Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sushi. Ya?




The other day Vilma was flipping through one of my cookbooks and came across the page in the photo above. She said, "You made that." I looked at the page, "Sushi? Yes, I've made sushi." "No," she replied, "the other day…" She then proceeded to describe something that I made, which now, a few days later I cannot for the life of me remember what it was. Something I had made reminded her of the photo. But, it was not sushi.


I began to explain what sushi was. She stared blankly. She couldn't imagine it. This is someone who knows quite a bit about food and had worked for ten years for a wealthy Peruvian family. Somehow it surprised me she had never heard of or tried sushi. Although, I know, it shouldn't surprise me. At one point I said, "For some reason I thought that sushi was popular in Peru." She said, "Yes, there are lots of Chinese people, but they don't eat that." Well, that would be true, of course.


Anyway, this gave me the idea to take Vilma out for sushi. I was so excited. We have a pretty good sushi place near us that delivers, but I decided we would go pick some up and bring it home. It was the lunch rush and the restaurant is small so seating and parking would have been a nightmare.
I wasn't sure what she would like so I got a bento box that included sashimi, tuna rolls and veggie rolls.

We got home and I busted out our little soy sauce bowls and demonstrated how to put the wasabi in the soy sauce and mix it up. At first she got a huge blob. We were able to fish it out and go a little bit more mild. That was funny. We both laughed. Then it came time to dig in. Fail! She ate some (using chopsticks for the first time quite well), but clearly she hated it. I felt awful. I know I had built it up. She must have been hungry. I ate a ton. I was stuffed.


I know sushi is not for everyone. I realize I kind of wanted her to try this new special thing and love it and that occasionally I might say, "Hey, should I pick us up some sushi?" and she would smile and say, "That sounds great!" Although….come to think of it, even if she loved it she wouldn't say that. Whenever she does join us at a restaurant she won't order (and she can read). She always tells us to get her whatever we want to get her. This is difficult. I'll never get used to it.

Oh, but of course the story doesn't end there. That night Jeremy and I were going out and I cooked up something simple for the boys for dinner. As I was getting the boys fed, Vilma was in the kitchen cooking chopping, tossing, frying. It smelled delicious. She said, "Here, try this." I took a bite. It was delicious - a kind of vegetable, fish sauté. "What is it?" I asked. "My sushi, from lunch. Better now, huh?"

Friday, April 23, 2010

Savory and Sweet


So recently I have been inspired to try some new recipes. For years I feel I have been kind of cooking the same things over and over again. I think this mostly had to do with working full time and having two kids back-to-back. I lost the time and inclination to try something new - or at least to try something new, often. This is actually what led me to cancel my Cook's Illustrated subscription. I love Cook's Illustrated and I have never made one of their recipes that didn't turn out perfectly, but man the time commitment for most of them was insane. I remember my mom saying she stopped reading the magazine when she spent 6 hours one day making meatloaf.

However, recently I have been pulling a little from Cook's Illustrated online. I like the online version of the magazine much, much better. It's searchable so I can think of something I want to make and then search for it. I am also a passionate believer in their product recommendations. I have stopped buying any kitchen goods without first reading up on their opinion. After my pizza disaster
I became the proud owner of this amazing pizza peel thanks to Cook's Illustrated.

But, anyway, back to the recipes. So, part of the reason for trying the new recipes has to do with the reclaiming, or perhaps better said, reorganizing of my cooking duties at home. Vilma and I had been struggling to come up with an acceptable cooking arrangement given the fact that (1) she clearly believes it is a tragedy to consume merely a sandwich or a salad for lunch and (2) she enjoys being in the kitchen as much as I do. It kept coming up that she would ask what I wanted her to cook for lunch and I would very frequently feel like, "I don't care." I honestly just wanted to make a sandwich and truth be told, the boys are fine to eat a sandwich for lunch as well. However, it is true that if she cooks us lunch, it's usually more substantial and more nutritionally balanced. I've talked about this before. Anyway, I was starting to feel frustrated and claustrophobic about having full-time help and then I realized that the solution was actually easy. All I needed to do was sit down with Vilma and figure something out. Last week, I finally said, "Okay. We need to come up with a better cooking arrangement." She immediately shook her head in agreement. I said, "How about you cook lunch and I'll cook dinner?" She said that sounded perfect and we appear to have found our stride.

