Friday, February 26, 2010

Mi Panadería


This week I undertook several baking projects. Baking is becoming a new thing of mine - for better or worse I guess. I love cookies and I enjoy baking with friends as a kind of social thing…I don't dislike baking. But, it has really always been more Jeremy's thing. This is true for one simple reason - Jeremy likes to stick to the "rules" and I like to make up my own. Cooking was my thing, baking his. This started to change when our youngest was born. I took some time off from work and started cooking more - we spent less time cooking together. Then, I just started baking more. Now, with Vilma doing more and more of the cooking (she knows very little about baking), I tend to do the baking. It's my specialty now…I guess. I am finding it much more experimental here than I did at home. That's good. It means I get to make things up and try out new ideas. I used to have a subscription to Cook's Illustrated , but gave it up a long time ago because (1) it was very light on the veg options and (2) I never had time to cook any of the recipes. Now I realize - HEY! I should restart my subscription.

Some Foreign Service friends of ours gave us Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day before we left for post. I had already been baking some of the bread using the recipes the authors have available on line, but once I had the book in my hands I found myself reading and studying the recipes and trying to find ways to perfect them given the difference in product quality and climate here. I have found that the humidity greatly affects the outcome of most baked goods - especially bread, biscuits and muffins. I have already written about my adventures in hunting down unbleached and whole wheat flours, but even though that is no longer a problem, I am still baffled by things like brown sugar, coconut and chocolate (the DR is a major exporter of these products, but they are just not quite the same here). However, I can say, despite continued confusion in some areas, my bread production seems to be smooth sailing. I have now purchased enough oven stones to turn my oven into quite the panadería and was able to easily bake seven fresh loaves for an Embassy bake sale benefiting the US Embassy Haiti FSN (Foreign Service Nationals) Relief Fund.

One area of experimentation that is still in process is my tortilla production. I have been using a recipe that I got from my mother-in-law when we lived in Japan and first started making our own tortillas. Somehow here though, it just isn't turning out correctly. Don't get me wrong - flat bread that you put things on is pretty much food of the gods around here, so I can't mess up too badly. But, they are still not perfect and therefore, I have work to do. The biggest problem is that they're turning out too bready - they puff on the skillet, but instead of getting chewy, they kind of get more like Naan (which I have made here too). I was doing a little research today and I think I may need to change flours. This totally cracks me up because the zeal with which I hunted down unbleached flour was only perhaps matched by the fanaticism of Dominican baseball lovers. Seriously - do not come between me and my unbleached flour! The tortilla problem, I think, is that the gluten content in the unbleached flour is too high. But, I don't want to just use that baby powder looking dust they sell here…perhaps I can mix whole wheat? Split the difference - decrease the gluten content slightly on the batch, but go for at least a hint of healthfulness by adding the whole wheat? I sound scientific here, but trust me, I have no idea what I'm talking about. Remember - I use Wikipedia and say things with conviction - that's pretty much it.


Hmmmm…gotta' go - I have pizza to make - hoping it doesn't turn out like crackers because I ran out of yeast when mixing up the dough and I was too lazy to get dressed and go get more. Stay tuned for a final tortilla update - too bad I can't offer a taste test.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Spices Anyone?


Maybe I am completely ignorant, but when I saw MSG on the shelf in the spice aisle I was totally taken aback. Do they have this on shelves at home? Maybe it's just the fact that it's labeled as "100% Seasoning." I mean, really, really? Anything could be labeled "seasoning." I seriously do not recall ever seeing this on the shelf at home. Perhaps it's something to research a little more during R&R.

That actually gets me thinking. One of the best things about being abroad is the way in which you start seeing the world around you again, for the first time. You notice things you don't notice at home because you have no choice - everything looks different. For this reason, I have always felt like being abroad enables me to live more, or at least be more mindful of my tiny little place in the grand scheme of things.
DR has been a kind of mid-range culture shock for me. I speak Spanish and every single second of every single day I am so happy that's the case. The Spanish here is abbreviated and slurred and fast, but it's still Spanish. I enrolled my boys in school, I converse with Vilma about every topic under the Sun, I go to the store, I order pizza and I can even tell you off if I really, really have to (although it's not my preferred method of handling a situation). In short, I have been able to make my life work and the adjustments I do have to make seem more doable because language is not as big of an issue. For this reason, I worry sometimes that I will quickly become less mindful and begin to just make assumptions about my surroundings. It may already be happening - Motorcycles swerving the wrong way down a one way street? No problem! Negotiating the price of a pineapple? Bring it on! Two hours to pay the phone bill? Old hat I say! But, poco a poco, when all this starts to seem normal then what? A dash of MSG to spice up my life?

