Monday, November 30, 2009

Tofu Jeon (두부전)

I love little savory Korean pancakes, called jeon (jun, juhn, whatever). I've blogged about kimchi jeon and green onion jeon, but somehow never really shared the type that my family eats most frequently: tofu jeon! (두부전)

My mom is famous for her tofu jeon (it's a lot more fun to say in Korean- doo boo jeon). People request it, they gorge themselves on it, and there are never leftovers when she makes it because people sneak off with all they can. I'm sure that I'm completely biased because I grew up around these, but they're not difficult to make (gasp!). Others just have some sort of weird preconceived notion that jeon, with all the mincing and mixing and frying into tiny patties, is really labor-intensive and time-consuming. It is time-consuming, but not all that labor-intensive. To me, it's easier than baking cookies or making meatloaf, and requires washing less dishes.

In my family, the tradition is usually that my mother will mince and make the batter and then I will sit and patiently fry the little buggers on a griddle that my parents have had since they got married. In 1981. The thing is ancient and still works really well, a testament to taking care of ones belongings. I love the avocado-green cover, which I forgot to take a picture of. It's so retro and 70's!

Anyways. No measurements for this recipe, because frankly, I've never measured when I made the batter. It's all based on taste and feel and that elusive "hand flavor" (손 맛). This is more of a method than a recipe.

Tofu Jeon (두부전)

1 brick extra-firm tofu, drained, crumbled, and squeezed dry (단단한 두부)
handful of mild green chili peppers (called Korean chilis in the Korean market), seeded and chopped (한국 고추)
1 or 2 eggs (계란, 2-3)
flour or jeon flour (부침가루)
salt or garlic salt (소금)

I usually also add imitation crab (krab! 맛살) to mine, but since my mother didn't for our Thanksgiving batch, it's not on the list. She also doubled or tripled the amounts indicated since it was a holiday. And since we're all piggies and love tofu jeon.

Also, my mom takes cheesecloth and wrings the tofu out. I, being the lazy American daughter, totally don't do that. I'm not washing out a tofu-y cheesecloth after I use it, after all, that's too much work. So I take handfuls of the crumbled tofu and squeeze, then drop into the mixing bowl. I don't mind adding a little extra flour to the batter to dry it out if needed, it's better than washing cheesecloth.

Anything can be added to this, of course. Just nothing too wet, and not too much of it. My mom likes chopped green onions. I like Spam. To each her own.

The batter should not be like kimchi jeon batter, which is loose and very liquid. Tofu jeon batter should look dry, crumbly-ish, but stick to itself well. Kind of like scone dough. Like so:

The liquid will pool at the bottom of the bowl, so between each batch of fried jeon, the batter needs to be mixed up to re-distribute the liquid. If done correctly, there should be no liquid in the bowl after the last jeon is made.

The way that we make tofu jeon is much like how quenelles are made. Quenelles, though, are made by shaping dough between two spoons, using the wells of the spoons to make a football shape. Jeon is made by using one spoon against the bowl. Jeon, with all the pokey little bits in it, needs to be gathered into a rough ball and smoothed out a bit, otherwise there will be small pieces of pepper or krab that get burnt on the griddle while the inside is still cooking.

I take the spoon, scoop a bit of batter, and press it against the side of the bowl. Then I move the spoon a bit, so that if it had previously been cradling the south side of the batter with the north side pressed against the bowl, the spoon then moves to cradle the east side of batter with the west side is pressed up against the bowl. Sounds confusing, even as I'm typing. The ball of dough is basically rolled so all its sides are smoothed against the bowl. But you can't roll jeon, as it's pretty sticky when raw, so it's more of a lift-and-press type of operation.

Having made thousands of jeon in my lifetime, this is pretty much rote by now. And it's very soothing. Because the spoon is an oval, our tofu jeon come out slightly oblong. I think that's more attractive than a perfectly circular jeon.

Fried jeon are placed on a wide colander that has a base to catch drips, the whole thing lined with paper towels to blot off any grease. Once they're cooled, they get stacked on a separate tray, that one also lined with paper towels- but to guard against moisture more than to wick away excess oil this time.


The tray holds three types of jeon: One with chopped shrimp and zucchini, at the very left, with tofu jeon on the right (just peppers this time, nothing else). Under the tofu jeon are fish jeon, a whole other creature that needs to be explained separately.

Jeon are really good when piping hot- the outsides are crisp and the insides scalding. They're great at room temperature, though the crispy outside will have yielded to the moisture of the insides. They're even good cold, straight from the fridge, dipped in soy sauce and popped into the mouth as one large bite.

These used to be my go-to food when I lived alone and felt a bit homesick. I know it's ridiculous to feel homesick when I go back home every weekend, but there were times when, after working for sixteen hours and speaking only in English and eating only crappy food, all I wanted was home.