This week I decided to plan out and shop for our meals like I used to back in the States. It was nice to get back to this. I planned out some old favorites and tried this fabulous Eggplant Parmesan from Cook's Illustrated. I didn't stick exactly to the recipe on the sauce - I used fresh tomatoes, red bell pepper, onion, garlic and fresh basil and then threw in a handful of the breadcrumb mixture that was left over from the eggplant along with a dash of red pepper flakes. The recipe was somewhat time-consuming, but not at all difficult. I have to say this was the best Eggplant Parmesan I have ever eaten! Even our four year-old, the pickiest of picky eaters loved it. He was helped along by Sam, our two year old, saying, "Mmmm, this is pizza!" Sam may have been confused, but it was enough to give Jasper the nerve to try it and he loved it. I overheard Jeremy trying to explain to him what eggplant was without using the dreaded word "vegetable." Evidently, eggplant is a very popular vegetable here. There is always a ton of it in the super market, but I am not sure what they use it for. I think I am going to try to search out some recipes. Vilma's opinion was that the Eggplant Parmesan was "Magnifico!" and that the eggplant (berenjena) that Dominicans make is not worth trying. Go figure. I am still curious though.

I also recently tried this
recipe for Banana and Chocolate Chip Upside Down cake from David Lebovitz. I follow his blog because he writes about food (he's a chef and cookbook author) and he lives in Paris - so it has a great expat angle. This cake was so amazingly perfect and rich without being over the top. I am thinking next time I will try to give it a Pineapple Upside Down Cake twist (perhaps leaving out the chocolate) because the pineapple here is just incredible divine.

And, finally, in recipe land, I resorted tonight back to one of my all time staples in desert perfection. I went through a phase a couple of years ago where I was determined to find the best chocolate chip cookie recipe. I found some good ones, but not a single one that had the perfectly crisp edges and gooey center that I craved. I spent a great deal of time tweaking various recipes to try to get exactly what I wanted, but never quite got it perfect. Then, a friend of mine brought some oatmeal cookies to work one day and, except for the fact that they weren't chocolate chip cookies, the texture was perfect. The recipe was from The Silver Palate - a cookbook I have seen, but never read. She gave me a copy of the recipe and I set out to make my own new cookie recipe from it. This recipe is almost identical to the original, but I think it's better because I reduced the sugar by half and added dried cranberries and dark chocolate. When I make these, people close their eyes as they chew and let out a big "Mmmmmm." Enjoy!

The Yummiest Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies Ever


Ingredients:
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, softened

¼ c. granulated sugar

½ c. brown sugar (By the way, if you live in a country like we do where you can't get brown sugar - it's easy to make your own by just adding a tablespoon of molasses to a cup of regular white sugar)

1 egg

2 tablespoons water

1 tsp vanilla extract

2/3 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp salt

½ tsp baking soda

3 c. quick oats

1 c. dried cranberries

1 c. dark chocolate chips (I use the Ghirardelli 60% Cocoa chips)


Steps

Preheat the oven to 350 and grease two cookie sheets.
Cream butter and sugar until fluffy then add egg and beat thoroughly. Mix in water and vanilla.

Mix together flour, cinnamon, salt and baking soda in separate bowl using a fork. Then, add it to the egg mixture and mix well. Add the oats, stir and then add the cranberries and chocolate chips.


Drop spoonfuls of the dough on the prepared baking sheets. Bake 10-15 minutes. They will still appear a little soft in the middle, but will become chewy once they cool. This makes about 2 dozen.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In the Bag

I feel like I'm slacking a bit on the blog. I have a pretty long mental list of things I want to write about, but at risk of revealing my true nerdiness - I am reading a really good book and I just got a new sewing machine so I have been…ahem… busy. Well, actually I also seem to have discovered a new aspect of cultural adjustment. I have lived abroad a few times before, but only once longer than 6 months (Japan). Now that we have been here six months, I am finding myself settling in and as a result, am quite busy. I am now able to make doctors appointments, register the boys for swimming and gymnastics and run errands (which takes forever here). I'm also sitting on an Embassy board. And, I still have those two crazy, adorable monsters who follow me around. So, life has gotten more hectic and the blog posts pile up in my head and aren't making it as quickly to the page.

But, that being said, I do have some topics stocked up. I'm going to try to stretch them out to several posts, but here's one thing in particular I have been wanting to blog about for months - plastic bags!!

