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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.

Things that came to mind while I was sitting in the Busan airport reading Wendell Berry and eating trail mix

Something struck me just now. Something about how plastic comes between us. Sure, it’s nice to have a way to keep your carrot sticks clean, your pre-made salad mixing with nothing other than itself. But to the extent that plastic keeps things clean, safe, inside, enveloped, vacuumated, it keeps them independent. This strikes me now as so obvious as to not need saying; this is indeed the very point of it all.

Things in plastic don’t need stewards; they don’t need people. Thus, people who buy things in plastic don’t need people, either. I mean, of course they do, somewhere along the line, but that just means that the only people they need are distant ones, invisible ones. We need people absent.

The effect of me biking to the market so that I can shop for food with no plastic is, unexpectedly, that I wind up meeting people. Chatting with the lady as she scoops out nuts and figs and banana chips. Showing her my odometer as it rolls past 1000km, sharing that little slice of pride, telling her my parents, whom she met one time, are going to enjoy some of what she’s selling me when we hop on a plane and fly to see their parents; maybe grandma and grandpa will try some of it, too. Meeting her daughter, who’s there working for the summer. Realizing that she has a daughter, has a family, is the head of a family, is a member of a family, a person in a family, a person, a person with all the fears and dreams and hopes and frustrations and joys that I’ve got. She wishes me a safe trip, I wish her a nice summer.

Or, I could buy a bag with a cartoon peanut on the front.

An entirely predictable if unfortunate occurrence.

The whole story isn’t worth telling, but here’s some dialogue, mostly faithful:

Me: Please check the rest of my flights and make sure I’ll have vegetarian meals.

Counter lady: I see the meal requests for the other five, but not for the one you just got off of.

Me: OK, but I wasn’t able to eat on the flight I just took. Can’t I get a voucher or coupon or something?

CL: We don’t do that. You should have requested a vegetarian meal in advance.

Me: I did. I called and they told me I was all set.

CL: Did you call the airline directly or did you do it through a travel agent?

Me: I didn’t use a travel agent for anything.

CL: Well, we're not showing a request for a vegetarian meal on your flight from Busan to Tokyo.

Me: I know. That's exactly the problem! Of course I made the request. Why would I ask for five vegetarian meals and one meat meal?

CL: How would we know what you want?

Me: You are Japanese but have nevertheless learned perfectly the art of stupefying your customers with large amounts of sass. I’ll go slink away and drown my flabbergastedness in fistfuls of banana chips.

In all fairness, before this conversation, the stewardess on the plane had apologized profusely about the mishap and gone and nabbed one of these little goody-boxes from business class.

(Exactly one eighth of a mouthful each of six vegetables/mystery substances.)

I also got a vegan dinner and a vegan breakfast (in that order) on my Tokyo-Dallas flight:

The dinner was one of the lamest curry-biryani combos I've ever had. Neither tasted like anything, nor did the flatbread or iceberg lettuce salad. I've got to give them some credit for the inventive (not quite sure what other word to use) glob of fruits, nuts, cinnamon, and grated coconut

Breakfast was a little on the miniscule side, but I'm not one to complain about artichokes and honeydew. Looking forward to many more varities of splendid produce that for whatever reason don't make it to Korea.

Anyway, my first post from the US in just about two years. Woohoo! I've already heard soldiers talking about impending strip club visits, lighthearted but xenophobic jokes from customs officials, and parents telling their children to shut up and go sit down in arbitrary places. I am pretty sure that my fitful sleep schedule over the past 36 hours, and the ensuing crankiness, are to blame for this selective listening. C'mon homeland, show me somethin' good!

Monday, July 04, 2011

Wrapping Up

Wow, it's been almost six weeks since the last post. Unbelievable. I've been up to a lot of stuff, including

- researching and blogging a bit on the site for my Daegu Green Living group, which now has about 50 members.
- receiving and enjoying and organizing an organic CSA box from the company Heuksalim, which I visited over the winter.
- attending and occasionally cooking for the Green Consumer's Alliance Vegan Dinner night
- spending a weekend with the alternative school that began with the camp back in March (about which I still haven't finished writing)
- spending another weekend with Heuksalim for their 20th anniversary party
- taking another trip to Seoul to visit my old friends and some new ones
- showing an eco-film or two downtown
- attending two weddings, the differences between which are very interesting and worthy of a blog post.
- hanging out, playing board games, making burritos and beer with some new friends
- trying to keep up with a school schedule that got somewhat messy after we had to schedule some make-up classes following a few public holidays
- attending a youth forum at the big university nearby and listening to three hours of speeches in Korean, then heading to the afterparty and spending the evening drinking and talking with 25 strangers, all Korean.
- caring for a billion plants on my veranda
- finding ways to cook all my perishables

All of these things deserve posts of their own (the fact that I honestly believe this says something interesting about me), but the fact of the matter is that, as most of you probably know, I'm leaving for the US in just about an hour! I don't know if I'll have time or even be inclined to write about these things while I'm on the road, or if I'll remember them when I get back. So, let this post, scrawny as it is, memorialize these last busy but rewarding six weeks, in which I was too busy doing stuff to write about it. Maybe it's good to live a less meta-life every now and then.

Two other things I want to share with you, but don't quite know how to fit in.

1) While bicycling around yesterday doing errands, my speedometer/odometer topped 1000km! That's since the beginning if April, when I bought a new battery for the . The timer says that over that period my average speed was 17.4 km/h (damn stoplights), max speed was 62.4 km.h (quite a thrill), and total riding time was about 55 hours.

2) I've been wanting to put up videos and translations of the Korean music I've been listening to lately. Here's one, short and sweet.

by Crying Nut

(I know the title of the youtube video says "Dove," but that's clearly wrong, though now that I look it up, apparently they're the same.)

Hey pigeon,
Where you goin?
Come on,
Dance with me.

Hey pigeon,
Where you goin?
Come on,
Drink with me.


(And so forth)

Of all the things about Korea that it's my privilege to be able to enlighten you about, I'm not sure why I chose that one. Except that IT FRICKIN ROCKS, MAN! Maybe the deep ecologist in me (no time to find a youtube video of deep ecologists putting on animal suits and reconnecting with the nature spirit, but I'm sure you can find one if you want) likes the costumes at the end. Or maybe I'm still in my screamo phase.