Dear Science,

by Ben on June 20, 2011 · 22 comments

in Baking, Essay, Index

Three years ago,one of my favorite musicians produced a record whose title was inspired by a note he scrawled in the studio:

Dear Science, please fix all the things you keep talking about or shut the fuck up.

My reaction (scrawled in kid’s handwriting):

Ouch.

As scientists, our goals are to understand where we came from, what makes us tick, and why things work the way they work. We’ve learned a lot. But some questions—especially the really interesting ones—are big enough that we just aren’t going to answer them anytime soon.

In fact, a large part of being a scientist is
being comfortable with failure. I often find myself facing a day in which nothing is expected to work. But in order to make progress, I need to spend that day (sometimes many days) confirming it.

It can wear on a person.

Some days, I honestly do feel like shutting the fuck up. Some days it feels strange, at this point in my life, to sit and label tubes or dispense liquids, wait for water to drip, for hours at a time. But there are rewards. Rarely, the reward is a home run. A Holy Shit moment where you see something that no one has seen before. More times than I’m comfortable admitting, those moments happen by accident. A mistake that suddenly clarifies weeks of confusion.

More commonly, the rewards are modest. Figuring out that you’ve consistently been doing something subtly different from what you’d intended. Realizing that a well-meaning colleague has, with absolute conviction, advised you to do the exact wrong thing. Usually, this is a small step. Nonetheless, it’s one that can be immensely rewarding. It’s the accumulation of these small steps that drives research. To be successful, you have to be at peace with the process. You have to willingly walk into failure.

* * * * *

I had high hopes for this post. Smoke. Lasers. Art forms new to the blog. I had intended to write a valentine to my neighborhood, with a dish inspired by its ethnic identities. Quite simply, that plan broke.

I had decided to base my dish on a somewhat fussy and time-consuming quiche recipe. My suspicion, after blind-baking the crust, was that it would not hold. It felt familiar to know that I had to try anyway. As predicted, the crust leaked. I continued baking until I was left with a sadly deflated pie adorned with a leathery mane of evaporated custard. It was, at best, inoffensive. Not “sexual,” or “seductive,” as Thomas Keller describes. Further research revealed that I was not the first person to have had difficulty with this recipe.

Weeks went by, during which I summoned the energy to try again. This time, I took much greater care with the dough. I realized that I needed to scale the recipe up, work the dough more thoroughly, and let it rest longer. Sure enough, the crust behaved much more like I hoped it would. It wasn’t nearly as fragile as my first attempt. It didn’t fall apart after blind-baking. It didn’t need much patching at all.

But it leaked again.

This time, however, it didn’t leak as badly. This time, the custard was silky and luxurious. There were many things about this time, some of them subtle, that showed I’d come a long way since not being able to bake my way out of an elimination challenge. I was faster, confident, observant. Small steps.

There was a time when I wouldn’t have taken on this recipe. When I would have given up after spending the better part of the day on an ill-fated quiche. But by now, I’ve tackled far worse problems. I know I’m still learning, and I know that I can handle this.

* * * * *

If you’ve ever attempted to reproduce an experiment from a high-profile scientific journal, you know that it’s often impossible to do without further guidance. The Materials and Methods section of a paper reads like a chef’s recipe, i.e., something that needs translating. It’s usually not malicious. Like kitchens, all labs are different. More important, the hands that execute each step are different. If you’re lucky, the author will communicate with you directly. But that doesn’t always help, and it’s ultimately up to you to navigate the myriad ways to proceed.

When I’ve cracked an ambiguous protocol, I like to document my process. Hopefully, I can save a colleague from making the same mistakes I made. One of these days, that damn quiche is going to work. And if I can understand why it did, I’ll tell you about it here. In the meantime, I have a message of my own to address to Science.

Dear Science,

You can be a real motherfucker. But through you, I learned how to imagine, how to teach myself things, and how to communicate and connect with remarkably different people. I wouldn’t have become the cook, writer, or person I am today without you. For that, I’ll be forever grateful. 

 


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Not watermelon, sorry.

by Ben on March 24, 2011 · 57 comments

in American, Index, Korean, Noodles

Dad, do you know what we haven’t had in a really long time? Watermelon.

I feebly explain to my daughter that we only have watermelon in the summertime. A challenging story to sell when grocery stores here insist upon displaying those insipid “personal watermelons” year-round. Sadly, Esme will wait roughly one sixth of her life to eat it again.

You mean when I’m ten? Yes, Esme, you may certainly eat watermelon when you’re ten. Maybe even before that. Poor kid. As the parent responsible for the Korean half of her hapa, I definitely feel her pain.