Allow me a non-food related tangent here. I have two, well probably more than two, but two especially big environmental pet peeves - plastic bags and bottled water. I firmly believe that if US and international manufacturers transferred the money and energy they put into making plastic bags and bottled water into making reusable bags, reusable water bottles and bringing potable water to the world we could change millions of things about the way we live in every corner of the world. And if governments around the world were to ban (or highly tax) the use of plastic bags…well, I'm no environmental expert, but I am thinking tons of new innovative industries and a reduction in pollution could be the only result. I have not researched this much and I am not out to change the world, but this is what I think.

So, this actually does bring me right back to food. When you buy groceries here - they send you home with a ridiculous, and I mean Ridiculous number of plastic bags. Bagging groceries is something I know about - I worked at a supermarket for five years. I know all too well how many items you can get into a plastic bag without it breaking and I know how you can pack it so they bag won't break. Supermarkets in the US over use plastic bags too, but I am telling you, here it is insane.

Here's an example - the other day I bought: two packs of plastic hangers (10 hangers per pack), two bunches of basil, a bunch of parsley and a head of lettuce. How many bags did I come home with? Five! Yes, five plastic bags. That is a bag for the parsley, a bag for the basil, a bag for the lettuce and a bag for each pack of hangers. I don't know why they do this, I really don't. Jeremy has the theory that because in most homes you can't flush your toilet paper, you want these bags to line your trashcans because you take the trash out every day. It is true that most Dominican households do take the trash out every day. We too line our trashcans with grocery bags, but we can flush paper, so we're not in exactly the same situation. But, still, I just don't get it. There's got to be a better way.

Now, I bet you're asking where my reusable bags were the other day - I forgot them at home. I really, really try not to forget, because the bagging here is so out of control. But, this takes us to the funny part of my story - the reaction by the cashiers and baggers when I do bring my reusable bags.

Here's the way it goes down:

I walk up, put my old, grungy Trader Joe's and Whole Foods bags along with the canvas Esprit bag I have had since the fourth grade (I am super proud of still having this bag) on the belt followed by my groceries. The cashier asks me, once all the things are unloaded, if she can start. It's always a she (I have never once seen a male cashier) and they always ask if it's okay to start. I am assuming this is so I can check to make sure everything is ringing up correctly - I can appreciate that.

Then, she proceeds to try to find the bar code for my reusable grocery bags. I say, "Those are mine already. They're for bagging my groceries." She says, "Oh, you're not buying these?" I think this is funny because they are on their last legs of shoppingdom. "No," I say, "I want to bag my groceries in there."

She smiles, seems to get it and throws the bags down the belt, where the bagger (always a teenage boy - there are no female baggers, ever) proceeds to put my reusable bags into a plastic bag. I say,"No, no, those are for bagging the groceries. I want to put my groceries in there." Blank stare. Removes reusable bags from plastic bags. Groceries begin to come down belt. Bagger begins to bag my groceries in plastic bags. I say, pointing, "No, please use the bags I brought. Those bags, there." He picks them up, points to them. "Yes," I say "Please put my things in there." He puts one or two things in.

Then, something comes down the belt that throws him off - a pineapple. It's thorny, perhaps dangerous, it might break these nice bags the lady has brought, better go back to the plastic. He goes back to the plastic. "Please," I say, a bit more firmly, "All the things can go in the bags I brought." He leaves the pineapple in the plastic bag and puts it in my reusable bag. This repeats throughout the entire checkout process, every single time I go to the store.


Adventures in grocery shopping - see totally about food : ). One time I lost it a little bit…just a little bit. I kinda' snatch the bag away and was like, "Here! Let me show you!" and I did it myself. I think I needed to do that once. But, afterward I felt really bad. The other day Jeremy got annoyed at a bagger and did a similar thing. I was like,"Oh, you're such a newbie at shopping." He said, "Ya', how do you handle it now?"

How do I handle it now? I just repeat myself, slowly, firmly, but with an unfailing smile. Sometimes I tell them I know it's strange, but I am trying to protect the environment. Sometimes I laugh a little, but in a kind-hearted way (I think). I kind of try to remember that these teenage boys who work for pennies and whose parents can't afford to send them to school maybe just think I'm crazy. That's fine with me really. In the end, maybe it saves a few bags from going into the sea - where I'm sure our trash goes because there's no recycling here…

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mango Season in Progress

So, I can't yet give a description of the taste of the perfect mangoes that are hanging from trees all over Santo Domingo, but with mango season well on it's way I can give you a few shots of how they look from this end of mango season. These photos are from the park behind our house.

