Sunday, March 28, 2010

Yin and Yang

That thing pictured above is a Mamey Sapote - known in my local supermarket as a Zapote Criollo. I have had my eye on it since we arrived. It's another ugly fruit. Finally, today, I got up the nerve to try it. Evidently, it can be used for just about anything you would use fruit for - juice, salad, pudding, muffins.

I struck out. It was gross. I took one bite and threw it away. It's supposed to be bright orangish-pink inside (kinda' like Tang, I think), but the one I got was a little lighter and the fruit was a little firm. I think it wasn't ripe. It tasted how I imagine raw pumpkin would taste. It left a weird film inside my mouth. Yuck.

I'm totally blowing at this plan to make Dominican dishes. I've discovered that I mostly have to make them on the weekend because it's impossible to explain to Vilma why I have to make them and not her…and why I need to be able to do it without someone coaching me. Maybe I'm being difficult. I just want to be able to experiment and reflect and then perhaps have someone show me the right way. This is so me. I'm stubborn. My oldest is the same way - loves to do something until you start micromanaging. Anyway, I feel like I have to reserve the weekend for experimenting, but then the weekend comes and I want to experiment with things I am 100% certain we will love. And, I don't want to use meat - which requires an additional level of coordination because there is no naturally occurring vegetarian food here. As of now, I am dropping all Dominican-food related goals. We'll eat what looks good. Maybe it will be Dominican. Maybe it won't. If it is, I'll write about it. Deal?

On a more positive note - I made some fabulous red enchilada sauce today! At home I buy Hatch brand enchilada sauce . Yes, it's in a can, but I love the stuff. I also love the enchilada sauce on the Amy's brand, frozen enchiladas and Mexican bowls. I have been saying for a couple of years that I was going to figure out how to make enchilada sauce - one that perfectly mixes my two favorite pre-made sauces.

I can now say I will never buy canned enchilada sauce again. It was so easy to make my own. I minced half an onion and used about one tablespoon of prepared minced garlic. I sautéed these two things in a little olive oil and added about 1 tablespoon cumin and 1 teaspoon coriander. I also added about 1 tablespoon of chili powder. Once the onions were soft, I added one 6 oz. can of tomato paste and stirred it into the onion/garlic/spices mixture. I added water little by little - starting with about ¼ cup - until I got a thick sauce (the consistency of gravy). Then, I added a little packaged taco seasoning for spice (not sure how much, I added some here and there until it had the right heat level). I had considered adding Tabasco, but thought the taco seasoning might make for a better flavor - I think it worked well. Then I added a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar. I let it simmer for about 5 minutes and then it was done. I'm still basking in this victory. Another kitchen success born out of the lack of staples!

But, back to the zapote. I think I'm going to try again. And yet, I am pretty sure I'm not going to like it. It has a vaguely papaya-like feel to it. I have a couple of friends back in Austin who love papaya - not me though. I realize as I type this I am making a disgusted face. What should I do? Zapote? No Zapote? I'm gonna' go for it. If any of you have zapote-related experiences, I'm game for hearing more. This fruit's got me all tangled up.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


One of the very first things we discovered when we got here was chinola. Chinola is passion fruit. I'm not actually sure anyone in the States eats or drinks passion fruit. My guess is that you might buy some sno-cone called passion fruit, but I'm pretty sure it's not a common fruit in the States. Here it's like gold. You don't eat chinola, by the way. You juice it and drink it. It's amazing. However, it is difficult to imagine how it was discovered. It's not something you look at and think, "Yum!" The outside is dry and wrinkly and feels a little bit like….I don't know how to describe it…kind of like if ping pong balls were inflatable and you partially deflated a peach-sized one. Does that make sense? Anyway, they're ugly. You open them up and they look a little bit like an orange, rotten pomegranate. They are filled with seeds and have a sour, bitter taste - like if you crossed the juice of a lemon with orange zest. Sounds horrible, doesn't it?

However, once you complete the long process of juicing it - which includes scooping the insides into the blender, then pouring the blended juice through a strainer, pressing out the juice from the pulp, discarding the tiny black seeds (they look just like poppy seeds), mixing the juice with water and sugar syrup, you literally have one of the tastiest beverages imaginable. For some extra kick in the evening…or, you know, it's DR so afternoon is fine too…mix in a little of the fabulous and inexpensive local rum and it's smooth sailing on your tropical paradise.

