Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Food Review: Saffron Road Korean Taco with Tofu

Korean food continues to expand into America's frozen-food aisles. And while navigating one at a local Whole Foods Market grocery recently, I came across Saffron Road's packaged Korean Taco With Tofu.

Saffron Road, a Stanford, Conn.-based food company, has brought several Korean-themed meals to the public, including Gochujang Chicken, Bibimbop With Tofu, Beef Bulgogi and Bibimbop With Beef.

The eye-catching packaging caught my eye first. The taco is tucked into a box shaped like a food truck. That's appropriate, because the Korean taco is acknowledged to have most memorably rolled onto the American palate via the Kogi Korean BBQ trucks of Los Angeles.

After I brought my stash home, I examined the label more closely. I noticed this Korean taco was gluten-free and certified halal. (That's an Arabic word that means the food is allowed under Islamic dietary guidelines.)

The box also warned me the spiciness level was "hot." Although I don't recall a processed meal labeled as "spicy" or "hot" actually living up to that hype, I was expecting my tongue to be teased at least.

When I opened the box, I found a thin corn tortilla stuffed with sauteed cabbage, carrots and scalions seasoned with cilantro. The tofu cubes were covered in a red sauce, hiding under the vegetables.

My taco cracked right part way down the middle from its two-minute sojourn in the microwave. But that's the occupational hazard of corn tortillas, in my opinion. It's why I'm personally not a big fan of corn tortillas in any form.

The corn tortilla Saffron Road used in their Korean taco was called a "heritage nixtamal corn tortilla." In California, this kind of exotic foodstuff will give your processed food serious foodie cred, perfect for the stereotypical California organic food crowd.

Nixtamal is an Aztec word, describing corn/maize that has been treated with calcium hydroxide, commonly known as slaked lime or just lime. Treating corn with slaked lime is usually the first step in making masa and hominy. It loosens or removes the hard endosperm covering the corn kernel. The process makes the corn more digestible.

After heating it up for one minute on each side while wrapped in a paper towel, following the directions to the letter, I took a bite.

The flavor of the cabbage and carrots are noticeable, but the cilantro and hint of vinegar is even more noticeable. It took a few more bites for me to find the "gochujang sauce" — the spicy red chili sauce common in Korean food. That sauce marinaded the tofu, but it quite mild rather than spicy.

Saffron Road also has a "mild" Korean Taco With (bulgogi-flavored) Chicken, if tofu is not your thing. By the description, the chicken seems to be marinaded in a 불고기 bulgogi-style sauce. 

"Gluten-free" should have been a big red flag that the "gochujang sauce" wouldn't really taste like 고추장 gochujang. But I suspect Saffron Road had no choice in the matter, to ensure the product had no gluten. Genuine gochujang is made with barley malt.

This dish's gochujang-inspired sauce leaned heavily toward the sweet side, helped by a quadruple punch of cane syrup, brown rice syrup, pear puree and apple juice concentrate.
The umami of Saffron Road's gochujang seems to come from with red miso and tamari.

The flavor profile of these tacos is inspired by LA's Koreatown, not by Seoul, Chuncheon or Jeonju. If you can accept that up-front, you will enjoy this tasty, quick Korean taco snack.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Recipe: St. Patrick's Day 비빔밥 Bibimbap

St. Patrick's Day is March 17 and usually coincides with the Catholic fasting season of Lent. This year is no different. One common way to celebrate Lent is to abstain from indulgent foods, such as meat and candies.

Another way to celebrate Lent is to simplify one's diet in solidarity with the world's poor who often times have to forage for food or have no food at all. Irish history is defined by famine and diaspora.

As I mentioned in my recent post on sorrel 나물 namul (salad), it is a common genus of plant-weed-herb, easily found in many parts of the United States and edible in moderation.

