26 September 2011

Hobakjeon: Pan-Fried Pumpkin Side Dish


Walking along the Devereux Slough at sunset and seeing birds gliding across the peaceful surface of the water, a swan ruffling its wings off in the distance, and a lone egret fishing for supper, it is easy to slip into a deep and restful sense of well-being.  Some friends of mine are lucky enough to have a generous garden plot along the banks of this slough, and here, with the blue Pacific ocean in view beyond the slough, my friend Katy likes to relax with a book or simply sit and enjoy the calm beauty as her husband TG tends the garden with care.  With all of nature smiling on and with the attention of a careful gardener, it's no surprise their garden flourishes as it does, bursting with tomatoes, squash, and corn that grow bigger and tastier there than in any other garden I've seen.

TG, not only a great gardener but also a fantastic cook, once shared with me some Chinese pork, cucumber, and corn soup that he'd made using produce from the garden.  The flavor and texture of the corn, still on the cob, were wonderful; each kernel, separating easily from the cob, had remarkable roasted flavor and pleasing, hearty chewiness.

On another occasion I was the delighted recipient of one of their Chinese-style pumpkins--pale, speckled green skin on the exterior and deep golden-yellow flesh inside.  Part of the giant pumpkin I used in making a pot of doenjang jjigae.  After simmering in doenjang broth, the chunks of pumpkin became melt-in-your-mouth jewels, seriously so much better than any squash or pumpkin I've had before.

Pumpkin.  Isn't it that time of year again?  Time to pull out the pumpkin recipes, like pancakes and cinnamon rolls and goulash and pie... and now these great pan-fried pumpkin slices.

With more of TG's fresh pumpkin left on hand, I was inspired to prepare some of it as hobakjeon sometimes is: thinly sliced, dredged in flour and beaten egg, and then pan-fried until soft in the center and lightly crispy on the exterior.  Dipped into a salty-sour sauce, it was an absolutely delicious side dish for dinner one evening, and leftovers made a great snack the next day.  If you're getting in the mood for Fall and buying pumpkins and squash, why not try making this tasty pumpkin dish!

Hobakjeon (호박전) Pan-Fried Pumpkin Side Dish

Squash or pumpkin, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thin (if you don't have garden-fresh Chinese pumpkin, try Korean hobak or butternut squash)
all-purpose flour, for dredging
beaten egg
vegetable oil, for frying

Coat the bottom of a large non-stick skillet with a few tablespoons of vegetable oil and heat over medium-high heat.  Dredge slices of pumpkin in flour, shake off excess flour, then dip in beaten egg to coat thoroughly.  Place immediately in hot oil and fry until golden, turning once to cook both sides.  Remove cooked pumpkin from pan and place on paper toweling to blot oil.  Repeat with remaining pumpkin slices, adding more oil to the pan as needed.  Serve warm with dipping sauce.

Dipping Sauce
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 Tbs. rice vinegar
1 green onion (green parts only), finely sliced
1 tsp. Korean red chili powder (고추가루/gochugaru), optional

18 September 2011

A German Brotzeit in California

Enjoying the September sunset in Santa Barbara yesterday evening, Germany started to be on my mind.  Thoughts of my grandmother, who loves flowers and lays out a well-planned flower bed in her garden every year, of my uncle and his bakery already in the midst of their Christmas baking season (those Lebkuchen are in high demand when the weather turns cool!), and as I returned from my walk, sat down at my computer, and started looking over my collection of recipes on Apricosa, I realized that the German side of me has not been getting as much attention here.

Granted, my culinary obsession now centers on the flavors of the Mediterranean with a healthy does of Korean cuisine, but I'd have to say that my first inspiration for getting into the kitchen and making something to eat came from the days I'd spend as a little girl playing around in my grandfather's Backstube, watching him and his apprentices turning out huge loaves of rye bread and light, crispy white rolls in the wee hours of the morning, and standing at my uncle's elbow as he put together delicious Sahnetorte creations of exquisite beauty.

With callouses from much physical work and constant handling of hot bread, my Opa (grandfather) would often slide loaves out of the hot ovens into large wicker baskets using his bare hands.  I remember him laughing one time when I tried it myself and ended up surprised over how hot it was to touch.  I think I was quickly consoled, however, getting set on one of his wooden stools tucked off to the side of all the activity in the bakery and being handed a fresh, steaming roll to munch on.

