Excitement (!!!!!)

I am excited (!!!!!!!!). No, I am more than excited. I am enthralled. I am anxious and happy and fevered and aflutter and. And excited.

Why? Because in a few short hours my mom and best friend are going to be landing in Korea to spend the next ten days in my small apartment exploring this huge city (!!!!!!!). Palaces and temples and street vendor shopping and river side walking and cherry blossom seeing and streets lined with cafes and tables filled with endless side dishes and artist colonies and beaches and mountains and food beyond all of our dreams are all on the menu for these ten days. I am beyond excited.

One of the places I’ll be taking them is one of the very best vegan restaurants I’ve found here (which is a surprising amount seeing as Seoul has embraced the “Loving Hut” brand name).

Located on a side street alleyway, as seemingly all good restaurants are, Honest Loving Hut serves up foods that even the most carnivorous of diners would enjoy. Cream Pastas, Hearty Sandwiches, Burgers (okay this one a meat-lover might identify as “not the real thing”…) and ice cream desserts are all gracing the menu for all a reasonable price (roughly 6-14 dollars).

My favorite thing I’ve tried so far is the roasted vegetable sandwich on vegan ciabatta bread. My god is the bread soft, the vegetables roasted and salty, and the pumpkin crispy. It has a night “neo-mayo” on the top bun, and a sweet kick of pineapple on the bottom. This sandwich is exactly what you might want on a summer’s day around one in the afternoon when you and your good friends and family are all gathered around a picnic table after a nice long hike and swim and are a bit peckish and want to enjoy the season’s bounty with a nice glass of dry white wine.

The inside of Honest Loving Hut was quaint, minimalist, and quiet – exactly what you might expect from a vegan restaurant in the heart of the foreign neighborhood in Seoul – that also had a few vegan treats for sale (see: mixes and freshly baked bread).

Other Loving Huts scattered throughout the city feature different cuisines (one is Vietnamese, one is an all-you-can-eat-amazingly-delicious-and-cheap Korean buffet, one is student Korean food).

In about one day, I’ll take my visitors (!!!!!!) there and everywhere else I can think of in this blooming city.

Spices, Spreads, and Spring

As the weather warms and brightens and my schedule slowly starts to fill, as the runs start to get longer, and my time in the kitchen starts to wane, I can’t help from thinking about springtime at College. Out of the two semesters, the spring semester always seemed to be the better of the two – filled with warm weather, bright skies, smiles, and picnics on the lawn while attempting to finish that reading you’ve been putting off for a few days now, that paper that shouldn’t take too long, and, well, what seemed like a million other things.

Some of my favorite things to eat while reclining on the soft beds of green grass that were always a bit too green… were a bubbly kombucha, curry turkey salad, humus, and ginger chews.

Here in Korea, finding kombucha isn’t the easiest of things. Actually, in my eight months of weak searching I have yet to find any. I rarely, if ever, cook meat, so anything with turkey is out of the picture. But hummus. Ginger. Those things are doable.

So adapt I do, as we all do. Ginger is super easy to cook with and extremely versatile but for some reason I’ve been not including it in recent meals. But that all changed as the season did too. Equipped with tofu, onions, garlic, ginger, mushrooms, eggs, a spicy-sweet red sauce, and greens, I set out to pit two wildly different spices: garlic and ginger: against each other in a battle royal that ended up just being a balanced lunch. Sigh, where’s the drama in lunches anymore? In one corner sits the garlicy-spicy tofu and onions with hints of sesame oil over greens. In the other sat the eggplant, ginger, and eggs. The result? Two complimentary flavors sitting on one plate ready to satisfy.

And Hummus, well hummus is just plain simple to make. I didn’t think so, especially here in Korea, but in fact, it’s no big deal. The most difficult thing to find were the Chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans). But a simple trip into foreigner town aka Itaewon, lead me to the Foreigner’s Food market, and there were stacks upon stacks of dried garbanzo beans. I should have realized seeing as there are Middle Eastern and Indian Restaurants for days in that part of town. Tahini wasn’t easy either, until Katie – the friend that listened to Tehcno all night long in the Moscow airport and who is now galavanting all around Scandinavia with plates full of cheese and wine in her hand at all time… opened my world up by saying “You know, tahini is just ground sesame seeds. And what is prevalent here in Korea? Sesame seeds.” Boom. Done. Explosion. I now can have hummus any time. Perfect.