Making the batter and frying up the jeon took a total of probably half an hour, something I could do even when I was dead tired. The batter can also be kept in the fridge for probably a couple days, though the longest I've ever left it is a day. Water will pool out from the tofu, which needs to be discarded before frying.

I'm still sick, though not as sick as a dog anymore, and definitely less congested. I still sound like I have both a frog and a coyote wedged in my throat and as if someone is holding my nose pinched together, making me completely incapable of pronouncing "nincompoop." Vitamin C and Theraflu are doing their parts to help me kick this thing, as is echinacea, but I fear that what I need most is rest. The one thing I'm really not going to get until February. Sigh.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sick As A Dog

So very, very sick.

I have been congested and achy and coughy and absolutely horribly nasal for the past two and a half days. Veritably sick as that dratted proverbial dog.

I feel marginally better today, though now my throat has closed up due to all the hacking sneezes and pathetic coughs. I'm a vision in wool socks and sweats, surrounded by various electronic equipment, tissues, mugs of cooled tea, and, of course, my camera.

Since I am sick as a dog, I'm going to talk about my dog, Ginger. She is fifteen and a half, having been born in June of 1994. We got her when she was a wee young thing, six weeks old and the runt of her litter. It was the summer after sixth grade for me, the summer after fifth grade for my sister.

Being so young, we did not really understand what a whiny, bratty puppy she was. We just thought she was the cutest thing ever. In retrospect, she really was such a disobedient pup. She's mellowed out as she's gotten older and is now very laid back. She takes leisurely walks with my mother and only whines when she's hungry, and doesn't even really bark anymore. Dachshunds can bark, let me tell you.

She's gone slightly deaf and is much slower now, but she used to catch and kill birds when she was younger, back in the olden days. She once got into a very loud altercation with a possum that was twice her size. She managed to finally grab the hissing overgrown rodent and clamped it in her jaws. I watched our brave little dog shake the possum around, while we all tried to convince our dog that she should let the feral creature go. It didn't work, and the dog held on until she was sure that the possum wasn't going anywhere- presumably, Ginger thought the possum had died.

Of course, the possum was playing at being dead and scampered off as soon as there was adequate room between it and our ferocious eight-pound guard dog for a secure getaway. Ginger was not very happy about that, but we gave her treats and brushed her teeth and gave her a bath and all was well again as she snuggled up in her damp towel, yipping and licking us as we dried her ears and madly wagging tail.

There was another incident with a little lizard. I have nothing against lizards, but Ginger certainly did not like the little things. The first lizard she ever saw surprised her so much that she didn't quite know what to do with it. She froze for a second and then leaped, hunting instincts setting her little black nose a-quiver.

I've never seen Ginger so startled as when the lizard's tail detached from its body, the reptile scurrying away while its tail gave a couple half-hearted wiggles before stilling. I don't think she ever knew that the tail was supposed to fall off- she just thought she had chomped it off, I suppose.

That spry little dog is now a old granny, her auburn fur slowly turning white. We all love her dearly, more than any of us will admit, and we are all glad that she is still with us, still functioning, and not as sick as me. I'd rather be sick as dog than have my dog be sick as one.

I took the photos on Thanksgiving- Ginger got some fat off the ham for the holiday, which she enjoyed immensely. She eats with a gusto that convinces me that she is definitely a part of this family, hopefully for years to come.


Friday, November 27, 2009


My favorite holiday has come and gone, though the aftermath is still apparent now- I just had turkey for dinner, sauteed with onion and kale, along with a rather indecent number of tofu jeon (pancake / fritters). This dinner of re-purposed leftovers came after a day of working while completely congested with some strain of cold or flu that's been going around to everyone at work. It's disgusting. No, it's not swine flu.

My mom, who also has some sort of illness, started preparing at around 6:00 yesterday morning. We have a slightly problem in our family home- only one oven! So the oven must be scheduled out. My mother got the early shift, because she's up the earliest, and got started with the ham.

It's very basic, just marinated in Coca-Cola for an hour before being put into an oven bag and baked, skin on. It comes out of the oven and is skinned and de-fatted and sliced before going on the table. We had fresh pineapple with the ham this year, which was delicious.

Then the turkey went into the oven. We always forget, every single year, how we made the turkey the year before. It always turns out very well, by the grace and luck that accompanies every intrepid cook.

We don't do the whole "carve the bird at the table" thing, because my dad is a terrible turkey carver. This is probably because he doesn't like turkey and therefore doesn't care about it- he's quite good at disassembling a chicken, but then, he loves chicken. I don't see how someone who loves chicken so much could dislike turkey!

Because of the lack of kitchen space, my sister did a lot of her prep at her apartment before she came home. She did the appetizers, starting with deviled eggs- the eggs were already boiled and the yolk mixture already prepped.