We had Austin friends (who now live in New York) visiting this weekend - a pure joy and total treat - and I'm pretty sure their favorite DR food moment was that first sip of chinola. Their love only grew stronger when they tried it that evening with rum.
What a surprise chinola is - this ugly thing with a horrific taste that somehow transforms itself into to liquid comfort right in front of your taste buds. My oldest son loves the story The Ugly Duckling. I guess it's the classic tale - you never know what is lurking beneath the surface.

It's true in life and in food. When our friends were here we ended up eating much more local food than we ever do when it's just us. Maybe that's because we get our fill, but I think it's also because when it came down to it, we wanted to show them a little bit of the local flavor (and they're pretty adventurous eaters). Santo Domingo is big and bustling and, while I actually think it's beautiful in its own way, many people do not. I felt the need to show them
here like it truly is our home. Not just the surface, but the nooks and crannies too. We found ourselves driving around rattling away non-stop about this and that. They may have tuned out, I don't know, but I at least felt this need to get at it all, to cover every single detail. Now that they're gone, I am sure I will start working on the narrative, the sights, the food for the next set of visitors.

It's a big part of the Foreign Service life - this creation of a new home somewhere else. It's my favorite part I think. Because, you know, for all the waiting we do, for all the hoping, for all the unexpectedness - we do end up somewhere. And when we do, we want to share it because even though it's not always pretty, it's always ours and it's always, always, always good to see the good stuff in the middle of the crazy.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Sell Me Something

Here's an interesting thing that happens here - sales people, representing various vendors are placed strategically in the grocery aisles and they try to sell you stuff. Once I was in the rice aisle and this poor 20-something girl had the rather unfortunate job of trying to convince me to buy the more expensive plain white rice. The other day, Vilma and I were at Bravo and this sad lady in a chef's hat was hoping we would buy her garlic paste. She claimed, "It is more natural than that one you're about to buy." I looked at the ingredients and said, "They have exactly the same ingredients." She replied, "Well yes, but this one has a better flavor." Vilma said, "No, I've tried them both. We'll buy this one." Crazy.

I was all wrapped up in how weird this was and then I remembered, "Uhhh, I used to work at a supermarket. Isn't this the same as the sample people?" Why yes. Yes it is. But, like so many things here, it seems different. It seems like here that not only do they actually want you to buy it, they're willing to tell you all sorts of ridiculous things to get you to buy it. Vilma will tell me all this time that such-and-such is good for this-and-this and I'm like, "Really, that just looks like plain ol' whatever."

And, my recollection from home is that when you stop by the sample stand to try your Jimmy Dean Pig in a Blanket…or, actually where I worked it was things like, Gruyere Puff with Caramelized Onion on a Bed of Baby Greens…but, anyway, when you stop to pick up your random goodie on a toothpick, you don't actually have any intention whatsoever of buying what's being hocked. You just want some free food. Here, I see people all the time walking away with whatever's being sampled. My favorite is the sample stand at Price Mart (it's like Costco) where they sample mayonnaise on yucca crackers - dis-gust-ing! But, there people go, "Mmmmm…mayonnaise! Give me two industrial-sized jars of that stuff!"

So, here is where I say forget what I just said. Are you ready? This happens at home too, believe it or not! The difference? I've written about this before, but it never ceases to amaze me and remind me of why I love living abroad so much. My eyes are just more open here. I'm forced to examine habits and practices that are easy for me to ignore at home. It's harder to be blind to what's happening around you when everything looks and sounds so different. And, above all else, what I find is that this makes it easier for me to make an honest assessment of the realities of my own culture. I'm finding the thought process that begins with "We would never do…." rarely ends where I think it will.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Danger Factor...and Pizza

Here's the skinny on Dominican pizza. There are three categories - edible, awful and disgusting. Given the situation, I have become a bit of a pizza making fool, but my ambition (and lack of proper tools) caught up with me and Friday night resulted in an epic pizza fail.

I don't really want to talk about the pizza fail itself - it involved a 500 degree oven full of dripping pizza, a broken pizza stone, pizza that resembled a crime scene and a handful of words I should not have been saying in front of my children. You can imagine.