Caffe Milano


You can't live here long without realizing that Santo Domingo is an exercise in contradictions - the lazy island vibe in the middle of a bustling metropolis, a city brimming with workers going about selling their trade coupled with an often fiery disposition that in the US would send buyers running for the door, the stark poverty of a four year-old hand outstretched, begging for ten pesos at the window of the Lexus driving fashionista.

Caffe Milano (Avenida Tiradentes, Naco), the location of our last date night, somehow made these contradictions, and the volatility of the city seem more vivid. The food was excellent - they specialize in a wide array of Italian inspired fare including pizzas, meats, salads and pastas. The service was the best we have had here so far. We had a couple of perfect glasses of red wine (after simply ordering the house red, we meant to ask about the name, but forgot). The dessert (la bomba de chocolate) was an absolute work of culinary ostentation, if not art or perfection of flavor. The restaurant is open air in the middle and the walls are draped in white. All of the lighting is dim and blue. It vaguely makes you feel like you're in Express for Men, but it's not as bad as it sounds. It's fun. It's like a club. There's even a DJ.


So, here we sat in the middle of this swanky place, surrounded by the most chic members of Dominican society overwhelmingly aware of the imbalance of it all. This nation has a long history that is not unlike the surf that surrounds it - a waxing and waning between independence and occupation, democracy and totalitarianism (or worse). The scale at Caffe Milano was tipped in favor of its patrons - overwhelmingly white, wealthy, visado (with US tourist visas that is) and worldly. The side we see most days is not these things. It was striking. It is still striking. It has left me wondering if the rich and the poor remember the volatility of their positions in the history of things here and feel daily that it would only take one coup d'état, one brand new Constitution or even one surprise earthquake to send things flip-flopping back the other way. I find I want to learn more and wish I could find a class on Dominican identity - perhaps a good honest book would do the trick…or at least shed a bit more insight.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Sautédita de Atún



My comfort food here may end up popping up in unlikely places. Like usual, Vilma told me she could make, "blah, blah, blah" and I, with a smile responded, "Sure. That would be good." The problem I am finding is not that I don't understand the words she's using - it's that I don't know what the dishes are. She doesn't speak English, so there is not really a way to give a reverse example. But, imagine she did and I said I was going to make muffins (which I did the other day). Muffins were a completely foreign concept to her. She kept saying, "We call those little cakes." And I was like, "Well, it's not really cake because that would be cupcakes." Anyway, as I have said before, I am moving towards just trusting her and realizing that I will probably like what she makes whether I know before hand what it is going to be or not.

Sometimes, I not only like what she makes, I am bowled over by how incredibly perfect the food on my plate is. You know how when something really, really nice happens you feel that event, or the emotions of it, like a cozy place in your heart for the rest of the day? You just feel at peace and present with what is. And, I'm not talking about something spectacular like winning the lottery or learning you got a great new job. I'm talking about the one line at the end of a movie that just perfectly captures the scene or the gentle guidance you hear one of your children give the other when you're in the other room. That kinda' stuff.

That's comfort food…OMG…I may have just invented those books that already exist (those Chicken Soup for the Soul books). I think it's funny when that happens - makes originality seem so over-rated. Anyway, Vilma made something the other day that filled my belly and my soul. It was the most random food, served up in the most random way, completely on the fly, but at that moment I was like, "Heaven has come to my kitchen!" As always, Vilma doesn't use recipes and I didn't watch her make this, but here is my best guess on how one could recreate Sautédita de Atún.

