Wander with Unfamiliar Suppers

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When you get off the plane, dazed, confused, and hyped up on airplane coffee, you know your trip is going to be magical when an overcast sky doesn’t get in the way of your ecstatic gasps at every new architectural design, every flower in the next window, or hill you have to climb. The first two days spent in San Francisco were “acclimating” days, better know as “play” days.  We figured we had to take in all of the fresh blooming spring flowers, and who could resist walking up the San Francisco hills, let alone say no to someone who offered to take you around to Oakland’s community gardens? It was silly to think of working nonstop, and to be honest: who appreciated a day old mise-en-place? The fact was, these wandering days with no true agenda lead me to one of the best days I’ve had in some time.

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Lucky for me, three of my favorite people were in San Francisco at the same time – a best friend from high school, one from college, and obviously my traveling companion. One night after an impromptu leather workshop and subsequent Pakistani food, I found myself catching up with my high school friend. We planned the next day in the sun with a run, wandering through the mission, fresh juices, and bakery visits. Afterwards, Lexie and I rode over what seems to be one of the longest bridges in America, save the one leading to New Orleans, to be taken on a tour of Oakland’s community gardens. Sun shining, Motown music blasting from the garden’s neighbor’s porch, we midst of a free-for-all in the blossoming garden of greens, peas, edible flowers, and herbs — and this was only the first of three gardens. On our second day there, we had sat in the upstairs of a coffee shop, writing with jittery hands out our menus. Some were complete. The first was not. Dessert wasn’t anywhere near figured out until our last garden, where we found rhubarb taking over an entire flower box – Lexie needed to have it, and I was struck by inspiration. Strawberries weren’t quite in season, and to be honest – strawberry rhubarb isn’t my bread and butter for a dessert. It’s good, I admit. But it’s played out. Sorry.

 

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Resting for a second in my college buddy’s home for a split second with Jasper the house cat, we geared up to go to a house party in what was to be one of the nicest homes I’ve ever been in. Who knew the Oakland hills had magical sunsets and talented concerts? On top of I all, during the concert, the whole street’s power went out, and the artists lit candles, broke out the acoustics, and howled at the moon in beautiful harmony.

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The next morning, in what could only be called an afterglow, Lexie and I inventoried our garden findings, and took Ms. Zoe’s – a great friend and consequently our garden tour guide the previous day – advice to head to Berkeley Bowl for the rest of our goods.

Now, let me just say candidly: Berkeley Bowl has some of the most aggressive cart-drivers, but it is all worth it since it may be the best grocery store in the country. The selection was incredible and I cannot speak highly enough of the layout – 60% produce (conventional and organic in separate sections), 15% bulk items (thank you fresh soba noodles and every grain you could think of), 5% wine, and the rest funky canned goods.

By 1pm we were home, organized, and properly cooking. As we had known from before, Lex and I simultaneous busted out the preparation in no time. “What do you want with this?” “Oh, I got that tart” “Okay, so I’ve done this and this, what can I do for you?” “Are you doing okay” “Holy hell I get focused chopping for so long” “Let’s just go play in the sun for a second?” “Where is Jasper?” It was yet again great to be working in the kitchen with her.

One of the perks of Unfamiliar Suppers, for those who cook with U.S., is how incredibly giving the hosts are. Every home we went into, the host would give us the freedom to do whatever we needed to do with their kitchen, allowing us full creativity. We were able to have both their support, their kitchen, and freedom of expression. Sometimes those kitchens are incredible, sometimes they need us to use the toaster oven as the make-shift spice rack. The top of the refrigerator is for oils. The kitchen table is covered with chopping boards with no room for a diner quite yet. Maybe the oven door is a bit too close to the refrigerator so it hesitates mid-open. And maybe you have some of the best cooking experiences ever there.

The first course was complete. The second on its way. The third was prepped and sitting in the refrigerator until further notice. The dessert sat on the coffee table, cooling, out of sight out of mind (as many baked goods must be during the cooling process, mind you).