So no, no more Kombucha at the moment. And Turkey? Well, I’ve been vegetarian for a little while now, so Turkey isn’t even something I think about .  But gingered eggs and mushrooms? Homemade hummus? Dare I say it — better than the food I was having at college. Now only if I could find myself a little patch of lawn to sit on here in Seoul that wasn’t half way up a craggy mountain…


Baby, You The You The Best

I am still reveling in the days when, two floors above me, lived a friend that wanted to cook anything and everything and vegan. Alas, those days have come to a bitter end when, last Friday, she packed up her boxes and bags and took a seemingly sketchy flight on Aeroflaut (you ever heard of it? Me either.) from Seoul to Moscow, where she pitched in the airport for roughly 18 hours. See, Russia has a crazy visa process where you have to apply for the visa, specify what dates you are going to be there (sometime not allowing more than ten days vacation), and then you have to jump through a bunch of financial and bureaucratic hoops (including an official invitation from the country, hotel, or person with whom you’d be staying). There was one more option for her:  to pay The Plaza in New York City prices for one night at a Moscow hotel.

Again, I return to the fact that she slept on the floor of the airport, with her luggage in tow, and most likely a bottle of Russian Vodka rolling around somewhere close by.

But before she left, we managed to get in a lot of vegan delights, including one of the best cookies I’ve ever made. If you remember, I am a baker at heart. Coming home from late nights at a Thai restaurant, still wound up from serving people and pounding absurd amounts of Thai coffee to keep awake, I would station myself in the kitchen mixing flours and sugars and baking powders until out of the oven came warm scones and flans and marbled pumpkin-cheesecakes. Needless to say, I’ve baked my fair number of cookies.

But these, these vegan treats were probably the best things I had baked… almost ever. It was the combination of ease, company, and result.

Vegan cookies and easy don’t usually come together in a sentence all that often (unless you’re reading a vegan blog or cookbook…) but I have to testify that these cookies were as easy as, well, pie? Yes dairy-laden cookies have butter AND eggs (oh, the travesty!), but both ingredients have substitutes. For the butter, you can find vegan margarines or simply use a little more oil. I’ve also heard that you can use applesauce, bananas, or some people go for water. We used margarine.

Eggs? That one is a little more difficult, eh? Not if you have ground flax seeds. Now if you start groaning about how it’s annoying to go to the store to buy flax seeds and which ones do you use the ground or the whole and why are they so expensive and blah blah blah hush up folks. Try finding flax seeds in Korea (see: where do you go, what do they look like, and what the heck are they called in Korean!). So yeah. There. Most of you have the luxury of just hopping down to Wegman’s or Harris Teeter and picking up a nicely packaged haul of flax seeds (ground please).

Once you’ve stopped your moaning and groaning and have your ground flax seeds, what do you do? Add a little water and put them over medium head until they come together in an eggy consistency. No joke, it’s a beautiful transformation. And now, your can substitute eggs in any of your baked goods!

With recipe and substitutes on call, Katie and I found ourselves mixing our ingredients with fervor and diligence until they all popped their way into and out of the oven.  Because my oven is on the smaller side, and these cookies took a while to fully bake, we decided a bottle of red wine and good stories were the perfect time killers.

An hour and half later, we had finished our bottle of wine, found out a little more about each other and eaten more than a quarter of the cookies. Warm, solidified but ever-so-gooey. Notes of cinnamon, brown sugar danced around the rolled oats, sweet raisins, and earthy walnuts. The cookies, melting away in our mouths quickly, lasted two days. How can you say no to an Oatmeal Raisin Walnut Cookie? You can’t.

Giganto-Vegan-Oatmeal-Raisin-Walnut-Delights (GVORWD doesn’t really roll off the tongue too well…)

1 Cup vegan margarine, melted

1 Cup Brown Sugar, packed (for real, pack it!)
3/4 Cup Sugar
2 tsp Vanilla Extract
2 tablespoons ground flaxseed, 6 tablespoons of water heated over low heat
1 1/4 Cups Flour
2 tsp Cinnamon
1 tsp Baking Soda
1/2 tsp Salt
3 Cups Oats (preferably not instant, but they might work too)
1 1/2 Cups Raisins (don’t go for jumbo, because they’ll just all freaky in the oven)
1 cup chopped walnuts

While the oven is heating to 350 (172C) mix the melted margarine, brown sugar, sugar, and vanilla until light and fluffy (with a mixer or by hand, whichever is clever). Then, add flaxseed mixture and beat until well blended. (wet ingredients)

In another bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt (dry ingredients).

Add, gradually, wet ingredients into the dry ingredient mixture.

Stir in oats, raisins, and nuts last.

