The $@#&!^* Joy of Cooking

Okay.  I get it.  Cooking truly is an art form.  It requires patience, creativity, and talent.  Lacking two of those three means I am struggling in the kitchen, but pressing on nonetheless.  My creativity in other areas does not transfer well.  I know that is a confidence thing, and it will come eventually.   Thank goodness my husband enjoys to cook, otherwise we would starve during the time it takes me to recover from a single meal prep.

What I lack in patience and talent, I more than make up for with my curiosity and love of learning.  I want to soak up as many experiences as possible while I am living here, and that includes learning about new ingredients, new foods, and new ways to prepare them- -myself.  So I research, pin on a special “current obsession” Pinterest board, and write recipes in a brand new spiral bound notebook.  I cannot tell you how much I enjoy this part!

thumbnailRecently, armed with a grocery list (for quite possibly the first time in my life), I headed to our local Ley grocery store.  After a long internal debate about whether or not I should buy tomatillos in their husks or out, I opted for out.  Although I had no earthly idea what a ripe tomatillo was supposed to look like.  I received a short lesson on how to select the perfect lemon from a very kind expert.  I am slowly learning to tell the difference between the five gazillion varieties of peppers available.  And no laughing please, but I had absolutely no idea that tomato bouillon was a thing!  In fact, I was a little worried that I would not be able to find it.  I had to ask where to find the vinegar.  (A side benefit of this cooking thing is an improvement in my Spanish speaking skills.)

By the time I was finished, almost everything in my cart had come from the produce department.  I loved how it looked!  Upon arriving home, I took a picture of everything because it looked so pretty.  That was the extent of my kitchen time the rest of the day.

I woke up early the next day to soak my beans and make the marinade for carne asadathumbnail-2 before I went to Spanish class.  I got right back at it once I returned home, cooking the beans and whipping up a little salsa verde.  I really loved this recipe because it did not require a lot of slicing and dicing.  I just threw everything into our little smoothie maker and in seconds I had delicious salsa.  Without a doubt, the tomatillo is quite possibly the greatest thing on this planet (ripe or not).

Nearly everything on my menu called for garlic.  We never used a lot of it back in Indiana.  Who am I kidding?  My husband did because I found TWO garlic presses in our kitchen utensil drawer.  Who knew that garlic is a lot like an onion?  Never mind.  Probably all of you.  Well, I was amazed by all the layers of skin I had to peel off to get to the good stuff.  And it now makes perfect sense why one of our small, independent grocers sells fresh garlic already peeled.

I have a new appreciation for the Rachel Rays, Paula Deans, and everyone else who can cook and joke around, chat, or watch Ellen at the same time.  I was over focused, consumed by what was in front of me.  I would check my recipe and then forget what I had just read minutes later.  I felt frantic and incredibly anxious.  At one point I actually had to lie down and practice my breathing.  Take out would have been so much easier…

Truth be told it was a good thing I rested.  While my husband was grilling the flank steak, I was racing around the kitchen like a mad woman finishing up the rice and the beans.  Part of the problem is that our gas stovetop seems to have two settings- – high and higher.  Before I had time to chop my carrots, the rice was boiling.  I had no chance of keeping liquid in the bean pot; the juice evaporated instantly.  And I never even had time to slice onions or lemons for the carne asada because I was stirring two pots at the same time to prevent burning.

thumbnail-1I let Steve taste everything first.  Once it was evident that he was not going to have a food reaction, I tried dinner myself.  The rice was incredible- -it is now my specialty (read “the easiest”), and I make it at least once a week.  The beans tasted somewhat bland, which I was not expecting at all.  It was explained later that I had failed to add the “tube of lard” (available at Ley) to the bean pot.  Um, no.  Until I figure it out, I will just mix them in with the rice.  And I will be doing that for a while considering that even though I halved the recipe, I have beans for days.  Thankfully, it is pretty hard to screw up carne asada, even without onions and lemon!

