Monday, December 30, 2013

vegan kimchi stew: or my german korean thanksgiving 2013

Me and Jessie pre-German Korean Thanksgiving.
A few months ago I booked a flight to Düsseldorf.  I never really had Germany on my radar as a place to visit, but when my bestest friend Jessica asked me if I wanted to come and stay with her in Dortmund, how could I not?  She teaches English to middle and high school students, so we picked two weeks at the end of her semester so that she'd be free to traipse around Deutschland.  It wasn't until days before I was leaving that I realized Thanksgiving was right smack in the middle of my German excursion.  I wasn't too troubled.  I mean, don't get me wrong, I love me some stuffing and canned cranberry sauce, but it's not like I'm never going to have another Thanksgiving again (knock on wood).  Forgoing one Thanksgiving dinner seemed like a fair trade off for two weeks in Europe.

Fortunately, I didn't have to forgo the holiday at all.  This year I had three, yes three, Thanksgiving dinners.  Albeit they were all terribly unconventional, delicious dinners spent with strange, but friendly and welcoming faces.  The first was the night I arrived in Dortmund (a week before the actual holiday), hosted by another teacher at Jessie's school, a German who spent time in America over a decade ago, fell in love with the Thanksgiving tradition, and hosts the dinner every year to show her appreciation for her family and friends.  Our host's "American Thanksgiving" staples were meatloaf and a roasted-tomato and fresh corn cornbread that, while non-traditional, was probably the best cornbread I've ever had.  Jessie and I made a turkey (her first Americans and turkey at her Thanksgiving dinner table), stuffing, Brussels sprouts with chili peppers (my addition to the meal), and fresh-pumpkin pie (which totally freaked all the Germans out.  The idea of pumpkin pie completely disgusts them, which was hard to believe, but I didn't mind, because it meant more for me).
Dinner 1 & 2.
The second dinner was at Jessie's fiance's parents' house in London.  They were worried that we would be missing America terribly during the holiday season (we weren't), so made a huge meal with turkey and gravy, mashed sweet potatoes topped with roasted butternut squash, homemade cranberry sauce with scallions and brandy, pecan pie, and my favorite dish, "roasties" - crispy, crunchy baked potatoes cooked in goose fat reserved from last year's Christmas goose.  Goose fat is vegan, right?

Kimchi stew in the foreground with our ridiculous seafood platter behind.
My Thanksgiving day dinner this year was shared with Jessica at Namu, a cozy little Korean restaurant on the cobblestone streets of Dortmund, Germany.  Stuffing and mashed potatoes were replaced with bowls of bibimbap and udon noodles.  One of the most difficult and exciting aspects of the trip was not being able to speak the language (I know, I know, I'm a jerk and an ugly American, and I really should have at least attempted to learn a little conversational German, but being thrown into a foreign country without the ability to communicate gave everything an edge and air of spontaneity and possibility.  There's something freeing about it).  Not only did this make asking for directions and chatting up the cute guy sitting at the bar next you a struggle, but it made eating out down-right impossible.  Thank God I had my fluent friend with me, so she usually took control and ordered for us, or tried her best to translate.  However, trying to decipher the Korean menu written in German had us both lost.  Thankfully, we had a very nice waitress who set us up with the most traditional dishes - my favorite of which, was a kimchi stew. Kimchi is a combination of veggies fermented using a variety of spices - it sounds scary, but the sour and slightly sweet flavor was something I had never encountered before and its delightful. 

Which is why, while perusing the Vedge cookbook I got from Santa (more on that in a later post), and I found a recipe for a vegan kimchi stew, I knew needed to make it.  While it didn't quite reach the level of the German version I had (it had big chunks of beef in it, so already, the meat-less version was going to different), it totally brought me back to Dortmund.  Its a new favorite comfort food, reminding me of a time when I was cozy and happy, sharing a phenomenal meal with a true loved one...and isn't that what Thanksgiving is all about?

My vegan kimchi stew.

