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Comida Nica

nicaragua1People often ask me what Nicaraguan food is like. My immediate response is usually “It’s not very pretty…” But I’ve changed my mind.  I got together with the very talented photographer Kristin Teig and came up with these images—Nica food cleans up nice!

From top left:

– Gallopinto (rice-and-beans), corn tortillas, and cheese on banana leaf background.

– Chicharrón con yuca—popular Nicaraguan street food served on banana leaf and eaten sans utensils: boiled yuca, pork cracklings, and vinegar-y cabbage slaw.

– Coca-Cola—in a bottle, and in a plastic baggie, as it is sometimes served (you can’t walk off with the bottles because they’ll be picked up and refilled at the Coca-Cola factory!).

– Hojuelas: fried discs of dough drenched in simple syrup.

– Mango “seleque” —we  add a generous pinch of coarse salt to tart mango.

It Burns

11-19-10-PostI love this picture. So soothing and festive. Do you want the recipe for this beautiful meringue? Well, too bad. Maybe some other time because this, my friend, an unapologetic rant. A non-soothing, utterly un-festive, Grinchy, grouchy, rage-filled rant.

I was looking for a portable electric burner today. In the past, when I’ve uttered the phrase “portable electric burner” at hardware or all-purpose stores like Home Depot, Target, Lowes, Sears, etc. I am met with strange facial contortions, puzzled silence, and the inevitable, “What do you want that for?” (P.S. Why do you care?)

Even though I’ve had trouble obtaining said portable burners in the past, I figured it was because I’d been shopping in New York City where the constrained real estate proportions of stores doesn’t allow for as much merchandise, as, say, Framingham, MA.

I was wrong. This is what I suffered through today.

***All conversations start with me sweetly saying, “Excuse me, sir, do you carry portable electric burners?”

Guy #1, Target: I approach him while passing the hair product aisle. He turns on his heel, takes a few steps, and turns down the first aid aisle. I’m thinking he’s looking for a colleague who might know where the burners are. Alas, he is looking for the burner in the first aid section. (OOHHHH! I just got it! I said “burner” and he thought, “Burner…Fire… Wounds… First Aid!”)
He says, “Hmm, I don’t think we have those.”
I reply, “Hmm, I think this is more of a small appliance or camping gear kind of thing.”

It is approximately 11:45am. My stomach is starting to rumble and I feel my blood sugar levels falling dangerously low. This means I only have 20 or so minutes before I begin to see spots and become speech-impaired. I zip over to Lowes.

Guy #2, Lowes:
“Can I help you, ma’am?”
Me: “Probably not, but what the heck. Do you have portable burners? You know… small, they have an electrical coil like the one on your stovetop, you plug it in, and you can cook on it?”
Guy #2: 15 seconds of silence.

Guy #3, Lowes: “Yeah! We have those! Just walk to that aisle over there and you’ll see a few different options.”

Me: Giddy! Finally, someone who knows what I’m talking about! WRONG. I’m staring at a wall of replacement coils for an electric stovetop. I guess they’re portable because they’re not connected to a stove???  Semantics.

Guy #4, Lowes: “Uhh, those are a fire hazard…What do you want them for anyway?”
Me: Glare.

Ooh La La — Paris Streets

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The plane lands. I gather the debris of a lengthy trip—books, magazines, scraps of paper, sweater, scarf—and haltingly make my way down the narrow aircraft hallway. “Au revoir!” and “à bientôt!” are cheerfully sprinkled on each descending passenger.

In a fog, I walk up to the bespectacled man at customs. He looks no-nonsense, but turns out to be chatty. I fumble with answers—after ten days of awkwardly searching for the right words in Italian and French, I have trouble answering in plain English. Outside, the sky is a furious, incandescent fuchsia and the wind, after eight hours of breathing a thick, hot vapor, is a sea urchin, all aggressive needles.  I feel far away. From what, I don’t know, seeing as here is home, here is familiar. Nonetheless, otherness. Days and days later, disorientation still lurks. It’s much darker in the morning than before I left. I can’t sleep, and night drags lazily on its belly towards the dawn.