We're always lucky when my uncle and his family come to visit in Santa Barbara, bringing with them loaves of real German rye bread.  There's nothing like it to be found in the United States, as far as I've been able to find: dense crumb and hearty crust, based on a mix of wheat and rye flours and a starter from leftover loaves of bread.

The small crisp white rolls, cut in half and eaten with butter and homemade jam or Bavarian honey, or a slice of cheese and ham, are lovely breakfast treats, but the big loaves of Roggenbrot or Mischbrot are more of the staple.  Eaten at breakfast, used for snacks (my mom used to pack me Mischbrot and Lyoner sandwiches for my mid-morning break when I was a school student in Heidelberg), and the basis for evening Brotzeit (supper, literally meaning "bread time").

At traditional German suppers, it's always fun to put together different combinations of open-faced sandwiches: maybe salami, cheese and pickles on one, and butter and tomatoes and hardboiled egg slices on another.  I remember discovering what is now one of my absolute favorite combination at a bread restaurant-cafe in downtown München.  It was a large slice of this hearty bread, with a slathering of Quark, a generous sprinkling of chives or green onions, and slices of tomato sprinkled with a little salt.  Absolutely divine to sink my teeth into the soft yogurt-like cheese supported by the sturdy slice of bread, flavored with juicy tomato and hints of onion flavor.

So whenever a loaf of German bread gets into my hands these days, I am always sure to have a few slices topped in this way.  With the discovery of 0% Fage Greek yogurt, I have been able to get a pretty decent substitute for the traditional Quark, and green onions (or chives), with tomatoes from the garden, finish off this wonderful breakfast, lunch, or supper.  And I'm also enjoying the addition of thinly-sliced cucumber as well these days!

See how you like this combination: thick, spreadable Greek yogurt on a slice of hearty bread.  You can go the savory route with these great veggies, or perhaps add a bit of jam or honey, if you prefer something sweet!

12 September 2011

Chinese Water Spinach (Kong Xin Cai)

Traveling is good, but it ruins you for home.  I fell so in love with Taiwan that I started missing it even when just packing my bags to return to the States.  The people, the way of life, the constant excitement of learning a new language, the food, the fruit...  So you can be sure that the first thing I did after stepping foot on US soil was to persuade my dad, who had come to pick me up, to swing by a 99 Ranch Market on the way home to Santa Barbara so I could search for some comforts.

No lychee-flavored beer to be found, alas, and after the traditional produce markets of Kaohsiung, that LA supermarket was a sad place to be.  However, I totally brightened up when I spotted big, beautiful bunches of kōng ​xīn ​cài (空心菜).  The familiar stalks and leaves gave me a glimmer of hope that yes, in the midst of this reverse-culture shock, life will be okay, I can get through this, all is well.

Meet kōng ​xīn ​cài (空 心菜), or "water spinach," as it's known in English.  This will quickly become one of your new favorite vegetables, if it isn't one already.  What struck me first about these greens is that the stem is hollow, thus the very appropriate Chinese name literally meaning "hollow heart vegetable."  The novelty of the stems intrigued me, and while living in Taiwan this past summer, I kept getting drawn to these veggies over and over again--the sauteed leaves so soft and succulent, the textural contrast of the tender, crunchy hollow stems, and the delicious flavor of greens and garlic all had me hooked.

And thanks to some tips from a couple of Taiwanese American friends who were in Kaohsiung with me, I have been able to recreate the yummy dish of kōng ​xīn ​cài cooked right here at home!  I'm so excited, I've got to share it with you all too.

Garlic-braised kōng ​xīn ​cài (空心菜)
Serves 2-4

1 lb. kōng ​xīn ​cài (空心菜)
1 Tbs. vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
salt to taste
1 Tbs. Chinese rice wine

Wash kōng ​xīn ​cài and shake lightly (no need to dry thoroughly).  Trim and discard the brown tips from the bottom of the stems, then, keeping the bunch together, cut kōng ​xīn ​cài into 2 to 3-inch long pieces.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large non-stick pan or seasoned wok over medium-high heat.  When oil is hot, add garlic and cook for a few seconds, being careful not to brown the garlic, then add stems of kōng ​xīn ​cài and cook for a few minutes, stirring to coat stems with oil and garlic.  Add leafy tops, sprinkle with salt, and then add 1/4 cup water to the pan.  Continue cooking over medium-high heat, tossing vegetables frequently, until leaves are wilted but still bright green.

