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Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve Nostalgia

I'm gonna wait 'till the midnight hour
That's when my love comes tumbling down...

I spent many a New Year's Eve in my youth in the Bay area at Grateful Dead concerts. Once I had children, my parents babysat. That didn't stop me. Moving away and finally Garcia's death changed the routine. The annual string of shows around Chrismas, ending in the New Years Eve show was always a great party. It was usually not a particularly good musical event, but it was rarely a bad one. Occasionally it was phenomenal.

The quality of the pre-NYE shows musically was usually excellent, which made up for the NYE show being less than perfect. Most of the shows were general admission, and by the mid-1980's, tickets were available via mail order, which made the whole process fairly painless. The ritual began with arriving at the venue mid-day, sitting in line with friends, meeting new people in the crowd around us, perusing the offerings of T-shirts, food, and handmade crafts for sale, all of which made the hours before the doors open pass comfortably. We rarely sat on the floor, , so we had no real rush on entering. I preferred the Phil-side balcony location for both sound quality and view. Friends could find us there, we could people watch before the show began, and while concerts lasted 4 hours from start to finish, the experience was an all-day event, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed 9 times out of 10.
The New Years Eve show was another kettle of fish. There were tables of hats and party favors on tables as you entered the venue. Everyone was clad in tie-dye and a Happy New Year tiara, blowing a noise maker occasionally for good measure. We all looked very silly, which made it festive. Someone usually smuggled in some champagne. Clothing was loose, Indian skirts prevalent, and security a little lax, so swinging a bottle of champagne on a chord between your legs was not the impossibility it would be today. The show would open with other bands, and the Dead would come out and play two sets before midnight. Then things usually were not as planned--there was a midnight float that would usually have some kind of major malfunction--either mechanically or because of fan-intervention, and the band would come out for the third set amidst the chaos, never quite getting their rhythm back. Amidst the chacophanyk, lots of confetti would fall, there would be lots of jumping and dancing and kissing and screaming, and I miss it.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Better known perhaps as fire-tongs-punch....or maybe not. Better known that way, I mean. It does translate to fire-tongs-punch. The Germans have a way with words. Not an inviting way. Kind of a straight forward yet circuitous way. Includes all elements equally rather than going for a way to convey the spirit of the thing. The set up is also decidely German in it's attention to detail and the specially and precisely designed tools involved. Scandinavians would call the final product Glögg--just mix it all together on the stove and serve it up. The name might derive from the sound one makes when ingesting it. Glögg, glögg, glögg all the way down the gullet. Feuerzangenbowle starts with mulled wine, which is placed in a set up much like for fondue--a pot on a rack over an open flame below. The feuerzangen, or fire tongs, is now replaced with an elegantly designed grate that holds the Zuckerhut, a large conical sugar "cube", that rests on the rims of the pot of mulled wine. The Zuckerhut is dowsed with high alchol content rum and set afire. It is gorgeous to watch and the pomp is well worth it. But there is a utilitarian aspect to the process--setting the sugar afire with rum serves to add carmelized sugar and fortification to the mulled wine below, delicious components of the taste of the final product.
We attended our second annual Feuerzangenbowle celebration of the upcoming New Year tonight, and it is definitely cool to watch, in a pyromaniacal sort of way. We had the traditional cookies with it, as well as fruit and nuts. It is a very festive way to celebrate a winter event.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Shake It Up

There are occasions when I read something that gives me an 'aha' moment, that succinctly crystalizes many pieces of information into a significant and new conclusion. Mark Bittman's column on becoming your own mixologist in a June, 2008 Minimalist column was just one such piece of writing (reminder--if there is a link associated with a blog post, you can just click on the title of the blog and it will take you there--which is the way to get to the Bittman piece in this case). It simplified the art of mixology down to it's componenet parts. It goes something like this: there is the alcohol of choice (rum, scotch, bourbon, , then there is achieving the perfect blend of the sweet and the sour elements to ones taste. So take bourbon for instance. You can add bitters and sweet vermouth for a Manhattan, or you can lemon and simple syrup for a Whiskey Sour. The proportions of the sweet to the sour matter, and are subject to individual preference. Bittman suggests that the key to mixing dozens of drinks rewquires nothing more than the raw ingredients and a knowledge of ones personal ratio preferences, and a can of a clear carbonated beverage to rectify the occasional error in judgement.

