Archive for the ‘Travel stories’ Category

The Halls of Montezuma – the Mexican Side of the Story

May 8, 2013

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Most Americans are familiar with the opening line of the Marine Hymn “From the halls of Montezuma…,” which refers to the 1847 Battle of Chapultepec.  Two famous military men, better known for their roles in the U.S. Civil War (Robert E. Lee and George Pickett) played roles in the battle.   Although this was a victory for American forces, the Mexican side of the story  is the more poignant of the two.

In September 1847, American military forces attacked Chapultepec Castle, which guarded Mexico City to the west.  The castle sat atop a 200-foot (60 m) tall hill, which, in recent years, was being used as the Mexican Military Academy.  General Nicolas Bravo had fewer than 1,000 men  to hold the hill, including 200 cadets, some as young as 13 years old.  The castle itself was defended by only 400 men, including 100 cadets.

The Americans, under the command of General Winfield Scott, began an artillery barrage of the castle. Marines stormed the castle using over 50 tall ladders, and managed to erect an American flag above it.  General Nicolas Bravo ordered a retreat back to the City and was himself captured. 

Six military cadets aged 13-19 refused to fall back and fought to their death.  Legend has it that, rather than allow the Mexican flag to fall into enemy hands, the last surviving teenage cadet Juan Escutia, wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and jumped off the castle wall to his death. 

The six cadets are known in Mexico as the “Ninos Heroes” or “Boy Heroes.”  There is an imposing monument to them in the entrance to Chapultepec park, and many streets and schools throughout Mexico are named after them, both collectively and individually.  At one time, they were also featured on the Mexican 5000 peso bank note.  A metro station in Mexico City is also named after them.  I am currently staying at a house between the streets named Colegio Military (Military Academy) and Heroes de 47 (Heroes of 1847).

On March 5, 1947, a few months before the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Chapultepec, U.S. President Harry Truman  placed a wreath at the monument and stood for a few moments of silent reverence. Asked by American reporters why he had gone to the monument, Truman said, “Brave men don’t belong to any one country. I respect bravery wherever I see it.”

 

 

 

 

Noches en La Paz

April 24, 2013

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Back in my party days, my girlfriends and I would drive down from Washington State all the way to Baja to party all day and all night.  Typically, we hit the beach, take an afternoon siesta, have a late dinner, hit the clubs around 11:00 p.m, dance, drink and flirt till about 4 a.m., drag ourselves home catch a couple of snoozes and then hit the beach again.

Now I’m an old married woman and frankly this just isn’t very appealing anymore.  I can’t bounce back from hangovers like I used to, and the only dancing I do is in the zumba classes at the gym.  Besides, I had to remind myself that, although I am spending two months in paradise, I am still working (albeit reduced hours) via the magic of the internet and need to get up in the morning to participate in telephone conferences, write briefs, etc.  So how have we been spending our evenings?

Strolling the Malecon

La Paz has one of the most attractive Malecons (waterfronts) in all of Mexico.  The Malecon has a 20-ft wide paved walkway that stretches from the Cortez Marina in the southwest end extending approximately 5 km, all the way to Playa Coromuel Waterpark in the northeast end.  The first 3 km runs along Abasolo, the main drag.  On the non-water side of Abasolo are countless shops, mid-sized hotels (no mega resorts), restaurants, ice cream parlors, etc.  It seems like everyone walks the Malecon, especially at night, when who families stroll the length admiring the sunset, the public artwork, buy ice cream, rollerblade, ride bikes. Etc.  John and I have both walked and biked the Malecon at all hours of the day and it’s enjoyable anytime.  Weekends, you will also hear musicians playing and everyone just seems to be having a wonderful time.  Unlike Cabo and other “resort cities” there are no trinket vendors or time share salespeople constantly harassing you.  La Paz’s Malecon feels very authentically Mexican, and was clearly built with its own citizen in mind – tourists are a mere afterthought.  It’s a lovely place to catch the sunset, and I took the photo above from the Malecon at sunset.  We reward ourselves by getting an ice cream at La Fuente ice cream shot, or a gelato and Giulietta e Romeo, or a paleta (homemade ice cream bar, sometimes dipped in chocolate and rolled in nuts) at Casa Villa.  There are also parlors that sell bubble tea, frozen yogurt and smoothies, we just haven’t gotten to them yet!

