Late for my date.

Good grief, where have I been? This post is late late late, but here’s the problem with food blogging. By the time you post about a food in season—especially when you don’t live in California—that season is nearly over. So really, most posts about certain foods should be stored away for next year. I’m doing you a service by posting this late. Now you only have to wait nine months instead of ten for Korean dates to come into season again. Assuming you can find them at all.

Fresh Korean datesKorean dates are usually sold dried. Unlike sticky brown dates, dried Korean dates are light and papery in the hand, husk-like. They are only barely sweet. You find them worked into duk treats and pots of hot chicken juk for their medicinal value and pretty red color. The traditional Korean p’yebaek ceremony, where the bride is officially “introduced” to the groom’s family, features a moment when the bride and groom bite out of the same date. Supposedly, the one who gets the seed wears the pants in the family. My brother and his wife chose to hold a p’yebaek ceremony to combine western and Korean cultures. She got the seed.

Score one for the chicks! High five, ladies! (If he’d gotten the seed I’d be gloating at the new in-laws, so either way, I win. Ha!) Ahem.

Fresh, the firm dates range from pale green to dark brown when fully ripe. My mother planted a Korean date tree and harvested the first dates two summers ago. She gave me one from the small and precious harvest. I held it reverently. I had never seen a fresh date before, much less a Korean one. It tasted…like a foam packing peanut. And not biodegradable ones either, but peanuts your great great aunt puts in the box to keep your porcelain hippopotamus safe during shipping (happy 17th birthday!). These are the kind of packing peanuts that last 5,000 years and may be used by future archaeologists to tell them what we were (hippo god worshipers).

Bitten Korean datesI said, and I quote, “Yuck.”

I’m not the only one. My aunt doesn’t like them, and neither do that many Koreans. Even the squirrels wouldn’t touch them, and those bastards will eat anything, including 99.5% of our chestnut harvest. None of this fazed my mom. “More for me,” she said, crunching on date after date. “More for me.”

The tree produced even more dates this summer, so I let them ripen on the counter a bit and gave them another shot. Yuck. My mother insisted they were better fresh from the tree. So I tried that.

My heart holds onto some foods within an extremely narrow range. Raw apples, for instance. I don’t hate apples, but I never seek out apples unless I know that it has been picked in the last 24 hours. Golden Delicious, one of the most maligned, mealy, pathetic apples, is actually one of the greatest when it’s still alive, the powdery sap squirting onto your lips when you bite into one. I lived for falls just to go to the orchard with my family and pick a pile. There is simply nothing like a fresh apple. Grocery store apples and even most farmer’s market apples break my heart again and again. So when people ask, I just say I don’t like apples. It takes too much time and sounds too snotty to say I only like apples I picked myself. Stick it in a pie if you want me to eat it.

I’m not that picky about all foods. While I love garden-fresh tomatoes from my own yard, I don’t mind winter tomatoes in a sandwich because it has more flavor than lettuce and adds vitamins. Who cares if it’s bland? I wouldn’t make a BLT with one, but hey, it’s a veggie. Processed American cheese instead of cheddar? I’ll survive. Pepperidge Farm bagels instead of one from the corner in NYC? Life could be worse.

But on some foods, like apples, I can’t compromise. At the risk of sounding snotty, here’s a new one: I only like Korean dates that were plucked from the tree less than 12 hours ago. Any longer than that, and the essence is gone. What is that essence? The fragrance of violets, a fleeting tartness, a sweetness like the thin nectar I used to suck from wild field clover.

It’s a flavor beautiful for its subtlety and special for its brief season. If you have a chance to try one fresh from the tree, please don’t pass it up. You may not like it, but that’s okay, because that just means more for the rest of us. More for me.

Spring, baby.

It’s spring! What better way to commemorate a season of daffodils and violets than with baby pictures?¹ My cousin’s daughter (who is my first cousin once removed, but I’ll refer to her as my niece consistent with Korean genealogy²) recently celebrated her first birthday. Koreans use first birthdays as an excuse to party, eat, and dress up the baby in fancy clothes. Several horrible lies have been sandwiched in among the facts on today’s post. See if you can spot them.

Baby nieceAfter we sang “Happy Birthday,” my niece had to choose from an array of items that would determine her future: a golf club, a stethoscope, a pen, a spool of thread, a golf ball (my cousin likes golf), a book, and cash in denominations of $1, $5, $10, $20, and $100. She picked the stethoscope and tried to eat it. I believe that one day my niece will be CEO of a company specializing in edible organic novelty medical equipment so realistic and so delicious that it will put the current edible jewelry and candy ring companies to shame. She picked up a pen too, so she may also write a bestselling memoir about her edible organic novelty medical equipment career. Keep an eye out for it in 50 years or so.

