What’s Cooking?

The food in my neighborhood is stunning in its badness. Perhaps I was spoiled by my first few years in Korea, down in Jeollabukdo — they had, and still have, the best food in the country. But even by Seoul standards, the food options in my neighborhood are pretty poor pickings, and what is available is mostly quite bad.

Worse, all the little, dependable places run by underpaid women but which provided standard, decent foods have shut down.  Aside from places to get snacks (there are a couple of okay ones) I know of about five restaurants in Yeokgok that are actually any good, and one of those puts pine nuts in a lot of their side dishes… so given Miss Jiwaku’s extreme pine nut allergy, there are four places in Yeokgok that are good. None of them delivers, and one of those four is closed on Sundays.

Needless to say, it doesn’t help that, since a change in administration where I work, the exclusive, campus-wide contract with a single food service (one that just happens to be overtly religious, of the same denomination as my employer) has commenced. The food is… well, I’ll let the fact that we never meet for meals on campus in the Profs’ cafeteria, and that even the students are openly boycotting.protesting the cafeteria speak for itself.  This means that every remotely decent, remotely affordable place is crammed full of people from 11am until 2pm or later, every day. It’s been a boon to local restaurants, but it also means you sometimes see students standing outside, waiting for a table to open up. (I saw students doing so in the rain the other day, for heaven’s sakes.)

There is one food product I can eat without feeling sick: the cranberry chicken sandwich at the campus bakery. Well, I can eat it. I never crave it. But it’s a passable sandwich in a land where the things people to do sandwiches usually horrify me. However, in classic Korean style, the popularity of the sandwich has somehow caused the people running the shop to be extremely irregular about offering it. Last week, for a string of days in a row they were “sold out” which, as far as I can guess, means they didn’t do proper inventory, didn’t plan ahead, and suddenly, there was no chicken, or no  cranberries, or even no mayonnaise (a food group unto itself, in the world of Korean preparation of “Western” food). When the cranberry chicken sandwiches are sold out, there are basically zero decent food options on campus; the decent restaurants nearby are crammed; and one must make do with a croissant and a coffee.

The void has been filled of course. And if you like crappy little bento lunch boxes with “chicken mayo” or deep-fried Grade B pork donkatsu, then you’re well served by the places in the neighborhood. If you don’t, then your options are basically junk food — McDonald’s, Domino’s, Imshil Cheese Pizza, greasy, overpriced, and food-poisonous “Chinese food” (of the Korean variety)  — or, at least after work, taking the subway somewhere to eat…

Though, even when we do take that subway, we run into yet another discouraging trend common in Korea, a lot of those places seem to start out great, build a customer base, and then throw quality out the window. It’s not just the foreign-food restaurants firing their foreign cooks and bringing in Koreans without the knowledge or experience to know how to prepare the restaurant’s cuisine, though that’s common: even the Korean places tend to turf quality eventually, as soon as they’ve got people coming regularly. Those that don’t turn bad and limp on forever, simply close up, probably to open a new location in a neighborhood that isn’t full of people who are just has happy eating crud.

All of which left us with one real option: it was time to get cooking.

When I get home after a long day of classes, grading, and conferring with students on this or that issue, the question of whether to cook, or to go out for dinner, used to leave me flummoxed. I honestly wish that it was like every other place I’ve lived in Korea, where I could order a wonderful meal that would be delivered to my door, and it would be (relatively) inexpensive.

But that’s not the reality in my neighborhood, or of any neighborhood within traveling distance… and given that most of the decent places all cost too much to visit more than occasionally often, Miss Jiwaku and I have resolved to cook more.

Okay, and Michael Ruhlman’s rant here kind of acted as a final push to get us back into cooking. I can say I’m too busy, but really, that means I’m too lazy, or I’m not managing my time well enough, or I’m setting priorities such that I’m not taking care of food, health, and eating the way I am other things.

Miss Jiwaku has been tracking the number of times per week we cook at home, and it’s gotten more constant since she did start tracking it. I like to see more happy face stickers on the calendar. But this week — a week starting on Monday, and ending of Saturday — we decided to try and see if we could cook at home every night.

And so far, we’ve done it. It’s Thursday, mind, so knock on wood, but I think we’re going to have pulled off the first week, and I’m feeling pretty good about it. I think this study Ruhlman mentions — about how cooking decreases stress and makes you feel good — is quite on the money. Granted, we may scale back a little — it will be nice to go out and eat occasionally — but I am feeling good about cooking at home, and we haven’t eaten this well in a long time.

Curious about what we made?

Well, actually, Monday I made one of Ruhlman’s recipes: Weeknight Coq au Vin (via the Winnipeg Free Press). It turned out okay, not spectacular but not bad. It was my first coq au vin, so I have nothing to really compare it to, but I’ll say it was “fine.” It was also a great way to use up some of the (cheap, Carlo Rossi) red wine I had transferred to empty vodka bottles. (I only bought the wine for the one-gallon glass bottle it came in, which I needed to ferment some mead, but I figured we could use it for cooking, and it was fine.) The wine was actually better than straight out of the bottle, I suppose in that way that a little aeration turns a mediocre wine into an alright one.

