Cooking


Empenadas

We had left Buenos Aires and were in Cordoba when a man there gave us two warnings about Bolivia.  First, he mentioned the crime there, but said there is crime everywhere.  Then he mentioned food, and we thought we were in for the usual lesson about not eating fresh vegetables or street food.  But no, he struggled to describe the food there until we supplied the word for him – hot.  His eyes lit up, and he agreed, “Hot, yes.  The food there is too hot.”  Before Argentina we had spent six months in Mexico, and we both love hot food, so his words were more a promise than a warning, but the fact that an Argentine might think food was a bit too hot and flavourful was not a surprise.

The food in Argentina, particularly in Buenos Aires, was often disappointing, and one of the main reasons for that was it was so limited.  Steak, empanadas, pasta and pizza represent most of the food options easily available to us, at least in the neighbourhood we were in.  The steak was very good but not the best ever (as we’d heard beforehand), the empanadas inconsistent (even in the same restaurant), and the pasta unexciting.  We had read in travel guides that despite a huge influx of Italian immigrants to Argentina long ago, the Italian food options were “boring” and the travel guides were right.  The “exciting” topping on the pizza was ham.  No salami, no pepperoni, nothing but ham and cheese, no matter what pizza place we went to.  Sandwiches, too, were invariably ham and cheese.

They start with good products in Argentina, like some of the best beef anywhere, but they just don’t do much with it.  The steak is nicely cooked to bring out its natural flavour but they don’t put any seasoning on it in most restaurants.  In over a month in Argentina, we saw pepper on the table once.  Really, just one time, in dozens of visits to restaurants.  To give ourselves a little variety, we had hoped to cook some of our own food in Buenos Aires, but when we visited the grocery stores and looked at the spices available, our hearts sank.  There would be literally a total of from 8 to 12 varieties of herbs and spices in a store with a good selection, leaving me to wonder whether Tang would make a good substitute for paprika.

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After our time in Zipolite, we headed for the city of Oaxaca.  To get there, we took a 20 minute taxi ride to Pochutla where we caught a bus north.  Unfortunately, the information at the Lyoban Hostel in Zipolite was not accurate, so we got to the bus station about an hour earlier than necessary, and the only buses available until that night were second class buses.  First class buses in Mexico are pretty plush, sometimes with only three seat across (two on one side, one on the other), with drinks, snacks, and a bathroom.  Second class buses, while generally okay (though far less comfortable overall), don’t have a bathroom.  The bus stopped only once, after about 2.5 hours, so we had nearly 6 hours on the bus without a break or a bathroom.  Bring your Depends.

This was our first trip to Oaxaca, and with only a couple of days to see it, we know we’ll be back.  Oaxaca is known for its food, especially its mole (pronounced MOE-lay), so we decided to take a cooking class at Casa Crespo.  There we were joined by another cooking student, Zack, from New Mexico, and our teacher, Oscar.  Oscar listed our choices and we settled on Mango agua fresca, salsa roja, salsa verde, guacamole, quesadillas con flor de calabaza, sopa azteca, rajas con queso y crema, fruit mole on chicken, and chocolate ice cream.  Oscar walked us to a nearby market where we bought many of the ingredients, and even tried the dried grasshoppers (very salty).

Market vendor - Oaxaca

Back at his cooking school, Oscar took us through the steps of preparing everything from our tortillas to the ice cream.  Oscar was a fantastic teacher, and the food was incredibly good, especially the fruit mole and chocolate ice cream (which was also surprisingly easy).

Making guacamole at Casa Crespo

We stayed in a hostel in Oaxaca, and there we met Jan and Elsie, two Englishwomen, both retired pub owners.  They are on a 7 month trip through the Americas and the Caribbean and have some amazing stories about their adventures.  To give you just a hint about them, just last year Elsie did a pole dance in a club in Thailand in front of an ever-growing crowd on the street outside.  This is particularly remarkable when you realize Elsie is 75, and Jan 60.  They’ve been taking these long trips abroad for 14 years.  We’re thinking of starting a fan club.

