New Year, New Travels

Posts on this blog have been sparse as of late. That’s because I’ve been busy preparing for a trip and then going on said trip! This time, my travels take me to a week in Mexico City and surrounds with my sisters, and a week in Guatemala with the group Engineers Without Borders. I’m currently enjoying free wifi and a trendy cafe in Antigua, drinking Guatemalan coffee an people watching. I couldn’t be more tired, though. Last night was New Year’s Eve, of course, and I managed to stay awake until 12:30 to ring in the new year. Actually, despite trying to go to sleep at 12:30, I managed to stay awake nearly the entire night – with a 4am wake up call for a 6:30am flight and my nagging paranoia that I would not wake up for it, not to mention my irrational, half-asleep fears of not finding a cab to the airport, my mind would not really shut down. That is a real rarity for me.

Nonetheless, I made it to Antigua and am enjoying the mix of expats and locals, trendy cafes and colonial architecture, and volcanoes and pleasant temperatures. As usual, I have been eaten alive by some kind of microscopic bug, to which I seem to be severely allergic while no one else so much has an itch. The worst part about this is that I have been bit mostly on the neck and face, which makes me look like some kind of diseased leper. Luckily, I found a really cute, lightweight, $5 scarf in Mexico that stylishly covers most of them up.

Anyway, I have been eating some amazing food – Cemitas, mole poblano, chiles en nogada, chile rellenos, tacos al pastor, tortas – and enjoying every minute of it. Here are a few photos to enjoy from my iPhone!

20120101-140201.jpg

20120101-140217.jpg

20120101-140238.jpg

20120101-140230.jpg

Advertisements

Ceviche

I’ve mentioned before that I ate boatloads of ceviche in Central America this past summer. I made a ceviche recipe by Rick Bayless once before, and while you generally cannot go wrong with a Rick Bayless recipe, I actually prefer the more simplistic version I ate all summer. In most places, it is served with crackers – either saltines or a Ritz-style kind, but I generally prefer it with tortilla chips.

Central American-Style Ceviche

1 pound any type of white fish – I used tilapia
1 heirloom tomato, diced
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 jalapeno, de-seeded and finely minced
1/2 onion, finely diced
juice of 5-6 limes, possibly more
salt & pepper

Cut the fish into ~1-inch cubes submerge in lime juice in a stainless steel or glass bowl. If you don’t get enough juice from 5-6 limes, be sure to add more – every single piece of fish needs to be covered. Let sit for 2-4 hours. It’s done when you see the fish turn opaque. If you leave it much longer than 4 hours, though, the fish can become too tart.

Drain the juice thoroughly and mix in the other ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Old and New Photos

Yes, I am procrastinating… again. I managed to sneak in a few solid hours of very productive work today on my paper on neoliberal policy and its effects on health outcomes for poor people in Nicaragua. I like that paper. The topic is interesting and its flowing nicely. Right now, though, I’m working on a community profile for Hammond, Indiana. This. is. boring. It’s one of those papers, you know – I didn’t choose the topic (except for choosing the city), and having to write about the mundane aspects of a post-industrial city are not exactly exciting me. So here I am, posting pictures from some recent outings.

The countryside of New York looks an awful lot like the countryside of Wisconsin, though Eric will quickly point out that there are hills in New York. Ok. Point taken. We were recently visiting Eric’s family’s country house in Otto, New York for his brother’s and my new sister-in-law’s wonderfully small wedding. Here are a few shots from that lovely fall day.

Collage
_MG_6502
Eric and his mom. Love this moment.

And here are more images from my time in Nicaragua this past summer. Clockwise from the top left corner:
-a statue in the cemetery in Granada set against a bright blue sky
-reflections in the window of moto-taxis
-the main square in Granada
-old-fashioned potter’s wheels in San Juan de Oriente
-coffee in multiple stages of production – from berry to roasted bean
-a local artisan in San Juan de Oriente makes traditional ceramics on the old-fashioned potter’s wheel

Collage

My time in Costa Rica (top three photos) and Panama (bottom three photos) were characterized by outdoor excursions and city fun. Clockwise from top left corner:
-a snail in Corcovado National Park
-sunset view from Finca Maresia in Bahia Drake, Costa Rica
-beaches on Isla del Caño
-a large ship carrying more than 4500 cars through the Panama Canal
-graffiti in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City
-views of the modern Panama City from the original city ruins

