Posts Tagged ‘vegetables’

The Lotus Eaters

August 7, 2009

IMG_4284One of the things I like best about working on this cookbook is that it gives me a concrete excuse to be a Korean food evangelist. I get to share funny, odd ingredients—though not as much if I were cooking Chinese food, to be sure—and argue passionately that they are delicious and worth eating.  It’s a lot more fun than arguing about jurisdiction to a judge.


For example, Exhibit A: lotus root.


The lotus, the flower you see on yoga mats everywhere, actually has an edible root, or more technically, a rhizome.  It doesn’t look like much, but when it’s sliced, it reveals a beautiful pattern of perforation, simple but sweet like a first-grader’s handmade snowflake.  I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never eaten it raw, but I do know that even when cooked, it retains its crunchy yet light texture, falling somewhere between a water chestnut and a jicama.  It takes flavors well, like a potato, but you could never mistake it for anything other than what it is.

Korean groceries in the U.S. will often sell them only shrink-wrapped in plastic or otherwise preserved.  The Han Ah Reum on 32nd St. sells lotus root that’s technically “fresh,” but it looks like crap and costs a lot.  Luckily, the Chinese seem to be eating quite a lot of lotus root as well, because it’s abundant in New York’s Chinatown and cheap!

My mom likes to use lotus root in making vinegar pickles with muh radish and Asian pear, but the most popular form for eating yeongeun is probably 연근조림, yeongeun-jorim, glazed and candied to a high gloss and then tossed with nutty sesame oil and sesame seeds.

Like with many jorim dishes, the goal is to end up with a dish that is both salty and sweet, that takes as well to a bowl of white rice as to snacking with liquor.  (Lotus root makes a particularly good anju or bar snack, since it supposedly has hangover prevention powers.)  All jorim is made by cooking the ingredients, whether it’s beef or lotus root, over medium-low heat in liquid flavored with soy sauce, sugar, and syrup.  The pan is left uncovered, and whatever’s inside gets stirred and stirred until the sauce has been completely reduced and all that’s left is a bright, shiny dish.  The shine is very important—it’s why so many Korean dishes call for cooking syrup, traditionally made out of grains but now mainly made out of American corn.  If Michael Pollan is getting to you, don’t substitute the corn syrup with sugar.  Try honey or look for syrups in Korean groceries that are made out of barley.

Glazed lotus root


  • 2 lotus roots
  • 1 T. oil
  • 1 t. minced garlic
  • 3 T. soy sauce
  • 1 T. sugar
  • 1 T. syrup or honey
  • water
  • dash of vinegar
  • 1 T. sesame oil
  • 1 T. sesame seeds
  1. Peel and slice the lotus root into slices about ½ an inch thick.  As you cut the slices, put them in a bowl of cold water with a dash of vinegar.  This will keep them from discoloring.
  2. Heat the oil and minced garlic in pan on medium heat for about a minute, until the garlic is fragrant.
  3. Add the lotus root slices and sautee vigorously for about 5 minutes.
  4. Then add to the pan half a cup of water, one tablespoon soy sauce, and one tablespoon sugar.  Mix thoroughly and keep tossing the lotus roots in the sauce so that they get evenly coated and browned.  The sauce should be simmering, not at a very low simmer but more a low boil.  When the sauce has reduced to about 2 tablespoons, add the remaining two tablespoons of soy sauce and one tablespoon of syrup or honey.  Again, mix thoroughly so that the soy sauce and sugar evenly coat all the slices.
  5. Keep stirring until the sauce has completely reduced.  It will take about 20 minutes form when the lotus roots began cooking.  Taste a little piece and add a little extra sugar or soy sauce if necessary.
  6. Add a tablespoon each of sesame oil and sesame seeds and toss thoroughly.  Or, if you want to decorate the lazy way I do, pile up the lotus root slices on a serving dish without the sesame seeds and then sprinkle them right on top, focusing on the peak of the pile.  It’s oddly appealing, don’t you think?

Heart-shaped leaves

May 12, 2009


I’ve just realized that two of my favorite leaves in the world are both heart-shaped.

Hierba santa in Oaxaca is one of the most delicious leaves I’ve ever tasted.  It tastes a little like anise, a little like mint, with an incredible strong and calming fragrance.  When it’s wrapped around quesillo, Oaxacan string cheese, and then heated in a pan…what I would do to eat that again at La Biznaga!

The other one is 깻잎, kkaenip, which is often translated as perilla or wild sesame, and sometimes as shiso, though to me, “shiso” describes a Japanese variety, which has a very distinct and different flavor.  It’s in the mint family, but it doesn’t really smell like mint.  It comes on strong like fennel, but it’s not quite like fennel either.  The flavor just doesn’t exist in English.