Ingredients:

  • Two medium sized potatoes cut into French fries
  • One small red onion cut into small wedges
  • Two Roma tomatoes cut into wedges
  • One handful fresh flat-leaf parsley chopped - as garnish
  • One can chunk tuna in oil

The Steps:

Fry the French fries in a skillet with oil. This was actually the most amazing step to me because I know you have to get the oil just right to prevent sticking. These French fries were perfectly golden and crispy without being burned. In a separate skillet, sauté the other ingredients (except the parsley). Add salt and pepper to taste and a dash of paprika (we use Spanish paprika). Toss in the French fries and garnish with parsley. Serve alongside rice.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Herbal Diplomacy


There are millions and millions of everyday facts about which I am unaware. This may come as a surprise to my four year old...well, not really, he regularly schools me on appropriate Lego construction. And, of course, I know I don't know much about a whole range of things. But, sometimes I learn something new that makes me feel like, "No freakin' way! How could I not have known this?"

This is how I come out the other side of my first lesson on cilantro vs. culantro. Of note: Microsoft Word does not recognize the word "culantro" - I am not alone! Okay. So, the other day Vilma was telling me to get cilantro, but not cilantro (which apparently is actually "verdurita"), I should get culantro. Which is the same, but not - because the leaves are wider and it's very healthy and you can drink it in a tea (or something) and it's good for kids…Vilma's list of examples of its uses and the detailed description did nothing to clarify for me what exactly I was supposed to get.

I showed up in the herb section of the nearest supermarket - Jumbo. A quick word on Jumbo - it's pretty much identical to Super Wal-Mart. I don't shop at Wal-Mart back home so I can't really say, but I do imagine that Wal-Mart is better at keeping their shelves regularly stocked one week with the things you saw the week before, but that's another story. However, picture Super Wal-Mart. And, picture a giant fresh herbs section. They actually have some killer herbs here! I have made the best pesto of my life here with giant, green, healthy bunches of basil that sell for about 30 cents. Anyway, you have the mental picture. Then imagine me looking at these big piles of green and trying to figure out which one is the culantro. I had a garden back home and my step-dad keeps a large plot as well, so I feel pretty confident about my herb identification skills. Oh, and I worked for several years at Central Market in Austin - so I feel like I should be able to find this mystery herb. But, no luck. To Vilma's disappointment I returned home with the same old cilantro that I have always known (and found impossible to grow in a hot summer, Texas garden).

When I got home I looked up "culantro" in my Spanish-English dictionary and found "coriander." Okay, so I always thought coriander was essentially the seeds of cilantro. This is where I start to assume that Vilma is just mistaken - not me. You would think I would have learned my lesson in this area. Hmmm…professional nanny/cook who has lived in DR for ten years vs. me (who is not those things). Seriously, is this Amerocentrism at its most basic or what! So, I had this plan to Google all this and get to the bottom of it. But, I forgot about it and figured, "Whatever. We can just use the normal stuff."

Then yesterday Vilma went to the market with me and showed me the culantro. At last, this prompted me to do a little research. Cilantro and culantro are cousins. Culantro is very common in the Caribbean and yet another cousin is common in Thai cooking. The taste is similar to cilantro, but not identical. Culantro is also called "spirit herb" because, historically, it was used to treat epilepsy. For better or worse, I tend to use Wikipedia as my first line of research - so, read more here if you're interested.

Now, back to Amerocentrism. There's this thing that happens when you're frustrated with the way something is going in a foreign country - you start to think, "Well, they must just be confused." This happens whether you like to admit it or not. For all the times you think, "Okay, I have no idea what they're talking about. I'm an idiot. I am so out of place here," there are going to be times where you actually believe that you know and they don't. What I am finding I have to do is put myself in constant school mode. I have to think of every day as a classroom where I am being given a new set of information. And, when the information directly contradicts what I know (or, to be more Zen, believe) to be true, I am trying to remember that what I am being taught is not about the facts of the case, but the cultural experience of my teachers. In other words, it is not always necessary to adopt the practices of another culture to understand it, to be one with it, to learn from it. Here's me now adding this to the list of things I should have known when I lived abroad in my early twenties and adding it underlined to the list of things we should really remember from a diplomatic perspective every single day.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Margó


We found ourselves this week at Margó (on Gustavo Mejia Ricart near Avenida Abraham Lincoln). The description in our Embassy restaurant guide said something like "chic" and "small." It was both. It is certainly one of those places that you walk into thinking it will be good simply by the nature of the trendy, yet simple décor, the valet parking and the attentive wait staff. I am happy to report that Margó did not disappoint. Each course turned out to be not quite what we had expected, but delicious nonetheless.

