What are you… Chicken?

I have this sinking feeling that I did not do my departure from Korea justice. If I can recall correctly, I simply gave one more recipe about bibimbap, then peaced out from that whole year of culinary, cultural, linguistic, social growth. It’s well past time – two months now back in the states – that I revisit Korea and its cuisine.

In a large way, my return to culinary Korea is based in my nostalgia. Now that fall is upon us, the last autumn I remember was full of hiking in a land where I read signs like a second grader and understood even less. I ate apples that I found in markets. I tried squash and kimchi almost every meal. Now, I’m sitting in a very comfortable coffee shop on the border of Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy, sipping strong, delicious, cappuccino looking out into a rainy Wednesday with a large cooking day ahead of me, and a nice restaurant to play in until the wee hours. Is there a better scenario? Of course not – we learn from every day and every moment, but I’m just slightly nostalgic to the days where I ate spicy food out of necessity not out of choice, where I had to plan out what I’d say at the counter to order my coffee, where a run along the river attracted looks of “what is that crazy white boy doing?”, where grocery stores were a vocabulary exercise, where the food was out of control good and the homogeneity was diverse enough for me not to get through the whole cuisine in a year’s time.

One of the last, and best meals, my friend took me out to still haunts my memory in the best of ways. I’d love to tell the story in chronological order, but the food out was so good that I can’t wait.

We arrived in the pouring rain, threw our names up on the white board outside that listed the next tables available. There were five of us, and we’d love to sit on the floor – sure. Stripping wet boots and umbrellas from our immediate possession, we sat down and didn’t have to order, since this restaurant only offers one thing: the chicken with all of the accoutrement. See: kimchi, radishes, cucumbers, gochujeong, sujebi, buckwheat pajeon, and the chicken. The chicken is prepared by steaming it for hours on end with garlic and root spices, so the meat just falls of the bone with such flavor that it really will haunt your dreams for a while.

The sujebi, a perilla seed based-soup, had such intense, deep flavors that it could have been the stand out dish but nothing really comes close to the chicken. Perilla is a flavor akin to tahini, without the oil-factor. So picture this: a thick, gluttonous soup rich with pepper, sticky buckwheat noodle strips, all coated with the mild but deep flavor of tahini. Dunk your spoon in, and sink slowly into a comfortable satiated womb as you pick up another piece of chicken that will, if you’re not careful, fall from bone to plate atop your kimchi, next to the bowl of rice topped with a cut up cucumber with a touch of red-pepper-sweet-and-delicious-paste. Watch out, it’s all very dangerous, but what are you… chicken?

Now that the main stage has been filled by chicken, the journey there was hilarious. We all met up at exit two (I think?) off line three. It was raining. We all were prepared because, well, it had been raining for the past five weeks, so what was another day? This day, though, was a little more intense. Intense enough that the drains wouldn’t take any more sky water and as we tried to squeeze five people into one cab, we all got our socks damp and the cab driver wouldn’t even take us anywhere. For shame, sir.

Laura and I hopped into a different cab, and were eventually struck with the crude hard fact that our cab driver was not only deaf, but slightly blind, unaware of where he was, and ever so drunk. Driving up the mountain over to the northern side of Seoul, Laura and I realized that it might be a wild ride through the downpour. Stopping off to the side of the road twice, we had to harshly translate our final destination to him, pressing a cell phone to his ear so Jiyoung could really explain it, it was a meal that wasn’t just… easy. It was a struggle to get there, and as we exited from the car, Laura almost threw her shoe at the cab. It was so frustrating, but a perfect example of type two fun: not all that fun during it, but hilarious afterwards.

I wish I could debrief more on Korea, about how I miss it and how the people there are amazing. How I loved the food, and loved learning something everyday. How the clothes were cutting edge and how the mentality of hard-work was inspiring. How the kids there were just brilliant and how people really partied hard. How it was nice to relax with close friends and how it was comforting that I lived so far from what I knew. But, to put that in just one post, well that would be an insult.

Korea, I do miss thee.

Fall Is In The Air

Fall brings out some pretty corporeal desires in people. It makes people want to be indoors with large mugs of coffee. Kids want to play in big piles of leaves. Cinnamon is a welcomed scent wafting through any home. Rich dishes full of hearty, earthy flavors start to grace the plates of many. Scarves come out. The bundling in preparation for the winter starts to take shape. Coffee shops are fuller, and parks are empty in the chilly evenings. Pumpkins come out for Halloween, and apples come down from the trees. Hiking is in its peak season, and so is running. Flannel takes a place in the closet. Pajamas are a legitimate style option until noon on the weekends. Fruits find their way into cobblers instead of fresh on breakfast plates. Fall is a wonderfully enriching and restorative time.

