Risotto: the awkward deflowering.

Many food blogs publish breathtaking accounts of unique culinary creations featuring magnificent ingredients prepared with celestial perfection. Will my food blog do the same?

Nuh uh.

It’s not that I don’t have some instinct; most days I have enough knowledge to avoid boneheaded cooking mistakes. Then there are days when, like a repressed 21-year-old girl set loose at the docks after guzzling five screwdrivers on an empty stomach just seconds before the ships come in, I quickly find mistakes outnumbering dizzy spells on a hungover morning.

My first time with risotto was supposed to be special. Foodies practically write love sonnets for risotto dishes. Something about that romantic Italian spirit sneaks into the blood via the starch, I think. Bachelorettehood discouraged me from trying my hand at risotto because who makes risotto for one? Experience with leftover paella taught me that arborio rice dishes don’t reheat well. Google results for solo recipes gave me the impression that if you tried to order risotto for one at a restaurant, the kitchen would go bonkers, maybe even storm the dining room and take hostages. Nonetheless, I spent the last few months studying risotto recipes and working up the nerve to scale them down to use a mere half cup of rice. I even bought a little pot that I dubbed “Annie’s Wee Risotto Pot of Defiance.” Could it be done? Would my stove explode? Would Italy write me a polite but firm letter condemning me to death?

scallop risottoJust as I was about to take the plunge blind, coincidence dropped a used book order on my doorstep: Cooking For Yourself (Williams-Sonoma Lifestyles, Vol. 12, No. 20). Every page excited me more and more until–wouldn’t you know?–my hungry eyes landed on “Saffron Risotto with Scallops.” I immediately bought bay scallops and clam juice. Nothing would stop me from making risotto for one now! Then my mother told me that she loved scallops, so I made risotto for two. Irony has a gift for finding me that way.

I-shoulda-known-better #1. It was hot. I was sticky. My shorts, too big around my shrinking waist, kept sliding down, and a belt would only have added to the heat. Impatience made me sauté the scallops in a pan so small that they simmered instead of browning. Result: bland scallops.

I-shoulda-known-better #2. I accidentally let the scallion whites and minced garlic brown, not sweat. If only they had switched places with the scallops! A voice in my head told me to stay away from the large burner, but I couldn’t hear it because the other voice in my head was screaming at my shorts. Result: a slightly bitter caramelized flavor that overpowered the delicate scallops and saffron.

I-shoulda-known-better #3. Wanting vegetables, and too cranky to make a side dish, I added peas. Result: the strong green flavor worked to overpower the mild seafood flavor as well.

In retrospect, I should have stuck to the missionary position of risotto–stock and Parmesan–rather than clam juice and saffron. Cheese would have intensified the creaminess, and the whiteness of the risotto would have been more, well, risotto-ish. Instead I served a golden dish to my mother, who looked dubiously at the rice that I claimed was Italian yet looked suspiciously similar to a thick juk (a boiled Korean rice dish). Her instincts kicked in and . . . she grabbed a pair of chopsticks and pulled kimchi out of the fridge.

“What are you doing?” I asked, suddenly terrified. If anything can trigger the equivalent of a fatwa from northern Italy, eating risotto with kimchi is it.

“It’s rice,” she explained.

Fortunately, after the first bite she realized that the kimchi wouldn’t work with that taste. The texture seemed right. I had successfully produced a creamy al dente risotto. The flavors, on the other hand, didn’t wow either of us. It needed something. It didn’t need kimchi, stock, or even cheese. It needed care. The kind of care that only a non-sweaty cook wearing properly fitted short pants can provide.

Well the first time can’t always go well. Nerves always settle for round 2, right? I’ll appease Italy yet. I have my small pot, I know the approximate liquid to rice ratio, and I have the technique down. I’ll pull out the chicken stock and pay a pile of money for Parmigiana-Reggiano and do it right next time.

See? I do learn from my mistakes. And this time I learned that the secrets to good risotto are wearing tight pants, taking it slow, and flashin’ the cash. And hey, if I’m really good, northern Italy might send me flowers the day after.

Rice mojo and hot sex.

