Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Sourdough, Hongcheon and Compost

This week has been a week. I don’t want to get too far into it, because gainful employment is nice to have after taking a year off of work and draining my savings on language school and travel, but let’s just say that I am currently working for two large corporations and, occasionally, we are -- how should I put this? Invited to enjoy lectures on the subject of marketing and advertising. I’ll just say that I find there is a strange kind of optimism about capitalism in South Korea that doesn’t really exist anymore in the US. Which isn’t to say the US isn’t in love with capitalism, but Americans for the most part have some vague knowledge of the devil with whom they dance. Part of it, too, is how the TED Talk model has swept the nation – even if you’re going to give a lecture about how to make more people want to buy more things, you have to start by asking everyone how they think they can give more meaning to their lives, or why they think living in today’s world is so difficult. You don’t need to actually connect these issues to making more people want to buy more things (because you can’t, really – well, you can, but not by heading in the direction the marketing team wants to head in) – just quickly transition like so: happiness = success = money = make your bosses more money = marketing techniques. 

See? Easy as that. Might not want to ask a room full of employees who are being forced to sit through a four-hour lecture if they would go to work on Monday if they won the lottery on Saturday, and then tell them that they should be working a job where the answer to that question is ‘yes’, though. You may not want to that question to most people, actually, because it’s delusional. 

I haven’t won the lottery. It’s fine. Most days are better. I'm putting the photo of our new compost bin here because it fits. Not because I mean to suggest some connection between the lecture and fertilizer. 

This week, there hasn’t been a lot of time for stuff at home, but I did manage to get a few things done this weekend. I planted some hearty greens out on the outdoor veranda, with hopes that they’ll be hearty enough to push through the heat and grow. I also got seedlings for a variety of herbs, as well as lavender, started and replanted the adolescent mint and basil plants that were jonesing to get out of their pots. I moved one of the basil plants out to the front steps, which get full sun, so hopefully it’ll grow up properly into a full bush. I started some sprouts, put some mint and rosemary cuttings into a bit of water for propagation (cover the stem with water, refreshing the water every couple of days, until roots sprout and -- bam! – a whole new baby plant), and dehydrated some cherry tomatoes (because no matter how good they are – and they are good – B and I aren’t going to make it through 3kg before they start to go off). B and I also got the compost bin set up (a plastic storage tub with holes drilled in it – fancy) which has done wonders for the summer gnats and fruit flies that were making an event of things around the food trash in the kitchen.

We finally got the big cedar cabinet we ordered, which I stained on Monday night with B standing by as the official fan repositioner. I had been to Hongcheon and back during the day and had spent the entire day in three places that are amazing on a sweltering July afternoon – a corn field, a traditional market and a 찐빵 (steamed bun) shop. I figured, why not just make a whole day of not being able to breathe? 

The truth is, I’ve been waiting for this cabinet for a good while, because, while we have a ton of bright sunny veranda space good for plants, we have no cool, dark place to put things like canned goods or ferments. I had started my sourdough starter over the weekend, storing it under the sink in the meantime, but I’ve been sitting on my new canning book since I got it a month ago. 

In regards to the sourdough, I’ve never done it before, but the thing is alive and hopping already, so I’m excited to give it a spin this weekend. The general idea, in case you don’t know, is to make bread not by using instant yeast but yeast from the air. It’s supposed to give bread a whole new level of flavor. 

There are a million recipes out there all calling for different ratios of flour to water, some using white flour, some whole wheat. I kind of just went with my gut with mine, figuring that if there are so many different recipes, it must not be that fussy of an ordeal. Sometimes living in Korea, too, the stuff you have access to is just different by nature from what most North Americans are using. Sometimes you just have to figure it out by trial and error. So I mixed together nearly equal parts white and whole wheat flour (통밀가루), with about 3 cups of white and 4 of whole wheat, and put it into an airtight plastic container to make feeding the starter throughout the week as little hassle as possible. I originally mixed the suggested 1 2/3 cups flour with 3/4 cups of water, but ended up with a crumbly little ball. So I added more water – maybe 1/3 of a cup – until it looked more the way it ought to (slightly thicker than pancake batter). This has always been my experience with bread recipes – whatever they say the ratio of liquid to solid should be is never what ends up working for me. Over time, I’ve learned how to eyeball it and go with what looks right. 

I put the starter in a large glass mason jar (much bigger than it looks like I may need, because the starter will rise and fall throughout the day) and covered it with cheesecloth (technically, a cloth for steaming corn, which seems oddly specific). Now, I feed it every night before I go to bed, when doing the watering rounds for the plants – I dump out about half and add 3/4 cup of the premixed flour blend and half a cup of water. Mix it, stick it back in the cabinet. They say it should take up to a week for things to get going, but mine was already bubbling by the second day, which may be because it’s hot as hell. 

When I want to make bread, all I need to do is replace a portion of the flour and water in the recipe with some of the starter instead. I expect that too will take some time to get right, but I’ve learned over the years that bread is a fickle beast, anyway – depending on the temperature, the humidity, the time of day, the position of the stars, the direction of the wind, you’ll rarely have two loaves of bread come out exactly the same. 

I’ll close with some photos from Monday’s Hongcheon trip, which included visiting with the lovely folks at the Hongcheon Agricultural Cooperative, and Kim Choon-ok, who makes 올챙이국수 (tadpole noodles) at the Hongcheon Central Market and who very much reminded me of my mother-in-law. Named for the tadpole shape the noodles originally took back when the batter was made from fresh corn rather than dry and the equipment wasn't as developed, the corn noodles are mixed with a spicy sauce made from chili peppers, soy sauce, sesame oil, green onions and sesame seeds and a little bit of ice-cold water, if you want. I love noodles, but they’re usually too heavy for me to get through much of them before I give up. These were different—even lighter than 냉면 (cold noodles), and so soft that they break apart when you stir in the sauce. 

She may have just been being humble, but I think Kim meant it when she told me the noodles tasted like nothing compared to the ones she can make with fresh corn. But since fresh corn is only available for so long, and she needs to run her business year-round, she has no choice but to serve what is in her opinion a second-rate product. But she still gets to the market at 3 or 4am every morning to start stewing the batter, and doesn't go home until 9 or 10pm every night, after the next morning's cornmeal is finished grinding.

While I was on the trip, by the way, I got a strange email from B with nothing more than this image attached: 

It says: 

People who fail are infected with a bug. That bug’s name is 대충

대충 can have a lot of different meanings, like roughly, approximately, basically, almost. It can also mean sloppy or half-assed. One of the most common nagging phrases that makes its way from my lips into one of B’s ears and out the other is 대충대충 하지 마 – don’t half-ass it. He’s far from being a failure, and I’ve seen some people 대충대충 their way to pretty decent success, but a few hours after I opened this email while standing in the middle of a corn field, I was in the van on the way back to Seoul when I got a message – B had gone for an evening ride along the Han, zoned out and crashed his bike and was at the emergency room. 

He's fine. Just conveniently can't use his hands to do anything, 대충 or otherwise, for a few weeks. 

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