I loved as a teenager, so it made sense to me to be eating it in Myeongdong, a noisy neighborhood of shops and cafes that I am really too old to be hanging out in any more.  But the beauty of food is that you’re really never too old to be eating something.  You might be too old to be at that club, or to be dressing in those clothes, but eating chungmu kimbap?  You can do that forever.


충무 김밥, or chungmu kimbap, are rolls made of seaweed stuffed with rice, and served with a little pile of spicy but sweet cubes of lightly pickled Korean radish and another pile of equally spicy but sweet strips of boiled squid.  The rolls are always made a little skinny and cut a little long, more cylindrical than classic kimbap.  More importantly, the rolls are nothing but rice and toasted seaweed—no vinegar, no salt, no sesame oil.  But the very plainness of the rolls, the almost dry-sticky feeling of the toasted seaweed on your tongue as you eat them is the kind of extremeness in food that’s so appealing with you’re young.  And the intense heat of the kimchi and squid are at the opposite extreme.  Together, the dish is explosive, a very fun and easy bite to eat when toting shopping bags.


But I was a little embarrassed to be eating it alone.  For some reason, it’s always served with toothpicks rather than real cutlery, which to me means that I’m supposed to be sharing one plate with Leslie or another friend from high school, spearing the rolls while we talk.  Koreans hate eating alone, and I could feel the ahjummas by the window eyeing me even as they made change and spoke to other customers.  It was Sunday, too, which meant Myeongdong was packed.  Every street food vendor was out, ready to sell potato sticks, skewered fish cake, and fried dough to the crowds.  I even saw some Turkish men selling doner kebabs, the first time I’ve ever seen non-Korean street food vendors in Seoul.  I loved what I was eating, but I ate as quickly as I could, finished shopping for gifts, and left.

When I got home, I told my mom what I ate, and she told me that chungmu kimbap is actually a regional specialty, from the city of Chungmu which is now called Geoje-si.  Geoje-si is in South Gyeongsan Province, in the southeast corner of the peninsula, which would explain the deep red of the kimchi and the prominent role of squid in the dish.  A little Googling showed me I’m not the only one who loves this dish; it even shows up on the Official Site of Korea Tourism, with a famous restaurant in Geoje-si.  (In classic, plain-spoken Korean fashion, the name of the restaurant is, you guessed it, Chungmu Grandmother Kimbap.)

It comforted me, somehow, to know this dish I associate so much with my teenage years has a much longer history.  And when I got back to Brooklyn and found a recipe for it in one of my Korean cookbooks, I was even happier.  The next time Leslie comes to visit, I’ll make it for her.

Perfect bibimbap

February 25, 2009

(This should have been posted days ago, since we ate this meal on Sunday.  Oops.)

It’s always a treat to talk to someone wearing pink rhinestoned glasses.  It’s even more of a treat when that someone is the owner of the best-known Jeonju bibimbap restaurant in Jeonju, Korea.

가족회관, Gajokhoegwan, or the Family Meeting Place, has the dish of Jeonju bibimbap down to the point that Mrs. Kim, the owner, has a patent on the name.  If you ever want to affix “Jeonju bibimbap” to anything you sell, you have to pay a licensing fee.  Normally, I’d find that crazy, but having met her and tasted her food, I have so much respect for her kind of crazy, I can’t quite begrudge her the “jeonjubibimbap” domain name.

In general, bibimbap, which means “mixed rice,” has no fixed ingredient list.  You take some rice and add whatever vegetables you want, whatever meat you want, a dollop of spicy red pepper sauce, a drizzle of sesame oil, and there you are.  Mixed rice.  The concept is unpatentable.  It would be like patenting the act of buttering your bread.  When we asked Mrs. Kim about the origins of bibimbap, she agreed:

Nobody knows.  Some people say that when people celebrated ancestral rites [with a lot of food on the altar table] together, they would want to take the leftovers home and so would mix them all together in one bowl.  Or that the people who worked in the fields found it easier to have their lunch brought to them in one bowl.  Or that the king during a troubled time had to flee suddenly, and all the food on his table had to be mixed together.

