In Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, there’s an entire chapter named after “One Onion.” In it, the ubiquitous allium becomes a symbol for generosity, goodness, and salvation. Recently, one lunch blew open some big questions in my own life. Perhaps not as weighty as the ones Dostoyevsky’s 19th century characters posed, but big enough for me.
The lunch came in an oval white dish in a New York City cafe. It was simple, fresh, and affordable — an American rendition of bibimbap, the Korean name for a mixed rice dish. Just lunch, really. In and of itself, much like the character Grushenka’s onion. But as I let the egg’s soft yellow drench the delicately chopped vegetables, I couldn’t silence the questions: What would it be like to walk through those doors every morning? To work in the tall tower rising up around me, full of the cubicles of some of the world’s most successful writers and editors?
Usually when I’m stabbing cubes of fried tofu with my fork I’m not also having one of those moments of profound smallness. But this time I was. All around me success seemed to shine its toothy, too-perfect smile. All I could seem to muster was one halfway to hopeful.
That lunch stood in for something else, a life neither close nor far away. Food prepared by someone else. Outside all the amenities of a city fiercely alive. Wilderness packaged up in a park not much bigger than a postcard.
We ate well, and copiously. Cupcakes, sandwiches, pastries and fruit. Two days passed in the whirlwind of avenues and boulevards, stairs pointing to greatness, alleys threatening dead ends. I came out alive, but with more questions than ever, pushing against me like subway doors.
One lunch. A world just brushed up against. A window into an afternoon into a day, a week, a year, a life I can’t yet see clearly. A sigh of satisfaction with the present, with a Sidecar of uncertainty.
New York put flowers in my food and a Sonatra song in my heart. Back in Syracuse, the questions it left are proving a little harder to digest.
In the meantime, here’s a recipe for bibimbap.
3 cups freshly cooked white or brown rice
2 oz dried mushrooms
1 cup green beans, trimmed and cut on the diagonal into bite-sized pieces
1 T vegetable oil
1 carrot, peeled and julienned
1 red bell pepper, seeded and julienned
1/2 a small zucchini, sliced or julienned
1/2 cup mug bean sprouts
3 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 8-inch sheet of nori snipped into thin strips (use scissors to cut the sheet of nori lengthwise into quarters, then stack the strips and snip crosswise at 1/2-inch intervals
1-2 tsp Asian chili paste
2 tsp dark sesame oil
dash of salt
- Begin to cook the rice so it’s ready by the time you finish sauteing and blanching the vegtables. Immerse the dried mushrooms in boiling water, cover, and soak for 20-30 minutes until soft.
- Blanch the green beans in boiling water for 4 minutes and drain well. In a skillet, warm a tsp of the oil on medium heat and stir-fry the green beans for 2 minutes. Remove to a platter, cover, and set aside. Stir-fry the julienned carrots, bell peppers, and zucchini separately until just tender, adding a teaspoon of oil if needed (carrots: 4 min, bell peppers: 3 min, zucchini 2 min). Place each stir-fried vegetable in a sparate pil on the platter and keep covered.
- Drain the mushrooms, trim and discard any tough stems, and thinly slice the tender caps and stems. Blanch the mung sprouts in boiling water for 1 minute and drain, pressing to eliminate water.
- Oil the bottom and sides of a large flameproof* clay pot, casserole dish, or stainless-steel pot. Scoop the hot cooked rice into it. On top, arrange the mushrooms, green beans, carrrots, zucchini, bell peppers, mung sprouts, scallions, and nori in attractive mounds or concentric circles around the perimeter. Stir together the chili paste and sesame oil, drizzle it on top, and sprinkle with salt. Cover with a tight lid.
- Fry four eggs sunny-side up in the final teaspoon of oil. White the eggs cook, place the bibimbop pot on medium heat for about 3 minutes, until the rice sizzles and everything is piping hot. Transfer the fried eggs to a separate place, one for each guest to place atop their mound of bibimbap. Serve with kimchee and hot chili paste.
*If you do not have a flameproof casserole dish, preheat the oven to 500 when you begin to saute the vegetables. Place it in the oven for 5 minutes just before serving.
modified from a recipe in the Moosewood Restaurant New Classics