Little Korean Dishes
by Kate Heyhoe
Last month I ran into a dilemma of sorts, but one that was entirely of my own creation.
We invited our friends Monte and Claire to be our first dinner guests in our new digs and to celebrate the newly remodeled Global Gourmet kitchen. I intended to make something simple and familiar... tasty but relaxed and cozy. I allowed myself a couple hours to prepare the menu so I myself would be refreshed and not kitchen-weary upon their arrival.
The original menu was indeed simple: Korean pulkogi (marinated sliced beef, grilled on an electric tabletop grill), steamed rice in the rice cooker, and a wilted cucumber salad with rice vinegar and sesame. For appetizers, bowls of raw, crisp sugar snap peas, sweet mini-tomatoes, and rice crackers.
Then I succumbed to what I call "over-the-top-syndrome" (a common cook's weakness). I couldn't stop with the simple menu as planned, I had to do more.
But I had a good reason: a five compartment Chinese porcelain lazy susan, elaborately painted with dragons and flowers. My mother gave me this elegant serving piece years ago but I had used it only once because my previous house and kitchen were too small. This, I reasoned, was the perfect opportunity to enjoy it. So what if it meant creating another three or four dishes to fill those little compartments. The extra hour or so whipping them up would be worth it. My dilemma was: using what I had on hand, what could I make to fill those little revolving dishes?
The itty bit of extra prep time I estimated these dishes would take turned out to be several hours, but largely because I was creating new recipes, shooting from the hip, as I went. If you know what you're making, and you've made it before, cooking is usually quite speedy and manageable. But the time I spent thinking about the dishes, scrambling about my refrigerator, and consulting a mountain of cookbooks stretched my add-on menu into a full day's event.
The many small compartments of the serving susan lent themselves well to multiple side dishes, sush as salads and pickles, known in Korean cooking as namuls. However, being out in the country these days, near Native American Indian reservations and small middle-class communities, Korean staples are hard to find. I wanted to add a spicy pickled kimchee to offset the sweet, charred flavor of the beef, but they don't sell kimchee in these parts. So I decided to make my own, custom kimchee creation.
All sorts of kimchees exist, but essentially it's a pickled vegetable, typically salted cucumber, cabbage, or radish, with red chile and vinegar. Many people find it too intense in flavor or too hot, so for a gringo audience of diners, I wanted to turn the volume down a bit. I also was serving it that evening, so an instant-kimchee was necessary, as opposed to one which ages for days or months before serving.
I ran across a recipe in an old cookbook for quick pickled cabbage. Basically, you shred the cabbage, salt it generously, place it in a colander and weight it down to press out the liquid. After a couple hours, you rinse it, dry it and dress it with wine vinegar, onions and caraway seeds. Serve it that day or chill it for up to three days.
I had tried this original recipe the month before and it worked. So I adapted it to make a quick red cabbage kimchee—you can use any cabbage but I needed color and I happened to have a half a head of red cabbage in the crisper. Instead of caraway, I added a concentrated red hot-sauce and dried red chiles. For the vinegar, I used apple cider vinegar, not uncommon in Korean recipes. A touch of sesame oil and sesame seeds on top, and my instant Korean cabbage dish was done. It was pleasantly tart, slightly crisp and chewy, and just hot enough to complement the beef and rice, but not so fiery as to scorch the palate.
The cabbage took almost no time to actually prepare, and while it drained I made the other side dishes: a spinach and sesame namul, and luffah stir-fried in oyster sauce. Luffah looks like a long zucchini with ridges, which you remove, and it has more flavor than zucchini. I prepared the spinach in typical Korean style: blanch and refresh in ice bath, drain and dry, chop coarsely, drizzle with sesame oil, soy sauce and a pinch of sesame seeds. Serve at room temperature.
In fact, all of the vegetables and salads were made in advance and served at room temperature, so the last-minute cooking amounted to merely firing up the meat on the electric grill and turning on the rice cooker. In the end I was relaxed. The side dishes spun around elegantly in their Chinese susan, the beef was perfectly cooked with little charred green onion bits. In fact, the wide range of vegetables really made the meal, adding depth and variety in flavor, texture and color. They included palate contrasts of tart, sweet, hot, spicy, crisp, soft, chewy and crunchy.
However, I did know that all the while I was embarking on my "add-on" free-for-all, that ultimately my original menu would have worked. If none of the additional dishes turned out, then the dinner would still be fine. By having my original menu as a back-up plan, I felt comfortable enough to be adventuresome without being stressed. and that, to me is what makes cooking fun. Even if it does take all day.
Kate's Global Kitchen for April, 2001:
Copyright © 2001, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created April 2001