Up next machaca, tacos al pastor, charro beans, and pozole.  I figured pre-calculus out the week before the final exam.  I can surely master the kitchen.  (But I am keeping a few restaurants on my speed dial until then.)

Water Therapy

Two of our favorite neighbors returned earlier this fall and began preparing their home to sell.  Sad face.  While we could not afford to buy the home, we were able to purchase the double kayak they no longer needed.  It was an impulse buy like no other.  My neighbor had barely finished his sentence, offering me the opportunity, when an excited “YES” came rushing out of my mouth.  Being a bit older, and a tad old fashioned, my neighbor asked if I wanted to run it by my husband.  Um, no thank you.

thumbnail-1Steve is not much of a kayaker.  I think it is a patience thing.  But he is kind of thrifty.  If we had the kayak, paid money for the kayak, he would use the kayak!  And I needed him to want to use the kayak 1) because it is a double  2) because it is really, really heavy and 3) because I love to kayak but am not very good at it.  I tend to worry a little about tipping over.  A buddy meant I had a built in equalizer (or life preserver).  I also obsess about sharks.  Having Steve with me meant bait.

On a beautiful, sunny Saturday we loaded the kayak in our truck and headed out to a somewhat protected cove.  As we carried/lugged/dragged it to the water, I could not help picturing the chiseled arms I would eventually have.  Woo hoo!  Maybe I would be able to wear a sleeveless top without a cardigan or work shirt one of these days!  Apparently, I was not as focused on our task as I needed to be.  Steve was pointing out obstacles in front of me and mumbling something about paying attention.

Paying attention proved to be a bit of a problem once we were out on the water.  I either thumbnailoverthought my paddling technique (or rather, lack of), or I became too engrossed in the pelicans sunbathing on the rocks, in the search for blue footed boobies, and in the tunnels carved by the sea in the rocks to remember to paddle.  We struggled finding a good rhythm.  Our paddles hit, eliciting sighs from the guy in the seat behind me.  I put my paddle in too deep, meaning I was pulling along at a slower pace.  There were numerous pleas to “just stop paddling, please”.

Regardless of my skill level, I was having a blast!  At some point, I stopped obsessing over my poor form and what Steve thought of it.  We glided across the water- -it was a clunky glide, but a glide nonetheless.  We moved in and out of the tunnels, both grateful and awestruck.  We watched pelicans dive-bomb the water for their breakfast.  We had a few tippy moments, but we knew enough not to overcorrect or panic, thereby saving ourselves from taking a plunge.  After about an hour and a half on the water we headed back to shore.  I was feeling empowered enough to think about where we should put in on our next trip.  And I could not help striking a bodybuilder pose after loading up the truck.

On the way home we discussed some of the problems we had.  We were calmer and more patient with each other.  We recognized that despite some of the issues, we had a wonderful time.  We also realized that we had a lot of time to get better and work on this together.  Buying a kayak was much cheaper than signing up for marriage counseling!  And did I mention the incredible arms I will have?!

Procrastination: An International Language

thumbnailA couple of weeks ago, I received a very panicked, last-minute text from one of my former English students.  This young man needed help with a presentation for his science class.  We made arrangements to meet the following morning to work on the assignment together.  All I knew was that he needed to make a video of a science experiment in English, and we absolutely had to get together “tomorrow”.

I started to get a bit nervous when more than 15 minutes after our agreed upon time, my young friend had not arrived.  I wondered if I had misunderstood the arrangements we made the night before.  That happens sometimes when I am texting in Spanish!  Soon after, however, I saw him walking through the gate and heading my way.

He was a sweaty, tired mess- -having walked nearly four miles to my home from his in a small fishing village outside of town.  “Why didn’t you ask me pick you up?” I asked incredulously.  After gulping down a glass of ice water, he replied that it was no big deal.  Wow!  I was thinking what dedication this kid has to his studies.  Yeah, more about that later.