Work the dough from bow to baking sheet however you’d like (see: drop cookies, shaped, on parchment paper, on an oiled surface, etc)

Bake for 15-17 minutes or until edges begin to brown. Let stand for 3 minutes before removing from baking sheet. (They’ll be gooey, LET THEM SIT!)

A day; A hike; A treat

More often then not on my free time these days, I find myself browsing through guides to Seoul, and I’ve found a few truths from these perusings. One: Korean food is at the heart of the allure to coming to Seoul. Two: Seoul is beautiful. No, ugly. No, developing. No, surrounded by majestic mountains. No, grey. No, dynamic and stylish. No. No. No.

What you can surmise is: no one can agree as to what Seoul specifically is. Is it a tourist destination? An international economic powerhouse? Relaxing or stressful?

While browsing through, I had a few questions myself: why (first) am I almost a gestation period into my stay here and still looking at travel guides, second – what do I think of Seoul?

Well, to answer the first question: I have settled into a place of routine, and comfort and want to break out of that. Where can I go next? What’s the newest, best food on the market? With Spring in full swing, I find it time to be a tourist again.

In response to the second: I can only say that Seoul is a massive city characterized simply by a homogenous mix of wildly different lifestyles and ambitions fueled by a delicious cuisine, desire to succeed, all ensconced by dramatic craggy mountains.

And the mountains are what I find myself drawn to on the weekends. I think in every one of my “weekend plans” – which rarely are ultimately completed – includes hiking. Two weekends ago, though, I made my way up a mountain that not only had older folks beating me up the forty five degree angled path, but also had a section of the hike that required that the hiker grab a rope, and pull themselves up the hill. No safety nets. No guides. No signs. Just grab the rope, and make moves. I never really questioned it, since what seemed like ninety-year-olds were almost running up this rock face, but I did say to myself a few times “I don’t think this would ever happen in America…”

At the top of the mountain, with Seoul, and the surrounding environs in sight, the group of hikers I was with all gathered around to have lunch. Some brought out kimbab – a quick and easy hiking food (see Korean style sushi roll) – some brought out sandwiches, and others just had Oreo cookies. As you can see: hiking food is almost the same all over: proteins, few veggies, and sugar. Got to have the sugar.

I, planning ahead the night before, had brought some beer bread, strawberries (they are finally in season here!), and a new recipe: Caramel Corn (see: sugar!).

But not any Caramel Corn you may find in the 7-11 or movie theater, folks. This was homemade, slightly tacky, complex, and sweet enough to satisfy any sweet tooth.

Complex? How can a sugary treat (usually consisting of sugar, butter, and popcorn) be complex? You add a secret ingredient, but of course.

The recipe I was adapting mentioned using cayenne pepper. I think this would be amazing, but at the time, I had no cayenne, but I did have something else that was red (to start with): Saffron!

Maybe a misappropriation of saffron (only one of the most expensive spices in the world), but this treat was rich, sweet, complex, and freaking delicious nonetheless. The preparation was a bit hectic because as the saffron-caramel started to cool, you have to move fast (since it’s solidifying as fast as it’s cooling). Also, popping popcorn on the stove top can catch you, and your pot-lid, off guard. So my recommendation is: try this for the experience and be ready to not be able to think about anything but the two pots in front of you, for about fifteen minutes.

Saffron Caramel Corn

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 cup popcorn kernels

Scant Pinch of Saffron

3 tablespoons of Milk (not skim, folks. Anything but skim)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1.5 cups sugar

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1  tablespoons kosher salt.

Over Medium heat, warm your veggie oil and add popcorn kernels. If you’ve never popped popcorn kernels over the stove – beware. They are angry little guys and want to attack you as they evolve from golden shell to yellow explosion. Make sure all of the kernels are popped, and transfer to a bowl to cool.

Warm your milk up a bit, and place saffron in the milk. The milk is warm enough if you see the little red threads start to bleed yellow. Let that sit for a good 10 minutes.

Over Medium-high heat, combine sugar, butter, and salt. Stir occasionally and let all of that combine real good. It’ll take a good 10 minutes, and get a little bubbly, but stick with it. It will be good times soon enough.

Remove from heat and stir in the baking soda and yellow-saffron-milk. Whisk quickly. It’ll bubble a bit, but keep going.

Now it’s a race against the clock. The Caramel is starting to cool. So pour it over your popcorn and transfer to a flat, non-stick surface (Baking sheet is the best). Let it sit for at least 20 minutes to cool off.

Now, bring it in to work or school. There’s really just too much to eat by yourself.

Stuffed Conversations; Bolognese Silence

“Are you going to take a picture of this before we eat?”

