Monthly Archives: April 2012

Life Savers For An Awkward Commute

Sometimes, my teaching arrangement stresses me out.  I teach at four schools.  But this isn’t the issue.  The issue is the distance that lies between point A (my house) and point B (the school of the day).  More importantly, it’s the conversion of that distance, congruent with the rate of travel, into sequential minutes.  Creeping, crawling, somewhat non-progressing minutes.

All of my schools are found in the country.  Each one farther than the last.  Due to my circumstance, I am often granted rides with any number of teachers, nurses, chefs, and what-have-yous going to and from.  While thoughtful, indeed, sometimes this presents an obstacle.

In my culture, silence is awkward.  Depending, of course, upon how well you’ve come to know someone.  From a young age, I was schooled in the delicate art of yawn-inducing small talk. Example A:

“How was your day?”

“Fine, thanks. And yours?”

“Mine was good.  Just went to school.  A normal Monday, you know?”

“Yeah.”

“I hate Mondays.”

“Yeah.”

“Did you have to work today?”

“Yeah.”

“When did you have to go to work?”

“Around 9.”

“Was it busy?”

“Kind of.  Not too bad.”

“That’s good.  Where’s your office?”

“Downtown.”

“Near the post office?”

At about this point I’ll need reminding.  Am I trying hard to form a friendship, or am I freelancing for the CIA? Do I really care about any of these answers?  Absolutely not.  It’s just one of those things, engrained in us as polite.  We try our damndest to avoid the dreaded, dreaded lull.

To live in Korea (or abroad for that matter) is to develop a tolerance for the awkward.  Sure, it might make our skin crawl, but we have no choice.  Take it as fuel for a language course, but inevitably, language is acquired only after paying our dues in substantial awkward hours.

Interactions enter the second stage when we frantically inquire about the weather in May and whether or not our counterpart cares for licorice.  These questions surface in a panic,  in fear we’ve been discovered.  They know that we know that this is awkward.  At this point, it’s best to just pipe down.  Twenty questions only hits the matter home.

Do we just call it a draw?  Put our best tidbits back  in our pocket and embrace the quiet? Distractions come in handy here. Smartphone, you’re the best investment I’ve ever made.  Breathe deeply, relax, and you can always become enthralled in the bug that just hit the windshield.

If you make it this far, I commend you.  Everything is going to be alright.  The interaction will end, you may even exchange a sentence before it does!  A for effort, you just had to show you tried.  Your initial thoughtful exchange should have done the trick.

I’m going to do a little legwork for those of you not yet into stage three. For your next inevitable silence,  here are a few fun facts to break the ice.

“Last night, I made sugar like snow in my blender!”

Put your skis back in storage.  “Snow” is simply a comparison.  “Powdered” is a little advanced to ensure comprehension.  But, regardless, it’s true.  I. kid. you. not.  If you throw granulated sugar in your blender, within seconds you can have powdered at your disposal!  I didn’t believe it myself.  And then it worked. Amaze and astound!

“In Korea, I make Mexican food! Yes, yes!  I use yogurt!”

Seeing as sour cream is readily unavailable, plain yogurt makes a great substitute.  Works great in just about any application.

“In the USA – tomato juice – not sweet!  Here I make! Tomato paste and water,  together!  Delicious!”

Helpful when you need to explain the unsightly cringe post-swig of the sweet juice you’ve just been offered.   Also helpful when stricken with the urge for day drinking.  This is all you need to know to achieve Bloody Mary bliss while living in Korea.  Just mix one part paste with four parts water.

“You know Kahlua?  I make Kahlua soju!!” 

Tread carefully with this one.  It could unintentionally lead to your arch nemesis: a string of awkward soju dates.  Check it out here.  If you’re looking for an extra allotment of quiet minutes, contingent on your demonstrated effort, present companion with their very own take-home bottle.