In any case, Koreans love mixing their food together, whether it’s in a lettuce wrap or in a cold seafood salad, so I’m sure it took no great genius to come up with the concept of bibimbap.

It did take something, though, to come up with the Jeonju bibimbap served at Gajokhoegwan.  You go in, and they ask you, “What do you want?” but it’s a rhetorical question.  It’s the only dish the restaurant serves, in beautiful, heavy brass bowls.  The ingredients are presented in the royal palace style, each one distinct and carefully laid next to ingredients of different colors for the most colorful effect. Mrs. Kim said there were over 30 ingredients.  I managed to come up with 30, but I have no doubt there may be more.

Here’s my guess: carrots, squash, cucumber, bean sprouts, shitake mushrooms, meat sautéed in red pepper paste, green sprouts, enoki mushrooms, eggs separated and cooked separately and shredded, acorn jelly, bellflower root, wild parsley, fiddlehead ferns, spinach, roasted and salted seaweed, pickled radish, rice, beef bones and meat for the stock to cook the rice, 1 egg yolk, 1 walnut, a sprinkle of pine nuts, 2 gingko nuts, sesame seeds, and one slice of raw chestnut.  Plus soy sauce, a thinner red pepper paste, salt, sesame oil, perilla seed oil, and garlic.

Each ingredient was perfectly slivered, julienned, or shredded.  Each ingredient had been cooked separately to a perfect tenderness.  The amount of each ingredient was perfectly restrained—the one slice of raw chestnut was surprising but so good I wanted more, until I realized it was better just to have that crunch once.  The same was true of the single walnut. Did I mention how perfect everything was?

Even the rice, the simplest seeming ingredient, had been cooked in a beef stock, which is very unusual in Korean cooking.  Mrs. Kim said that it helps the rice grains stay intact, rather than falling apart when you mix it up with everything else.  It wasn’t any beef stock either.  When I asked her how she made it, she gave me a look that said, “You think you can do the same?”  The answer: “We simmer it for over 48 hours!”

Mrs. Kim is 74 years old.  She’s been running the restaurant for over 30 years.  She is still at the restaurant everyday, not just floating around as the benevolent owner, but with her arms covered in rubber sleeves so she can plunge her hands into anything and make sure everything is just right.  They make the same perfect dish for 500-1000 people everyday.


And if that weren’t enough, they put out at least 15 different banchan, small dishes plated with equal care, from the pickled perilla leaves adorned with slivered chestnuts, red pepper threads, and one carefully carved slice of garlic to…


the thin slice of date placed on top of the 김장아찌, gimjangajji, a pickled seaweed with the dark, sweet intensity of red chiles, very much like chipotles in adobo.  (Just so you know, this isn’t an expensive restaurant.  You get all this with one bowl of bibimbap that costs 10,000 won, about US$6.60.)

Mrs. Kim thought we were crazy to think we could just go around the country, taste something once, and write a cookbook.  And she’s right, if we were going to try to replicate her cooking by tasting it once, we would be crazy.  It was hard to explain to her that what we’re really trying to do is have the best food in Korea inspire and inform us as we record delicious but more feasible recipes.  But how could someone like Mrs. Kim imagine aiming for anything less than bibimbap nirvana?


P.S.  We had a simpler dinner, less awesome but maybe more comforting, at 전주왱이 콩나물국밥, Jeonju Whengi Kongnamulgukbap.  Not surprisingly, it serves one and only one dish, kongnamulgukbap, or rice served in a soup of anchovy broth with bean sprouts.  One of my favorites, and definitely something to go in the cookbook as an easy, warm dish for a cool, quiet night.

Kimbab is my favorite food in the entire world

December 11, 2007

My favorite food in the entire world is 김밥, kimbab. Kimbab is rice, meat, and vegetables wrapped up in seaweed, and then sliced to form neat, round, colorful cross-sections. The meat is traditionally beef marinated in the ubiquitous Korean bulgogi marinade, salty and sweet, and when combined with ribbons of egg, pickled daikon radish, sautéed spinach, and julienned carrots, it’s a very happy looking dish. Now, it’s become trendy to replace the beef with canned tuna, to add processed American cheese, which makes me ill, and other modern ingredients. It’s Korean picnic food, the kind of food that kids love, which is why you’ll never see it on the menu of a big Korean restaurant. I love it intensely.