I imagine myself a bit like the characters in those movies based on Jane Austen novels. Casually skipping along, plucking a piece of fruit from the tree as I giggle and my young, Hugh Grant-like beau grabs my hat and runs off laughing as a take a big bite of my newly plucked fruit before casually throwing it on the ground and running after him because, hey, there is a ton of this fruit around here.

Except, I guess one can't eat mangoes like apples....and I'm no Victorian sweetheart, but still - one
can let the mind wander with all this tropical fruit around. I hear something similar happened to the Conquistadors.









Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Zapote - Take 2


As you can see above - I went out and purchased an apparently ripe zapote. As you will recall, I have tried this fruit before and struck out. This time I think I may have purchased one that was slightly over ripe, but overall in good eating condition.

The verdict? Still not my cup of fruit. I just don't like it. The last time it tasted like raw pumpkin. This time it tasted like mushy, raw pumpkin. I love pumpkin - cooked. So, I think I have given it a fair shot - for the sake of cultural and culinary exploration. My relationship with zapote ends here.

Next, I will re-try papaya, or lechoza, as it's called here. I have never liked papaya, but when we were at the resort, I took a pinch of a piece that I had put on Sammy's plate (I am all about helping my kids try things I don't myself eat) because it looked tasty. It was! It tasted amazing! I can't believe I forgot to write about this. I guess in my resort post I was writing about being homesick so the wonderful fruit experiences got a little pushed to the side. But, anyway, it tasted like butter and fruit and almonds. So, sometime soon I will make my way down to the fruit cart near me where I always seem to have luck getting the best fruit and pick up a lechoza and make something tasty and tell you guys all about it. I'm thinking this looks good.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Aguacate!




I'm afraid fabulous aguacate (avocado) season may be winding down. They're getting slightly smaller and going up in price. One massive avocado that would comfortably feed four used to cost 30-35 pesos (that's about $1, but more like 50 cents in true value) now costs 50 pesos. I thought that I had written about avocados before, but looking back, I think I have only mentioned them. I buy avocados on the street. Sometimes I buy them from this lady down the street who has a permanent cart, but recently I have shifted to buying them from a partially blind man who sells them from a box. Lately he has a woman with him. I think she may be his wife.


There's something about the avocados here. They're huge. The variety that is often sold as "gourmet" at home. They are a little fruitier than the avocados I grew up with, almost juicy. This was a little strange at first, but we quickly got used to it. More so than the Haas variety that we're used to in the States, I think they need to be jazzed up with a bit of salt, pepper and lime. But, not much. They are incredibly delicious. You do have to buy them significantly softer than the Haas variety for them to be ripe. And, surprisingly, you can buy one that is completely ripe on one end and hard as a rock on the other. When we first got here I would just pretty much take whichever one I was handed, now I'm a bit more picky. But, it's a science and one I will need at least one more avocado season to master I'm sure.


One of my favorite things is watching the avocado sellers with their plastic bins atop their heads, balanced with ease from centuries of tradition, winding their way through apartment complexes, "'Cate! 'Cate! 'Cate! Aguacate!!" It was one of the first things my boys learned in Spanish. I loved to hear them running through the house hocking their goods and calling out to their imaginary friends.


Word is now that aguacate season is wrapping up we're moving into mango season and, hey, I'm not gonna' fight that! I wonder how I will ever manage to live in a country where fresh tropical fruits and veggies don't spill over (literally) onto my doorstep. Well, that's better left to bidding season I'm sure. For now, I'm going to plot how I can make the best of my last few weeks of 'cate, 'cate, aguacate…


PS In exciting news, my loud, crazy neighbors moved out and they have a huge mango tree that is sagging under the weight of its quickly ripening fruit. I know that fruit is just begging to fall in my yard. And, best of all worlds - according to the rumor mill the Embassy is looking to procure that house for an Embassy family. I see smoothies in my future : ).

Friday, April 9, 2010

Take-Out Heaven


I speak Spanish. It's not perfect, but I'm fluent. It is very rare for me to have trouble understanding someone and vice versa. I have lived in or spent time in eight Spanish speaking countries. But let me tell you - Dominican Spanish is like no other. It frequently feels like they double the words necessary to get their point across and then cut out half the syllables. It's getting easier and easier, but one important task has eluded me - ordering take-out.

