In Praise of Peasant Food: Kimchi, Chestnut Soup and Korean Red Beans and Rice

3 Jan

Is there anything better than traditional peasant food?

In my mind, nothing beats old-school Continental, American or Asian meals invented in village kitchens several generations of cranky grandmothers ago. Access to traditional, untweaked recipes, is notoriously difficult — as lifestyles adjusted to speedier modern times, few families had time, or the inclination, to sit around and sup on  home-cooked meals together and hundreds of years worth of oral recipes were lost in the zombie-like shuffle toward TV dinners.

Before Julia Child or James Beard were out of their nappies, typical Western families were eating half of their meals out of cans and boxes.

Cue a world war or so, widespread environmental devastation, multiple economic calamities, sociopolitical revolutions too numerous to count, the obesity epidemic, a new millennium.

Suddenly, slurping down barely sauteed tripe and gnawing on pigs’ knuckles becomes the height of chic, soigne refinement. “What’s that, darling? You’ll be having the lamb kidneys steeped in a ragu of calves’ blood, camel milk and wild ramps? Excellent choice. Shall we order some Dom? The mellow grass and honeysuckle undertones will contrast ingeniously with the gaminess of your entree.”

Suddenly, sitting at one’s desk and cramming a vaguely wet, gray thing from a packet of foil into one’s mouth and calling it “lunch” has become as unforgiveably  passe and tacky as Tara Reid.

These days, every really cool girl I know has at least one offbeat apron and one Alice Waters cookbook — and failing that, a serious addiction to her BFF’s fledgling line of bite-size organic cherry pie-sicles, artisanal pickled baby peas, etc.

But it’s still tough to produce any old-school recipes. First of all, because broads were too busy feeding half their village to wax on about the process in their diaries and second of all, many of the utensils and ingredients they used a few hundred years ago are simply not widely available today.

Take chestnuts. They are, aside for my beloved green pistachios, my favorite nut. I love them alone, boiled, roasted, braised, sauteed, pureed; I like them in soups, in sauces, in pilafs, on sundaes, spread on buttered toast, in trains, on planes. They are so widely available when they descend like plump little angels from trees in Italy in the fall, locals gather them up by the bushel. It was once so in America as well — until the 19th century, when blight ripped through the East Coast, killing up to 24 miles worth of Chestnut Tree stands per year. By the 1950s, virtually every Chestnut Tree in America was dead, according to a fascinating study of the problem. Even if I could gather them up by the truckload though, would I really be able to devote five hours to scoring, roasting and shelling them, before they would even be edible?

Bagged chestnuts, for lazy ladies


No. I would not.

That, of course, is where my local health food store/Chinese grocer comes in. Both carry vacuum-packed bags of the stuff for a few bucks. I feel like a bit of a Sandra Lee semi-half-baked sell-out every time I flagrantly cheat on my oven like that, but there you have it.

I use chestnuts as flavorful, incredibly healthy additions or bases for soups, sauces and rice dishes. They have a similar textural profile as truffles: firm, but meaty. Your mouth will taste substance, but your gut will devour low-fat, high protein, fibrous goodness.

The three amigas: Kathleen, Beth and Amy

A recent visit from my old roommates, the glorious, beautiful vegetarian duo Amy and Beth, reminded me of our silly days in college, spent soaking beans in shallow tubs, whipping up various pickled delights and worrying, (in the innocuous, self-absorbed manner of liberal, relatively rich, white college students, who can afford to have large, sprawling pot-lucks and discuss the worldwide scarcity of food), about the children exploited to make Gap clothing and the warming Arctic circle.

Some things never change: we’re still food-obsessed loud-mouths who think we can solve the world’s problems over some kimchi and kombucha.

I’ve long been in equal parts awe and fright of fermented food, but with Amy and Beth’s long-distance help, I think I can get over it, and learn how to tame my chronic stomach ulcers and other (not life-threatening, but chronically irritating and life-hampering) health issues through the wonders of living food.

In honor of them, I made kimchi this weekend. I’m not going to post a recipe, because my terror prevented me from doing anything aside from robotically following David Lebovitz’s wonderful — not scary at all — recipe for the stuff. It was super easy and, so far, my jar hasn’t exploded or killed me.

So there’s that. Oh, and it’s also delicious by itself, on salads, with black beans, or with sticky rice and sesame oil.

A teeny batch of kimchi







In honor of the awesome broads, like my own cranky grandmother, who broke their backs caring for families big enough to fill a classroom, cooked enough to feed an army every day and never, even once, would have considered using any item adulterated by tin foil to make their family’s dinner, I made the old-school peasant classics, Chestnut Soup and Korean Red Beans and Rice.

