Sunday, January 31, 2016

the problem with binge-watching

Binge-watching "Game of Thrones" (I'm almost done with Season 5; I'll finish either tonight or tomorrow) is the quick road to self-hatred: if all you do all day long is watch TV, your mother's voice in your head accuses you of just sitting there and watching "the damn TV" (one of my mother's favorite phrases whenever she caught me at the goggle box). You get your overdose of entertainment, but you're saddled with a deep sense of guilt as you think about all the grand things you could have accomplished during your hours of laziness.


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Saturday, January 30, 2016

another amazing dinner

Friday-evening dinner with Ligament was a thing of beauty. Ligament had wanted to come over and bake cupcakes; I told her that I'd do pulled-pork quesadillas. I also quietly decided to make a companion dessert for her: some of the same faux chocolate mousse—my "mouce"—that I had made earlier. This time around, I think I did a much better job.

Below, a shot of the table setting (hover cursor over image for caption):


Next, a picture of the now-prepped pulled pork:


It's not so obvious in the above photo, but the muscle fibers in pork shoulder—and the fat deposits as well—look substantially different from both sirloin and tenderloin. More chunky. A bit silkier, a bit less fibrous. The mouth-feel is also a bit different.

Below, my franks and beans (why am I thinking of "There's Something About Mary"?):


The tortillas were a Costco purchase, and all the local Costco had was wheat tortillas sold in enormous 40-packs (3 kg worth of bread!). I'll be eating tacos, burritos, and enchiladas for a month, I fear. ("Not a horrible fate," my coworker joked.)

Big tortillas make for big quesadillas. I painted one side of each tortilla with mayonnaise, per a suggestion made by Wolgang Puck years ago. A German chef with a heavy accent isn't normally the first person I'd turn to for suggestions on how to prep Tex-Mex, but mayonnaise works because it's mostly egg and oil. The only drawback is the smell: cooking mayonnaise doesn't exactly evoke quesadillas for me. But the results, visually speaking, are undeniable.

Below, I'm holding open a tortilla to give you a peek inside. With cheese both above and below the pork, I've justified the "quesa" in "quesadilla."


Here's a better shot of the mayonnaise:


And here's the first quesadilla, loaded onto Ligament's plate before being topped:


Here's my quesadilla, cooking on one side and soon to be flipped:


The nice thing about the one-tortilla style of quesadillas is that such quesadillas are easy to flip. When you use two tortillas and try to flip the whole thing, the chance of spillage is much higher. I spilled nothing during the making of all three of my quesadillas.

Below, my quesadilla, prepped and ready for eating:


We paused after dinner to wash dishes and prep the kitchen for making dessert. I became Ligament's sous-chef, helping her where I could. A bit of eggshell got lost in the batter when Ligament cracked an egg, but das macht nichts.

The cupcakes came out flat-topped instead of rounded and puffy, the way they're supposed to look. As much as I love my oven (a gift from Charles), it does have flaws, and two of those flaws are (1) weak heating elements and (2) wildly uneven cooking. This isn't a big deal when baking cottage pie, but it matters greatly for cupcakes: each cupcake is like a data point, indicating quite clearly where the hot spots and cooler spots are inside the oven.


This flattening was to our advantage, however, when it came time to put on my homemade Nutella ganache (Nutella, cream, and a bit of table sugar to make the ganache shiny—all heated in a double boiler): the cupcakes, being flat, dipped straight into the ganache and were 100% covered without any need for rolling them around.

Here's the ganache:


I put a lone cupcake on a plate to make it look all pretty:


And here's another cupcake, but not plated:


Here's a platoon of cupcakes that, no matter how they looked, tasted amazing and had a perfectly moist consistency to them:


We ate cupcakes and my "mouce au chocolat." I made it pretty much the same way I'd done before (Nutella, gelatine, heavy cream, water), but this time, I beat the heavy cream until it became more whipped-cream-y, and I added chocolate chips. The whipping made a small difference in texture, but the most curious phenomenon, visible in the final picture, is how the bubbles floated to the top, even after my having mixed the gelatine thoroughly, to form a true couche mousseuse—a foamy layer that, when scraped off with a spoon, felt and tasted like the mousse I had been trying to simulate all along. This gives me ideas for how to make a better mousse next time.


And in this final image, you can see the cross section, with the different layers of pudding and mousse now clearly visible:


It was a fantastic dinner. Very comfort-foodish and rib-sticking. We were stuffed, having enjoyed ourselves immensely, and we'll be doing something along these lines again soon. Ligament needs to get more familiar with Tex-Mex cooking, so, given all the damn tortillas I have, that's the path we'll be heading down for the next little while. I think she'll enjoy the culinary tour; she texted afterward that her quesadilla had been "sexy."


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Friday, January 29, 2016

on pork shoulder

This morning, I pulled nearly three pounds (about 1.2 kg) of pork out of my slow-cooker and flaked it apart with forks (only pussies need bear claws). For the first time ever, I had cooked pork shoulder—the proper cut of pork for pulled pork. Up to now, I've only ever used sirloin or tenderloin—both of which have proven tasty, and both of which are pretty solid, un-marbled muscle groups.

Pork shoulder is completely different, and I'm regretting not having used an oven-based method for prepping it—a nice dry rub followed by hours of mindful baking. The shoulder is an extremely fatty cut of meat, and by "fatty," I don't mean merely marbled: I mean there are actual veins and chunks of fat shot through the muscle (see a picture here). In a slow-cooker, some of that fat, if you haven't cut it off, will dissolve during the slow-cooking process, but much of it will remain. I suspect that, were I to bake the pork instead of crock-potting it, the results would be quite different. Baking often entails drying, unless you surround your food with (or set your food in) water. A fatty shoulder, though, probably wouldn't dry out after hours of baking: it would remain moist and succulent as the fat deposits denatured and the meat essentially basted in its own juices. At the same time, the fat deposits wouldn't become waterlogged and unpleasant to the tongue.

So as things stand, I'm a bit disappointed. I'm not sure that a crock pot is the best way to handle pork shoulder. My results weren't bad, but I didn't think the meat looked, felt, or tasted ideal. Next time, I'm going to do it right and bake the bastard. One good thing, though: the pork chunks actually look different from sirloin and tenderloin. The latter two cuts produce stringy, fibrous-looking meat; pork shoulder, by contrast, naturally breaks off into bite-sized chunks. I look forward to a major difference in mouth-feel.


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Thursday, January 28, 2016

losing followers

I gain and lose followers on Twitter all the time, mainly because most of my recent followers are little bloodsuckers hoping for the superficial validation of a followback. If I don't respond within a certain amount of time to their having followed me, then they flake off and unfollow, seeking fresh blood elsewhere. Good riddance, I say.

But my list of blog followers is a different story. These followers are people who show a serious sense of commitment. They might not do much; they might be more "barnacle" than commenter, but they stick around. They're loyal folk.

Over the past 48 hours, however, my blog followers have been disappearing. It feels a bit like an Agatha Christie novel: I've gone from 34 followers to 30, which makes me suspicious: even when I lose Twitter followers, the drop is never that steep or that quick. Surmise: there's a problem with Blogger's software. I seriously doubt that the four people (thus far) who have unfollowed this blog all coincidentally had the urge to unfollow at the exact same time. That would be surpassingly strange.

I expect the drop-off will continue; I have no idea for how long.


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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

prepping a Friday dinner and dessert

Dinner this Friday evening with Ligament ought to be interesting. On the menu: pulled-pork quesadillas, chocolate "mouce," and cupcakes with chocolate ganache.

I'm going to try my hand at making homemade sour cream, which is a bit hard to find in a regular Korean grocery. Even though I'm going to hit Costco in a few minutes,* I'm not sure that the warehouse store actually has any sour cream. If Costco does happen to have some, then I'll put off my Frankensteinian experimentation until later. If not, then I'm going to make the cream myself with milk, heavy cream, vinegar, and a sterilized bottle.