Attending a guitar concert at an art gallery

My friend Judy, an American ex pat who lives in La Paz, graciously keeps me informed of, and invites me to all sorts of events.  A few weeks ago, we attended a lovely guitar concert at a local art gallery.  The guitarist played only music written by Latin American composers.  We sat outdoors in a courtyard under the stars below the canopy of a large tree.  During intermission, we looked at the art and purchased wine, coffee or tea.  The cost of the concert? 70 pesos, or less than $6 per person.  Varietal Spanish wine was less than $3 a glass.  It was chilly that night, but positively enjoyable.

ImageMovie at the community garden

Another night, we attended a free outdoor screening of Robert Redford’s documentary “Watershed” in one of three community gardens, just a few blocks off the Malecon.  We arrived before dark and toured the garden where Alex, Judy’s husband, shares a plot with a neighbor.  The park is full of whimsical murals, and even the water tank is brightly painted.

Image We munched on the sweetest cherry tomatoes, crunchy organically-grown carrots and jicama sprinkled with Tajin, a Mexican spice blend.  Various enterprising gardeners found ways to reuse all those discarded wine and beer bottles by inserting them into the dirt upside down around beds to use them as edging.  The movie itself was very informative, following eight communities in Colorado, New Mexico, California, Baja Norte and Sonora affected by the increased demands on water, the Colorado river compact and efforts to restore the delta.  One realizes how much we take water for granted and how precious it is.  Here in La Paz, the soccer fields are dirt because there simply isn’t enough water to maintain grass.  The arroyos are bone dry.  Baja Sur is one of the driest states in Mexico and depends on the Sierra Laguna for its water.  But 70 percent of the water is lost to evaporation, 15% ends up in the sea and only 15% makes it into the acquifer needed to supply the entire state.  Here in La Paz, the municipality turns off the water without warning and the pressure is so low, we fill our tinaca (water tank) by hand every other day.  Our drinking water is delivered in large bottles by truck.  Throughout the day, I hear the music from the various water companies and can now identify whether it’s the Coca Cola truck or another company.  Several days after seeing the film,  we drove down to Los Cabos and I cringed when I saw those lush green lawns and golf courses.

ImageHot Dogs!

One thinks of seafood tacos in La Paz, but hot dogs are also extremely popular.  This hot dog cart, Yapa, is just a few blocks from my house.  the owners originally just had a cart in front of their house but they became so popular, they set up indoor seating with a flat-screen TV, and serve other foods and drinks.  But it seems everyone comes for the hot dogs.  Pazcenos like their hot dogs wrapped in bacon, grilled and served on a toasty bun with onions (I like mine grilled rather than raw), jalapeno peppers, catsup (I hold the catsup), mustard and a drizzle of crema (mexican sour cream).  The best part, they only cost 10 pesos or about 80 cents U.S. The hot dog cart (and many in the city) is only open at night.

Bars

La Paz has its share of bars and clubs but is nothing like the insanity of Cabo.  We have actually only gone out at night to a bar once, and that was to the Tailhunter Fubar and Cantina, a popular sportsbar on the north end of the Malecon.  The owner, former California native Jonathan Roldan, also runs a sportfishing business.  We went there the night of the NCAA basketball championship game between Michigan and Louisville.  The game was on every screen in the bar.  The seats were filled mostly with gringos but it was not packed to the gills.  Great beers and a fun evening.

TV and movies at home

Mexico plays many Hollywood films at about the same time as in the US.  They are either in English with subtitles or dubbed in Spanish.  We don’t get the range of films seen in the U.S.  Most are action films of family-friendly films.  We haven’t gone to see a movie in a theatre yet, but there are plenty of multiplexes, just like in the States.  The house we are staying at has no TV.  We brought our computer monitor down with us and hook it up to the laptop.  Outside the US you can watch U.S. television on a website called ustvnow.com. It’s on an east coast schedule. We can watch network and basic cable for free. If we want to, we can pay a subscription for premium channels or DVR. But instead, we mostly watch netflix movies. We saw the entire series “House of Cards” with Kevin Spacey and are now watching “Mad Men.”

Other cultural events

There are plenty of other cultural events in La Paz. I’ve received email notices for the ballet “Peter and the wolf,” a classical piano concert, a concert with the state orchestra. Admission to none of these events costs more than $9. La Paz is also celebrating its “foundation days” in early May (it’s 478 years old) with concerts, food, parades). I’ve been told, however, that there are no touring broadway shows or semi-professional musical theatres here. Maybe time to found a company!