I'm not going to focus on the details of what we ate - I think it gets tedious and I find that I don't care so much about what specific thing was good, average or bad as much as I care about the why of the whole eating experience in the context of living abroad. But, I do want to devote a couple of sentences to just say that we enjoyed Margó. It was one of the first places, I think, where they didn't look at Jeremy like he was crazy when he asked about getting his dish prepared vegetarian (he had a mushroom risotto). Our wine was delicious and our salads perfectly enjoyable; although next time I will ask for mine with the dressing on the side - in a country where they don't use salad dressing, it seems clear they don't know what to do with it when they do use it. I ordered a seafood tempura appetizer for my meal and it was not in any way what I had expected, but the sauce was very, very nice (a citrus chili pepper glaze) and I could actually see it being even more enjoyable served on a bed of lettuce or even with rice.

I noticed while we were eating at Margó how much the food eating experience affects my mood about our international life. First, let me say, it is practically impossible for me to imagine giving up this life. We worked so long and hard to make this happen. Sometimes I miss some little thing about home and I ask myself, "Do you want to go back?" Never once, not even for a second would I take the convenience and ease of our American life over the life we have in the Foreign Service. Maybe I say this with a rookie's perception, but this life is a dream come true for us. At the same time, there are days when I find myself missing more about home than usual. Almost always these things have to do with needing the familiarity a certain store or restaurant. And, sometimes I experience the exact opposite. A complete lack of missing.


So, as we sat at Margó enjoying our wine and tasty food al fresco, the R&B inspired Spanish-language music drifting (not as loud as usual - thank god!) from the bar out to the patio, Santo Domingo's rich and trendy strolling by on their way to one of the handful of eateries nearby, I was completely in L-O-V-E with our life here. I found myself wanting to savor every single bite of my tempura, sip my wine and close my eyes as my café con leche warmed my belly because above all else in the Foreign Service what you experience is impermanence. We will only be here two years. Two years and then no more bachata, no more merengue, no more world's best rum, no more attitude, dust, guineos on the street, crazy culture mix of colors…

Friday, February 12, 2010

Big Lunch


So, here is what I consider to be the best kid-lunch ever - a sandwich of some sort, some carrot sticks, a small handful of crackers or chips and a glass of milk. Perhaps, for desert one small cookie. It appears that this may no longer be the lunch of my house. And, it makes me wonder, do Americans think this is an appropriate kid lunch (1) because we are too busy without full-time maids and nannies to make anything more and/or (2) because our children go to preschool and this is the kind of lunch that best fits a lunch box? I am, of course, making the assumption that "most" Americans would agree that this is an appropriate lunch. Someone out there is going to say, skip the chips (or the cookie), but I am a very healthy eater and I always eat chips with my sandwich at lunch so my kids do the same. Of course, I am an everything-in-moderation sort of person. I do believe this is a healthy, efficient, appropriately-caloried meal.

But for us, in this new Foreign Service life, the kid-lunch may be trickling away to be replaced with "algo mejor." Or, something deemed more substantial by Vilma. As I have said before, Vilma loves to cook and she is an exceptional one. I was watching her chop an onion the other day and I was amazed at her skill. We started talking a little bit about her cooking history - turns out before she became a nanny she used to run a kitchen - evidently, a very popular one. She said you know people enjoy your cooking when they line up down the street before lunch. I think, "Yes, that's probably a safe assumption." When I asked her if she ever thought she would open a restaurant if she went back to Peru she almost cried. It turns out that is her dream - one she has deemed impossible because of the costs.

So, as Vilma plugs away at dozens of other household chores, we get plates of heaping food for lunch because that is where her soul is, in her food, in the kitchen. That's what has happened to kid-lunch. At first I was resistant to this. I kept saying it was better that we eat small things at lunch and save a big meal for dinner. However, my protestations corresponded with my husband and I trying to set some ground rules on the eating habits of our four-year old who mostly eats bread, cheese and bananas. This week I just decided to eat what Vilma serves. It is always healthy and full of a wide variety of proteins and veggies and is always perfectly spiced - I rarely even add a drop of salt and I have noticed that she only salts at the end after she has tasted the food. Our picky eater protested for the first two days, but one thing that these lunches have helped us establish is that - lunch is there, this is what it is, no more picking on snacks all afternoon.