My children are moving out of our house and we are in the process of re-evaluating what we have two of that they could have one of, as well as what we have that could be upgraded to an improved device. In the pursuit of the perfect in-home mixologist, I got my husband a new cocktail shaker for the holiday season. I have already conceded that the position is unlikely to be filled by myself. I purchased the Metrokane Flip-Top Cocktail Shaker, and it has a number of improvements over the one we have been using--no lid to lose (that loss led to the demise of our 1950's shaker), insulated (so the drink does not get diluted too quickly), shapely and pleasing to the eye. A good addition.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Lessons Learned

It seems obligatory to do some kind of reflection on what has and has not been learned over the last twelve months this week, as one year winds down and another is beginning. this has been a year of change--I have a new job, and the kids have moved onward and upward in the developmental ladder, travels have been undertaken, and new places always come with new experiences.
In no particular order, and without attribution as to where the lesson was learned:
1. Figure out the right questions to ask and fact check the things that you think are important. Personally. It turns out, no one is better able to decide what you need to know than you. Sigh.
2. Look at the answers to the questions you ask. Do not take someone's word for it that things are "ok"--look at the data. This is a corellary of number one. Double sigh. May not save heartache, but it will save energy down the road. The problems surface more quickly with this method, so you don't waste time preparing answers for things that are not problems.
3. Finding time to participate in the creative side of life is time well spent. I don't do enough of it, but what I do is well rewarded.
4. Don't cross exercise out of your calendar, even for a few weeks--I did that in September, and am still trying to get it back--turns out it is hard to keep it in, but impossible to re-insert it. Don't make that mistake!
5. The time and money you spend traveling are worth the things you give up to be able to do it.
Things that have gone well this year are future focused planning, reading, cooking, and watching films--I hope to maintain all that.
What do I hope to do better next year?
1. Travel more. Less for work and more for me.
2. Parent more wisely (this will probably be on my 'To Do' list until the day I die...)
3. Exercise (see #4. above)
4. Quilt--I have been on a quilting hiatus, but it is time to put my embroidery away and start creating quilts again.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cheesemakers I have Known

The sub-title of this should be "and loved". Pictured are Eric Randu from Montbardon, and Sarah Hoffmann from Green Dirt Farm. This summer I spend a week in the Haute-Alpes region of France visiting fromageries with Sarah and we met Eric through a friend of a friend.
The week did not represent the most cheese that I have ever eaten--that record goes to the time I attended the American Cheese Society's annual meeting. I would never have predicted that I could ever be sick of cheese, but at the end of the first 24 hours my palate was flagging and by the time I went home, I was glad to have the opportunity to buy many artisanal cheeses at the blow-out, end-of-meeting sale so that I could go home and taste them on my own schedule, doing them justice.

It was my third time in the mountains of France, but it was the first time I spent more time with animals than historic sites. The cheese of interest was Tomme de Savoie, and the very best we tasted was made by Eric Randu. His tomme was nutty and creamy, without any off flavors. Which is how I could also describe the cheesemaker. A man who has gusto and elan, fun to be with even when he is being very serious.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tacos al Pastor

Oranges, pineapple, and lime are married in this dish to delicious results.
1 large white onion, chopped
1 pineapple, peeled, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick rounds (may substitute 1 c. pineapple juice)
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 cup cider vinegar
4 Tbs. chile powder
3 garlic cloves
2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
1 teaspoon dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 2 1/2-to 3-pound boneless pork loin, cut into 1/2-inch slices--may use other cuts of pork

Place chopped onion and chopped pineapple in blender. Add orange juice and next six ingredients; puree marinade until smooth. Place pork in large resealable plastic bag. Add marinade and seal bag, releasing excess air. Turn to coat. Chill at least 4 hours and up to 1 day.

