January 28, 2009

"How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?"

The above quote by Julia Child makes me wonder if she would have approved of automatic breadmakers. Did I tell you I decided to experiment with our bread machine this past weekend? I brought a Panasonic SD-YD250 to Santa Rosalia. I perceived eventually, or even sooner, we might get tired of eating the commercially baked Mexican version of Wonder Bread, known as Bimbo Bread. Their trademark hamburger buns complete with sesame seeds on the top go by the name Bimbollo, and the hot dog buns are called Media Noche (middle of the night—what gives?) They also make a wheat loaf and an oatmeal loaf. All are basic dry uninspired bread forms, but one sees their bread trucks even in the remotest smallest of towns in Baja delivering bread. The other bread available locally is the “French baguette” from Panaderia Boleo baked here every morning. They are a break from Bimbo, but a bit doughy and heavy. They are available at the bakery downtown which is housed in a cute French-style building with a lot of curb appeal. Unfortunately the staff, young women with an attitude, act as if they are doing you big a favor to even speak to you. The only time I bought stuff there it was actually moldy and that coupled with the snotty attitude sort of killed my interest in returning again.

But I digress—back to the breadmaking. When we first got ready to use the breadmaker after we arrived, I couldn’t find the directions anywhere. This wasn’t so strange because my unsupervised unpackers were ripping apart cardboard boxes of kitchen appliances, glassware, etc., which they would pitch onto a growing mountain of debris outside to be hauled off to the garbage dump. The bread machine instructions apparently fell victim to this annihilation, but I was able to resurrect them online or we would have been screwed. For the 100 millionth time, thank God for the internet!

The first bread we tried was a basic white French bread loaf, which everyone really liked. The trouble is we didn’t have a bread knife and the loaves were large and soft so they didn’t cut very evenly and wouldn’t fit into the toaster. We made quite a few of these over time, then we tried making the egg bread which was also good, but more work. While I was in the U.S. three months ago I bought a bread knife to make slicing easier. When I returned with the knife, the cook’s breadmaking zeal had expired, and I could see it was much easier when you are serving 7 or 8 people for breakfast just to buy Bimbo bread, white and whole wheat, and toast those nice, even slices up for breakfast (forget the bonus of the freezer space you are saving by not trying to store the baked bread as well).

However I kept wishing I could have a nice multigrain bread when the staff was gone on weekends. Somehow every time Sunday would come and when I would assemble the ingredients something was always missing. Initially it was molasses (which the Storyteller had to bring from Canada), then dried powdered milk, then the multigrain cereal I had purchased which was eaten before I could reorganize the breadmaking session. Finally this last weekend with malice aforethought, I garnered all the ingredients including flaxseed (which I brought back from Vancouver); and wheat germ found here in the grocery store (amazing!); and then when I went to trot out my cereal it was again missing. Arrgggh! In desperation I grabbed the box of Kellogg’s All Bran Original. I was following some recipe I found on the internet which looked really peculiar, but I thought what the hay, this is only an experiment. Just go for it! After 5 hours of baking when I removed the loaf from the pan it was kind of weird looking having risen sporatically and unevenly, and was almost too crusty. But it was heavenly to eat! It sliced easily and I froze the slices which I am hoarding for weekends. We have a 4-day vacation ahead. I can barely wait to get my hands on the breadmaker again. I made some adjustments to my original recipe which I think may improve the appearance of the loaf, there’s nothing wrong with the texture or flavor. Esperando even compared it favorably with my sister-in-law Suzy Gourmet’s cracked wheat bread.

Whole Grain Bread Machine Recipe

½ c Kelloggs All Bran Original or other 7-grain cereal, crushed
½ c rolled oats
½ c flax seeds
½ c wheat germ
¼ c brown sugar
2 tsp yeast
1 ½ c water
2 T olive oil
2 ½ c bread flour
1 tsp salt

Put oats in a mixing bowl; pour 1 cup boiling water over the oats. When oats have cooled but are still a bit warm, add remaining ingredients according to bread machine manufacturer's manual. Combine all ingredients in bread machine and cook as you would a whole grain loaf.

