Sunday, December 7, 2008

The 20 Minute Stew

Twenty minutes. Take that Rachael. Having been through four years of undergrad, I know how precious time can be. I had little time to eat, let alone sleep, and I would even occasionally find myself scheduling in bathroom breaks. As one can imagine then, meal times were far from being intricate and thrilling. I often gave myself a time limit of 15 minutes or so to get a meal on the table. Anything longer than that, and I would be wasting precious studying time. Thus, I owe a lot of hungry days to soup. I could easily get miso soup ready in less than 10 minutes (with the help of instant dashi—I’m cheating, I know!). All I had to do was boil water, chop up some green onions, tofu and nori sheets, mix in some miso and voilĂ ! Dinner was ready.

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However, watching Korean dramas during my procrastination sessions recently made me suddenly crave for something spicy and savoury. Kimchi jjigae, a spicy Korean stew made with kimchi, green onions, onions, tofu, and sometimes seafood or pork, is quite a common dish in Korea. It’s a hearty homestyle meal that is often shared communally at the centre of the table amongst family or friends, served with steamed white rice and numerous banchan (Korean side dishes). Traditional recipes suggest you use older fermented kimchi because they have more flavour.

Kimchi is a traditional dish of Korea (I'd even say it's one of their national dishes). It's basically vegetables that have been fermented in a spice mixture. The most common kimchi variety is the Chinese cabbage variety, but there are many more to choose from, including radishes, chives, cucumber and perilla leaves. Interestingly enough, it's also said to be one of the healthiest things to eat. Besides being low on calories, reports show that one serving of the stuff can provide up to 80% of one's daily required amount of vitamin C and carotene! It also contains numerous lactic acid bacteria, the good bacteria that you can also find in yogurt.

My version of kimchi jjigae is far from being authentic at all. After sifting through various recipes, it seems like most recipes include making the broth out of kelp (dried seaweed) and dried anchovies, both of which I did not have in my pantry. Other recipes call for clams. I found a really easy recipe for kimchi jjigae over at My Korean Kitchen as a working basis. Like any homestyle recipe, I personally think its best to tweak it to your own personal tastes. Homestyle cooking is the essence of comfort food, and if you can’t even enjoy what you’re eating, then why bother? Bacon adds a nice smoky depth to the stew, while anchovies makes it more savoury and rich. I also play around with whatever vegetables I have sitting in the fridge at the time. It’s an incredibly flexible recipe that will take own a different flavour each time you make it, depending on what you put into it, but that’s the joy of making this dish. More importantly, the spicy kick really warms the soul, perfect for a day like today, when it’s –20°C outside!

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And on a side note, don’t you love my personal-size clay pot? It’s adorable, isn’t it? I picked it up for $10! Picked it up at Utsuwa-No-Yakata (“House of Pottery”), a store that specializes in beautiful Japanese tableware, including gorgeous ceramics and pottery. I often frequent this store, and if you’re lucky, you’ll come across one of their frequent sales, a great chance to pick up some great finds for a steal.

Kimchi Jjigae (Kimchi Stew)
Adapted from My Korean Kitchen
Serves 1 to 2 people

2 anchovy fillets (optional)
1 large handful of kimchi
½ small onion
¼ block silken or regular tofu (from a 400 g block)
1 stalk green onion
1 small handful king oyster mushrooms
1 small bunch enoki mushrooms
1 large leaf napa cabbage, thinly sliced (optional)
200 ml chicken stock

For the sauce (mix together):
1 to 2 tsp Korean chilli powder **
1 tsp Gochujang
2 tsp soy sauce
Pinch of ground black pepper
¼ tsp sugar

Thinly slice the onion and green onion. Chop the kimchi and king oyster mushrooms and napa cabbage (if using) into bite-size pieces. Cut the tofu into small cubes.

Preheat some vegetable oil in a wok over medium heat. Add the kimchi, and stir until fragrant and heated through. Remove and set aside.

Preheat a small, heavy-bottom pot over medium heat. Add the anchovies and stir until most of it has melted down. Add any meat you might be using to the bottom of the pot. Place on top all the other ingredients (kimchi, napa, onion, tofu, chicken stock and sauce) except for the green onion.

Raise the heat to medium-high and bring the pot to a boil. Allow to simmer for 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Stir occasionally to make sure the sauce gets into the stock evenly.

Remove from heat and sprinkle green onions on top. Serve immediately with steamed white rice.

** Start with the smaller portion first and adjust to your own taste.


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