The misspelling is in the spirit of faux foods like Krab or Quorn: I wrote "mouce," above, instead of mousse, because what I'm making isn't a true mousse: it's not foamy in the least (mousse is French for "foam"). If anything, it's moving a bit toward flan. The other night, I successfully combined Nutella, unbeaten heavy cream, warm water, and gelatine to make something that was not quite custard, not quite flan, and not quite mousse au chocolat. That said, it was smooth, incredibly rich, incredibly delicious, and absurdly easy to make. Gelatine sheets are the cheater's way to a mousse-like texture, and I don't mind cheating. I could even mix things up a bit by freezing some semisweet chocolate chips, blitzing them in the food processor, then mixing those flakes into the "mouce" to provide a welcome bit of texture.

Et voilà: ma mouce au chocolat.



*Nerp—didn't hit Costco. I came home from work too late, and I was too tired to go out again. Tomorrow, God willing. Tonight: shop locally and watch more "Game of Thrones."


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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

eeeeexcellent









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bullet, dodged

I hate tax forms.

In Korea, depending on where you work, you might be asked, as a foreigner, to fill out tax-related forms. Or not. I've worked in places where everything was done by the school; I've also worked in places that require the employee to fill out some paperwork.

A few days ago, the HR department at the Golden Goose sent me an email saying that I needed to obtain a year-end earnings/expenditures statement from my bank (Shinhan Bank, in my case), then turn that in along with a tax-return form so that I would be assured a refund. This email was sent late last week, which means I didn't have much of a chance to prep anything. Today, I met with one of the Korean managers in my office to ask him what exactly needed to be done. He frowned at my email printouts, asked me a bit about my spending levels, shook his head, and made some calls. Upshot: no need for me to do anything because I don't spend enough to justify receiving any sort of refund. (I'd need to prove that I've spent more than 25% of my yearly income, and the expenditures would have to fall into a narrow range of refund-eligible transactions. All I do with my money is shop, and the chunk of cash that I send overseas every month isn't eligible for any refund.)

So although it's bad news that I'm not up for any refund, I'm happy that I don't have to fill out any goddamn paperwork.


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a gathering of The Leathery Ones

Saw this at the local Burger King the other day (click pic to enlarge):


I was reminded of the problem in that New York City McDonald's—the one where the old Korean guys would gather daily, order very little, and stay all day, crowding out the restaurant and gabbing loudly. But the group of old folks that I saw yesterday wasn't anywhere near creating that sort of disturbance: I go to that Burger King about once a week on random weekdays, and this is the first time I've seen these guys there, so I'm pretty sure they don't come to BK routinely. I imagine they simply appeared, like a flash mob, having decided through collective telepathy that, today, Burger King would be the place to gather.

I have no problem with loud conviviality. These old guys weren't planning on getting drunk, throwing things around, getting into fights, or grabbing female staffers' asses, so what could possibly be the problem? I took the above photo because the scene radiated cuteness and because it was a humorous reminder that, somewhere in New York, things are a bit different.


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Monday, January 25, 2016

one way to handle leftovers

Some time ago, I had made mashed potatoes with bacon, herbs, and some diced mushrooms. I still had some left in a plastic container that I'd been keeping in the fridge up to now. Today, I finally decided it was high time to eat the taters before they spoiled, so I elected to make croquettes out of them.

It was the standard procedure: fill three small cake pans with flour, beaten egg, and panko, respectively. Form the taters into slider-sized croquette pucks; run each puck through the flour, egg, and panko. Deep-fry until golden brown.

Et voilà:


And here's a shot of one croquette after it had been forked open:


The taters were firm after having been in the fridge so long, but they softened back up during the deep-frying process. This isn't to say they were bad, but I later thought that I should have made smaller, bite-sized morsels to fry instead. Ah, well. Live and learn.


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Sunday, January 24, 2016

a Saturday reunion

My buddies Tom and JW have both seen me several times in recent weeks and months, but they haven't seen each other in years. The last time JW saw Tom was probably before JW left, with his wife and son, for a four-year stint in India, courtesy of JW's company, POSCO. JW had been wanting the three of us to get together for some time; I suspect that JW, thanks to his stressful business schedule and the fact that he's also a husband and father, has harbored a desire to relive old times. But getting the three of us to sit down together has been a chore; we all lead such different lives now, compared to when we'd met in the 1990s. Somehow, though, a syzygy was arranged through JW's assiduous text-messaging efforts, and we three all sat down yesterday (Saturday) for a galbi dinner at Uri Nara in Jongno, followed by a Baskin Robbins dessert. I have no pictures of our galbi to share, but here's a snapshot of the very pink-themed Baskin Robbins aftermath:


JW, who has no sweet tooth, wasn't exactly avid for ice cream, but Tom, despite being an atheist, has a keen sense of ritual, so we had no choice but to hit Baskin Robbins, which is what Tom and I traditionally do after eating galbi. JW gallantly paid for dessert; I had paid for dinner to celebrate the fact of my recent debt-resolution.

We talked, and I noted with amusement that JW, after finishing his tiny cup of ice cream, gestured to me to indicate that he wanted a chunk of my pint of chocolate mousse. I smiled and handed some over to him, then texted his wife to say that he was stealing my ice cream. She wrote back that he was a pig and that it made no sense to be eating ice cream in freezing weather, anyway. After showing JW what his wife had texted me, I joked to him that this was the mirror image of the Korean notion of i-yeol, chi-yeol: eat hot, spicy food in the summer on the assumption that this somehow cools you down (there may actually be some evidence to support this notion, but I still don't like sweating through a hot stew in August)—fight fire with fire. So why not eat ice cream in the cold?

JW's son Ji-an took over his mom's Kakao text-messaging account and sent me thundercloud emoticons to indicate how unhappy he was not to be sitting there with us guys. I told him we'd all meet together next time. Otherwise, I was fairly quiet during dinner and dessert, mainly because I felt that JW and Tom needed time to catch up.

We finished our ice cream and headed out, but before we got too far from Baskin Robbins, I turned around and snapped two shots of a gross poster that Baskin Robbins was displaying:


As you likely know, a bris is a Jewish circumcision ceremony. The mohel who leads the ceremony is a trained foreskin-cutter; in some traditions, the mohel removes the blood from the cutting via oral suction. (Yes, I have trouble imagining that, too, and it's been the subject of recent controversy.) So when I saw "Café Bris" being proudly advertised, I imagined a mug of coffee with bloody chunks of foreskin floating around inside it like a morbid chicken soup. Pleasant thought, eh? I think these thoughts so you don't have to.

(Above, I've put up the pic I took with Tom in silhouette.)

It was good to get together. I'm not sure that we relived old times, but for a couple of hours, at least, there was something like a return to the old and familiar. Tom and I used to teach at Koryo Foreign Language Institute; that's where I met Tom in 1994. JW was one of my early students there, and he's the one who dropped everything to help me when I sued my Koryo boss after having been illegally fired. I owe him much, and I try to be good to his family. He's got a fine wife and two great kids. Now he works for POSCO, shuttling back and forth between Seoul and Geoje Island every week. Tom, who's married and has a toddler son himself, works for Sungkyunkwan University and teaches six or seven different private gigs; I'm now at the Golden Goose and doing part-time work for KMA. Getting all three of us together these days is hard, but JW pulled it off, and I'm glad he did.


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the Gorgon in the bowl

My bathroom is a disgusting color. Not quite scarlet or crimson, like fresh arterial blood, but more burgundy, like drying venous blood after an energetically executed murder. Even my toilet is burgundy, and I quickly discovered that that was a major problem: I can no longer look directly into the toilet after I take a shit. Back when I lived in residences that had white-porcelain toilets, staring triumphantly at my shit was a ritual so natural to me that I didn't even think about it. Now, however, thanks to the awful color of my current toilet bowl, I can no longer look at my shit without feeling nauseated.

I'm not sure what it is, but it's very likely that the queasy shit/burgundy contrast hits me on a visceral level. Surrounded by burgundy, my shit no longer looks human: it looks sickly, yellowish, leprous—more turd than shit. I feel no organic, motherly connection with it, and the color contrast sinks into my mind, threatening to paralyze me. So now, when I flush my toilet, I stare at the swirling image that's reflecting off my smooth, shiny burgundy-paneled wall, like Perseus staring into his shield to avoid the Gorgon's glare. Thanks to the color of my bathroom, my shit has become Medusa, snarling and lethal, and I can no longer feel the sense of achievement that I used to feel whenever I would stand up after a decent shit and look down into the bowl to behold my accomplishment.