This version of 비빔밥 bibimbap is an homage to the white, green and orange of the Irish flag. For a more healthful spin on white rice, it uses sprouted brown rice. For green, there is "clover" namul, ae-hobak namul and spinach namul. For orange, there are sauteed carrots and 닭갈비 dakgalbi (spicy chicken) or dubu/tofu sauteed in that sauce.

St. Patrick's Day Bibimbap

Serves: 2

2 cups sprouted brown rice
1/4 cup 시금치나물 shigeumchi namul (spinach salad)
1/4 cup carrots, julienned
2 teaspoons perilla oil
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
Dash of salt and pepper
1/4 cup 호박 나물 ae-hobak namul (zucchini salad)

1/2 cup sorrel/clover 나물 namul
1/4 cup 닭갈비 dakgalbi (spicy chicken) or semifirm dubu/tofu, chopped or cubed
  1. Cook the sprouted brown rice on the brown-rice setting on your rice cooker.
  2. Saute carrots in perilla oil with garlic, salt and pepper
  3. Put 1/2 to 1 cup of cooked rice in a bowl.
  4. Arrange the clover, spinach namul, sauteed carrots, hobak namul and spicy chicken around the edge of the bowl.

Dakgalbi or dakgalbi-style dubu

3 chicken thighs or 4-8 ounces firm dubu/tofu
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon gochujang
1-2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon Korean chili powder
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon soju
1 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch of pepper
  1. Cut the chicken or dubu into thin 2-inch long strips then dice into 1-2 inch cubes.
  2. Mix spices, sugar, soju and oil with the chicken or dubu. Marinate for 20 minutes. 
  3. Saute in a wok over medium-high heat until the meat completely cooked.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Recipe: 애호박 나물 Ae-Hobak Namul (Sauteed Zucchini)

I  know it's not summer yet and zucchini are not in season in Korea or in Northern California, but I didn't want to wait any longer to introduce you to another simple 나물 namul (seasoned vegetable) recipe that will play well in your 비빔밥 bibimbap or as 반찬 banchan (side dish).

The Korean hobak is a versatile word used to describe most kinds of squash including pumpkin and zucchini. So to differentiate the two, Koreans usually refer to zucchini as ae-hobak.

Although it's technically a fruit, the mild-tasting squash can take on whatever flavors you wish to add, whether sweet or savory.

Most hobak namul variations I've seen include 새우젓 saeujeot (salted shrimp), but I don't think you really need it.

애호박나물 Ae-Hobak Namul

1 small zucchini, cut in half and julienne
perilla oil
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
pinch of sweet California pepper powder
1 tablespoon roasted sesame seeds, crushed
pinch of black pepper
pinch of salt (if you're making this for bibimbap, it's optional)
  1. Julienne zucchini approximately 1/8-inch thick. I set my mandoline on the No. 2 setting.
  2. Heat perilla oil in a saute pan or wok over medium-high heat. Saute zucchini with garlic and pinch of red pepper powder until the zucchini begins to sweat.
  3. Turn off the heat, and add the sesame seeds.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Recipe: "Clover" Salad 괭이밥 나물 (Seasoned Wood Sorrel)

Foraging has become trendy here in the San Francisco Bay area, with people paying money to take classes to learn how to find local foods such as miner's lettuce, local seaweeds and mushrooms.

But there's one very common plant that's probably taking up a good portion of your front yard that you had no idea is edible and you don't have to go deep into the woods or pay someone lots of money to help you find it: wood sorrel.

Wood sorrel, which is commonly mistaken for clover, is a perennial that can grow from 6-15 inches tall. It is a North American native but it can be found in Europe and into western Asia as well. Its Latin genus name is Oxalis. The species name is stricta.

Harvesting a little wood sorrel from my front yard just before supper time. (Jeff Quackenbush photo)

I have a large batch of it growing in my front yard. The leaves are still young and they have a sour, lemon like flavor. It can be included in salads, soups, or dried and used as a seasoning. It can also be made into a sauce (traditionally served with fish) or drank as a iced tea. Wood sorrel is quite high in ascorbic acid (vitamin C).

Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel have not given up their taste for wild herbs and "weeds." That's true even in the South, where the socio-economic fortunes have risen to first-world status since the end of the Korean War.

A number of grandmothers and aunties all over Korea still explore the mountains and gardens in their neighborhoods for wild herbs and "weeds." That's just as their ancestors have done for centuries to supplement the family's food budget and to sell in local markets, where the foraged finds are highly prized since they are "organic."

Popular Korean cooks and chefs, including Hooni Kim and Maangchi, have no qualms whatsoever about foraging in New York City's Central Park to find tasty treats.

For this dish, I prepared the wood sorrel raw, drizzling it with a light Korean dressing shortly before serving.

Wood Sorrel  괭이밥 나물 Namul

Wood Sorrel namul making its debut in the setting sun. (Tammy Quackenbush photo)

Korean Salad Dressing

2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon rice wine
1 tablespoon verjus or lemon juice
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame seeds (optional)
  1. Mix in a small bowl to combine

Korean Wood Sorrel salad

Serves: 2-4 as 반찬 banchan (side dish) or in 비빔밥 bibimbap (mixed vegetables and other items with red chili sauce over rice)

1/2 cup young wood sorrel leaves
2 tablespoons Korean salad dressing
  1. Rinse the wood sorrel in cold water.
  2. Dry thoroughly.
  3. Place the wood sorrel in a small bowl, drizzle with 1-2 tablespoons of Korean dressing and mix until the wood sorrel leaves are coated.
  4. Set aside to add to your bibimbap or serve as part of your banchan setting.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Koreans cringe at American kim snack attack

I  never thought this seemingly innocuous Facebook post on Feb. 13 would cause any kind of uproar or irritation:
"Raleys grocery stores in Northern California are selling their own line of seaweed (김Kim/laver) snack packs."

Comments such as this one on that post likely aren't helpful or relevant for a grocery shopper in Northern California:
"OMG, kim is banchan, not a snack!"
Some Koreans living in Korea seem to be very disturbed that 김 (roasted seaweed), which is served in Korean homes as part of 반찬 banchan (side dishes), has turned into a substitute for potato chips in children's and some adult lunch boxes in the United States, Australia and other Anglophone countries.

The Korean government, under the Lee Myung Bak administration, worked hard and spent lots of money to promote Korean cuisine. I suspect that one of the few successes of that endeavor was the special October 2011 "Korean Culinary Camp" hosted by the South Korean consulate in San Francisco.

Nearly 100 food writers, chefs, grocery buyers and caterers learned about basic Korean ingredients such as gochujang, doenjang and kim at the St. Francis Yacht Club. Sempio, Pulmuone, and other Korean food companies offered free samples and brought in chefs to serve Korean fusion dishes to inspire Northern Californian restaurateurs, grocers and food writers to experiment with Korean ingredients.

A few months later, I followed up with representatives from several of those companies on whether they had made any fruitful business contacts ("S.Korean food companies set sights on overseas wholesale buyers," Yonhap News, January 2012).

Those professional relationships that were still in the incubation period in early 2012 seem to have started producing fruit as more U.S. grocery stores carry Korean cuisine. For example, Raley's also now sells 고추장 gochujang, Nongshim ramyeon/ramen and kim in their stores.

Anytime a culinary treasure is exported to another country, it shouldn't be surprising that a foreign culture enjoys the food in an unexpected way.

For example, gochujang or 쌈장 ssamjang (gochujang mixed with fermented soybean powder or paste plus accompaniments such as garlic and sweet onion) might become a substitute for ketchup and served with French fries. And expats in Korea are willing to tolerate Korean sandwich innovations such as Monte Cristos served with a side of strawberry jam for dipping.

So, Koreans should be able to stomach that 8-year-olds can devour kim like they would chips, along with their apples and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

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