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A Korean food love affair

Andrea Abel
Marja Vongerichten's Easy Braised Chicken is served with rice and Korean side dishes called banchan.

It's official. I'm hooked. Addicted is more like it. To Korean food. Sure, I've had my share of bi bim bap and bulgogi over the years. But since I started watching Marja Vongerichten's PBS cooking show "The Kimchi Chronicles" and received the companion cookbook (Rodale Press) as a holiday gift, the infatuation has grown into a deep love.

Vongerichten's relationship with Korean food is a personal one that she shares openly on the show and in her book. Vongerichten was born in Korea to a Korean mother. Her biological father, an African American serviceman, abandoned her mother when she was seven months pregnant with Marja. Vongerichten's mother could not provide for her daughter and put her in an orphanage at age 3. Vongerichten was adopted by a loving American couple when her adopted father, a U.S. Marine, was stationed in Korea. In college, Vongerichten decided to find her birth mother who, it turned out, was living in Brooklyn. The two re-established their relationship through Sunday get-togethers preparing traditional Korean dishes.

She is married to world-class chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten from France and mother to pre-teen daughter Chloe. Despite being a picky eater, Chloe loves Korean food and chooses it over Jean-Georges' French preparations, much to his dismay, according to Marja.

In "The Kimchi Chronicles," Marja Vongerichten offers a variety of recipes, all accessible to the American kitchen and palate, including traditional Korean recipes, variations that she created based on her travels and fusion dishes developed by Jean-Georges.

As if we're on a first date asking about siblings and mutual friends, let's get a bit more acquainted with Korean cuisine; it might not be love at first sight. Vongerichten explained that Korean cooking is different than other Asian flavor profiles and ingredients. "Always garlic, lots of garlic. Lots of things are seasoned and have gochujang (Korean red pepper paste). Fermentation is a huge part of our cuisine," Vongerichten said.

She described five ingredients key to Korean cooking:

1. Korean red pepper flakes called gochugaru appear in just about every recipe. Do not substitute Italian red pepper flakes.

2. Gochujang is Korean red pepper paste that can be purchased in varying degrees of heat. It is not the same as Thai Sriracha or Chinese chile paste.

3. Sesame oil, which should be 100 percent toasted sesame oil, not an oil blend.

4. Korean soy sauce is different than Japanese or Chinese soy sauce with a slightly less salty taste.

5. Fish sauce, a pungent condiment used in small quantities.

"I always say for Korean cooking, you really can't do Korean cooking without Korean seasonings. It's just worth it if you have any interest to order online or to go to a Korean grocery store," Vongerichten said. Thankfully, Austin is home to some fully stocked Korean and Asian grocery stores.

Despite what appears to be copious amounts of gochugaru and gochujang, the dishes I've prepared and sampled have an amazingly balanced amount of heat, just the way I like it. First I taste the flavors of the dish, then the heat builds without overpowering. The ingredients have a much more rounded quality than, say, fiery Thai peppers or burning Mexican hot sauce.

Banchan are the ever-present side dishes served in small quantities at every meal and can be a meal themselves. Prepared banchan can be purchased at Korean markets if you don't have time to make them. The number and variety offered vary, as do the tastes from sweet to salty to spicy, such as marinated mung bean sprouts, chewy tiny preserved fish, sautéed spinach, soybeans lacquered in a sweet and salty glaze, and slivers of omelet. And, of course, kimchi.

Many associate Korean food with kimchi, that strong-smelling, spicy, fermented napa cabbage that is central to any Korean table. The word "kimchi" means pickled, Vongerichten said, noting that there are about 200 different recorded types of kimchi in Korea. Kimchi can be made with many different vegetables and fruits such as carrots and watermelon. "Some don't have any red pepper in them," she said.

To be honest, I've never really cottoned to kimchi. On a recent quick trip to New York City, at Vongerichten's recommendation, I ate at one of her favorite Korean restaurants in the city. What Wonjo saves on décor, this 24-hour cafe puts into its dishes. The kimchi arrived along with the other banchan, glistening with red pepper. I plucked the napa cabbage leaf up with my chopsticks and put it in my mouth to consider. This was nothing like the kimchi I'd tasted before. It was at once refreshing and a bit spicy with a tinge of bubbly fermentation. Yum! I had to have more.