Clign-7Paris, so often caught on film and between the black-and-white of text and page, is difficult for me to see clearly, without the word wreaths and golden halo. I walked the Jardin du Luxembourg, Trocadéro, Ile Saint-Louis, Notre Dame; all the big names and little dead-end streets, as if sleepwalking. The brisk fall air and blue tinged light dizzying, drugging, releasing dusty moths in between my lungs and sternum. Super-saturated Technicolor, the song had it right, this is life through rose-colored glasses.

Roses_Sacasa1A stroll through Paris.

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old-lady1A visit to the Clignancourt, the flea market.

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Cracked Up

I need Botox. My dermatologist thought I was bonkers when I inquired into the procedure that would render me smooth as silk, but, given the fact that I am called “ma’am” by shopkeepers, young and old, and the Save the Children gang that patrols my stretch of Mass. Ave., I’d say I am ready for it.

I read an article in The New Yorker recently about a man who prescribes laughing for well-being. There are clubs of laughers scattered across the globe. Members gather together and laugh, at first with effort until it infects and overwhelms them. I don’t remember the exact physical rewards said exercise bestows, but the notion that a daily fit of laughter reinvigorates and rejuvenates has fixed itself in my mind.  I think I have a pretty good sense of humor. But maybe it’s a dark humor? Maybe laughs induced by less than good-natured thoughts are actually robbing me of my youth? Did a Grimm write about this? Aesop?

Aside from my theory that smirks and inside jokes between me and myself are causing premature wrinkles is the knowledge that I do furrow my brow much too much. Surprised, the horizontal rows appear, like rows of freshly plowed spring soil. Confused, the left brow swoops down, a ladle dipping into the delicate skin that’s formed on a creamy soup. Concentrated, two deep canals form above the bridge of my nose. Once relaxed, they turn into the cracked bottom of a dried out creek bed.

Even now as I’m typing and thinking that I shouldn’t work my forehead, the brows draw together like two magnets.

The one good thing about such depth of expression is that someone about to be attacked has at least a fraction of second to know that he’s about to get it. Take for instance the dude at Whole Foods who decapitated the bunch of carrots photographed above. After two days of tireless shopping for carrots with their feathery green tops still intact, I find them. By this point in my journey, I am tired. The muscles of my face are exhausted after spending many hours squinting at produce for perfect specimens. These carrots are a prize. I’m about to start bagging when the cashier distracts me. I don’t know the answer to his question. I rummage around my head for an answer, at the same time rummaging around my bag for my wallet. And then, a snap so sharp it crackles and cuts across the air like a bolt of furious lightning. I turn, unable to speak, but from the bagger’s petrified stance, I know he knows he’s made a big mistake. The necks of the carrots have been snapped, mercilessly murdered. I think I hear a whimper.

Some people resemble their dogs or their partners. Maybe I’m meant to resemble food…Raisins? Peach pits? Earthquake cookies?

Eye of the Storm

My favorite way to eat coffee cake: smear both sides of the slice with butter and whatever topping crumbs you can collect, then griddle over medium-low heat until golden.

My apartment is overrun with cooking equipment and groceries. They’ve busted out of the kitchen cabinets and counters and begun squatting on the floor, on my dining room table, on top of the bookshelves… Developing recipes from home means I have to purchase groceries several times a week, and in some instances, more than once a day due to last-minute changes, “Hmm. I suppose I could use spaghetti instead of rotini here.”

I’ve been cleaning up as I go—never, never, ever allow pots, pans, etc. pile up in your sink until you’re done because I can tell you, woodland creatures are very unreliable and won’t clean up after you like they do for Snow White—but my kitchen can’t contain the abundance of paraphernalia I need for my assignments.

The eye of the storm? My coffee table. If I need a moment away from The Pit of Despair I sit on the couch and bask in the order of that table. New magazines, books, flowers, and most importantly, cake. Cake sitting pretty under that glass dome is one of the few things that centers me and irons out the crease between my eyebrows…I should make cake more often. Don’t you just love cake?

Choco-full

My maternal grandmother used to mix different cereals for breakfast: corn flakes, all-bran, granola. Nowadays you can create your own cereal online and select from a wide range of healthy (grandma would be proud) ingredients like quinoa flakes and amaranth. I loved watching grandma and her DIY cereal and am very curious about the fancy designer muesli, but, what about the junk-y varieties? Why is no one mixing those?