Pan fry or grill pork.
Prepare corn tortillas as you like (steam, heat on grill, pan fry), as well as taco fixings (lettuce, pickled onions, pico de gallo, beans, salsa, avocado). Make twice as much as you think you will need because it is not unusual for guests to eat 6,7, or more tacos. If you are serving more than 4-5 people, be sure to get two packages of the 3 dozen corn tortillas.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Cranberry Upside-Down Cake

This was the hands down winner of "Best Dish" at dinner tonight. The recipe is adapted from Alice Water's cookbook, The Art of Simple Food. This cookbook is full of wonderfully detailed recipes for straightforward food, and a good helping of philosophy thrown in.
The Top:
1/2 c. Butter
1 1/2 c. brown sugar
5 c. fresh cranberries
1/2 c. Orange Juice
In frying pan over medium heat, add cranberries and juice, cook until cranberries pop. Then add butter and brown sugar, stir until butter melts and sugar is incorporated and mixture is bubbling. Place in a buttered 11" round cake pan.

The Cake:
1 c. butter
2 c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
4 eggs
1 c. buttermilk
3 c. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1.4 tsp. salt
Cream butter and sugar, add vanilla and eggs and incorporate. Mix last 4 ingredients together, and add them alternating with the buttermilk--starting and ending with flour, until well mixed. Spoon batter on top of the cranberries in the cake pan and bake for 50 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool cake for 15 minutes and invert onto serving platter. The fruit can be varied--apples, pears, pineapple (the classic), rhubarb, peaches. All are marvelous.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Risotto with Grated Cheese

Risotto is one of the foods that reminds us that as humans, we can approach perfection. At it's best it is creamy, rich, flavorful, and chewy without being either mushy or crunchy. I love it many different ways, although this week we had it with osso bucco and it was simple--I also love it with seafood and scallions, with mushrooms, with asparagus, and so many other ways. I also like to take a small container of a leftover and stir it in at the end of the basic recipe.

The very best way to make it is in a pressure cooker. This recipe is adapted from 'Cooking Under Pressure' by Lorna Sass.

2 T olive oil
1/2 c. finely minced onions
3-4 cloves garlice minced
1-1/2 c. Arborio rice (Carnaroli or Maratelli can be used--click on 'Risotto with Grated Cheese' above to get to link for Lotus Foods, a good on-line resource for rice)
3-1/2 to 4+ c. stock (chicken or vegetable for lighter flavor, beef or lamb for a more robust flavor)
1 c grated cheese--parmesan, tomme, gruyere work well, but bits of whatever you have is also good)
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in the pressure cooker. Saute the onions and garlic until soft but not brown, about 2 min. Stir in the rice, making sure to coat it thoroughly with the olive oil and browned a bit--another 2 minutes. Stir in 3-1/2 c of the stock.
Lock the lid in place and over high heat bring to hig pressure. Adjust the heat to maintain high pressure and cook for 6 min. Reduce pressure with a quick-release method (see below). Remove the lid, tilting it away from you to allow any excess steam to escape.
Taste the rice, and if it's not sufficiently cooked, add a bit more stock as you stir. Cook over medium heat until the additional liquid has been absorbed and the rice is desired consistency, another minute or two. When the rice is ready, stir in the grated cheese, add salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately. At the end you can also stir in vegetables and meat. Great way to use up small amounts of leftovers.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Green Dirt Farm

I spent last night in the company of friends who we have been close to for over 20 years, but never lived in the same town. It is a tribute to the ties that bind--our children feel like cousins to each other, and I often say that the two husbands are twin sons of different mothers. I have always liked the phrase "the family you choose", but often these are not "forever" ties--that said, this might be one instance where it fits. We have many things in common, but most importantly, we share values. Shifting values is an inevitable part of the aging process, but we have shifted in parallel. I believe this is a key to long-standing kinship.

