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American Index Korean Noodles

Not watermelon, sorry.

[one_half]Dad, do you know what we haven’t had in a really long time? Watermelon.

[I] feebly explain to my daughter that we only have watermelon in the summertime. A challenging story to sell when grocery stores here insist upon displaying those insipid “personal watermelons” year-round. Sadly, Esme will wait roughly one sixth of her life to eat it again.

You mean when I’m ten? Yes, Esme, you may certainly eat watermelon when you’re ten. Maybe even before that. Poor kid. As the parent responsible for the Korean half of her hapa, I definitely feel her pain.

Esme hails from a long line of watermelon-eating individuals. I’ll always associate watermelon with the church picnic. In particular, Korean church picnics in The Greater Los Angeles Area—though I’ve come to learn, from our stint in the midwest, that many properties of the Korean church picnic are highly conserved across states:

  1. Lots and lots of subak (watermelon).
  2. Bad volleyball.
  3. Other competitive games in which the “prizes” consist of bulk packaged sundry items (toothpaste, soap, gift-packaged socks with Playboy Bunny logos on them…).
  4. The Holy Trinity of picnic foods: kimbap, kalbi, and japchae.

It recently occurred to me that, of those foods, I had never before made my own japchae. I felt that I owed it to myself to give it a shot, and that I owed it to my daughter to deliver, in the absence of watermelon, an equally salient element of my childhood summers.

I quickly learned that japchae is not a dish that one can just bang out in an hour. At least I can’t. A mixture of cellophane noodles, vegetables, and beef, this dish comprises multiple components that are individually seasoned and require different cooking times. So if you have the luxury of a lazy weekend day, that’s the time to take this on. It’s well worth it. And it makes sense to make a lot at once, as the flavors continue to develop over time.

* * * * *

Japchae (Korean cellophane noodles with vegetables and beef)
Adapted from my sister’s recipe.

6 dried or fresh shittake mushrooms
6 dried or fresh wood ear mushrooms
8 oz dry dangmyeon (sweet potato or mung bean) noodles
8 oz lean, choice beef, cut into strips about 2 inches long (freeze slightly before slicing)
3 T grapeseed or vegetable oil
water
1/2 T sesame oil
1/2 T soy sauce
black pepper
1 medium yellow onion, sliced
kosher salt
1 julienned carrot
8 oz frozen leaf spinach*, thawed and drained (or a comparable amount of sigumchi namul)
1/2 tsp chopped garlic
sugar
1 chopped scallion
1 T toasted sesame seeds
optional: 1/2 crisp Asian or Korean pear, julienned

The seasoning:
3 T soy sauce
2 T sugar
1 T honey
1 T rice wine or dry vermouth1 T sherry vinegar
1 T sesame oil
1 T ground, toasted sesame seeds
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 chopped scallion
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 1/2 tsp chopped garlic

*I used chopped spinach this time, since it’s what I had, but I was unhappy with how it seemed to disappear. Larger pieces of spinach do lend a relevant texture, flavor, and appearance to the dish.

If using dried mushrooms, rinse briefly and soak them in warm water for about 30 minutes or until soft. Soak the noodles in lukewarm water. (A 9″ x 13″ pan is convenient for this.)

While the mushrooms and noodles are rehydrating, mix ingredients for the seasoning. Add
4 T of seasoning to the sliced beef and knead to mix flavors. Stir-fry quickly over medium-high heat in a heated, nonstick pan. Remove meat from the pan as soon as it turns brown, transfer to a very large bowl, and set aside. As long as the liquids do not burn, there is generally no need to clean the pan between uses.

Once the noodles have lost their stiffness (about 30 minutes), drain and cut them into 5-inch long pieces. Stir-fry in 5 T of seasoning, 1 T grapeseed oil, and 1/4 C of water until the noodles are slightly underdone. Do not discard the remainder of the seasoning, as you will need it to finish the dish. Add cooked noodles to the large bowl, next to the cooked beef.

Squeeze excess water from the rehydrated mushrooms using paper (or cotton) towels. Remove stems from the shittake mushrooms and slice thinly. I love the shape and texture of wood ear mushrooms (also found in Asian markets as “black mushrooms,” or simply, “black fungus”), so I cut them rather coarsely into pieces roughly the size of a quarter.

Mix 1/2 T each of soy sauce and sesame oil with a dash of pepper, use it to coat the mushrooms, and stir-fry over medium heat until the shittakes are soft and golden brown. Remove and transfer to the large bowl.

Stir-fry sliced onion over medium heat in 1 T grapeseed oil with 1/2 tsp kosher salt until soft. Do not allow them to become overly brown. Remove and transfer to the large bowl.

Stir-fry carrot strips over medium heat in 1 T grapeseed oil with 1/2 tsp kosher salt until
al dente, adding a spoonful of water when necessary to prevent the carrot from drying out. Remove and transfer to the large bowl.

If using sigumchi namul, add directly to the large bowl. If using thawed or freshly blanched (and shocked) spinach, cut into 2-inch lengths. Sauté for a few minutes in about 1 T grapeseed oil with 1/2 tsp chopped garlic, a dash of black pepper, 1 tsp kosher salt, and a sprinkle of sugar. Remove, and add 1 chopped scallion and 1 T sesame seeds. Transfer to the large bowl.

Mix all vegetables with noodles and beef in the bowl with about 1 T of the seasoning. Adjust seasoning, if necessary.

Serve warmed or (more commonly) at room temperature, garnished with strips of fresh pear.

I know that some Asian cultures frown upon serving multiple starches simultaneously. Koreans, fortunately, are not afflicted with this condition. Serve the japchae as an entree or as a side—we’re pretty easy. But for God’s sake, serve it with steamed, white rice. Some people go so far as to serve it over rice (japchae-bap), but I’m generally not an “over rice” kind of guy.

I should note that this is not the most authentic recipe. Specifically, ginger and sherry vinegar are not typical components of the seasoning. They do, however, give this dish a brightness that I find refreshing. Garnishing with the Asian pear further lightens the dish.

* * * * *

So. Did Esme buy it? You’ll recall that my daughter is a small eater. I haven’t had the best record cooking for her lately, so I was pleased (and mildly shocked) that she ate this. It somewhat lessened the sting of not being able to give her watermelon.

Dad?
Yes, honey.
Do you know what else we haven’t had in a really long time?
What’s that?
Peaches. [/one_half]

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