And so it goes with each new Korean dish that I've cooked from Vongerichten's cookbook or been served at restaurants. My ability to understand menus and find my way around the Korean markets has improved since becoming more familiar with the ingredients and dish preparations, making me more willing to move beyond bulgogi, a traditional dish of sliced meats served in a tangy barbeque sauce.

While I still love bulgogi and bi bim bap, and Vongerichten's recipes for these dishes are outstanding, I wanted to explore a little more deeply the recipes from "The Kimchi Chronicles." Vongerichten suggested some of her favorites, such as Mrs. Rhee's Bindaitteok — crispy fried mung bean pancakes similar to potato pancakes and served with a brightly flavored scallion dipping sauce — Easy Braised Chicken, and Green Tea Granita for dessert.

To bring Korean food to a larger audience, Vongerichten started a company called Bibi Fresh. Established in New York City, the concept is similar to Chipotle restaurants where customers choose a grain, protein, vegetables and sauce to prepare their own bi bim bap or sams (lettuce wraps).

Look out! With a matchmaker like Marja Vongerichten, Korean food just might be your next great love.

Mrs. Rhee's Bindaitteok (mung bean pancakes)

Be sure to leave at least six hours to soak the mung beans and rice beforehand. Marja Vongerichten said the kimchi and kimchi liquid could be omitted, substituting an equal amount of water, but the kimchi flavor is very mild in the fried pancakes. She also recommended adding chopped pork belly in addition to or instead of the kimchi.

2 cups dried peeled mung beans (they will be pale yellow, not green), rinsed in a few changes of cold water

1/4 cup sweet rice, rinsed in a few changes of cold water

1/2 cup sour kimchi liquid

1 tsp. fish sauce

1 tsp. toasted sesame oil

1 tsp. soy sauce

Pinch of coarse salt

1 generous cup finely diced sour kimchi

Vegetable oil, for frying

Scallion Dipping Sauce (see below)

Combine the mung beans and rice in a medium bowl. Add cold water to cover by at least 1 inch and soak for at least 6 hours and up to 24.

Drain the soaked mung beans and rice and place in a blender along with 1/2 cup fresh water, the kimchi liquid, fish sauce, sesame oil, soy sauce and salt. Blend just until smooth, being careful not to over mix (it should be coarsely pureed as opposed to perfectly smooth). Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and fold in the kimchi.

Heat a thin layer of vegetable oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Using a 1/4 cup measure, ladle in the pancake batter to form 4 pancakes and cook until crisp and browned on the first side, about 2 minutes. Carefully flip and cook until crisp and browned on the second, about 2 minutes. Transfer the pancakes to a paper towel-lined plate and continue with the remaining batter and more oil as necessary. Serve hot with Scallion Dipping Sauce. Serves 4 to 6 (makes about 15 pancakes).

Scallion Dipping Sauce

Note: The recipe in "The Kimchi Chronicles" cookbook has an incorrect amount of soy sauce. Use this corrected version instead.

1 cup soy sauce

2 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil

1/4 cup rice vinegar

2 Tbsp. gochugaru (red pepper powder)

1 cup thinly sliced scallion

Combine everything in a small bowl and whisk until combined.

Easy Braised Chicken

Marja Vongerichten combined two dishes she sampled while in Korea to create this satisfying one-pot meal. Don't wait for winter to eat this dish. "Koreans feel in the heat you should have heat," Vongerichten said. If you are in a hurry, have the butcher cut up the chicken for you.

One 4-pound chicken cut into 10 pieces (2 wings, 2 drumsticks, 2 thighs, halve the breasts)

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 Tbsp.s vegetable oil

Umma Paste (see recipe below)

1 Tbsp. soju, sake, vodka, or water

1 Tbsp. honey

1 Tbsp. roasted sesame seeds

8 small boiling potatoes, peeled

2 medium yellow onions, coarsely chopped

2 carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 bunches scallions, cut into 2-inch pieces

1 fresh green chile pepper, thinly sliced (optional)

1 fresh red chile pepper, thinly sliced (optional)

Cooked white rice, for serving

Season the chicken pieces aggressively all over with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large, wide heavy pot over high heat. Working in batches if necessary, add the chicken, skin-side down, and brown on both sides, 6 to 7 minutes a side.

