Monday, February 24, 2014

No-Canning Strawberry Jam

I bought some strawberries at the farmers market over the weekend, and they are wonderfully fragrant and flavorful, but mostly a little lacking in sweetness. (It's early in the season yet, so it may just be a timing thing). And since we're out of strawberry jam, which is the family's favorite, I'm making a batch this morning.

If you've never made jam before, much like cooking in general, it's a thing you have to do by feel. A good recipe is a guideline, but fruit varies from growing season to growing season, or even harvest to harvest, such that one week, it might be sweet and juicy, the next week more tart and dry, or sweet and dry, tart and juicy... You have to adapt your basic recipe to suit the quality of the particular harvest you have on hand. 

And unless you plan to store your jam for a long time, you don't need to go through traditional canning procedures (which were developed for the purpose of long, unrefrigerated storage over seasons). This jam keeps fine in the fridge for at least 6 to 8 weeks, and you can put it in any clean, dry and tight lidded container, glass or plastic. 

Today, since I'm working with fairly flavorful, fragrant and juicy, but not very sweet berries, I took all the least appetizing berries from the bunch as well as all the ones that were starting to overripen and then a few more to make up the rest to make my jam. I always like to save the best fruit for eating plain.

No-Canning Strawberry Jam

Makes about 1 pint
Time: About 75 minutes, most of it inactive.

- 2.25 pounds (mostly medium sized) strawberries, hulled and halved or quartered depending on size (about 5 cups)
- 1+1/4 cup of sugar to start
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- a tiny pinch of salt (as with most sweet recipes, this little bit of salt deepens and rounds out the flavors and does not impart a noticeably salty flavor)
- 1 Tablespoons water

1) Put all the ingredients into a pot, stir to distribute the ingredients, and put the pot, uncovered on medium low heat until all the sugar melts and the mixture just starts to bubble. (Usually takes just under 10 minutes for me.) 

2) Turn the heat down to low and simmer, uncovered, for another hour or so, stirring occasionally. If you can scrape fruit solids off the surface of the pot, your heat's too high. It's better to err on the side of lower heat and longer cook time than to cook the fruit to the point that it begins to stick to the bottom of the pot. Just a little of that mild burn can alter the whole batch in a way you might not like so much.

3) About halfway through the simmer, take a potato masher or a fork and mash the berries to release some more of their natural pectin and to get the jam to the consistency you like. If you like more whole fruit, less mashing, but give it a few good mashes just to aid the natural thickening.

4) Check the sweetness 10 minutes before the jam is done to adjust and add more sugar if needed.

Because I like my jam texture something like a thick compote (it's more versatile that way - I can eat it over ice cream, or with yogurt), I don't add pectin or gelatin, and I stop the cooking when the jam has the texture of a thick stew. When it cools, it'll thicken even more, but it won't be that solid gel texture of a storebought jam.

Just berries, some sugar, a little bit of lemon juice, and a little pinch of salt to get that unadulterated, concentrated, and delicious strawberry flavor.

Totally worth a try next time you see some berries on sale.

Enjoy. :)


P.S. An occasional jam (or tomato sauce) making session is a GREAT way to polish the insides of your stainless cookware.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Korean BBQ 101 - How To Order & Eat KBBQ.

As I'm planning our San Diego Korean BBQ HIRL, I thought it perfect timing to transfer this post to the new blog. :)

Notwithstanding that this is how I mostly feel about the whole cook-it-yourself KBBQ dealie these days, I still totally get why it's fun and exciting for other people.

If you've never been before, the whole experience can be a little daunting and overwhelming. As with any new dining experience, the first best option would be to have a savvy friend go with you and show you the ropes. Hopefully, this quick overview will be almost as helpful.

Much of this information applies to Korean meals in general.


Most Korean restaurants, whether or not they specialize in Korean BBQ or offer the cook-it-yourself (CIY) option, will offer the basics, boohlgohgi (bulgogi) and kahlbi (kalbi), a la carte. But if you're in a restaurant with the CIY option, i.e. there's a grill at your table, you'll usually have the first two of the following options, and possibly also the third.

1) A LA CARTE - you order one kind of meat with a certain kind of marinade, and it comes with an assortment of bahnchan/panchan (see next section), and a bowl of rice.