The eggs are really good and perfect appetizers. I can eat about a dozen of them, but I refrained. I love eggs of most kinds, unless there's dill involved, and these definitely don't have any dill.

My sister also made jalapeno poppers with fresh peppers, shrimp, Neufchatel cheese, cheddar cheese, and bacon. Everyone in my family loves bacon. My dad couldn't stop eating these. He's got jalapeno addiction problems.

The poppers were all assembled and just needed to be baked. We baked these at the same time as the Hasselback potatoes, since they all cook at 350 degrees.

Speaking of potatoes, the Hasselbacks were pre-sliced by Mom and I prepped them with vegetable oil, butter, and salt before they went into the oven. I bought blue cheese for my mother, who loves the stuff.

One potato got blue cheese, a couple got sharp aged Beecher cheddar, a couple got shredded cheese that my sister had lying around, and a couple were plain.

Delicious, especially with sour cream. Yum, yum, yum.

My mother also made jeon (Korean savory pancakes / fritters) in an obscene quantity. We have quite a ritual when it comes to making jeon for a crowd, which I'll post about some other time. We had three different types yesterday.

I made the pies last, which is unusual for Thanksgiving- usually, I make them the night before the meal. I didn't have a chance to this time because I didn't get home from work until almost 11:00 and was exhausted and sick.

The whole table, when set and done, had a lot of food than we had expected. All of us have a weird problem- we worry that there won't be enough food and make a ton of it. There are only four people in my family and I made four pies! The turkey was twelve pounds, there was about a quart of gravy, and several pounds of green beans.

The table was decorated with fruit- persimmons and a pineapple. The poor pineapple was later beheaded and sliced to be served alongside the ham.

We thought that ten jalapeno poppers would be more than enough for four people. We were wrong. My dad ate eight of them. EIGHT! And then he ate five more a couple hours later- I think he was trying to be sneaky, but he couldn't find them and had to ask us where they were, so we gave him a hard time about the pigging out on poppers.

My mother, the wonderful woman, is the only person in the family that really likes cranberry sauce. The rest of us can take it or leave it and don't notice if it's not around. But she does, and she actually made her own this year. It had apples in it, which sounds weird, but is actually quite good. My sister's macaroni and cheese (actually, penne and cheese) is in the upper right corner.

Various side dishes, including mashed potatoes, green beans, kimchi, and plain ol' pineapple. My sister hates (HATES!) ham, and she refused to eat any pineapple that touched the ham. So hers was segregated. The kimchi is radish kimchi, really good and perfect with turkey. And with ham. And really, with anything.

Shot of the table. I tried to fit everything in. I was getting impatient and didn't wait until the wine was poured before taking photos and then hustling everyone to eat.

It may seem like we're wasting food by making so much of it, but we're really not. People drop by unannounced "just to say hi" but really to eat, and we all love Thanksgiving leftovers, especially pie- which is why there were four of them (um, along with three containers of Cool Whip in the freezer).

Almost everything keeps really well from a Thanksgiving meal. I thought the Hasselback potatoes would make a great and easy potatoes au gratin, while turkey and ham are great in everything. My dad loves fried rice with ham, my sister loves turkey with gravy and eats it for days, my mom loves potatoes warm or cold as long as there's sour cream to be had, and I love green beans (they're very simple, with just butter and Lawry's seasoning salt).

I have to work tomorrow, too, but am taking solace in the fact that I still have two more persimmons in my fridge, sitting beside some turkey, ham, jeon, and a Hasselback potato. Even at work, having some of my family's Thanksgiving food reminds me of why I don't mind being at work- it provides me with the money I need to keep myself in cans of pumpkin, blocks of tofu, and bags of green beans.

My mother said something really interesting to us yesterday- she said that we don't make a ton of food because we think there won't be enough, we make it because we love cooking and providing others with the simple joy of eating. She said that more than being a good cook, it's essential to having people to cook for. And that's what family is- people that will always eat what you cook, no matter what. They may tell you it's not good, which my family does if it's true, but they will gamely try it.

This Thanksgiving, I have never been so thankful for my family, brutal honesty and all.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Anyone that's ever glanced at my blog knows that I love food and I love my family. Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday to celebrate both. Though I have to work tomorrow and Saturday, I am still thankful that I got to rest and relax and eat with my family today.

Some of the smaller things around the house that I love to see and that I'm thankful for:

Chili peppers, drying on a table outside. I think my mother might have been a farmer's wife in a previous life. Or maybe just a poor man's wife?

The way my mother meticulously pieces together the completely dried peppers into very pretty bundles makes me think that she may also be a descendant of Dae Jang Geum (대장금). These aren't ornamental- they are used in soups and stews and other dishes that need a kick. It's like buying a container of red pepper flakes, only fresher and spicier.