What I wonder now is how this will change our eating habits overall. For dinner now we eat whatever is leftover from lunch with a fresh salad. Our oldest is trying foods he says he is not going to try (and loving them) and our two year old (who already eats pretty much anything put in front of him) is filling up on a wide range of new foods. If we are posted in the US next, will we go back to our old habits of convenience? Will having Vilma cause us to take on a different post bidding strategy because we will be trying to find a place where Vilma can go with us? What if she doesn't want to go with us? Obviously, she is becoming, already, a part of our family - delicious food or not. In this life of perpetual impermanence, is this just more about the need to hang on to something - culture, food, a system of eating, the relationships that develop out of food, the relationships themselves?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

El Museo de Jamon

I seem to be experiencing some sort of food-related apathy surrounding our date nights. Last week we tried el Museo de Jamon - a Spanish tapas bar and restaurant in the Zona Colonial. The atmosphere was to die for - a perfect breeze blowing in from the sea, a glass of wine, a handful of small groups of people scattered about the tables (many of them smoking, a habit I usually find annoying, but discover myself getting nostalgic over when the atmosphere has a European flair). The food, however, was decidedly sub-par.

We shared a Caesar salad that was passable, but the lettuce had not been drained properly and the croutons were very obviously from a box (and not a good one). There weren't a lot of veg options - this actually worked out well for Jeremy. He ended up choosing the tortilla de España and a sopa de auyama (auyama in like Caribbean pumpkin). Both were exactly how you would expect them to be - satisfying and simple. My entrée, however, was a big disappointment. When I studied in Spain I loved bacalao (dried salted cod). The smell is overwhelming and enough to make you run the other way, but when I was in Spain it grew on me (like the smell of jamon hanging in a dank tavern) and I came to crave the way my host mother cooked it - simply re-hydrating it and serving it with a little olive oil alongside steamed veggies. Anyway, when I saw bacalao on the menu I was so excited. They sell it here - I have seen it in the supermarket and have considered trying to recreate my host mother's dish, but haven't yet. What I received at the Museo de Jamon was hope-dashing. The dish did have fish in it, but I find it very hard to believe it was bacalao. It was completely without flavor, overcooked and was smothered in a tomato sauce better left for lasagna. I ate a few bites and just couldn't stomach anymore.

I am afraid my apathy comes from this discovery that truly magnificent food, as of yet, doesn't seem to be finding me here. I feel like I frequently find myself encountering food that is good or okay, but nothing where I just know I will melt in my chair with satisfaction. Even truly good comfort food seems to be lacking. I remember when we lived in Japan there was nothing like okonomiyaki (especially Hiroshima-fu)- I never grew tired of it. It was my Japanese-heaven on a plate (or hot griddle). In Malaysia, we ate roti canai as if we would never see it again. I wonder when I will find my thing here that I cannot do without. And yet, I already wonder how my life will be different when I move on from here to find that fresh squeezed orange juice returns to being a luxury and pineapples, mangos and avocados are the most expensive items in the produce section.

Perhaps I am finding myself more in the land of culture shock and less in the land of food frustration - or more accurately, culture shock translating into food frustration. We have always been big restaurant eaters. Here we eat at home. It is saving money - that's good. And, since Vilma started, a new spark has entered our home cooking. I enjoy being in the kitchen with her - we laugh about spilling flour on the floor and I am certain she thinks I am the most dangerous knife wielding lunatic to ever chop an onion - and she cooks new things that get me thinking about other new things. Our oldest, who hates new food, finds this excruciating. He told me today, "Vilma is mean to me! She put that sauce on my corn-on-the-cob. I don’t like sauce!" But, at the same time, she has him eating mashed potatoes (he has lost his position as "last child on Earth who won't eat mashed potatoes") and plays hide-and-seek with him longer than anyone else has ever managed, so it can't be all bad.

But, the food. This Thursday will find us trekking out on another date night - starving (it's usually 9:00 PM before we get to the restaurant) and hopeful. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Taco Bell Zen


There was a TDYer (a State Department employee from one post on temporary duty at another post) here in Santo Domingo the other day. She is currently posted in Buenos Aires. They have Starbucks there. She told us this because she heard we had Wendy's. We do this sometimes - this comparison of who gets what when you're not in your typical where.