As exotic as it sounds, it’s very common in Korean cooking.  You’ll see kkaenip in the basket of greens at most Korean barbecue restaurants.  I like to layer a piece on top of lettuce before wrapping it all around my grilled beef or pork.  My sister loves it as another layer between the rice and the seaweed in kimbap or Korean rice rolls.  You can slice it up and throw it in sautéed rice cakes.  And you can stuff it with seasoned meat and fry it all up coated in flour and eggs.  That is a particularly delicious way to eat it.

Bibimbap vegetables waiting for the barley rice

Bibimbap vegetables waiting for the barley rice

So when I decided to have a special vegetarian Korean Sunday dinner, I wanted to do something with kkaenip.  In general, I wanted to give my vegetarian friends a taste of something they’d likely never had before.  Since I couldn’t wow them with pork belly or glazed spare ribs, I wanted to feed them crazy roots and funny greens, the kind of stuff that Koreans love to gather from the mountains that cover the country.  So many Korean foods, when translated into English, sound like they would only belong at a store for health nuts and hippies—fern bracken, burdock root, crown daisies.  But in Korean, they’re as ordinary as “spinach.”

Acorn jelly tosed with sesame seeds and roasted seaweed.

Acorn jelly tosed with sesame seeds and roasted seaweed.

I made sure to have a vegetable bibimbap, or mixed rice, that was filled with burdock roots sautéed and glazed in syrup and soy sauce, as well as fern bracken, mung bean sprouts, bean sprouts, and tiny pin-headed 팽이버섯, paengi-beoseot, or enoki mushrooms.  I made acorn jelly from acorn powder, which somehow has mysterious gelatinous powers, and tossed it with roasted seaweed, sesame seeds, and sesame oil.  I stuffed tofu with portabella mushrooms and green onions, and then braised them in soy sauce with a dash of red pepper flakes.  The vegetarian seaweed soup was good, though now I wish I’d added more sesame oil to make up for the lack of beef stock.

Fried tofu stuffed with portabella mushrooms, waiting for their soy-sauce braising bath.

Fried tofu stuffed with portabella mushrooms, waiting for their soy-sauce braising bath.

But I was particularly proud of the vegetarian kkaenip-jeon, or stuffed perilla leaf pancakes.  The stuffed tofu and the kkaenip-jeon were the only dishes I invented, my special meatless versions.  I’m sure I’m not the first person to have come up with these ideas, but last night was certainly the first time I’d tasted them.

I started with the basic kkaenip-jeon recipe.  Instead of ground beef, I took firm tofu, crumbled it and strained it in a cheesecloth.  I added a ton of chives, some green onions, and chopped zucchini.  I seasoned it more or less the way I would have seasoned beef, with soy sauce, sesame oil, and garlic.  I stuffed each leaf as I would with meat, dredged them in flavor, and dipped them in egg before frying them in a enameled cast-iron pan.

I was so anxious to taste the first one and make sure it tasted okay, I burnt my tongue.  But it was good!  They weren’t as juicy as the beefy ones had been, but the contrast between the almost crisp, leafy exterior and the smooth tofu filling was great.  The relative mildness of the vegetarian version meant that it went better with the vinegar-spiked soy sauce I’d put out for dipping.  I’d like to try it again one day and replace the zucchini with shitake mushrooms, but given the mushrooms in the stuffed tofu, I was glad to have something with such a clean, green flavor on the table.  It felt like spring…with hearts.


As always, this is a draft recipe.  Everything in the cookbook will be much better. Feel free to play around with the proportions.  I think it’s really important in Korean cooking to be sure about your own tastes and season boldly and accordingly.

Stuffed perilla leaves

Meat filling
8 oz. of ground beef
1.5 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chopped green onion
freshly ground pepper

Vegetarian filling
1 package firm tofu, crumbled and drained
½ cup chopped zucchini
½ cup chopped Asian chives
¼ cup chopped green onions
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground pepper

20 fresh and tender kkaenip leaves
2 eggs, beaten, with pinch of salt
½ cup of flour

  1. If you’re making the meat version, season the ground beef with the soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, green onion, and pepper.  Let it marinate for at least 30 minutes.
  2. If you’re making the vegetarian version, crumble the tofu and then squeeze thoroughly in cheesecloth.  You can also just squeeze the water out of the tofu with your hands and let it drain in a strainer or colander, though it’s worth getting a bit of thin cloth and squeezing the tofu juice out that way.  Combine all the ingredients and mix thoroughly.  The flavors will meld better if you mix it with your hand rather than a spoon.
  3. Wash and dry the kkaenip leaves.  Each leaf is heart-shaped and about the size of the palm of your hand.  “Stuff” each leaf by putting about one to two teaspoons of filling on one side of the “heart” and then folding it over.  Press the two halves of the leaf firmly together.  Place the stuffed kkaenip leaves on a plate and set aside.
  4. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a pan on medium-low heat.
  5. Dredge each stuffed leaf in the flour and then coat it in beaten egg.  Be sure to get egg on as much of the leaf as possible.
  6. Fry the battered leaves in batches in the pan, about 2-3 minutes on each side, until golden in color.  Don’t crowd the pan, and add more oil as necessary between batches.  Set the cooked perilla leaves on paper towels to soak up some of the oil.
  7. Like all “jeon,” these pan-fried kkaenip leaves can be served at room temperature but they’re incredible when they’re hot.  You can make them ahead of time, and then reheat them in an oven set at 300 degrees for five minutes or reheat them in a pan.  Do not microwave them unless you like your jeon soggy.

