Experimenting with Dumplings + Musings On Time

 vegetarian dumplings 1.jpg

I’ve come to a place in my life where I realize how precious time is. I wish I had more of it. I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time in my youth on… being young. Wandering aimlessly. Thinking about various paths to take with my life and not committing to anything in particular besides living. It is, at times, difficult to avoid overwhelming myself with big questions and demands. “Why didn’t you just go for it?” my brave self says. “Why did you go for it?” my careful self says.  Honestly, how do we not tear ourselves to shreds everyday? Damn you, self-reflection.

 handmade mushroom dumplings detail

Though, I know time is never really wasted. Not really. One of the self-preservation guidelines I have acquired over my 34 years is to live life without regret. No regret for my actions or inactions. Think carefully, but not too carefully. Pick your battles, but don’t let yourself be pushed around. Cut your losses when you need to, but stand firm at other times. Focus your energy on what makes you feel good and productive. As a youth, people generally terrified me. The amount of times I wish I’d said/did something but didn’t is uncountable and I lived with the regret of it. I lived with it… until I didn’t. There was a moment in my life where I understood that regret is the most wasteful emotion in existence. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

 

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but it was actually after watching Brokeback Mountain that I decided to kick regret out of my life. I literally cried for two weeks- everyday, all day -after watching that film. It is a story of a character’s lifelong regret and it gave a very brutal, very lonely idea of what it took from him. It destroyed me. I felt like I was mourning the loss of time. All the time that I had dwelled on things that didn’t help me or hadn’t made the best of a situation. Why had I let my insecurities ever get the best of me? Why have I let my fears take control? I have a body and a mind. Use them! Go! Do! Be! I cried and cried and when I finished crying, I was done and have been ever since. Luckily, regret is just a state of mind. I still do dumb things, but just don’t regret them. Instead, I learn from them and take notes on how do it better next time. I suppose time has had a hand in that.

mostly vegetarian mushroom dumplings filling

I greatly enjoy wrapped things as well as the act of wrapping things. Wrapped things contain presents, surprises to discover. I take any opportunity to wrap things, especially food. Mandu, or dumplings, are so fun. I bought some mandu wraps recently and gave my first attempt at making those mini pockets of delight. I often see Mandu Masters working their magic on each specimen, making them perfectly uniform every time and with incredible speed and efficiency. I bow down to these masters.

Some discoveries from my first few attempts:

  • It is challenging to prevent the mandu from looking like deformed ears.
  • It is fun to eat the ones you mess up.
  • You can fill your mandu with pretty much whatever you want, as long as it is viscous enough.

  

Mandu wraps can be found in the refrigerator section of just about any market or supermarket in Korea. If you do not reside in Korea/Asia nor have a market that provides these wraps, they can be made easily with a little flour and water. I may try a more traditional filling recipe someday, but for now, experimenting is too much fun.

Here is the recipe I made most recently.

vegetarian dumplings.jpg

Vegetarian Mandu and Dipping Sauce

 

Ingredients

  • 1 package of mandu wraps (containing 20-30 wraps)
  • 2 cups of cooked rice, rice noodles or your starch of choice
  • 1 block of firm tofu
  • celery tops and leaves from one bunch, chopped
  • 8-10 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 3 chili peppers, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Directions

Heat a stovetop fry pan and pour in a dash of cooking oil over medium high heat. Cook the chopped garlic, chilies and onions for a few minutes until translucent and slightly brown. Then, add the chopped celery. Cook until the celery is tender. Once cooled, blend this mixture until viscous. Set aside in a bowl.

If using rice noodles or any longer noodles, be sure to break or cut them before adding to the filling mixture. This is to prevent difficulty in closing up the mandu properly. If using rice, simply add to the mixture.

Heat your stovetop pan once again with oil on medium high heat. Crumble the tofu by hand directly into the pan and cook for 5-10 minutes or until slightly brown. Add the tofu to the rest of the filling mixture along with the salt. Mix.

Prepare a steamer with water and heat until boiling.

Now for the fun part: filling the wraps. Place a heaping teaspoon of filling into the center of each wrap. Fold one side over and roll the wrap into a log shape. Pinch the ends closed and wrap them around until they touch on one side. Wet your fingers and pinch together until closed. Place them in the steamer and steam for 7-10 minutes.