Esme hails from a long line of watermelon-eating individuals. I’ll always associate watermelon with the church picnic. In particular, Korean church picnics in The Greater Los Angeles Area—though I’ve come to learn, from our stint in the midwest, that many properties of the Korean church picnic are highly conserved across states:

  1. Lots and lots of subak (watermelon).
  2. Bad volleyball.
  3. Other competitive games in which the “prizes” consist of bulk packaged sundry items (toothpaste, soap, gift-packaged socks with Playboy Bunny logos on them…).
  4. The Holy Trinity of picnic foods: kimbap, kalbi, and japchae.

It recently occurred to me that, of those foods, I had never before made my own japchae. I felt that I owed it to myself to give it a shot, and that I owed it to my daughter to deliver, in the absence of watermelon, an equally salient element of my childhood summers.

I quickly learned that japchae is not a dish that one can just bang out in an hour. At least I can’t. A mixture of cellophane noodles, vegetables, and beef, this dish comprises multiple components that are individually seasoned and require different cooking times. So if you have the luxury of a lazy weekend day, that’s the time to take this on. It’s well worth it. And it makes sense to make a lot at once, as the flavors continue to develop over time.

* * * * *

Japchae (Korean cellophane noodles with vegetables and beef)
Adapted from my sister’s recipe.

6 dried or fresh shittake mushrooms
6 dried or fresh wood ear mushrooms
8 oz dry dangmyeon (sweet potato or mung bean) noodles
8 oz lean, choice beef, cut into strips about 2 inches long (freeze slightly before slicing)
3 T grapeseed or vegetable oil
water
1/2 T sesame oil
1/2 T soy sauce
black pepper
1 medium yellow onion, sliced
kosher salt
1 julienned carrot
8 oz frozen leaf spinach*, thawed and drained (or a comparable amount of sigumchi namul)
1/2 tsp chopped garlic
sugar
1 chopped scallion
1 T toasted sesame seeds
optional: 1/2 crisp Asian or Korean pear, julienned

The seasoning:
3 T soy sauce
2 T sugar
1 T honey
1 T rice wine or dry vermouth1 T sherry vinegar
1 T sesame oil
1 T ground, toasted sesame seeds
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 chopped scallion
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 1/2 tsp chopped garlic

*I used chopped spinach this time, since it’s what I had, but I was unhappy with how it seemed to disappear. Larger pieces of spinach do lend a relevant texture, flavor, and appearance to the dish.

If using dried mushrooms, rinse briefly and soak them in warm water for about 30 minutes or until soft. Soak the noodles in lukewarm water. (A 9″ x 13″ pan is convenient for this.)

While the mushrooms and noodles are rehydrating, mix ingredients for the seasoning. Add
4 T of seasoning to the sliced beef and knead to mix flavors. Stir-fry quickly over medium-high heat in a heated, nonstick pan. Remove meat from the pan as soon as it turns brown, transfer to a very large bowl, and set aside. As long as the liquids do not burn, there is generally no need to clean the pan between uses.

Once the noodles have lost their stiffness (about 30 minutes), drain and cut them into 5-inch long pieces. Stir-fry in 5 T of seasoning, 1 T grapeseed oil, and 1/4 C of water until the noodles are slightly underdone. Do not discard the remainder of the seasoning, as you will need it to finish the dish. Add cooked noodles to the large bowl, next to the cooked beef.

Squeeze excess water from the rehydrated mushrooms using paper (or cotton) towels. Remove stems from the shittake mushrooms and slice thinly. I love the shape and texture of wood ear mushrooms (also found in Asian markets as “black mushrooms,” or simply, “black fungus”), so I cut them rather coarsely into pieces roughly the size of a quarter.

Mix 1/2 T each of soy sauce and sesame oil with a dash of pepper, use it to coat the mushrooms, and stir-fry over medium heat until the shittakes are soft and golden brown. Remove and transfer to the large bowl.

Stir-fry sliced onion over medium heat in 1 T grapeseed oil with 1/2 tsp kosher salt until soft. Do not allow them to become overly brown. Remove and transfer to the large bowl.

Stir-fry carrot strips over medium heat in 1 T grapeseed oil with 1/2 tsp kosher salt until
al dente, adding a spoonful of water when necessary to prevent the carrot from drying out. Remove and transfer to the large bowl.

If using sigumchi namul, add directly to the large bowl. If using thawed or freshly blanched (and shocked) spinach, cut into 2-inch lengths. Sauté for a few minutes in about 1 T grapeseed oil with 1/2 tsp chopped garlic, a dash of black pepper, 1 tsp kosher salt, and a sprinkle of sugar. Remove, and add 1 chopped scallion and 1 T sesame seeds. Transfer to the large bowl.