I dislike mushrooms. Not their flavor, because I actually like cream of mushroom soup and even mushroom broth, but their texture. Dried, fresh, frozen, whatever- I don't like mushrooms. But they are very pretty. I enjoy taking pictures of them and drawing them. Toadstools with spots are really fun to sketch!

Momma even dries her own beans. To me, the impetuous, money-frittering child of the modern era, drying food that is readily available pre-dried is akin to making my own butter: why? how? WHY? But I have to admit, the food that is home-dried is better than what I buy. So yes, of course Mother knows best.

While outside taking pictures of things drying, I took a photo of one of the many, many plants in the backyard. I love succulents- their name, their fleshy little petals, the way the colors blend together, their pretty shapes, everything. This particular plant is very old, it's been around since I was a kid. The combination of California weather and my mother's green thumb (inherited from my maternal grandfather) keeps all the plants happy, healthy, and alive.

My mother was pottering about in the kitchen (wallpapered with a psychedelic 70's pattern!) while I tried to get this bundle of peppers in focus. My new camera and I are still learning to be friends, and the thing likes to fight me sometimes when I pick a busy background to use as a backdrop. Those tiny, brighter-red peppers, by the way, are killers.

A family friend dropped off a bagful of freshly-picked persimmons, one of my favorite fruits that have far too short a season. I love these best slightly underripe, firm and with a snappy bite. I can't find these very often in American grocery stores, but the Korean stores (most Asian stores, I would think) stock them all through the fall and winter.

Thanksgiving ushers in the mad holiday dash to the end of the year. So as the madness starts, at least we have one day where the family can sit around, blissfully denying the chaos to come, eating and laughing and shouting and bickering and hugging and drinking.

If you are not near your family this Thanksgiving, I'm sending you a psychic hug. If you're not American (or Canadian) and have no idea what this so-called "Thanksgiving" is, you're missing out! Try it sometime, you'll be glad you did. All you need is a tally of everything you're thankful for, some family and/or friends that you love to death, and more food than is befitting our current time of recession.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gingerbread Cookies

Yes, gingerbread cookies are generally associated with Christmas. And I'll probably make a batch of these for Christmas, because they're really good. Not too sweet (um, depending on whether they are iced or not) and perfectly spicy, this recipe turns out very pretty cookies with a beautifully smooth top and softly rounded edges.

I made a large batch of these cookies on Saturday night so that the church kids could decorate them for their parents on Thanksgiving Sunday. Nothing goes down after a giant meal like an overly-iced cookie!

These are easy to make, particularly if you have a hand mixer or stand mixer. The longest part of the whole recipe comes from waiting for the dough to chill. I recall that last year, the dough firmed up quickly and easily in the refrigerator. This year, the dough would not firm. I waited for two hours ... nothing. Finally, I threw them in the freezer and that worked out. I don't know what happened and why the dough was being finicky, but it was fine in the end.

If you try this recipe, keep in mind that it yields A LOT of cookies! This is a great recipe for sharing with others unless you can eat cookies for every meal (I can't). Royal icing is the simplest thing in the world to make- confectioner's sugar and lemon juice. Add some juice to the sugar and start stirring. Keep adding juice until the consistency is to your liking. Add food coloring, if you want. I used plain icing because I am lazy and also because I like the look of white icing on gingerbread. Plus, I had planned for the kids to use bright colors.

I've never tried another gingerbread cookie recipe because I trust Martha and also because it works really well. I feel no need to seek improvements, unless I can find a recipe that does not use molasses and has been thoroughly vetted. I really dislike buying molasses- I have no use for the leftovers!

Gingerbread Cookies
Adapted from Martha Stewart

Makes about 75 medium-sized cookies

6 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup packed dark-brown sugar
5 teaspoons ground ginger
5 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cloves
1 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 large eggs
1 cup unsulfured molasses
Royal icing

I'll tell you right now that the changes I made to Martha's recipes were in the spices. I added more of spice, because I'm Korean and all the food I've consumed since I was a wee thing have killed off my taste buds. And also because some of the spices are old. I only use ground cloves once a year and have been using the same tin of them for probably three years! The directions remain the same:

Sift together flour, baking soda, and baking powder into a large bowl. Set aside.

Put butter and brown sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; mix on medium speed until fluffy. Mix in spices and salt, then eggs and molasses. Reduce speed to low. Add flour mixture; mix until just combined.