Your mandu can be eaten at this stage, but I highly recommend a further step of a light pan-frying. This makes your mandu extra delicious. Simply, heat a little oil in a pan and fry the mandu on each side for about 2-3 minutes.

For the sauce, my method is fool proof and delicious: one part soy sauce, one part white or apple cider vinegar and a pinch of chili powder.

Dip your lopsided, ear-shaped mandu lovingly into the sauce. Laugh about how each one will help you hear better and devour ruthlessly.

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Mukeunji Kimchi Frittata with Lemongrass and Sour Cream

mukeunji kimchi frittata with lemongrass and sour cream bite

 

If you move far from the things that are familiar to you, learning to adapt is essential for your survival. When I moved to Seoul 4 years ago, I found myself drowning in a sea of unfamiliarity. The language, culture, courtesies, smells, sounds and sense of personal space all amounted to a major sensory overload. Communication was difficult and mistakes were made often with hilarious results. I remember once feeling overwhelmed by a chatty taxi driver who assumed that I was able to speak Korean because I said “hello” properly. I tried to say “I don’t know” (mo-lie-yo) in response to his words, but ended up saying “How much does it cost?” (ol-my-yo) which of course confused him and prompted him to ask more questions. Another time, I’m pretty sure I told a nice ajumma on the subway who tried to be polite and talk to me that I hate Korea, when I meant to say I don’t know Korean well. I wondered why our conversation fizzled after that.

 mukeunji kimchi frittata with lemongrass and sour cream 2

 

Food was another interesting matter. Cooking and eating traditions are revered and followed with little deviation. These traditions have worked for a millennium or two, so they must be good. Too good to change. As an outsider, I was completely unaware of what these rules were and ruined many a meal in the eyes of the ladies who served me. Having been accustomed to sushi, I wanted to dip my kimbap in soy sauce. This caused a serious stir in the kitchen as no one could imagine why I would ever want to do such a thing. Did I know that the whole point to eating bibimbop was that it must be mixed thoroughly before eating? Apparently not. Once I’d turned some mushrooms over on the barbeque during a galbi meal, thus spilling all of the water they had collected. All of the Koreans at my table gasped in disappointed embarrassment. It seemed I’d rendered them useless.

 mukeunji kimchi frittata with sour cream and lemongrass

 

When I first arrived, I’d had very limited exposure to kimchi. I found it overwhelming and somewhat offensive to the senses. But, as it is one of the main sources of great pride in Korea, I plugged my nose and tossed it down. I now can’t imagine going more than a few days without eating some.

 

mukeunji kimchimukeunji kimchi 2 

Mukeungi is kimchi’s lesser-known elderly cousin. Where kimchi is usually fermented for 1 to 4 months, mukeungi has gone through an extra long fermentation process, usually about a year (!). It is ripe with flavour and smell. It is excellent for using in stews, soups and mixes gloriously with eggs. 

 

mukeunji kimchi frittata with lemongrass and sour cream ingredients

Mukeunji Kimchi Frittata with Lemongrass and Sour Cream

Ingredients

  • 12 eggs beaten
  • 2 cups mukeunji kimchi, chopped
  • 2-3 king oyster mushrooms, sliced and chopped
  • 1 large onion
  • 4 tbsp sour cream
  • 5 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp lemongrass (preferably fresh), finely chopped
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp black sesame seeds
  • 1 tbsp butter

Directions

Heat a pan on medium high heat on your stove top, melt ½ of the butter. Add garlic, onion and lemongrass and cook for 5 minutes or until slightly brown. Stir frequently.

Add the mushrooms and cook until they begin to release their water (about 4-5 minutes). Add the mukeunji kimchi, including any juice, to the pan. Turn heat to medium and simmer for another 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400ºF/200ºC/gas mark 6.

Spread the remaining butter on the bottom of an 8 inch circular baking pan and transfer the kimchi mixture. Pour in the beaten eggs and add salt, and sour cream. Gently mix with a fork.

Place the pan in the oven and cook for about 20-25 minutes. To check if it is finished, insert a pick or fork into the center. If it comes out clean, it is finished. Remove from heat.