To finish, add a splash of Chinese rice wine and then adjust seasoning with a little more salt as desired.  Serve warm.

06 September 2011

My lunchbox (도시락/Dosirak)


With leftover banchan from some Korean dishes I made over the weekend, today's lunchbox was pretty fun for me...both in putting together and in eating.  I decided to make another one for tomorrow!  Will I succumb to the dosirak/bento-box craze?  Probably not.  Is my lunchbox artistry anywhere near those of some of the masters (see here and here for examples)?  No.  But I certainly enjoyed the pretty colors, the variety of flavors, and the complementary textures in my own humble lunchbox.

I love my little lunchbox: three separate containers that keep the food organized, and if you want to heat up only some of the dishes, you can easily lift out whichever dish you choose before popping the rest in the microwave.  The lid snaps on and has a great seal.

Here I was able to fit kale namul, kong namul (seasoned soybean sprouts), eomuk bokkeum (spicy fried fish cakes), ogokbap, and tofu with green onions.  Not pictured, but oh so delicious with this lunch, were my oisobagi (stuffed cucumber kimchi), Napa cabbage kimchi, and musaengchae.  The cool and spicy, pungent and salty kimchi was the perfect complement to the lunchbox.  Yum!

01 September 2011

Sesame Citrus Noodle Salad with Baby Bok Choy and Grilled Chicken

We've been having some great Santa Barbara weather recently.  Sunny, clear skies, warm temperatures, and low humidity.  It's weather like this that makes me glad to be alive, that makes me feel more alive, and that pulls me into a place of relaxation.

On these lazy end-of-summer evenings, all I want to dig into for supper is something simple, light, and fresh, like this cool sesame citrus noodle salad with grilled chicken.  Juice from our garden's navel oranges and green onions from the remains of last season's vegetable garden add fun bursts of flavor, and the array of greens, from the dark red leaf lettuce to the bright baby bok choy, gives visual interest.

In this California fusion dish, I use one of my favorite ingredients, doenjang (Korean fermented bean paste), but you could substitute miso paste if that is more readily available.

A delicious and cooling entrée for a warm summery evening!

Sesame Citrus Noodle Salad with Baby Bok Choy and Grilled Chicken
Makes 4 servings

½ lb. linguine
1 Tbs. sesame oil
1 Tbs. roasted sesame seeds
2 large chicken breasts
Sea salt

3 heads baby bok choy, finely sliced (about 3 cups)
3 cups finely sliced or shredded green cabbage
1 cup green onion (green parts only), cut into 2-inch pieces
1 cup English (hothouse) cucumber in ½-moon slices
4 cups red leaf lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces

¼ cup freshly-squeezed orange juice
1 ½ Tbs. doenjang (Korean fermented bean paste)
1 Tbs. rice vinegar

Bring a large pot of salted water to a full boil, then break linguine pieces in half and cook according to package directions.  Drain linguine and rinse with cold water to cool, then drain thoroughly and transfer noodles to a large mixing bowl.  Toss linguine with sesame oil and sesame seeds to coat all strands.

Place chicken breasts between pieces of plastic wrap and pound with a meat mallet until flattened to uniform thickness; sprinkle each side with sea salt.  Grill chicken over high heat, turning once, about 4 minutes per side (more or less depending on thickness of the meat).  Transfer chicken to a platter and cover with foil, letting rest at least 5 minutes.  After the chicken has rested, slice into ½-inch slices.  (Can be made several days ahead and kept refrigerated; return to room temperature before continuing.)

Add the bok choy, cabbage, green onions, cucumber, and lettuce to the sesame noodles.  In a small bowl, whisk together the orange juice, doenjang, and rice vinegar, then drizzle over salad.  Toss salad thoroughly to combine all ingredients, adjusting seasoning with more sea salt to taste.

Divide salad among four plates and arrange half of a sliced chicken breast over each.  Pass extra dressing at the table.