If you're like me and the thought of cooking your own food while dining out does not excite you, keep in mind that you almost always have the option when ordering a la carte to have the kitchen cook your meat for you. There are at least two benefits to this approach: a) You don't have to cook it. b) They're usually firing a much hotter grill in the kitchen, and your meat is much more likely to get a proper char on it than when you cook at the table.

2) SET MENU (Prix Fixe) - For a set price per person, and usually with a minimum of two people ordering this option, they dictate the variety and quantity of proteins you get. The set menus can vary widely in the assortment of meats, and you can go from the basics of beef and pork BBQ to that plus all kinds of seafood and offal as well if you're into that kind of thing. Variety and quality of proteins will of course factor into the price.

As with any proper Korean meal, the bahnchahn and rice come with (though sometimes you have to ask for the rice because they don't want to serve it up only to have it uneaten and have to throw it away - kinda like the deal with water these days).

In addition to the bahnchahn and rice, your set menu may also include a soup (goohk) or stew (jjigae) to go with your meal. They are meant to be eaten with and during your meal, between and with bites of everything else you're eating and not as a preliminary and standalone course.

3) BUFFET/ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT (AYCE) While the general truth is that you won't get the highest quality ingredients in a buffet setting, this option, in my opinion, is the best one for a KBBQ virgin.

You always cook your own meat in a KBBQ buffet, which is a new and novel experience for the uninitiated. And here you can choose from a variety of proteins and marinades, bahnchahn and other offerings (some even have a limited variety of supermarket quality sushi), dipping sauces and salads, and sometimes even a dessert assortment, if not a soft serve machine, to end your meal on a sweet note, for a set price.

So while you might not be getting the highest quality cuts, this is a great way to taste the different preparations and determine what might be worth spending a little more money on the next time you go to a non-buffet place.

Many places that feature an AYCE buffet will usually also offer up an a la carte option, which again, you can request to have cooked in the kitchen for you.

Some places that don't have a buffet setup still have an AYCE option where you pay a certain amount and eat your fill of certain proteins and cuts that are pre-specified on the menu as well.


So if there's a grill at your table, and you haven't asked that the meat be cooked in the kitchen, the waitstaff, in addition to lighting your grill and changing out your grill pan for you as needed, will probably start the cooking process for you by placing the meat on the grill. But if the place is busy and/or your server is not specially astute and quick, you're probably better off taking over the cooking yourself and not waiting for them to return to finish the job for you.

As with cooking at home, try not to overcrowd the pan because you'll lose char that way. And if you need to, and you have access to the dial, turn the flame up or down as appropriate. If you can't access it, don't be afraid to ask them to come and adjust it for you.

Also, because so much of the meat is heavily marinated, if they're not on top of changing your grill pan out for you before the caramelized bits form too much burnt crust on your pan, don't be afraid to politely flag them down and ask them to change it out for you.

BAHNCHAHN (aka Banchan, Panchan)

Bahnchahn is usually the first thing brought to the table at a Korean meal. So in your Western culinary frame of mind, you might think them a sort of appetizer, but they're really not.

Think of bahnchan as a condiment for your rice and overall meal. Steamed rice in Korean culture, in addition to being the staple grain, functions as a foil to complement and contrast the often bold, pungent and assertive flavors of the cuisine. So while you might want to take a nibble of the bahnchahn here and there to keep yourself occupied while you're waiting for the rest of your food, you might want to do so sparingly and leave some bahnchahn to eat with your meal, the way it's meant to be enjoyed.

Any and every self-respecting Korean restaurant offers an assortment of bahnchan that comes with your meal. However, just how self-respecting (and authenticity-oriented) might be reflected in the breadth and depth of the assortment.

+Dean Robinson asked me a good question on Mother's Day: "Did they serve us the right bahnchahn at our meal?" The answer? For the most part, the only WRONG assortment of bahnchahn would be one that doesn't include Napa cabbage kimchi (baechoo kimchi). All else is discretionary and often dependent on what's economical and what the customer demographic will sustain. (Well, actually, if you delve a little deeper into Korean cuisine, there are certain kinds of kimchi that are considered more appropriate for some dishes than others, but we're speaking generally here.)

While the traditional spectrum of bahnchahn is vast all by itself, the constant evolution of contemporary Korean cuisine to adapt new ingredients, influences and flavor profiles has practically made bahnchahn possibilities infinite. To some extent, whatever enough Koreans deem delicious to eat with a bite of steamed rice, if served in a little side dish, can be considered bahnchahn.