By 6:30 pm, we were set. The kitchen had been cleared, cleaned, and the prep-station for serving had moved into another room for the time being. People started to wander in, hugging as they passed the kitchen, asking if Laura was here, wondering what the name of our little supper club was “was it unfamiliarity?” “it’s supper club nyc right?” “Familiar foods, for sure.”

When everyone had taken their seat in the candlelit living room around two tables borrowed from a church just up the road (and needing to be back the next day by 9am for Easter services), I turned to Lex to find out how exactly we would serve. “Buffet?” “Plate it?” “Let’s do it Downton Abbey style.”

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First course out was a local Greek-style salad. Red and green lettuces, frisse, massaged kale, rice stuffed grape leaves, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, shallots, rice wine vinaigrette, nasturtiums. Not many words are needed to describe how beautiful that dish was.

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We wanted to keep with very classic courses, so we followed the salad course with a pasta dish. While we were prepping, we also came upon the cover of one of Laura’s cookbooks, and had to make it too: roasted eggplant with baked ricotta. So as people’s appetites were piqued by local greens, we hit them with a fresh basil-parmesan pesto soaked pasta cooked with white wine, shallots, and capers for added acidity all twirled with Downton excellence and topped with basil chiffonade.

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With spring coming, we chose a fish dish over a meat course. Next was Cod Amandine. Beautiful cod fillets swimming in white wine baked – almost poached – for twenty minutes with the smallest bok choy florets and whole cherry tomatoes along side almond slivers. The dish was light, acidic, filling, and vibrant. The cod was paired with Israeli couscous cooked with coconut milk, giving a bit of heft and sweetness to the final savory course, and of course – heaps and heaps of herbs.

As Lexie pointed out while roaming around the gardens: we should do a rhubarb jam because it is the perfect plant to make jam out of. Cook it with sugar and it jellies itself. Nature’s wonder. So jelly it, we did. We had to do something with strawberries – but not the main stage. Rather, I wanted a bit of acidity to balance the incredible sweetness of any jam. Lemon tarts. And since lavender grows literally nine steps from the kitchen, those lemon tarts became all that much classier: Lemon lavender tarts with freshly macerated strawberries, local rhubarb jam, with a touch of whipping cream. Insane.

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Five hours after the first guest arrived, two cases of beer, six bottles of wine, many conversations, one masterpiece drawing, and 25 full bellies, we called the first Unfamiliar Supper a success. In a few hours we were to be getting up to start the process all over, but this time for Sunday brunch.

 

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.

Peach Faith

I started cooking with desserts. I’ve said it before but I should remind readers because really, through the salads, the travels, the entrees, and the live food – most of my culinary bedrock rests on desserts. I know it, my family knows it, my friends know it. So within ten to fifteen minutes of me stepping through the door after being gone for over a year, my mom says “the only food requests is that you take those,” finger extended and pointed in the direction of just picked peaches, “and make a pie.”

Requests are amazing since then I have a specific audience and someone really to cook for. So into the ol’ noggin I went, trying to come up with a new peach pie. I couldn’t  just do peaches and sugar. So I took a leap of faith, a look into our herb garden, and a peak at our spice cabinet and came up with something.

See, as the summer season toys with the faint of heart and teases those in love with fall as temperatures start to dip down at night, I start to pair classic cross-seasonal flavors together. In this case: peaches, mind, rooted in cardamom with a touch of bergamot.

The earthy-sweet-savory taste of cardamom hid out in the simple, slightly sweet buttery crust while the peaches, summer honey, and mint marinated together for an hour.

In addition to the flavor brigade, I also tried to make it almost a custard pie, stocking up the filling with a greek-strained yogurt, an egg, and a lot of… faith that this wouldn’t be a disaster.

