Several basic Korean ingredients hold a place of honor on my condiment shelves. Kimchi (fermented cabbage or other vegetables), gochujang (fermented red Chile paste), gochugaru (ground red chile flakes) and doenjang (fermented bean paste) have transformed my everyday cooking.
These basic, yet totally distinctive, ingredients remind me of our embrace of the best pantry staples from around the world. Where would we be without Italy’s olive oil, Parmesan and balsamic vinegar or France’s Dijon mustard, truffles and walnut oil or China’s soy sauce, dark sesame oil and Szechuan peppercorns? Or Mexico’s chipotle chiles, tomatillos and cilantro and the Middle East’s Aleppo pepper, spice blends and pomegranate vinegar? Back to bland I fear.
Like their international counterparts, these Korean staples have migrated beyond their home country into supermarkets and our kitchens around the world. And we are better cooks for it.
My love affair with Korean ingredients begins with kimchi-fermented vegetables with the banchan (side dishes) served at Korean barbecue restaurants. All manner of red chile and garlic fermented vegetables arrive in small bowls for nibbling between bites of grilled meat and white rice. Crunchy-soft cabbage is my favorite, but I also like kimchi-style cucumbers, daikon radishes, turnips, bean sprouts and bok choy.
When I’m in a Korean supermarket, such as H Mart, I love to watch the cooks don plastic gloves to toss mounds of cabbage with a red chile pickling brine before packing the mix into containers. There, I also find jars of radish and cucumber kimchis. The first bites are crisp and mild. A few days in my refrigerator changes the pickles into softer, bolder nibbles. Ditto for cabbage kimchis. I always set the containers on a paper towel in the refrigerator as these active pickles can bubble up a bit as they age.
Luckily, most large supermarkets everywhere stock bottled kimchi in the refrigerated produce section. These are usually made from tender napa cabbage with plenty of garlic and ginger, and are labeled mild or hot, depending on the amount of red chile. When I’m serving kimchi as a side to grilled steak or chicken, I choose the mild pickle. As an ingredient in fried rice or stews, I opt for the hot version for bold final dishes.
A jar of kimchi and a takeout container of cooked rice yield a full-flavored dish even the nonprofessional cooks in my house can easily conjure.
Kimchi packs a punch in soups and stews too. I add a spoonful or two to black bean soup, chicken soup and ordinary beef stew for a surprise blast of umami and spice. I’m convinced there’s no better way to ward off a cold or warm up an evening than a quick bowl of the following recipe for pork and kimchi stew. I had my first bowlful at a Korean restaurant in a strip mall in Schaumburg, Ill. At home, I use boxed broth for speed and ease. I also make a vegetarian version filled with silken tofu and greens. An egg poached in the stew adds extra richness and protein.
Serve the stew with plenty of cooked medium-grain white rice to temper the spice. I like to use the Nishiki brand sold in the Asian section of large supermarkets in my rice cooker. Calrose rice works well too.
For slightly more involved kimchi combinations, we dream of pancakes we enjoyed this past fall in Portland, Ore. To fortify ourselves before walking the gardens at The Grotto, we tucked into a funky corner restaurant on Sandy Boulevard called the Cameo Cafe & Steak. Home of the 14-inch “half-acre” pancake, boasts its plastic-coated menu. We opted for a savory Korean pancake made with mung beans, vegetables and kimchi they call Sue Gee’s Pindaettok. It arrives larger than the plate, about 1/2-inch thick, and colorful from shredded vegetables and golden crispy edges. Moist and not at all heavy, the mildly spiced and tangy pancake tastes even better with a sweet soy dipping sauce.
I’ve been tinkering with a recipe ever since. “Koreatown,” a cookbook by Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard (Clarkson Potter, 2016), says that most Korean restaurants rely on a Korean pancake mix (containing flour, baking powder, cornstarch and seasonings) as the base. I prefer to make my own mix from all-purpose flour, rice flour and salt. I do heed their sage advice to refrigerate the pancake batter before cooking.
Rice flour proves the key to a crispy, light textured batter. Bob’s Red Mill makes a delicious stoneground white rice flour; it’s available at large supermarkets and online. I use very cold water and an egg yolk for the wet ingredients. Bottled kimchi and vegetables likewise add moisture. Cutting the vegetables into thin shreds, or a julienne cut, allows them to cook very quickly. To save time, I employ those long strands of zucchini and carrot vegetable noodles sold in the produce section of Whole Foods and other markets. Butternut squash “noodles” are delicious here too.
Serve the kimchi pancakes for brunch topped with a pile of baby spinach and a side of sliced tomatoes. Or, serve them cut in wedges as a nibble with beer or iced soju.
Note: Most of the Korean ingredients used in these recipes are sold at large supermarkets, Korean markets and online. They are worth procuring for the best flavor. However, I do give more readily available substitutes that make delicious, albeit somewhat different tasting, dishes.
KIMCHI FRIED RICE
Simply saute a thinly sliced onion (or leek) with a chopped red or yellow bell pepper in a generous amount of butter and vegetable oil in the largest nonstick skillet you have until tender. Then stir in half of a 14-ounce jar of hot (or mild) kimchi and 1 cup diced cooked meat, such as roast pork, ham, chicken or spicy sausage. Saute for a couple of minutes, add 3 cups cooked (white or brown) rice and stir to heat and mix well. If desired, stir in a couple of scrambled eggs (cook them in a separate skillet). Season everything with 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon rice vinegar and 1 teaspoon sesame oil. Serve sprinkled with plenty of chopped cilantro and green onions. Pass the gochugaru (or crushed red pepper flakes) or gochujang ketchup (or sriracha in a pinch).
