In Which I Discover a Great Time-Saver

Friday, April 19, 2013

My two favorite soups: bacon-lentil soup and Dakgyejang, Korean spicy chicken soup. I also love the mirepoix-based chicken soup a friend gave me the recipe to, but that usually disappears before I get an opportunity to photograph it.

I like to cook, almost more than I love to eat. I like the soothing and monotonous labor of chopping vegetables. I like the smells and the sizzle of the frying pan, watching pale dough rise and turn golden brown in the oven. I like the feeling of turning raw ingredients into something far greater than the sum of the parts. When I'm feeling blue, cooking almost always gets me in a better mood.

The trouble with cooking is that the sky is the limit. Watch one episode of How to Cook Like Heston (the summary: no sane person can), or read a couple food blogs... and those are just from the "user-friendly" parts of the internet foodie community. All of a sudden, it seems like nothing will do but to grow your own tomatoes, use wine in every damned thing, grind your own spices, make your pasta from scratch, your own puff pastry dough, your own stock (upwards of 6 hours for 2 or 3 measly quarts of chicken stock, 24 hours for beef, and while 2 quarts sounds like a lot, believe me, that stuff is gone in a flash if you cook more than once a week).

A weeknight meal at Anne's house. I did the watermelon myself too.

Sound fucking crazy? Yeah, it is. I've done all that—except the tomatoes, and I'm sure I would have started my own garden plot at some point if I had, you know, land—and you know what? Those results are totally worth it. You get a pastry so light and flaky, a flavor so rich and complex, a texture so perfectly al dente, that you swear you never want to cook any other way again.

See, the danger with cooking is that your efforts pay off, as in you see immediate results. So even though you've spent the past few hours slaving away in a sweltering kitchen, your apartment is a disaster zone, and you've thrown half a day of precious study time out the window, the moment you take a bite of your creation, that taste shoots a blitz of dopamine straight to your reward centers. And you're hooked.

My new friends

It took a while before I realized I'd gotten myself in over my head, and the first step in my rehabilitation was to swear off broth-making. I tried Knorr Beef Cubes, which tasted like crap. So did Herb-Ox. Then I found the "Better Than Bouillon" brand, while browsing iHerb.

These cost a pretty penny to ship to Korea, but considering one jar is supposed to be 30 or more servings, the price isn't so bad. As for the flavor, I've used both the chicken (in a glaze for stir fry and for cheese sauce) and the beef (in gravy for Swedish meatballs), and they taste pretty much like a really good version of the real thing.

So here's to my newfound freedom, hoping for better grades, a trimmer waistline, and a better balanced life overall.



gordsellar said...

Ha, if you feel like doing your own stock occasionally, a pressure cooker is pretty damned helpful... the chicken stock takes way less time, and is still very good.

Reading this made me miss homebrewing, for some of the same reasons. Pouring a pint of your own homemade beer, and it's turned out okay... or, hell, great, like what I was usually making in my last year of homebrewing? It only makes you brew more...

I think your compromise goes along the lines of the one I prefer: outsource what can be done well and properly, since one cannot do everything. (Sanely.) Most of Seoul's bakeries produce prefab, highly-processed garbage, but there are a few who make decent bread, so outsource a proportion of baking, for example. Good beer could not be outsourced for the longest time, which was why I started homebrewing, though I know a few homebrewers who've eased off in Seoul since now there are some decent, real-beer options.

The problem is that the good food options in Seoul are so thin on the ground, proportionally speaking, and especially if it's not Korean food you're after, they're all kind of pricey, and all spread out far apart from one another. (Though compared to some places out in the countryside, even the Korean food is not great in Seoul.)

Anne said...

Yeah, it's too bad because I really like, say, empanadas, and can't get them here. Same with pies for Pi Day (which H. and I celebrate instead of White Day). So those I make, when I have the time and energy. But I am not going to make my own, say, French baguettes when P.B. does a perfectly decent version for not much more than a loaf of regular bread.

And Korean beer is basically canned (or bottled) piss. I'm too much of a beer philistine to care that much, though, only I know that real brewed beer is much nicer when you can afford it.

...even the Korean food is not great in Seoul.

Amen to that. Koreans actually drive way out to the countryside if they want to eat good Korean food, because most places within the capital aren't really concerned with quality, but are concerned with being conveniently located and are therefore dependent on their clients to be too tired or busy to take their business elsewhere. But you've written about that, I'm sure you know this better than I do.

I'm trying to cook more Korean food lately, actually. It's healthy (usually) and the ingredients are always readily available and cheaper. So far, I've had mixed results, especially with namul.

gordsellar said...

There are some decent beer options in Korea now, even some decent options being made in Korea (though usually off recipes by foreign small-brewers), but yeah, Korean megabrew lager is the worst I've ever had. I expected megabrew in Saigon to be bad, but it's actually a touch maltier and less, I don't know, less dead that the Korean stuff. Not that I go for it much, but I am kind of amazed how bad Korean megabrew lager manages to be. It's as if someone set out to make the worst beer possible that people who don't know better would still be willing to drink.

I still dream about the 닭도리탕 at 길손내 in Jeonju. Man... we need to try reproduce that here... I think we can do it, if we can find Korean red pepper powder.

Anne said...

Hmm. Actually the best beer ever drunk in my lifetime happens to be Cass... though since I had just arrived in Sokcho from a week spent in Oe-Seollak (the deep wilderness part) with limited drinking water and no showers in the middle of August, you probably could have given me sewer water and I'd have drunk it happily.

Dalk-dori-tang! One of my favorites... H. speaks reverently of this one tofu house in Jeonju, but if we ever get the chance to go down there, I'll have to get him to take me to the place you speak of.

I wonder what the results would be if you used powdered Vietnamese chiles instead? That would be... interesting at the very least.

A Deceit of Lapwings

All happy people are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy people are more or less alike.