La Paz!

March 29, 2013

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After driving over 1000 miles, we reached our “home base” of La Paz, BCS for the next seven weeks.  Our first home (for approximately 5 weeks) is Casita McAllister, an adorable casita on the outskirts of the center of town.  Lovely Spanish tile everywhere and a fully stocked kitchen.  Our host, Sharon, is a sweetheart.  A former Oregonian who has been living in La Paz for ten years.  Tiffy, the resident gato also keeps us company. Our first day Tiffy was very friendly (or maybe a guard cat), following us everywhere and sitting next to me while I worked on my computer.  ImageOnce we found him napping in the bathroom sink.

We’re just 3 blocks from the beach, nice for walks but there are much nicer swimming beaches just outside of town.  But a nice view during the morning stroll.

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The seagulls were squawking as we strolled on the beach this morning, and all I could think of was “Finding Nemo” – “mine, mine, mine!” Went grocery shopping a few days ago (see previous post) and am thrilled that I get to cook again. Here’s today’s lunch, supplemented by yummy German Chocolate brownies Sharon shared with us (she bakes and sells her pastries at the Saturday gourmet market).

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Time to cook!

March 27, 2013

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Okay the serious cook in me wants to hit the fish market, bakeries, produce markets, etc.  But on day one it was simply time to go to the supermercado to stock up and check out the prices.  Here’s a sample of what I bought today at Chedraui Supermercado, just two blocks from where we are staying in La Paz for the next five weeks.

700 ml tequila  $6.75

Bottle of Italian red wine  $7.84

Combo pack EVOO and wine vinegar  $7.48

Bar of bath soap (palmolive) $.76

1 quart bleach  $.60

Demiloaf artisan onion bread  $.66

Loaf of multigrain bread (Pan Bimbo) $1.72

6 handmade flour tortillas $.98

6 oz Di Giorno shredded parmesan cheese $5.29

Gallon fresh-squeezed OJ (unpasteurized) $8.13

½ gallon low fat milk $2.60

1 ½ dozen eggs  $2.84

Haas avocados $.78/pound

Jalapeno peppers $.64/pound

Roma tomatoes $.40/pound

Manila mangoes $1/pound

Bananas $.42/pound

Strawberries  $2.09/quart

Boneless chicken breast $2.59/pound

Medium shrimp heads off, shell on  $4.40/pound

Marinated flank steak  $6/pound

Here’s my kitchen.  Looking forward to start cooking!

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Whales!

March 27, 2013

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Okay, I could die today and be happy.  We booked the whale-watching tour to Laguna Ojo Liebre (Jackrabbit-eye Lagoon), a 45 minute drive across the salt flats of Guerrero Negro.  We were loaded up in a small panga (12 to a boat). Accompanying us was the six-year old adorable daughter of the captain, who goes out with her Daddy whenever she’s not in school.  She knows whales by name and calls to them and they come to the boat.  They seem to love children. 

The grey whales come to the Baja coast (Pacific side) every winter to give birth in the Laguna, Bay of San Ignacio and Magdalena bay.  They spend the winter there, with the strongest adults guarding the narrow entrance to keep predators out. In the spring, the adults form a circle around the babies and they take the long swim north where they spend their summers, then they repeat the cycle the following fall, returning to Mexico. 

Marine biologists estimate approximately 700 whales in Laguna Ojo Liebre this year and we must have seen about 50-60, mostly in the distance, spouting, surfacing and twice breaching.  About 2/3 of the way into our venture into the Bay four whales (three adults and a baby) came up along side our boat and the accompanying boat.  They were curious and surfaced, lifting their heads up, and let us pet them.  Mama playfully splashed us and then spouted water all over me.  Three dolphins accompanied them, though the dolphins never lifted their heads out of the water.  The whales hung around our boat for about 1/2 hour.  After they had enough of head petting and belly rubbing (just like cats) they turned and swam off in the distance, spouting.  The highlight of our Baja trip thus far!

After the whale watching trip, we briefly toured the saltworks, the largest exporter of salt in the world. While driving on the hard packed dirt road, this huge critter blocked our path and stared us down.tarantula web

I was thrilled and got down low to the ground to take this photo, my companions, including the recent Italian marine biology graduate were not as thrilled. Our driver swerved around “pepe” and we were on our way. We checked out of the hotel late and crossed the desert for the Sea of Cortez coast.