“I don’t know, maybe?”

“You have to. It’s really involved and super impressive.”

“You can, if you’d like.”

“This might be the best meal, no, well, this is definitely in the top five meals I’ve ever made in my life.”

Silence overtook us as we clicked the shutter closed at a quick pace due to the sunlight illuminating the apartment, pull chairs around a round table set in the middle of the room, and began to cut fork into dough.

“This is”

“This should be served at restaurants.”

“I think we could serve this to someone and them not know it was vegan.”

“Thanks nootch. Thanks TVP.”

Silence again settled in around us and spoons greedily headed for the bowl of sauce sitting in the middle of the round table in the middle of the room. Bowl, plate. Bowl plate. This happened frequently as did eyes darting from plate to accompanying faces to the counter where the extras sat, glowing in the golden light.

“How can this be vegan? This tofu tastes like cheese. This dough is outstanding. TVP you are an angel amongst ingredients – how do you taste like meat but are vegetables?”

The sauce bowl was full, then half empty, then gone. No more red sauce flavored with Italian seasonings, black pepper, salt, brown sugar, garlic, sautéed oyster mushrooms, broccoli, onions, and TVP. No more sauce that could have been served as a chili, or soup. What remained was on our plates full of homemade stuffed shells. Inside the rolled tube of fresh vegan dough was nestled a substantial serving of tofu, salt, and nutritional yeast all coming together to make a parmesan-ricotta filling, only sans the dairy.

“Should we make a salad?”

“No. This will do.”

“This really is one of the best meals I’ve ever made.”

 

 

Vegan Spring: Sweet Potato Falefel

In Korea, spring has sprung. The mornings are greeted with bright sunshine filling apartments before 7am, runs in shorts and rolled up sleeves, and the infections energy that you somehow catch by just being outside. I don’t think I realized how much Cabin Fever really could affect me until this winter. Since the ice has thawed and sitting outside at a coffee shop doesn’t sound like crazy talk, I have been outside at every opportunity. Stroll to a far away grocery store just because I can? Why not. Extend my run just so I can keep the sun wrapping me up in its warm embrace? Who wouldn’t? Cooking with all the windows open? Let’s not get overly poetic.

With this pseudo-rebirth of personalities, people, and the city’s constant metronome comes an enlivened appetite for new adventures and new options on all fronts. Travel wise, socially, and but of course, gastronomically.  Explorations, in my opinion, are generally more enjoyable when there is someone to share them with. Luckily for me, there is: a good friend moved into an apartment just one flight of stairs up fro me, and dare I say she has the same voracious appetite for new, different, and wholly healthy foods. Being a vegetarian, she is always on the hunt for new ways to keep herself healthy and – in a country that relies so heavily on meat – satisfied. Bottom line: girl cooks a lot because Korean restaurants think chicken isn’t meat.

Over the past two weeks we have been cooking together, a lot. It has been both a great and learning experience to share a small Korean kitchen with another gastronome. Most times, our cooking escapades start out with “hey, want to cook lunch on Tuesday?” “Sure, what should we make?” “Well, I have a small grocery store’s worth of dried goods, let’s pick one of those.” “Chickpeas it is.”

And chickpeas it was, one time. Another it was Textured Vegetable Protein (see: TVP) or some frozen tomatoes. Once more, it was oats. But for this first extravaganza, I take you to the land of chickpeas, which are a hearty and surprisingly protein-packed bean that all vegetarians should know how to handle. They’re super versatile and end up in dishes like Indian Curries, Greek Hummus, or Israeli Falafel. On this fine Tuesday evening, we took our ingredients and culinary intellects and headed to the Mediterranean to fix up some falafel. We, because it was just too easy to keep it vegetarian, wanted to go full-blown vegan. And add sweet potatoes, just for kicks.  The results were better than almost any falafel I’ve ever had, save the one in the Marais in Paris. That one will always haunt my memories.

This Tuesday lunch falafel was crispy golden brown with a gooey give in the center accompanied by a tahini-inspired sauce, crisp fresh lettuce, fresh and refreshing cucumber slices, broccoli for texture, firm and juicy cherry tomatoes, a splash of lemon all neatly folded into a warmed flat pita.  The falafel itself had deep flavors of the nutty chickpea, warm tones from the flax seed sprinkled in, a well rounded herb hint from the parsley, and a smidge of sweetness coming straight to us from the sweet potato puree.

We sat in slight awe for a second before we dove into the meal, all the while knowing that after this meal, we could go outside and enjoy any and every possibility of the awakening spring air. Ah, adventure, welcome back.