After the 45 minutes in the oven, I knew it was anything but. It was hinted sweet with deep notes of cardamom in the thick hand rolled dough. The tang of the yogurt balanced both the peach-honey and lively mint sweets. All put together this was a great dessert (which I replicated three days later) for a late summer, early evening on a porch. Try it, it all is super easy.

Peach-Mint Pie with a Cardamom-Bergamot Crust

It looks complicated on paper, but simple in practice!

The dough:

2 cups whole wheat flour

1 stick of butter (cold!)

Sea Salt

Cardamom

A cup of Earl Grey Tea

Toss the 2 cups of flour into a food processor. Cut up the cold butter into slices and toss them into the processor. Pulse it a few times to get the butter chopped into the flour. Add the salt, and cardamom (two pinches of salt, a few shakes for the cardamom). Pulse. Add some Earl Grey Tea into the mixture and pulse until the dough is just before cookie-dough smooth. You want some rolling to do.

Take it out. Ball it up. Put it into some cling wrap and let it chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour.

The peaches:

6 peaches (sliced, but not necessarily peeled)

¼ cup of Honey

Mint (depends on how much you like mint, folks!)

Add these together, and let sit for 45 minutes to marinate.

The custard:

1 cup Greek-strained yogurt (or plain yogurt, whatever tickles your pickle)

½ cup honey

1 egg

1 tablespoon flour

½ teaspoon (aka a splash) vanilla

Pinch of salt

Mix this up.

The combo:

Preheat the oven to 400

Take the dough out. Roll it well so it’s thin, but not awfully thin. Place it into a pie pan and cut off the edges. If you have extra dough, give it to someone you love to snack on, or take it, roll it, and prep it for a laced-topping.

Put the peach mixture in the pie crust. Fill it up with the yogurt custard. Pop it into the oven at 400 for 25 minutes. Then, reduce it to 375 for the remaining 25-30 minutes.

Ps if you have a top (that extra dough), give it a quick egg wash for a nice golden brown look.

Pps. Ice Cream is required.

A Relaxed Balance


Amongst any hectic time schedule, there always needs to be time for a little relaxing. Some find that relaxation time in large chunks, called vacation. Some find it every day, like my family sitting on the porch with a couple of refreshing adult beverages discussing the day and getting ready, mentally, for a dinner of epic local proportions (see: CSA fresh meats, greens, roots, etc.). These days, I find it either in my long runs along the flooded Han river, or sitting down to a nice big, cold bowl, cup, or measuring cup of potbingsu.

Consider this: about a month ago, I continued my playing host to multiple friends and family members coming through Seoul to see me, their own family, and onto different places. My friend, Julia, had an extended layover between LA and Beijing in Seoul. I’d say she was both in the position prime to run and explore and see, and try to find that balance with relaxation. (See: vacation).

We wandered around my favorite neighborhood and played tourist and made efforts to see all of the most important places, but when it came down to it, the most important thing was not the place, but the people who surrounded her. So, accompanied by another mutual friend and Seoulite, we took to cafes to beat the summer’s heat. It was hot, not too humid, and the perfect time to find our way to relax in the middle of the day. Iced coffees: those were no-brainers. But food? Not hot soup or heavy rice or even quick street food (not because that doesn’t appeal to me, but because we had already had all of those by this point in time), why not ice cream? Not special enough. Why not potbingsu?

Yup, did it again, introduced one more new food to the increasing glossary of Korean cuisine. Potbingsu is made up of things you, dear readership, should know by this point. Ready? Ice. Yup. Fruit and Nuts. Okay. Sweetened Milk. Still there. Ricecake. Getting a little colder. Ice Cream. But I thought you said Ice Cream was too simple! Red Beans.

Remember from last summer where I had no money and yet I just had to have a red bean paste donut? I still do. Well take that ingredient and don’t pound it to a past, rather just let it be.

