Sometimes people get freaked out by food.
Most of the time it's because of a horrible, life-altering childhood culinary fiasco such as canned Brussels sprouts or a lobster boil gone terribly awry. I remember sitting at my grandmother's table when I was four years old, breathlessly awaiting her infamous Yorkshire pudding, which I had never had the honor of tasting, and being terribly disappointed when this bready, eggy thing appeared before me soaked in roast beef drippings which she called, "gravy." This was definitely not pudding. And I refused to eat it, and I have yet to return to that dish.
I think most folks, after having a traumatic food experience in their youth, develop a fear of food and tend to stick to what they know. Which is unfortunate in my eyes. Thankfully, I have adopted a more adventurous attitude towards food, and I'm willing to try just about anything at least once, and I have been pleasantly surprised by what I have discovered: a world of palates and ingredients just waiting to be enjoyed.
Recently, I was delighted to spend an evening at one of my favorite Korean joints in Andersonville, Jin Ju, with one of my former students and her family on the eve of her moving into her freshman dorm room. As we sang choruses of "Sunrise, Sunset" (for I do think of my students as one of my own), I had to soothingly convince them that Korean food is not made from strange meats and that they will enjoy themselves. Fortunately, this soon to be University of Chicago student turned and said, "Well, college is about new experiences. I might as well start now."
Everyone dove into the food a bit trepidatiously at first. But the instant the instant they encountered those simultaneously exotic and homey flavors, they were convinced. Warm scallion pancakes, sour and bright kim chee, Korean style "pot roast" over sweet potato vermicelli in a sweet and savory broth. Their first step outside their comfort zone was a success.
After that night, I played around in my own kitchen to see what sort of exotic, hominess I could come up with inspired by Asian ingredients. Here is what I came up with.
Asian Caramelized Pork with Cucumber Soba Noodle Salad
Yes, the chopping is extensive, but this sweet and savory dish comes together in minutes after the prep work and is totally worth the chopping effort.
4 4oz pork loin chops (trimmed)
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 onion, thinly sliced
1 tsp ginger, grated
1 Tbl fish sauce
1 Tbl rice vinegar
2 dried red chilis
Get your aggression out! Place chops, one at a time, between two piece of plastic and pound away on those suckers until they are about 1/2" thick. I use a rolling pin. Slice in half and transfer to a bowl.
In a small saucepan, heat sugar over medium high heat. As sugar begins to melt, swirl in one direction to prevent burning. As soon as sugar has become a beautiful caramel color, reduce heat and add onions. Cook for about a minute, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add ginger, fish sauce, vinegar, and chilis. Cook for about two minutes, and pour over pork. Let it marinate for a bit (perhaps while you are making the noodles...).
Heat a grill pan over medium high heat. Grill pork for about 1-2 minutes on each side. Serve with noodles.
Soba Noodle salad
10 oz soba noodles
1 English cucumber, sliced
2 carrots, grated
4 scallions, thinly sliced
2 red jalapeños, thinly sliced and seeded
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
1/4 cup fresh basil
1/4 cup fresh mint
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1 Tbl honey
1 Tbl fish sauce
1 tsp grated ginger
1/2 tsp sesame oil
Prepare soba noodles according to the package directions. While still warm combine noodles, vegetables, and herbs in a bowl. Whisk together vinegar, honey, fish sauce, ginger, and sesame oil. Pour dressing over noodles. Toss to combine. Chill for 30 minutes.