For nights when I’m exhausted or need a quick sugar fix I keep my shelves (the harder to reach ones) stocked with stuff like Lucky Charms and Golden Grahams, but most notably, Cocoa Pebbles or Cocoa Puffs. For the longest time I’d buy either Pebbles or Puffs, never quite certain about whether I preferred the quick-to-sog Pebbles that leave behind super chocolate-y milk or the crunchier Puffs that only leach out a modest amount of color and flavor. And then one day, The Solution: See below for my genius recipe that guarantees Augustus Gloop-worthy chocolate milk plus some textural contrast.

1 cup Cocoa Pebbles cereal
1 cup milk
1/2  cup Cocoa Puffs cereal

– Combine Pebbles and milk in cereal bowl. Let sit, stirring once or twice, for about 5 minutes, until the milk is deep chocolate.

-Add Puffs and eat immediately.

CANDY IS DANDY…

1…but liquor is quicker.

I’ve been deathly ill since Friday and don’t seem to be getting any better, despite having marinated in VapoRub all weekend long. I thought I had the croup, but am now convinced that it’s galloping consumption. In addition, I’ve lost my voice. Am seriously considering hanging a small slate around my neck and communicating via chalk missives. I tried sign language at work today, but don’t think the single crude finger signal I know counts as proper signing.

I’ve been self-medicating with OTC meds and bagfuls of Ricola, but those little suckers aren’t very effective. My mother suggested a home-brewed concoction, and though it may sound a bit iffy at first, you’ll warm to it as soon as you see there’s a little sneaky peek in the mix. It’s not a cure-all, maybe not even a cure-anything, but it’s a wonderfully soothing nightcap. ¡Salud!

MILK & MIEL

1 cup milk
1 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons honey (more to taste)
¼ cup dark rum

-Bring all ingredients to a slow simmer over medium heat.
-Pour into mug and serve.

DSC_0003P.S.This is not a Bacardí endorsement. I just couldn’t get Flor de Caña.

GIVE US THIS DAY

Bread is the perfect food. There’s no arguing that – it’s even in the Lord’s Prayer: “give us today our daily bread.” I know I’m interpreting that very literally, but there it is, in black and white.

I used to get my bread at Fairway on the Upper West Side and was pretty happy with it. No additives, no less-than-2%-of-the-following-impossible-to-pronounce ingredients. When I moved away from the UWS it was, for the most part, back to the bread aisle at the supermarket. There I would walk past Wonder and Sunbeam, Arnold and Nature’s Own. It got to a point where it didn’t really matter what I bought. All of these breads were wimpy and forgettable.

Tired of blah bread, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I’d been to the library recently in search of a Boston cream pie recipe (coming soon!) and along the way found a recipe for honey whole wheat bread in Greg Patent’s Baking in America. Mr. Patent failed to inform this dimwitted reader that perhaps her standard-sized Kitchen Aid (aka Kiki) would be no match for seven cups of flour. I should’ve known it wasn’t, but if there’s a recipe in a cookbook meant for home cooks, I expect it to work with standard kitchen appliances. My little Kiki started bucking like a bronco, and rather than risk breaking her neck, I turned her off and plunked the dough onto the counter. Now I would truly have to take matters into my own hands – I would have to knead.

Kneading was not easy. I’m too short to really bear down on the dough, so I strapped on some heels, but they didn’t help my situation – the heels provided height but not much in the way of support. Back in sneakers, I stood on my tip-toes and tried my best to work the dough, pretending all the time I was Lady Macbeth, outing the damned spot. Sweat started beading my brow and the bile starting bubbling. “I hate Greg Patent!” I muttered. But I kept going. I was scared because the dough was dry and crumbly and for the first few minutes, my labors did nothing to bring it together. It wasn’t smooth or elastic, just an ill-formed, uncooperative lump. To make matters worse, I kept remembering what my old boss W. told me about dough: “It’s alive.” Surely, I was killing it.

GPdough

What a lump.

I continued to fret while the bread was rising. It wasn’t smooth and beautiful, but heavyset and squat. Into the oven went two loaves anyway and without waiting for it to cool I cut a slice and buttered it. It was dense and a little chewy, bland in flavor, and OK at best.

squatloaves

Squat, toad-like loaves.