Let me start by saying one of the greatest things about this huge city (population roughly 2.2 million - the same as Houston) is that you can get
anything delivered. I'm not just talking about lunch or five-gallon water bottles. I'm talking about Kentucky Fried Chicken, your medicine, an egg, one beer, a box of band-aids. The deliverymen drive these little tiny motos and weave in and out of traffic like they're unstoppable. Unfortunately for me, I feel like up until this point we have largely missed out on the delivery utopia. That's mostly because it just seems so hard sometimes to have a conversation on the phone given the linguistic challenges I feel I face every time I have attempted take-out.

Tonight, I finally bit the bullet. There's no better time than the present and we're hungry. The boys are in bed early and I just really don't want to get in the car. Our food has not yet arrived, but if all goes well we will soon be eating egg rolls, fried rice (which they call Chow Fan here - Has anyone else ever heard of this? Is that what it's really called in China?), hot and sour soup with ice cold Presidente to wash it down. The ordering process went smoothly. There was a bit of catch when he took my phone number and then asked if it was my first time calling - I thought he asked for my first name. Nice guy, he just repeated himself a couple more times (not more slowly, but a bit more forcefully).

This is a milestone. I feel like I have the wind at my back and there is nothing stopping me. Tonight it's Chinese, tomorrow sushi? Empanadas? The possibilities are endless.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Homesick


We just got home from vacation. Now I feel homesick. Last night I made baked macaroni and cheese - so classic American. It was actually the first time I have ever made it. Kinda' thought it would help with the homesickness - think it made it a little worse.

We took our vacation at a resort - the first time we have ever stayed at a resort. We have never considered ourselves resort people - whatever that means. Well, I guess it means we have always been more of the backpacking type. But, the biggest issue with that and children - you guessed it - the food. In our old backpacking days we sometimes went all day without eating. One time, in Nicaragua, we actually found ourselves in a position where we ate practically nothing for four days. That was pretty bad. Of course with kids, you have to have access to easy and predictable food. Thus - the resort. And, in many ways, I think we were ready for that type of vacation.

The resort food ranged from excellent (the fruit, of course, we live in a tropical paradise) to passable (fish sticks on the snack bar - the kids loved them). I do have to say, staying at a resort is kind of like working from home with a full pantry. You want something to snack on, you walk right over, in your bathing suit and pop it in your mouth. This could be problematic if you were to stay at a resort a long time I imagine. Jeremy worked at home a lot before joining the Foreign Service - he has lost quite a bit of weight without even trying. I'm sure it has to do with the decrease in snack availability. He can put away a bag a chips like that. Anyway…

The resort where we stayed had food theme nights. We were there for "Oriental" night, Mexican night and Dominican night. "Oriental" night was mostly Chinese food, but also spaghetti and pizza - go figure. In case you're wondering, Mexican night did not include tacos. It did include black beans, Mexican rice and a soup that was labeled "tortilla soup." It was not like any other tortilla soup I have ever tried, but it was delicious (that's it in the photo above). Dominican night was the best, of course. There were no surprises there - Dominican food is predictable - which occasionally can be nice. We kind of got a little excited about it.

Now we're back to our eventful every day life. It's time to go back to thinking about food and cooking I guess. I need a job - a job that doesn't involve cooking. I love cooking. I love eating. I love food. But, the real me works outside the home. These are the ins and outs. It was only a few weeks ago that I posted this. One day I'm like, "I could totally do this forever," and the next day I'm like, "What in the world am I doing?" There was a point where I was deciding between social work school and cooking school. I made the right decision - I love to cook, but wouldn't have been a good chef. I like to believe I am a good social worker. If you could see me writing this you would be like, "Jeez woman - be thankful!" I am sitting here, outside. There is a perfect breeze. It's not hot at all. I am listening to Billie Holiday and my wind chimes that I have had in every single house since 2002 (I can close my eyes and it sounds like home). I have an almost empty cup of coffee…

Hey, that may have worked a little. I am thankful. It will come, whatever it is. The settling in more and more to this life, I guess. The job, if it's meant to be. The perfect tortilla…sometime…here or on 6 weeks of R&R this summer. For now, it's time for a walk. Then pick up my perfect children and…play…then cook dinner. No complaints.