My friend explained that he needed to video tape a science experiment, detailing the steps in English.  He pulled a few of the necessary items out of his backpack and then asked if I had a wine cork and a book of matches.  (Is a cork a common household item?)  Now it was my turn to go into panic mode.  How were we going to be able to finish his assignment without one of the key parts of the experiment?!  Why did I not ask for more information the night before?!  I googled substitutions for a cork and came up with nothing.  As I  contemplated driving into town to buy a bottle of wine just for the cork, he suggested we ask one of my neighbors.

I do not know very many of my neighbors well.  Most of them are seasonal and keep to themselves when they are here.  Could I really just knock on their doors and ask for a wine cork?  At 9:30 am?  What the heck.  We headed off on our mission.  The first neighbor was not home.  We moved on down the block.  I rehearsed our strange request all the way.

Fortunately, the next neighbor was home.  Unfortunately, this meant I had to ask for the cork.  She jokingly suggested that I knew just where to come for a wine cork.  (I guess I do know some of my neighbors pretty well.)  She then proceeded to open a brand new bottle of wine just so she could give us the cork.  “Hey, no worries.  We’ll just have to drink it this afternoon.” she said.  I awkwardly thanked her, and we left.  We had used about 30 precious minutes of our hour and a half just securing the needed materials.

Rather than get right to work upon our return, the scientist asked for my wi-fi password and then checked his Facebook page.  Apparently, nothing urgent was breaking on his newsfeed, so we were finally able to focus on the task at hand.  First, we reviewed his brochure and made a few vocabulary corrections.  Then, he walked me through the experiment and explained what should happen.  Finally, he practiced in English several times.  We began filming.

I think we were both holding our breath at the climax of the experiment- -and then thumbnail-1simultaneously wondering what in the world had gone so wrong.  We had three matches left by this point, exactly the number we needed.  (Obviously, I am not at all prepared for scientific emergencies.)  I did a quick internet search for the experiment, thinking we could figure out our error that way.  Like the wine gods earlier, the science gods were smiling upon us as well because lo and behold, there it was!  (Interestingly, we could have conducted the experiment without a cork.)

I explained what I had found, requiring some new vocabulary to be added to the pamphlet and a few more rounds of practice- -without lighting the matches, of course.  This time, the results were perfect, and we were both pretty amazed with the science.  We fist bumped, high-fived, and did a happy dance.  Then the mad scientist quickly sent the video to his teacher, as the due date was that afternoon, not the next day.  We hurriedly cleaned up our mess so I could drive him home.  It turned out he had more homework  to finish before heading to school that afternoon.

Blanketed By Love

There is a website for San Carlos residents that provides all sorts of information.  Through conversation boards, readers learn about local events, weather, and news.  Sometimes silly questions are asked and answered.  Other times frustration and criticism run rampant.  And every once in a while there is a posting that creates the potential for something incredibly beautiful to unfold.

I came across one such post a couple of weeks ago.  Cobijo San José, a senior home, needed items for its pantry.  I have lived in San Carlos for a year and a half.  I had heard of Cobijo only once before, during Christmastime last year.  I had no idea where it was located or how it operated.  I figured it was past time to find out.

A friend and I drove to a small, rural community on the outskirts of Guaymas.  San José de Guaymas has a population of just a little more than 1,000 people.  There is a school, a church, a police station, and several small, independently owned grocery stores.  There is bus service from San José to other parts of the city.  We followed the signs that led us to Cobijo, a large, impeccably kept home with flowering gardens.

Irene, the managing caregiver, met us at the door and led us through the foyer into the kitchen.  As I emptied my bags of rice, beans, and meat, Irene told us that there were 21 residents living at Cobijo.  After documenting everything I had brought with me, she gave us a tour.  We also met many of the residents, who were eagerly waiting for Mass to begin.  We chatted with several before promising to return.

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I am a curious person.  My brain is constantly full of questions; I often ask them at the least inopportune times (like during the movie).  I believe the whole point of having a cellular data plan is to look things up on road trips.  Before the Internet, there was my dad.  So as soon as I got home from my trip, I emailed the original poster on the San Carlos Board, and asked if he would be willing to meet and provide more information about Cobijo.  Like any volunteer, who cares deeply for his charges, he eagerly agreed.