Thus is my life become less than it was.


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Saturday, January 23, 2016

off to the studio

I'm off to do my very first podcast this morning for my company. We were given three topics to discuss, ten minutes per topic, with each ten-minute session to be aired at a rate of one per week. Not sure whether this is going to become a regular thing; I'd been told that today's studio session was optional.

The topics:

1. Trump and Democracy

2. Comfort Women

3. Redefining "Korean" (i.e., what it means to say one is Korean)

I write half-assed, quarter-cogitated, eighth-researched blog posts on a variety of subjects, but longtime readers know there are only a few subjects to which I gravitate, and about which I can write with any authority: religious studies, philosophy of religion, languages/linguistics, and pedagogy... maybe a little about art, based on my intuitions as a so-so artist and occasional actor (hence all the movie reviews). Beyond that, I know that anything I say is on thin ice, so if I eventually link you to our finalized podcast, I should warn you in advance that I probably won't be making many intelligent contributions.

Today's session is supposed to be only for an hour. It's me, my boss, and my coworker. Hope it isn't a complete disaster.


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Friday, January 22, 2016

done at last

It was supposed to happen last month, but thanks to a misunderstanding between my brother David and me (let's just say that it involved PayPal and poor timing), it didn't. This week, however, I finally managed to pay off my Honda Fit's loans. I now officially own my car. The title will be mailed to my buddy Mike within the next two weeks. From here on in, that's about $220/month less that I'll have to shell out every month.

I've also got two private gigs coming up—one at KMA, one at Seoul National—that'll allow me to earn some extra cash. My budget remains unsinkable.


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Thursday, January 21, 2016

break

Having overstuffed myself at lunch today, I decided that walking home, then tromping up the stairs, would be an insane thing to do, so I'm taking a one-day break.

Exercise to be continued tomorrow. Tonight, I've got only more "Game of Thrones" binge watching on tap.


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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Stairwell Campaign, Day 3: 5 floors, 2:09

I shaved ten seconds off my stairwell climb this evening, going from yesterday's pathetic 2:19 to tonight's only slightly less pathetic 2:09. Still made it only five floors before having to stop, but hey—improvement's improvement, and I'll take what scraps I can get. Maybe by sometime next week, I'll be able to climb up to the sixth floor.

This is a hell of a lot more intense than walking up the gently sloping roads of Namsan, let me tell you. I'm a gasping mess by the end of my climb, but I trust that all this sweaty effort will be worth it in the long run.


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HBO's "Game of Thrones": preliminary review

I'm writing this quick-and-dirty review of HBO's "Game of Thrones" after having seen the entire first season and the first three episodes of Season 2. Having already taken in hundreds of show clips on YouTube, I was quite familiar with the look and feel of the HBO series even before I began watching it in earnest over a week ago. Production values are generally high, although some of the green-screen effects are disappointingly fake-looking, e.g., when the camera points up at Bran on one of the castle walls at Winterfell, showing us both stone and sky. The acting by all the principals is quite good, even if I can't get past Peter Dinklage's horribly fake English accent. (Still, I'll chalk Dinklage up as artistic revenge: so many British and Aussie actors play American roles* that it's about damn time we Yanks had one of our own in a British-sounding role.)

Each season of "Game of Thrones" consists of ten hour-long episodes. This means that alterations to the original novels are inevitable. I'm not going to be a whiny purist and complain about the fact that the story has been altered, but I'll admit to some fascination with the nature of many of the alterations. Overall, the HBO series has managed to preserve—at least for the first two seasons**—the overarching story structure of the novels; the major beats are all there. But if the devil is in the details, then HBO's "Game of Thrones" is a radical departure from George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. From the opening sequence in the first episode of Season 1 onward, both large and small changes are plainly visible to anyone for whom the novels are still fresh in mind. It would be impossible to list all the changes here, but on a general level, two of the most striking alterations are (1) changes in dialogue between some of the characters (e.g., the "god of death" speech by "dancing master" Syrio Forel, who offers no such theology in the books), and (2) the sometimes-startling changes in character attitudes and motivation, e.g., Catelyn Stark's consistent misgivings about Ned Stark's going south to King's Landing. (In the books, Catelyn is at first apprehensive, but her attitude does a 180 when she receives word from her sister that John Arryn has been murdered by the Lannisters; at that point, Catelyn insists that Ned go south to serve as Hand of the king. On the TV show, Catelyn hates the idea of Ned's departure and never wavers in this.)

The changes aren't all discomfiting, though. For example, the writers have a good ear for the style of Martin's dialogue: even when characters on the TV show recite lines that aren't in the books, the lines sound plausibly like quotes from the books. Also: characters whose interactions we never see in the books are fleshed out a bit more on the TV show: there's a memorable exchange between Varys and Littlefinger, as well as private dialogue between Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell, whom the show depicts as gay lovers—a point never once made explicit in the books (although it might be hiding in the text as a subtle implication).

The show is watchable, a visual treat, but given the sheer number of changes to the plot, I think it's safe to say that "Game of Thrones" is very much its own thing—merely inspired by Martin's novels, and not faithfully based on them. While there's a lot on the show that's familiar to me from my YouTube viewing, I'm happy to watch the entire series from end to end so as to fill in all the missing details. The cinematography is generally well done, and there's certainly enough tits and ass to satisfy the male viewing demographic, although I find that most of the nudity is gratuitous—it's there primarily because this is an HBO production: wherever HBO goes, boobs are sure to follow.

I'll be binge-watching from now until the end of Season 5.




*Think of Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight": Batman is played by Welshman Christian Bale; Commissioner Gordon is played by Englishman Gary Oldman; the Joker is played by Aussie Heath Ledger, etc., etc. Were no Americans available for these iconically American roles? Do we Yanks suck that much at acting? At this point, I'd say it's a relief that red-blooded American Ben Affleck will play Bruce Wayne in the upcoming "Dawn of Justice," but I'm not certain as to just how reassuring that is.

**I'm aware that the TV show departs more radically from the books in later seasons.


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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Stairwell Campaign, Day 2: 5 floors, 2:19

Got a little farther up the steps tonight before I had to stop. Made it to the fifth floor, then rested, gasping, until I could drag myself the final couple of flights up to my floor, the sixth floor. The trip from B1 to 5 took 2 minutes, 19 seconds.

In other news, I lost my first kilo since I started my walking/stairs campaign. Given how much I've regained over the past year, this doesn't count as progress. It's just a start.


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Monday, January 18, 2016

4.5 floors, 2:08

I finally screwed up my courage and, after walking home from work for the first time in months (it's witch's-tit cold outside, but I had my scarf, gloves, and trusty winter face mask), I lumbered into our building's B1-level staircase and started tramping up the stairs, activating my phone's stopwatch right as I took that first step. Per what I'd written on New Year's Day, I timed myself only until I had to stop, and I must say, the results were pretty damn shameful: I made it only four-and-a-half floors in two minutes and eight seconds.

In my defense, I'll note that I was a huffing, puffing mess before I started up the steps: my face mask was tight against my nose and mouth, making it difficult to breathe freely during my 30-minute walk from work to my apartment. I then started up the steps, mask now off, without having fully recovered from that exertion.

Whether or not you buy my defense, I now have a baseline upon which I can build, and as I embark upon this staircase workout, I can improve in at least two ways: number of floors climbed without stopping, and elapsed time per floor. Most of the walking I do is on horizontal ground; going vertically, up a stairwell, is a good way to get the heart beating and the legs burning. Without Daemosan as a fallback, this is the only way I can do any serious cardio.