Mexico City was next on our schedule, and Amy and I had been there before, though it was Ciara’s first time (aside from arriving in Mexico City late Sunday and flying out to Zipolite early the next morning).  We saw Frida Kahlo’s former house, now a museum called Casa Azul, and well worth a visit.  We also went to the National Museum of Anthropology and the Zocalo, or main square in Mexico City.  The highlight of the trip was when Ciara took a picture of a clown performing for kids, and we ended up as part of the show.

Ciara and the clown

First I was offered two Mexican women for Amy and Ciara, and then the clown invited Ciara to join the kids.  The clown had the kids dance to either Michael Jackson or Shania Twain, and he found a dance partner for Ciara.  More than an hour later we were still there, watching Ciara and the others.  Not exactly what we expected but a memorable experience, to say the least.

Today Pat and I had a combined cooking and Spanish class.  The two of us along with about ten other people assembled at Eli’s (The Spanish Guru) home at 10:00 this morning.  We learned the words for such cooking terms as:  ladle, skillet, grill, and teaspoon full.  And we also learned how to say things like: It smells delicious!;  How flavourful; and I’m full.

Adela and Eli

Adela, our cooking teacher, is a primary school teacher by trade.  I am pretty sure that school teachers make a pittance of a salary, so several months ago Adela decided to open up a small restaurant in her home to earn some extra income.  She would wake up at 5:00 in the morning and start preparing the food for that day’s menu (typically three different main dishes to choose from along with rice, corn tortillas, salsa and beans).  She left the rest of the cooking responsibility to her assistant, Vicky, and then she would head off to school to teach.   After school, Adela would return home and continue working in her restaurant until around 7:00 each night – six days a week.   As you can imagine she was exhausted.

She and our Spanish teacher Eli have been talking about trying to do a collaborative Spanish language and Mexican cooking class and today was their first effort.  I think it was a hit, and hopefully it will continue.  Not only was the food delicious but if this cooking class venture is a success it will mean that Adela won’t have to put in 14 hours a day to make ends meet.

The Raw Ingredients

Amy getting advice from the chef

Adela's assistant, Vicky, preparing the rice

Here is what we learned to make today:

Guacamole

Salsa Verde

Jicama, Carrot, Pineapple, and Sesame Seed Salad

Mexican Rice

Chiles Rellenos stuffed with spiced beef

Basil Agua Fresca

Que Ricisimo!  Everything was delicious.  If you are in San Miguel de Allende, do sign up for this class.    Eli tells me that Enchiladas with Mole sauce and several Mexican desserts are on the menu for the next time.

Adela, our cooking teacher, is a primary school teacher by trade.  I am pretty sure that school teachers make a pittance of a salary, so several months ago Adela decided to open up a small restaurant in her home to earn some extra income.  She would wake up at 5:00 in the morning and start preparing the food for that day’s menu (typically three different main dishes to choose from along with rice, corn tortillas, salsa and beans).  She left the rest of the cooking responsibility to her assistant, Vicky, and then she would head off to school to teach.   After school, Adela would return home and continue working in her restaurant until around 7:00 each night – six days a week.   As you can imagine she was exhausted.

She and our Spanish teacher Eli have been talking about trying to do a collaborative Spanish language and Mexican cooking class and today was their first effort.  I think it was a hit, and hopefully it will continue.

Yesterday marked the first time we’ve had to worry about getting typhoid from our Thanksgiving dinner, but with any luck, it won’t be the last.

We had been invited to Thanksgiving dinner by a lovely retired artist, but sadly her mother’s health has declined so she had to cancel. We found out Monday, and there was plenty of time to make other plans. Because of the huge number of Americans living in San Miguel de Allende, many restaurants were offering a full Thanksgiving dinner of turkey and the works, so we knew we had options. Unfortunately, we didn’t make a decision on Tuesday and only started considering the possibilities on Wednesday, when it turned out to be too late to make reservations at some of the restaurants.

No worries, we decided we would just fix our own Thanksgiving dinner. I love to cook, and our very first Thanksgiving together was spent by ourselves, cooking our own meal, so this would just be like old times. Besides, we’re used to spending holidays on our own, having spent last Christmas in Egypt. I scouted the stores, trying to decide on an appropriate menu that could be prepared in our somewhat limited kitchen. We decided on a menu of beer-butt chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, homemade dressing, fresh baked bread from a local bakery, carrots, corn, apple sauce, fruit salad and dessert. We felt like this was a pretty good approximation of a Thanksgiving meal, considering what was on offer in town. The closest we could get to dill pickles, for example, was dill relish, so we would have to make do.