What you might be surprised to hear is that at the end of this craziness - and trust me, it was madness around here - my four year old sat down to his tumor-esque glob of cheese and pasta sauce and said, "What a fun night!" When I called my mom to recount the adventure she replied, "Why didn't you just get delivery?" It's all perspective I guess, but it got me thinking about choices.

Sometimes I remember out of the blue, that not everyone would choose the life that we've chosen. In fact, obviously, most people wouldn't. My pizza fail was in part an issue of the fact that I cannot get the proper pizza making supplies here. I have to order them from home. I miss being able to just go to Target. I bought a "stone" at a home supply store here - obviously it was the wrong kind…or something. And, another part of my pizza problem was the fact that there was no way I was going to get delivery. A Friday night in becomes a production when you're doing everything from scratch. I don't mind it…but, you know, it would be easier to call up our local pizzeria. And yet, and yet, this is what we choose.

But, many State Department employees sacrifice much more than pizza. People die doing this job. Why would we choose this? I don't know. At what point would the sacrifice become too great. I can choose to tolerate cooking disasters, but natural disasters? War? Death? Do we become addicted to this life? Does it become the only thing we know? I had a great life back in Austin, but I can say with all honesty the idea of returning to my old life pretty much scares the crap out of me - it was so set, so planned, so predictable. I love this new life. I choose to love it. Yes, we live on a Caribbean island, a paradise, but it's not always perfect. I choose to love what I love about it and just move on from the stuff I don't. I choose to go ahead and order those supplies from Amazon and hope that next time I don't almost burn the house down. But, here's what I'm left wondering on the eve of a tragedy in a town where I have close FS friends, at what point would I choose to say "never mind" and how will I know when I get there?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My tacos. My home. My soul.

So it has just dawned on me that some of you may think I am exaggerating when I talk about tacos. That, you know, they're just some crunchy things with meat…or something. Oh, oh, oh they are so not that. Tacos and coffee are Austin. And Austin tacos are like nothing you have ever had - perfect for their simplicity, their Austiness. It's a thing you feel. There are moments in Austin when you're sitting outside, the air that perfect warm, your nose is probably itching because it's always allergy season, and you're drinking your café con leche and eating a potato, egg and cheese and you just know life couldn't get any better.

Today this absolutely perfect article appeared in the New York Times. I was transported…and hungry…and more than a little nostalgic. Enjoy.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Today I did the unthinkable. I bought an apron. Well, three actually (it was cheaper to go with the multipack). This is it. I am undeniably and officially an at-homer. One of the things that has been the most challenging for me since we began this Foreign Service life is that place on forms where you have to put profession. I want to stress that I have nothing against people being at home with their children - I think it's awesome. I have many friends that do it with pure joy and poise and laughter and I think they are some of the coolest moms (and dads) around. It is just not where I imagined myself. It is especially not where I imagined myself quite comfortable with the way things are.

So, I bit the bullet and decided better to get an apron than to keep staining my clothes with flour and oil and butter and chocolate and tomato and…wine. Maybe I should work towards just wearing the apron all the time.

I have this subtle, if not completely unsubstantiated, feeling that the apron will help me reclaim my kitchen a little bit. I had a friend in college who grew up overseas and she used to complain about having a full-time housekeeper and cook. I thought she was crazy and perhaps a little spoiled. But, she used to say that sometimes, especially when you're a teenager, you just want to throw together a peanut butter sandwich or make a gooey plate of brownies and lick the bowl. She always felt a little sad that she missed out on such opportunities.

As blessed as we are to have someone as amazing as Vilma with us, I do have moments when I just want my own kitchen space. Sometimes I cook something that I have been cooking for years - something we all love - and I find myself wondering if Vilma will like it and feeling bad if it doesn't turn out just perfect. It's like having a constant house guest. I have flipped hundreds of omelets in my life - never, ever missed the skillet - except the other day when Vilma was 12 inches from me, watching over my shoulder. I was a little short with her the other day when she wanted me to buy a soy sauce like substance to "color" the food. Soy sauce should have three or four ingredients, not fifteen. And, I like my food the color of itself. It's hard to explain. And one more thing, we like brown rice. We don't boycott white rice, it's fine, but we like brown. That's what we eat. Please just make brown rice.