Vegan Kimchi Stew - from Vedge

2 tbs toasted sesame oil
½ cup diced onions
1 tbs minced garlic
4 cups chopped napa cabbage
8 cups vegetable stock
2 cups vegan kimchi
¼ cup tamari
2 tbs gochujang 
2 tsp sugar
½ cup finely chopped scallions, white and light green parts only
1 cup peeled, shredded daikon radish

+ Heat the sesame oil in a large pot over high heat until it ripples.  Add the onions and garlic, cooking until brown, about 3 to 5 minutes.
+ Add the cabbage and continue to brown for an additional 3 to 5 minutes.
+ Add the stock, kimchi with its juice, tamari, gochujang, and sugar.  Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring often.
+ Serve in big bowls, garnished with daikon and scallions.

Note - if you can't find gochujang (because I couldn't), you can mix equal parts curry paste and miso to get the same effect.

Oh, also, I allowed the stew to simmer for about an hour, since I find that the flavors develop more the longer you stew a stew.  I might have liked to even cook it down more to thicken it up.  Though I do have very high hopes for tomorrows leftovers, since a night in the fridge seems to have the same effect as hours simmering on the stove.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

a year in review: or i'm baaaack!

One year.  One whole year.  To the goddamn day.

The unexpected and unplanned twelve month hiatus from blogging has proved to be terribly enlightening.  This past year has exposed me to new, exciting, and mainly uncomfortable and anxiet-inducing experiences, that have sparked personal growth and change, which has spilled over into my cooking.  I started working as a server at brewpub, a job which requires you to be social and interact with strangers, putting a fairly substantial crack in the shell of social anxiety I had been retreating into.  It also revealed the back of house world and gave me the opportunity to learn from real chefs...mainly by skulking around the kitchen and bugging them about how certain things were made.

On top of working a full-time job, I also became primary cook at home.  Instead of making the occasional elaborate dinner with homemade pastas and port-wine reductions, my dishes became simpler and more efficient time and money wise, but I still strove to keep them healthy, fresh, and full of flavor.  I got to the point where when I ate something at a restaurant or saw a recipe or technique used on one of the many cooking reality shows I watch regularly, I could take it, put a little spin on it or tweak it in a way that I could use it in my weeknight dinners.  I'm always looking for something in others' food that will spark the excitement in me, which I then translate into creation and experimentation tested on the very brave and willing members of my family.  Even though I wasn't writing about my food this year, I became a bit of an Instagram-whore, posting pictures of almost every dinner plate and breakfast smoothie.  While the amount of photos might be on the verge of obnoxious, it helped me hone my food photography skills, especially in terms of plating - I can thank the chefs at my restaurant for that, too.  My family has even become experts, knowing which plates look best with which foods and that they can't start eating until I'm sure I got the best picture with the best plate.

This year, much of my inspiration came from travel.  In May, I was in New Orleans with my family and a few weeks ago spent two weeks in Germany and a little bit of that time in London - the latter trip was personally incredibly challenging, but an experience that I wouldn't do any differently looking back.  Both trips were spent mainly eating and drinking, taking in the flavors and soul of the respective cultures (I ate blood sausage in both Germany and London, something that honestly freaked me out and thought I would never ever try, but I did and it turned out to be ridiculously delicious, though it probably won't become a regular dish on my table).  My food-spiration came from some pretty surprising places, like being exposed to the best Asian food I've ever encountered in a small Korean restaurant in Dortmund, Germany on Thanksgiving Day.  When I got home from that trip, I told my family I was going to make them a dish that embodied my time spent there, and then served them a big bowl of miso soup with udon noodles, they were quite confused.

My year off provided me quite a bit of time for self-reflection, in which I realized that cooking is something I want to do.  All the time.  I need cooking and food in my life in some capacity, and at what capacity that'll be I still don't know, but I'm not in too much of a rush to figure my life out at this point.  But I want to make moves, take a leap, put myself out there, and do something.  So here we are.  I'm back, dread&butter has gotten a little update, a fresh start.  I'm just excited to share my food and to see where it takes me.