Despite the areas of overlap--cooking, wine, cheese, great food, we have gone down very different paths. Sarah left medicine many years ago, and started her personal journey toward sustainable living. When she was an internist, there was little in it for us, but the past decade has been nothing but fun, partaking in the fruits of her labor. One of the things that attracts me day after day to cooking is the production of something good and enjoyable. Sarah does this for a living.

So, as we sat down for dinner, we started with a cheese course. Green Dirt Farm's award winning washed rind cheese, Bossa Nova, and a blooming rind cheese covered in Herbes de Provence called Comfort and Joy were two of the starters. We ate them sans bread, and savored the creaminess, the nutty flavors of the Bossa, and the slightly evergreen quality that the rosemary imparted on to the Comfort and Joy. This course was accompanied by a Landmark Pinot Noir. We then moved on to Osso Bucco with Sarah's lamb--tender, flavorful, the stew was redolent with star anise and delicious, as well as complimenting the risotto perfectly. But the company, the conversation, the comraderie, and the catching up were the highlights of the night.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Wilderness Warrior

The latest biography of Theodore Roosevelt's life is too repetative to be considered brilliant, and at 900+ pages, it is more didactic than it is literature. Despite that, I recommend reading it, at least the first 20 chapters, because it is a good reminder of two things. One, the preservation of nature has always been political and has been largely unpopular. It has run contrary to business interests and is for the good of all people. Sounds good, right? Well, that is not how things work now, and for a reality check, they never went that route. So as we gear up to do unpopular things in the name of the planet related to climate change, it is good to be reminded that the Grand Canyon was a huge fight to preserve. Take heart. That was a good decision, and so is the decision to reduce carbon dioxide now.

The second excellent lesson to be learned is what it takes to be a leader in an unpopular cause. Roosevelt does not have the background that I would have predicted would have led to the creation of large bird preserves and relentless conversion of public land into protected land, but he did it on a big scale and managed to do it is a way that was hard to undo.

He understood the political process, and while he was not always successful, he was relentless, he listened to people more knowledgable than himself, and despite being vilified at various times in his life, both by people he didn't care about and those that he did, he perservered. I have had a longstanding love of the National Parks and Historic Sites system, and owe a debt of gratitude to this man.

Monday, December 21, 2009

River Run BBQ Sauce

I have a long and complicated history with Vermont. Most of it is good complicated. Not all of it, but enough. Part of it goes way back, before my time. I have a deep and abiding relationship with New England. My parents both grew up in Maine, and both have families that have been there awhile--my mother's family dates back to the 1600's and my father's the early 1700's. So it is not foreign territory. But when I started going to central Vermont I was in college, and it was in the context of my relationship with my then significant other, now husband. It has been one of the few constants in our life together, a place that we have shared since the beginning of our time as a couple--so that added to the complexity. Over the past 30 years, we have been raising our kids with what will probably be an equally complicated relationship with Vermont, but a perennially favorite spot for us all is Plainfield, Vermont.

One of the many things we have brought home from Plainfield is the BBQ sauce from River Run:
3 cups ketchup
1 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped (1/4 cup)
3/4 cup water
3/4 cup light brown sugar
Mix all ingredients together in a heavy-bottomed pot and stir until well combined. Cook over medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid burning the bottom of the pot. Turn the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 1 1/2 hours, stirring every once in a while. Cool, bottle, refridgerate. Delicious. Keeps forever.
Makes 4 cups.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Glorious Grilled Marinated Flank Steak

One of the things that I like about cooking is to take a relatively inexpensive cut of meat and elevate it to the realm of the sublime. One our favorites is Grilled Flank Steak, served with a green salad and a potato dish.
This recipe is adapted from the Emeril at the Grill cookbook:
* 1 (2 to 3 pound) flank steak
* 1/2 c. red wine
* 1/2 c. soy sauce
* 2 Tbs. paprika
* 4-6 cloves minced garlic
* 1/4 c. ketchup
* 1 tsp. black pepper