January 23, 2009

To the Frozen North and back again

Vancouver, despite the cold and fog, was a welcome break. Just taking a shower in the hotel room, I admired the quality of the plumbing and tilework and marveled at how rapidly the water drained in the shower stall. How do plumbers come by such great skill? It's something that I've taken for granted for most of my life. I enjoyed trying on clothes and shopping in clothing stores for gringo-sized people; indulging in the crass commercialism of North America’s land of plenty including 15 varieties of toothpaste and laundry detergent as well as aisles bursting with foodstuffs; hedonistically savoring the tastes of Asian, middle eastern and gringo-styled cuisines; and speaking a language fluently without having to mentally translate what I was trying to say first. How happy I am to wallow in my culture!

It was a pleasure to get to watch the U.S. presidential inauguration in English, assuming it was even televised in its entirety in Santa Rosalia. The added bonus of watching it on American TV was to see the reports of reactions in other parts of the world. Although to be fair, we have had incidents of Mexicans in tourist shops asking if we were in favor of Obama, and then telling us how much it meant to them that he was the new president.

I had a discussion with Hermana in which she was trying to tell me how much this means to African American people in the U.S. while I tried to point out he was president for ALL of the people and they should be emphasizing that more. Shortly thereafter I saw a telling interview with an American in Paris who was black. She said that when she was a small kid in the grocery store with her grandmother she was always a brat and always asking for candy and sweets. Her grandmother would respond “you can have that the day a black man is elected President.” The woman said, “I just realized today is that day.” Touché, Hermana!

This morning it was warm and pleasant enough to have our coffee outside. While we were gone it rained and got warmer here. No longer are we huddling under blankets as we had been. I have been told that January is the coldest month—and January is almost over. Does this mean I won't need all those warmer clothes I purchased in Canada until next year?

January 19, 2009

The story of food

Here we are back in Vancouver—the Frozen North—as my Mother refers to it. Today it does seem rather frozen. It is not raining, but extremely foggy with that bone chilling humidity and intense cold, only about 35F. We spent the morning at Granville Island and as we wandered through the food market I was struck anew by the beauty of the produce and sheer abundance of kinds of food items here in Vancouver— spices, breads, meats, fruits and vegetables, smoked fishes, candy, cakes, cheeses, Asian foods, herbal specialties, Italian delis, etc., each with a vendor specialized in a particular kind of item. What a contrast to Santa Rosalia.

I was just thinking before we left Baja that we had amazingly become accustomed to living a simpler lifestyle. I never would have thought I could get used to not having an Urban Fare or Whole Foods market nearby with all of its variety. However, lately I am convinced that when you can have really fresh squeezed orange juice every morning and fresh eggs—you can live without a lot of other seemingly important things. I still think that is true.

I have learned to be content with canned spinach and mushrooms since I am just using them as an ingredient in a meal and not the focus of the meal. What really broke my heart several weeks ago was to go to a market I wouldn’t normally shop at, find some fresh mushrooms that were about a week past their usefulness and to realize if I had known they were there earlier I could have bought them and been so happy. I bought them anyway and trimmed off the bad parts, but there wasn’t much left to use. They did add a lot flavor-wise to my pasta dish

I have just purchased the book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth http://www.amazon.com/150-Healthiest-Foods-Earth-Surprising/dp/1592332285 by Jonny Bowden and I see where all the meager produce we eat in Santa Rosalia is on the list of seriously good-for-you foods. We even get purslane, or verdolagas as it is known in Mexico. I had never heard of it before. It is a food superstar and a weed in my garden in Denver. It grows so fast among my roses I have to pull it out everyday to try and control the growth. Now I will eat it instead of stomping on it or trying to poison it. When we serve it in Casa Boleo, it is presented as a stew with pork. So far it has been a big hit, and this from men that are especially picky eaters. Who could believe it?

Maybe you have it growing in your backyard and just don’t know it yet!

January 14, 2009

First sick animals, now sick people

Today the maid came to me and asked for some pills for her sister’s headache and oh, by the way, did I have a smaller hypodermic syringe. She asked this while holding an unused larger syringe in its wrapper in her hand. I leaned over to look at it, complete with needle, and almost wanted to faint. This is the second time since August when we first arrived that she has asked me if I had a syringe. I find this really weird especially since I don’t stock syringes and she doubtless has to know everything that is in my drawers by now (I mean, she knew where the tape measure was the second week I was here and that wasn’t because I had shown it to her). Then it occurred to me that early on the carpenter wanted a syringe also. I am now beginning to wonder if most people just buy syringes here like we buy Bandaids in the U.S. Maybe it’s cheaper to give yourself a shot than to go to a clinic or doctor, and people don’t have the money to spend for that kind of thing. I don't know why she needed the syringe or what her ailment is.