At ten o’clock Thanksgiving morning our power went out. We assumed it would be back on shortly but hour after hour passed with no change. I didn’t want to buy a chicken that may have been sitting out with no refrigeration for hours (this is done regularly at some places already even when there is power) which made me nervous the longer the power outage lasted. It turned out the power outage was limited to our neighbourhood, so we knew we could find properly cooled chicken when the time came. The apartment has a gas oven, so we could cook, but if we didn’t have lights we’d never be able to finish cooking once the sun went down.

It was a waiting game, and we lost. Because the power wasn’t back on until around six, we had no chicken, and no time to buy, prepare, and cook one. So, off we went to our favourite taqueria (in this case, a street vendor selling tacos) and feasted on gringas de pastor, which is like a quesadilla. I don’t really think there’s a risk of getting typhoid from places like this, but one of Amy’s friends said we were chancing it if we ate street food in Mexico. We’ve eaten at taquerias a dozen times with no ill effects, but I have to admit they don’t quite follow procedures that would stand up to the scrutiny of a county health inspector.

So, while it wasn’t exactly traditional, it was great food in a great city, and for that we were thankful. Besides, we simply pushed back making the full meal until tonight, and we did a pretty good job, if I do say so myself.

When we first arrived here just before Christmas last year, many Irish remarked to us that they thought Thanksgiving was a bigger holiday than Christmas for us Americans.  We weren’t sure why people had that impression until we spent our first Thanksgiving here, when Amy came up with a theory.  She really missed having Thursday and Friday off, and talked about it at work, a lot.  I suppose a few days of bitching about not getting the holiday days off might make people think Thanksgiving was pretty important.

To celebrate on Thursday, Amy and I met Denise (another American working for the Cope Foundation) and went to Suas, a pub showing American football on TV (we saw the Lions getting thrown to the Titans), then to Captain America’s for a cheeseburger.  It may not have been a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but it was American (except the price, which was purely Irish — around 14€ for a bacon cheeseburger).

Our real Thanksgiving dinner came yesterday at Denise’s.  She and her Irish fiancé Michael hosted a Thanksgiving dinner and invited around 20 friends.  Denise and Michael cooked the turkey and made the gravy (which was excellent), and everyone brought a dish or two.  The food was great, but again we were reminded of how different this was for most people here.  At one point after dinner everyone shared something they were thankful for and most of the Irish mentioned being thankful for being invited to their first Thanksgiving dinner.  I realized this was my fortieth.

One of the guests mentioned he was happy to have tried so many different foods he hadn’t had before, which struck me because there wasn’t a thing on the table that would have looked out of place in most American homes.  Another  guest had gotten hold of a cornbread mix and made corn muffins, and he said he would be waiting to see how Amy reacted when she tried one to see if he’d done them right (he had, and she liked them).  All the food was wonderful and it felt very much like a Thanksgiving back home.  We asked a few people what a traditional Irish Christmas dinner was like, and we were surprised to hear that usually there would be only three kinds of potatoes.

One digression.  After dinner, we played Catchphrase, in which a person gives clues to her teammates so they can guess a word or short phrase (it’s a bit like Password).  As we’ve explained in an earlier post, the th- sound is pronounced simply as t- by most people here, so last year when the game was played, and an Irishwoman had to give clues for the name Goldilocks, she said, “And the three bears . . .”  All the Americans on her team yelled out, “Fruit!”