Unfortunately, I only get to eat it a couple of times of year, in the few compressed weeks that I’m at home with my parents in Korea. It’s simple food, with no sophisticated searing or deglazing. But it’s the kind of food that in Korean is literally called a “handful.” The rice has to be good, each grain distinguishable and yet sticky, and carefully seasoned with salt, a little vinegar, and sesame seeds. The unsalted seaweed is easy enough to buy. But the carrots have to be sliced and slivered and sautéed in oil. The spinach needs to be blanched, squeezed of excess water, and dressed with sesame seeds and sesame oil. The pickled radish, even though it comes packaged, still needs to be cut into neat long strips. The eggs have to be beaten, salted, and cooked into thin pancakes that are carefully sliced, also into neat long strips. If you are my mom, you will also have to julienne and sautée burdock root, which adds a wonderful slightly sweet, chewy element. And this is all pre-assembly.

To assemble, you need a clean bamboo roll, on which you place a sheet of seaweed, spread some rice, and then lay out the rest of the fillings. It’s not difficult work, but it takes a little practice knowing how much rice and various fillings you can comfortably stuff into a neat seaweed roll, and my rolls always come out sort of square. If you’re going to go to all this trouble, you might as well make ten or twelve rolls, which means you can spend all morning making kimbab. In other words, I rarely make kimbab for myself. So when I come home, one of the first questions my mother asks me is, “How many times do you want to eat kimbab?” And she always makes sure it is on the menu at least two times while I am at home, little caring that it’s kiddie food to my dad.

Growing up, I ate kimbab all the time. It was a frequent lunch that I took to school, that my mother carefully packed for me. My sister and I left for school at 7:30 a.m., which meant she got up at 6 to make my favorite food, after prepping the night before. I didn’t even know what this meant until I was in law school, five years after I had left home for college, when I decided to make kimbab myself for a party. It wasn’t right, the rice wasn’t right, the rolls weren’t round. My back ached from standing, chopping, rolling for so long. I had no idea. It really is the most delicious food in the world.

More txangurro, please

November 15, 2007

I remember the first time I saw a crumb-catcher. You know, one of those thin, metal implements waiters use in fine restaurants to sweep away the crumbs at the end of the entrees and before the desserts and coffee are served. I was so wowed that someone would think of that detail and even invent an instrument for that purpose and that purpose alone. It made me feel special, because I was a person who shouldn’t have crumbs on her table as she ate her dessert.

In a way, I’m much more cynical and jaded now. I only consider one or two meals as having been absolutely perfect, from the perfectly cooked food to the perfect service, where everything was like magic. I’ve been around the crumb-catcher block. But I am proud to say that I am a woman who can still enjoy an imperfect meal and with gusto.

After my gluttonous meal almost killed me on Monday, I set Tuesday aside for the three-course menu del día at the Restaurante Kursaal, housed in the modern, glassy building of the same name on Playa de Zurriola. The restaurant is owned and managed by Martín Berasategui, one of the giants of Spanish nueva cocina, though it’s clearly not his crown jewel. But for 18 Euros or so, we mere peons get to choose from a broad menu of appetizers, entrees, and desserts.

I was excited when my first course arrived, the “arroz cremoso con mejillones” or risotto with mussels. Sadly, it was inedible. The rice was cooked to just the right consistency, maintaining integrity in each grain while being creamy, but, oh and such a big but, there was too much salt. And I like salt. A lot. I was pretty sad, actually. I don’t like to get disappointed by legends.

And then my second course arrived, “txangurro a la donostia,” or spider crab in the style of San Sebastian. There was the requisite foam, which I actually quite enjoyed because it was interesting to taste the unique flavor of parsley in a different form. But more impressively, the txangurro! It had been shredded and then cooked in a tomato sauce that was both interesting and comforting, a difficult balance to be sure. I loved it. Honestly, just to have someone pick out the meat for you is worth a small fortune. According to Mark’s Kurlansky, “A Basque History of the World,” the Basques are the only ones to eat this tiny crab with its sweet but challenging meat, and I thank them for having discovered how delicious it is.

