Recently, a bronchial bug took hold of our household. We stayed in for days, glancing occasionally out the window as the cherry plum tree in our back yard slowly blossomed. At the beginning of the week, buds were visibly emerging from bare stems. Just four days later, the tree was filled in with blooms like a girl wearing hundreds of poofy pink bows in her hair, ready for a party.
Maybe it was the sight of the blossoms, or the appearance of blue skies two (two!) days in a row. Either way, we definitely started to feel more energetic. After lunch on the second day, we happened to look out the window to see a flash of bright yellow. Kingston immediately recognized it.
"Wood chipper!" He yelled running toward the door.
"Put on some shoes!" I shouted, "And a jacket!"
He stumbled over the piles of sneakers, boots and slippers in the front hallway and managed to shove his bare feet into a pair of snow boots. I hurled a jacket at him, and threw one on myself. Oh! And shoes.
When we reach the cul-de-sac a minute later, we could see the city parks department guys already working, cutting off branches from a slightly tilted alder tree. One guy clutched a pole saw while the other worked from the high reaches of a cherry picker bucket.
We watched from a safe distance and ended up staying for at least two hours, perched together on the edge of the curb. Kingston hardly took his eyes away from the whole operation while asking me question after question:
Q: "What that black thing on top of that part over there?" (Asked while pointing to the bright yellow woodchipping machine with the name "The Bandit" stenciled on its side.)
A: "Maybe that is part of the engine?" (Answered with a hopeful shrug.)
I did my best, keeping in mind what I had once read in the Penelope Leach book, Your Baby and Child. There, Ms. Leach advises that if you don't know the answer to question, try to give one anyway. According to her, it isn't at all reassuring for a young child to hear an adult say, "I don't know." I don't doubt her one bit, as this definitely holds true for myself, an adult. When I have a question, I need answers!
While Kingston and I were still spectating though, one of the tree guys came over to tell us he was going to leave split firewood, cherry and alder, for anyone to take. Kingston declared that we should bring some home. By dinnertime, we had managed to move three Radio Flyer wagon loads up the hill. Then, with our hands, we reached into the wagon and plunked the wood down until we had a helter-skelter pile next to the house.
Hauling wood is tiring. It makes your arms and shoulders ache. It makes your belly rumble. So I was very glad that there was a pot of soup in the house, one I'd made over a couple of days. It is by no means an "authentic" or "traditional" Korean recipe, though the dish it might most be like is kimchi jigae. Rich and umani, this soup is neither too salty nor spicy, and is filled with fall-apart tender beef. It's fortifying and just right for the changing seasons, the return of health and hands on, spirit-lifting work.
Beef Short Rib and Kimchi Soup
I like what Andy Ricker has to say about "authentic" and "traditional" foods in his Thai-centric cookbook, Pokpok: "The words imply an absolute cuisine...Both terms are nonsensical designations -- as if traditions are the same everywhere, as if they don't change, as if culinary ones don't evolve with particular speed." I wasn't trying for authenticity here. I just wanted to make some that's warming, soothing and super flavorful.
This is a weekend project type of recipe for most people, so do it a bit at a time. For example, cook the onions in the days prior, then the short ribs the day before, maybe squeezed in between other things you happen to be doing around the house. For me, this soup is easiest and most relaxing to make when I do it over a couple of days.
Adapted from thekitchn.com and Momofuku.
3 large yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced
4 teaspoons neutral oil, divided
2 lbs. beef short ribs, bone in, English cut
8 cups beef broth, divided
6 cups kimchi, preferably napa cabbage or a mix of napa and daikon, roughly chopped
Couple handfuls of dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi)
3 tablespoons mirin, plus more to taste
3/4 cup sliced rice cakes
kosher salt, if needed
fresh black pepper, to taste
scallions, sliced on the diagonal, for garnish
julienned carrots, a couple of handfuls, for garnish
For the short ribs:
Sprinkle short ribs with salt. Set aside.
Heat a dutch oven or other large, lidded pot over a medium-high flame. Add 2 teaspoons oil then the sliced onions. Saute until they begin to soften then lower heat to medium-low, stirring every few minutes so that the onions don't burn. Continue cooking onions in this manner, lowering heat as needed, until they begin to caramelize, about 30 minutes. Remove onions from pot and set aside.
Turn heat to medium-high. Add another teaspoon of oil to pot. Sear the short ribs, allowing each side to brown before turning them using tongs. Once they are well-browned, about 15 minutes, return onions to pan and add 3 cups beef broth. Bring to boil then turn heat to very low, cover tightly and allow to simmer on stovetop for 2-3 hours, checking intermittently to make sure there is enough liquid so that it won't burn. Add broth as needed. You may alternatively cook this in a slow cooker for 8 hours on low. The meat on the ribs will be tender and gelatinous. Remove from bone and cut meat into bite-sized pieces.
For the soup:
Heat a dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the last teaspoon of oil. Add kimchi, black pepper and bonito flakes and saute until warmed through. Stir in mirin, remaining broth and any remaining juices from the kimchi. Add short ribs, along with the onions and any juices and broth left from cooking the meat. Heat until meat and broth are warmed through. At this point, taste and adjust seasonings. If the soup is overly spicy, you can add a bit more mirin to temper it. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Once you've adjusted the seasoning to your liking, add the rice cakes to the soup. Cook until the rice cakes are warmed through.
Ladle into soup bowls and garnish with scallions and carrots. Serve with cooked rice on the side.