Coq au Vin

I swear, there’s chicken in there somewhere, under the mushrooms and onions and lardons.

Tuesday, Miss Jiwaku made nasi goreng, which is an Indonesian fried rice dish and a major staple down there. Making nasi goreng is ironically more difficult in Korea than in North America, because a number of Indonesian cooking ingredients would be more available in the West than in Korea. That said, she had a few things sent up by her mom, and it turned out pretty good, especially with the spicy sambal sauce that is used to season the rice. It was earthy, and had a very spice-islandsy aroma to it; she served it with some cucumber slices and the sambal.

Wednesday,  I stuffed and roasted a free-range chicken, and it was a big bird — too big for us, we thought, and all we got through was the wings and legs, as well as the stuffing. (I stuffed the bird with a scrubbed, zested, quartered Korean yuja fruit (“yoo-jah”: sort of a super-lemon), garlic, rosemary, parsley, and some of the leftover basmati rice from what didn’t get used in the prior day’s nasi goreng. The only downside on roasting the chicken was that we discovered our little convex oven heats unevenly, so when roasting a big chicken, you actually need to rotate it sometime during the roasting in order to get it fully cooked on both sides… well, and that it is a lot slower than a conventional oven. Our chicken took a couple of hours, but turned out really nice, if a bit fatty for Miss Jiwaku. (Who, I think, should next time go for some chicken breast instead of limbs.)

Today, we’re having pizza for dinner, having prepared the pizza dough on Tuesday night following the method from Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, which has worked well for me in the past. We’ll probably make two or three pizzas, each topped differently — one margherita, one topped with cheese and fresh spinach, one with chunks of bacon and cheddar and blue cheese. The good news is we also have enough pizza dough to make a couple more pizzas, but we’ll freeze the dough and use it on Tuesday or Wednesday next week, when I’ll be short on time due to the last week of classes.

Tomorrow, we’re having burritos and tortilla soup for dinner. Miss Jiwaku has been a huge fan of tortilla soup since we had a really wonderful one in Jakarta, so while we have to settle for crappy store-bought corn tortilla chips — for now — the rest of the soup should be amazing, especially since we’ll be boiling up a broth from the bones of the chicken I roasted last night. The recipe we’re using for the soup is another one from Ruhlman, which you can see here. I don’t know what will be in the burritos — lots of rice and some vegetables and black beans, I hope, but maybe a little pork as well — but I know I’m looking forward to them.

(Side note: while masa harina — the nixalamalized corn flour used as a replacement for fresh masa — is unavailable in Korea, I should be receiving my grain mill soon, and since limewater is used not only in Latin American cooking, but also in Japanese cuisine, Ca(OH)2 seems to be available in Korea as 소석회. I don’t know whether the stuff I’ve linked is food grade, but if not, I am sure I can pick some up in Japan next time we’re over there… meaning that whenever I can pick up some corn, I should be able to make fresh masa, which apparently kicks ass on masa harina anyway, and thereafter fresh corn tortillas (and whatever else we want to try make). Proper masa requires field corn, supposedly, but if I can track down some blue corn I’ll be happy enough, and I’ve seen blue corn around, off and on.)

Then, on Saturday, unless something comes up, I’ll be making a Flemish beef-and-beer stew (from this funky recipe book). I don’t know how well the Belgian fries recommended as an accompaniment will turn out, or how often I’ll be making those kinds of side dishes, but we’ll give it a go this time around. I think we may even open up the small bottle of Westmalle Dubbel I brought back from Italy earlier this year, and have been saving, to celebrate a week of cooking at home.

This, of course, is all in addition to the lunches we’ve been making. From a simple tray of camembert and sliced sausage gently warmed in the oven, accompanied with olives, tomato salad, and bread, with a little beer to wash it down, and a few dates for dessert:

… to a stir-fry of leftover chicken and rice thrown together with some spare coriander and yuja:

… our lunches have almost all been home-cooked this week, and likely are about the best lunches anyone is having in Yeokgok. (I had no time to come home for lunch on Wednesday, so I ate pane pasta at the campus “fancy restaurant” — which it is, in terms of decor, and as anyone who lives in Korea knows, good decor and foreign food mean one thing: disappointment. I knew what I was getting into, but I’d forgotten quite how bad it was. Between the whiny prattling of the server every time she wandered into the kitchen, the overcooked pasta, the flavorless ham, and the cheap, bland bread they served it in, I was kicking myself.)

While not every dish has ended up being perfect, we both feel happier and healthier knowing what went into the food we’re eating, knowing the conditions under which they were made (ie. a clean kitchen, by people who are, if not skilled, then at least attentive), and learning lessons from the missteps along the way. A tiny example is the stirfry I threw together today: one tiny (uncrushed!) Italian peperoncino and a little crushed black pepper were all I put in, yet it came out surprisingly spicy.

It’s a sure-fire bet we’ll be eating outside at least once this week… but it’s also a pretty certain thing we’ll be keeping this pattern of cooking more for ourselves going as much as we can.

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