October 13, 2011

Crack an egg in it; it's done.

"It always seems like such a waste preparing a meal for one," Nakajima said. "A waste of food and a waste of time. But I don't feel that way at all when I'm cooking for two."
I stepped up from the apartment's entryway and peeked inside the kitchen.
"Thanks for cooking," I said. "Wow, look how neatly you cut the tofu!"
The tofu in the pot was divided so precisely it looked as if he had used a ruler.
--The Lake, Banana Yoshimoto
Banana Yoshimoto's characters really seem to value the importance of cooking for loved ones, and then sitting down to eat together. I couldn't agree more; this was always a really important ritual in my family as well. Growing up, my family didn't really eat at sit-down restaurants very often, maybe because the closest (good) Chinese restaurant was about an hourlong drive away. By the time we moved to an area that was positively teeming with Asian restaurants, my parents had become such excellent chefs that going out to eat only seemed appealing if we could order something we wouldn't be able to make at home. Until recently, one of the dishes I thought it would be best to leave to the pros was Korean tofu stew, or soondubu jjigae.

I've discovered that the dirty little secret (and shortcut) to successfully recreating Asian restaurant food at home is buying the right kind of sauce or "paste" (reminds me of those children's books in which some poor kid talks about eating library paste...). For certain Chinese dishes, fermented black bean paste is a key ingredient. And recently I realized what the Korean equivalent of this was: red pepper! For kimchi tofu stew, red pepper paste is a key player. Use it and you'll be surprised at how it transforms your homemade broth into something that could have come straight out of a Korean restaurant.

Everyone has their own style of cutting tofu -- some, like Nakajima's, are more precise and ruler-like, others, more free-form. One of my coworkers proofreads by using a ruler to cross out unwanted lines of text. My pages always look sloppy by comparison. Similarly, my tofu cutting style is rather imperfect, but it's consistent: I always cut tofu into triangles, except when making mapo tofu; that always calls for cubes. Sometimes I get 24 triangles out of one block; other days, I opt for 48. Any way you slice it, the tofu will be delicious in this broth.

Spicy Korean Tofu Stew
4 large leaves of Napa cabbage, chopped
3 large button mushrooms, quartered
1/2 cup sliced fish cake
1 tomato, chopped
1/2 large onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
3/4 cup cabbage kimchi
1 box of soft or medium tofu, cut into your signature tofu shape
2 medium cucumbers, chopped
1 tbsp soy sauce
dash of dashi powder
1 tbsp red pepper paste
1 pinch of red pepper flakes
1-3 white fish fillets, cut into large chunks*
3 hard-boiled eggs
salt and pepper, to taste

In a large pot, saute the napa, mushrooms, fish cake, tomato, onion, and garlic until the Napa is softened. Add in the kimchi, tofu, fish fillets along with the rest of the ingredients/seasonings and about a cup of water. Bring to a boil and turn down the heat to low and let simmer for about 20 minutes. If you want, skip the hard-boiled eggs and do it restaurant-style by dropping the eggs directly into the hot bubbling broth right before sitting down to eat.

*Any kind of meat or other type of seafood can be substituted for the fish fillets and fish cake.

October 5, 2011

Interpreter of Ma'lentils

From the kitchen my mother brought forth the succession of dishes: lentils with fried onions, green beans with coconut, fish cooked with raisins in a yogurt sauce. I followed with the water glasses, and the plate of lemon wedges, and the chili peppers, purchased on monthly trips to Chinatown and stored by the pound in the freezer, which they liked to snap open and crush into their food.
—"When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," Jhumpa Lahiri
A select few things in life — good books, dear friends, and lentil stew among them — are undeniably wonderful upon first experience, but grow even better with age. I waited several years to reread Lahiri's lovely short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, and even though I remember how enchanting it was the first time, it was even better the second time.

Sure looks healthy, eh?
Lahiri often mentions dal and/or lentils in her writing. I don't know how to make dal, but a friend and I made a terrific pot of lentil stew during Hurricane Irene that — like Lahiri's stories — was even more enjoyable the second time around (the next morning).

Unlike beans, lentils are pretty low-maintenance legumes; you don't have to soak them overnight before cooking them. Just rinse and drain beforehand. They also have about twice as much iron as other legumes. Woohoo!

Aside from the lentils, you can use whatever vegetables you want. I've had success with Napa cabbage, regular cabbage, celery, potatoes...you name it. However, I think the carrots, onions, and garlic are non-negotiable ingredients. If you're not a fan of shiitake mushrooms (they can be a bit aggressive in flavor), just omit them. I adore them in this soup, though; their texture allows them to perfectly soak up the delicious broth. When eaten with rice, this stew is a complete protein dish.

Shiitake Lentil Stew*
Part 1: Non-legume plants
2 onions, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tomato, chopped
2 carrots, cut into small chunks
6 button mushrooms, quartered
6 dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated in warm water and chopped into bite-sized pieces (stems removed)
Part 2: The other stuff
1 1/2 cups lentils
4 1/2 cups water or vegetable/chicken stock
1/2 can tomato paste
2 tbsp ketchup
1 tsp ground cumin
salt and white pepper

Saute the vegetables from part 1 in a pan over medium-high heat until fragrant, about 10-15 minutes. Then add the ingredients for part 2 and stir and cover. Bring to a boil and stir again, then lower the heat to low and let simmer for about an hour (or less, depending on how soft or firm you like your lentils).

Serve with a drizzle of Sriracha sauce.