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“I Don’t Really Cook….”

If you’re like me, you have friends or family members who hem, haw, and timidly declare time and again, “I don’t really cook….”

But if you poke, prod, and nudge enough, you realize that, yes, they actually can and do cook.

And quite well, thank you very much — whether they care to admit it to themselves and the rest of the world or not.

Take my friend, Joanne.

You may know her work from the glorious photos she used to take for the San Jose Mercury News, for the poignant pics she now takes for her wedding photography business, and for the lovely shot she took of me on my “About” page.

Joanne is a professional photographer. She is most gifted and skilled. She takes great pride in the work that she does behind the camera. Indeed, if she — instead of yours truly — had snapped the photo above, it would have looked far more gorgeous than my feeble attempt.

Yet get her talking about cooking and she is as bashful as can be. Listen to her words, and she’ll have you believe she can’t make a thing, that turning on a burner is beyond her capabilities, and that her home kitchen is a foreign land she dares not step into too often.

But taste her food, and you realize the truth: She sure can cook.

Joanne, who is Korean-American, invited me and our other friend, Lisa, over recently for a home-cooked Korean lunch. Together, we make up three-quarters of the Woo Hoo Wednesday Club (the fourth was otherwise occupied). Lisa and I, who are both Chinese-American, took copious notes, since Korean food is not a cuisine we are intimately familiar with. Joanne scurried about in the kitchen, as we peppered her with questions.

Her favorite local Korean market?

Hankook Supermarket on El Camino Real in Sunnyvale, because she likes its vast selections and its tidy appearance.

Her favorite brand of fish cake?

Osaki brand. Its fish cake is orange-red as opposed to others, which are more pink. When in doubt, she says, buy the more expensive brand and you won’t go wrong.

On Joanne’s menu that afternoon? Steamed white rice, assorted kimchi, “Joanne’s Mom’s Korean Omelet,” and “Tteokbokki” (chewy, thick Korean rice cakes tossed with meat in a thick, sweet-spicy sauce).

Like so many home cooks, Joanne cooks without really measuring, so the amounts in these two recipes below are a little fluid. The omelet is an easy weeknight side dish that’s cooked like pancakes in a frying pan. Joanne loves eating them dipped in ketchup, too.

The rice cakes in the stew are like mochi’s heftier cousin. They are dense and toothsome, and make for a hearty comfort dish. Along with the pickled radish and cabbage, we found our mouths happily a tingle with tang and heat.

We gals filled our plates, then loaded up on seconds.

When Joanne continued to insist that she doesn’t really cook, Lisa and I just gave each other a knowing glance.

Oh, yes, you do. Be proud of it, too.

Joanne’s Mom’s Omelet

(Serves 4)

6 eggs

1/2 package of Osaki fish sticks, shredded into small pieces

Generous amount of scallions, green and white parts chopped

Salt and pepper, to taste

A good-size pinch of toasted sesame seeds

Vegetable oil, for the pan

In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Add shredded fish sticks, scallions, salt and pepper, and sesame seeds; mix. The batter should be quite thick.

Heat a little oil in a frying pan on medium heat.

Drop pancake-shaped spoonfuls of batter in the pan (about 2 tablespoons of batter per small omelet). When the bottom is browned, flip the small omelets over to cook each on the other side. Remove cooked omelets to a serving plate. Cook more omelets the same way until you use up the batter.

The omelets can be served warm or at room temperature.

From Joanne Hoyoung-Lee


(serves 4 to 6)

2-pound bag of cylindrical rice cake noodles (Garae tteok)

Sesame oil

1/2 pound marinated beef (available pre-marinated at Korean markets)*

Crushed garlic

Generous amount of chopped scallions

Handful of chopped white onion

Handful of thinly sliced carrots

1 to 2 tablespoons Korean hot pepper paste (Gochujang), or to taste

Pinch of sugar or to taste

Toasted sesame seeds

Soak rice cakes in water at least two hours. You also can soak the rice cakes overnight in the refrigerator.

In a large saute or frying pan on medium heat, drizzle in a little sesame oil. Stir-fry beef in the pan until browned. Add garlic, scallions, white onion, and carrots. Stir to mix.

Drain rice cakes, and add to pan. Stir in 1 to 2 tablespoons of the Korean red pepper paste. Add about 1 cup of water, and the sugar. Stir to incorporate.

Cover the pan, and let simmer for about 5-8 minutes. The sauce will thicken from the starch from the rice cakes. The rice cakes, themselves, should be tender, but not mushy or flabby in texture.

Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with toasted sesame seeds.

(* You also can make your own marinated beef using thinly sliced beef seasoned with soy sauce, sesame oil, salt, and a pinch of sugar. Shrimp, pork or chicken also can be substituted.)

From Joanne Hoyoung-Lee