So ok, call me a glutton for punishment. It occurred to me after this conversation that perhaps the maid was trying to get me to offer to buy a syringe for her. Later in the kitchen I asked her if she needed money to buy one. Oh no, Senora I used the one I had after all. I need two shots a day she said. You know you will need a new syringe each time you have an injection I said. You shouldn’t reuse the one you used. Oh but I did she said, why not? Well its not sterilized said I, you could get an infection. It is a bad thing to do. These are the same people that think you that if you boil a chicken it can sit out overnight because it’s been boiled. I shudder to think what they don't know. I wonder if I should be teaching them classes in hygiene? I did go on the internet and find a World Health Organization guide to keeping food in Spanish which I posted on the refrigerator door. When the girls came back from break and found it to read I could hear alot of laughter which makes me think that they really didn't get it. It's sort of scary.

They are really big on shots here. For instance, I sent the cook home the other day with a bad cold when she looked like she was on death’s door, and I didn't want her spreading germs around. I figured I would be cooking for the next few days. The following day she was back at work completely well. I never saw anyone change from really sick to well so fast. She told me she had had two shots in the same day, and that they really hurt, but it was worth it because she was well. I hope I don’t get sick down here!! I don’t really like shots. And I don't want to give myself my own shot either.

January 10, 2009

Veterinarian in Mulegé

One of the difficulties living out in the middle of Baja is finding a good veterinarian when you need one. Thank God for Veterinarian Lorraine Sellers and her pet clinic in Mulegé, BCS! Lorraine lives in the Oasis RV Park and dispenses medications and advice at her clinic to those who bring their furry friends in to see her. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays she performs spays, neuters and other surgeries while her great volunteer staff help to maintain the calendar. Everything is paid for on a donation basis.

We were lucky enough to find Dr. Sellers recently just after her recent return to Mulegé to help us with our Australian shepherd Dash who had been diagnosed in Santa Rosalia by the local vet as having an obstruction in his intestines. That vet’s solution was to give Dash a antibiotic shot which he managed to screw up so badly that Dash was yelping and twisting, the syringe needle came off the hypodermic in Dash’s flesh, was bent when extracted, and the vet’s assistant quickly attached a muzzle to Dash’s head, though to his credit Dash didn’t try to bite the vet or snarl at him while all this was going on. When we got through with the second attempt at the shot, I came back to the house and called Esperando at work with the news. Both of us did a little reading up on the subject and were sufficiently frightened to take the hour’s drive south to seek a second opinion from a rumoured gringa vet living in Mulegé.

The Oasis RV Park isn’t signed, but it is right on the south side of the estuary and there were a sufficient number of gringos around to keep giving us directions. After we found her and she examined him, she opined that Dash just had a bad tummy from eating too many wrong things, something at which he is really good. She patched him up with some pills and he is much better now, except the during his convalescence he somehow twisted his leg painfully so I took him back this morning and now he is taking doggie arthritis pills to boot. She also gave me some medicine to feed Dash to solidify his poop. That comes in a squeeze out hypodermic looking contraption that you can put directly into his mouth or on his food. As I approached him with this large white syringe he started backing up and running away from me. Too many recent sour experiences left a bad impression on him!! It was only by calling out, “Dash, cookie! Dash, cookie!” that he would let me close enough to nab him. Ah, but the first bite of Retrosyn beef-flavored Canine 3R Gel administered through initially clenched teeth was an instant hit—maybe we will have even reversed his new-found nervousness at seeing a syringe!

If you're going to see Dr. Sellers, there’s something of an animal rescue group there and you could end up with a really cute new puppy or kitten! On our last trip we saw a beautiful purebred adult black lab looking for home as well. And if you're just driving through she can give your new pet the rabies shot it will need to get across the border.