Divide dough into thirds; wrap each in plastic. Refrigerate until cold, about 1 hour. It's important to point out that the dough must be firm- a finger pressed in it should meet resistance, and you should dread having to roll the thing out because you know you'll get a workout. I ended up refrigerating for two hours and then freezing for half an hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out dough on a lightly floured work surface to a 1/4-inch thick. Cut out shapes with cookie cutters. Space 2 inches apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper or silicone baking sheets, and refrigerate until firm, about 15 minutes. I didn't refrigerate, I just baked them immediately. I figured that they were still cold from being in the freezer.

Bake cookies until crisp but not dark, 12 to 14 minutes. Let cool on sheets on wire racks.

Put icing in a pastry bag fitted with a small plain round tip and pipe designs. Let icing set completely at room temperature, about 1 hour. Store cookies between layers of parchment in an airtight container at room temperature up to 5 days.

If you don't have a pastry bag, all is not lost. I have a pastry bag and tips, and still just used a Ziploc bag with a tiny piece of the corner snipped off. It's easier and I don't have to wash it afterward- royal icing sticks to everything and hardens like glue, not fun when washing the inside of a pastry bag.

The dough, I remember, was darker than this last year. Something was off this time. I'm going to go ahead and blame the brown sugar, which I've had for too long. The amount of dough above is about 1/3 of the total.

Out of the oven, cooling on racks. I only use one cookie cutter for each set of cookies (two trays). Some of the cookies, based on their shape, will bake faster than others. So this batch was all acorns. Some batches were all maple leaves. Some were all turkeys. I burnt one batch of turkeys to a crisp because I got carried away while decorating.

The last of the dough was baked in a small round. Pretty impressive, no? To only have that much dough left? Yeah, it wasn't my doing, it was my mother. She has amazing dough-conserving skills. After cutting out cookies, the scraps were mushed together and frozen, then rolled out and cut again, and so on and so on until all that was left ... was this! The turkeys are perusing the leftover cookie thoughtfully.

I didn't ice that many cookies. Probably just about thirty or forty. This was about eleven o'clock at night, so do not judge my poor icing skills! I do much better during the day when I haven't been moaning about un-firm-able dough for a few hours.

Tons and tons of cookies. I really love my turkey cookie-cutter. I bought it last year and thought, "What a waste of two dollars. Thank goodness it was only two dollars." But I used it again and was still delighted by it! The acorn and maple leaf are much easier to use anytime, of course, and are just as lovely.

I also have a giant (probably 7-inch) gingerbread man cookie-cutter. He'll be getting some use this year, though it kind of sucks because I can only fit two (!) on a baking sheet.

Some random tips for these cookies that may help any but are just stupid things that I do:

- I rotate the baking sheets and their placement in the oven a little more than halfway through. At 8 or 9 minutes in, I'll open the oven and swap the top sheet with the bottom sheet (they're only about two inches apart, racks are in the middle of the oven) and then rotate them so what was left is now right and vice versa.

- I usually use four baking sheets, two with Silpats lining them and two with parchment paper lining them. I only have two Silpats, after all. I do not put not a new sheet of parchment with each batch, I just take the cookies off and re-use the parchment. This only becomes a problem if the parchment scorches, which it never does for me when I bake these cookies. Make sure the cookie sheets are completely cool before putting more raw dough on them!

- The whole clumpy brown sugar issue. I have one of those ceramic things that you put in brown sugar to keep it from clumping, and it helps. But it does not completely eliminate the problem. I had a few little chunks of brown sugar, which I ignored. They ended up staying chunky in the dough and then exploded into molten lava once in the oven. The final result? Little tiny brown craters in the cookies. Not a big deal, it only happened to maybe three cookies, but still! Annoying. Though stupid, I will be sifting my brown sugar for the next batch of these that I make.

- I add cream of tartar to royal icing on the cookies that will not be consumed immediately. Something about longevity? I don't know, I just read it somewhere and now I throw in a bit of the stuff. I don't even measure it, I just add it to the confectioner's sugar before stirring in the liquid (which, to be honest, was half-and-half for this batch- I didn't have the wherewithal to juice a lemon- but lemon juice works better, promise).

- Probably goes without saying, but dip the cookie cutters in flour!

Happy Thanksgiving Eve!


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving Sunday

I don't really know what it is about Koreans versus Americans, but there seems to be a big discrepancy in the amount of importance placed on food in each culture. Koreans pretty much live their lives around food and drink (or the ones I know do, at any rate). Americans don't, really, not even on a food-centric holiday like Thanksgiving.

Let's be honest. Green bean casserole from a can? Sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top? These are results of a people that don't live for their food. (I will grudgingly eat green been casserole, but I really do not like sweet potatoes or yams or whatever with charred bits of marshmallows on them. Sweet potatoes and pure sugar puffed with air were not meant to be bedfellows.)

