As I positioned myself directly between two fans and still managed to be dripping wet last week, I tried to look on the bright side. After all, why’s this so different from the sauna I pay to go to during the winter? I worked to wrap my mind around the cleansing and healing aspects of the heat. I told myself to slow down, sit on the deck in the shade and read a book — something I’ve barely accomplished this summer except in the confines of an airplane. The intense heat made me sleepy, very, very sleepy (except when it was time to go to sleep at night, then I was just plain hot). As I drifted off, my thoughts went to that Korean spa but not to the sauna, to the food instead. Typical.
My favorite part of Korean food is all the little appetizers or side dishes — the Korean equivalent of chips and salsa. Although each dish or banchan is meant to be shared, I could easily eat them all myself and skip the rest of the meal. They’re that good. Unfortunately my spa partners usually love them too.
Ever since visiting the spa I’ve been looking for banchan recipes and finally found exactly what I’ve been craving in Quick and Easy Korean Cooking by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee. These recipes truly are quick and easy and although there are a couple of ingredients that aren’t local, I shopped for all of the produce at the farmers market — green onions, zucchini, japanese eggplant, cucumbers, carrots, spinach — many of the same things I would normally buy at this time of year. Mair Taki Farms even has some incredible kimchi to add to the mix.
The seasoned spinach is actually quite fun to prepare. Steam a couple of bunches of spinach until just wilted ( or if you’re lazy like me, about a bag and a half of baby spinach from Willie Greens). Place in a colander and rinse with cold water. Now comes the fun part. Squeeze the water out and form into a ball. Cut the ball in half and then in half again. Mix the spinach with 1T toasted sesame oil, 2 cloves minced garlic, 1 chopped green onion, salt and top with toasted sesame seeds. You’ll see these same ingredients used over and over to season the various dishes. If you want to make it more spicy, add a teaspoon of Korean chile powder or put a spoonful of Korean chili paste on the side. A dash or two of soy or tamari sauce never hurts either.
The eggplant and zucchini are both sauteed in 1 T vegetable oil until they begin to brown. A chopped green onion, 1 T toasted sesame oil, 1 clove of minced garlic, 1 T soy sauce, toasted sesame seeds, 1 t chile powder, if desired, are all added and cooked for another minute or so. For that matter, seasoned tofu (I bought Island Spring Extra Firm Tofu make on Vashon) is prepared in a very similar way.
Along with a pot of steamed short grain rice and a salad with lettuce, cucumbers, shredded carrots and thinly sliced mushrooms, lightly dressed in a rice vinegar dressing, these dishes made a perfect feast for a sultry gathering of the Cocktail Study Club, along with a frosty cocktail concoction, of course.
If you decide to try these, Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee warns “because of centuries-old superstition, Koreans set out dishes in odd numbers. So it’s better to have five or seven small banchan than four or six.” I don’t know why but that makes sense to me.
There are several places in our area to buy authentic Korean ingredients, like chile powder. I bought mine at Central Market at 156th and Aurora. Uwajimaya is always fun and is a great place to take out-of-town guests too.