Saturday, August 16, 2014

World Tree Coaching

If you like what you see here at For Lack of Tacos, check out my new blog at:

While I no longer maintain this blog, at World Tree Coaching I've continued blogging about the expat life, it's ins and outs, ups and downs and everything in between.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Power of Tex-Mex

A person can do a lot for love. Traverse the desert, row across the ocean, climb the highest peak….or maybe pay something like $16 for 1.75 pounds of tortilla chips. I think I did that this weekend. I can’t remember. Not because I was drinking or anything like that, but because I lost the receipt. But, I am pretty sure the tortilla chips were 8,000 Ariary for a 200 gram bag. That’s about $4 per bag…and I bought 4 bags.

I also turned one of the easiest Austin meals into one of the most complicated and time consuming meals I have ever produced. We hosted a Texas brunch this morning. I made migas. We love migas! But, when you have to make your own salsa (I made two kinds – basic red and mango), corn tortillas, flour tortillas and giant pot of beans a quick meal turns into a weekend long project.

But, for the love of Tex-Mex there was no way around it. And, the pay off was absolutely fabulous! A house full of great friends, at least three languages being spoken around every corner, kids running like crazy and one friendly Spaniel bounding in circles around our house while our lazy, one-eyed, 11-year-old giant of a dog looked on.

So, in case there was ever any doubt, let me provide this confirmation – there’s no food like Tex-Mex. No barrier can stop the love of a Austin girl for her triangles of crispy, salted corn bliss and no amount of work dulls the senses to the energy of migas, coffee and oj shared with good friends in the morning. There you have it folks! Tex-Mex wins again!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Making It Count

I have started three blog posts in the past week and now here I am writing a fourth. I guess it will be one about not having been able to complete the other three. To be fair, it’s not exactly that I couldn’t complete them, it’s just that I sat down, excited to write, and then found I didn’t have a clear focus or really much of an idea of what I wanted to say. Now as I write that, I think it seems that my inability to write something organized is perhaps a bit reflective of my life here. Some days I feel really on top of it, organized, ready to go and totally at peace with the gentle Malagasy breezes, the impending Spring and the myriad chirps, knocks and squawks of the unknown animals that inhabit our little plot of land and its surroundings. Other days, not so much.

It’s a nice post here. Where Tana excels as a Foreign Service post is in its hominess. The location of the majority of the Embassy houses (a nice suburb within 10 minutes of downtown and half an hour from the Embassy) makes for pleasant and not overly hectic living. It’s also a really tight knit community. I love in every way that I can walk the children to school and that our close friends are near by and that our social circle expands well beyond the Embassy community. But, Madagascar is very, very far away. And it feels that way. And that feeling can be distracting.

My husband recently fell upon the awareness that in a two year posting, every week is approximately one percent of your tour. I find that both cool and shocking. What that means for us is that something like 12% of our tour is over – and we just got here! So, I feel torn between the moments when I just sink in and love it (the moments when I knock out everything on my list while simultaneously take time to just “be”) and the moments of the profound awareness that this will be another really quick two years of our lives and sooner than we know, we’ll leave behind all that we love here. And I ask myself, what will I, personally, have to show for it?

So, all that’s to say, every day brings ups and downs, successes and, if not all out failures, at least challenges. If I look at the to-do list I posted here a few weeks ago I see each item in the context of the mixed emotions of uprootedness, but I also see that, without even thinking much about it – I worked on that to-do list.

I have made cheese – really good homemade ricotta with local milk that smelled like, evidently, what milk is really supposed to smell like. Then, I tried to make the same recipe with powdered milk, which, according to the Internet, is totally possible. I ended up with a big pot of hot powdered milk. This clearly goes in the “fail” column.

Fish tacos – done! Really well done in fact. I got together with a group of girlfriends and provided the incredibly easy and, if I do say so myself, delicious corn tortillas. I’m personally not any closer to knowing how to make the beer battered fish. I was concentrating so much on the tortillas and the Coronas we got from the duty free store, I didn’t really pay attention to the fish process. But, it was delicious as enjoying great food in the company of friends always is.

The tomatoes are planted and starting to sprout. Not much to do there, but sit back and watch. And, I now have citric acid and cheese salt stored in two of my Ball jars…that’s something I guess.

