Bruno and I went to our favorite Asian grocery store the other day and I was able to kill at least 30 minutes (amateur, I know) by letting him pull the wheeled shopping basket and peer into every single (!) freezer case and stare at all the bottles of chili sauce and all the bags of rice flour and ask me a million questions about frozen dumplings and frozen anchovies and frozen edamame in his funny little mix of German and English. I lost him a few times and always ended up finding him transfixed in front of a display of rice crackers or wasabi peas or a silvery array of Capri Suns right at his eye level. ("What's daaaat," he whispered in awe.)
Reader, I bought him a Capri Sun because I am not a monster.
I also bought kimchi and two kinds of rice and mirin and Shaoxing wine and a sushi rolling mat and green curry paste. And refrigerated Korean rice cakes, which I love so much. In the annals of memorable meals I've had in this life is a lunchtime feast eaten at a Korean restaurant in suburban Los Angeles in the long-gone spring of 2009. I was in L.A. for work and the friend I was staying with took me to this place that he'd heard was one of the best Korean restaurants in the city. I've never seen so much food on one table for lunch and all of it was, indeed, sublime, especially this one dish, a bubbling, rust-colored stew that had fresh rice cakes snipped into it by a briskly efficient waitress.
Sigh. Sunshine. Los Angeles. Restaurants. Friends. Airplanes. Newness. Noodling down the freeway in a rental car with a sunroof all by myself.
As much as I love Korean rice cakes, I'm still trying to figure out how I should best use them up at home. (I beg you for inspiration, please, dear readers!) The other night, I made this easy little ground meat stir-fry from Bon Appétit, which was tasty and quick (the kids refused to touch it because they are maniacs, but it's actually very child-friendly). You soak the rice cakes in some water while you fry ground meat (I only had beef, though I think pork would be better here and it's what was called for in the original) until it's browned and crispy (big chunks preferable). Then you add the soaked rice cakes, ginger, garlic and scallions and cook, stirring vigorously and frequently, lest the rice cakes glue to the pan (I used a cast-iron pan, nonstick would have probably been better). At the end you stir in some butter, soy and sesame oil for flavor. The whole thing goes very quickly and is a satisfying little meal.
(The eagle-eyed among you will note the tiny cubes of zucchini in the pan - I had one perfect zucchini in the fridge and I thought I'd make this a one-pot meal by adding it to the mix. Also, I made the dish with more meat than in the original recipe and I liked the ratio, so that's what's in the recipe below. I think a handful of bean sprouts might be nice here too.)
But today I can't stop thinking that what I really want to make next with my remaining rice cakes is, cough, real Korean food, not the Bon Appétit-ized version. Readers, what are your favorite Korean cookbooks?
Ground Meat Stir-Fry with Korean Rice Cakes
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8 ounces/225 grams Korean rice cakes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 lb/455 grams ground pork, chicken or beef
1 thumb-sized piece ginger, peeled, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
5 scallions, white and pale green parts only, thinly sliced
Salt, freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1. Place rice cakes in a medium bowl and pour in cold water to cover. Let soak 10 minutes. Drain, rinse, and pat dry.
2. Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Add ground meat and cook, undisturbed, until browned underneath, about 2 minutes. Break up with a wooden spoon or a spatula and continue to cook, stirring and breaking into large pieces, until browned all over but still pink in places, about 2 minutes more. Add rice cakes, ginger, garlic, and half of scallions; season with salt and plenty of pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until meat is cooked through and rice cakes are browned in spots, about 4 minutes. If pan looks a bit dry at any point, pour in a little more oil. Remove pan from heat; add butter, soy sauce, and sesame oil and toss to coat.
3. Transfer mixture to a platter and top with remaining scallions.