Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"i found my mind in a brown paper bag"

the food: Japchae
the song: "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings

I'm not gonna lie to you, Internet. I've been in a slump this week. No need to go into it here because this is a food blog, and lord knows I get personal enough as it is about my food. What I can tell you about, though, is how two nights ago Asian noodles and Spanish wine* made this Texas girl feel better than I've felt in a while. 

About a month ago, I ran across this recipe on Herbivoracious. You might recognize this site if you visit Serious Eats, where the blogger does a bi-weekly column on meatless meals. This particular recipe is from the creator of Savory Sweet Life, who shares her mother's authentic recipe for a Korean noodle dish called japchae or chapchae. According to Wikipedia, the meaning of japchae is actually "mixed and stirred (jap) vegetables (chae)."

Now, right off the bat let me offer a warning. This is not a throw together kind of meal, even though stir fry is usually associated with fast and easy. There are vegetables to julienne, tofu to press, sauce to make, and everything has to be cooked separately, then added back together. I consider myself an upper-middle class chopper, and this recipe took me more than an hour to make. But with a recipe like this, time is the whole point. You'll taste it, I promise. I apologize for the pictures, by the way. I was more involved with the cooking than the photography.

Just gathering ingredients started to nudge me out of my funk. Any meal that takes just as long to chop as it does to cook provides much needed time to focus and relax. Chopping vegetables never fails to make me feel at peace. Add in a glass of wine, and I'm on cloud nine. Seeing your handiwork waiting to be turned into something delicious is a good feeling. Plus, with all the peppers, fresh herbs, garlic and onion used in this recipe, your kitchen starts smelling good before the oil even hits the pan.

I mentioned a while ago my trouble with mediocre stir fry, but the Herbivoracious post suggests stir frying each ingredient separately. It is genius, because it allows each vegetable to be cooked just right and play its proper role in the completed dish. Just picture it...crisp carrots, non-soggy mushrooms, just-translucent onions, bright green spinach, spicy garlic. You'll be tempted to toss the ingredients in together, but don't. Cheesy as it sounds, there are subtleties to carrots and bell pepper that are brought out when you give them the individual attention they deserve.

I used tofu in this recipe, but of course you could use beef or chicken or nothing at all. A little side note- this was my first time to work with tofu that I'd previously frozen. I pressed it first, then wrapped it in foil to freeze. I was skeptical because the color was very different than when it went into the freezer. It was a little spongy, but it tasted great. 

This recipe strays from the authentic Korean original. Stir fry is perfect for customization, so find what works best for you. You might, for instance, have the sesame oil the original recipe calls for. I use olive oil, because that's what I use for everything. I also make our japchae really spicy, as per the husband's request. Thanks to this hot chili sauce made by the same masterminds behind Sriracha, these noodles have a serious kick. There are runny noses and teary eyes and big smiles when we eat this stuff. Who knows, maybe the spice contributed to my feeling better. If you're not a fan of spice, you can leave it out- the soy sauce/brown sugar/oil combination is very flavorful on its own. 

Feel free to doctor and add to the sauce that coats the noodles. You might find at the end that there isn't enough for your tastes. I don't like a lot of sauce...just enough to evenly flavor everything. If you want to stretch it out, add another tablespoon of soy sauce and olive oil in the final stir fry.

One more thing, the potato starch noodles might take a while to get used to. They are clear and have a unique texture. I like them now, but if you want to ease yourself in I recommend rice noodles or even (*gasp*) plain old linguini if you're really in a pinch. I warned authenticity here! But it does taste good. 

adapted from Herbivoracious

1 bundle of potato starch cellophane noodles (most packages contain 2-3 bundles and can be found in the Asian section of most grocery stores)
1/2 bunch of fresh spinach, chopped
1/2 medium onion, julienned
1 carrot, peeled and cut into match sticks
1/2 bell pepper (any color), julienned
8-10 mushrooms, sliced (cremini is my favorite)
1 block of firm tofu, pressed for 8 hours, cut into small rectangular pieces
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
Olive oil
soy sauce  (amounts will vary, see directions)
1-2 teaspoons hot chili garlic sauce 
salt and pepper
2 teaspoons brown sugar
fresh cilantro for topping (optional)

Boil one bundle of noodles for 5 minutes until softened and al dente in texture.  Drain the noodles and do not rinse.  Add noodles to a large mixing bowl. In a small bowl, combine 2 tablespoon olive oil, 2 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon brown sugar, and 1 teaspoon chili sauce. Add to noodles and toss until sauce is evenly distributed. Set aside.

Heat a wok or large frying pan on high.  Add a splash of olive oil and a pinch of salt and cook tofu until golden, about 4-5 minutes. Add half the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes. Stir in 1 tablespoon brown sugar to coat the tofu. Remove from wok and set aside.

If needed, add a bit more olive oil to the same pan. Add sliced onions and cook until they start to turn translucent. Add onions to the large bowl of noodles.  Repeat the same process as the onions for the carrots, bell pepper, and mushrooms, cooking each to meet your preferences (I like to keep the peppers and carrots pretty crisp).

Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the hot wok, then add minced garlic and spinach. Cook until garlic is fragrant and spinach turns bright green, about 30 seconds. Pour the entire bowl of noodles and vegetables to the wok/pan. Stir-fry everything for 2-3 minutes, adding extra soy sauce and olive oil if desired. Turn off heat and gently add tofu. Top with cilantro if desired, and extra chili sauce if you're feeling wild.


*I know next to nothing about wine. I'm a beer girl through and through. However, I'm trying to branch out and learn a little something about it this summer. I picked out a bottle of Salneval Albarino based on price (<$10) and because someone told me wine from Spain was good for the summer. Thumbs up all around in this house. What's your favorite inexpensive, light wine for the summer?

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