Place the flank steak in a 2 gallon ziplock bag. Mix ingredients, add to bag, seal and marinate in the refridgerator at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours.
Preheat grill. Remove the steak from the marinade. Marinade can be made into a sauce by microwaving it for 3 minutes to reduce it. Place the steak on the grill and cook to desired doneness, about 12 minutes per side for medium.
Transfer the steak to plate and let stand for 5 minutes before carving. Cut the steak across the grain into thin diagonal slices, and serve with the marinade sauce or favorite BBQ sauce. We had this accompanied by Hasselback potatoes, which are a wonderful accompaniment--slice the potatoes at 1/4 inch intervals the length of the potato, toss with salt and olive oil, and bake about 45 minutes at 400 degrees.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

This is a great book on many levels. The first of which is that it is a Japanese novel set in Japan written by a Japanese novelist that seems both Asian and Western at the same time. Brilliant. Unusual. This author is the Asian Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The man who can make the mystical qualities of his culture, a culture he clearly adores, understandable to those not in the know. Not Japanese. Not able to rift on the cultural norms that the book recapitulates. The second is that the story is wonderfully told. The protagonist, Toru Okada, is complicated. At first he seems kind of mild mannered and straight-forward, except that he has quit his job without a prospect for a new one. His wife seems devoted to him and unconcerned by his unemployment. First their cat disappears. Then his wife follows. The back story to all that is just as interesting as the story that is happening, and the story that is in Toru's dream life is yet another dimension to the tale. The helpers that step forward to aid him in the search for his cat are also a mixed bag--they give him information, helpful information, details that he didn't know--but not necessarily associated with the cat. But Toru never looks a gift horse in the mouth. One of the (for me) subtle part of the book is that the culture of shame is very much alive and well in Murakami's Japan, but it is more complicated. His characters are fully engaged in western culture, yet not quite dissociated from their Asian heritage. The story meanders between the main theme and the various side themes. It is difficult at times to tell what is really happening, what is a dream, what is part of the Tokyo underworld, and what falls in the realm of the mystical. But the book is always well written, always riveting, always entertaining.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Gallo Pinto, Cebollas, y Platanos Fritos

This is the Comida Typica trilogy for Nicaragua in my book. The thing I will remember most about the cuisine in Nicaragua is the use of onion--usually fresh, sometimes pickled, and less often sauteed, in all savory food. Onions in green salads are sliced very thin, and add a brightness of flavor that I am going to incorporate into my repetoire when composing salads. I use alot of red onion and scallions, but the lowly yellow onion will have a more prominent role in future salad creations. The pico de gallo in Nicaragua is equal parts onion and tomato, with a small amount of jalapeno for heat--the Nicas are not big on spicy and so the onion flavor appears to be more highly valued than the Scoville heat scale. I have to say, I like a little more spice than is the norm in Nicaragua but the emphasis on onion was something I would like to learn from and incorporate into my cooking. Finally, pickled vegeatbles that are 1/2 or more onion slices are prevalent and delicious.

The traditional rice and beans of Nicaragua is a variation on a theme--somewhere between the red beans and rice of Cajun cooking and the Morros y Christianos of Cuban fame. The Nica dish has less liquid than the former, and the same consistency as the later but a different color. The Nicaraguans like their rice drier than is my taste, but as so often happens, after returning from Latin America rice and beans will make a resurgence in our household diet. Gallo pinto is made using the method for cooking Refried Beans (December 9, 2009 post) but with red beans instead of pintos and the beans are left whole--the beans are removed from the cooking liquid with a slotted spoon and mixed with equal parts rice--so just enough liquid to color the rice, nothing more--then molded into a bowl, the bowl inverted on a plate, and served with a dollop of onion-heavy pico de gallo.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Musings on Relaxation in San Juan del Sur

I am not at all good at traditional relaxation. I am a rock star at the relaxation that comes in everyday life. I am able to savor the small pleasures. Simple charms and nuances bring immeasurable pleasure to me on a daily basis, and as I age, I feel increasingly blessed that I am able to focus (much of the time) on the good. There is plenty to be unhappy about in the world. The longer we live, the more true that becomes. However, it is what it is, and to dwell on what could have been is a recipe for disaster. I seem to be a bit drawn to the chaotic side of life, so it is merely a survival technique to focus on the good in a situation. Make lemonade out of lemons. But to actually aim at luxury and indulgence? That is not a skill I have managed expertise in.