A staple of our international life has always been the moment when, for the first time, we delight in having found the one fast food restaurant that will make our life a little easier. We have never been big fast food eaters. This is actually one of the greatest health-related pluses of being vegetarian - fast food is often completely off the table because even if what you're eating doesn't have meat in it, it was probably fried up with a big vat of things that came in contact with meat.


When Jeremy and I were first married - and eating meat - McDonald's often filled this role. If you have been on an all-night bus through Malaysia and you just saw a giant rat and you need to pee, you can stop into a McDonald's (where there is ALWAYS a bathroom) and then maybe you will just get a Coke and eat some fries while you're there. I was happy to find McDonald's being trumped by Starbucks when I was in Britain in 2004. There's great coffee almost anywhere, and there is nothing like trying a new place, but if you have to pee and you're starving (and, of course, it's raining) there is nothing like the familiarity of Starbucks - both in cost and quality.


One of my weekly delights here has become my once a week trip to Taco Bell with my children. They know Taco Bell - you can get vegetarian stuff there. My weeks here are filled with one unfamiliar challenge after another - do this, do that, bring passport, don't bring passport, pay more, pay less, etc, etc. But, on the day I pick the boys up from school and pull into Taco Bell I just feel this complete sense of calm. They are starting to know us there. The store is on a busy corner and always filled with workers from the local retail shops and banks. They always look at the boys and say, "Mira los rubios. Que lindos! Que Dios les bendiga." Fast food restaurant employees here - like in any country outside the US - take their jobs very seriously (I mean hey, there's air conditioning in there!). They help me carry the tray to the table. They ask if I need anything else. They smile at us. We enjoy our food - yes, that's right - we Enjoy our Taco Bell. And then, when we're done we go outside to the playscape. Where, under a 30 foot Ceiba tree, with a Caribbean breeze that has somehow found it's way two miles inland to a congested street corner, we find utter peace. It is, the most perfect fast food experience I have ever had. Indeed, despite my gourmet food hunting, it has so-far been one of my most satisfying dining traditions - here or anywhere.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Papas La Juan Caina


Having a live-in housekeeper has presented a new problem…well, more than one, but that's a different story. The food related issue is an interesting one and quite frankly, not something I had expected. Often, Vilma cooks something and I am around - I have a kind of in-and-out eye on what she's doing and have a sense of what will be for dinner. She is now cooking about two dinners per week, not including the occasional time she will throw together something unexpected for lunch for me or the boys.

When I don't have an eye on what she's doing we end up with tasty mystery food. Most of what she cooks has potatoes, so that part's easy, but sometimes there is a sauce or a flavor that is completely beyond me. Earlier this week I bought a bottle of canola oil. I use is sparingly for greasing cookie sheets or frying falafel on the rare occasion that happens. There seems to be about a cup of canola oil missing - clearly that canola oil is now sitting on my thighs.

I do have to say though - compared to Dominican food - Vilma's cooking is light and chocked full of veggies. I once heard Oprah say you shouldn't feel guilty about eating a piece of pizza as long as you pair it with a salad. I don't usually feel guilty about food anyway (and don't take Oprah as an authority), but if I did (on both counts), I would remember that Vilma's cup of Wesson probably accompanied several cups of fresh veggies…right?

Well, back to mystery food. So, one of our mystery dishes for about a week was repeatedly referred to as - "una crema." As in, "Puedo hacer una crema si Uds. quierren." I had no idea what that would be like - a soup, a drink., a…I'm out of ideas. Like with most things relating to Vilma I said, "Sure, we'll try anything." One of the main ingredients we needed was "queso crema." I had a feeling I would end up bringing back a box of Philadelphia Cream Cheese so I had her pick-up whatever she needed. It turns out the necessary cheese was Queso San Juan Fresco. It must be this cheese or something like it deemed comparably "rico."

Ingredients in hand, we returned home where I went off to play with the boys and returned an hour later to find dinner looking quite mysterious, but very tasty. I thought this dish was a little strange, but the flavors worked and I felt like it was a nice, light, easy dinner. Kind of like what we call around here "snack dinner." So, here's the scoop on what is now known by me as Papas la Juan Caina:

Ingredients:

For the Sauce -

  • One pound Fresh San Juan Cheese - this is a soft, fresh, mild cheese - I am sure any kind would work - get creative.
  • One half pack Ala Cena Salsa de Ají Molida - if you're interested you can order it here.
  • Milk - I don't know how much, but enough to turn the cheese and aji into a sauce.