And then, today, she made sautedita de atun . I really can't complain, can I? But, maybe there are some as of yet undiscovered gifts in the apron. I'll put it on and like a magic cape I can be invisible. Stirring, mixing, pouring, Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, spoon microphone. Home again.

Monday, March 8, 2010

El Famoso Tostón

I'm finding myself wanting to write about food with profound observations about the culture and social structure of my host country and realizing, sadly, that I just can't do it - at least not all the time. Despite being surrounded daily by Dominicans - we don't live on a compound, my kids go to a local preschool, I'm out and about all day long - I find myself still on the outside looking in. I am certain that Dominicans include topics like race, slavery, imperialism and social justice in their daily gabs (Right? Right?), but I'm not getting invited to those discussions so where does that leave me?

I wonder if that is where the food thing comes in - it's not difficult to access the food. Dominicans love Dominican cuisine. They talk about it like I talk about tacos. So, I'll keep writing about the simple, simple food in this complicated place and hope that some day I will have something more profound to say. Maybe if someone teaches me how to make something I'll say, "So, do you have any thoughts about the African origins of this dish?" Or, maybe I'll just stick to the fail-proof, "Aye! Que rico!"

In my endeavor to make the rounds with Dominican cooking, I have opted to start with tostones. It may be cheating - I learned how to make them right after we moved here. They're easy and delicious and I guarantee, if you have friends who haven't tried them, you can pass them off as some sort of culinary masterpiece and they will never know the difference. They'll say things like,"Wow! How did you learn to make these?" and "Oh my god, I had these one time in this little Dominican restaurant in the Bronx. I love them!"

Tostones are a staple of the Dominican plate - they're served as an appetizer or a side dish…or you can just eat some with a Presidente and call it a meal. My love of food includes the healthiest of the healthy (I love a warm salad of gently sautéed spinach and grilled tomatoes) and the seriously worst of the worst (I eat marshmallow Peeps and no matter where in the world I am, my mom sends me a box for Easter). I would rank tostones somewhere in the middle - you fry them in oil (twice), but they don't absorb much of it and they are rich in fiber and vitamins and aren't as sugary as bananas. Come to think of it, they may even be pretty healthy. I don't really know.

Here’s what you do to make enough for four people:

Peel and slice 6 green plantains into 1-inch thick chunks. Do not buy bananas. Not that you would. But, I just have to stress - plantains are not bananas. Get ones that are super green. FYI - in other parts of Latin America (especially central Mexico, if I remember correctly) they make sweet plantains using plantains that are very, very ripe (blacker than any banana you would ever eat). Tostones are completely different from that - so, remember, go green! By the way - they are pretty difficult to peel - you'll need a paring knife.

Heat oil about two inches deep in a skillet. I always use canola oil, but probably anything except olive oil would work - most Dominicans use corn oil.

Once the oil is heated, drop the plantain chunks into the hot oil (you may have to do this in batches). Don't crowd them too much and make sure you move them around a bit at the beginning to make sure they're not sticking to the pan. Fry them until they're golden and then remove them and let them cool for a couple of minutes on a paper towel lined plate. After they have had a minute to cool place them on a cutting board and mash them with the bottom of a glass. They actually have this little masher thing that they use here. I came to the assumption that it was for mashing plantains and I still think it is, but I used one this time and it didn't work as well as using a glass (they weren't perfectly round like they usually are), so next time I will go with the glass.

After you have all the plantains mashed (they should look like little starbursts), put them back in the oil and fry them until they are golden all over. Remove them from the oil and drain them on a paper towel. Add salt.

That's it! It's very easy. Being from Texas I like to dip my fried things in something creamy so just out of curiosity this time I made an aioli for dipping - it was super tasty - although, presumably it canceled out the healthiness. But, you know, to each his own. They're also really tasty with a little lime juice squeezed on top. Enjoy - you're one step closer to making an entire Dominican feast!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

This is What I Do

Hmmmm - don't know if I can claim éxito, but I can claim much improvement on the
tortilla front . I did some combing of various Internet recipes and then just decided to combine them all with my own desire to use butter (as opposed to lard, shortening or oil) as the fat and ended up with some pretty tasty whole wheat tortillas. When I whipped them up yesterday I was super excited about this - I ate one (or two) right out of the skillet with butter and they were perfect. The sun was shining in my kitchen window where I look out at beautiful Caribbean flowers and hear the pool pump (yes, my husband is an Entry Level Officer and we have a pool - don't blame us, we just showed up and there it was) and wind chimes (always blowing with the nice sea breeze even though we are about two miles from the water). Life was good. I wasn't rushing. I had plenty of time to make the short walk over to the boys' school to pick them up. I was singing happy songs in my head.