So it is, as always, the ebb and flow. One day’s perfect the next it takes just a tad more effort to not see the long line of days stretching out and wonder what in the world I’m going to do with myself here. Luckily, I find the Foreign Service life makes a great excuse for seeing the glass half-full. I have the first little sprouts of basil and cilantro coming up which means sometime in the next few months we’ll enjoy garden fresh pesto and salsa. And, I have the sparkly, giggly eyes of a five month old, whose only home she’ll know for her first two years is this distant little world floating in the Indian Ocean. Maybe my lists, my productivity and my fulfillment come on the waves of these little gifts. If that’s not inspiration for making it count, I don’t know what is.

Tiny, baby Basil!
Itty-bitty Cilantro!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Trinkets and Leftovers

When my husband and I were first married, traveling around the world and fantasizing about how we could keep it up (ha, ha if we had only known…), we used to imagine one day having a small house somewhere (well, in Austin, obviously) and that house would be filled with all sorts of little objects from our adventures. While we try not to get too weighed down with odds and ends, we have, little by little, managed to get a small collection going of things from around the world. Many of these items are treasures we have picked up here and there, but others are small, simple gifts from friends back home. The Welsh love spoon we received from a Welsh friend in Japan when we were married, the Latvian spoon carved from a single piece of wood, the wrought iron flower with orange glass handmade by a friend in Austin, a stone box I picked up in Morocco on my very first trip to Africa 15 years ago and even the now grimy (from hanging in our window in Santo Domingo) beaded Christmas ornament that one of my best friends gave me at some point…I don’t even know when.

They’re just things, but I love the little reminders of friends near and far. These little trinkets can really make the long line of houses feel more like home. I like knowing that, while our friends might not realize it, someone (i.e. me) halfway across the world is thinking of them.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the other things we pick-up along the way. The intangibles. Because it’s not just the little objects we gather, but the habits of others as well. If there is one definite about this nomadic lifestyle it’s the extreme flexibility that begins to permeate every corner of your life. You might think one thing today, but then you meet someone new, or see something you’ve never seen before, or hear an unfamiliar sound or taste an exotic concoction and you think, “Well, that’s new!” And, then you start to do things just a bit differently.

In Santo Domingo, I ate lunch everyday with these ladies. They had a wonderful habit of taking bits of various leftover lunches from home and the office fridge and translating it into a feast. Even now, I can easily call to mind our big metal salad bowl with the remnants of a few heads of lettuce, a couple of nice tomatoes and maybe someone’s leftover green beans tossed with a dash of oil and vinegar.

Prior to Santo Domingo, I rarely, if ever, ate leftovers. I made huge dinners only to let them go to waste in the fridge. I regularly bought produce that I never prepared. I think it’s safe to say, admittedly, that I would throw out a bruised banana, a dented apple or a mushy grape without even a second thought.

I now look in the fridge, see one carrot, a bit of leftover rice, half a can of chick peas and two tablespoons of tomato paste and can immediately translate that into some really yummy dinner. We’re still here without a car and although people are really helpful and ready to give rides to the market, being able to see the pantry as half full has been a wonderful gift. I’m regularly reminded of my dear friends in Santo Domingo. Do they know my life was touched by their habit to waste not? Would they think it silly that it meant so much to me?

It’s like this, in life in general and specifically in the Foreign Service, that we collect our blessings. In small doses, a trinket here, a smooth, sand-washed stone from a distant beach there, a blurry snapshot taken from a whizzing bus window, a brand new way to use those last few shakes from the spice jar. And in the end, we find ourselves quite full and warm and at home.

Here’s a little something I enjoy making from the last odds and ends. This is a super-healthy, wonderful, quick and easy school lunch treat.

Mini Lunch Box Quiches


• A small amount of stale bread (I usually use the last of a two-day old baguette)
• A bit of veggies – broccoli that is just about to get rubbery is a good one or chopped potatoes left over from a previous meal or a tomato with just one small bad spot.
• Eggs – one egg per muffin tin slot
• Cheese – the very last of some shredded cheese is great, or the last couple bites of feta, or that two inch piece of Camembert that you decided against eating because one more bite would constitute a meal, not a snack

What to do:

  • Grease a muffin tin with butter.
  • Put a small piece of bread in each slot in the muffin tin.
  • Precook your veggies however you like (if they’re not cooked already). Chop them up and put about a tablespoon in each muffin tin slot.
  • Add a bit of cheese to eat muffin tin slot.
  • Whisk the eggs in a bowl (I use a large, glass measuring cup because I can pour easily from it into the muffin tins). Each muffin tin slot will have about one egg.
  • Pour egg into each slot.
  • Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes or until set. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Oh How Our Garden Grows