At home, my (totally white, very American) roommate and I have drastically different approaches to food. I work a lot more than her (I work a lot more than most people), but I still like to cook and make my own dinner if I'm not eating at work or out someplace. I don't buy things like Rice-A-Roni or frozen dinners, because if I'm going to eat at home, it better be good. I don't enjoy frozen dinners, not one bit, no matter how "balanced" or "delicious" they claim to be.

Also, I'm a very instinctive cook. I throw stuff in a pan, boil things in a pot, and figure it out as I go. I don't use recipes and didn't own a cookbook until years ago (maybe four? five?) when the misguided aunt of an ex decided that I should have one (it was part of her Christmas present to me one year). To this day, I have never used the cookbook. Bless her soul, it was a sweet gesture- I chalk it up to the fact that she had never met me before.

My roommate's all about boxes of things and frozen dinners and recipes. She and her mother both use recipes. I understand it to an extent- if I've never made something before, I'll peruse whatever recipes I can find and figure out what the cohesive elements of that particular dish are. But I don't generally follow any recipe unless it's something I'm completely unsure of (like pho!). For cuisines that I'm more familiar with (Korean, American, Mexican, Italian, Jewish), I'll look at recipes and then veer off as I cook. For cuisines that I'm not entirely comfortable with (Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, most European countries), I'll stick close to a recipe the first time I try a new dish, then gradually go off on my own tangent.

I know these differences are cultural. Korean food is extraordinarily difficult to write recipes for, because you can't really measure the scent of a soup or the color of a mixture or the "feeling" of a batter as you stir it. The best way to learn to cook Korean is to be in a kitchen with a woman that grew up in Korea, cooking and eating. You learn about textures, about when to stir things and when to leave things alone, about how much oil is the perfect amount, as seen by how it slides around in a skillet.

This makes Thanksgiving a bit difficult for my family. We have our set menu- Mom makes the turkey, the ham (Dad doesn't like turkey), the kimchi, the jeon (Korean pancakes or fritters), and whatever other Korean dishes we convince her to make (we're trying to convince her that we absolutely need japchae / chapchae this year). My sister makes mashed potatoes and gravy, along with something American, like biscuits or macaroni and cheese or some other such thing (this year, deviled eggs!). I make green beans (not from a can) and the pies (pumpkin and/or pecan). And other than for the pies, none of us uses recipes for our Thanksgiving meal.

Our Thanksgiving is very much a combination of the American (where do you find a whole turkey in Korea?) and Korean (kimchi is a must). The meld is perfectly illustrated at our church, where the older generation speaks only Korean while the youngest generation speaks only English. There are a few of us, in the middle, that speak both and serve as unwilling conduits between the old and young.

Thanksgiving Sunday was great, as it usually is. We churchgoers are best when stuffed to the gills and lulled into sedation with turkey and pie. The kids decorated gingerbread cookies, which I had baked up the night before, and the adults all dutifully ate the (heavily, heavily) frosted cookies. My sister and I had packaged up little candy bags with four cookies in them, only one of which was decorated, for everyone to take home, purposefully leaving three of the cookies bare so that the parents would be spared insane sugar-induced hyperactivity at home.

Gravy, turkey with yams, ham with pineapple. My mother made the gravy and the turkey and yams, and it was all delicious. The ham was a bit dry, which I find is always true of pre-sliced hams. Our family's ham, sitting in my mother's refrigerator, is not pre-sliced, thankfully. The gravy was really good, except for the chunks of mushrooms. Mushrooms are so gross.

Stuffing, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and cranberries. I don't get stuffing. It's like ... soggy, hot, seasoned bread. Is it supposed to be ... good? Is it a replacement for rice? Because we always have rice. So stuffing is moot, right? Green bean casserole, courtesy of a lovely woman that has no talent for cooking. She's really nice, just can't cook. So this is her yearly contribution to Thanksgiving, made from a recipe and lots of canned goods. My mother made the potatoes. They were yummy.

Kimchi (of course) and Caesar salad. How the Caesar salad made the list, I will never know. The women's group decides on the menu and I don't know how that happens (vote? arm wrestling? rock-paper-scissors?).

Cookies decorated by the kids, dinner rolls, persimmons and pineapples, and ddeok (or tteok or dduk or whatever- it's 떡, rice cakes eaten at special occasions). We always have fruit for or with dessert. Ever since I was a kid, dessert was mainly peeled and cut fruit. The dinner rolls are always a sort of side thought every year. The kids eat them, but most people ignore them. Bread AND rice AND stuffing? Oy!

Pies and cookies. This picture makes my teeth hurt. The amount of icing the kids used ... it makes me feel a little queasy. I ate a piece of pie but couldn't bring myself to eat a cookie after having seen the kiddies attacking them with bright liquid sugar.

The hard work of our few children. They each got a bag of royal icing in a different color and a plateful of cookies. The white icing is what I did the night before, to serve as examples to the kids. Any color on top of the white icing was done by my sister at church as we watched the kids go crazy (I like the canary- it has white outlines and is completely filled in with yellow, near the center of the platter).