And there you have it.  I wish you luck, friend.  If all else fails, you could always just develop a case of narcolepsy.  One especially triggered by long rides in the car.  

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The Daily Rind

This evening, I had an upswell of shame.  I couldn’t help myself.  I really like chicken and I can do wonders in one pot.  I can’t lie to you, and who am I kidding.  I know I said I’d steer away from this trend, but I can’t handle the guilt.  I’m going to embrace it.  Consider it branding.

According to my highly credible market research (The Next Food Network Star), a cook needs to have a point of view.  Gimmicks can’t hurt either. Rachel’s got her garbage bowl, and I’ve got my aluminum wok.  Are you sick of the photos yet?  Food styling is next on the agenda.

Exactly a week before payday, I find myself upping the ante.  The challenge comes from working with only what’s already stocked.  Couple this with a narrow margin to supplement.  I’ve been sitting on a can of cannellini beans, so I figured it’s now or never.  Coincidentally, I also had a leftover rind from my last wedge of parmesan.  Hours I thought I’d lost forever to Everyday Italian seem to be making a comeback.  If it weren’t for Giada, I’d never know that salty roundness the rind adds to a nice broth. It may be shaping up springtime, but we’re putting the soup on.  I’m hoping to pull some reverse psychology on mama nature and heats things up.

Good news for 'Leave No Trace' - a use for every bit

Chicken Cannellini Bean Soup

Serves 3-4

4 cups water

3 chicken bouillon cubes

1 Tbsp mixed herbs

1/2 tsp black pepper

1 chicken breast, sliced lengthwise in half

2 Tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, diced

1 stalk celery, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 can cannellini beans, rinsed

1 can diced tomatoes

parmesan rind (optional)

salt, to taste

1. Put water, bouillon, spices and chicken in medium saucepan (oh!  It’s not one pot! …busted!) over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.  When the mixture is boiling, turn off the heat and cover. Allow to sit about 5-10 minutes and breast pieces should be cooked through. Remove chicken, shred and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, heat oil in an expensive dutch oven (or a flimsy Asian wok).  Saute onion and celery until translucent, about 3 minutes.  Next, add the garlic.  Saute another minute or so until softened, but do not allow the garlic to burn.  Add cannellini beans, tomatoes, reserved poaching liquid and rind.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer about 15 minutes.  Return chicken to pan and simmer for another couple of minutes, then serve.  Add salt to taste if needed.

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Queso Flavored Coffee

After graduating from college, I found myself cowering in the face of responsibility. For four years, I’d complained about 8 AM seminars and whined every hour through an all-nighter. I could not wait to graduate. That is, until I caught wind of exactly what came next.

Faced with an ultimatum: work or die, I tapped into my creative problem solving. I came up with a clever scheme to travel, and still make some use of my degree. Under the pretense of “field work,” I booked a flight to Central America and summoned a friend to take it on with me.

We arrived in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and headed right to the small town of Suyapa on the outskirts of town. The taxi stopped, and we found ourselves looking out-of-place and bleary-eyed in a quiet plaza central. According to our “formal instructions” we would be greeted by a friend of a friend. Just as we were beginning to grow concerned, a friendly voice hollered across the square. The gringas had landed and word traveled fast.

Our street

We were immediately swept up into a growing entourage and led through town and up the hillside. On our way, we passed women vending tortillas and children playing in the streets. The welcome we received was warm, and we were happy to have arrived.

Winding past modest houses, the scent of chorizo drifted to the street. Before we knew it, we were home. We walked into our quaint little compound and were given swift instructions not to exit without an escort after dark. The presence of gangs was strong up the hill and it just wasn’t safe.

A view of the puebla

Exhausted from the transit, we assessed our open-air apartment, clambered under a mosquito net, and drifted off to sleep. That is, until we were awoken by our neighborhood roosters. Right on schedule, at about 3 AM, and promptly every few minutes thereafter.