Mix all vegetables with noodles and beef in the bowl with about 1 T of the seasoning. Adjust seasoning, if necessary.

Serve warmed or (more commonly) at room temperature, garnished with strips of fresh pear.

I know that some Asian cultures frown upon serving multiple starches simultaneously. Koreans, fortunately, are not afflicted with this condition. Serve the japchae as an entree or as a side—we’re pretty easy. But for God’s sake, serve it with steamed, white rice. Some people go so far as to serve it over rice (japchae-bap), but I’m generally not an “over rice” kind of guy.

I should note that this is not the most authentic recipe. Specifically, ginger and sherry vinegar are not typical components of the seasoning. They do, however, give this dish a brightness that I find refreshing. Garnishing with the Asian pear further lightens the dish.

* * * * *

So. Did Esme buy it? You’ll recall that my daughter is a small eater. I haven’t had the best record cooking for her lately, so I was pleased (and mildly shocked) that she ate this. It somewhat lessened the sting of not being able to give her watermelon.

Dad?
Yes, honey.
Do you know what else we haven’t had in a really long time?
What’s that?
Peaches. 


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Home.

by Ben on March 11, 2011 · 37 comments

in Gluten Free, Index, Korean, Pescatarian, Seafood, Soups

Los Angeles seems like both a home and a theory to me. I spent the first thirteen years of my life there, and continue to visit every few months. Despite its changes, and all I read about what’s going on in the city (OK, really just what’s going on in food, but that’s admittedly a lot), I experience LA much the way I experienced it as a child. Living a relatively insular life, wandering through slightly run-down suburban neighborhoods, watching television, and eating a LOT of my mother’s cooking.

True to her stereotype, Mom is never satisfied with the amount of food I’ve eaten. She speaks wistfully of the days when I “used to eat a lot.” Yes, Mom. I did eat a lot back then. When I was eighteen. Don’t get me wrong—I can still chow down with the best of them. But I’ll put it this way: my parents live in a one-bedroom, 800 sq ft apartment. With two refrigerators. I’m convinced that one of those refrigerators is for me.

She usually starts asking about a month and a half in advance (presumably so that I have time to start stretching my stomach out): What do you think you’ll want to eat? It’s admittedly hard for me to predict exactly what I’m going to be in the mood for, but there are standbys. Spicy kimchi, of course. Yaki mandu for my wife. Bindae duk. Godeungeo gui. And there’s one dish that Mom knows I’ll want absolutely every time. She doesn’t even bother to ask.

I think of sigumchi guk as a sort of miso soup on steroids. Instead of miso, the primary flavor is doenjang, a Korean fermented soy paste. The flavor of doenjang is saltier, richer and bolder than its Japanese counterpart. The soup is made with spinach, though I also used to request a swiss chard version (kundae guk). And finally, there are small clams, which add sweetness to the soup.

This dish is dead simple, and I can’t get enough of it. I can and do eat the soup at breakfast, lunch, and dinner when I’m home with my parents. And each time I do, I’m instantly transported to our kitchen in Hawthorne, CA, circa 1979.

Sigumchi Guk (Spinach and clam soup)

1/2 T vegetable oil
1/2 round onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
5 C chicken stock*
2 – 3 T doenjang
optional: up to 1 jalapeno, sliced
about 1 lb small clams or mussels, rinsed and scrubbed
1 bunch fresh spinach (about 1/2 lb), cleaned and picked
about 1 – 2 T white vinegar
optional: 1 green onion, sliced

*If you’re dead set on making this the way my Mom does, you’ll make your own anchovy/kombu stock, as I’m sure BraveTart will. However, at Babychili Test Kitchen, we’ve found that chicken or beef stock make an equally satisfying soup. As I’ve discussed previously, I advise making your own, or very carefully selecting a palatable storebought version. (Shhh… I won’t tell Ruhlman if you don’t.)

In a medium saucepan, saute onion in oil over medium heat until barely softened. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute longer. Add stock, mixing in doenjang until dissolved. (An easy way to do this is to mash the doenjang in a small bowl with a spoon and a ladle-full of stock, then add back to the pot.)

When the stock comes to a boil, add jalapeno (if desired), clams, and spinach. Cook until the clams open, discarding any that do not. The spinach should be soft, and on the verge of becoming dull green. Add a splash or two of vinegar to correct for acid. Since the doenjang is salty, there should be no need to season further.