I'll post the recipe for the gingerbread cookies tomorrow- they are easy and bake up really, really quickly. They also cool in minutes, which means that the decorating can happen very soon after the baking. A cookie recipe that I really like and have used many times- perfect for kids to ice, since the cookies are sturdy enough to handle twice their weight in royal icing.


Monday, November 23, 2009

New Thanksgiving Potatoes

My family has settled into certain traditions for Thanksgiving.

We all have a pre-Thanksgiving turkey meal the Sunday before Thanksgiving every year at church, which is a sort of dress rehearsal for our family's Thanksgiving. It's a dress rehearsal because my mom always makes the bulk of the meal and we loiter in the kitchen while she stirs and bastes and slices, taste-testing and being nuisances. (The gravy is always a fun point of contention.)

This year, as we discussed our church Thanksgiving meal, my mother dropped a bombshell: she was bored of mashed potatoes. Bored. Mashed potatoes. Bored!

My sister and I were pretty indignant. Mashed potatoes are a Thanksgiving staple! They are the perfect vehicle for a massive quantity of butter and heavy cream! My sister makes it every year!

Well, of course there was a reason for this sudden, startling revelation from my mother. She wanted Hasselback potatoes, which she had seen in a magazine. The Hasselbacks that she had seen were stuffed with thin slices of blue cheese (Mom, sister, and I all love- dearly, dearly love- cheese).

So my sister, instead of making her traditional gravy and mashed potatoes, will be making gravy and macaroni and cheese or deviled eggs (we all love both dishes). (We still had mashed potatoes at church- the old Koreans aren't ready for such a drastic change to their yearly meal!)

Since we needed to go to the store to prepare for everything that my mother would be making for our church Thanksgiving, I thought we should pick up a few waxy potatoes to experiment in making Hasselbacks. I don't remember ever having made Hasselback potatoes, but I recalled that they were usually made using waxy potatoes rather than starchy ones.

They were really good. We made them plain this time to get the full impact of what these potatoes are all about. We only bought four medium-sized waxy potatoes, and at my mother's insistence, also baked a Russet alongside (my mom loves Russets). I was skeptical about the starchy potato, but it was actually better than the waxy potatoes. Why is my mom always right??

Hasselback Potatoes

Sharp, sharp knife

Not many ingredients. I used kosher salt and unsalted butter- I don't normally use unsalted butter, but it's what I had leftover from the last time I baked. I used olive oil on the baking sheet, but it would probably be wiser to use a lighter oil that won't scorch in the oven. Preheat said oven to 350 degrees.

My mom has much, much better knife skills than I do, so she was in charge of cutting the slits into the potatoes. She took a pair of disposable chopsticks and put one chopstick on either side of the potato, using it to steady the spud and also as a guide so she wouldn't cut through the entire potato.

I think most recipes call for thin slices but not so thin as to inspire fear in a novice cook. My mother sliced thinly enough for me to know that I will never be able to mimic these. I picked this photo as proof that my momma isn't totally infallible- see the end of one potato that got sliced all the way through??

Pour oil on a small baking sheet and spread it around. I also took the oil left on my hands and rubbed it all over the potatoes. Then take a bit of butter and stick a few little nubs into some of the slits in the potato. I put the butter into every fourth or fifth slice. Sprinkle with salt- I tried to get some salt into each slice, but the super-thin slices made it pretty much impossible. Throw into the oven for anywhere from 40 - 60 minutes, until the potatoes are tender and give when you poke the bottoms with a knife.

Done. So good. Crispy and salty, they pull apart easily into beautiful slices. I'm going to add more butter to the Thanksgiving taters, and we're going to go with all-Russets.

We're also going to go with about ten pounds of potatoes, because I think the leftovers are perfect candidates for a very quick potato gratin- they're pretty much pre-sliced into perfect gratin widths and already cooked. Is there an easier way to make a gratin?? It would take no time at all, just however long the cheese takes to melt.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, so there will be more Thanksgiving-themed posts to come. As well as photos from the church bonanza!


Senior Class Portraits

It's been a while, Internet.

Well, it's been two days. But me being away from a computer for two days is like me being ripped away from my daily routine for a year. I wasn't even away from a computer, really- I was still checking in on work stuff and making sure things were okay in the office. But I managed to stay off the internet and do real-life things all weekend long, after a grueling couple weeks that involved a lot of working, a lot of frustration, and some good old-fashioned all-nighters.

One of the things that I did was really play with my new camera, a Canon 5D. It's my first SLR, and I'm a little intimidated. The things are like mini-computers, with so many buttons and codes and beeps that I don't quite know what's what.