Over the next few weeks, the cock-a-doodle-doos morphed into lullabies and we grew accustomed to the new digs. In the evenings, when not out visiting with friends, we were face-to-face with confinement. Wanting to make the best of the situation, we got creative. We tried yoga, and successfully freaked out a repairman when surprised mid-om. Other times we visited with our neighbor to practice our Spanish. More often than not, however, we got creative with the local ingredients.

Attempt #65 to amuse ourselves

Working with not much more than rice, beans, and tortillas, we looked forward to the days when we’d find a truck in the main square. Its bed would be filled with fresh produce, and the pineapple really mixed up our salsa-of-the-day. Other days, we’d find the cheese man.

Prepping for salsa

Usually just across from the pupusa stands, he would wheel up his cart filled with blocks of soft, white cheese. Initially taking it to be some kind of farmer’s cheese, we arrived shortly at its variety. Endearingly dubbed “essence of vaca [cow]” due to the musty overtones, when sandwiched between tortillas it was the next best thing to delectable.

Gradually, we developed a taste for the funky cheese (or the boredom left us exercising hand-to-mouth technique). The kilos began to multiply. After leaving, I didn’t think I’d miss the bovine delight, but turns out I much prefer pasture to plastic. Korea’s endless supply of processed cheese is anything but enthralling.

A divine selection

With springtime taking hold in Korea, it’s bittersweet. I find myself inhaling the penetrating scent of manure, and trying hard not to pass out. I feel I am not alone in this quest. As I pass students in my rural school’s halls, their hands cover their noses, and their eyes show signs of an Armageddon. They move swiftly, and scramble into their next weather-sealed classroom. The situation being what it is, I’ve channeled the disgust and shifted my thoughts to nostalgia. An ode to the vaca, I decided to take on homemade cheese.

The modernity of Korea’s pasteurization methods seem to have eradicated the udder cowiness from locally sourced milk. This means a vaca-free cheese, but it doesn’t account for the cross-contamination of machinery. Cheesecloth seems to be a specialty item, and in my neck it just couldn’t be found. Coffee came into play with my endeavor, and I’m hoping “essence of java” isn’t all that awful.

The next best thing

I set up shop with the best I could find: a hand-drip coffee percolator and a utility-sized filter. This certainly wasn’t ideal, but it was all I could do. Due to the lack of drainage, I ditched the filter part-way through. This is good news to one disgruntled barista. It proved exhausting to coax just one filter from her industrial stash, and I wasn’t looking forward to a follow-up visit.

The contraption didn’t drain the cheese as efficiently as I had hoped. In crisis mode, I also involved a tea sieve. This allowed for some extra whey to escape, and should also round out the flavor with a nice herbal quality.

More a coffee or a tea drinker?

Rather than admit defeat, I’m going to make it work. I was planning to use my queso for enchiladas, so the liquidy goodness should mix fine with chicken and green chiles as a filling. I’ll report back post-consumption, but all in all not a complete lost cause. I could keep tweaking until the cows come home, but I’m hungry. “It’ll do, pig, it’ll do.”

Queso Blanco

Makes about 4 ounces

1 quart (1,000 mL) whole milk
2 T lemon juice
coarse salt, to taste

1. In a non-aluminim pot on the stove, heat the milk until just about to boil (85 degrees Celsius/185 degrees Fahrenheit). Mix in the lemon juice, and turn off the heat. Allow the mixture to stand for about 10 minutes. You should see curds starting to form along the surface as they separate from the whey.

Curds and whey

2. Pour the mixture into a straining device of your choice. If cheesecloth is available, take this route. Next best, use a fine sieve. Last resort, try the coffee dripper. Allow the whey to drain off of the curds for a couple of minutes, then sprinkle curds liberally with salt.

3. Continue to drain the cheese overnight. The next day, squeeze or press the heap of goodness to wring out any excess moisture(I’m still figuring out how to do this). Enjoy.

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