People do, though, get a little funny about fall foods. They stop liking local vegetables simply because the vegetables go underground or get thick skinned. That is to say, carrots, beets, turnips, brussels sprouts, onions, rutabaga, squash, and pumpkin take center stage. Cucumbers get turned into pickles, and tomatoes are nothing but sauce. Unless, you out source from a warmer climate. But these days, when we all have such opportunity to eat locally and sustainably, why not?

Also why not take those unfamiliar and sometimes unwelcome vegetables and make them something new. Something you might enjoy. Whoever said that beets could only be pickled? Why not boil beets, cut them up then sauté them with a bit of butter, salt, pepper, and a touch of vinegar? Carrots don’t have to be raw or baked – why not braise them for a semi-soft carrot that’ll be memorable for days to come? Brussels sprouts are not only for cartoon artists to use as a food no kid likes, they are available to be made delicious – try sautéing them with browned butter, caramelized onions, kosher salt, and a pinch of sugar. Toss them with bacon and maple syrup. Add some chorizo for the meat loves. Broil with olive oil to caramelize.

And pumpkin is by no means only destined for pie or your porch, carved. That goes for squash, too. These wonderful gourds are packed solid with depth of flavor and density. They are solid, so they can stand up for almost any cooking technique. I personally love to bake them, to bring out the natural sugars.

This past weekend, I took advantage of the seemingly endless beautiful weather and had a picnic in Prospect Park. Enticed by the opportunity to cook and pack a picnic, and revved up by the seasonal and local produce, I had tons of ideas. What I settled on was, by many people’s standards, unconventional. Roasted pumpkin served with couscous, Macon apples, sautéed fennel, and green onion. I did go a little traditional with crackers, hummus, and grapes, just to not overstate anything, though.

Savory course covered with half of my pumpkin, I took to the sweet side of life with the other half to make a quick bread topped with a sour cream icing. The quick bread was amazingly moist because to utilize the pumpkin, I roasted it, then made a puree with the insides. Almost acting like an applesauce cake, this quick bread was dense, moist, but not heavy. I also cut back on sugar, so the bread itself was semi-sweet, then topped with the icing. Normally I go for a cream cheese frosting, in honor of Brianna, but I wanted a slight twang in this one. Sour cream acted well to counter-balance the over-sweetness of the confectionary sugar.

The results? The pumpkin, couscous, apple, fennel mixture was gone by the next morning. The quick bread didn’t even make it that far, finished off with licking the container.

Obsessed

Currently, I have three obsessions. Just three things that I constantly think about and have to hold myself back. Restrain myself from partaking in each and every day, every meal. And seeing as it’s a Friday, hopefully you, too, can go off into the weekend thinking about these things too…

Dough Donuts.

I would consider myself a healthy person. I run daily. I eat my fruits and veggies. I steer clear of over-indulgence. I have a glass of wine or beer occasionally. I hardly ever get too crazy with sugars (except for when I’m fresh off a run… I for some reason crave sugar like it’s my job. Cake? 9am? Back from a run? You bet your bottom dollar I’m there). I don’t get into really fatty foods cause they just made me feel all weighed down and lethargic. But, folks, I’ll put all of that on hold for a Dough donut.

Back in high school, I’d go crazy over Krispy Kremes. Then I grew up, and so did my taste buds. They’re good, but nothing to throw in the healthy towel for. I actually have this weakness for really good donuts, so if it’s an option, I’ll try a new one. I can resist those that I know (see: Krispy Kreme, Dunkin, anything from a box in a grocery store), but new ones I have to try. Have to. So at the farmers markets, I’m the one with a bag full of fennel and an apple cider donut, just for kicks.

Dough Donuts are something above all other donuts. I don’t care if I’ve tried each and every flavor, I will go back for more. I am completely obsessed. And the best part is, there are so many flavors. And we’re not talking just glazed and chocolate. No. We’re taking Hibiscus, Blood Orange with candied rinds, Dulce de Leche with slivered Almonds, Lemon Poppy Seed, Toasted Coconut, Chocolate Earl Grey, Chocolate with chocolate nibs, Cinnamon Sugar, Café au Lait, Berry Glazed… the list goes on a changes frequently.

And these donuts are simply on another level. They are large and yeasty with pockets of air built into their pillowy soft circular frame with slightly crispy barriers that aren’t too sweet so that the icing, the flavors can come through and pop. The dough itself is simultaneously a medium for the flavor, as well as an extravagant flavor in itself. Beautifully obsessed.

Consider: Brunch.