A year or so from now, I want to move out of my current digs and into an apartment next to Namsan, back in the Dongguk University area. My friend Tom and I had been in that neighborhood once before, and we'd spoken with a very nice landlord who said a unit would be available for W10 million down and about W600,000 a month, plus utilities. While that's far more expensive than what I'm doing now, by 2017 I'll be in a financial position to absorb the increase in expense without overly straining my bank account. Once I move back to that neighborhood, I can start walking up Namsan routinely again. Wouldn't that be nice?


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Sunday, January 17, 2016

Buramun and Impressionism

I went out with Ligament yesterday. The day was totally of her design: she proposed that we meet at the Seoul Yesulae Jeondang, the Seoul Arts Center near Nambu Bus Terminal, to eat a special kind of Chinese food and to stroll through an exhibition of Impressionist landscapes. Ligament had been to this Chinese place before; its specialty, she said, was that it used rice flour for its tangsuyuk (the Korean equivalent of sweet-and-sour pork). That sounded interesting, so I told Ligament that her plan was perfect.

I had forgotten that the arts center wasn't actually next to the subway station: you have to walk almost ten minutes to get to the center's entrance. The restaurant in question, called Buramun, was a little past halfway to the center. Ligament, who considers herself something of a gilchi (someone bad with directions and navigation—the terms means, roughly, "road-blind"), got us to the eatery just fine. Along the way, she told me that the bu in Buramun was the same bu in the word buja, i.e., a rich person. I already knew that mun meant "door" or "gate." When I got home, I looked up the ra character; it means something like "profit," so I guess bura (rich[es] and profit) is yet another Sino-Korean pleonasm. The three characters together probably mean something like "Gate of Riches."

We sat down. I deliberated over what to eat, and we ended up ordering gganpung-gi, or sweet-and-sour fried chicken, along with the much-anticipated tangsuyuk. I winced at what this was doing to Ligament's wallet—both dishes were expensive—but she was determined to pay me back for having treated her to a high-end buffet at D'Maris two weeks earlier.

I got a shot of the gganpung-gi, but completely forgot to get a pic of the tangsuyuk. That's a shame, because (1) the tangsuyuk was definitely the better of the two dishes, and (2) when it came out, the tangsuyuk was presented very differently from what normal, take-out tangsuyuk looks like: instead of being small strips of deep-fried pork (see here), the pig had been sliced into largish cutlets, almost like Japanese-style donggaseu/donkatsu. We were given meat scissors to cut the pork down to bite-sized morsels. Ligament did all the serving, and she ended up shoveling 90% of the food onto my small plate. She eats like a bird, she does. We ended up finishing both plates, which was good because I didn't want to carry around a doggie bag while we were in the arts center.

Here's a shot of the gganpung-gi:


The chicken had also been coated and fried in rice flour, just like the pork, so maybe I should talk about that a bit. There's a clear difference in texture between rice flour and the usual deep-fried cornstarch batter, but whether or not that difference is pleasant will depend greatly on your attitude toward glutinous food. The batter's exterior was crunchy because it had been deep-fried, but the batter's interior was a whole other story: it was sticky and chewy as hell, as in cling to your teeth chewy. I'm often fascinated by textural contrasts, so I found this interesting in a Spock-like way. The meat and the sauce made the whole experience quite tasty, so I had no trouble working through both dishes—pig and chicken—but I'd have to say that this isn't something I'd rush back to again. It was a unique experience, and interesting in a scientific way, but it had the potential to make your jaw ache from all the chewing, sort of like trying to eat your way through a pack of Gummi bears.

Here's the restaurant's exterior:


We headed out after finishing everything; I was pleasantly full after Ligament's deliberate attempt to make me explode by feeding me most of the food. It was only about a five-minute walk from the restaurant to the Seoul Arts Center; we weren't sure, at first, where to go for the Impressionism exhibit, but we eventually found our way there.


The entrance fee was W15,000 per person; I paid this as a way of thanking Ligament for dinner. An attendant waved us through the entrance, warning us that photos weren't allowed. Dammit, I thought, but there was little I could do.

The exhibit took us through landscapes by both the better-known and lesser-known Impressionists; the tour was designed to occur in phases: Impressionism, post-Impressionism, and neo-Impressionism. I found the exhibit to be fascinating, overall; because I do a bit of art myself, I'm often sensitive to other artists' techniques. One thing I'm not, however, is reverent toward the greats. I saw some Van Goghs, for example, that were spellbinding, but I also saw Van Goghs that, frankly, sucked, almost as if the artist didn't have his heart in what he was doing. By looking at the nature of the brushstrokes on a painting, I could often tell whether the artist was the patient sort or the impatient sort.

Ligament's favorite Impressionist turned out to be Sisley, the Brit who did plenty of landscapes of the English countryside. I was amused to see that most Impressionists handled things like sky and water in the same way—by using brusque horizontal strokes. They also handled tree branches the same way: by overloading the paintbrush and dragging it across the canvas to produce thin, squiggly branches that were, biologically speaking, laughably inaccurate. Once I recognized this tendency among the Impressionists, I became more attracted to the artists who were exceptions. Alas, because I couldn't take any photos, I'm unable to name those artists for you.

As I said, I wasn't reverent toward the masters: they're just people, after all, and as a result, I came away from the exhibition liking 90% of what I'd seen and thinking that the remaining 10% was garbage. The paintings that turned me off were the ones that looked as though the artist hadn't cared about what he was doing. Had I been able to take photos, I'd have gladly written a long blog post that went painting-by-painting through the entire exhibition, with separate reactions for each work of art, explaining why I liked this and hated that.

Not a bad way to spend a Saturday. Ligament wants to visit Buramun again soon; I'm in no hurry, but the food was good and, if enough time passes, I'll be happy to go back.


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Saturday, January 16, 2016

"The King's Speech": review

"The King's Speech" stars Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush as King George VI and Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, respectively. As with "The Social Network" (reviewed previously), factual accuracy seems not to have been a major concern in this film, so I must again evaluate the movie purely as a drama. The movie's title is, as you can imagine, a clever pun: on the one hand, it's about how the king, an inveterate stutterer (he's referred to as a "stammerer" in the film*), needs to prepare himself to deliver his first wartime speech when England declares war against Germany at the start of World War II; on the other hand, the title refers to the king's speaking ability, which is the subject of an ongoing therapeutic struggle. The story is simple and predictable; if you watched the preview trailer for the film, then you can already guess where the plot is going to go. Will King George and Lionel go from opponents to friends? Will King George successfully deliver his first wartime speech? Will a stiff, proper, and stereotypically repressed royal learn something about life from a tamped-down male version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? You get one guess.

Colin Firth often finds himself in cinematic territory that dangerously overlaps with that of Hugh Grant: he plays comical oafs with a heart of gold—well-intended people who stumble and fumble, but who always seem to manage in the end. The role of King George VI isn't much of a stretch for him in that sense, but the difference here is that Firth is tasked with trying to portray, in a clinically accurate manner, a man with a particular medical condition. Doing this without slipping into parody or outright broad comedy (think: Michael Palin's Ken in "A Fish Called Wanda") requires a light touch and utter command of one's speech organs, and I have to say that Firth pulls off the stutter magnificently. In my review of "The Theory of Everything," I praised Eddie Redmayne for his abilities as a physical actor; I gladly give the same level of praise to Colin Firth. Every time the words got caught in King George's throat, my own throat hitched sympathetically. Firth was that good.

Geoffrey Rush, as Lionel Logue, does a fine job playing an uncredentialed speech therapist whose unconventional techniques are nonetheless effective because of Logue's intuitive understanding of his patients, and thanks to Logue's experience as both an aspiring actor and a therapist for shell-shocked Australian war veterans. Logue might not have any letters after his name (as he notes at one point late in the movie), but he's the real deal, therapeutically speaking. Rush plays his side of the egoic tug-of-war perfectly. His Logue demands that he relate to the king on a first-name basis (King George's intimate nickname was apparently "Bertie," and Logue relentlessly addresses His Highness as such throughout the movie... alas, this aspect of the relationship was, in reality, almost undoubtedly exaggerated). That said, the movie's version of Logue does come off as something of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Logue is cheerfully transgressive, in possession of knowledge about life and the self that the king desperately needs to learn. Logue's overall effect on the king is to make him loosen up, and ultimately to make him a better person.