Then I reheated the tortillas for dinner and they were nice, but had dried out a little bit. This was to be expected - fresh tortillas are always better right off the skillet. Today I reheated one in the microwave with a wet towel. While I normally strongly disagree with heating tortillas in the microwave, it can be done if you wrap them in a damp towel. This actually softened up the tortillas quite a bit - I'm glad I tried it. We have about 6 left - that's how I'll reheat the rest of them too. They were tasty, but on day two they left me feeling a little disappointed.

Sometimes, in these cooking adventures, I feel completely satisfied with my creation - like yesterday around 11:00 AM. Other times, I feel like, "Ya cool. So what. I made tortillas. Last year I was helping people not commit suicide." I have been on a bit of a high the past couple of weeks. I feel like somehow I am finding my voice and my space; as a trailing partner, even with the most supportive of employed partners, you tend to have your career (and perhaps more) sidelined. It's not all bad by any means. I never dreamed of being a stay-at-home mom, but I wouldn't trade all of the time I have had with my boys in the past year (we reached our one year FS anniversary this week). In DC and here in Santo Domingo, we have had free reign of millions of adventures. In our family, I am the one who has ended up knowing how to navigate our new cities. And I can't imagine giving up the opportunity to live abroad. But, at the same time, I wonder if making tortillas is my best me. Perhaps I should be doing something more productive. Maybe I should be making more of an attempt to return to my professional life in some form.

The very recent truth is…and this is a reality that is, for some reason, difficult for me to admit…I actually really, really love my non-professional life (whatever that means). Making tortillas gives me great joy. I'm trying to remind myself to admit to the great happiness I feel with what I am doing now and not get hung up on what I believed would make me happy when we started this journey. Life is so teeming with unpredictability - especially in the Foreign Service - what an opportunity for reinvention. So, with my apparently successful bid at making a likeable tortilla, I am reminded of the need to embrace the wide-open space ahead, spoon in hand and possibly a dash of reinvention here and there. These things make me happy. My life is good. I make tortillas.

Oh, and if you want to make some too - here's how.


  • 2 cups all purpose flour (I used bleached because (1) that is what most of the flour is here and (2) it has a lower gluten content which I read is good for tortillas, but really, who knows)
  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • ½ cup soft or melted butter
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 ½ cups warm water
  • 1 ½ tsp baking powder
Mix everything together. Pull off plum-sized chunks and roll into balls. Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat. Roll out the first dough ball onto a floured surface - get it as thin as you can without tearing it. Using your fingers or a spray bottle, slightly dampen the top of the flattened dough. Place the raw tortilla, damp side down, into the skillet. Use a spray bottle or your fingers to spray a little bit of water on the up side of the tortilla. When the tortilla starts to bubble, turn it over using tongs. Roll out the next tortilla while you are waiting for this one to cook. When it looks done (a few golden brown spots), place in a basket lined with a dish towel and keep covered. Repeat the steps above until all the tortillas are done.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mastering the Art of Dominican Cooking

Here's where I admit that it would probably be a tragedy to live here two years and never learn how to cook Dominican food. But, here's also where I don't lie - if I were in India or Italy or Thailand I would perhaps never leave the kitchen…well, okay I kind of don't do that anyway, but for different reasons. Anyway, I would be like Julia Child and her French cuisine and spend every moment making sure that I returned to the US under the banner of Best Gringa Cook of All Things Indian (Italian or Thai) in the World. Here I'm like, "Okay, rice, beans, green plantains. Got it." But seriously, it would just be lame to not master these dishes whether I adore them or not. And, like I have said before, I don't exactly dislike Dominican food, I just don't find it to be especially interesting.