Garnish with black sesame seeds.

Vegetarian Lemon Dill Stuffed Eggplant with Couscous and Portobello Mushrooms + Tiny Kitchen

vegetarian stuffed eggplant bite 3

Cooking with eggplant is like painting on a blank canvas. It is full of possibilities. Bitter and spongy when raw (or undercooked… blech), eggplant (A.K.A aubergine, brinjal, brinjal eggplant, melongene, and guinea squash) melts in your mouth when roasted and takes almost no effort to cook to perfection. It is often used as a meat substitute for vegetarians due to its meaty texture and is known to be a good source of Vitamin K, Thiamin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Potassium and Dietary Fiber.
 

vegetarian stuffed eggplant bite 4

Eggplant has a delectable ability to transform; when cooked well, it softens, yet stays firm and loses much of its bitterness. It is also very diverse. The proof comes from all the traditional dishes from around the world that eggplant has played a key role in: ratatouille from France, baba ghanoush from the Middle East, mousakka from Greece, tagines in Morocco and curries in India. Eggplant is kind of a cuisine slut. It can’t make up its mind where it belongs. This is good for the rest of us.

 vegetarian stuffed eggplant bite 2

Since returning to Korea a month ago, my kitchen has been trying so hard to be functional and efficient. Unfortunately, it has mostly failed rather disappointingly. My small Officetell apartment has little space, lacks adequate shelving and is missing an oven and other helpful cooking instruments. This is very difficult for someone like me. Cooking is more than just survival; it is art, science and passion. It is exploration, trial and error and creative expression. It is need and desire.

 Tiny Korean kitchen

So, when my laundry rack is in the way of my cooking utensils and the (stupid) glass elements are just not hot enough, it’s far too easy to throw up ones hands and go get a kimbop instead.

 cut eggplantvegetarian stuffed eggplant with couscous

(Un?)Luckily for me, I am unerringly determined to get my kitchen up to scratch. I will fill my kitchen with the wonderful equipment I need and magically find space for them. I’ll let you know how that goes.

 vegetarian stuffed eggplant with couscous 2

All that said, I’ve been dreaming about roasting eggplant with butter, salt and cumin in my non-existent oven. Until then, here is a stuffed eggplant recipe I made shortly before leaving for Korea.

Vegetarian stuffed eggplant

Vegetarian Lemon Dill Stuffed Eggplant with Couscous and Portobello Mushrooms

Ingredients

  • 1 large eggplant
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 3 stalks of celery, chopped
  • 1 chopped onion
  • ½ cup chopped Portobello mushroom
  • 3 tbsp chopped kalamata olives
  • 1 15 oz. can of diced tomatoes
  • ½ a lemon (juiced)
  • ½ cup couscous
  • 2 tbsp fresh minced dill
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • freshly grated parmesan cheese

Directions

Preheat oven at 375º F/190ºC/Gas mark 5.

Split eggplant lengthwise and scoop out the flesh. Leave 1/8 inch of flesh on the skin and leave the skin in tact. Set the skins aside. Sprinkle the flesh with oil and salt and bake for 20 minutes.

In a stove top pan, fry the garlic and onions with oil on medium high heat until golden. Add the mushrooms and sauté for 7 minutes. Add eggplant flesh, celery, carrots and olives. Saute for 10 more minutes. Remove from heat.

Separate the diced tomatoes from the juice. Save juice in a bowl.

Place the fried mixture in a bowl. Add tomatoes, dill, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Mix well.

Place uncooked couscous in a small bowl. Pour ¼ cup of boiling water and the juice from the tomatoes onto the couscous. The couscous should puff up and be ready to use within 10 minutes.

Turn oven temperature to 400ºF/200ºC/Gas mark 6.

Divide the couscous evenly between the two eggplant shells. Press lightly on the couscous to form a flat, even bed on the bottoms of each shell.

Scoop the vegetable mixture on top of the couscous and pack it in tight.

Place the eggplants in a casserole pan and cover with foil.

Bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil halfway through baking.

If you desire, grate some Parmesan on top of the eggplant halves 5 minutes before they are ready.

vegetarian stuffed eggplant bite

ps- Happy Birthday, mum! I love you!