As we approached the coast we gingerly drove down the very scary Pie de La Cuesta, the steep road hugging the mountain side with few guardrails on the downhill side and what appeared to be sheer drops of thousands of feet. Luckily, we were on the uphill side of the mountain, but I am already dreading the return trip when we will be on the downhill side while large 18 wheelers barrel toward us in the opposite direction. The view was spectacular until ugly Santa Rosalia came into view. An old mining town full of abandoned equipment an old quarry serves as the town dump, this is as ugly as it gets. 30 years ago, when I drove the Baja with some Mexican friends, we actually overnighted in Santa Rosalia. We must have gotten in after dark because I never would have agreed to stop there otherwise.

We blew through town and continued on to the river oasis town of Mulege. Still tiny. We couldn’t find the B&B by the river because the usual road was still washed out from the flood several years ago and settled on my second choice – La Serenidad outside of town. This was probably once quite the hotspot, with celebrities jetting in on the private airstrip just outside the hotel gate. But the grand dame shows a lot of wear. The hotel is reminiscent of an old hacienda, with low slung white-washed adobe brick buildings, expansive patios and plenty of rustic Mexican charm. But the bathroom was scary. The hotel made up for its somewhat with its famous Saturday pig roast. It was sad to see so few guests though, where once this place was probably hopping with rowdy partiers hurling shots of tequila while the Mariachis sang in the background.

Mexican dinner

January 10, 2010

Mexican dinner

After I graduated from law school and had taken my first bar exam, I rewarded myself with seven weeks traipsing around Mexico solo.  I visited 15 states, became pretty fluent in Spanish and had a wonderful time.  During my trip, I travelled to Northern Mexico to the State of Coahuila (City of Saltillo) to visit some friends I had made on a prior trip.  They were students at an agricultural university there.  Northern Mexico (La Frontera) is to Mexico as Texas is to the U.S.: ranches, pickup trucks, cowboy hats and boots.  Surprisingly, however, the further south you go in the US towards Texas the slower people speak (that Texan drawl).  But in Mexico, the farther north you go towards the U.S. border, the faster people speak.  One day during my visit my friends decided to cook dinner.  We bought steaks, raided the experimental corn and vegetable fields and had this fine repast.  I’ve adapted it only slightly.  You can substitute canola oil for lard but you will lose the authentic Mexican flavor.  Lard (Manteca) is available in many grocery stores sold in blocks, but I make my own.  Whenever I buy pork, I trim the fat and freeze it separately.   When I get a critical mass, I defrost it and slowly render it in a sauté pan over medium low heat.  I then pour it into a bowl and store it in the fridge.  This time, however, I had some fresh boneless country-style pork ribs I bought on sale to use in another meal.  I trimmed 4 oz of fat off of them, and tossed the fat into the skillet before making the rice.  When the fat became crisp, I discarded the crispies (George Bush Sr. loves these “chicharrones” as a snack).  Half the fat went into the beans and the other half into the rice.   This meal serves four with some leftover beans and rice.

Beans

 

  • 8 oz dried beans (pinto are traditional in Northern Mexico, but I used black), soaked in six cups of water overnight.
  • ½ onion chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic chopped
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, stemmed, seeded and chopped (use vinyl gloves while handling hot peppers)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • 2tsp ground cumin
  • 2 tbsp lard
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 oz crumbled cotija or feta cheese
  • 2 tbsp chopped cilantro

 

Drain beans.  Put them in a large pot and add six cups of clean water and all other ingredients except lard, salt, cheese and cilantro.  Bring to a boil, lower heat to low, cover and simmer until beans are soft and can be mashed (abvout two hours).  Add lard and salt to taste.  Garnish with cheese and cilantro.

Carne Asada

  • 1 pound beef sirloin steak, 1” thick,  trimmed of fat
  • Juice of one lime (to juice lime, roll it on a counter with your palm, using good pressure, then microwave it for 20 seconds, let cool before cutting in half and juicing).
  • 1 tsp dark soy sauce (yes my friends used soy sauce!)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground New Mexico chili powder
  • ¼ cup canola oil

Marinate steak overnight in a plastic zipper bag in the remaining ingredients.  Turn bag occasionally.  Just before dinner, drain and grill steak 7 minutes on each side for medium rare. Heat marinade in the microwave till boiling and serve on the side.

