Friday, January 29, 2010

To Have or Not to Have

I've been thinking a lot lately about the food we crave from home and how even the simplest thing comes to represent something we'd die to have, something we can't live without. Maybe that's tacos for me, but truth be told I can make them pretty much anywhere we have lived, so I never really have to do without them. I might miss the convenience of my favorite taco shack back home, or even the perfect salsa verde, but I don't exactly suffer for lack of tacos.

The first time I lived abroad (I studied in Sevilla, Spain in 1997) the Internet was, at least for most people, some strange sci-fi sorta' thing that was only for those willing to wait around for dial-up instead of just grabbing the phone. I remember asking my mom to send me boxes of my favorite cereal or peanut butter that would arrive weeks later completely demolished and sometimes opened. When my husband and I were first married we lived in Japan and we would make a semi-regular, two hour train trip to Hiroshima where we would wind our way through the ginza to a tiny shop called, of all things, Peter Pan, to buy packs of Old El Paso Taco Seasoning (I know…but it's Japan) and peanut butter. Now, with Amazon and Target and any number of other online grocery outlets, I can have what I want within days.

There is an interesting emotional experience that happens through the process of "doing without" and even the process of "getting to have." I have noticed that doing without something I love both inspires me to find alternate ways to make our favorite foods from home (see my veggie burger post coming soon) and create new dishes (like one of our new favorites - spicy Mexican veggie bowl). I have also noticed that I see foods differently when I have to cut out something that I can't get here. This has happened with meat substitutes. As a (historically) vegetarian family, I had not realized how much I was relying on meat substitutes at home - veggie burgers, soyrizo (which I really, really miss), seitan, tofu, tempeh. Every time we needed a protein, I would just throw in one of the above. Despite years of being vegetarian, I had started to stick with the same veggies over and over again (mostly tomatoes, spinach, green beans and salad). Here, almost all of our meals are chocked full of veggies and I am relying on this, combined with super whole grains (my Amazon quinoa order will be on its way soon) and perhaps eggs, cheese or milk to provide a great source of protein and nutritional balance.

So, doing without has actually resulted in more opportunities to have the things we weren't having before. And yet, the pure emotion that comes with being surprised to find something we love from home, to taste a hint of a treasured food is a part of this process too. We have always been whole grain bread eaters, but most of the bread here is ultra processed. Unbleached and whole-wheat flours are unheard of. I spent the first month or so after our arrival painstakingly going from super market to super market looking for good flour, experimenting with the bleached stuff and calculating the astronomical shipping costs and storage options if I were to order 50 lb bags online. Finally, one day I found unbleached and whole-wheat flour (at Bravo, of course). I literally had to talk myself down. "Don't run…walk briskly to the front of the store and get a cart…take several bags, but not all of it…you don't want to look desperate." I thought I would cry.

And, I am regularly reminded that we are not alone in this process. I went back to the States for 72 hours in November and the morning I dropped the boys off at my friends house, her nanny handed me $20 and a photo of a product my friend was requesting I try to pick up at Central Market in Austin. Our nanny, Vilma, is Peruvian. The other night she was lamenting having used her last pack of her favorite Peruvian aji brought from her last trip home four months ago. Her face lit up in disbelief when I found it online and placed an order.

Bite by bite, meal by meal and day by day, we maintain this gastronomical (and economical) dance. What to buy? What not to buy? What to order online? What to completely scrap from our mental and physical craving list? And, right here is where I want to wrap-up with some nice Buddhist doctrine, but would surely be taking it out of context (like people always do with Shakespeare quotes, ugg) - so, maybe best just to say: Here's to enjoying your next meal and tasting it again, for the first time.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Peruvian Crema Volteada

Our new nanny/housekeeper was rumored to be a good cook and, thank god, we are quickly learning this to be true. She shares my passion for food and when I set out to make a dish, she follows me around the kitchen taking mental notes of what I'm doing. This, admittedly, was a little annoying at first, but now I'm used to it. She has only been here two weeks and we are already learning from each other. This week she announced she would be teaching me how to make Crema "Boteada." I had no idea what that was, but imagined that it had something to do with cream and floating…or boats. Once she started dragging out ingredients I realized we were making flan.

