Go kim chee! It’s your birthday! Or rather, it’s your “done fermenting” day, although that doesn’t have the same ring to it.
If you recall, my Culture Club (a club for fermenting, pickling, canning, and preserving) made Radish and Roots Kim Chee from the book Wild Fermentation a little while back. I eagerly checked it every day, making sure my two jars (Medium and Spicy) had enough brine to cover all my veggies, and tasting (what a hardship!) to see if they tasted done. And when it was all fermented and ready to go, and I wanted to do something special for that first kim chee meal.
If you memory goes back eveeeen farther, you may remember that I got a book from the library called Glorious One-Pot Meals, with a patented (!) system for cooking a complete meal – including your rice/pasta/polenta/etc. – in a single Dutch oven, in the oven. I tried a lot of recipes from the book and had a lot of problems, which after a frustrating time of eating really gross food I traced to the fact that my oven thermometer was off by 50-75 degrees. By then the book needed to be returned to the library, so I wasn’t able to really give it a proper chance. But one recipe stuck with me, even under such trying circumstances.
The author calls this dish “Sesame Shitake Tofu.” I call it “My name is Scrumptious, and I am a vegetarian bibimbap addict. Please help me before I walk, zombie-like, to the nearest Korean restaurant and spend another $15 on a single bowl of food.” (We all know how much I object to spending $15 on a single bowl of food…)
I became a bibimbap addict during the year I lived in Massachusetts. Every weekend I would commute for a couple of hours each way from the rural area where I lived and worked to a town outside of Boston where I volunteered for an amazing organization called The Children’s Room. On the way home I’d be so hungry and tired I would stop first to get dinner. I’d been curious my whole life about Korean food but it never seemed to be vegetarian. But when I found a menu with something called “vegetarian bibimbap” I decided to give it a try.
The first thing that was unusual to me was that there were two prices for the bibimbap. For a several dollars more, you could get what seemed like the exact same ingredients, but served in a “stone pot.” I figured this was my one shot at Korean food, so I splurged and went the distance. What arrived at my table was a revelation. A bowl of rice with vegetables and an egg on top – but somehow so much more! The stone pot is heated to a high temperature and then coated with sesame oil. The egg cooks from the heat of the bowl, and the rice sizzles and browns in the best way. The veggies are sauteed and subtly seasoned, and there is often tofu, seaweed, bean threads, and other delicious unidentifiable morsels. Mostly it’s all about the rice, sizzling and browning to form an incredible crust.
Every time I order bibimbap and take the first bite, I invariably think to myself, “Why do I love this so much?” Despite the seasoned veggies and the crispy rice it has a kind of bland, sesame-oiliness to it that is a bit ho-hum. (Especially at $15 a bowl…) But you are meant to add hot chili sauce and other seasonings to it, to make it saltier and spicier. And once you do this, your second bite will be incredible. By the third bite you’ll be burning your mouth on the hot rice as you shovel it in.
When Duck and I made our first batch of Sesame Shitake Tofu and I took my first bite, that same thought crossed my mind. “This is so bland, and kind of oily… But wow, that rice crust is really great… and that seaweed… and those mushrooms… What if I added some tamari and hot chili sauce?… OH MY GOD IT’S BIBIMBAP MORE MORE!”
Something like that.
So when it came time to premiere the kim chee, I knew just the star vehicle to show off its spicy, salty talents to the utmost! It’s an incredible gift to have found this recipe, since most bibimbap recipes understandably (and authentically) are very complicated and time-consuming what with preparing all the seasoned vegetables and so on. (For example this Fat Free Vegan recipe that says “You will need to prepare at least 3 of the following recipes to go on top (4-5 is preferable).”) So even though I hate to pay so much (although it’s so totally worth the extra for the stone pot) I have never attempted to make bibimbap at home. To find a recipe that recreates, if not the exact composition, then very much the experience, and that recipe is made entirely in ONE POT… it’s like a Fermentation Day miracle!
One-pot Vegan Nearly-Bibimbap
Adapted from Sesame Shitake Tofu recipe from Elizabeth Yarnell’s very cool cookbook Glorious One-Pot Meals. Her method is very carefully designed, and I may have strayed from it in my adaptation, so any cooking snafus are my own error, not an error of her method! This recipe, written for a 2-quart Dutch oven, will serve two very generously. To fill a larger (3 1/2 – 4-quart) Dutch oven, simply double the recipe and add a few minutes to the cooking time – go by the “aroma” test, rather than the timer. You should also be able to make the smaller recipe in the larger Dutch oven with no problems.
2 t. sesame oil
1/3 cup dried arame seaweed
4-7 oz. extra-firm tofu, drained, pressed, cut into small cubes
1/4 C. + 1/4 C. Annie’s Sesame Shitake Vinaigrette (or other sesame dressing) (I used Annie’s)
1 C. sushi rice
8-10 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked in boiling water until tender, about half an hour (reserve soaking water)
1-2 C. napa cabbage, chopped
10 oz. package frozen spinach (no need to thaw!)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Wipe the inside and lid of a 2-quart Dutch oven (cast iron or enamel-lined) with the sesame oil.
Place the arame in a small bowl and cover with water, set aside.
Stir the tofu cubes with 1/4 cup of the vinaigrette, gently coating the cubes.
Put the rice in the bottom of the Dutch oven. Add 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon of liquid – using the shitake soaking water if you have enough, or adding more water as needed to reach the desired amount. Smooth rice and liquid to make an even layer in the bottom of the pot.
Chop the shitake mushrooms into small cubes and scatter in a layer over the rice.
Spread the tofu cubes in the next layer, making sure to get all the extra dressing from the bowl.
Drain and rinse the arame and sprinkle over the tofu.
Spread all the napa cabbage on the next layer.
Then top it all off with a layer of frozen spinach. (Don’t worry about frozen/not frozen ingredients – it all works out!)
Pour the remaining 1/4 cup of vinaigrette over the spinach.
Cover and bake for 45 minutes, or, as Elizabeth Yarnell says, “until 3 minutes after the aroma of a fully cooked meal escapes the oven.”
Scoop a big hunk from the pot, getting all the layers. Don’t be afraid to mix it up together on the plate or in the bowl. Serve with spicy and salty condiments on the side like kim chee, tamari/soy sauce, hot chili sauce, chili garlic sauce, etc…