Our conversation jumped all over the place.  I know I am still missing key parts.  After two hours together, I have just the very beginnings of an understanding of how the system works, kind of.  It seems that the state government of Sonora provides the home for elderly who are indigent or without family caregivers.  They also provide a staff of two guards, four daytime caregivers, and one nighttime caregiver.  They do not provide regular pay, however.  Paychecks come infrequently- -maybe every five months, maybe not.  The government has created a Board that runs the day to day operation, with no annual budget.  So when the pantry is bare, it is truly bare.

The home has water about four hours per day, due to leaks in the system bringing the water from Guaymas.  Imagine trying to wash clothing and dishes for 21 residents in that amount of time.  Propane companies donate the propane to heat the water so residents may take warm showers during the winter months.  This propane also makes cooking on the stovetop possible; there is no oven.  We did not get around to discussing medical care.  Residents have a small store where they sell clothing and other donated items to raise money for food and other essentials.  Outside of this, they are entirely dependent on the community for making sure they have what they need.  This includes home repairs, upkeep of the home, and maintaining the grounds.

Before the meeting was over, I had another list of needed items.  I had also made the commitment to serve as “Activities Facilitator” or “Volunteer Who Brings Games, Crafts, Books, Magazines, and Chats”.  Sadly, so much time and energy are spent securing resources for the residents that enrichment opportunities and social interaction often go by the wayside.  I am not a good fundraiser, but I can plan the heck out of fun activities!  And anyone who knows me also knows that I LOVE to talk.  After making a return visit (this time dragging my husband along) I knew this was something I really wanted to do.

In Spanish, the verb “cubrir” means to cover.  The word “la cubija” means blanket.  Cobijo is a play on both of those words.  It is a safe place, providing cover for or covering its residents with care.  Despite the lack of government support, a truly dedicated, selfless staff and tenacious volunteers work tirelessly to provide for the residents of the home.  I am excited and energized to be joining forces with such a dynamic group of people.  And as “Little Miss Curious”, I am even more thrilled by the opportunity to learn from 21 new teachers.

Today’s Menu Choices: A Wing and A Prayer

So I went grocery shopping yesterday.  And I experienced extreme grocery cart envy.  I was in the produce section marveling at a gentleman who was filling plastic bags to the brim with tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, lemons, potatoes, peppers, and corn.  My cart looked pretty basic.  I had bananas, apples, two pineapples, and carrots.  In fact, the only item that may have caused my cart to look a little different than it did when I was shopping in Fort Wayne, Indiana was the jícama.

My feelings of food choice inadequacy grew greater with each aisle I covered.  “Why are you putting Pop Tarts in this cart?  Put them back on the shelf now!” (I did not.)  I was seriously bummed to discover that there was absolutely no white cheddar popcorn to be found anywhere in the store.  Thank goodness the freezer shelves that occasionally house the Red Barron frozen pizzas were empty.  It was after I added the jar of Prego spaghetti sauce to the cart I truly knew I had a problem.

In an earlier posting, I shared the deep, dark secret that I do not really like to cook.  However, I like even less letting an incredible opportunity pass me by.  Here I am living in Mexico, eating like a gringa; an unhealthy one at that.  (In the event that my mom is reading this, the Pop Tarts were for Steve, and I do eat a lot of salads.)  As I placed my items on the conveyor belt, shaking my head at the pathetic display, I vowed that things were going to be different from this point on.

thumbnailOn the way home I stopped at Santa Rosa’s, the small, local grocery store for some coyotas and Flor de Jamaica.  After unloading the car, I warmed my breakfast cookie in the microwave and began brewing a batch of aqua de Jamaica.  I fired up my computer and started the search for Sonoran recipes.  Three hours later, I had the budding promise of culinary disaster…er…change.