We were pointed in the direction of the Pacific coast of Nicaragua by both natives and former visitors for a scenic and enjoyable vacation, but I was initially dismissive of a beach town. I love the ocean, but not the salt, the sun, or the sand. Could I, despite my drawbacks, really enjoy the finer points of a great view, delicious seafood, and the distinctive aromatic smells of the ocean, despite my fair skin and generally restless nature? Happily, the answer is occasionally 'yes'.

The Piedras y Olas hotel in San Juan del Sur is a memorable hotel, one of the very best for luxury that I have been in. The only close rival that I have been to is the Serengeti Migration Camp in Tanzania: At 5 times the cost. Maybe even considered cheating, since the Serengeti is so spectacular to begin with that the natural attributes of the place make it both unique and non-reproducible. In any case, this is a place for 'getting away'--just so long as you are comfortable speaking Spanish, because this is the first time I have been anywhere so clearly catering to a Western crowd that had not a person who spoke to us in English--which is not to say someone couldn't do it, but as always, we list towards what is easiest to manage rather than what is possible. So while it is possible that some of the staff could manage well in English, no one attempted to say a word of it to us, despite our clear foreign appearance and dialogue. So, si habla espanol, venga aqui. Me encanta San Juan del Sur.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Nicaraguan Pottery

We traveled to San Juan de Oriente to meet with Jose Ortiz and watch some of the town's potters working. The town is world reknowned for the spectacular pottery produced here--you cannot sit in an outdoor cafe without being offered numerous pots for incredibly reasonable prices.

We did not trek out to one of the Pueblo Blancos so much to save money as to see the source of the ceramics. Jake had been to the town on several occasions and we started with an upscale potter's house. The kiln was on the prominently placed in the entrance of the courtyard, and a woman was working on a pot right next to several tables full of gorgeous finished pieces of ceramic art.

From there we went to Jose Ortiz' studio--he was painting a mural in Granada but his wife, Angela, greeted us and it was really fun to talk with her, see Jose's work, and be met as a friend. My Spanish is rudimentary in a lot of ways, but it is definitely good enough to listen, comprehend, and talk with people in this situation to the level that my personality comes through loud and clear (for better or worse).

From there Angela took us to a women's ceramic cooperative (where we saw Mauricio working the potter's wheel--Angela smiled and said they do not exclude men). We watched the whole process--different pots were at various stages of completion, and it was great to see how the final product was assembled. This is definitely a place to come back to on a return trip--easily accessible from either Managua or Grenada.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Nicaraguan Painting

The artisanal culture in general and naive painting specifically is alive and well in Nicaragua. The Mercado Viejo in Masaya is a great place to experience it in a sensory overload, all you can manage in one sitting sort of manner. Joel and Jake are pictured in front of this mural in the market depicting the town of Masaya--I included the picture with them in it to give a sense of the scale of the painting. It's huge, with dozens of sub-scenes contained within it. There are parades, masks, intrigue, religion, superstition, and bucolic campesino life all in one wall.

