Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tacos and Roots



Breakfast tacos have been successfully eaten by us. Taco Shack potato, egg and cheese. I am sad to say that I was a little disappointed. Funny how that happens. The eggs were undercooked. I get really grossed out by undercooked scrambled eggs. It reminded me that, while Taco Shack had become the most convenient taco locale in the 6 months prior to our departure for DC, it was never exactly our favorite. We were solidly El Chilito. Interesting how one can forget those things. And, in the end, I can't exactly complain…am not complaining…tacos rock. Word on the street is Torchy's is the new fabulously awesome taco joint. One needs only minimal excuses to try new tacos. I will do so and report back.


In other news, back in DR one of our favorite evenings out is dinner with new friends. Here, we are living it up going out to dinner with old friends. There is nothing like the ease of conversation catching up on the events of the past year. Above all else in Austin, we have always been blessed with the coolest friends around. Last night we were able to try a new restaurant (well, new to us) - Buenos Aires Café. De-lish!! I can't attest to its authenticity (although the website says the chef is Argentinean), but I can attest to its insane tastiness. We arrived at 8:00 and were the last ones to leave. They literally turned off the lights except around our table and then locked the door behind us as we stood on the front stoop continuing our conversation.

We have dinners like this lined up almost every night until Jeremy leaves to head back. It's the type of thing that fills me with so much love and joy. It's the type of thing that reminds me, although I need little reminding of it, how important it is that our boys know that, wherever we go, Austin is home (or can be, if they want it to). We were recently having a conversation with some FS friends in DR about the common thread that joins all FS people. We all agreed that it is the need to not put down roots, the need to be able to uproot and keep uprooting. I have been thinking about that some - reflecting on how much I love Austin and yet how much the FS life is 100% for us. Perhaps it's not, at least for us, about not planting roots, but about having lots of them and letting them grow long and full.

Before the FS we talked about how we would keep the boys connected to a home (like my parents did for me with Indiana, even though we moved to Texas when I was five). Being here, I realize that having a home, a true home like Austin, is not just a convenience, not just insurance for the future, but a gift. Having this stable place to come to makes spreading our roots possible. Knowing that, if all else fails, you are welcome somewhere else makes you confident that you can step outside the Austin city limits and know what the rest of the world has to offer (even if it means no tacos).

Monday, June 28, 2010

Sinking In

Last night, around 8:00, with the sun slowly making it's decent into the Texas hills and a strong breeze mellowing the 90 degree heat, I kicked up my feet on the screened-in porch and watched the deer nibble around the garden (where those tomatoes up there came from). Texas is easy. Austin is easy. I was always a little frustrated to know it so perfectly. I have always craved the new. But, after 18 months of nothing but new, I am just sinking into the old familiar like flip-flops after a day of heals.

And, where do I begin about the food? It's so nice to eat the familiar. Believe it or not, I haven't even made it over to Taco Shack yet. I did have migas though, so really that's the same thing, only on a plate instead of a piece of foil. We are trying to pace ourselves. And, Austin is so smooth, so slow, so steady, so quiet. It's hard to do anything before the moment exactly presents itself. Which, truth be told, was always a bit of the problem of living here. Ahhhh…home…heaven.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Back in Tacoville


My first domestic meal in almost 9 months? A bagel, wrapped in saran-wrap, with squeeze-on Philadelphia cream cheese, at Miami International. Not exactly what I had envisioned, but the ability to tell Jeremy, "Just grab me a bagel," when he went to procure snacks was so, so awesome. The oddest thing about arriving in the States? The fact that the airport food looked tasty. I found my mouth-watering. This perhaps suggests I have been suffering from a higher degree of depravity than I had previously imagined.

We had the most amazingly smooth travel experience - I can only hope it goes as smoothly when I am returning to DR with the niños by myself a little over a month from now.

And how's the land of tacos? Well, we were dog-tired and couldn't make it to one of our favorite taco haunts and forget even touching a Negra Modelo, but we did opt for the always convenient Chipotle. That and a glass of my mom's iced tea….aahhhhh…we're off to a fabulous start.


Weird things? Well, my mom had a fruit bowl filled with grapes. We were all over them. I kept feeling guilty like, "I'm eating all her grapes," then I realized that (1) she can get grapes whenever she wants and (2) they will cost her a normal grape price, like, I don't know a couple dollars per pound. In other semi-food-related weirdness - it's surprisingly difficult to believe you can brush your teeth with and even drink the tap water. It's like our brains have created an automatic resistance. Today we venture out and I am sure will be more inundated with these rarities.