Chestnut Soup

Makes 4 large servings, 8 itty-bitty


  • 1 TBSP butter
  • 1 small yellow onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 cups shelled and roasted chestnuts
  • 1 quart homemade chicken or vegetable stock
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream, plus more for drizzling
  • chopped chives, mint or scallions to taste


  • heat the butter until its brown and bubbling and fragrant.
  • add the onions, saute over medium heat until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add a dash of salt.
  • pour in the stock, bring to boil, reduce to simmer and cook for about 40 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  • puree with an immersion blender or in a food processor once the mixture has cooled enough so that it won’t burn you when it inevitably splashes all over your hand and the counter.
  • heat the mixture again, add the cream, bring to a brief simmer and serve, with an extra drizzle of cream if you like. Garnish with chopped chives, sprigs of mint or scallions.

Nutritional breakdown for Chestnut Soup: 155 calories, 9 grams of fat per serving, much of it saturated. Sorry. Also high in protein, calcium, iron, fiber. Teeming with folates, antioxidants, phosphorus and zinc.

Cost breakdown for Chestnut Soup: About $3 or $0.75 a (large) serving. I had the butter at home and used homemade stock, which is always so much more delicious, and wallet-padding, too.

Verdict/In the Future: Chestnut soup is America and Italy, it’s shabby and chic, it’s flavorful and plain, elegant and forthright, easy and economical. It would be the perfect little thing to serve before a loud, political, opinionated and boisterous pot-luck, and I will the next time I have one. Bonus: you could discuss the chestnut blight, a hobby horse upon which foodies can ride around the dinner table. It was also lovely on a Sunday night, next to my husband, as we both nursed holiday hangovers and said one last goodbye to the Christmas tree.

Korean Red Beans and Rice

Makes 6 to 8 servings


  • 1/2 cup red beans
  • 1/2 cup black beans
  • 1/2 cup barley
  • 1/2 cup sticky rice
  • 1 cup brown rice
  • 1 cup chestnuts, shelled and roasted
  • 4 small Chinese sausages, diced (or diced tofu for a vegetarian version)
  • 1 bunch scallions, sliced into thin rounds, white and light green parts only
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • red pepper flakes and cayenne pepper, to taste
  • 1 TBSP sesame seeds, lightly toasted in dry skillet over medium heat, until fragrant
  • 1 TBSP sesame oil


  • Soak black and red beans in one pot overnight in salted water (let it cover beans by about 1 inch).
  • Rinse soaked beans in several changes of cold water and put in pot with salted water (let water cover the beans by about 1 inch). Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, put top on and cook until almost tender, about 1 hour to 3 hours, depending on time spent soaking and age of beans.
  • Meanwhile, soak all grains in another pot of salted water. Chop chestnuts and set aside. Slice scallions and dice sausages and set aside.
  • Drain beans and rice and put in large pot with salted water (let water cover the beans by about 1 inch). Bring to boil, reduce to simmer and cook uncovered until water begins to recede, but it still partially covers the beans and rice, about 25 minutes. Stir, add more salt, the peppers to taste and the chestnuts. Cover and cook until almost all of the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.
  • Put beans and rice on lowest setting and cover.
  • Heat sesame oil in pan, add scallions, cook on medium for about two minutes, until softened. Add sausages and cook until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add sesame seeds and cook for another minute.
  • Add the sausage mixture to the pot, taste, adjust seasoning and serve.

Nutritional breakdown for Korean Red Beans and Rice: 275 calories, 5 grams of fat, mostly good fats. High in protein, fiber, whole grains, numerous detoxifying minerals like molybdenum, in addition to folate and magnesium.

Cost breakdown for Korean Red Beans and Rice: About $13, or $1.62 a serving. (I had the black beans, brown rice and sesame products at home).

Verdict / In the Future: I knew going in that Stephen liking this one was a long shot. I was correct. It was more of a symphony of a wild ride of fatty flavors, something I love and he could do without. He also distrusts sausage products, which is odd since he loves anything with the mouth-feel of fat and salt. More for me! In the future, especially if I’m just making the dish for me, I will probably add garlic and stronger onions to the sausage base for an even more potent kick of flavor. Tofu would work for vegetarian friends and I know Amy and Beth would love this dish. I may also add a tablespoon or two of butter to the mix when I cook the rice and beans mixture, to round out the flavors a bit.

More for me!

Mine. All mine!

2 Responses to “In Praise of Peasant Food: Kimchi, Chestnut Soup and Korean Red Beans and Rice”

  1. Tasting Korea December 31, 2011 at 8:19 pm #

    I’m curious as to where you obtained the recipes for Chestnut Soup and Red Beans and Rice. I know of recipes for both, but the Korean recipe for chestnut soup I found is very different from yours. Butter and whipping cream would not be used in the traditional recipe. I am thinking that you are using the recipe for Korean five-grain rice as your source for the Red Beans and Rice. But traditionally, it is not seasoned or served with meat/tofu.

    • sundayinthekitchen December 31, 2011 at 8:39 pm #

      Excellent point! I was actually using Korea as a source of inspiration more anything, but I probably should have been clearer about that in my post….

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