Collage2

Finally, my sisters and I had a fun little weekend in Seattle back in September. Here are some shots:

IMG_0025
of course we hit the market

IMG_0011
oh the irony

IMG_0034
sisters in front of the gum wall

IMG_0043

IMG_0057

IMG_0077
feeling kind of lonely while they both play on their phones

IMG_0099
truffle popcorn and wine? um, yes please

IMG_0128
kayaking

IMG_0157
Amber is really, really white

IMG_0143
hiking

IMG_0149
more from the hike

And that’s it!

Mexican Micheladas

This drink has been our obsession all summer. Eric and I started drinking Micheladas at Big Star, a taco joint just down the street from us. At Big Star, a Michelada is made by squeezing lime and pouring hot sauce into the bottom of a salted-rim glass, then topping it with Tecate beer.


Michelada con Sol on the beach on Isla Holbox

When we went to Mexico this summer, we averaged two Micheladas a day, but in the Yucatan, they were different than what we were used to from Big Star. Different – and better. These Micheladas contained all sorts of goodies under that beer – Maggi juice, which tastes an awful lot like soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, lime, and hot sauce. When ordering, you specify the type of beer you want – we found most light beers to be pretty comparable – and they serve the beer alongside the glass so you can pour it in yourself.


Eric enjoying his Michelada

Let’s talk about the Maggi juice for a minute because this is important. Every single bar we went to used Maggi juice. There was no substitute. When I’d ask what Maggi juice was, I’d always get this same answer – “It’s just Maggi juice”. I found my bottle at a Mexican grocer. The viscosity is slightly thicker than soy sauce, but I’m sure soy sauce would add the appropriate flavor.


Sunset, swing, and micheladas

We found we liked them a bit heavy on the Maggi and hot sauce side. The one pictured above was heavier on the lime. There didn’t seem to be any exact proportions, but when we got home, we experimented with how we like them. Here’s how you do it:

Mexican Michelada

Nice, chunky sea salt
Maggi juice or soy sauce
Worcestershire sauce
Hot sauce
1 lime
Mexican beer like Tecate, Modelo, Sol, Pacifico, etc

Rub lime juice around the rim of your glass and them dip the rim into a plate of salt.

Add ice to the glass and pour in 1 teaspoon of Maggi juice, 1 teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, 2 teaspoons of hot sauce, and the juice of half a lime.

Top it with beer.

Mix and enjoy.

Sikil Pak – Mayan Pumpkin Seed Dip

We have had an extravaganza of food inspired by our travels recently. I ate a boatload and a half of ceviche in Central America, so I made a really simple (and great!) ceviche inspired by those great meals. And in Mexico, we ate this Mayan dish called Sikil Pak (in Maya) after a strenuous day of floating down a natural canal through mangroves. The dip, almost like hummus in its consistency, is really simple – our guide told us it was made of just pumpkin seeds (pepitas en español), cilantro, tomatoes, onion, and water.

The canal I mentioned is in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in the Yucatan, Mexico, a short drive from Tulum. We based ourselves in a nice hostel in Tulum town (as opposed to staying on the pricier beach road) and were able to explore Sian Ka’an, Mayan ruins, and the numerous cenotes from this central point. To gain entrance to Sian Ka’an, you must go with a guide. We booked a tour through our hostel for $75 per person, which, after the tour, seemed really, really expensive. Either way, it was my birthday, and we wanted to see some nature. We also learned that the best way to float down a canal is to put a life jacket on like a diaper.

Sian Ka'an Collage


Ever wonder why you see so much of Eric on this blog? It’s because I’m always behind the camera!

Anyway, I recreated this dip this morning with only a tiny bit of experimentation. I had thought that tomatoes would provide enough water to provide the right consistency, but in the end I needed to add additional liquid. Instead of water, I added a bit of lime juice and some vegetable stock I had in my freezer, though water will work in a pinch (and should be more traditional). Oh, and of course I added garlic. Nothing is made in my kitchen without garlic.

