From Ground to Chopsticks: The Secret Ingredient

Nights like tonight, when – for some untold reason – I am wired into the late hours of the night are what made me an experimental cook. This un-bed-able energy, back in high school, came from being on my feet and serving people delicious Thai food for five or six hours. I guess I would be so hyped up from dealing with people, I wouldn’t be able to just crash, I needed a decompression. A winding down.

I found this relaxation period through one medium, and two outlets. The medium being food. The outlets being baking or Food Network. I never said I was a normal high school student, but this might be a bit extreme. Hopped up on restaurant energy and full of coconut milk from my almost-authentic Thai dinner, I would drive home jamming out to bad pop music, thinking about what baked good I was going to whip up in the hour of adrenaline I had left. Scones. Muffins. Cookies. Cakes. Crème Brule. You know, the usual for a seventeen-year-old high school student.

And if it wasn’t me making a floury mess of the kitchen upstairs, it was me studying the quick witted techniques streaming across my TV on how to filet a fish, smash garlic with the side of your knife, or create an entire five-course meal using one central ingredient.

See, late at night, there were really only two shows that were available on the food network: Good Eats and Iron Chef. I found myself taking notes from Alton Brown and just mesmerized by the Iron Chefs and their ingenuity. I always thought that it was a hoax, and there had to be some way that they had preconceived notions of what the secret ingredient was. That, or I thought that I could easily make what they made, given the fact that I had their equipment and ingredients at my disposal.

Ever since, it has been a culinary goal of mine to put on a meal with one central ingredient: a thread that you could follow throughout the culinary extravaganza. This past week, I fulfilled that goal, leaving three left: one being to cook a full Gourmet menu (one of the ones they suggest in the monthly magazine that has recently passed). The others remain a secret in hopes that they might come true.

If this was a sitcom, the screen would get wavy, blurring the visible characters into blended colors, into semi-retro looking people who are clearly supposed to be the characters in a former time. Just poorly dressed.

About a month ago, a good friend went “almost into North Korea” (his words, not mine), to make Kimchi. That’s right, that ubiquitous food that finds its way into every restaurant and onto every table ,can be made. Despite what some may believe, it doesn’t just appear in giant pots, people actually make it. And it’s not that complex of a process. A little brined cabbage, some fish paste, tons of red spices, some green onions, and time. This stuff has to ferment. I guess you could eat it fresh, but the longer the fermentation, the better it holds up in recipes.

Sitcom transition: someone looks far off into the distance, and we just blur into the future. Where we show up is in the office. My friend turns to me and says “You know, I’ve been saving all of that kimchi I made a while back. I was thinking that we could just cook it all up in one go. You know, just make a bunch of different dishes with it.” “Iron chef style?” “Yeah, exactly.”

I obviously thought we were in a competition, so I clammed up and started to fester over what I was going to cook to beat my worthy adversary. “So, what are you making?” “I thought we’d cook together, no? I mean, who’s going to judge?” “Oh, right, yeah.” Competitive nature, be damned.

With that all worked out, we took a break period to figure out what we were going to do with this pot-o-kimchi. Appetizer? Soup? Salad? Main Dish? Drinking Side Dish? Cooked? Raw? Steamed? The options were obviously not endless, but it was hard to narrow down exactly what sounded appealing.

We ended up making a rough outline. Soup. Side Dish. Main Dish, and something else, whatever that would be.

After work, he went one way, in search of sesame oil, some meat for the main dish, and the fermenting kimchi stuffed away in a corner of his room. Side note: that sounds a lot worse that it actually is. To be honest, kimchi is one of my favorite flavors in all of Korean cuisine.  I, well I went home and started to lay out all of the ingredients I had accumulated over the week in preparation. I grabbed some tofu, garlic, and ddeok (compressed rice into small slivers of chewy satisfaction).

And the epic dinner continues.  I think this would be a two parter, if it actually was a sitcom. But since I trust you to have an attention span longer than the Average American TV viewer, I trudge on.

With all of the ingredients laid out, we decided to divide and conquer – unlike true Iron Chef, neither of us were the head chef with little sous chefs running around just out of camera’s view: We were both in charge of two dishes. Seeing as I almost never cook meat (long story short: I started cooking as a vegetarian, so I never needed to learn how to cook it), he took the main dish and what is a drinking side-dish (tofu and kimchi or 두부김치) while I tackled the quintessential kimchi jiggae and a salad.

We started and finished – preparation and all – in under an hour. As we sat down to eat the meal, we realized that we really cooked for about six people, but we plowed ahead, full steam, nonetheless and managed to put almost no dent in the massive amounts of food before us. So now, I present to you the menu, in true Iron Chef fashion, naming all the pictures smattered throughout this two-hour-special of the sitcom that may or may not be my life.

The Primer: Sweet Potatoes, Fresh Greens, Green Onions, and Bean Sprouts sautéed in onions, garlic, finely chopped kimchi, amongst sesame oil, a hint of soy sauce, and one fried egg all over a bed of baby lettuce.

Second is Best: Sliced fresh tofu surrounding pan-seared kimchi featuring soy, sesame, and sweet notes amongst the ever-present garlic and fermented tang kimchi provides so perfectly.

T is for Tradition: Traditional Kimchi Jiggae, highlighting the sharp and rich flavors of kimchi, green onions, and garlic.

The Main: An innovated pairing of kimchi and meat. Pork hand-wrapped in full kimchi leaves and pan-seared for a rich, dense, and enlivening experience, capturing both moisture and flavor.

The Peanut Gallery: What is any Korean meal without the side-dishes, the Banchan (baby)? For this meal, we’ve paired the four dishes with marinated sesame leaves, syrupy sweet marinated lotus root for a punch of texture, and for the salty component: baby sardines in a spicy red paste.

I recommend Cass, a weak Korean beer, as a pairing.

Let the judging begin.


6 thoughts on “From Ground to Chopsticks: The Secret Ingredient

  1. I have one word. OMG!

    I can’t wait til we can have a Korean kcook-a-thon in Brooklyn. That last picture really raises the stakes, ya big iron chef.

    Keep up the good Korean!

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