Of all things to be obsessed with, brunch seems like one of the last things to be all stir crazy over. I mean, it’s a meal. Anything can happen. But in New York, they take their brunches seriously. All you can drink mimosas and bloody mary’s to entice you in. Prix Fixe menus to excite the lavish diners. Tables that can be reserved for three hours as you wine and dine in the middle of the day because, well, you can. It’s Saturday. Or Sunday. Or any day of the week, seemingly for some New Yorkers.

Last Sunday I met up with a really dear friend, Mary, to catch up over a prix fixe menu at The Vanderbilt in Prospect Heights. We each got different things, save the Dew Drop drink of grapefruit juice and prosecco. Beignets came out first, followed by a savory crepe of a light fish topped with dill crème sauce and a soft poached egg. To the side, cottage fries. Mary had an egg dish akin to Eggs Benedict,that was out of this world good with a cheesy Hollandaise-like sauce worth telling others about.

But it wasn’t this restaurant that got me all hot and bothered, rather just the idea of relaxing with friends eating good food sitting in perfect weather with light plans throughout the day, living the life of an affluent person, if not just for three hours.

I’m obsessed.

The last person I’m obsessed with: this girl. I saw her at a concert, and fell in love. I wish you could have seen her. She had an amazingly cute voice and played the ukelele.

Try them out. Dough Donuts. Brunch. And find this girl. She’ll brighten your day.

A Calming Kyoto

Waking up in Kyoto, knowing that we didn’t have to hop on a train for another whole day was amazing. We took our time – instead of riding a train for an hour and a half, we drank tea, ate toast, and relaxed for that time, consulting our French Friend finding out where we should travel that day. With a solid six or seven monuments to see and things to eat, we tried to mentally prepare ourselves for an overwhelmingly stimulating day.

First we made our way through a market place touting the best of the Kansai region: pickles. Pickles and things of sticks and colorful window panels and fish. Throughout the market, there were restaurants snuck in between food vendors and trinket stores fronts. There were samples and bags full of beans. There was bargaining and also lots of shouting.

The first real “destination” from our French Guide was the golden temple, famed because of its architectural magnificence. The top two stories are covered with pure gold leaf and each of the three stories are a different architectural style. As an innocent bystander, it was gorgeous and there was certainly a reason for its popularity.  Close by is an amazingly serene Zen Garden. All in all, I never understood the idea of raking rocks around stones, but this garden changed me. It quieted my inner voices yelling “RUN! WRITE! COOK! BE PRODUCTIVE!” It was a time and place where people sat by the blanched stoney pool and followed the perfectly minimalistic lines, raked with precision and lost their thoughts to quietude. Words may have spun, wistfully, through some viewers’ heads, but they all came back to the in and out of breath.

I think Laura and I lost some time here. We wanted to keep trudging on, to beat the imminent rain storm destined for our tour-Kyoto-by-food party, but this place, as you can surely tell, drew us in to its calming embrace.

Once we finally found the courage and strength to keep on, we made our way, by passenger train, to probably the most beautiful area I had been in, while in Japan: Arashiyama. The temples framed by trees and mountains. The forests full of bamboo that stretched to the sky. The river that ambled by. The ponds topped with lily pads. It was a good refresher that even amongst urban areas, nature can have a place at the table.

Stumbling back, dazed and enlightened, we wouldn’t have that be the last of our day. My top priority was to see the endless Shinto shrines of Fushimi-inari. We trekked what looked like twenty minutes on the map, which actually turned into about an hour to find these golden orange Shinto gates standing ablaze in the peak of sunset. Passing through each one of them, we felt – again – at peace and warmed by the fact that people constructed these in dedication to something more than themselves. It was kind of like the feeling I had when I went to visit most Italian cathedrals. At first, you are overwhelmed by the size, then the beauty, then the intricacy, then the life-long dedication to one thing that is great.

Famished, we headed back into town by train (not walking, but of course) to meet up with another friend from Korea who was also traveling through Japan at the time. We met up at a vegetarian place that had a wonderful set of food which I didn’t capture. I should have, but the place was so small, intimate, and dark, that I didn’t think that pictures would do it justice. Just picture a divided plate filled with a different vegetable batter fried, sautéed, braised, steamed, raw, dancing with flavors: savory, sweet, umami, bitter, sour. All of them in sync and accompanied by soups, rice, and another plate off to your left full of even more. For example, a root vegetable lightly batter fried on the stove top with hints of seaweed in the batter and garnished with kosher-sized salt and dipped in light soy sauce. Sweet, salty, ocean-notes, and deep. Needless to say, day two in Kyoto was outstandingly enriching and enlightening to those of us that aren’t typically enlighten-able. 