January 7, 2009

Cat tails

This morning I went outside to feed Mrs. Moustache and pregnant Penelope—but found a new large tough-looking whitish orange tomcat we will call Bruiser. He has a pugilist’s smashed up face, a dirty snout and was hanging around Moustache. He apparently wants to make kittens with Moustache (great yet more and more kittens!) He looked really mean and was not going to scare away easily. Dash to the rescue! Singling out Bruiser he gave chase and the cat took a powder.

Now, you probably recall that I have three inside cats, two of which are semi-feral kittens. Winnie our British Shorthair, brought from the States, fell in love with Frida the oldest feral incurring our assistance in kidnapping her from the wild side of life. Frida is finally becoming tame enough at the age of about 6 months such that people other than Esperando and I can approach her and pet her. The second and younger feral was briefly named Poppet and ran through some curious names before finally becoming Carmen (as in the Bizet gypsy and the latina Miranda). Carmen is still young and small and has been moved to a crate on my desk for the last 4 days because otherwise she will climb in a dresser drawer and stay hidden all day and sleep. She needs more exposure to watching humans come and go. Actually she is affectionate up close, but quite frightened to see a human towering over her when she is outside of her crate. The last two days she has come to the front of the crate and meowed at me, a good sign, so I take her out, pet her, then put her back again. Carmen has a tail deformity that makes her look bobtailed, although it is actually a curly tail like a piglet.

Picture this setting: Dash is outside; and Frida who was pouncing around playing has left the room, as has Winnie. Seizing the moment, I take Carmen out of the crate, and gently pet her, put her on the cat playstand while I drag some catnip mice along to which a long string had been tied. She is getting used to playing with me standing over her, a little worried but doing ok, when for some reason she freaks out and runs away from me racing across the room to under the chest in our bedroom.

The reason turns out to be that the string and the mouse has wrapped around and tied itself in a knot to her tail at a curly joint so this is racing after her. She is not amused. I crawl down on the floor and reach under the chest, grabbing both ends of the string hoping to gently drag her from under the chest, but she hisses and snarls and runs to the other end of the chest. The string is on firmly. I try to reach her with my bursitis arm but can’t reach far enough without some undue pain. She leaps from under the chest and runs to hide in the sitting room under the couch. I drag the couch from the wall and she runs to hide under the other dresser in her favorite drawer. Unfortunately the mouse part of the contraption has wrapped itself around the dresser leg, painfully pulling her tail. In fact I am worried the string will cut or even sever her tail if I try to open the drawer. I can hear her growling from pain inside the drawer. I finally realized the mouse is caught up and started to unwind it when there is a knocking at the door--the maids are alarmed! The front door has blown open and Frida had escaped! Go away. It’s fine, she’ll come back, don’t worry I say. They put Dash in the room. Great, I’m not sure what this kitten will do, but having Dash help me peer in the drawer is not what I need. More knocking, go away I say, don’t bother me right now—but Frida is outside! they said. While the maids are freaking out, I am worried about Carmen cutting or gnawing her tail off.

I finally unwind the mouse from the dresser leg, and she leaps across to an adjacent drawer taking mouse and string on her tail with her. When I open the first drawer there is only a mouse and string stretching across to the next drawer. I cut the mouse off so I can open the new drawer without issues and find Carmen huddled in the corner still with string tightly bound to her poor little squiggle tail. After calming her a bit I cut the string away. Happily her tail didn’t seem any the worse for wear—and she didn’t tear my arm off either.

In the meantime, Frida is recaptured by the two exuberant maids from the front porch and is apparently glad to be returned to the house. Now that I can turn my attention away from Carmen, I said Winnie is also gone. No! He’s not in your room! No. I trail along outside behind them trying to explain to them why I couldn’t deal with them earlier, but they are so focused on finding Winnie now that won’t even listen. I have a momentarily remembrance of the kitten that got run over, and thoughts of Bruiser who is probably spoiling for a fight. It takes a while to locate him, but the gardener finally encounters Winnie on a neighbor’s porch. Fortunately, he was spared an encounter Bruiser (this time). And thus, a tail was saved, a jailbreak was squelched, and life returns to relative calm at Casa Boleo.