Meanwhile, whisk together 1/2 cup water, the Umma Paste, soju, honey and sesame seeds. Set the sauce aside.

When all the chicken is browned, add the potatoes, onions, carrots, scallions, and reserved sauce to the pot and stir everything together. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook, stirring now and then, until the chicken is cooked through and yielding and the potatoes are tender, 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes.

Sprinkle with chiles if you'd like, and serve with rice.

Umma Paste

Because the Umma Paste is cooked for a long time in the Easy Braised Chicken, I didn't want to commit to the full amount when preparing this recipe. Instead, I reduced the amount of Umma Paste added to the dish (about two-thirds) and offered the rest as a condiment at the table.

4 large garlic cloves, peeled

3 Tbsp. gochugaru (red pepper powder)

3 Tbsp. fish sauce

3 Tbsp. soy sauce

3 Tbsp. gochujang (red pepper paste)

3 Tbsp. soju

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and puree to a smooth paste.

Japchae (glass noodle and vegetable stir-fry)

Jean-Georges Vongerichten added his touch to this recipe by using fresh spring vegetables. Use the same quantity of whatever is in season or in your refrigerator. I substituted frozen edamame for the fava beans.

1 pound japchae noodles (made from sweet potato, also labeled as dangmyeon) or cellophane noodles

3 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil, plus extra for drizzling

1/2 cup soy sauce

1 Tbsp. honey

1 Tbsp. roasted sesame seeds

4 large garlic cloves, minced

3 Tbsp. olive oil

1 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms

1 small onion, finely diced

3 bell peppers, preferably red, yellow and orange, slivered

1 large carrot, cut into strips

1/2 pound thin asparagus, halved lengthwise

1 cup snow peas, halved lengthwise

1/2 cup thawed frozen peeled fava beans (see note)

1 small handful thin green beans or haricots verts

3 cups baby spinach leaves

Boil the noodles according to package directions. Drain and drizzle with a little sesame oil and set aside.

Whisk together the soy sauce, honey, sesame seeds, and half the garlic in a small bowl. Set the sesame-garlic sauce aside.

Heat 1 1/2 Tbsp. each of sesame oil and olive oil in a large wok over high heat. Add the mushrooms, onion, and the remaining garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until browned and softened, about 4 minutes. Transfer the mushroom mixture to a plate and drizzle with a bit of sesame oil.

Add another 1 1/2 Tbsp. each of sesame oil and olive oil to the wok and add the bell peppers and carrot. Cook, stirring constantly, until beginning to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the asparagus, snap peas, fava beans, and green beans and cook until all the vegetables are just barely cooked through, about 2 minutes.

Add the reserved sesame-garlic sauce, the noodles, mushrooms, and pea shoots or spinach and stir just until the greens wilt, about 30 seconds. Serve hot or at room temperature. Serves 4.

Note: You can substitute 1/2 cup fresh fava beans that have been blanched and peeled; you'll need 1/2 pound fava bean pods to get 1/2 cup beans.

Green Tea Granita

Serves 6 to 8.

4 Tbsp. green tea powder (see note)

2/3 cup honey

2 tsp. finely grated fresh ginger

Grated zest of 1 lime

Fresh red currants (optional)

Whisk together the green tea powder, honey, ginger, and 4 cups cold water. Pour the granite mixture into a 9-by-13-inch baking pan or other shallow dish. Place the dish in the freezer and freeze until it's solid, at least 4 hours and up to 24.

Scrape the granite with a fork to make it flaky and serve in glasses or shallow bowls. (If you prefer, you can scoop it when it's just frozen and more like a slushie.) Top each serving with a small grating of lime zest and a few red currants if you have them.

Note: If you can't find green tea powder, use 6 green tea bags. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil and pour over the tea bags in a large bowl and let it steep for 3 minutes. Discard the tea bags and whisk in the honey and ginger. Let the mixture cool before proceeding.

Korean Markets in Austin