Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A taste of Korean temple cuisine at Sanchon restaurant in Seoul

I just spent a few days in Seoul, South Korea. It can be a tough city for vegetarians, as meat and seafood feature prominently in modern Korean cuisine. And then there is the language barrier and my lack of understanding about local restaurant customs to make it even more challenging.

But thanks to great on-line guides like Happy Cow, street food, and jet-lag-induced hunger suppression, we managed to do fine.

The culinary highlight of the visit was definitely Sanchon, a restaurant in the Insadong area that specializes in temple cuisine cooked in a vegetarian style. The restaurant is tucked away in a maze of alleys off of the main street in Insadong. Paintings, drums, sculpture, richly-hued wooden tables, and elaborate lamps transport the diner to another world.

We went at lunch time and had the set lunch (22,000 won, about $16.50), which was outlined on the menu — but subject to change as the wild greens and mushrooms they use vary during the year. The menu spelled out 20 items: various salads, picked vegetables, noodle dishes, and tea.

A few minutes after we ordered, the avalanche of dishes began. The first item was cool rice noodles in a vegetable broth with pickled greens. Next were small rolled crepes filled with greens and served with a dipping sauce. Moments after we started eating the crepes, the server brought a wide, short basket with seven small bowls of various preparations. Then came another tray of about ten bowls — glass noodles, fresh tofu with sauce, house-made acorn jelly, several kimchis (which can be made in a variety of ways from a variety of ingredients, as our visit to the Kimchi Field Museum illustrated), and a few other items. Finally, a server brought a hot stone bowl filled with bubbling stew. 

It was a bit overwhelming.  With nothing as the focus of the meal, we grazed at this item or that, taking a bite or two before moving on to the next item.  There were winners — the somewhat coarse fresh tofu, the vibrant kimchi, the starter soup, and the glass noodles — and losers — the bubbling stew and some of the small green preparations contained herbs that shocked my tastebuds (sometimes chrysanthemum, sometimes herbs unknown to me).

For dessert we had spiced cold tea and hollow rice cakes that were covered with crispy bits and black sesame seeds.  Unlike the dense, ultra-chewy rice cakes sold in nearby markets, these were light and delicious.

Overall, it was quite an experience and one I'll probably repeat if I'm lucky enough to revisit Seoul someday. I would have preferred to have a medium-sized bowl of the glass noodles or the starter soup and only half of the small dishes, but that's not it works at Sanchon.

Random link from the archive: My Eat Local Month

Technorati tags: Korea : vegetarian : Food

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Riding the fava bean leaf trend

In his blog, San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer observes that fava bean leaves could be a trend in the Bay Area. I have been buying them for a while, after hearing about them on KCRW's Good Food, and most recently bought them at the County Line stand at the Berkeley Farmers Market.

Fava beans play an important role in soil fertility on some farms because they pull nitrogen out of the air and put it into the soil (they "fix nitrogen").  But if you leave them in the ground too long and let beans form on the plants (i.e., let their seeds form), then much of the nitrogen benefit will be erased as the plant uses the nitrogen to make its seeds (Or so I've been told. If I'm off target here, please let me know in the comments.).  That makes the leaves an even more attractive crop, because they can be harvested when farmers tear out the fava plants, thus providing some food and also improving soil fertility.

Last Sunday I made a spring frittata that used fava leaves, asparagus, leeks and feta. All of the ingredients were from the farmers market except for the mint and thyme (plants in my back yard) and the salt. Here's a rough recipe (if you are new to making frittatas, I recommend reading a carefully thought-out and tested recipe, like the one from Martha Rose Shulman at the New York Times).