Oh my goodness, so much to catch up on. First things first, the garden is going well. I love to look at it and wander around the small patches of veggies popping up. However, I never really feel quite certain that I shouldn’t be more proactive when it comes to the garden and that can be a bit disorienting. Our gardener seems to take such pride and care in his creation, but I’m looking at the lettuce thinking it looks ready for the salad bowl and I wonder, “Am I supposed to pick that myself or will he bring it to the door when it’s ready?” These are things I should investigate when I’m not directly attached to a four month old. Oh, and by the way, no garden progress photos with this post (read “four month old”).

The gardener and I are chronically miscommunicating. I feel a bit bad for my housekeeper. She must dread it every time I go out the door with my crappy French and start talking to him. It’s almost certainly going to end with them speaking Malagasy, pointing seriously at various patches of land and me nodding along as if it all makes sense. The last time this got me with (1) an herb garden that is mostly tomatoes and (2) egg shells crumbled up on top of everything. By the way, I once heard about 5 minutes of a gardening program on NPR where they said to plant eggshells with your tomatoes. I didn’t really research this, but I was sure to confidently tell the gardener, “They do this in the United States.” He looked at me like I was crazy…then our housekeeper just told him to throw the eggshells on top. I just gave up….and, I’m still not sure where the herb garden plans went in all this.

Oh, and he really likes to water things…anything really. I hate to waste water. And yes, I’m a party pooper of a mother – no sprinkler play for us! Anyway, I gave up on the “Don’t waste the water” speech in the DR. I have my theories about why this doesn’t go over well, but I’ll refrain from presenting them here. Suffice it to say, our gardener is dedicated to the hose and sometimes I look out at my driveway and think it looks clean enough to eat off of. Right now his watering is causing me angst because in our house you can chose to water the lawn or take a shower, but you can’t do both at the same time. If, for any reason (read “a four month old”), my morning shower gets pushed back to 10:00 AM, I can be found, dripping with soap in my hair calling to the housekeeper to please ask the gardener to stop watering the dirt so I can finish my shower.

And THIS MOMENT people is when I think, “How in the world did I get here!?” Gardener?! Housekeeper!? Africa!? And then I go back to my brown water shower and feel so thankful that here…at least for now…we have hot water. Wouldn't trade it for anything.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Comfort Food for Thought

As it turns out, believe it or not, having three small children – two of whom are on summer vacation and one who is a newborn – greatly eats into my blogging time. Who would have thought? So, here I am with this long list of potential posts and things keep happening so the list keeps growing. I need to make some of these things priorities – like is it tortillas or vanilla extract that wins? Cookies or the garden? Perhaps a recap of the killer Indian I had out at a place called Le Terrace Exotique?

First things first I guess. I did make those tortillas from The Homesick Texan. They were fine. Actually, they were good. It’s just that it is so incredibly messy and time consuming to make flour tortillas and in the end they just never turn out quite perfectly. They always turn out good – it’s flat bread, best eaten hot with salted butter – but I am increasingly feeling like it’s not exactly worth the effort. Here is what I believe to be my tortilla truth – until I can find out how to make a flour (or whole wheat) tortilla that identically mimics Central Market tortillas I will not have found my tortilla Zen. Is this a challenge or am I giving up? Not sure.

 Now, on to the vanilla extract – success! I made these cookies this week (only without the chocolate chips). This vanilla extract smells perfectly and my cookies were a hit at home and with the few people on whom I forced them. Our nanny was the only one not impressed – when I offer her sweets she laughs and says, “I am not child.” I’m not sure what this means and I have decided not to investigate further – we’re only seven weeks into our relationship and I sense a discussion of her culinary tastes would only result in me being more confused…and with three kids I can’t spare the brain cells. Anyway, the extract looks to be the correct color and we didn’t get sick so I think I can totally file this under recipes.

