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12 Feb

Operation Stromboli – This past Saturday I baked stromboli for the family. It was supposed to be calzones, but on Friday my wife called me from Namdaemun Market to tell me that they didn’t have ricotta cheese or even cottage cheese. In fact, only one place there actually knew what ricotta cheese was. The rest of them had no idea. Even the one guy who did know what it was refused to recognize that it was significantly different from cottage cheese. When my wife asked him about it, he replied, “Why would you want to buy something like that? It’s so easy to make—you can find instructions on the internet!”

“We don’t really care if our food isn’t much to look at, but if it doesn’t taste great we may have trouble sleeping at night.”

Uh, you can find instructions for all sorts of stuff on the internet. That doesn’t necessarily make it easy. In the case of cottage cheese, you need either rennet or some sort of culture to use as a starter. Even with that, it’s not just a matter of throwing everything into a pot and waiting for it to become cheese. And even if I were to have all the right ingredients and equipment, not to mention the time required to do it right, it would still not be ricotta cheese. But you, dear reader, most likely already know this. It’s just the knuckleheads at Namdaemun Market who don’t know this.

This is one of the drawbacks to living out in the sticks. My wife went to Namdaemun Market because it’s not too far from where she works. I know for a fact that there are other places in Seoul where we could get ricotta cheese (like Costco, and probably Hannam Market), but neither of us had the time to trek out to either of those places. I really miss being able to just run down to the supermarket and pick up a tub of ricotta cheese the size of my head. But such is the reality of living in a foreign country, and it works both ways—most of what I eat on a daily basis here would be very difficult to find in the little town in upstate New York where I grew up.

So Operation Calzone was canned. But I already had troops and materiel committed, and I couldn’t just leave them stranded. I made a quick change to the menu and Operation Stromboli was born. What follows is a pictorial account of this operation, from the initial phases through to completion.

It all starts, of course, with the dough. I used the same recipe I use to make pizza and threw everything into the bread maker on the dough cycle. Yeah, I could have made the dough by hand, but once you make dough in a bread machine it’s really hard to convince yourself that it’s worth doing it by hand. For me it comes down to a question of time—while the dough was being made in the machine, I was able to prepare all of the other ingredients (grating cheese, cutting ham and vegetables, etc.), thus cutting down significantly on preparation time.

Operation Stromboli really got underway once the dough was out of the machine. We washed off the table and sprinkled it with flour and then I went to work on the dough. I divided into two uneven pieces—this was not intended, of course, but it worked out that way. It always occurs to me long after I’m finished that I could get perfectly even pieces of dough by weighing them, and I always remind myself that this is what I’m going to do next time. Needless to say, I forgot again. I’ll probably forget next time, too.

Eventually I got the dough into more or less a rectangle. Since I wasn’t making a circular pizza I couldn’t just toss it up in the air and spin it around. Not that I can do that anyway, but I dream of doing it one day. The process used to make the shape you see here involved a lot of pressing the dough and draping it over my arm to stretch it out. I suppose I could have used a rolling pin, but I’ve never been a big fan of rolling pins for some reason.

The first ingredient to go down was paprika. Where I come from, paprika refers to a seasoning of dried, slightly spicy peppers, but these are sweet and not spicy in the least. They also have a lot of liquid (far more than bell peppers), which is not good for the stromboli, but they’re colorful and very tasty, so I decided to take the risk. Some of the moisture leaked, but it didn’t turn out too badly.

Next up was a layer of pepperoni followed by chopped tenderloin ham. In the photo you can see a lone deserter attempting to leave the field of battle, but rest assured that he was brought back in line. I wasn’t about to let this operation go south for a tiny piece of ham.

Last but not least, the cheese—shredded mozzarella. When I was growing up in the States, cheese replaced cleanliness as being next to godliness in my family (and I think clean cheese might have actually been the equivalent of godliness). I have continued to cherish that tradition here in Korea, where I live by a simple rule: you can never have too much cheese. As you can see in the photo, the rest of the ingredients are covered with a nice mound of cheese, but I’m adding even more. The funny thing is that when everything was done, my first thought was, “Could have used some more cheese.” Then again, I could probably bake a five-pound brick of cheese and end up thinking the same thing.

The next phase in Operation Stromboli involved rolling up the dough jelly-roll style. If you’re going to roll something up jelly-roll style, though, it usually helps if the stack of ingredients isn’t five times as high as the dough itself. A one-to-one ratio is best (and is probably why people usually use sliced ingredients when making stromboli). But that would have meant making the dough much thicker or reducing the cheese, and neither of those were viable options.

