The other day, we decided we needed lasagna. We've been in Korea for more than four months now, and there's only so much rice and kimchi a body can handle before you just have to have something fattening and stuffed with layers of melted cheese. I'm pretty sure its a biological imperative. In any event, we had reached our tipping point, and lasagna was a must. I walked down to the grocery store to get supplies.
Let's see... what do I need?
Lasagna Noodles: The foreign foods sections of larger grocery stores in Korea actually carry this (cue shocked expression).
Pasta Sauce: Again, foreign foods section. They'll even have American brands like Classico or Newman's Own.
Meat: Beef is expensive here. Like $10.00 for a half pound expensive. I opted for pork instead. I can get a full pound for about $3.00, and that's way more than I need.
Spices: South Korea has roughly five spices available in the store: salt, pepper, garlic, ginger, and hot chili pepper powder. While you can spice meats with them, it's not going to taste like Italian sausage. Thankfully, my parents gave us some fennel for Christmas, so we were good.
Vegetables: South Korea has a lot of veggies available to experiment with. I opted for onions and zucchini.
South Korea has never been, historically, a cheese producing culture. Its not a regular part of their diet, and its just not something that's widely available. In most stores, the best that you'll find is fake cheese slices. In the US, this would be the stuff labelled "American Slices." There is generally no actual dairy in such products, and trying to bake with them will result in tragedy. However, in the largest Korean stores, you can find cheeses. Usually mozzarella and something with an ambiguous name that tastes nice and salty. Generally, these are shipped up from Australia, so they're pretty expensive. A decent, 1/2 lb brick runs about $6.00. Unless you find it on special.
Which I did. (Happy dance in the aisles of E-Mart!)
However, in addition to the standard cheeses, you also need ricotta for a proper lasagna. You can make it without it, but it's just not the same. South Korea doesn't have ricotta.
Well, they might have it in Seoul, but they certainly don't in Chungju. Feeling stubbornly irritated, I decided to make my own. Let's see... search online... compare recipes... hmm... yes! I think I can do this!
Making ricotta cheese!
- 2 cups of whole milk
- 1/4 cup of heavy cream
- 1/8-1/4 cup of plain yogurt
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice
Toss everything except the vinegar in a pot, stir until the mix is smooth, and bring to a simmer. Make sure to stir frequently while you're heating. You want to try and avoid scalding the milk.
When you've got it simmering, turn down the heat and add some vinegar or lemon juice. The acid encourages the curds to start forming. I used more than a full tablespoon of apple vinegar. Within a minute or two of stirring that in, I got this:
Leave it for about 5-10 minutes on low heat, continuing to stir occasionally. This allows the curds to grow in size. The longer you leave it, the bigger your curds are.
Then you need to strain it. Believe it or not, the larger Korean grocery stores sell a thin but durable cloth material that works as a substitute for cheese cloth. It's even right in the baking section. I have no idea what they use it for over here, but I'm using it for ricotta.
Line a collander with the cheese cloth and pour the mixture in. Let the whey drain out the bottom for about 10 to 15 minutes. You should be left with a crumbly but still pretty moist white cheese. I stuck it on a wire rack over the sink so it would drain properly.
Also... Holy Crap! I made CHEESE!
And then I made lasagna!
Yes, I used a cake pan. Don't judge me. It's what I had available.
Then we ate it. Rapidly. With sounds like "Mmmmm" and "MmmphleGoodMmmumble."
Then we sat around in a food coma for a bit.
Then I looked down at my distended belly and made a New Year's resolution:
Time to get more exercise.