Mexican rice

Mexican cooks attempt to achieve the exact opposite result with rice from Italians.  Mexican rice is flaky, and not starchy.  The secret is to soak the raw rice in a bowl of water, rubbing it between your fingers and draining off the starchy liquid.  Repeat several times until you can see through the water.  Drain well and spread the rice on a tray in a shallow layer to dry for at least one hour.

  • 2 tbsp lard
  • 2 cups long-grained rice prepared as above
  • ½ onion chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 1 15-oz can of tomatoes, drained (save liquid)
  • Chicken stock added to tomato liquid to make 2 cups
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and diced
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • Salt to taste.

Heat lard in a skillet or large sauté pan over medium-high heat.  Add dried rice and stir until rice is translucent.  Add onion and garlic and cook until they are soft.  Mix in drained tomatoes and pour in stock/tomato liquid.  Turn up the heat and bring to boil, and then turn down the heat to low and cover tightly.  Simmer for about 20 minutes.  Uncover, stir in carrot.  Cover and steam rice for another 20 minutes.  Uncover and stir in peas.  Cover and steam for another 5 minutes or until peas are heated through.  Salt to taste.

Round out the meal with boiled corn on the cob (basted with melted butter, lime juice and chili powder) and a salad.

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New England Clambake

January 9, 2010

When John and I got married in New England, we had a clambake as our reception in his parents’ backyard on Lake Mishnock.  We all got really ripped (parents and neighbors included) and hired a professional Karaoke system (along with operator) instead of a band.  I sang Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy with my sisters in 4-part harmony (the first time we had ever sung together, but we all separately knew the parts).  My Dad sang a Dean Martin song.  The next door neighbor, Mr. Harney, the official Santa Claus of Massachusetts (God Rest His Soul) wandered over and got into the act.  The groomsmen croaked “Born to Be Wild.” Good times.

To my joy Costco now sells ready-to grill/bake/boil New England clambake ingredients – Lobster tails, large scallops, shrimps and clams. (Big question – will there be a Costco in heaven?)  You just put them in a pan, pour on lots of melted butter, sprinkle on the seasoning packet, seal the entire thing well with foil.  And then bake in a very hot oven.  I recommend baking for only 20 minutes instead of the 25-30 on the box.  A traditional New England clam bake often has chicken so I supplemented it with two pieces of boneless chicken thighs seared on a hot grill and tossed into the pan along with the seafood.

I separately steamed halved new red potatoes, corn on the cob, and broccoli (steam potatoes 15 minutes, then add corn, after 5 minutes, add broccoloi and steam for 2 more minutes)  Broccoli is not traditional, but my Italian New England in-laws never seem to have a dinner without broccoli on the table.  Sprinkle copiously with lots of freshly chopped parsley.  Break out the napikins and bibs.  Serves 2 very generously.

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Greek Moussaka

November 18, 2009

The best Greek moussaka I ever had was at a banquet in Giza, Egypt, hosted by the governor.  I was still in law school and had managed, along with a classmate and friend, to snag the ultimate boondoggle:  a scholarship to attend an international law convention in Cairo.  This banquet was beyond amazing.  In the shadow of the ancient pyramids, on the banks of the Nile, there were 17 banquet buffet tables, no two with the same dishes, featuring cuisines from all over the world.  Four tables alone were devoted to desserts.  They brought a date palm in, so we could pick dates off the trees.  This being an official affair in a Muslim country there was no alcohol or pork anywhere.  But who cared with food like this?  At any rate, being two of only a handful of single women there (and young ones at that) we had numerous invitations to all sorts of post-soiree functions.  We accepted an offer for late (i.e. 1 a.m.) after-dinner drinks at the Spanish Embassy in Cairo with a pair of handsome 30-something Spanish law professors – Pedro y Ramiro.  But that’s another story.  The governor also graciously sent the flower arrangement floating in the swimming pool to us as a gift.  He didn’t even ask our names, but somehow it ended up all the way in Cairo in our hotel room.