Which is why, for instance, in addition to kimchi, nahmool (various veg side dishes), and all kinds of interesting salty and/or sweet and/or spicy preserves and preparations, you'll often get a bowl of, say, potato salad in your bahnchahn assortment. (In case you were wondering, mayonnaise is not a native condiment. ;))


In addition to the regular bahnchahn, there are some sides that are specifically meant to be eaten with KBBQ.

1. SALAD OR LETTUCE LEAVES: More often salad than plain lettuce leaves these days, and usually lightly dressed with a soy based dressing, the salad/lettuce side reflects an old and practical wisdom that roughage is not only good for you generally, but also helps you keep all that meat moving through the bod. (We'll leave it at that.) I prefer the lettuce leaves and I find that, around here at least, I have to specifically ask for them, because the salad seems to have become the default.

2) DIPPING SAUCES: Each KBBQ restaurant has its own selection of dipping sauces. Very traditional are the seasoned fermented chili and soybean pastes - gochoojahng and dwenjahng/ssahmjahng respectively - and salted toasted sesame oil. But the past couple of decades have seen the increased popularity of sauces made with non-Korean condiments like sriracha, chili garlic and sambal, as well as each restaurant's own doctored soy sauce based concoction.

3) THINLY SLICED SWEET & SOUR PICKLED RADISH: While there is another bahnchahn very similar to this one, these usually come round sliced, to facilitate the whole ssahm (wrap) thing I'm going to discuss in the next section.

4) RICE PAPER: Not native to Korean cuisine, this is actually a square cut adaptation of Chinese chow fun or Vietnamese banh cuon noodles to facilitate the general Korean love of wrapping a bunch of tasty shit up in a parcel and shoving it in yo mouff. (See afore- and after-mentioned ssahm.)

I can't find my closeup of the rice paper, but it's the stuff to
the upper right of the three sauces.


Ssahm is the generic Korean word for "wrap." And there are a few traditional dishes in Korean cuisine - sahngchoo ssahm and goohl bossahm for instance - in which the diner places fillings in the center of some kind of pliable foodstuff (usually a leafy green veg), wraps it up, and crams the whole resulting ginormous but supertasty parcel of food in their mouths in what would be a wholly unacceptable table manner in most Western cultures.

That general practice of taking a bunch of flavors and packaging them up in a single bite of food carries over to Korean BBQ as well, which is where the immediately aforementioned four components come into place.

And I don't think you've fully experienced Korean BBQ if you haven't made ssahm with it at least twice - once for practice, and twice to really savor it. Even if you're veg averse. Even if you're clumsy and have a hard time making a wrap that doesn't fall apart.  Because this experience, to me, epitomizes and encapsulates the best of how Koreans eat

- With thought and care and a certain anticipation as you determine what, from that array of flavors and textures you're going to put in that parcel

- With a certain fearlessness as you think to yourself, Self, should I put a piece of Bahnchahn X or Y or Z in that parcel? Well, why the fuck not!

- With willingness to put a little effort into your food as you find a way to fold the sides and corners into a manageable thing

and with TOTAL GUSTO as you cram that bighugedelicious flavor bomb into your mouth


To be authentic-ish at first, try a minimum of a leaf of lettuce filled with a small spoonful of rice, followed by a bite-sized piece of meat, and a dab of gochoojahng or dwenjahng or ssahmjahng. Everything on top of that is gravy.

Sahngchoo ssahm (literally lettuce wrap) with rice,
pork belly, and ssahmjahng (seasoned dwenjahng for ssahm)

Do the roll, the fold, the scrunch, or whatever works best for you to get all that food into something you think you'll be able to cram into your mouth all at once, shove it in there, cover your mouth like the polite person that you are (or don't), and start chewing. It takes about 3 or 4 chews before you can detect all the different flavors and textures, but once they're all out in the great wide open that is your mouth, it's the most deliciously raucous symphony.

This one is, from bottom up, rice paper, lettuce salad,
pickled radish, kahlbi, and piece of soy sauce pickled onion,
and some chili garlic based dipping sauce...