I’d decided to make bread despite the fact that I had a date the very next day to meet a real baker at a bakery a friend described as “THE BEST BREAD EVER:” Clear Flour Bakery. Clear Flour specializes in the production of French and Italian breads that are real: no additives, no preservatives. My new baker friend D. gave me a tour, which was awesome: Brobdingnagian mixers, about 50 times bigger and more powerful than my dinky little Kiki, imposing deck ovens, buckets of dough, stacks of beautiful frielings and bannetons (round and rectangular molds for shaping and proofing bread), and the main event: bread. There were baguettes, ficelles, olive rolls made with green olives, focaccia smothered with onions, hearty rolls with studded with nuts and plump raisins bearing the very poetic name of Paris night.

bannetons

bigmixers

Big mama mixers.

There is but a small area in front of the counter at it was packed solid at all times. Everyone, staff and visitors alike, were very kind, though, letting me be all interrupt-y with my camera.
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I bought an assortment and Señor O and I promptly went about the business of eating it. The ficelle was perfectly crunchy and French, as was its larger friend, baguette. I didn’t get to the baguette till this morning and, swoon, it was so perfect in its simplicity and straightforwardness that I was completely swept away. I spread some good European butter on it and ate away. I also treated myself to a Paris night roll with some apricot preserves I brought back from a recent trip to Rome. I haven’t enjoyed breakfast this thoroughly since I can’t remember when. Thank you, Clear Flour for keeping it real.

perfectbfast

 

 

ROYALE WITH CHEESE

If you were wondering what finally happened at the airport, here it is:

I succeeded in my plan to have a healthy breakfast and ignore BK and McDonald’s. Ignoring BK was east, as there is no outpost at EWR. McD’s was a a feat: you can access it via two counters, one in the main corridor and the second within the actual food court. Also, there is a 12-foot Ronald over the counter windows, smiling his big red smile, arms wide open in welcome, fingers spread out, beckoning! Am quite certain there are subliminal messages calling out to innocent passersby… “Coooooome to meeeee….” Struggling with my inner Greedy Smurf I marched resolutely to my gate.
By 10:00am my stomach was grumbling and I had a bagel, but I thought it was a much better choice than a hashbrown patty.

Once on the plane my sacrifices were proven to be for naught: the lunch trolley rolled down the aisle bearing lunch – a microwaved burger with American cheese in a cellophane wrapper was handed to each passenger. I craned my neck and peeked through the space in the seats in front of me, and, unsavory as the thing looked, I smiled and eagerly reached out my paw when the flight attendant said perkily, “Burger?!”

I was expecting to taste public school cafeteria, but it was, shockingly, a slight improvement on that childhood nightmare.

The best part was the wrapper. This uniquely American creation (its being microwavable was just the icing on the cake) was manufactured by a company whose logo is a little, mustachioed chef by the ultra-French name of Pierre!

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CLEAN CUT

Finally, I went to the hand surgeon. All week I’d been having night-(and day!)-mares about my hand. What if I needed surgery? What if I was doomed to have a dysfunctional opposable thumb for life? Would my human-ness be altered or compromised if that happened? I mean, opposable thumbs are one of our species’ chief characteristics.
Thankfully, though, I am A-OK, literally and figuratively (according to Wikipedia, “A-OK” is “both a saying and a hand-gesture done by connecting the thumb and forefinger into a circle” and I can do that now that my bandage and splint are gone).

I sat for a really long time in the waiting room. Why do doctors ask you to come in 15 minutes before your appointment if you won’t be taken care of at least 30 minutes after your scheduled time? Does it really take that long to fill out an insurance form? I hate waiting rooms. This one’s thermostat was cranked up to 150˚F. I was like a Hot Pocket inside my sweater. Yuck. And if that wasn’t enough, the lady sitting next to me was chewing gum – ruminating and popping. My mother, bless her soul, didn’t allow me to chew gum and every day I thank her for it. It is just awful to see people’s jaws working like bovines’.

When, at last, I got to see the doctor, I was rewarded for my sufferings: The stitches were removed and The Wound is going to finish healing, bandage-free, in the next few days. Luckily, there is no tendon or nerve damage, so if ever I should find myself on the side of the road in need of a ride, I will have two healthy appendages with which to signal.

The cut is not as clean as my title proclaims, however. The skin isn’t completely healed over and is in fact a bit open. I was a bit perturbed about it, but not so much now because I have other things to worry about. Here are some pictures. I hope you don’t think that I should go back to worrying.

Ta-ta for now.

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