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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Are you tired of Veg Night news yet?

This post shows a selection of goodies from two separate dinner: that of June 22nd, when my turn came once again to host the Green Consumer’s Alliance vegan dinner, and that of June 29th, when one GC invited the rest of us over for a housewarming potluck.

The Indian meal I cooked with my neighbors Mathan, who grew up in Tamil Nadu (the province in southern India where Sadhana is located) and now works at Yeungjin with me, and Suzie, whom I met in Sadhana and then suckered into coming to Korea, left me a little disheartened. Most everyone enjoyed the food, but apparently to Koreans every food that contains cumin (i.e. my chili, my bean burgers, my kidney bean curry) or cilantro tastes the same. I suppose it’s not too different from the way foreigners here, after a few months, tend to get smacked all at once by the monotony of red pepper paste, soy sauce, and soybean paste. In any case, I resolved to try something different next time.

Not too long before - on my birthday, actually, which was pretty crazy and merits its own post - Sandy (the owner) at Buy the Book (the shop where I do the movie screenings) gave me a bunch of lasagna noodles, so I had Italian on my mind. I also happened to have a Tuesday off, since my stewardesses had all gone on some sort of field trip. Thus, I spent a good part of the day working on whipping up polenta, minestrone, and pesto.

The polenta I bought from Foreign Food Mart in Seoul and felt a little guilty about using at a GCA event, since eating local and seasonal are nearly as dear to me as eating stuff without faces, if a bit harder to put into practice. But, I consider it justified, since the point is to help people explore alternative cuisines, and in particular to help people realize that eating vegetarian isn’t at all as limiting as it may seem at first. So, I mixed the polenta (which is just ground up corn, as far as I know, maybe treated somehow to make it cook quicker later) into boiling, lightly salted water, stirred and added until the consistency came out right, then spread thin on an oiled baking sheet, topped with a bit of salt, hoil, and herbs, and baked it until slightly crisp. Actually, it would have been better to pan-fry it, but I was cooking for ten and didn’t have time.

The minestrone was a snap: chop up onions, celery, carrots, tomatoes, zucchini, and probably just about whatever vegetable you’d like (I’m betting acorn squash would have made an excellent addition), throw them in the slow cooker with water, some bouillon cubes and other seasonings, and come back and check in six hours. Adjust the seasonings and, when serving time comes close, depending on the rest of the meal, you can also add some chickpeas (I like to steam a lot at once and then freeze a few for emergency hummus or whatever else) or macaroni to make it a little heartier.

Three notes:

  1. I don’t feel so bad about using imported spices because they’re pretty light, a little goes a long way, and because they’re pretty hard to substitute for. On the bad-for-the-environment scale I’m betting a giant container of Basil is about as terrible as a 2 liter bottle of coke.

  2. The recipe calls for canned tomato paste, but I generally avoid canned stuff, with the exception of coconut milk, which, yes, makes me a hypocrite in light of (1) above. I also don’t like thinking about how much of the tomato skin, juice, and flesh must get tossed out when making tomato paste. So, I just used some tomatoes that I had frozen and sitting around in the freezer. The result may have been a less intense taste, but you wouldn’t have known it from all the smacking of lips!

  3. Maybe steam the carrots a little first. They were a bit too crisp relative to the other stuff.

I’d like to introduce the next dish by way of a problem in metaphysics. Say you’ve got a boat made of a large number of planks of wood. You name the boat “Il Pesto.” One piece of wood starts rotting, so you replace it with a newer piece of the same kind, shape, curve, etc. You’re still content to call the boat “Il Pesto,” no? Another few weeks go by and you do it again. And again. And again. Eventually, every piece of wood has been replaced, and not a single of the original ones remains. But you’re still calling the boat “Il Pesto.” Is that ok? If not, at which point did Il Pesto stop being Il Pesto? Or, if so, what was that name referring to in the first place? The shape? The use? Nothing at all?