For the salad -

  • 4-5 medium size potatoes, peeled, boiled and then cut in slices
  • 5-6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and then cut in half
  • Nicoise olives - however many you like
  • Romaine lettuce - left in big leaves

For the onion salsa -

  • One onion halved and very thinly sliced
  • One Serrano pepper, halved, seeded and very thinly sliced length-wise
  • Ala Cena Salsa de Ají Molida, olive oil and salt to taste

To make the sauce simply put the cheese and a little milk in a saucepan, heat until melted and add the ají. Add milk as needed to make the sauce creamy - you want it to be like a thick salad dressing. Refrigerate for 1-2 hours before serving.

To serve -

Place the lettuce leaves on a plate and top with slices of potatoes. Pour on sauce. Top with hard-boiled egg, olives and onion salsa on the side.

Enjoy!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Lupe's Taqueria



Lupe's has turned out to be the first successful result of my current way of seeking out new restaurants - look for the nice cars. This is something I started doing without even realizing. I would see a restaurant and think, "Oooh, that looks good!" but it dawned on me that I didn't know why my brain, or my eyes, had selected it. You might be thinking that somehow my brain is telling me nice cars = rich people = good food. But, you would be wrong. My brain is telling me nice cars = rich people = people with tourist visas = people who have been to New York or Miami = people who know what good food tastes like.


I have developed a rather unfortunate piece of judgment that, having lived abroad before, I know is completely consistent with my current stage of cultural adjustment. It's the period where I start to think, "These people are crazy!" "That's (whatever) is disgusting!" "That would never happen in the US." Of course, these things are almost always not 100% true. But, one of the things I am saying a lot right now is, "Dominican food is not that great." The truth is that probably some Dominican food is okay. In fact, some may be actually quite tasty. However, the major problem I am having with Dominican food at the moment is that it is (1) usually too salty, (2) frequently over-cooked, and (3) rarely ventures beyond the four staples of beans, meat, fried plantains and tiny salad.


Truthfully, I do like all of the individual things in the Dominican diet, just not all of them all the time. But, I don't have to eat all of them all the time so, really, what am I complaining about?


But, back to Lupe's. So Jeremy and I have a new date night system that we are loving. Thursday nights are ours and after the boys are down we head out for an evening alone. Last Thursday we tried Lupe's - a Mexican restaurant near Gustavo Mejia Ricart and Winston Churchill in the Piantini neighborhood. We were happy with what we found. The atmosphere reminded us of an upscale taqueria in Austin - the ambiance was a lot like Miguel's. The service was overall good - the hostess, who may have also been a manager or assistant manager, was great. She checked in on us and was very welcoming. Our waiter was kind of hit or miss. We realized later that it was an important night in the Dominican baseball season finale so once they turned the TV on near the bar, he was much more responsive because he could watch the game and us. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can pull a Dominican away from his baseball.


Our appetizer of queso fundido, while not Austin quality, was good. We think the cheese may have been some sort of mozzarella, but we just tried not to think about it and ate it anyway. Our dinner was nice - I can't remember the name of the dish. It was some sort of fajita thing. We didn't realize we were getting a meat dish - clearly there was a miscommunication about the menu. Although, you would have thought when he asked me how I wanted the meat cooked I would have taken that as a definite sign. I took it more as a, "Hmmm, I guess there's meat on this." While the meat was only so-so (and Jeremy didn't eat any of it), the guacamole, the tortillas and the other fixins' were quite nice. One strange thing was the tiny enchilada on the plate. It was a chicken enchilada with mole sauce. However, they had clearly used the wrong kind of chocolate - the mole was way too sweet. Our desert was a yummy tortilla wrapped around cinnamon and sugar apples and baked and topped with vanilla ice cream. It, along with the café con leche, was perfect.


All in all, an enjoyable evening with some perfectly passable Mexican. I think this week we'll do Italian and keep on searching for that mouth-watering Dominican that is surely lurking somewhere on these crazy streets of our Caribbean capital.