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Key Ingredient: Aloe Vera

Bill Kim of Urban Belly and Belly Shack makes the bitter plant palatable.

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Executive chef Michael McDonald of One SixtyBlue challenged Bill Kim of Urban Belly and Belly Shack to come up with a recipe using aloe vera for this installment of our weekly feature.

Like many people, Bill Kim was first introduced to aloe vera as a child when his mom used it to soothe burns. But several years ago at a Korean market he also discovered a drink made with it, which he describes as "gelatinous and sweet," with a "bright, refreshing flavor." (A little goes a long way, though—"I think it's very pleasant for two gulps, and then it needs to go away," Kim says.)

He'd never cooked with the plant before, but expected to discover the same flavor as he'd noticed in the aloe drink. Instead, he found that what flavor there was—and there wasn't much—was bitter and medicinal. Experimenting, he also noticed that the bigger the aloe grows, the more bitter it becomes (he ended up using a medium-sized plant, with spears that were about two feet long) and that the tip of the spear is the bitterest part.

The green skin on the outside of the plant is too tough to use, and has to be cut away. "You take the sides off, then you take your knife and you just kind of slide it across, and you get this perfectly transparent jelly," Kim says. "It's just kind of like peeling a banana, and then what's inside is this luscious meat. I was taken aback, how much there was . . . this meaty, dense, kind of gelatinous hulk. I did not know it was going to be like that."

The insides are pretty slimy, he says, but "when you start cooking with it, the sliminess kind of dissipates, and it becomes this jello consistency." He initially tried sauteeing the aloe, then grilling it, but both methods left it too bitter. Finally Kim came up with a method that worked: he diced it up and boiled it in water with sugar, then let it sit overnight in a simple syrup mixed with orange and lime juices. "It's taken a lot of practice, but I think we have it to the point that it's palatable," Kim said.

He combined the aloe cubes with a somen noodle salad that includes tortillas, noodles, bean sprouts, jicama, and a tomatillo sauce, for contrasting soft and crunchy textures. "It's basically our version of a nacho but without the cheese," he said.

Kim liked the finished product, but said he'd make it less sweet next time. And if he had more time to experiment with the aloe, he'd "find a wood-burning grill and maybe wrap it in something, cook it on there and see if if the bitterness dissipates. Or smoke it, see if it takes on that smokiness." One thing he has decided to do with it is make a bubble tea in the summer, with aloe standing in for tapioca pearls.

Who's Next:

Carlos Gaytan of Mexique, cooking with dried shrimp, which Kim says "is soaked in saltwater and dried, and takes on this flavor of shellfish that you can't really get from fresh shrimp. We use it with a lot of stir-fries or rices—it gives it that tingly shellfish flavor that you just cannot get from even using 20 pounds of shellfish shells that you would make a nice bouillabaisse out of."   

Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Somen Noodle Salad With Shrimp, Aloe, and Tomatillo Sauce

Aloe

2 medium aloe leaves

3 1/3 cups sugar

Juice of 11/2 oranges

1/3 cup fresh lime juice

Water

Cut the skin off the aloe leaves using a sharp knife and dice into quarter-inch pieces. Bring 2 2/3 cup of water and two cups of sugar to a boil. Add aloe and simmer for 45 minutes. Remove aloe from liquid and cool. Discard cooking liquid. Make a simple syrup by heating 2/3 cup of water and 2/3 cup of sugar until sugar dissolves. Add orange juice and lime juice. Pour hot mixture over the aloe. Allow to cool, then cover and refrigerate overnight.

Tomatillo Sauce

5-6 medium-sized tomatillos

1/2 t salt

1 T crushed garlic

1/2 cup cilantro sprigs

3 T vegetable oil

Juice of half a lime

Peel tomatillos and wash. Dry and drizzle with one tablespoon of oil and a couple pinches of salt. Grill until blackened and soft. When cool, blend with the salt, garlic, cilantro, remaining oil, and lime juice.

Somen Noodles

Bring six quarts of water to a boil. Add half a pound of somen noodles and stir until cooked through, approximately two to three minutes. Drain noodles and shock in an ice bath until cold. Toss with one tablespoon of vegetable oil to prevent sticking, then refrigerate.

Shrimp

Peel and clean half a pound of shrimp. Pat dry using paper towels. Lightly season with salt. Heat one and a half tablespoons of oil in a large sautee pan on medium-high. Add shrimp, stirring occasionally until cooked through. Let cool.

Tortilla Chips

Vegetable oil

1 pack corn tortillas

Togarashi to taste

Cut tortillas into sixths and fry in vegetable oil until crispy. Season with salt and togarashi to taste. Reserve.

Vinaigrette

1/4 jalapeño, diced finely

3 T crushed garlic

1/4 cup fish sauce

1/8 cup white vinegar

1/4 cup sugar

Combine all ingredients.

Other Ingredients

1/2 cup bean sprouts

1/2 jicama, peeled and diced

1 orange, segmented

To assemble, in a large bowl dress bean sprouts and somen noodles with a combination of vinaigrette and tomatillo sauce to taste. Layer with tortilla chips, shrimp, jicama, and orange segments. Toss aloe in vinaigrette and place atop noodles. Serves six to eight as a first course.

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