Pork and doenjang are best friends

April 28, 2009

“Pork and doenjang are best friends. They have an inseparable relationship.”

One of my guests said this a few Sundays ago, and I remember laughing because it was so true. Pork and doenjang, or fermented bean paste, really do go well together. But as I prepped dinner this past Sunday, I realized pork has a lot of best friends. Pork really gets around.


I was making 보쌈, bossam, a dish that normally gets translated as poached or boiled pork belly, but that’s really an incomplete translation. “Bossam” literally means package, and when bossam is served, you must have the whole package. There’s the pork belly, of course, rich and glistening in its own fat, but it must be served with an array of vegetables, kimchi, sauces, and dips.

The pork itself is almost modestly plain–you have to do almost nothing to get it ready to eat.  The pork isn’t salted, and although it’s simmered in a pot with a mess of vegetables and a spoonful of doenjang, these vegetables don’t add a lot of noticeable flavor. These ingredients are actually meant to absorb the porky smell of pork, to the extent that some modern Koreans will throw in a couple of spoonfuls of ground coffee as well. When I removed the pork belly, sliced it up and tasted it, the flavor was exactly as I’d hoped it would be, rustic, smooth and fatty.

I forgot to take a photo of the finished product, so this is a photo from a meal I had in Seoul.

I forgot to take a photo of the finished product, so this is a photo from a meal I had in Seoul.

You can take a piece of this pork, dip it into a dish of salted, fermented shrimp sauce, put it straight in your mouth and it will be delicious. But the party really gets started when pork belly gets wrapped up with its best friends.

There are normally a variety of lettuces and cabbage available for wrapping around the pork. I salted some Napa cabbage until it wilted and put out fresh red leaf lettuce and perilla leaves.

There’s always something sharp and spicy, like bossam kimchi, which is a pain in the ass to make and a privilege to eat, because little treasures like raw chestnuts, dates, and jujubes need to be inserted between the leaves in a whole head of Napa cabbage, which then gets wrapped into a lovely little “bossam.” I took the easy route and made some lightly pickled spicy radish strips or muh-chae instead.

I made sure there was more doenjang on the table, in the form of ssamjang made out of doenjang, gochujang or red pepper paste, garlic, sesame oil, and ground anchovies, all sautéed together, though I think pork belly is also good with a more straightforward doenjang-garlic paste.

(You can see the kind of spread a restaurant would serve as bossam here.)


To round out the meal, I made a barley-white rice mix served with lots of sauteed vegetables and wild greens for a simple bibimbap, chewy rice cakes made with bulgogi meat and peppers, fiery-red kimchi-jjigae, and perilla leaves stuffed with ground beef and then battered in egg and fried.  Those were a big hit, the juicy meat inside the fragrant kkaenip.

Ultimately, it’s all about bringing contrasting yet complementary flavors together. It’s about the easy richness of pork belly being paired with something tangy, sharp, and bright, or in the case of doenjang, something salty, dark and earthy. That’s the way good friendships and relationships work, too, right?

I’m not providing a recipe for the salted cabbage, muh-chae and other accompaniments because I’m still working on the proportions.  I’m not done fiddling with the pork belly recipe either, but this turned out so well and it’s so ridiculously easy, I can’t really justify holding it back.  And despite my whole song and dance about the “whole package,” it’s worth making the pork belly even if you don’t have time to make all the accompaniments.  Just buy some kimchi, ssamjang, and lettuce, and you will have a very happy feast.

Poached pork belly

2 lbs. pork belly
1 white onion
1 giant green onion (or 3 regular green onions/scallions)
1 Korean hot green pepper or serrano pepper
1 3-inch piece of fresh ginger
10 cloves of garlic
1 T. whole peppercorns
2 T. of doenjang or soybean paste

  1. Put the pork belly, onion, giant green onion, peppercorns, garlic, daenjang, hot pepper and ginger in a large pot.  Add water to cover.
  2. Bring to a boil and then turn down the heat and let it simmer for 1 hour.  (I think 30 minutes might do the trick, too.)
  3. Remove the pork.  Slice the belly lengthwise into long strips two to three inches wide.  Cut each strip into pieces about ½-inch thick.  Each piece will be a square that reveals the different layers of skin, fat, and meat.
  4. Serve warm.

Tteok-guk, comfort food for kings

April 13, 2009


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.)