Well technically we were never intentionally on the locavore bandwagon.  But after reading Barbara Kingsolver‘s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I was intrigued by the idea of using food that is sourced locally.  I am not nearly as dedicated as Kingsolver – I simply don’t have the time, space or desire to raise chickens, can my own fruits and vegetables, and make my own cheese.  Fortunately though, Ireland is such a small country that it is easy to get many foods locally without even trying.
Several times every week Pat goes to the English Market to buy Irish beef, chicken and pork from a local Cork butcher.  He can get potatoes grown in Ballycotton, butter and cheese made in Bandon, and bread baked fresh daily in Cork City.  We even get strawberry and raspberry jam made locally.
Last month at the English Market Pat stumbled upon an irresistible and rare commodity here in Ireland . . . corn on the cob.  Ireland just doesn’t have enough hot weather to grow corn themselves.  According to the woman in the stall this corn came from France.
While the Irish love sweet corn in sandwiches and on their pizza, corn on the cob just doesn’t seem to be very popular here.  Understandably so given the price Pat had to pay for two ears of corn.  It cost €4.40, or about 7 US dollars for two ears of corn.  We cooked them with great anticipation, but also not holding out much hope for the quality we were used to back home.  We were pleasantly rewarded with crunchy and sweet ears of corn.  Both of us gnawed silently with butter dripping off our chins until every last kernel had been eaten.
Corn on the cob – It wasn’t local, but it was delicious and worth every cent!

With so many Polish people here in Cork, it makes sense that there are dozens of small markets catering solely to Polish customers, but there are times I wish there was an American Store. So, I asked Amy, if we wanted to open a store catering to Americans and the things they can’t get here, what would we sell? Here are just some of the things we’d stock:

Ranch dressing. Actually, the overall selection of dressing is pretty meager here compared to in the states. Amy went to a good sized grocery store the other day and swears they only had two kinds of dressing. Some places have a better selection, but nothing like in America.

Pizza. Okay, they have pizza here (see our earlier post on eating out) and Gino’s in City Centre is actually good, but most of the other pizza we’ve tried sucks here. To give you some sense of how bad it is, the local paper The Evening Echo had a section a couple of weeks ago recommending several restaurants in Cork. So what did they come up with for pizza? Domino’s.

Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Love it or hate it, you won’t find it here. You won’t find any elbow macaroni, either.

American Cheese. Enough said.

Hershey’s chocolate. The Irish don’t really like American chocolate, so it’s impossible to find Hershey’s candy bars, chocolate chips, syrup, or Kisses.

Pepsi. For all of you who know I’m a Coke fiend, you know how hard it must have been for me to write that I would stock Pepsi, but I think I’ve seen Pepsi in only three or four places (one of which was the Euro store). The company just doesn’t have a presence here, but it’s not just Pepsi that’s missing. A few places have a better selection, but most stores here that sell minerals (pop) usually have about four choices: Coke, Diet Coke, maybe 7 Up, and possibly an orange drink like Fanta. In America, usually there will be dozens of choices in even the smallest of stores. Amy insists we stock Dr. Pepper in our store, just for her.

Fountain drinks. From our earlier post, you know that although fountain drinks exist in a few restaurants and in movie theatres, I have yet to see a store, any store, with fountain drinks.

Mexican food. As mentioned in an earlier post, most stores stock just one brand of Mexican food, Old El Paso. Some stores also have some Uncle Ben’s Mexican foods, and rarely will you see any other brands. Besides a limitation in brand selection, some foods such as pinto beans, jalapenos, and canned green chilis can’t be found here. Making chili (which can’t be bought here, either), is not going to be easy.

Chips (crisps here). It’s impossible to find a big bag of unflavored potato chips, and difficult to find tortilla corn chips (except Doritos). Fritos, too, are not to be had.

Almonds. We’ve looked but haven’t found roasted, salted almonds here. It is possible to find raw almonds, but they are expensive.

Sunflower seeds. Like almonds, you can occasionally find the raw variety, but that’s it.

American peanut butter. Like choosy moms, we prefer Jif. We eat quite a bit of peanut butter, and I think the Panda brand is fine here, but Amy pines for her American peanut butter.

We would also stock a selection of dry goods, such as three-ring binders, deodorant (they have it here, of course, but most places have a very limited selection), contact lens solution (one pharmacy had only one brand, which I didn’t recognize, another said most pharmacies didn’t stock it, and only Boots has the brand I use, Opti-Free. Grocery stores don’t have any contact solution, either, so the recommendation is to go to an optician’s office, which is probably closed at lunch and on weekends). Finally, we would sell measuring cups for dry measuring. There are the Pyrex one- and two-cup variety, but the smaller half-cups and so on don’t seem to exist here because recipes usually use weight and not volume, so converting American recipes can be a challenge.

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