The dessert was another surprise, a cross between a bread-pudding and a tres leches cake, super soft and sweet in the middle, the sweetness saved only by the very distinct and sure flavor of burned sugar. It was full-on burned sugar, too, not the caramely top of crème brulee or crema catalana. I was impressed how the two flavors worked together, not just balancing each other out but almost aggressively pushing against each other. Yummy. The lemon ice cream was wonderful too, so creamy it was more like crème fraiche than lemon.

All in all, I was quite happy. It wasn’t a perfect meal, but neither am I.

(A tip: if you want to have every culinary choice available to you in San Sebastian, do not visit in November. It seems like half the restaurants and tapas bars here have gone on vacation and in the European-style, for three weeks to a whole month. I am anxiously awaiting the reopening of Aloña Berri tomorrow, but I’ve had to tell myself, “próxima vez” to La Cuchara de San Telmo, El Fuego Negro, and other celebrated dining establishments.)

Rice and greens, or arroz con quelites

August 24, 2007

Mercado Hidalgo is considered a little “fresa,” which literally means “strawberry” but is also Mexican slang meaning “snobby.” It’s located in upper-class Colonia Reforma, on Emilio Carranza on the block north of Palmeras, and its produce does sparkle. I saw stuff that I hadn’t seen in other markets in Oaxaca, like huitlacoche and fresh figs. I almost flipped when I saw the figs, as it doesn’t quite feel like summer unless I eat some fresh figs.

They also had beautiful bunches of quelites, a type of Mexican green, leafy vegetable, which inspired me to actually try one of the recipes from my new Mexican cookbook, “Alquimias y Atmosferas de Sabor,” by Carmen Ramirez Degollado, the chef and owner of the beloved “El Bajio” in Mexico City. I’ve been trying to read more Spanish, since I remember more from reading than hearing, but the only thing that really holds my interest enough to get through more than a few pages are cookbooks and food magazines. Unfortunately, reading them doesn’t challenge me as much as reading literature or news articles would because I know enough about how recipes are constructed to figure out most of what I read through context. For example, as I read a recipe calling for “chayotes tiernos,” I guessed that “tierno” meant fresh or tender, didn’t bother looking it up in the dictionary, and then was shocked when my Spanish teacher described her ex-boyfriend as acting very gentlemanly and very “tierno” on their first date. It turns out a man can be as tender as a vegetable.

Rick Bayless translates “quelites” as “lamb’s quarters,” and recommends substituting it in his recipes with chard or collard greens in the U.S., some green with strong flavors. But I’m not sure that he’s describing the same thing I bought, as my “quelites” were more like spinach, just better. They had a similar sweet flavor, and reminded me a lot of Korean spinach with its leggy stems, but without the furry aftertaste of a lot of American spinach. Also, I know that the word “quelites” is used to describe a whole category of Mexican greens, including even amaranth leaves which are also called “quintonil,” and amaranth leaves are distinctly stronger and more bitter, more like chard.

But I digress. The recipe was very simple, a rice with greens dish, calling for the rice to be fried with pureed raw onion and garlic. Then broth was to be added with the bunch of raw quelites, two parts broth to one part rice. Like most Mexican recipes, it assumed a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader, and I wondered, “Stalks and all? Should I pulverize the leaves and make it a green rice? Should I throw the leaves in whole?” Finally, I decided to just destem them, chop them roughly and throw them in with the broth leftover from cooking my pork shoulder.

Well, I put in way too much broth, forgetting the leaves would emit a fair amount of water themselves, and I ended up with a rice with greens porridge. I mistakenly thought I could avoid burning the rice this time by adding more broth earlier on. I also think there’s a reason chicken broth is normally used to cook rice, not pork broth, because although the flavor was richer than it would have been with water, it wasn’t rich in quite the right way. But the quelites didn’t turn turd green, I got to try cooking with them, and I still enjoyed my rice mush very much. Thank God I had my shameless solitude.