Some comments on the other stars in the film are in order. Helena Bonham Carter plays her role as Queen Elizabeth with unwonted restraint. I'm so used to seeing her wigging out, Bellatrix Lestrange-style, that watching her staid performance here was a bit unnerving. Guy Pearce plays King George's unstable older brother King Edward VIII, who reigned only a few months before abdicating the throne to be with his true love, an American woman named Wallis Simpson. The movie implies (and perhaps this is historically accurate; I don't know) that Edward abdicated the throne because, as head of the Anglican Church, he would not have been able to marry Simpson, a woman who had already been divorced once, and who was seeking a divorce from her second husband. Pearce isn't on screen for long, but he acquits himself well. Unfortunately, now that I've seen pictures of George VI, I think Pearce and King George resemble each other more than Firth and King George do. My other problem with Pearce's casting was that he looked like Firth's/George's younger brother, not his older brother. Old, hoary greats were also roped in for important roles: Timothy Spall was a good Winston Churchill; Michael Gambon, with his distinctively resonant voice, played King George V, the father of the protagonist; Derek Jacobi did yeoman's work as Archbishop Cosmo Lang. It occurred to me that "The King's Speech" included half the cast from the Harry Potter movies; I half expected to see David Thewlis and Alan Rickman in minor roles.

"The King's Speech" was utterly predictable. The plot was simple, and once you understood the story's initial conditions, it was easy to see where the plot was headed. It was serviceable as a drama about two souls who go from opponents to friends, but the movie's saving grace is that it was a master class in acting given by Colin Firth, who very capably portrayed an important man crippled by a debilitating condition that made it a nightmare for him to appear in public. Overall, I'd say the movie was well worth my while: decent story, likable dramatis personae, and Colin Firth. I'll let more educated people talk about the historical accuracy of the movie, but as a drama, "The King's Speech" is engaging and watchable.



*I normally take stuttering to be a clinical condition, whereas stammering is something that happens to anyone who becomes confused and/or emotional. Hugh Grant, in many of his roles, is a cute-but-annoying stammerer; King George, as portrayed in this movie, is a stutterer. NB: some online sources disagree with my distinction, which may explain why "stutter" and "stammer" have such overlapping definitions in various dictionaries.


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"The Social Network": brief review

The other day, I finally got around to watching the much-lauded "The Social Network," which stars Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, Andrew Garfield as cofounder Eduardo Saverin, and Justin Timberlake as Napster creator Sean Parker. The turbulent story of Facebook's origins—who created what, and how was it done?—is told using a series of Zuckerberg's and Saverin's court depositions as the framing story, with a parallel series of flashbacks filling in the gaps. I've read that the movie contains a truckload of factual distortions and outright falsehoods, so I can't judge it as a biopic or as any sort of serious attempt to chronicle the actual founding of Facebook. With that in mind, I can only judge the film on its dramatic and cinematic merits.

While I found the film watchable, I didn't find it to be anywhere near worthy of the fawning praise it received; it was good, but not great. The film casts Zuckerberg as the arrogant, possibly dissociative-disordered asshole who is a hacking genius. His grasp of human nature is so keen that he can code a website (while pretending to code someone else's social-networking website) that caters perfectly to the proclivities of typical American university students. The paradox is that, as much as Zuckerberg understands human nature in the abstract, he's a complete mess when it comes to his own interactions with most people. The story of an out-of-touch genius who hurts those around him didn't feel like anything new; "Amadeus" covered similar territory much more expertly back in the 1980s.

The actors hit all their marks; I offer special praise to Justin Timberlake, who actually can act. Armie Hammer does a fine job in a dual role playing the eternally, comically frustrated Winklevoss twins, who claim that Zuckerberg stole their social-media idea. The direction and cinematography were both competent. Part of the problem may be that I found it hard to relate to people who became so rich so quickly. Another part of the problem may be that Zuckerberg, as portrayed in the movie, is utterly unlikable, which may be a point the film was trying to make. Saverin, who provides the crucial social-networking algorithm at the beginning of the story (thus cementing his position as one of the founders of Facebook), is portrayed in the most sympathetic light. In the end, the story is about a bunch of screeching bitches fighting for credit and money. Ho-hum.


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Friday, January 15, 2016

Ave, Charles!

My buddy Charles has posted his own write-up of the Gino's pizza experience.


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ululate!


Unbelievable. Actor Alan Rickman is dead of cancer at 69. Just like David Bowie.

I've known about Rickman ever since the first "Die Hard." From there, the man went on to have a stellar career in movies, rocketing up to A-list status. He played many memorable characters besides Hans Gruber. Among them: he was the Sheriff of Nottingham in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"; he was The Metatron in "Dogma"; he was Alexander Dane in "Galaxy Quest"; he was Judge Turpin in "Sweeney Todd"; and of course, he was Severus Snape in all eight of the Harry Potter movies.*

About a year ago, Rickman had also made a short video called "Epic Tea Time with Alan Rickman," which I found hilarious. As you can see in the video, one of Rickman's signature talents was that he could smoothly combine being funny with being sinister. I sometimes wonder why he never appeared in a Quentin Tarantino film, given Tarantino's own tendency to mix darkness and humor (I discuss this a bit in my review of "Django Unchained").

Rickman was not only an expert at fusing the sinister and the humorous: he also made it sexy to sound nasal. Americans get ragged all the time for their nasal voices (it's true: we do sound like Gilda Radner), but Rickman, from across the pond, allowed us to revel without shame in the basso vibrations of his substantial nasal cavity. His distinctive voice became the target of light-hearted celebrity impressions; here's a now-classic clip of Benedict Cumberbatch having a "Rickman-off" impression contest with Jimmy Fallon.

It's a shame to know that we now live in a world without Alan Rickman. I had heard not a peep about his cancer; only a few minutes ago, I saw people on Twitter writing RIPs for him. Let me add my sad voice to the throng. Alan Rickman was a true entertainer who obviously knew better than to take himself too seriously. That's a good trait in an actor, and a good trait in a human being. Mr. Rickman, you will be sorely missed.



*Rickman's filmography consists of far more than the movies I've mentioned, but I wanted to mention only the movies I've actually seen.


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Thursday, January 14, 2016

REAL FUCKING PIZZA

Truly decent pizza is still hard to find in Korea, even after all these years and all these improvements in the local dining scene. Blogger and friend John McCrarey (currently gallivanting in Southeast Asia) told me, a few weeks back, that he had "a friend" who had just established his own honest-to-God New York-style pizzeria in Itaewon. I hope John will forgive me, but when he said "a friend," I immediately imagined some sweaty, 50- or 60-something Italian-American goombah from the meaner streets of New York City. But no: the guy in question was a young, skinny Komerican in his late twenties or early thirties named Eugene, a gyopo who grew up in Long Island. Eugene told us he had been on a pre-med track when he gave it all up to make pizza.

Charles, John, and I found his restaurant and were seated in a corner spot. Our table was adorned with three shakers and three raised silver platters—not for the head of John the Baptist, but for our pies.

Here's an establishing shot to give you a feel for the location:


The restaurant sits roughly across from Manimal Smoke House, next to a Tex-Mex place called Coreanos, and above a bar/resto called Oz, which looked empty while Gino's was full. If you know that area, then you know it's easily accessible from Noksapyeong Station, as Charles and I confirmed by walking down to Noksapyeong from Gino's after dinner. Charles complained about the cold as we walked to and from the resto, but I and my suit of blubber found the night air to be brisk and invigorating.

After we were seated, we had a chance to look over the menu, and we decided to go for an appetizer and two pizzas. This turned out to be the right strategy. Our appetizer was Parmesan-garlic chicken wings; our large pizza was The Butcher, a meat-lover's pizza with pepperoni, sausage, and bacon; and our medium pizza was The Woodstock, topped with pepperoni and mushrooms.

Here's the chicken, straight out of the frying-and-tossing process and still piping hot:


We didn't have to wait long for our pizzas to arrive. Charles had snapped photos of the crust-tossing process, and not long after that, we got our pies.

