Chef Ed Lee
This past Sunday I was invited to attend Ed Lee’s cooking class at Central Market Cooking School, where he would be cooking with a recently-released Gochujang sauce which he helped develop for Chung Jung One Company, a division of Daesang Corporation of South Korea, which is one of the world’s largest fermentation companies. You probably remember Ed from Top Chef, where he was the totally chill and affable fan favorite competing against eventual winner, Austin’s own Paul Qui. Ed really didn’t want to talk about the show much, other than to say that it was brutal, and a huge boon to his career, but that at the end of the day, “you had to remember that it was just a TV show.”
Jicama and pineapple pickle
His Top Chef days are over, and he’s concentrating on his growing restaurant empire (Milkwood and 610 Magnolia/The Wine Studio in Louisville, with a new restaurant opening in D.C. this coming spring). Lee is also the co-host of this season’s Mind of a Chef on PBS, which is without question the best and most creatively-engaging cooking show on TV. Narrated by Executive Producer and King Badass of all-things-cooking-show, Tony Bourdain, this year’s edition features Ed Lee and Magnus Nilsson; Ed takes the first 8 shows, while Magnus bats the clean-up position. Ed’s also very satisfied with the success of Smoke & Pickles: Recipes and Stories From a New Southern Kitchen, his groundbreaking cookbook that was released by Artisan last year (for my May 2013 review in the Chronicle, see link below).
Short rib japchae
Another of Eds’ recent projects was doing some product demos and recipe development for leading Korean foods manufacturer Chung Jung One. That went well, so they invited him to South Korea for 10 days to consult on the development of their new Gochujang sauce, the traditional fermented hot chili paste. Gochujang was on everyone’s hot new cooking ingredient list last year, right up there with finger limes and freekeh. If you’ve eaten Korean food before, you’ve had gochujang (pronounced GO-chew-jong) and just didn’t know it. Gochujang is first-cousin to Sichuan hot bean paste, and is a fermented umami bomb condiment made from red chiles, a grain (glutinous rice, rice, barley, or wheat), fermented soy beans, salt, and a little sweetener, such as rice syrup.
Fermented and pickled vegetables and beans were introduced as early as 350 AD from China, but chile peppers didn’t arrive from Japan until 1620 (originally coming there via Portuguese traders in the 1530’s). Like every country in Asia, once chile peppers arrived, black pepper had to take a back seat, and Korea wholeheartedly embraced the red chile pepper. Everyone used to make gochujang in their backyards, fermenting in the sun in big pottery crocks, closing it up every night and anytime it rained, for 3 meticulous months. You could buy it at the market from small, artisanal producers if you didn’t make your own, but in 1972 companies started producing it commercially from powdered ingredients, making folks lazy, and now homemade paste in the homeland is a rarity. What makes Chung Jung One’s version stand out is that it is organic, gluten and MSG-free, and is made with fresh ingredients. The flavor profile harkens back 100 years, when every Korean family fermented their own paste, so the potential market applies to Korea as much as the States.
Creamy dual seaweed risotto
The class was sold-out, and Ed was on his game, riffing on pickles and his trademark Southern food with roots firmly planted in Asia, but this class was focused more on the gochujang. He started out making a zesty jicama, pineapple and pepper quick pickle, which would accompany the rice bowl later on. And that demo and the next dish was paired with a very drinkable, fruit-forward Beaujolais, the Domaine de Combiers Fleurie La Cadole 2012. Ed then quickly whipped-out a really tasty japchae made with sweet potato starch glass noodles, with braised short rib meat, shitakes, and julienned vegetables. I could have eaten a bucketful. The class loved the double seaweed risotto with clams and shrimp, which paired perfectly with the accompanying crisp, fruity Argiolas Sardinian white. The two different seaweeds load the rice with umami flavor, and I loved that his method is to add all of the liquid at once. Great dish, with no textural ill effects from the unfussy shortcut method.
Gochujang-kissed pork rice bowl
The main course was the rice bowl with jicama pickle and gochujang slathered pork loin, with lettuce and herbs. This is a spicy, satisfying bowl of goodness, and the glass of big, ripe, dark-fruit rich El Burro Kickass 2012 Garnacha from Bodegas Ayles paired nicely. A late treat was a coconut pudding with rice, almonds, sesame seeds, vanilla, and Thai basil matched with a fruity, nutty, lush, cream-textured Santo Vino from Villa Puccini.
Coconut pudding with rice and nuts
We all got to taste the gochujang and I loved it. The flavor is umami-rich and complex, with great depth and a really clean, spicy finish; a little too spicy for the wimps in the class. One taste and you can imagine dozens of uses for this condiment. Central Market has it on the shelf, so don’t hold back. You’ll love it. Ed’s class was entertaining, and the food was excellent. Once I tasted it, I remembered why I liked his cookbook so much. And if you haven’t been watching Mind of a Chef, you’re blowing it.
Mick Vann ©