Aside from demonstrating that I would still probably struggle to get a B- in Philosophy 101, this aside is meant to ask you to consider whether pesto is still pesto if you swap out the basil, pine nuts, and parmesan and swap in sesame leaves, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and nutritional yeast. If you say yes, great. If you say no, it doesn’t matter what you call it anyway.

If you’re willing to cast your skepticism aside and have a crack at this philosophically unsound dish, then: throw some seeds onto a hot pan (no oil necessary.) While they’re roasting, throw a bunch of sesame leaves into the blender and shop them up pretty fine. Once the seeds are ready, add them into the blender with olive oil, salt (just a tad, since the leaves are already a bit salty), pepper, and nutritional yeast. The result looks like pesto, tastes a bit like pesto, goes on top of macaroni like pesto, and in fact will pass for pesto if you serve it to Korean people who have never even heard of it before. I therefore feel comfortable declaring it A TOTAL SUCCESS.

The right bowl was probably mine. I'm a big fan of my own cooking, apparently.

(I have been feeling a bit disillusioned with photography lately. Please forgive the ugly shots.)

Actually, that wasn’t the end of the meal. Nor was it the beginning. The first course was a salad, which Suzie threw together. Second came the polenta, third (actually, simultaneously) minestrone. Fourth was the pesto, and fifth was spaghetti with a tomato/eggplant sauce that Suzie whipped up. Sixth was dessert, which was a little complicated, and probably impossible to replicate in the west, and I don’t have any pictures of it anyway. If I make it again, I’ll let you know.

The Italian feast was such a success that I decided to make use of the momentum for the potluck the following week. You may notice that the previously mentioned, oh-so-inspirational lasagna noodles failed to make an appearance. It was hard enough to conceive of pesto without parmesan; how in the world could one make a lasagne without ricotta or mozzarella?

Well, in my CSA (about which I later intend to write a self-congratulatory post, fear not) box at the end of June, I received some organic Korean soy bean tofu, which kind of looks like ricotta if you drain it, drop it in a bowl, plunge your hands in, and squish it all up as if (I was trying to think of an apt analogy, but I can’t think of any other circumstance in which a normal person does something like this). So, I snooped around on the net, found a few recipes and hints, and got started.

First off, boil the sheet noodles and prep your fillings: roasted tomato sauce, sauteed onions and shrooms, sauteed zucchini (WHOA I just realized that in Italian this literally means “little pumpkins,” while in fact in Korean pumpkins and zuchhinis and watermelons and other gourds all have a certain syllable, “bak,” in common) and semi-firm tofu, drained, mixed with parsley and basil and squished up.

Then, do your layers. I don’t think it really matters much, as long as your first two layers are sauce (so nothing burns) and noodles (so there’s some modicum of stability to the whole thing). I messed this part up pretty bad, putting in way too much sauce at the bottom and failing to accurately judge the depth of the dish, resulting in a less-than-symmetrical(-if-still-pretty-edible) pie. Ah, on the top, spinach, tomato sauce, and nutritional yeast will yield a nice crusty layer, which is not at all like bubbly cheese, but still quite pleasing.

Before and after baking.

The lasagna was a giant smash. My guess is that most Koreans, who generally find things with too much cheese far too rich, would prefer the vegan version to the original; surprisingly, though, some non-vegan foodie friends of ours also had great things to say about it.

Also served at the potluck that night: rice, Korean eggplant, baby pumpkin, and mushroom side dishes; caribbean pineapple and ginger black beans; banana, nut, and tahini fruit salad; and banana bread.

I have come to enjoy these Veg Nights – the food, the company, the regularity, the solidarity – so much that I can hardly believe I lived here for nearly three years without them.


SandfordWrites said...

Delicious! I want some bean dishes.

ReneeD said...

Mike, very impressive. Everything looks fresh and yummy. It was fun cooking with you during your visit to Reno earlier this month. I had no idea you were such a fantastic cook!