I bought the cheapest lens I could find, just in case I break it. And I've taken over 400 photos already, mostly multiples of the same thing, so I can decipher what I'm doing.

The gato, dear little Nabi, whose winter coat has grown in, is a fantastic subject for pictures. She's needy and likes me, so she sticks close. The difficult thing is getting her to sit still long enough to snap an un-blurry shot. I managed to get a couple I liked:

Isn't it very "class of 2009"? Her profile would be, "Enjoys fish. Hates the water. Has a louder voice than most dogs. Adorable and very affectionate."

I'm going to try to keep taking lots of photos, and I'm sure my blog will be over-saturated with the questionable fruits of my labor in the months to come. Although, looking back on past posts, I'm already very photo-happy!

A little sick today, a little woozy and disoriented. I think I need to catch up on sleep and get ready for the lightning-fast Thanksgiving to come.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

R.I.P. Daul Kim

As I prepared to type this post, I realized that it's been a while since I've written about death here. Though I may not have grasped how long it's been, in retrospect, wow. I have enjoyed that peace.

Death, particularly untimely death, is never a pleasant subject. But it's something that needs to be talked about, something that needs to be brought out into the light that its dark connotations can be put forth and normalized. So many suicides seem to be caused by simple disconnects in communication or by pride- pride that one not be perceived to be weak or faulty.

Daul Kim died of an apparent suicide this week. She had everything that people think are necessary for a happy life: money, beauty, success as a model, youth, even acknowledgment and admiration from her peers.

She walked the catwalks of high fashion, appeared in glossy magazines, lived in a fabulous Paris apartment ... all the things little girls dream of. Yet she was unhappy enough, discontent enough, to take her own life at the age of 20.

At 20, I had graduated from college and just started working. I had never been in love. I had never been in a bar. I had never tried a margarita on the rocks. I had never lived completely alone. I had never owned my own car. I had never been to Texas. I had never had a fight. I had never made more than $600 per week. I had never fathomed how much more life had to offer me.

Daul Kim had a blog, called "I Like To Fork Myself." It's funny and irreverent and full of her ramblings and paintings and photos. It almost seems like a stream of consciousness, rather than an obvious attempt at sitting down to write cohesive pieces.

One post, from two and a half years ago, caught my eye:
April 18, 2007

why the fork?

ok why is this blog called
"i like to fork myself"?

theme called "i like to forkmyself" .....
i like alot of things .
knives and forks,blood, brains guineapigs cereal etc etc alot.
i also like 80s kitche stupid horror groqtesque movies/things...!

say hi to my otheer paintings.



 and thanks to stupid tv show from korea ppl think i like to
torture myself and thanks to that im getting lots and lots of
suicide emails on a daily basis
but im definately not depressed, and i dont want to killmyself

i wish you all feel good about yourself and just think happy
and listen to 80's music and smile and 'dance-walk' like boy george.

AND PLEASE dont kill me.....cos i dont reply ur emails cos
i dont want to die.....

right now, im working on publishing a photo book
which will be sometime next year in korea,
and also working on doing an exhibition.

but i dont really have time. but i will get to it someday.

and if i do my first art exhitibition...

will you come ?:):):)

I don't think the post was deranged or disturbed or perturbed. I think it was the post of a normal 20-year-old girl. My definition of "normal," of course, is skewed. Because no one (and I mean no one) is "normal." Daul was just a kid in a cutthroat industry, far from home.

There's a post in her blog about how her roommates, the evil model-y types, steal her food. She was very upset that they ate the rest of a box of cereal that her mother had sent to her from Korea. Whenever she watched TV, she hugged the cereal box- it made her feel closer to her mother.

That's so quintessentially angsty and early-twenties. I still feel that way at times, and I'm now in my (gulp) late twenties.

This week hasn't been the best, as I blogged about yesterday. Everything that's happened and that I've felt has combined to form a knotty, tingly ball of stress in my respiratory system that's made me hyper emotional and ultra sensitive. Today, I read a story about someone's wedding. And I teared up. From a story. No pictures, no video- just words.

My mother left me a voicemail and as I listened to it, I missed her intensely. My throat burned. All I wanted at that moment was my mommy, so she could hug me and tell me that everything would be okay. And so that she could also give me the swift kick in the rear that Korean moms do, because after she comforts me, she always says something like, "Well. You chose to be in this business. You chose to move back in with a friend. You know what to expect, you shouldn't be surprised that this happened." And you know what? She's right. She's always right.

Most of our problems seem to be self-manufactured or self-perpetuated. If that is the case, then I suppose I understand why people commit suicide. There is no other way to escape oneself.

Still, the loss of life and the loss of potential should be mourned. I hope that Daul found what she couldn't find while here, and that her family is coping as best as they can given the circumstances.