I made a new grocery list.  I do, however, draw the line at one major grocery trip per day.  So in the meantime, I am psyching myself up by breathing real heavy like a boxer before the fight, hopping around the house on my toes, jabbing the air left and right, and shouting into the mirror, “Who rules the kitchen?  That’s right!  You do!”  There may or may not be some growling involved.

And if all else fails, at least coyotas and aqua de Jamaica beat Pop Tarts and Coca Cola!

 

Agua de Jamaica

8 oz. dried Jamaica flowers

16 cups water

sugar to taste

ice

Wash the flowers in a strainer.  Put them in a pot with the water and heat until the water boils.  Remove from heat, cover, and let stand 24 hours.  Pour through a strainer to remove the flowers.  Once the water is in its serving container, add sugar to taste.

Guaymas’ Hidden Gems

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While I have lived here for nearly a year and a half, there are many places I have not discovered or experienced in Guaymas/San Carlos.  With the help and recommendations (and directions) from many kind friends, I am uncovering more of my new to me home everyday.  And yes, I still do “touristy” things like dolphin cruises, horseback rides, and sunset viewing from the trendy swings at the local beach bar.  But I also travel 35 minutes and brave parking in El Centro just to buy warm tortillas and the best totopitos in town.  I know where to find the freshest churros.  I will bypass the convenience of Ley or Walmart to buy fresh fruits and vegetables from produce stands at the Municipal Market.

Every once in a while, my husband and I get the chance to be tour guides to folks who know less about our home than we do.  Steve’s employer sees many business travelers, and occasionally, their visits include weekends.  When someone asks, “So, what do you do for fun around here?” we don’t necessarily want to answer with, “Well, we spend a lot of time napping and reading on the beach.”  Even if it is true.  This is our chance to show off the city we have come to love.

 

The gazebo in Plaza 13 de Julio was designed by Gustav Eiffel.  Yes that Eiffel!  Iglesia San Fernando, built in 1850, is the oldest church in Guaymas.  Its doors are open daily, and mass is still held on Sunday mornings.  Many people listen to mass from the shade in the plaza.  Plaza de los Tres Presidentes honors the three Mexican presidents from Guaymas.    It overlooks el Palacio Municipal, home of the local government.  The malecón offers stunning views of the Sea of Cortez and surrounding mountains.  A statue honoring Guaymas’ fishing history is found here.

 

Despite reviews on Trip Advisor and other travel sites that bemoan Guaymas and its failure to “realize its potential”, I love to be downtown in the middle of it all.  I do understand the criticism, however.  The beautiful, historic buildings are in severe disrepair.  No two curbs are the same height.  Sidewalks are pockmarked and crumbling in places.  Large potholes exist in the main thoroughfares.  Garbage pickup is sporadic.  Old cities in Europe manage to remain enchanting.  I have heard Guaymas described as “crummy, but authentic”.

 

And it is the authenticity of the city that appeals to me.  Every morning shopkeepers are in front of their stores, sweeping the debris from those crumbling sidewalks and washing their windows.  Those sellers without an actual storefront, unload and arrange their goods on tables, lining the main avenue- -an eclectic mix of clothing, backpacks, jewelry, mixed nuts, and fresh fruit.  Food trucks line Calle 19, and it does not take long before the enticing smells of tacos, tostadas, and churros overpower fumes from the buses.

There is a buzz of activity, no matter the day of the week.  The sidewalks are jammed withthumbnail-1 shoppers and students on their way to and from school.  Groups of men gather around the shoeshine chair to chat.  Farmers park their pickup trucks at the busiest corners, full of fresh oranges, watermelons, asparagus, and elote.  There are at least eight barbershops in a two block area, and each is bustling.  Loud music spills onto the streets from various stores around the city market, each playing something different.  Men pitch their goods using microphones and portable speakers.  A busy grocery store does brisk business.  But so does the family selling homegrown tomatoes, peppers, and onions. And the woman removing the tines from and cutting the nopal cactus into bite size pieces.

thumbnail-3It is the friendliness and the positive attitudes of the people I meet and see when I am in Guaymas that stands out the most.  There is always a smile and a “buen día” given in passing.  And due to the crowds, there are a lot of these greetings.  The beauty of Guaymas is its people.  And a closer look at them reveals that Guaymas has definitely realized its potential.