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Duk labelAssorted duk

Duk is similar to Japanese mochi and comes in a staggering number of varieties: squishy or stiff, topped or stuffed, layered or rolled, savory or sweet, fried or steamed, poured or kneaded, leavened or ballooned. Duk houses, not bakeries, can be found all over Korea. My mother contributed four heavy trays of assorted duk from a popular duk house in Chicago. The green duk is my favorite type of duk and roughly translates into “wind duk,” so named because the duks are sealed with air trapped inside in addition to a sweet sesame seed stuffing. When you bite into wind duk it pops. The experience is less exciting than it sounds but is nonetheless slightly more exciting than eating food that doesn’t pop. The pink and white duk is a filled duk with a lotus design and more sweet sesame seed filling. While it tastes the same as wind duk, it doesn’t pop.

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I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream! (Even when we’re weeping.)

My 33rd birthday is coming up. A few weeks ago my mother, a salt & pepper-haired woman fast approaching her 60s, looked at my hair and said, “You have as much white hair as I do.”

“WHAT?”

“In the back there, I see a lot of white hairs.”

Azuki bean ice cream“NO YOU DON’T.”

“Yes I—”

“YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO TELL YOUR DARLING DAUGHTER THAT HER HAIR IS AS DARK AS MIDNIGHT.”

“I am?”

“YES.”

“Huh.”

After checking my hair with one handstand, two mirrors, three lights, and four back flips, I can firmly state that my mother is a dirty rotten liar. She just loves to get my goat, but goat meat is a future post. For now, let’s talk about ice cream.

Weather bad? Life in the toilet? Dirty rotten lying parents got you down? Ice cream will soothe the pain. You never outgrow ice cream, especially this one. Unlike most frozen desserts that melt into a chilling puddle, velvety azuki bean ice cream coats your tongue in an insulating blanket of sweetness that practically inoculates your body against the cold. If there’s an ideal ice cream to eat on a cold winter day made even colder by your mother stabbing you in the back with the cruel icicles of filthy lies, this would be it.

Sweetened azuki beans, known as pat in Korean and misleadingly called red beans, is used to fill tteok or mochi, stuff steamed buns, and top shave ice and ice cream throughout Asia and Hawaii. Koreans enjoy shave ice topped with pat in a treat they call pat bing su. If the idea of cold sweet beans doesn’t appeal to you, try a pat ice cream bar from an Asian grocer. It may take more than one try before the grainy texture and earthy sweetness grow on you. Soon, however, you’ll try another one, crave another one, and eventually buy a whole box because you’ll be hopelessly, happily addicted. Then you’ll come back here, make this ice cream, and thank me and my lustrous ebony hair for posting this recipe.

FOUNTAIN OF RAVEN-HAIRED YOUTH AZUKI BEAN ICE CREAM
Adapted from The Ultimate Ice Cream Book by Bruce Weinstein
Makes about 1 1/4 quarts

The original recipe calls for two cups of red bean paste. To make life easier, I use the whole container, whether it’s a 14-ounce can or a 17-ounce packet (I slightly prefer the flavor of the beans in the packets). I noticed no texture difference either way.

Ingredients:
· 2 1/2 cups half and half
· 3 large egg yolks
· 1/2 cup white sugar
· 1/4 teaspoon salt
· 1 14-oz can or 1 17-oz packet of smooth sweetened azuki (red) bean paste
· 1/4 teaspoon almond extract, optional but strongly recommended
· 1/2 cup sliced toasted almonds, optional

Bring half and half to a simmer over medium heat. In the meantime, beat egg yolks in a heavy medium bowl with the sugar and salt until the mixture is thick and lemon-colored. Slowly, whisking the whole time, pour the hot half and half into the yolk mixture to temper it. Once most of the half and half is beaten into the yolks, pour the contents of the bowl into the pot with the remaining half and half and whisk continuously over low heat until the mixture thickens slightly or reaches 170 degrees. Don’t let this mixture boil or it may curdle. Remove from heat and stir in red bean paste and almond extract. Stir well until beans are dissolved. Strain the mixture through a medium-mesh sieve into a container. Cover and chill at least four hours or, better yet, overnight.

Freeze the ice cream in your ice cream maker until ice cream is thick and increased in volume. Add the sliced almonds in the last few minutes of mixing. Thoroughly incorporate. Eat fresh or freeze.