Here's the big one, called The Butcher:


As you see above, The Butcher was generously laden with pepperoni, and there was enough sausage and bacon to cover the entire pizza in a gentle yet insistent aura of succulent fat that gave the pizza more than its share of umami. (You may recall that, in a recent post that complained about bad pizza, I obliquely noted that lack of umami was the major problem.)

The three of us slaughtered both The Butcher and The Woodstock; I only belatedly remembered to take a picture of what remained of The Woodstock:


I had to take a shot of my dinner companions, so I started with Charles, photographing him as he was clicking his own picture of The Woodstock's tattered remains. I had a good chuckle: Charles's expression looks unintentionally pretentious, like that of a snooty Frenchman.


There were three shakers on the table instead of the standard two. I discovered by accident that the third shaker was full of garlic, or maybe it was a mix of cheese (or salt?) and garlic powder. Whatever it was, it was strongly redolent of garlic, and after inadvertently shaking a bunch of it onto my first slice, I never went back to that shaker again.


I snuck a picture of John.


And here's a picture of Eugene himself:


Normally, I'd say that it's never good to trust a skinny chef, but Eugene made us pizzas that looked, smelled, and tasted authentic because, goddammit, they were authentic. Eugene told us that he imported most of his ingredients except for the vegetables, which are all local. This probably explains why his pizzas are so damn expensive (the only reproach I have), but I found the experience well worth my while. I had two canned Cokes; John had a couple beers; Charles drank water because he was still a bit hung over from drinking with his Seoul-dae peeps the night before, and our meal came out to about W87,000 for the three of us: W29,000 per person. Again, not cheap, but if you're desperate for authentic pizza, you'll find Gino's to be well worth your while.

Restaurants and other businesses in Korea usually start off with an optimistic bang; over the next six months, both quantity and quality start their inevitable downward slide: portions get smaller, prices creep upward, and ambiance begins to sour. Competition among businesses is fierce on the peninsula, and if a place becomes popular, the landlord jacks up the rent. Restaurants already have a very narrow profit margin, and once the rent goes up, they lose what little they've earned unless they can find new and efficient ways to generate revenue cheaply. I sincerely hope that Gino's is still around a year from now; I could sense the quality of the pizza the moment I touched its crust. It would be a shame to lose such a business after a short time. I wish Eugene and his crew luck.

Here's a parting shot of the place:


If you're looking for legitimate pizza in Korea, go give Gino's a visit. John, Charles, and I came away more than satisfied with our meal. Charles is going back this Friday with some folks from his university. I'm not sure when I might be coming back, but I hope it'll be soon.

A Fat Girl's Food Guide just did a Gino's writeup if you care you read it.



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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

courtesy of George RR Martin

George RR Martin, in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, includes many loving descriptions of mealtime for various characters. Most of the meals set within castles seem to be lavished with loving detail, and one recurrent motif is the trencher.

A trencher is, very roughly, what we moderns would call a bread bowl. Think of bread-bowl soup sold at your local Panera. GRR Martin's trenchers are normally made with large, long loaves of bread that have had a trench dug into them (hence "trencher"). In Martin's world, which resembles medieval Europe, trenchers are often filled with various soups and stews and meats, fish stew prominent among them.

Because I still had leftover coquilles St. Jacques from the previous day, I decided to make trenchers at the office. I bought bread and shared my leftover creamy seafood with my coworker, who made short work of his lunch.

Here's a shot of my trencher:


It was every bit as delicious as it looks.

ADDENDUM: Charles commented that there was "blue stuff" in the photo. At first, I thought this was the result of poor color correction in Photoshop, but I've just looked at the original pic, and it looks pretty much like the pic I had put up in this space. I've changed the pic, replacing it with one that's been more subtly color-corrected, but I suspect that the "blue stuff" remains. I'm now pretty sure that the "blue stuff" is actually the gray frills of the oyster mushrooms, poking out of the cream sauce. The onions and celery leaves, meanwhile, are obviously green.


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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

2 tributes to Bowie

Charles emails me this link to a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" (a.k.a., the "Ground Control to Major Tom" song) by Commander Chris Hadfield (O, Canada!).

I like Bowie's "Heroes," but I've especially enjoyed Baz Luhrmann's joyfully bombastic quasi-cover of it that appears as part of the "Elephant Love Medley" in "Moulin Rouge." See here (the "Heroes" segment starts almost exactly at the 2:00 mark).


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Monday, January 11, 2016

ululate!


Rocker David Bowie has died of cancer at the tender age of 69.

Not much I can say about the man; some of my high-school friends would occasionally mouth his lyrics, and I suppose he was something of an ambient background presence throughout my teen years in the 1980s.

The 80s were a decade I'd rather forget. Everyone's sense of style sucked, including mine, and not much of the music was particularly memorable—at least for those of us who never ventured beyond the shallow end of the pop-music pool. I came away from the 80s with an appreciation for Eric Clapton and Sting and Huey Lewis and the News—singers I like to this day. Oh, yeah—throw in some Tina Turner. As for Mr. Bowie... I can recognize his songs once they've gone on for a few bars.

If there's anything I remember about Bowie, it's that he ventured outside the realm of music and into the realm of acting. He played a major musical role in the live-action puppet movie "Labyrinth," starring a very young and very chesty Jennifer Connelly. I never saw "Labyrinth," though, so there's nothing I can say about his performance in that film. More important, at least to me, is that he played the silky voice of Satan in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ." Having Bowie as Satan in a major movie was a bit like having Sting as the becodpieced ginger Feyd Rautha in David Lynch's "Dune." Scorsese's Satan's default form was a small-but-violent pillar of fire from which Bowie's relaxed voice emanated—the calm voice belying the agitated form. It made for interesting cognitive dissonance.

Beyond that, I can't say that I ever paid much attention to Mr. Bowie or his work since the 1980s. The news of his death brought me up short, but mainly because I knew he was supposed to be culturally important to many people. One online writer noted that Bowie was transmogrifying himself long before Madonna picked up the same shtick. He was an explorer and an experimenter, slinky and androgynous, comfortable straddling all sorts of borders. Despite all that, he never gained the sort of bad-boy reputation that a lot of his fellow rockers acquired, which makes me suspect that, under it all, he might have been that rare creature in show biz: a decent human being.

Farewell, Mr. Bowie, and thanks for entertaining those who knew you or appreciated you. No doubt your music will live on.

UPDATE: Malcolm has written a warm tribute to Bowie, whom he knew personally. Malcolm's post confirms that Bowie was indeed a mensch.


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Sunday, January 10, 2016

coquilles St. Jacques aux pleurotes

Voilà: my rendition of scallops with oyster mushrooms.


I regret that you can't see the lovely components of this dish with any distinctness. The three major players are (1) Costco diver scallops, (2) Korean oyster mushrooms, and (3) a wine-infused cream sauce. Herbs and aromatics include minced celery leaves and finely chopped green onions. I have to say: the smell, when this was cooking, was incredible. Even more interesting was that the dish was super-easy to prepare, and I started with scallops that had been frozen solid. That's perfect for a lazy cook like me. I hate thawing.

The closeup below will give you a chance to see at least one scallop up close. Too bad you can't see the lovely oyster mushrooms.


The mise en place didn't require much effort. Drag the scallops out of the freezer. Mince the celery leaves with meat scissors; do the same with the green onion. Leave on standby. Dump the frozen scallops into the deep pan; set heat on high, and pour in enough wine to cover the bottom of the pan a few millimeters. The wine will steam and boil quickly, which will allow you to pry the frozen scallops apart so that they lie flat in the pan.

Meanwhile, bring out the mushrooms. Cut off the tops, plus a little stem, to avoid putting the dirty bottoms into your dish. Dump straight into the pan with the scallops. Lower the heat to medium if the wine is boiling. Salt the scallops and shrooms; add black pepper. After the wine has boiled softly a couple minutes, add heavy cream. A lot. Enough to cover the scallops and shrooms. Lower heat a bit and let simmer. The scallops are probably still frozen at their center, but it's important not to overcook their exterior. No one likes leathery seafood.