Oh, and the chinola made it just fine!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Project Chinola

Some things you just can't leave behind. Like chinola. We have juiced about three pounds. It is congelandose right now in the freezer. Here's to hoping we don't arrive in Austin with orange, sticky clothing. And, here's to chinola margarita!

Water for thought...

Our four-year-old had his first international dentist visit last Friday. Earlier in our time here I had wondered a little about fluoride. We don't drink the tap water. Bottled water doesn't have fluoride. I had thought, "Is this going to be a problem for my kids? Surely there isn't a worldwide history of FS kids having bad teeth." I kept thinking about it, but figured I probably shouldn't be concerned. The teeth report is good - no cavities, but the dentist recommended sealants. No problem. And, she did talk to us about fluoride. Evidently, the thing to do is buy a fluoride rinse. Seems all the dentally informed Dominican parents do this for their kids. Who woulda' thought? So, here's question for you other FS parents out there - What's the scoop on water, fluoride and your kids' teeth?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Calculations



The photo above is of a very large (larger than it appears in the photo) bowl of mango salsa. We had a BBQ yesterday - one last little get-together before heading off on R&R this week. The mangoes have been so amazing I figured mango salsa was a must. I was able to get 6 perfect mangoes from the frutero on the corner. Funny thing is, you don't actually have to buy mangoes here if you don't want to. There are a couple of 20+ foot mango trees on the grounds of my office - I pick up at least one every day.

I was doing a bit of calculating - my total cost for a giant bowl of mango salsa was about $150 pesos - that's around $4. The same salsa would have cost me around $12 at home. And yet, if I were to buy a pack of, let's say, veggie burgers here it would set me back around $10. I long ago gave up on creating a veggie burger that was worth the time and effort. I mean, the whole point of veggie burgers, in my opinion, is ease of preparation.

Making these calculations is such a big part of the FS life. What do I need now? What can I do without? Is it worth the money? I have written about this before. What I am finding interesting now is that the longer we are here, the less and less I make these calculations. With time we are just starting to live completely present with the food that we have here. This isn't a consumables post, but at this moment it's difficult for me to imagine preparing for a consumables post by stocking up on endless "necessities" at Costco. Who knows where our next post will be - maybe I will feel differently, but I do wonder where exactly one begins in the grand consumables shopping spree. I mean toilet paper and pasta might be on my list some day, but would peanut butter and cereal really make it? How does one decide to buy a two-year supply of cereal? Why does one decide to buy a two-year supply of cereal?

Presently, I have decided that as long as I have rice, vegetables and some form of protein I will do just fine, but this has taken time and patience. And at the end of the day, we can actually get almost anything here. As a result, I don't really have to live with that looming sense of "what will we eat?" Everything in degrees I guess. I have a friend who traveled in Mongolia for a few weeks. All they had was mutton. Now that would definitely send me straight for Costco...

But, back to mango salsa. If you want to make some, here's how:

Mango Salsa

Six ripe mangoes diced
One red onion finely diced
One red bell pepper finely diced
Two Serrano peppers, minced (leave the seeds in if you want it extra spicy. If not, scrape out the seeds)
A handful of cilantro or culantro
Juice of two limes
Salt to taste

Mix it all up and, if possible, refrigerate for about two hours before serving

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Countdown Begins

Our trip home is just around the corner. I'm thinking some about the food, but not as much as a thought I would. Yesterday we watched the World Cup UK-US game at The Hard Rock Café (our first time there) and ate nachos. They were nacho-y. They had actual pickled jalapeños - that was nice. I am not typically a fan of the Hard Rock Café - it has this weird kinda' 1980s feel to me. I think that comes from the fact that back when Austin was more small town-like we used to think it was cool to go to Dallas and go shopping and eat at the Hard Rock…that's really 80s…and it was the 80s. Now Austin has it's own Hard Rock. I've never eaten there. Can't imagine I ever will.