I love Nicaraguan paintings and I was not dissapointed by what I found in Masaya. The paintings are very evocative of the place that they depict. The colors are vivid. The church is a prominent feature. Often there are volcanoes in the background--Nicaragua has five volcanoes, Mombacho being the one closest to Masaya, but there are two on the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua that would be closer to the Solentiname Island artist colony where many of these painters live, made famous by the revolutionary turned priest and sculptor, Ernesto Cardinal. There are fincas everywhere. The ubiquitous school-buses-turned-chicken-buses are often featured. A cow here and a goat there (there is not what you would call factory farming much in evidence here). Nicas in the fields working are another common feature--the paintings transport you to the place they are from. Warm places, warm people, a primitive life.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Nicaraguan Color

The most distinctive thing about Nicaragua is the color. Every town explodes with color. There is nothing subtle about entering a Nicaraguan town. No earth tones and blending in with the surrounding topography. They are not followers of the Frank Lloyd Wright melt-seamlessly-into-your-surroundings philosophy. When I saw a Sherwin-Williams store in what amounted to a barrio, it did not seem out of place. These people need paint. It is for sustenance. The climate in Nicaragua is such that people live essentially outdoors. Many houses lack windows, and some do not have a real door or even interior walls--the rooms are open into a courtyard. But they are all painted and the brighter the color the better. I asked alot of people about the origins of this custom, but got no answers.

So, I wonder, what does color say about a culture? Not just that black represents death in Western culture, but is a symbol of honor in Japan, but what does an array of colorful buildings say about the people of those towns? Because it is not just one or two houses, it is whole blocks of houses, and the effect is not the San Francisco, ticky-tacky pastel houses. These houses are vibrant and compelling. The effect on me is one of festiveness. I notice an uplifting of spirit, an expectation that I will enjoy myself. In my own home, everything is a variation on off-white. Slightly yellow would be a huge leap for me. But in the hands of others I enjoy it.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Colonial Architecture in Granada

Granada looks like both a Nicaraguan town and a Spanish Colonial town. The combination is very appealing, and almost every travel advertisement for Nicaragua has a picture of the cathedral in Granada. But the thing I like best is the array of colors in the other buildings on the Plaza Central--from the outside building colors to the interior tile floors that are remarkably cheerful.

This is probably not a legacy of colonialism--Nicaragua has had a long history of civil war, up into the late 20th century. As the United States has been integral in the political warfare (literally), it is remarkable how welcoming the country is for visiting Norteamericanos. Generally we try to appear Canadian, no matter where we travel. Often it works.

The tile floor in the cathedral reminds me of quilt patterns--this one is close to the Whig Rose, which is a quilt I made about ten years ago in almost exactly these colors. I was not able to do much of it on this trip, but if I were to return, a photo essay of tile floors in public settings throughout the country would be a project I would enjoy.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Granada, Nicaragua

Landing in Managua after being in near-zero degree weather conditions is like being on the receiving end of a blast from a super-heated air gun. Not humid, but very warm. The airport is efficient and modern, but the swell of people outside the secured areas, numbering 10 for every one arriving passenger, reminds you immediately that you are in Latin America. Even though no one was there to greet us, it felt warm and welcoming.
We were soon on the road to our first destination--Granada, on the banks of Lake Colciboca (more commonly called Lake Nicaragua, the second largest lake in Latin America, and the 16th largest in the world--big, in other words). Granada was started in it's current incantation in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, the "founder" of Nicaragua (no doubt the indigenous population would see it differently). The city has a colonial layout, with a central square that continues to look both colonial, and uniquely Nicaraguan at the same time. The buildings are all painted traditionally bright Nicaraguan colors--yellow, pink, red, green, and blue hues abound. It is here that our journey through southern Nicaragua begins.

We stayed at an opulent colonial style hotel, named for the famed Nicaraguan poet, Rubén Darío (the hotel is pictured above, and our room is in the second photo, the door on the left). The woodwook and tile floors alone give the place a grand aura. The irony of the name was initially lost on us, but Darío is from Leon, the "other" colonial city in Nicaragua, and he never spent much time in Granada. Leon is the liberal city and Granada is the conservative one, and Darío certainly had politics that leaned towards his hometown. Granada became the more prosperous of the two cities once the Spaniards realized that the San Juan River was navigable to the Gulf of Mexico, and other than a 20 mile isthmus of land between the Pacific and Lake Nicaragua, a passage between the oceans is quite conceivable. Why this didn't become the canal seems perplexing having seen both the Panamanian and Nicaraguan sites.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hallacas, Pan de Jamon, Turron Alicante, y Ron