January 6, 2009

How to eat tamales in February

The Christmas season in Mexico has been a wonderful long season of religious based customs enfolding the community which we have participated in second hand. The first part of this is Las Posadas which we are told is celebrated much more in mainland Mexico than here in Baja. It generally involves an extended family group, with part of the group representing the Virgin and St. Joseph outside at night with candles seeking room at the inn musically through the verses of a traditional Christmas carol. For their part the innkeeper group rejects their entreaties several times before letting them into the house, where the party continues with food, drink and piñata breaking. This kicks the season off on December 16.

Today we participated in the end of the Mexican Christmas celebration. Today is El Día de los Reyes or Epiphany (the last day of Christmas) and the day “we three kings of orient are” i.e., Melchor, Gaspar, and Balthazar, representing Europe, Arabia, and Africa, arrived on horse, camel and elephant, bringing respectively gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus. Here, as in many parts of the world, this is celebrated by eating a Three King’s cake. While in France with the Oldest Daughter, Esperando ate the galette des Rois. This is a kind of cake with a trinket or a bean hidden inside. The person who gets the piece of cake with the trinket becomes "king" for a day.

Here in Mexico our Three King’s cake is called a rosca, which is defined in my Spanish dictionary as a pastry ring. Well it was a large pastry ring of a kind of mild fruit cake (not unlike a hot cross bun in flavor) with five baby Jesus’ baked into it. We had about 15 to 20 people at Esperando’s office who all came to have some cake. The trick is each person has to slice their own piece and if the knife cuts into a Baby Jesus or He is in the piece you get, then on February 2 you along with the other four chumps are responsible for bringing enough tamales to fed the same 15 to 20 people. Along with the cake we were served champurrado, a sort of a hot chocolate beverage which is made from maseca which is dough for flour tortillas which you then brown in a skillet (which thickens the beverage); milk; Mexican hot chocolate (a 3-inch round flat disk about ½-inch thick composed of chocolate, sugar, cinnamon and ground almonds); and cocoa. The result is kind of a thickened hot chocolate that is not so sweet, but interesting and tasty.

February 2 (tamale D-day) is the Feast of Candelaria or Candlemas which is the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. We were told by our assembled partygoers that the best place to buy tamales for this important day is in front of the church where a wholesale tamale undertaking is going on. I claimed one of the Baby Jesus’. I don’t know who organizes the tamale purchasing but I guess I will find out. Good grief!! A really excellent excuse to break the new diet and a validation for eating tamales to boot!!

If you want to know how to eat a tamale, click here.

January 3, 2009

A new year

Gosh here it is January 3 already! January 1 came and went without much fanfare from us as we were in bed by 9 pm, but we were awakened at midnight by firecrackers, car honkings, and the fire siren going off. What a bunch of dull people we are. We have been having a nice quiet vacation from household staff and guests over Christmas. The guesthouse has been shut from Christmas Eve through January 5.

We have been doing our own cooking and enjoying that, but I am not as good at keeping the house clean as my staff is—just plain laziness—can’t blame it on anything else! The mopping part is the part I hate worst, I have to walk all the way back to the laundry room, try to get the mop not too soppy and manage to wash the floor in my room and the kitchen on one mop’s worth of water. Then of course I have to wait 20 minutes for the floor to dry because of course the mop IS too soppy. All my nice long fingernails have broken off over the holidays with the housework and are back to the nubs that I used to have in Denver. I will be glad to have maids back who do a much better job of this than I do. Also I have been digging around in the cook’s recipe files these last few days looking for some new dishes for her to try in the coming months. I also finally found and bought shelf lining paper so that should keep them busy for a bit since we are minus houseguests at the moment.

Esperando has been busy working every day up on the Casa Abeja. Yesterday he got the main electrical in, and today he and the Lads have pulled all the old tongue-and-groove off and put all new beautiful tongue-and-groove on the north side of the house. No way a bee could squeeze between those boards now. Today Esperando found a receipt in the wall for some guy that owned our house in 1977, it was stuffed in the wall to an addition that was made. Apparently the guy was an engineer at the mine, and the Lads know of the family. We are curious to get our hands on who has owned our house. We believe it was built in 1885 by the French.

January 5 all my staff will be back, Esperando will go back to work, and the Architect will get the bathroom roughed in. Then it is for us to buy a tub, bath sinks, faucets, toilet and the like so we can have a functioning bath. By the way, Penelope is pregnant again.