Mostly what I am thinking about is how weird it will be to go home. We are now well over what I like to call the 6th month hump - the time abroad when you decide you're either going to sink or swim in your host country. We're swimming (literally, in crystal clear Caribbean water, which helps) most of the time. We like it here. It's homey. So, to that end, I think it will be weird to go back to a place that's so easy. We have so many conveniences living in the capital, but even the convenient things have a level of negotiating that has to happen all the time. Lately, I have been thinking about certain situations back home, imagining myself there and then I suddenly realize that my imagination is happening in Spanish. I speak Spanish, but thinking about a whole world in pure English seems so…simple.

Eating out here is incredibly expensive. Even a fast food bill is easily $20 for our family of four. That will be different back home. I'm determined to not go overboard on things like chips and queso, really good pizza and Starbuck's. I will go overboard on all the delicious salads and fresh tomatoes from the garden and salsa.

I'm trying, I guess, to find balance before we go. Not just to establish a balance of what I'll eat, but what we'll buy because it's convenient and we think we'll need it and we won't be able to get it here. And, a balance of mind. You can't be the person who goes back to the States and points out, at every corner, "It's so crazy that people stop at the red lights and stay in their lanes," "How weird not to have people wash your windows at stop lights," "There are no children begging here," "This lettuce looks so green." That kind of thing annoys people quickly. Moderation of shock at how different things are is appropriate I guess. Perhaps increased meditation is in order. The countdown begins.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ratatouille


My worries have been proven a little true - it's more difficult to keep up with the blog now that I'm working. And, the extent to which I productively concentrate on food has also slipped. I do spend a fair amount of time in unproductive concentration on food - this includes (1) thinking of quick meals that enable me to hold on to one of the household chores (cooking) that I am not prepared to completely turn over to Vilma and (2) realizing that the time I am away from the boys results in an increase in the amount of time they eat what typical Dominican children eat.

Oh the sugar! If there was any doubt about how Dominicans contrib
uted to the economic stability of their own country, rest assured, they keep the sugar industry well supported. Dominican children (yes, I am freely generalizing here) eat a ton of candy. This candy gets passed to the boys in places from the doctor's office to school from the neighbors' children to random people on the street (yes, pure stranger danger there!). I came home yesterday to find our two year old sucking on a BlowPop that he was washing down with a juice box (in which the first two ingredients were water and sugar…nice). I hadn't realized when I was at home how much I regulated those things (i.e. threw them away or refused them before the boys could catch the offer). It also makes me realize that I completely took for granted in the States that my children's childcare providers were not passing this stuff on to my kids. I think the most I ever had to do was ask my mom not to give my oldest cereal bars because the third ingredient was high fructose corn syrup - but, at least those things actually had fruit…and a grain of some sort.

I have completely digressed from where I intended to go with this post. So, back on track.
Recently, my vegetable hating four year-old has been really into the movie Ratatouille. He asked me the other day if I know how to make Ratatouille. I said, yes - which is basically true - I know how to roast vegetables in the oven. In fact, I told him that I had made it once and he wouldn't eat it because it had vegetables. To this he exclaimed that he would have eaten it had he known it was ratatouille. "Maybe the one you made didn't look like the one from the movie Mom." "Well," I thought, "that's true. It was really just some vegetables in a pan." So we agreed - we would make Ratatouille. I did my research - that is, I watched the part of the movie where the make the ratatouille. You can't learn much from watching a cartoon rat make a dish - in case you were wondering. But, I did figure I could come up with something that looked like the thing in the movie. Tonight we went to work in the kitchen together. Dominican holiday so no work, no school = plenty of time to make dinner = happy Mommy.

As always, I had to use what was available here, so this may not be super traditional, but it was really, really good. And, in the end, it wasn't that time consum
ing - about 30 minutes to prep and one hour of cooking time unattended. It serves 4-6. Here you go:

Ratatouille


Ingredients:
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and very thinly sliced
  • 1 zucchini, very thinly sliced
  • 2 small-medium sized potatoes (red or Yukon gold), very thinly sliced
  • 4 Roma tomatoes, very thinly sliced

For the Sauce:

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • ½ red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 small onion diced
  • 3 garlic cloves crushed
  • 5 fresh sage leaves chopped
  • leaves from 3 sprigs fresh rosemary chopped
  • two tbsp tomato paste
  • a pinch of sugar
  • salt and pepper to taste

The Steps:


Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.