Recipe:  Spring Frittata with Asparagus, Fava Bean Leaves, Leek Mint, and Feta
  • Cook diced leek in oil over medium-low heat for a few minutes, putting on a cover for the last minute or so to help soften the leeks.
  • Add aspargus pieces, stir to combine, then cover and cook for a few minutes (it's hard to guess a time here; the goal is to have the asparagus be perfectly cooked when the frittata is removed from the oven).
  • Add washed and chopped fava leaves, salt and pepper to the skillet, stir, cover, and turn off heat.  Let it steam for a few minutes.
  • Remove cover and let the skillet contents cool slightly (so you don't pre-cook the eggs when everything is combined).
  • Lightly beat 5-6 eggs in a bowl. Add 1/2 cup of crumbled feta cheese.  Add more salt and pepper if needed.
  • Combine the eggs, cheese, and vegetables.
  • Turn on the broiler on your oven (alternatively, you can turn over the frittata to cook the second side in the skillet).
  • Place a skillet over medium heat. Add a generous amount of olive oil.
  • Pour in the egg mixture.
  • Cook until the bottom of the frittata is light golden brown or the top of the frittata is set.
  • Place the frittata under the broiler until the top is light golden (the skillet handle might become very hot, so be sure to use a pot-holder or towel when removing it from the oven).

For some cool photos of ladybugs munching on aphids on a fava bean plant, check out this Flickr set by Anauxite.

Photo of Photo of fava beans from Greensteps's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Random link from the archive: Choc-ing the Rubicon
Technorati tags: vegetarian : Food : Eat Local

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Rice-o-rama: three seasonal, mostly local 'rice bowls'

Several times in the last few weeks, brown rice from Massa Organics has been the base for main dishes. I mix rice, cooked vegetables, cheese, herbs, and other flavorings, and serve it hot with a salad or other side dishes.

The first one was inspired by Heidi Swanson's 101 Cookbooks website and Super Natural Cooking (a great cookbook, by the way). The dish has a somewhat Middle Eastern sensibility, with mint, thyme and feta providing strong notes on top of a subtle background of beets, rice and chickpeas (and it also had some subtle beauty, as the pigment from the golden beets bled into the rice, giving it a yellow hue). Here's how I made it:
  • Start cooking a batch of brown rice.
  • Preheat the oven to 400 F. Peel a few beets (preferably golden to prevent the rice from turning pink) and dice them in 5 mm cubes. Toss with oil, season with salt and pepper, and turn out onto a baking sheet. Bake until tender.  (This is the quick method described in a Melissa Clark column in the New York Times in January.)
  • Cook a batch of chickpeas, or open a can and drain it.
  • Slice and wash a leek (or mince an onion). Cook in oil until softened.
  • Chop a handful of mint and the leaves from a few thyme sprigs.
  • Crumble some feta cheese.
  • Just before the rice is done, reheat the beets, chickpeas, and leeks.
  • When the rice is done, combine everything into a serving bowl.
Except for the chickpeas, everything came from the Berkeley farmers market, so this was a nearly completely local main dish.

My next rice dish was basic and hearty: sauteed onion, sauteed mushrooms, cheese curds (from Spring Hill Dairy), wilted spinach and cooked bacon. Simple and tasty, but missing something (perhaps I should try again during tomato season).

My most recent attempt was a riff on the picadillo I made for chiles en nogada eighteen months ago.  It has  complex flavors, with spices, sweet fruit, and rich cheese curd.  I used these ingredients:

  • Sauteed onion and diced carrots;
  • Dried fruit: raisins soaked in warm water and drained; sun-dried tomatoes soaked in hot water, drained, and diced;
  • Cheese curds;
  • Herbs and spices:  cinnamon, thyme, ground red chile, Mexican oregano (which is actually not botanically related to European oregano, as I wrote about here).
It was definitely a winner.  Alongside a bowl of beans and some braised greens, an excellent and relatively simple-to-prepare meal.

More on Brown Rice
The San Francisco Chronicle had a few articles about brown rice in last Sunday's food section (it still feels weird to type 'Sunday food section' after so many years of Wednesday food sections), and Amanda Berne wrote about her ways of making rice bowls in that same issue.

Random link from the archive:   Bleg: How to use some of my kitchen experiments gone awry?

Technorati tags: eat local : rice : vegetarian : Food