We had a Venezuelan Christmas last night, via Miami. Hallacas are a variation on tamales. Instead of being wrapped in corn husks, they are wrapped in banana leaves, and instead of being steamed, they are boiled. The banana leaves impart a distinctive flavor to the harina maiz, and while they are cooking you know that you are about to have them--the smell is also quite distinctive. The filling of the Hallaca is delicious--

it is a mixture of pork, beef, and chicken, mixed with green olives, raisins, and spices--the mixture of vinegar, salt, and sweet is reminiscent of a Christmas tradition of my youth, Mince Pie. These themes are echoed in the pan jamon, which is a rolled bread, with ham, olives, and raisins, in pretty much equal parts. I love the celebration of holidays with distinctive food--it matters not whether I celebrate that holiday or not. The idea that you make foods once a year, but every year, is a tradition that I participate in enthusiastically. It is a way to be connected with the changes of the year across a lifetime--offering bot comforti and familiarity.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Julie and Julia

Nora Ephron made a brilliant addition to Julie Powell's 2005 book "Julie and Julia". The book of the movie's title got a lot of press, and it was a great idea with an acceptable carry through. Lots of irritating qualities in the author, many of which came through in the movie. But Ephron decided to juxtapose the material from that book with another book, My Life In France (2006), an autobiography by Julia Child with her nephew Alexander Prud'Homme about the writing of her masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The book of the movie title I liked, largely because of the cooking (and let's face it, while I have yet to make an aspic, I have cooked under far more primitive conditions than a small Queens apartment with no children and a 9-5 job). I loved 'My Life in France'. It made me want to cook out of the cookbook I have had on my shelf for 2 decades and rarely used, and gave me an idea of how women of my mother's generation would worship Julia Childs.

The brilliant piece of this is that I think a movie about Julia Childs might not have been nearly as adorable as this movie is. The relationship between Julia Childs and her husband Paul is one of mutual adoration and support. Not so with Julie and her husband. Julia Childs is in love with French cooking and she desperately wants to get it right, and bring it to her country in a way that is useful. Julie Powell is at sea, she needs something to hang onto, and Julia Childs cookbook is the anchor that she finds. It is just an order of magnitude different, and the film really highlights that in a way that the straight telling of the story might not do justice. It is abundantly clear that Ephron loves he subject matter, knows her food, and that she carefully wove the stories together--the script is seamlessly interspersed in a way that will please viewers who read both books, but make sense to those who read neither. Meryl Streep is the finishing touch on the magic of the film. She is channeling Julia Childs, all the more amazing in that she is short, and Julia was tall, and how she and the photographers pulled that off.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Versatile Taco

I made tacos for dinner and was struck by the minimalist qualities of this delicious food. I took tortillas that are just ordinary, off-the-shelf, stacked in piles of 36 and resilient in the refrigerator. They come to life when they are fried in a pan with 1/8" of vegetable oil in the bottom, becoming both chewy and slightly crunchy, and very rich in an earthy way. I always make my lo-fat simple version of refried beans when I make tacos. They have a complimentary earthy flavor that sets off whatever filling I make, and along with a salsa cruda, form the triumvirate of the essential taco. The additional fillings are endlessly diverse, and individually delicious.

Refried Beans
2 c. dried pinto beans
8 c. stock
2 bay leaves
1 onion, cut in half
Put in the crock pot on high for 6 or more hours, drain off most off the water, food process with the chopping blade until smooth.

Rick Bayless wrote the very best cookbook of regional Mexican cooking. I recommend cooking slowly and careful through all his very first cookbook, Authentic Mexican, which is my favorite. I think his second cookbook, Rick Bayless' Mexican Cooking, is a better cookbook, but it is flashier and therefore less faithful to the tradition it comes from, and I don't like it nearly as much. His recipes are an easy introduction to Mexican cooking that will serve those who try him well.