I refused to be deterred by my failure to achieve a smooth roll. When I did finally get the stromboli sealed, there was no way I was going to lift it off the table. So I just rolled it off the edge of the table and onto the waiting baking pan.

Here you can see both of the loaves, almost ready for baking. Due to the layout of the ingredients they turned out more flat than round, but I wasn’t worried. What I’m doing here is applying an egg wash glaze, the final step before baking.

With the stromboli in the oven, I started the sauce. Unlike pizza, putting the sauce in the stromboli is not a good idea, unless you want really mushy stromboli. The original plan with Operation Calzone was to have the sauce on the side for dipping/spreading, and I stuck with that plan here. In the wok are chopped onions, garlic, olive oil, two cans of whole tomatoes, and one can of tomato paste. Basil, parsley, and salt (no sugar) went in later.

And now, if I may, I’d like to go off on a bit of a tangent. What you see cooking in the wok above is what I call “marinara sauce.” Some people call it “red sauce,” some people call it “tomato sauce,” and some people (like myself) call it “marinara sauce.” There is no disagreement on the etymology of the word “marinara”—it comes from the Italian and means “in the sailor fashion.” What exactly this means, however, is subject to debate. The OED gives the following definition for marinara:

Applied to various Italian dishes or sauces (esp. a spicy tomato sauce traditionally made in Naples), apparently so named because their ingredients are suggestive either of food formerly served on-board ships (by the absence of fresh produce such as cheese or cream, or by the liberal use of herbs, spices, etc.), or of the sea itself (by the use of seafood).

Of course, the OED doesn’t weigh in on which of these two possibilities is the correct one—the purpose of the OED was never to provide a single definitive, uh, definition, but to record all uses of a word in the English language. Arguments for both sides of the issue can be found on the internet, but again I’ve found nothing definitive. What about that bastion of truth and justice in cyberspace, the infallible Wikipedia? Look up “marinara sauce” and it will redirect you to the entry on “tomato sauce.” The marinara sauce recipe that is linked to at the bottom of this entry contains no seafood, but it also gets the etymology of marinara wrong (and includes oregano rather than basil!), so it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. I’ve never seen Wikipedia shy away from an argument, so this must be pretty serious.

But all this is academic. When I cook Italian, marinara sauce means what you see in the above photo. I’ve seen some recipes that add wine and some that add chili pepper flakes (which is probably closer to the original Neapolitan version), but I like to keep my sauce as simple as possible. Although I will normally add a bit of sugar when I’m making sauce for spaghetti, I avoid it when making my “true” marinara sauce. Why? Well, usually I make marinara sauce to go with something very cheesy, and it acts sort of like a kimchi—the tanginess of the sauce counterbalances the richness of the cheese. I think it is rather telling that we did not break out the kimchi for Operation Stromboli and at no time during the meal did anyone ask for it. For me, that spells success.

Here is the finished product, fresh out of the oven. As you can see, the bigger stromboli (in the foreground) collapsed a bit, and neither of them are very pretty. I’ll be honest, I’m not very good at presentation when it comes to food. My wife is much better at that. I think this is because I take after my father—we don’t really care if our food isn’t much to look at, but if it doesn’t taste great we may have trouble sleeping at night. Or maybe that’s just me.

I’m not really a big fan of tooting my own horn, but it did taste quite good. My father-in-law is pretty much the barometer for success when it comes to cooking, since Korean men are notoriously less adventurous than Korean women when it comes to eating (although I have to admit that his tastes are positively cosmopolitan compared to most Korean men). He had three generous slices, and when all was said and done we had eaten the entire bigger stromboli and over half of the smaller one. Mission accomplished.

This photo was actually taken yesterday, the day after Operation Stromboli was deemed an unqualified success. Once the stromboli got to the table we forgot all about taking photos, and it wasn’t until long after dinner that I realized I never got a cross-section photo. Fortunately we had this piece left. This is after it spent the night in the fridge, so it might not look all that appetizing, but I can assure you (having just eaten this for dinner—with a heap of shredded mozzarella sprinkled on top, of course) that it didn’t lose any of its flavor.

While I had been looking forward to calzones, Operation Stromboli went quite well. I hope you enjoyed the latest of my culinary adventures—if at any time during the reading of this entry you salivated or licked your lips, then my work here is done. Whatever you may be cooking up today, bon appetit.

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