PORK AND RED CHILE KIMCHI STEW
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 45 minutes
Makes: 2 to 3 main-course servings
I use boxed bone broth in my soups and stews these days when I have the choice versus boxed chicken broth. Most bone broths have a slightly meatier flavor and more velvety texture.
A more economical path to boxed broth is to employ the pressure cooker or the Instant Pot. I put 2 pounds raw chicken wings or pork bones into the cooker along with half a diced onion, 2 cloves garlic and a couple of pinches of black pepper and salt. Add water to the fill line in the pot. Cover and set to pressure cook for 1 hour. Let the steam drop of its own accord, then strain the broth and refrigerate it in small containers for up to 1 week. Or freeze for up to several months.
1 generous cup (about 8 ounces) hot kimchi
1 tablespoon gochujang or New Mexico chile paste or tomato paste mixed with 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon doenjang, optional
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons gochugaru red chile flakes or finely crushed dried New Mexico chile or sweet paprika
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 pound lean boneless pork country ribs, halved lengthwise, very thinly sliced
3 cups rich broth, such as chicken bone broth or homemade pork or beef broth
1/2 cup thinly sliced fresh shiitake mushroom caps
1 cup diced (about 6 ounces) firm silken tofu
3 green onions, trimmed, thinly sliced
2 to 3 large eggs, optional
Chopped fresh cilantro
2 to 3 cups cooked medium grain white rice, for serving
1. Mix kimchi, gochujang, doenjang, sugar, chile flakes and onion in a deep 3-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stir in pork to coat well. Set the pan over high heat and cook, stirring nearly constantly, until everything darkens in color and becomes highly aromatic, about 7 minutes.
2. Carefully stir in broth. (It will splatter.) Scrape the sides and bottom to loosen up and dissolve all the browned bits. Stir in mushrooms. Reduce heat to very low. Simmer, partly covered, stirring often, 15 minutes.
3. Stir in tofu and green onions. Simmer, 3 minutes. If using, gently crack eggs into a small dish and tip them into the stew. Simmer just long enough to cook the whites and softly set the yolks, 3 to 4 minutes. Serve immediately in warm bowls, topped with cilantro. Pass rice to eat alongside.
Tip: Heat your serving bowls by filling them with very hot water and let stand. Dump out the water before using.
Vegetarian variation: Omit the pork, and reduce the cooking time in Step 1 to 4 minutes. Substitute vegetable stock for the meat stock, and double the amount of mushrooms. Stir 2 cups baby spinach leaves into the stew just before serving.
Nutrition information per serving (for 3 servings): 402 calories, 14 g fat, 4g saturated fat, 42 mg cholesterol, 42 g carbohydrates, 8 g sugar, 26 g protein, 770 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
VEGGIE NOODLE AND KIMCHI PANCAKES
Prep: 30 minutes
Chill: 15 minutes
Cook: 30 minutes
Makes: 6 to 7 pancakes, 6 inches each
2 cups (6 ounces) fresh spiralized zucchini “noodles”
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup white rice flour
1 cup (6 ounces) hot or mild bottled kimchi
1/2 cup (about 2 ounces) finely shredded carrots or butternut squash noodles
1/2 cup (about 1.5 ounces) fresh mung bean sprouts
3 green onions, trimmed, very thinly sliced
2 tablespoons each: unsweetened rice vinegar, soy sauce
4 teaspoons honey
1 teaspoon tahini or finely crushed sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon dark Asian sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon ground gochugaru (Korean chile powder) or New Mexico chile powder or crushed red pepper flakes
Vegetable oil for high-heat cooking, such as sunflower or grapeseed
Cilantro for serving
1. Mix zucchini and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt in a colander and let stand, 10 minutes. Roll between paper toweling to pat very dry.
2. Whisk together egg yolk and 11/2 cups very cold water in large bowl until smooth. Add flours and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Whisk smooth. Press the juice from the kimchi into the batter with your hands; then chop the kimchi and add it to the batter. Fold in the zucchini, carrots, bean sprouts and green onions. Refrigerate at least 15 minutes or up to 1 hour.
3. For dipping sauce, mix all ingredients in a small bowl. (Sauce can be refrigerated for up to 1 week; use at room temperature.)
4. Have batter and oil near cooking surface. Heat a large (10 or 12 inches in diameter) nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until a drop of water sizzles vigorously. Add a generous swirl of oil. Then add 1/2 cup of the batter, and use the back of a ladle to spread the batter into a 6-inch diameter pancake that is a scant 1/2-inch thick. Reduce the heat under the pan to medium, and cook until the bottom of the pancake is beautifully crisp and golden and the top looks dry, 3 to 4 minutes. Carefully flip and cook second side to brown, about 2 minutes. Repeat to make remaining pancakes. (You can hold pancakes warm by setting them on a wire rack over a baking sheet in a 200-degree oven.)
5. Serve pancakes right away sprinkled with cilantro. Pass the dipping sauce to drizzle over the top.
Nutrition information per pancake (for 7 pancakes): 184 calories, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 26 mg cholesterol, 20 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 5 g protein, 668 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
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