Serve hot, with steamed, short-grain, white rice (we prefer the Nishiki brand). Feel free to add rice directly to the soup, if you prefer to eat it that way. Optionally garnish with a sprinkle of green onion.

 

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Um… What?

by Ben on March 7, 2011 · 51 comments

in Awards, Index

What?
—Don Draper

My wife and I are cut from the same cloth in certain ways. We are both compelled by a desire to craft stories—through images, words, what we decide to show, emphasize, and hide. Sometimes they’re stories we have a personal need to tell, and doing so feels like opening a mental valve. Other stories need to be wrangled. At those times, it’s less clear what motivates us. What is it that we’re seeking? Amusement? Satisfaction? Praise?

Often, the primary audience for our stories consists of friends and family. People who, we assume, are predisposed to be interested in what we have to say. And yet, knowing this makes it no easier to release a story into the wild. The feeling is still one of being completely naked.

A photographer whose work I admire recently tweeted:

Yesterday, I felt like a fraud and failure. Today, people are sending inquiries and praising my work. Having a business is a roller-coaster. 

Similarly, Erin and I go through cycles of feeling good about our work, and subsequently feeling foolish for even trying. I suspect that for many people who express themselves creatively, that cycle never really ends. But once in a while, we get a bit of a nudge from someone who reassures us that maybe we’re on the right track. A comment, an email, or simply an acknowledgment from someplace we didn’t expect. For me, it might come from a reader I’ve never met, or an old friend who I had no idea was actually reading the blog. There are times when a one-line note has allowed me to exhale and breathe for the first time in weeks.

Recently, we got such a nudge. We have been notified by the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) that our website has been nominated as a finalist for a Bert Greene Award for Food Journalism in the Blog category. I cannot begin to express the honor and utter surprise that I feel even to be considered among fellow nominees Hank Shaw and Barry Estabrook. I attended Hank’s writing seminar at BlogHer Food last year, and met him briefly over breakfast. He’s a wonderful writer, and down-to-earth guy. Barry Estabrook I’ve never met personally, but, you know, the guy’s also been nominated for a bazillion other things. I’m looking forward to seeing both of them in Austin in June.

I’m well aware that acknowledgment in this form doesn’t last forever. But today, it feels nice. And I feel a tremendous gratitude to all of you, without whom this blog would not have a reason to exist. So, in case I haven’t told you this enough recently, Thanks.

I can’t wait to share another year with you.

-Ben 

 

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For the love of cupcakes

by Ben on February 13, 2011 · 42 comments

in Index, Video

Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking
When I said I’d like to
Smash every tooth in your head
—The Smiths

I‘ll admit it. I actually feel sorry for the little bastards. It seems like just yesterday—Halloween, in fact—that cupcakes still held their suffocating grasp on the hearts of America. They were on top of the world, dominating blog conversation, appearing spread-eagled on glossy magazines nationwide, having what used to be an exclusive feature on the internet’s top food property… It seemed that the Cupcake Empire was well on its way to reaching Starbucksian proportions.

And then.

They began to feel some pushback in ’09 in the form of well-publicized pot shots from food cognoscenti David Chang and Jason Sheehan, in each case weathering them with aplomb. After all, who cares if the Class Nerds have issues with an It girl’s lengthy tenure? But by then end of 2010, everyone, from NPR to The New York Times, had gotten in on the action. Observe:

The New Cupcake: Macaroons vs. Whoopie Pies
Pie to Cupcake: Time’s Up
Cupcakes are Over Make Room For Pie
Move Over, Cupcake: Make Way For The Macaroon Etc.

Meanwhile, we saw what can now clearly be interpreted as a cry for help: Cupcakes, unveiling a curvier-than-usual look, sporting shockingly tight-fitting liners emblazoned with jolly rogers, and going seriously downmarket with a sprinkle of candied, lo-sodium Spam.

Oh, cupcake. What are we going to do with you? So suddenly out in the frigid cold, along with fallen starlets of years past: truffle oil, sun-dried tomatoes, Snapple

I’ll confess to having had a little bit of fun at the expense of the cupcake. Perhaps I was a bit too harsh. It’s important to remember that cupcakes, despite their gaudy hubris, have problems just like the rest of us. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: I don’t actually hate cupcakes. I derive no particular pleasure in seeing them so publicly and unceremoniously dumped by legions of fickle trend chasers. Now I’m well aware that people who know me, and particularly those who follow me on Twitter, may have a hard time believing this. So in the interest of full disclosure, I present you with an interview of yours truly, pulled together from footage we shot back in October.

I hope this puts to rest any doubts about my sincerity. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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