I thought I knew rice. I don’t. Seductions of Rice, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, bitch-slapped my arrogance with 480 pages of research and recipes. I’m Korean-American, damn it. I should have an innate knowledge of rice–rice mojo–that flows through my blood like cornbread mojo in Georgians, bagel mojo in New Yorkers, and hot dog mojo in Chicagoans. Didn’t my people feed for millennia off crops of rice grown at the base of hazy purple mountains? Didn’t I watch serene rice paddy waters reflect electric blue dragonflies fornicating in the Korean countryside?

A little of my mojo came back after I found that those 480 pages overlooked one of my favorite Korean rice foods: nurungji. I wasn’t surprised to see Korea mostly ignored despite the two big chapters devoted to China and Japan. Am I hurt? Well I’m used to it. ::sniff:: But nurungji (noo roong jee), simple food at its simplest, deserves a page of its own.

nurungjiNurungji is the nutty crunchy flavorful crust that cradles the rice as it cooks. (Photo shows rice and millet nurungji.) Other countries have variations on this rice crust: the Spanish call it soccarat in their paella, the Cubans call it raspa, the Iranians call it tahdig. The Chinese deep fry their crusts and make sizzling rice soup. That toasted rice flavor is popular in other ways: Thai people toast raw rice and grind it for use in cooking (kao kua), and the Japanese toast brown rice and mix it with green tea to make delicious genmaicha–a great way to get your antioxidants if you dislike plain green tea.

My favorite girlhood memories include tearing into crisp brown nurungji dotted with soft clumps of white rice that provided a sweet foil to the toasted flavor. My cousin, who grew up in Korea, confesses to preferring cookies for dessert, but that’s only because his mom used a rice steamer. Poor bastard. The ubiquitous steamer has nearly obliterated homemade nurungji, making it another casualty of technology. Well that’s not entirely true. Nurungji sticks like you wouldn’t believe, so the best nurungji comes out of a modern invention: a heavy non-stick pot. Prior to non-stick, rice stuck so tenaciously to the pot that boiling it was the only to remove it. So boiled nurungji used to be a thrifty way to use every last precious grain back in the old days. (I have no research to back this up–that’s just the kind of thing that Koreans do. Eighty percent of them also cover their remote controls with plastic wrap. Again, no research, I just know.) While you can buy pre-packaged weird-tasting nurungji at the Korean grocer, c’mon. We’re talking about a food scraped up from the bottom of the pot.

So how to make it? Without attention, nurungji can go very wrong, so save it for a day when you have time. Cook medium-grain Korean or Japanese style rice on the stove over medium-low heat in a heavy non-stick pot and let it cook longer than usual. When you fluff the rice, there will be a pleasant nutty smell, and a crust will have formed below and on the sides. Don’t disturb this. After fluffing, turn the heat down to low and let the rice rest as you usually do. Remove the rice after resting to preserve the nurungji’s crunch, and leave it on low heat. Perfect nurungji takes practice–I still burn a batch now and then–but that just makes getting it right all the more satisfying.

Eat the nurungji immediately or leave it on the heat to darken as you eat your meal. Don’t let it burn! When it’s perfect, it will be golden, hot, and crunchy. The flavor should soothe your soul and ease your troubles (unless you’re dead inside!). Package leftovers in an airtight bag and use it soon or pop it in the fridge or freezer. Drying it out makes for better keeping but will take longer to rehydrate. You can actually deep fry this for a sinful treat, but the usual way to eat it is to put it in a bowl with some boiling water, stir, and eat it plain or with kimchi and assorted side dishes (banchan). Some people like it watery, others like it thick, some like it hot, others like it cool.

As for me, I loved it most the way my mom used to serve it to me–with ice cubes stirred in and leftover strips of breakfast bacon in my fingers. The simplicity of the cold rice paired with the fatty salty pork made life worth living and impending adulthood almost tolerable. Ignore such Korean food at your peril. The June issue of Men’s Health noted that Korean men have more sex at 4.5 times a week than the men of any other surveyed country, including the United States, which came in 17th at a measly 2.95 times a week. If people don’t start feeding their kids more nurungji we may see a chronic sex shortage in the next few generations. I urge the rest of the world to eat more nurungji and Korean food. What is everybody waiting for? If anything should fire your mojo, it should be the goal of hot sex 5 times a week.

Oh heck, put on another pot and make it 10.