Stir occasionally to prevent anything from burning on the bottom of the pan. In my case, I saw the cream sauce was way too thin, so I thickened it with an old method: adding bread crumbs. I had bought a bag of panko from the grocery in my building; I dumped two heaping handfuls of panko into the mix. While I allowed the bread to do its work, I grated an entire block of Gruyère cheese, then dumped that in as well. Once the grated cheese had melted into the mixture to create the consistency that the French call velouté (i.e., velvety), it was just a matter of stirring another few minutes at low heat. I tasted the sauce and one scallop: perfect. No need for searing. No need for butter or garlic. As it was, everything was as it should be.

The next step was to find a decent container in which to plate a serving of the coquilles. I didn't have anything like those oven-proof scallop-shaped dishes from the 70s, so I used a small, shallow cake pan, reasoning that I'd be using my oven's broiler instead of the bottom burner, so the thinness of the pan's metal wouldn't be a factor in potential burning. I set the oven for about 200ºC, ladled some creaminess into the pan, then added a layer of butter-toasted bread crumbs into the top. As you see in the pic, I pulled the serving out right when the bread was just this side of burning, but that wasn't tragic: the dark-brown bits added flavor, and they were easily mixed in with the lighter-brown bits of panko. The crunchy texture, when I scooped up a scallop with some cream sauce and those bread crumbs, reassured me that I had done the right thing by not searing the scallops. (Searing is tricky; the potential for overcooking is very high.)

It occurred to me, belatedly, that this was a decidedly Atkins-friendly dish. Heavy cream is, strangely enough, lower in carbs, per unit volume, than milk is. Had I made a crust of Gruyère instead of panko, the dish would have been perfect by Atkins's standards.

So now, the question is whether to pack up the rest of this for tomorrow's lunch. Yeah... might as well make the boss and coworker envious.


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frère Jacques

Coquilles St. Jacques happening tonight. Pics later. Stay thou tunèd.


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Saturday, January 09, 2016

an office barbecue fest

There was little that was truly "barbecue" about our Friday luncheon in the office—no grilling, no smoking, no pits or coals or racks or spits. The only true barbecue element was the barbecue sauce that I used for my pulled pork and my baked beans.

But that didn't matter. Lunch was given high praise by my boss and my new coworker, who hails from Florida and who knows a thing or two about Southern cuisine.

I had wanted to take pictures of the food as it had been laid out in the office, but I didn't remember to snap any photos until I was almost done eating. So here's a shot of my plate, minus the BBQ pulled-pork sandwiches, which had already been gobbled:


In the above photo, you see potato chips (sea-salt kettle chips from Costco), cole slaw, and baked beans, so let's talk about those elements. Last time I had a pulled-pork party with Tom and Charles, I had made cole slaw based on a Bobby Flay recipe that was, frankly, way overthought. Flay himself might have made it work, but I ended up buried under the complexity of it all, and the dressing, when I made it, was a failure. No one* said they hated it, but no one raved about it, either, and I didn't like the dressing much myself. I kicked myself for not following my instincts, which is what I normally do when making cole slaw. The dressing turns out different every time, but when I follow my intuition, it also always turns out tasty. This time around I had, as the Brits would say, a brain wave: instead of throwing in six or seven ingredients, why not keep it simple and use what's available? I had pickle juice from a jar of my favorite Korean jalapeño pickles; I mixed that with mayonnaise and added black pepper. Voilà. Perfect. After chopping the cabbage, I added green onions (I'd forgotten to buy carrots), then mixed everything up with the dressing. It was great! I might just stick with this formula from now on.

The baked beans went over well with my office crew, but I was disappointed that the local Costco didn't have Van Camp's pork and beans on the shelves. I asked a Costco staffer where the beans had gone, given that they used to be in stock. The staffer gave me a pained looked and told me that I'd have to visit another Costco branch to find them. Dejected, I went back to my apartment building's grocery, hoping against hope that I might find Van Camp's there. No dice. All there was was some shitty no-name brand. I bought four cans anyway, and opened one for experimental purposes. The sauce was too red and too tomatoey, and the beans had an odd texture. I shrugged and went ahead with my nighttime prep, throwing three cans of beans into my deep bokgeum pan, adding chopped hot dogs, crumbled bacon, brown sugar, and red-chili flakes. The end result was close to the baked beans I'd made before, but still not quite what I'd been looking for.

In the next picture below, you see a shot of the aftermath of lunch. The table is covered in green felt because the boss has taken up learning Korean brush calligraphy; he's practicing hangeul, not Chinese characters, and according to him, he's still learning how to control how much ink to put in the brush. (You can see that his ink bled through the calligraphy paper and onto the felt.) It's not easy; I know from experience.


Unhappy with not having taken pictures of a properly plated lunch, I decided to set up a plate for dinner when I got home. I had to make more cole slaw (I had made two varieties—a standard slaw and an "Asian" slaw whose dressing came from an online recipe), but that was easy enough to do. I heated up the pork and baked beans in my microwave, then set everything up for assembly.

Below, a shot of the pulled pork itself:


I used tenderloin that I had bought at Costco. It was decent meat with very little silver skin to cut off. I gave the meat a gentle sear in a smoking-hot frying pan, but because I was terrified that the smoke would set off my alarm, I seared the meat only briefly—not enough for a really good effect. Since I normally don't sear my meat when making pulled pork, the partial job I'd done didn't faze me that much; I simply dumped the meat into my new crock pot (a gift from my boss; I gave my old crock pot to my buddy Jang-woong at Christmas), filled the pot mostly with house-brand cola, plus some Worcestershire sauce, some apple-cider vinegar, some barbecue sauce, a bit of onion powder, some chili flakes, and a rough-cut onion.

Because I was using tenderloin and not sirloin, as I did when I lived in Goyang/Ilsan, I had worried that the meat might turn out very differently. Fortunately, it didn't, and now I know that pork tenderloin performs about the same, in a slow cooker, as pork sirloin does. And there's a bonus: the natural tenderness of tenderloin means the meat won't dry out quickly. Not that I've had any serious issues with overly dry meat, but dryness is a constant danger, given how you prep pulled pork: the pork comes out of the cooker in large chunks; you fork those chunks apart until they're clumps and fibers, and the meat steams heavily while you're doing this. Before you lose all that precious moisture, you slather on the barbecue sauce.

My pulled pork stayed moist from the moment I took it out of the cooker to the moment I served it up for lunch. I'm proud of that pig. And I'd use tenderloin again.

Frustrated at not having taken a proper photo of a plated meal, I recreated the plate at home. Here's a shot to give you the Gestalt:


Next, a closeup of the beans:


And finally, a closeup of the sandwich:


At the office, I fixed myself two sandwiches—one with cole slaw, another with pickles. Above, you see I combined the two.

My coworker, in an experimental mood, put the Asian slaw onto his pork sandwich. I warned him that the flavor profiles wouldn't match (the Asian dressing had sesame in it, and I can't see sesame ever going together with the particular sweetness of US-style barbecue sauce), but he did it, anyway. When I asked him, later, how the sandwich was, he said it hadn't been that good. A shame to waste food that way, but we learn by doing.

I should note that I didn't have Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce on hand. At Costco, all I saw was Yoshida's, so I bought two bottles in the hope that it would taste good. I've used Yoshida's Asian barbecue sauce before (it tastes a bit like some sort of bulgogi marinade), but never the American sauce. It turned out to be okay; it was legitimately barbecue-y, but still qualitatively different from Sweet Baby Ray's. It certainly wasn't as sweet, and it had a hint of smokiness that Baby Ray's lacks.

So: a good time was had by all. My boss now wants to invite us all to his house, and he'd let me be the chef, going nuts in his kitchen.

ADDENDUM: I should have mentioned that my coworker very kindly provided us with drinks and a lovely
dessert: a soft, creamy cake from the downstairs bakery.



*By "no one," I really just mean Charles: Tom refuses to eat any vegetables unless they're potatoes. I often wonder how he's still alive, but he seems to be in perfect health.