A little Internet research revealed that what I believed was "boteada" (which means nothing) is actually "volteada" - as in "to turn upside down." And, that is exactly what you do with this Peruvian flan. Here's how you make it - without using measuring devices because Vilma doesn't use them. But, I have attempted to make guesses.

Peruvian Crema Volteada

About one cup sugar

One can Carnation Milk

One can condensed milk

Five eggs

About two tablespoons of butter

A pinch of salt

Somewhere between 1/8 c. and ¼ c. white wine

About 1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°

In a saucepan, pour one cup sugar and cook over medium high heat until it turns into syrup. Pour the syrup into the bottom of a square, glass baking pan. Pour water into a larger metal baking pan and place the glass baking pan into this pan. Make sure the water is not so high that it goes into the glass pan - a couple centimeters is good.

In a blender add the other ingredients and blend completely. Pour mixture into the glass baking pan. Cover with foil. Bake 1 ½ to 2 hours - checking after 1 ½ hours. It's done when it's set and the top is lightly browned.

When it's done, remove it from the oven and from the metal baking pan. Invert it onto a serving plate. Store in the refrigerator.

Our final review was that this is probably the best flan we have ever had. We found it to be denser than typical flan. My husband liked this because he normally finds the texture of flan kind of off-putting. The flavor was rich and creamy without being too sugary. The next day, I couldn't help myself - I ate it for breakfast. It's one of those perfect dishes where you just close your eyes and meditate on the flavors. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Hill of Beans

Moving to the DR has inspired me to make a shift in the way I cook beans…well, kind of. Theoretically, every other Sunday I will cook a big pot of black beans and a big pot of red beans and I will freeze them so that I have four meals worth of beans (two of each kind) for two weeks. This is working okay. I am cooking up the beans on a relatively regular basis - although I really just think it's so much easier to use canned beans. And then again, dry beans are just so much cheaper. I guess I am faced with the ever popular American concern of which do I care about more - my time or my money?

But, back to beans - I had attempted the dry bean cooking thing in the US a number of times (well, two…I think), but I found that canned beans were just so cheap it didn't seem worth it. My nanny seems to think canned beans are some weird sort of American luxury, or idiocy, I'm not sure which. I have tried a few different brands of canned beans here and have found that the quality of some is pretty bad - I open the can to find not much more than a black, red or white gelatinous cylinder. But, they're not all that bad. There is Goya.

At home I always bought Goya brand. I still like Goya. We remain mostly vegetarian and I have done quite a bit of bean-related research so I have strong bean opinions. I used to shop at Central Market in Austin where I ended up choosing Goya because paying over $2 for canned organic beans seemed crazy and the Central Market brand canned beans, while organic and less expensive are disgusting. Anyway, I keep straying from my point - which. is. that. - the very same can of Goya beans here has fewer beans! That's right! Goya brand beans that are canned in the Dominican Republic are still a pretty good quality, but the bean to bean-juice ratio is noticeably different. I've heard the term "export quality" here - as in, "We send the good stuff to the US and leave the rest for the Dominican populace." It makes me wonder if at some point there was a conscious decision to put in fewer beans or if it's just a matter of slight manufacturing differences or processing style. These are the things I think about. Now I'm thinking about food quality and socio-economics. Perhaps best left for another post. For now, if you want to read about Goya's history and think about beans - do so here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Organic Aisle

When all else fails and you're desperate for a taste of home - try Bravo! It's the most homelike of our local supermarkets here in the DR. Sometimes I go and stare at the organic food aisle - for only $15 per box I could have my favorite Puffins cereal, for $40 maple syrup direct from Canada. If I were desperate, I could settle for some Kashi TLC Cheddar Cheese Crackers that would only set my back $5 - a mere 53% mark-up! Of course, this doesn't figure in the 16% import tax…which technically we don't have to pay, but practically we do because of course it's quite inconvenient to like, use subtraction. So, like a toddler in front of the Christmas display, I stare and covet, but never buy…it is, just food. And, for every time I don't buy the stuff from home because I should not have to pay that much for stuff that was overpriced to begin with, I recommit myself to discovering new tastes. But, those Blue Sky sodas are only about $1…

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

El Huevo

As a cook in a home that has been largely dominated by vegetarianism for the past five years, I find eggs to be pretty much a staple. We're not vegan and I cannot imagine a life without breakfast tacos so where does that leave us? Eggs!