You know, I have one more thing to say about the tortillas. We actually really enjoyed eating them and had a perfectly wonderful dinner of roasted veggie and black bean tacos with fresh avocado and pico de gallo. Although allotted one, we opted not to do a consumables shipment this tour and instead just packed the few consumables we purchased into our HHE. We bought things like ketchup and soy sauce and tahini, but not a ton of any of them. The only thing we brought a two years’ supply of? Black beans. Black bean tacos are our ultimate comfort food and that night we ate them – with gusto, our boys asking for seconds and then thirds. No complaints…and I ordered a bunch of corn masa to start on making corn tortillas because (1) I think that will be easier and (2) that’s what you need for fish tacos. 

Standards – such a funny thing. From post to post we learn to live with inconveniences and without the things we most love. And yet, the reality of this is that at each new door we are presented with opportunities to alter our standards and seek out something a bit different. I guess I like to think we get better at it. Could it be that less than perfect tortillas are the yang to the yin of my vanilla extract? Or maybe we just get better at problem solving….which I can only take to mean that I need an inside connection to the Central Market bakery and their secret tortilla files. Anyone?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Vanilla Extract

I am a person of projects. I need them. They keep me moving along. My mental list of projects is long…which is really a good thing since some of my projects are probably kind of lame…or un-doable…and it might be best to never get to them (like that children’s book I wrote about 10 years ago only to discover that it already existed, ha-ha).

The list. My list of “Things to Do While in Madagascar” ranges from sewing more, to reading more, to beginning a daily meditation practice to, of course, cooking and baking. I’ve been doing my best with the baking and cooking. I committed to borrowing a baking tray from our sponsors and began experimenting with flours within our first two weeks here so I could keep up with my pizza making. The baking tray couldn’t replace my pizza stones, but it did a more than passable job I think. And, compared to Santo Domingo, the flour here (albeit in rather small bags) is fantastic. That’s the French influence I’m sure – the bread here is delish!

This past week we got our HHE so I’m now loaded down with all of my pizza making supplies and tons of other great baking and cooking utensils. We’ve unpacked all of our kitchen gear and the boys’ toys…everything else is still sitting in boxes while I set about the joys of cooking….and the children (at least the two oldest) are entertained.

I’m rambling here. Anyway, the first thing on my list was to bake some cookies. But, imagine my surprise when I headed on over to ShopRite, our local supermarket, and only found the most imitation of imitation vanilla extracts…in fact, they didn’t even try to call it vanilla extract, they just opted for “Essence of Vanilla”….which I think might also exist on the perfume aisle of CVS…next to Electric Youth.

For those of you who are not aware – Madagascar is the land of vanilla. But, to my surprise, vanilla (the type that is grown here and in the other islands of the Indian Ocean) is really from Mexico! I highly recommend a quick read of the Wikipedia article on vanilla – super interesting. So, there I was, standing in the supermarket and thinking, “What!?” When I got home I called my sponsor – “What’s up with the vanilla extract? Am I looking in the wrong place?” She said she had only seen the Essence of Vanilla. But, then she saved me – “You know, you can just put some vanilla beans in a bottle of vodka, right?” No, no – I did not know that. Definitely one of those moments when you question what other, everyday things you don’t know.

Project Number One! Vanilla Extract! Today I picked up the cheapest little bottle of vodka I could find and a big hunk of vanilla beans. I got 50 grams for about 4 dollars (that’s like 20 vanilla beans). I looked vanilla beans up on Amazon and 10 beans will set you back about $13. Needless to say, much, much cheaper directly from the source. I used this website as my guide. Only when I got to the end did I realize you have to wait three whole months to have the extract! But, Cooks Illustrated (yes, yes my favorite) says it only takes one week. I vote one week until cookies or these Wheat Thins that I saw posted on Pinterest (my new addiction).

So there you have it – what is going to turn out to likely be a two-year supply of vanilla extract is brewing away in my cupboard behind a giant bag of Malagasy pink rice.

Project Number Two? I am still, after all this time not satisfied with how my flour tortillas are turning out. Tomorrow I’m trying this recipe from the Homesick Texan.

Are you curious about the rest of the project list? ‘Cause, you know me making food in Madagascar has got to be super interesting to y’all, right?

Well, just in case, here’s a preview:

 • learn to make cheese (major development on that front – found pasteurized fresh milk today!),
 • find good fish and make beer-battered fish tacos (I have this super Canadian totally cheering me on about the tacos…I feel like it’s a challenge),
• plant tomato seeds…and attempt to have tomatoes as an end result,
• figure out something to do with Ball jars….lots of Ball jars which I bought, on a complete and total whim, before we packed out.