The Old Capital; Cold Noodles for Adults

Kyoto, or the Old Capital, was almost the reason Laura and I went to Japan. There are other places that I’d like to see, like Okinawa, Hokaido, and Tokyo, but on the real: Kyoto is the place to visit. It’s a land of one thousand temples, foods beyond imagination, mountains and rivers, bamboo forests, and mystery around every corner. If you’d like to spend your days in a department store, you can. If you want to stroll through hundreds of Shinto shrines, you can. Possibly overdo it on food every thirty feet? That’s also in the cards in Kyoto. It really was a land of happiness and secrecy.

See, Kyoto was not only our culinary peak and temple heaven of the trip, but also the origins and residence of geishas. Yes, geishas still exist in a large way. And Laura wanted to see one with a fiery passion, so Kyoto was an obvious choice to fulfill all of our requirements for this trip.

Arriving in the Kyoto Train Station for the better half of two and a half days, Laura and I wanted to see and do everything possible. After a brief walk through the south end of town, we arrived at our hostel, which was welcoming and full of internet access if we wanted to take leave of our borrowed French guidebook. We actually chose to stay with the Western European friend, and trudge on. We tried planning two days of intense sight seeing and food indulging, which turned into a legitimate workout, and culinary delight.

Setting out from almost the middle of the city, we headed East, across the river and into the mountains where temples sat upon palaces and the winding roads served as a reminder that it wasn’t always true that large trucks could deliver endless amounts of food and commodities to large numbers of people. They also served as reminders that maybe, just maybe, life could be better off if it were slower and the intricacies of architecture could be appreciated for their hard work.

The first half of the day really was dedicated to being in the presence of amazing temples and monuments to years past scattered about with modern day souvenir shops. Above the Gion District we romped and frolicked and found people dressed in kimonos and wondered where we could try one on. We drank from holy waters and thought about dinners and lunches and where we might go.

 

As the sun began to set, we – per the recommendation of the French Guide – headed to the Gion district to see if we could catch geishas on their way to a meeting, or their apprenticies in training.

I, the lucky one that I am, was cleaning my lens of my camera as Laura gasped and yelled toward me. I didn’t listen, because it was just that important to clean my lens. What was she yelling about? Two geishas in full regalia on their way past us. She didn’t take their picture because she was too shy, so I have absolutely no evidence that I was in the presence of geishas, that ancient tradition. But believe me. Have I lied before? Maybe. But this time, I swear!

 

That night we strolled along the philosopher’s walkway – a small road cut in half by an ambling stream and overlain with drooping trees, through Pontocho Street on our way to a soba noodle place that was just all the rave in the guidebook and in my friend’s “have to do” list.

 

Soba is a noodle that is generally served cold, alone on a slotted plate with a sauce off to the side in which you dip the noodles to really distribute the umani and savory flavors present in the soy sauce, the buckwheat noodles, and the pickled onions. On the side there were tempura=style vegetables to enhance the rich flavors being presented to us in beautiful black and red dishes. The whole meal gave almost no hints of sweet, but balanced well on our palates. It was cute, because in the back of the English menu, there was a how-to guide as to eating soba.

Generally I don’t enjoy cold noodles, unless they are egg noodles served with ketchup, salt and I’m five, but these were delicate, hearty, and satisfying in all ways. Laura, ever so conscious of space’s demand in Japan, wanted to get in and out of the restaurant, so we dined with speed, and headed on our way into the night, to revel in the fact that we were exactly where we wanted to be.

Deer and Beer

Catching up with family is always informative. Either you learn that so-and-so is pregnant or he’s not talking to her anymore or that someone’s getting married or that simply: family knows you all too well.

Yesterday I spoke with a bunch of family. It seemed like the thing to do seeing as the weather was beautiful, I had the day off, and I had plans later to make dinosaur-shaped cookies. That last one really isn’t a cause of talking to family, nor an effect. It just was.

While talking to my grandmother who lives in Virginia, she commented on some of my posts, “Oh it’s just so nice that you have a bit more time now to write! But I do have to say, you don’t seem like you liked Japan as much.”

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What’s Planning?

Remember when I went to Japan? Yeah, me neither, really.  That trip to me embodied so much of what was going on in my life at that point: pure chaos. It all started with a feeble idea between two good friends that maybe, just maybe, we could go on a summer vacation together. Domestic? Abroad? Cheap? Did it matter at the point when we had five days to decide? We chose a trip to Japan, because it had been both of our dreams to go to the far off Eastern nation that held mystified and hidden treasures in its serene hills, calming sounds, and subtle foods.

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