Well, today I got an egg-ful that I wasn't expecting. We have a new nanny/housekeeper - an interesting staple of the Foreign Service life. And, being that we are in Latin-America (or at least an extension of it) I guess it wasn't surprising that el huevo came up when I mentioned that our 21 month-old, Sam, seems to be having bad dreams. For several nights he has been waking up and screaming. It usually doesn't take long to get him calmed down, but he seems frightened and out-of-it and generally doesn't sleep well after that.

For many years, the vast majority of my clients were immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America, so it wasn't the first time I had heard of pasando el huevo or limpiar con huevo - an ancient Native American technique designed to rid the body of bad energy or illness. A whole raw egg is passed over the person's body and then discarded along with whatever things were sacado.

When our nanny mentioned that she could do it I thought, "Well, it can't hurt" and gave her permission to go ahead with it. To begin with she had to procure an egg. We have about 2 ½ dozen in our fridge, but…um…those won't work. She had to go out and buy one at the colmado - where, of course, you can buy one egg because this is DR. Five pesos in hand, I sent her on her way. The huevo sat all day in the kitchen until, after bath, book and song, Sammy was ready for sleep.

So here's how it went: She began by simply touching the egg to his leg. He rolled over and looked at her, gave a peaceful smile, then closed his eyes, grabbed his lovey and snuggled down. She continued to silently pass the egg over his body. It seemed to me that she was focusing on pressure points. Interestingly, she kept the egg moving the whole time, applying firm pressure, but obviously not so firm that it would break the egg. Sammy quickly fell into a deep sleep. She continued passing the egg for about five minutes. She then cracked the egg into a glass of water and went into the hallway to look at it under the light. This was actually the most amazing part! Almost the entire yolk was white! She said that he must have had "a lot." One thing I noticed is that he has been teething and she seemed really drawn to his jaw. She says that when she is passing the egg she can feel the parts of the body that are imbalanced or that need focus.

For me, when the whole thing was done and I saw the yolk I actually felt a little freaked out. I hadn't really expected it to "work" - whatever that means. And if it hadn't been for the white yolk then I probably would have been like, "Well, it was relaxing and he fell asleep. No big deal!" Obviously, there is the possibility that her warm hand and Sammy's warm body "cooked" the egg, etc, etc. Who knows? He is sleeping soundly though.

As for the egg - it's long gone. My husband had asked her at dinner if you're supposed to eat it. She thought that was crazy - because obviously she would then consume all the "bad stuff." And as for me, I am left wondering what a plate of scrambled eggs is gonna' look like come Saturday morning.

Initial Reflections and Realizations on the Lack of Tacos

At some point, somewhere I realized that most of my international (and domestic) food related adventures stem from one simple issue: lack of tacos. If I could just get real tacos, it would all be okay. I guess maybe it's not fair to say "real" tacos - I do believe that good food, like religion or preferred literary genre, is in the eye of the beholder. People like what they like. So, maybe I should clarify. Austin tacos. Taco-stand tacos. Manuel's, El Chilito, Juan in a Million, Taco Shack…I could go on and if you're from Austin I'm sure you could too. Everyone has his or her favorite. But the point is, tacos or the lack thereof have shaped me and my ability to adapt (or not adapt) to other cultures.

It's not that I don't love other types of food. Quite to the contrary - I adore almost all food. When I cook I get wrapped up in the color, texture, smell and endless possibilities of the raw goods laid out before me. And I love to serve food. Few things give me more joy than a table brimming with food surrounded by friends and family. But, there is no sense in denying - all food from here (my home in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic) to my previous homes (from Washington, DC to Tokuyama, Japan) is seen through the eyes of a taco. Taco goggles, if you will.

So, here's where I start, after many years of culinary adventures, to chronicle what these taco goggles have taught me about life, love, food, culture, politics and pure joy. Buen provecho and Bienvenidos.