To make the sauce, heat the olive oil in a skillet. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Add the bell pepper, sage and rosemary and sauté for 1-2 minutes. Add the tomato paste and about ½ cup water, stir and allow to simmer. As the water cooks down, add more little by little until you get the consistency of a chunky sauce. Add a pinch of sugar and salt and pepper to taste.Spread the sauce into the bottom of a 9x9 inch glass pan. It should thoroughly cover the bottom - there should be plenty of sauce, use it all. Begin to make layers with your veggies by making little stacks in your hand (e.g. carrot, potato, zucchini, tomato). Place the veggies in the pan on their ends, slightly tilted (a little like the way Oreos look in the plastic packing). Do this until you have long rows of veggies.


Bake for one hour until the sauce is bubbling up into the veggies, the veggies are tender and some areas are crispy on top. You'll find when you eat it that the onions in the sauce will have caramelized and the tops of some of the veggies will have taken on a chewy/crispy texture while the bottoms will be super tender.

Serve with a green salad and crusty bread. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Bananafied



I just have to write about one of my very, very favorite Dominicanisms (and there are many). This one I will write about here because it is food-related…kinda'.

Platanado means to become acculturated, Dominicanized, local. In English, bananafied. This word might actually be used in other Caribbean islands, or come to think of it, in other Spanish speaking countries. I don't know. But, I never heard it before here and I love it.

I feel platanado sometimes, against all odds. I am clearly far from becoming Dominican, but sometimes in tiny ways I feel like I fit here. It's nice this bananification.

Cuppa' Caribbean Joe


The DR is a coffee producing country. For most of my life I drank tea and then somewhere (i.e. grad school) I began drinking coffee. I love coffee. I was very much looking forward to being in a coffee producing country. But alas, my coffee journey has not turned out to be exactly what I had expected (silly expectations).

But first, some back story. When we first learned we would be posted to Santo Domingo and we read about the frequent power outages we decided to go power free and switched to a French press. That was step one in the major coffee transformation. There was no going back - the coffee just tasted so much fresher and fuller. Then, we decided to invest in a little grinder (yes, it requires electricity, so we kind of balanced out in the end). We came to love, love, love grinding our own coffee. It all seemed like it would work out so perfectly.


The French press and grinder had won the coveted spot of suitcase transport (over HHE and UAB) for the very reason that we would have, above all else, perfect Dominican coffee brewing within hours of arrival. We arrived and went shopping. Imagine our shock that we weren't able to find whole bean coffee. We decided that we might have to shop around a bit, but settled on the Santo Domingo Coffee (the Dominican favorite in a simple red and white bag). We brewed our first cup and our hearts sank in disappointment. It tasted burned and stale.

I then began my journey to find whole bean coffee. Store after store resulted in dead ends. Finally, I learned that the Embassy store was selling some through a Peace Corps volunteer project. We tried it. It was good. We were happy. But, inevitably, we would run out and find it to be a hassle to go to the Embassy for more (parking, traffic, store hours). We debated our next steps. This went on for months. Then, one night, after dinner at our neighbor's house we were served coffee. Rich, smooth, chocolaty coffee. Perfect. "What kind is this!?" I asked. "Oh, just the Santo Domingo," was the reply. I couldn't believe my ears or taste buds. What had happened? How could I like something that I had hated merely months ago?

I was tempted to try that ground, stale, super-cheap stuff again, but couldn't quite bring myself to do it despite the positive experience I had had that night. And, I still really wanted to hold out for whole bean...and then again, it was so good that night. I just couldn't make up my mind. I bought more of the Embassy kind. Then last week we decided on a whim to try out a grocery store we hadn't been to before. We strolled through the less than fabulous, slightly rundown aisles and sub-edible, fly-filled produce section thinking it would be our last trip. Then, I saw a clerk pouring whole bean coffee into a grinder. Jeremy and I looked at each other and scrambled to see where it had come from. There, in the midst of the produce section was not one, but two kinds of local whole bean coffee. And just days later we are floating on a sea of island, caffeine satisfaction.


We don't drink it like the Dominicans (very, very strong, black, in tiny cups and with tons of sugar), but we are converts. Or, reverts…or something. It's strange, we had tried Dominican coffee back home and liked it, but I was once told during my coffee search that what stays here isn't as good because the best stuff is exported. Now I think it's just a matter of taste. It's that view of what's normal. It's the acquired taste of things. Either way, it seems like another way in which we just keep discovering and that never gets old. Reminds me of why we do this.