...and it is nowhere near as big as a proper ssahm should be.
But much more polite. :)

And if you want to be really Korean-style about it, before you finish swallowing that bite of ssahm, take in a spoonful of piping hot jjigae to introduce yet another wallop of that pungent, spicy, hearty, and complex deliciousness that is the hallmark of Korean cuisine.

Soohndooboo (Silken Tofu) Jjigae

And really for the most part, unless it's dessert, it's all good to be eaten together, at the same time, in the same bite, in the same mouth. Not the best place to take that one friend whose food can't be touching, and maybe a little challenging at first, but then totally intoxicating and addicting.

The sounds of the grill and exhaust, of the bahnchahn dishes hitting the table, of chopsticks clicking. The dizzying array of rice and bahnchahn dishes and earthenware jjigae pots. All those strong and assertive flavors from which to mix and match...

Order yourself a cold beer and prepare to go big. It'll be delicious. I promise. ^^


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Hanh Dam (Vietnamese Style Onions In Vinegar)

You won't always get these thinly sliced onions in vinegar (pronounced hang DZUHM) when you order your pho, but if you ask for them, your waitperson will probably be pleasantly surprised that you did.

And you will probably be pleasantly surprised by the delicious savorycrunchytangy contrast they bring to your pho experience. :)

I like to add thinly sliced fresh chilies to mine. On the day I made these, it was Thai birds and Serranos.

Any leftovers are delicious in sandwiches and salads.

Hanh Dam
Time: 10 to 15 minutes

- 1 medium white or red onion, very thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
- 2 Tablespoons water
- chopped chilies if you like 

Combine all ingredients in a medium to large bowl and toss with your hands to break up all the individual pieces of onion and to thoroughly combine and incorporate the seasoning. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.

Enjoy. :)


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Fridge Cleanout Pan Roasted Ratatouille For Two

We're having friends over for a BBQ on Saturday, so I did minimal grocery shopping last weekend, and I'll be spending the rest of this week cleaning out the fridge to make room for all the groceries for our shindig.

This morning, I'm making a fridge cleanout ratatouille with:

- some old baby heirloom tomatoes
- half of the last large red onion in the house
- 1/2 of a one pound eggplant, peeled and cubed
- a wrinkly red bell pepper that's been in the fridge for almost a month

to get rid of a lot of the old veg in there, and to save the last of our non-egg protein, a whole pompano, for another day.

I'll use this to make naan pizza tonight with the last of the Monterey Jack cheese in the fridge.

So looking forward to seeing our friends this weekend. Sharing delicious things to eat and drink with people whose company we enjoy is one of life's greatest pleasures. :)

Pan Roasted Ratatouille For Two
Time: About 30 minutes

- 1.5 cups baby tomatoes
- 1 medium onion, cut into 1-inch pieces (any color is fine)
- 1/2 a pound of eggplant, cut into 1.5-inch cubes (peeled if Italian, peeling not necessary if Chinese or Japanese eggplants, which have a much more delicate peel) This is about 2 cups.
- 1 medium red, yellow or orange bell pepper, cored and cut into 1-inch pieces

- 4 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced (1/2 to 1 Tablespoon, depending on how garlicky you like your food)
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt to start
- 1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1) In a large pan (10 or 12-inch) with 2 Tablespoons of olive oil in it, add all the tomatoes, onion, eggplant, and bell pepper, and spread it out in an even layer over the entire cooking surface.

2) Put the pan on medium low heat, and let the veg roast, undisturbed, for about 12 minutes.

3) Add another 2 Tablespoons of oil and stir the veg to redistribute back into an even layer over the entire cooking surface, making sure all of your eggplant pieces are touching the cooking surface. Let the veg roast undisturbed again for another 12 minutes or so.

4) Add the garlic, parsley on top, and distribute the salt and pepper over the entire area of the ratatouille and gently and thoroughly fold into the veg mixture to ensure even seasoning throughout. Spreading the seasoning over the entire surface area of the ratatouille before folding it in helps to distribute it evenly and also prevents having to disturb the veg too much in order to get the seasoning incorporated.

5) Let the rataouille pan roast another 5 minutes or so, and that's it!

Delicious as a side, as a pizza or pasta topping, or over polenta with some grated Parm on top, among other things.