  • 1 large eggplant, stemmed and cut lengthwise into ¼ inch slices
  • Salt
  • 1 pound ground lamb
  • 1 onion and 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • ½ cup dry red wine (my non-halal version of moussaka)
  • 1 cup tomato sauce
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • Salt and ground pepper to taste
  • ½ cup chopped parsley
  • Non-stick spray
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 4 tbsp flour
  • 2 cups milk (I used 1 cup non fat half and half and 1 cup skim milk)
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup grated parmesan cheese

Generously salt eggplant slices and place them in a colander in the sink (salting eggplant removes the puckery taste).  While eggplant is draining make the meat sauce:

In a medium-sized skillet over medium-high heat, crumble ground lamb and cook it with the onions and garlic.  When lamb is lightly browned, add wine.  Continue cooking until wine has evaporated.  Add sauce, oregano and cinnamon.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Stir occasionally for about 5 minutes or until sauce is thick.  Turn off heat and stir in chopped parsley.

Place oven shelf just below the broiler.  Spray a cookie sheet with non-stick spray.  Rinse the eggplant slices and blot them dry with paper towels.  Lay the eggplant slices on the cookie sheet in a single layer.  Spray the tops with non-stick cooking spray.  Broil eggplant for about 10 minutes, or until the eggplant is lightly browned.  Flip the slices over, spray the tops with non-stick cooking spray and broil for about another 7 minutes, until eggplant is lightly browned and soft.  Remove cookie sheet from the oven and set the oven at bake to 350 degrees.

While eggplant is broiling, prepare the béchamel (white) sauce.  Melt butter over medium high heat in a sauce pan.  Add flour and whisk constantly with a wire whisk until you have a thick paste that is just starting to turn color.  Turn the heat down to medium and slowly add milk and nutmeg.  Stir constantly as mixture comes to a boil.  Cook for about one minute.  You will have medium-thick white sauce.   Remove pot from heat.  Crack eggs into a medium sized bowl.  Discard shells.  Beat eggs.  Add white sauce to the beaten eggs, ½ cup at a time, stirring constantly (if you add all the sauce at once, the eggs will curdle).  After you have incorporated all of the sauce into the eggs, pour/scrape the sauce back into the saucepan and return it to the heat.  Stir over medium heat for one minute.  Add ¾ cup parmesan cheese and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as needed.  Remove the sauce pan from heat and set aside.

Spray a 8X8 casserole dish (about 3 in deep) with nonstick spray.  Layer half the eggplant slices on the bottom.  Spread the meat sauce evenly on top of the eggplant.  Top the meat sauce with another layer of eggplant slices.  Pour the white sauce on top of the eggplant and spread it evenly.  Sprinkle the remaining ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese on top.  Bake in the 350 degree oven for 50 minutes.

Remove moussaka  from the oven.  Let it cool about 10 minutes and then cut it into squares and serve.  Serve with bread and salad.  Makes four servings.

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Kung Pao Chicken

September 27, 2009

 

kung pao chicken

Stir fry is tough to do in a home kitchen.  My culinary dream is to have a commercial-grade gas range in my kitchen with big-ass BTUs to heat up the wok to restaurant levels.  I don’t cook much Chinese food because I can get it better and cheaply at local restaurants.  Alas, when I was exiled to the desert in Arizona, I did cook it more often because authentic Chinese food was hard to come by (why was every Chinese restaurant in Scottsdale referred to as an “Asian Bistro?”).  The other two secrets to good stir fry are (1) cut meat and vegetables in uniform sizes, and (2) have everything cut up and mixed before you start stir frying.

Contrary to popular belief, Kung Pao Chicken is not Sichuan in origin.  It came from Guizhou, my father’s mountainous province in southwestern China, which is renowned for hot and spicy foods, like its more famous neighboring province.  Guizhou has another great contribution to the culinary world- mao tai liquor.  My father was not Han Chinese, who make up the vast majority of the Chinese population, but a member of the Miao people, one of the many ethnic minorities in China.  See photo of traditional Miao dress.

miaoThe original Kung Pao Chicken has whole dried chiles but I tire of picking them out, missing a couple, biting into one and scorching my mouth, so I substitute Asian chile sauce.  The result is slightly different but I don’t have the guilt of throwing part of the meal out at the end of dinner:

1/2 each large green and red bell peppers, cut into 1″ squares

2 green onions chopped 

1 clove garlic, minced

4 tsp peanut or canola oil

1 pound boneless chicken breast cut into 1″ cubes

1 tsp minced fresh ginger

1/tsp salt

1 egg white

1 1/2 tsp cornstarch

2 tbsp Asian chile sauce or to taste

1 tbsp soy sauce (optional)

squirt of sesame oil

1/2 cup roasted shelled peanuts

Cut up all vegetables.  Dice chicken and mix with ginger, salt, egg white and cornstarch in that order.  Heat up 2 tsp of the peanut or canola oil in a wok or large saute pan till smoking hot.  Add the peppers and green onion and stir fry for about one minute.  Add garlic and stir fry another minute, constantly moving the contents of the pan or the garlic will burn.  Turn vegetables into a serving bowl.  Add 2 more tsp peanut or canola oil and when smoking hot again, add the chicken. Stir fry about 2 minutes or until it loses its pink color and is just barely firm.  Return vegetables to the pan.  Add chili sauce, soy sauce if you want it (I left it out because I’m watching my blood pressure), and sesame oil.  Stir fry just to mix.  Then add peanuts.  Serve over steamed rice.  Sweat.

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About lobstahs, chowdah and other RI foods

September 25, 2009

lobster rollI’ve been regularly going to Rhode Island since 1990, when I first visited my sister, who was attending Johnson and Wales University in Providence.  I met my husband there, got married there, and we share a lakeside home with his family and many other rentals there.  Now let me say, although I was born in Washington D.C., I am a West-Coast person.  I like the more laid back, tolerant, diverse, mobile and inquiring nature of the West Coast, rather than the east coast, which strikes me as more traditional, less intellectually curious, crowded, and less ec0-friendly.  But as the third-culture geographically-mobile kid that I am, I can find much to like about anywhere in the world, especially where food is concerned.

In Rhode Island, first and foremost, it has to be the lobsters.  We used to drive to the coastal town of Gallilee and buy them from the lobstermen right off of their boats. Back then, almost 20 years ago, they were going about $4 a pound.  This year, because of the down economy, they are affordable again($4.99 pound in the grocery stores).  When John and I got married, we had an informal New England “clambake” in his parent’s backyard on the lake.  We had six dozen lobsters (including one 3 pounder for his mom), quahogs they hand dug (hard shelled clams), salmon from Seattle (where we were living at the time), corn on the cob, etc.

Most of the time when we are back in town, we are working on our rental properties and don’t have time to pick up live lobsters and boil them at home, so the next best thing are the lobster sandwiches at D’Angelos (available only in the summer).  The lobster salad in them is nothing more than pieces of lobster held together with mayonnaise.  I usually have lettuce and tomato with them in  an Italian roll. Yum…. D’Angelos actually doesn’t have the best lobster sandwich, the best I’ve ever had was at the Daily Grill by TF Green airport – all tail meat, but at about $28 a sandwich, that’s too pricey.

New England clam chowder (the creamy kind) is easy to find and infinitely better than anything I can find on the West Coast (Seattle is one notable exception, thought their creamy chowder is a bit different).  It actually tastes like clams, is usually not very thick and doesn’t have too many potatoes.  Rhode Island clam chowder is different, it’s a clear chowder with no milk in it.  Many places will give you a choice of either.

Rhode Island has a large Italian population (including my husband’s family, which is so large I would swear they make up an entire town themselves).   Something I find there, that I haven’t found anywhere else (other than Italy) are pizza strips.  Soft pizza with tomato sauce but no cheese.  Every Christmas Eve the family has a modified traditional Italian Christmas dinner based on the “seven fishes” theme.  You can count on baccala soup (salt cod), anchovies with pickled peppers, anchovy-garlic angel-hair pasta, stuffed scrod, king crab legs simmered in a rosemary-tomato “gravy” among other things.

Other typical Rhode Island eats and drinks include spinach bread, squash pie, “stuffies” (stuffed quahogs), clamcakes ( too much bread for me, not enough clams), Del’s frozen lemonade, New York system wieners (little hot dogs with chili on them), coffee milk (coffee syrup in milk, again not my favorite in the land where Dunkin Donuts coffee reigns supreme-yes, I am a Pete’s coffee snob).  There is a good-sized Portuguese population too, and Portuguese sausages and sweet breads are also easy to find.

With Johnson and Wales University (Emeril Legasse’s alma mater) there, there are a lot of good restaurants in Providence, especially upon on Federal Hill, traditionally the Italian neighborhood.  I need to make more time for myself to check them out if I can ever put down the paint brush and caulking gun…

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