Doesn’t sound like the most appealing thing all deconstructed, but together, it’s divine. The cold shaved ice silts as a mountain of neutral, refreshing foundation. Fruit is then scattered around the outskirts of the peak, accompanied by chewy-semi-sweet-rice-cake. Can’t wrap your mind around what a rice cake is? Think about a piece of Wonder bread. Now think about smooshing it into a little ball. See how small it gets? Now do that to a spoonful of rice pudding. Voila, a thought experiment in making rice-cake.

Smothering the fresh fruit and Wonder-bread-smooshed-rice-pudding are the syrupy red beans. And what sits at the top of the whole hoopla? Ice cream of your choosing. Some go vanilla. I go Vanilla with green tea powder.

With three spoons attacking the snowy peak and fruity debris, the bingsu was done in no time, which left us plenty of time to sip iced coffees, catch up, and… relax. 

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!)

Brenda, The Parisian Carrot Cake Monster

If you know me, you know my carrot cake. It travels with me from place to place to kitchen to Tupperware to dorm to classroom to office to bellies. I think in most – save Italy – kitchens, I’ve set claim to my territory by baking carrot cake. And undoubtedly, every time grated carrots are sitting in a bowl, and eggs, sugar, and cinnamon are all combined, waiting for a quick mix, I think of Brenda.

Brenda is a dear friend whose name is not in fact Brenda. Only when carrot cake – or some other luxurious pastry – comes around her or she smells a whiff of the maple syrup infused carrot treat does her name change magically from Brianna to Brenda. It’s unexplainable, but adorable and simultaneously scary.

“Is that carrot cake? No really, is it? I can smell it. JOSH! Why don’t you tell me?!”

“It is, yes. It’s”

At this point I black out because Brenda rushes toward me, takes the cake – and extra cream cheese frosting from my hand – and sits down at the most convenient location (sometimes a floor covered in Newfoundland dog hair), and digs in, no matter her hunger level.

There is always a moment of clarity while she is fork in cake – “Wait, I should cut a piece off and just eat that.” But that drifts slowly into the background of carrots, cinnamon, cardamom, cream cheese, sugar, and maple syrup.

I do have to say that this reaction does come from a place of sanity: this cake is my crowning baking achievement. Not flan or cheesecakes or crème Brule, or soufflé, but this 1970’s health treat.

Since I have been feeling feisty with my new oven, I decided to stake my claim in my Korean Kitchen, once and for all. Equipped with tiny bread baking tins, and an oven that doubles as a microwave, I started in on the process.

Grate the carrots fine with a grater or my new food processor, and let them sit. I always add a little brown sugar to the grated carrots to help them sweat a bit – that is to say that with this added sugar, the carrots will release a little carrot juice which, when added to the cake batter, makes the final product really moist, and carrot-y.

Combine flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, sugar, eggs, vanilla, and if you have it cardamom. Now, there is a foreign foods mart a few subway stops away from me, but cardamom likes to price itself out as the most expensive to buy there. 10 pods for 4 dollars? Not in my book, or in my carrot cake coincidentally.

The one thing I was missing for this Brenda-tastic cake was the icing.

Brenda: I know that the icing is your favorite part, but I just couldn’t find the cream cheese to work within my budget. If you were here, I’d spend all the money in the world on it, but alas, it was just me.

Thirty to forty minutes in the microwave-convection oven, and out comes beautiful orange-brown cakes ready for a honey drizzle and a cooling on the windowsill.  Moist, deep and rich notes sourcing themselves from the carrots, not overly sweet with spicy hints of cinnamon and well rounded flavors of vanilla and honey dancing on top. It was unashamedly moist, and perfect for a morning, afternoon, or evening snack.  This carrot cake was something that Brenda would have flown from France to Seoul for. But until that happens, I’ll enjoy a slice of it for breakfast with a hot cup of French Pressed coffee, cooled slightly with soy milk, and wish her good luck in the Parisian Marathon. Because not only is she a carrot cake monster, but also a running fiend. Good luck!