Enjoy. :)


Monday, February 10, 2014

Oysters With Jalapeño Ponzu Shoyu

Having spent the past week in various states of sleep deprivation thanks to Izz, I don't know how likely we are to do anything too fancy or special for Valentine's Day.

But whatever it is, it'll almost certainly be at home.

Because the last thing I want to do is subject myself to the fustercluck that is a remotely "nice" restaurant on Valentine's Day.

If nothing else, I might just do some oysters with a bottle or two of cava. Totally easy and apropos.

Here's one of our favorite preparations.

On the day I took these pics, we had those ginormous oysters that you have to roast or grill to open unless you like to maim your hands trying to shuck them, but this Jalapeño Ponzu Shoyu makes a delicious alternative mignonette to your raw oysters, too.

If grilling or roasting your oysters, you want to take them off the heat as soon as they open so you don't overcook them. I usually roast them on a sheet pan in a preheated 425F oven, and the time will vary according to size.

Jalapeño Ponzu Shoyu
Makes enough to top 2 dozen oysters

- 1 Tablespoons regular soy sauce
- 1 Tablespoon water
- 1.5 - 2 Tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice (yuzu is the citrus typically used to make ponzu, but I don't have any on hand)
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon wasabi paste (optional)
- 1 small jalapeño, minced
- 2 Tablespoons minced shallot (White onion or red onion also work - I used white onion on this day.)

Mix all ingredients in a small bowl and stir or whisk until the sugar and wasabi are dissolved. (This stuff is also delicious with beef or fish tataki, and as a dip for grilled King Trumpet or Oyster mushrooms, btw...)

If you have access to it, a tiny dollop of masago (that tiny orange caviar you get on your sushi) is a wonderful textural addition.

I also like to add a little finely chopped cilantro on top and lemon wedges on the side.

Happy Valentine's Day in advance! :)



Wednesday, February 5, 2014

On Simple, Small Solutions to Big, Complicated Problems...

There was a time when I was much more concerned with the news about the world, but at some point I realized that to pay too much attention to it was to fill myself with a deep sense of despair and hopelessness at how truly cruel and atrocious we human beings can be to one another.

Because it is horror and atrocity more often than not that make news, and understandably so. We want to believe that peace and humanity are the norm, the other stuff news...

And mostly, I believe that it is. I believe that if the other stuff were the norm, we would have cannibalized ourselves long ago.

But that doesn't ever seem to mitigate the horror of something like this, which I know is but one of many dark hells of the global human condition.

It doesn't ever do much to quell my conscience that it happens, is allowed to happen, and that it is for a strange grace of the Universe that I am not living in it.

But the truth is that I don't believe it is my personal purpose in life to focus my energies primarily and directly on such issues - there are others who are far more passionate, qualified, and equipped to be more involved, as I am about other matters. And yet I also don't believe that any life should be lived without some aim and effort to somehow lessen that kind of ugliness in the world.

I believe that we are all here and able to make a good difference no matter our primary missions in life or how we spend most of our hours earning our keep.

So this morning as I read about the violence and atrocity in Syria and began to feel my heart sink into despair for my impotence to make it better, I came across this quote:

"So the small things came into their own: small acts of helping others, if one could; small ways of making one's own life better: acts of love, acts of tea, acts of laughter. Clever people might laugh at such simplicity, but, she asked herself, what was their own solution?"

~ Alexander McCall Smith, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive

It's easy to think less of our tiny spheres of influence, and the truth is that most of our spheres of influence will be just that: tiny. The world is a big place, much of it far away from us. And most of us will have the privilege to touch only the teeniest, tiniest percentage of the over 7 billion lives with whom we share Earth during our time here.

But as with the worst of life, the best things of life - like love, warmth, kindness, compassion, understanding and laughter - even in their tiniest manifestations, have a way of radiating, multiplying, spreading, and somehow increasing our tiny spheres of influence, sometimes far beyond our imagining. Or, as we say in our digital age, going viral.

This is not to kid ourselves that some good little thing we do where we are today will somehow magically erase the brutality and cruelty of life elsewhere, but to remind us that we have it in our power to do good things, right where we are, every day, with ease even, that can improve the ratio of good to bad on Earth, moment by moment.

And that if we have anything to do with changing that ratio for good anywhere, then no matter how remotely, we have something to do with overcoming some of the bad everywhere.

No matter our season or station in life, good, simple, small acts are always a solution.