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Friday, January 08, 2016

office luncheon

I decided to make pulled-pork sandwiches for my boss and coworker today. The menu:

pulled-pork sandwiches (made from pork tenderloin!)
potato chips
cole slaw, 2 varieties, with homemade dressing
baked beans with hot dogs and bacon

My coworker told me he'd be providing the drinks. Not sure who will be providing dessert... or whether we'll even have room for dessert later.

Expect photos of the feast tonight.


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Thursday, January 07, 2016

déçu

A new restaurant had opened up in Daechi-dong, the neighborhood where I work, late last year. It's called Shawn's American Grill, and I could see by the façade that it was going to be somewhat expensive, somewhat high-end dining. For lunch today, riding high from my minor victory at work yesterday, I decided to go to Shawn's to check it out.

A well-dressed greeter (the whole staff was in suits or formal dresses) was standing next to the electric sliding door when I walked down the tasteful outdoor steps to the restaurant's entrance. He bowed and gestured for me to come on in; I told him I was alone. He handed me over to a dignified-looking young man who spoke to me in English. Turned out the young man was a gyopo from America; he claimed to be more comfortable speaking in English than speaking in Korean, but since our exchange began in Korean, I thought he spoke the language just fine. He led me to a table, got me settled in, then took my order. Everything on the menu was expensive; I ordered garlic bread as an appetizer, the Shawn's Special Pizza as the main course, and chocolate mousse for dessert. No drink—I was fine with water, on the assumption that there would be refills. My host asked me whether I wanted all the food at the same time; I asked him to bring the items out one at a time. It seemed a bizarre question, but I'm glad he asked: many Korean restaurants that sell Western-style food often make the mistake of bringing everything to the table at once, thus forcing you either to rush through your meal before everything gets cold, or to eat slowly, only to arrive at a cold main dish.

Shawn's ambiance seemed American enough: the tables were of heavy, polished wood; the chairs were sturdy and large; the place had weight to it, like an American restaurant. A heater overhead blasted heat directly down at me, which was a bit uncomfortable, but I decided to tough it out instead of moving to another location—especially after I looked up and saw dozens of pipes all blasting downward. The garlic bread, when it arrived, was thankfully unsugared. Koreans normally love to eat their garlic bread sweetened. Sugary garlic bread isn't horrible, but it can get cloying after a while. My garlic bread was quite good... and it turned out to be, unfortunately, the best part of the meal.

The pizza came out; it looked and smelled delicious. The Shawn's Special was the restaurant's version of a thin-crust supreme pizza; knowing this, I specifically asked for no onions (Koreans, God bless them, will onion up every type of Western food if you let them), and the kitchen obliged. When I bit into the pizza, though, I knew I was going to be disappointed: as good as the thing smelled, it was watery and flavorless. I ate the pizza, anyway, given that I'd already committed to eating it and I'm not one of those assholes who create drama in a restaurant by loudly complaining about the food and ordering it sent back. The meal wasn't bad; it was just depressingly boring. As I mentally analyzed the problem, I concluded that there were two major factors at play here if we discounted the cheese: the fresh vegetables and the meat toppings.

Fresh vegetables on a pizza are something of a risk if you don't bake the pizza long and/or hot enough to cook out some of the vegetables' natural water content. My pizza had mushrooms, green peppers, and minced tomatoes on it; the latter two ingredients (I guess a tomato is technically a fruit) contained a lot of water, and while the pizza was well cooked on the bottom, it obviously hadn't been cooked sufficiently on the top. In the States, a wood-fired brick oven normally burns at a temperature of around 700º to 800º Fahrenheit. After 3-5 minutes, any vegetables on the pizza's surface will have lost most of their moisture, which isn't a bad thing. The consumer of the pizza wants to encounter moisture in the form of oil from the cheese and the meat, not water from the vegetables, because water dilutes flavor.

The meat was the other issue. Shawn's had obviously used Korean meats, and Korean versions of Western sausage are almost all too bland for my taste. (They're also the wrong texture, but that's a rant for a different day.) So with the watery vegetables dousing what little flavor was coming from the meat, there was little for me to taste, but a lot for me to chew on. The pizza's crust was nice, at least.

I've had this sort of bland pizza before, from Korean delivery. It's a chronic problem in Korea, and it's probably why most Western expats prefer to order pizzas from American chains like Domino's, Pizza Hut, and Papa John's (yes, there's Papa John's in Korea). Such pizzas aren't the best possible ones, but they're far more flavorful than the equivalent Korean product.

After slaughtering my pizza, I waited for my chocolate mousse. And waited. And waited. Nothing came. I flipped open the elegant leather billfold to look at my bill... and discovered that the mousse wasn't even on the receipt: it had never been rung up. Well, well, gyopo from America—where the hell was your brain, eh? I had texted my boss to say I'd be late in coming back from lunch because I was waiting for dessert. In disgust, I gathered my things and left my table. I never saw the gyopo guy again.

The Korean gentleman who rang up my bill and processed my credit card (not a gyopo this time) frowned when he saw me walking toward the cash register. "What about your chocolate mousse?" he asked. "Don't you want it?" I admired this guy's sharp situational awareness: he, at least, knew what I had ordered, even though he hadn't been the one to take my order. But it was too late to do anything about anything, so I shook my head and said, "The mousse isn't even on the bill." He rang me up and asked me to sign up as a member of Shawn's so I could receive ten-percent discounts in the future. I indulged him just so he wouldn't feel bad, but I knew I'd never be coming back to Shawn's.

All in all, a very disappointing experience. Shawn's is yet another Korean restaurant that apes the Western style but doesn't understand that the devil is in the details. It's not enough to serve mediocre Western food for jacked-up prices, even if the ambiance isn't so bad: you've got to have better control over the product, and in the culinary world, that means—always and forever—using good goddamn ingredients. Even the world's shittiest cook can produce something more or less palatable if good ingredients are his point of departure.

Ah, well. I was suckered again. Live and learn.

Oh, yeah, and there was this: I never got my water refilled.


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Wednesday, January 06, 2016

gi-il (忌日, 기일)

[NB: This is an updated repost originally from here.]



My mother died of brain cancer at 8:03AM on January 6, 2010, six years ago today. Six years. Unbelievable. I chronicled much of this ordeal at my blog, Kevin's Walk. Today is Wednesday, and I thought I'd pass along a famous story about the Chinese Taoist philosopher Chuang-tzu, who is said to have acted strangely when his wife died:

When Chuang Tzu’s wife died, his friend Hui Tzu came to offer his condolences and found Chuang Tzu hunkered down, drumming on a potter pan and singing.

Hui Tzu said, “You lived with her, raised children with her, and grew old together. Even weeping is not enough, but now you are drumming and singing. Is it a bit too much?”

Chuang Tzu said, “That is not how it is. When she just died, how could I not feel grief? But I looked deeply into it and saw that she was lifeless before she was born. She was also formless and there was not any energy. Somewhere in the vast imperceptible universe there was a change, an infusion of energy, and then she was born into form, and into life. Now the form has changed again, and she is dead. Such death and life are like the natural cycle of the four seasons. My dead wife is now resting between heaven and earth. If I wail at the top of my voice to express my grief, it would certainly show a failure to understand what is fated. Therefore I stopped.” (Chapter 18)


This version of the story is taken from here.

Different cultures develop different ways of dealing with death and mourning. In Korea, which carries on the old Chinese tradition of venerating one's ancestors, people typically have a jaesa (제사), a ceremony for previous generations. While it may sound morbid, I suppose this day could be described as a "death day," the closed-parenthesis counterpart of a birthday. But is it really all that morbid to celebrate the transition from life to death? Far from being morbid, the day could be seen as a kind of ritualized symmetry.

Today, then, I and my family commemorate my mother's death. While it pains me that I can no longer hug her or hold her hand, I'm grateful for the care and wisdom she imparted.

I love you and miss you, Mom.






2016 finds me, at long last, on a financial upswing. I think Mom would have been happy about that, although she'd frown at my having regained all the weight I'd lost before my move to Goyang/Ilsan. Laziness has always been my point faible. This is the year I'll be working on my health—for my own sake, if for no one else's.



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