Brain Freeze

Earlier this week the weather report warned of cold and very chilly temperatures around midnight and in the early morning hours.  A picture of two women wearing puffy ski jackets, hats, and scarves even accompanied the article.  Those chilly temperatures?  68 degrees.  Yeah, I was still sleeping with the air conditioner on…

Sorry friends and family who are beginning to pull out sweaters and snuggle up under fleece blankets after being pelted by sleet and cold, drizzly rain.  At least you have your Pumpkin Spice Lattes, bonfires, and Hallmark Channel movies.  Meanwhile, despite the “cold” morning temperatures, the afternoon and evening temperatures are still high enough to generate a bright red face, a rolling sweat, and the need to change shirts at least twice daily.  I am over here still looking for that ice cold treat guaranteed to take the edge off- – besides a frosty margarita.

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Paleta de mango

Paletas, or popsicles, are one of my favorites.  No need for a stick here.  Fresh fruit is mashed, sugared to taste (if necessary), and poured into a plastic baggie.  The juice and chunks of fruit are then frozen.  If the fruit used is watermelon, even the seeds are tossed in for good measure!  Venders fill their coolers and set off for baseball diamonds, busy street corners, and plazas- -really almost anywhere they will find people needing relief.  Paletas are sold for about five pesos each.  At that price, why not buy two?  You just tear the corner of the baggie with your teeth and enjoy!  Mango, pineapple, and strawberry are crowd favorites.

 

Nieve, the Spanish word for snow, is used interchangeably with helado, the word for ice

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Nieves de coco, piña colada, and chicle

cream.  Nieves are water, not dairy based.  Fresh fruit, water, and other natural ingredients are mixed by hand giving the treat a creamier appearance than paletas.  The mixing process can take from 90 to 120 minutes.  Nieves are served in a cone, cup, or a plastic baggie.  Popular flavors include pistachio, chicle, and tamarind.  I bought mine at one of our local grocery store for about eight pesos.

 

While the difference between a paleta and nieve is subtle, it is there.  My good friend, Jesús, straightened me out.  I thought I was sharing a paleta with him.  After eating it, he corrected me.  It is all about texture.

Finally,  there is the raspado.  I recently came across a gentleman with his raspado cart at a street festival.  I do not believe he had ever had a customer so excited to try his concoction.  My excitement was contagious, as my group of friends lined up behind me. Raspados are shaved ice, natural fruit juice, fresh fruit, and a bit of sweetened condensed milk.  Yes, basically a snow cone, but better.  Real fruit juice and chunks of fresh fruit are game changers.  The condensed milk adds interesting flavor as well.

thumbnail-1While this particular vender offered fairly common varieties of the treat (peach, pinapple, grape, tamarind, and mango), one of the most popular raspados in Sonora is the Diablito, or Little Devil.  This is a hot and spicy snow cone made with tamarind, chamoy, chile en polvo (like Tajín), and lemon.  To add even more flavor, Diablitos are garnished with hot chile lollipops.  Once I work my way through the fruit varieties, maybe I will give this one a try.  Maybe.  But probably only if there is a very chilly morning.

My grande cost for the raspado was 25 pesos.  Each summer in Indiana, my family went through a Hawaiian Ice phase.  We were easily spending thumbnail-7$15.00 a week to get our fix.  At this rate, I can sample a new flavor daily and treat a friend!

Sure, there are days I miss the changing of the colors, the brisk breezes, wearing my favorite fall jacket, the anticipation of a weather delay from school, and Starbuck’s white hot chocolate.  But most days, I am perfectly content to use my teeth to rip open the end of a baggie of cold, fruit goodness and enjoy the pictures my friends are sharing.  At least I think it is them.  It can be hard to tell through their layers of cold weather gear.