Today I set out to buy a Dominican cookbook. This experience was so…Dominican. Dominicans are, by and large, friendly. This does not, however, negate a fact of life here - everything is done with a certain level of attitude. Dominicans seem to be best at sticking it to each other, but they don't sugar coat things for you just because you're a foreigner (unless you're in the Zona Colonial - where all of a sudden you can pay with dollars and eat wrap sandwiches all while speaking your apparently flawless Spanish). Typically, if you ask for directions you'll most likely get, "Pa'lla" and a pointed finger. People will roll their eyes at you (the teenager, in-your-face kinda' way) if you ask for a receipt. It is not unheard of for cashiers to tell you tough luck to paying your phone bill because if you don't have correct change down to the peso I have no time for you. Evidently, the same attitude can be applied to recipes. I ended up using the favorite Dominican dish mofongo as my cookbook meter.

Here's a translation of the recipe pictured below:


8 fried plantains, green
1 ¼ fried pork rinds or Chicharrones (fried pork rinds) well toasted
salt to taste

Mash the fried plantains and the chicharrones in the same pilón (wooden mortar and pestle) you used for the garlic, add salt and a little bit of oil.

Serves 6.

Now, I know exactly what mofongo looks like so I could figure this out, but seriously, what if you were making this recipe in say, Muncie, Indiana? You would be like, green bananas? Pork rinds? Mortar and pestle?!! So, I figured I would just go to my best FS friend and order up a nice Dominican cookbook in English. It turns out that there are a couple of English language Dominican cookbooks out there! However, they have less than stellar feedback. Apparently, non-Dominicans had trouble figuring out the recipes. Go figure.

But, I am not giving up. It's my new commitment. Once a week, until I get bored, I will make one Dominican dish. I have already mastered tostones - fried green plantains. Maybe I'll whip up a batch tomorrow. Then, on to mofongo.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Jugo de China

There was a point in my life, I clearly remember, when I considered fresh squeezed orange juice to be a luxury. That was probably way back four months ago when oranges cost me around $2 per pound and were only good for a brief period between, I don't know, January and April. Actually, I can't remember how much oranges used to cost me. I wonder what that means? But, I do remember that two good-sized Valencias yielded one small juice glass of product - a tragedy in vitamin C really.

Last summer I bought my husband a small juicer because, after visiting a friend's in-laws in Utah and having fresh-squeezed OJ for breakfast every morning, I got this crazy idea that providing him with this liquid gold would be a very special way to tell him how much I love him. He was happy with the juicer and religiously juiced himself a big glass of OJ every morning (my thoughtfulness did not include actual labor on my part). However, after about a month I realized we were spending four times as much on OJ and I nixed the juicer-every-day calendar for the very-special-day system. He relented. He had no choice of course. An unfortunate fallout of our new FS life is that I do all the shopping - it's so 1950s.

Then, then, then we moved to a tropical paradise where oranges are perfect in every way, year round and only cost about $2 per 10 lb bag (yes, that's right, 20 cents per pound)! I just wish people from home could really know what it's like to have fresh juice every single morning. Am I right that most Americans do not drink fresh-squeezed juice every morning? It's something special. You save it for that graduation brunch or Valentine's breakfast in bed - and even then you buy juice that someone else has freshly squeezed. Or, maybe I have just lived years in juice ignorance while all of my loved ones were happily juicing away their dollars, but not me - we were carton OJ drinkers.

Either way - here, now we drink fresh OJ and it is one of those things that I so much do not know how I will ever do without. We are going home to Austin for R&R in July and I am already planning how much I will have to work out so I can eat breakfast tacos, guilt-free every morning - my mom lives within walking distance from Taco Shack so, you know, could be a new running route. But anyway, for all the wonderfully perfect food moments I will have in Austin, I know that every morning I will have this empty little place in my heart for the sweet nectar that coulda' been.

For you edification - Dominicans call orange juice jugo de china. In most of the Spanish speaking world, it's jugo de naranja and in Spain zumo de naranja. I thought this was strange and had very little luck getting to the bottom of it until I found this article. Now, I didn't do anything to try to verify this information and it could be completely false, but it looks good to me so I plan to perpetuate it as fact when the topic comes up. If you come across a better explanation please feel free to let me know.