This dip is traditionally made using a molcajete, of course, but in my lazy modern kitchen, we used a food processor.

Sikil Pak

3 cups raw pumpkin seeds, or pepitas
3 large tomatoes
1/2 cup vegetable or chicken stock
juice of 1 lime
3 cloves garlic
1 onion
cilantro, to taste
salt

Put the pumpkin seeds and garlic in a food processor and grind until you have a fine, sand-like consistency. Add in the onion, 2 tomatoes, stock, and a bit of cilantro and salt and process until the mixture turns creamy. Taste and add more salt and/or cilantro if necessary.

Chop the last tomato into a dice and chop some extra cilantro finely. Mix the diced tomatoes and cilantro with the dip. Optionally, you could process everything together for a very smooth dip, but I liked the added texture and color of the chunks of tomato and cilantro.

Serve with chips or crackers.

Heirloom Pico de Gallo + Mexico Pictures

Being in Central America all summer was pretty cool, I must admit, but I did miss a few things about Chicago. Namely, farmer’s markets. I never found quite the variety of vegetables in Central America that I find in Chicago – seems counter intuitive, since the fertile, sunny lands of that region seem ripe for producing some excellent veg. However, with the shear population of yuppies in the US, not to mention a perhaps new-found appreciation for farm-fresh products, the US boasts some pretty amazing produce. So when I was eating sad, mealy, flavorless little tomatoes in Panama, I could only think about the luscious heirlooms showing up at farmer’s markets at home.

The first Saturday I was home I went to the Green City Market in Chicago and bought about two pounds of heirloom tomatoes. My god.  Where did this flavor come from? I made this variation of pico de gallo featuring a variety of heirloom tomatoes, an onion, a jalapeno, and garlic – all fresh from the farmer’s market. And really, I think that’s the trick – the fact that everything came from the market is perhaps why it tasted so good. Also, though, I think there is something to be said for fresh farmer’s market garlic. I mean – wow! Wow! Have you ever had this stuff? It’s so juicy and pungent. I bought three types – I can’t remember the varietal names – but I labeled them mild, medium, and strong. I used the mild garlic for this pico de gallo, as I used it raw. It really added this silky, complex dimension that, in my opinion, really boosted this salsa to a whole new level.

Also, before my solo adventure through Central America, Eric and I spent a week and a half in Cozumel and the Yucatan in Mexico. Two very cool friends of ours were married on a beach in Cozumel, so we took the time to travel a bit after the festivities. To be honest, Mexico, or the Yucatan more specifically, has never been high on my travel priority list. I’ve always thought it was where Americans went who didn’t know how to travel anywhere else. Americans who were afraid of new cultures and languages (wait, they speak Spanish in Mexico?). You know the type. And while there were certainly plenty of those people – I mean, Playa del Carmen is practically Florida – we also discovered that Mexico is really, really awesome! I always say – it’s probably touristy for a reason – and that description is so fitting of the Yucatan. People have been coming to this part of the world for so long because it is downright beautiful. Take a look:


El otro lado – the other side – the East side of Isla Cozumel
Have you ever seen more inviting water? Whiter sand? A cuter butt?


Eric makes the snorkel in the Dos Ojos Cenote (aka sinkhole, or cave)


Fish feast in Tulum – ceviche, pescado a la plancha, y mas


Sunset on Isla Holbox


Streets of Isla Holbox – no paved roads, no cars, only golf carts!


A little video of snorkeling with whale sharks in the Gulf of Mexico


Eric practices his moves in the “stadium” at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza


Church on the main square in Vallodolid


This is what Eric says is possibly one of the best meals of his life. Tortas and burritos in Valladolid.

And finally… a recipe!

Heirloom Pico de Gallo

Like I mentioned above, the fresh garlic made this dish a real winner.

2 pounds heirloom tomatoes, diced
1 onion, diced
2-3 cloves mild, fresh garlic, diced
1-2 jalapenos, diced
salt

Combine all ingredients and add salt to taste. Wait about 15 minutes before digging in to allow the garlic flavors to permeate the dish. Serve with chips. 

Back in the U.S.A.

So my plans of blogging while abroad completely crumbled. For one, I did not have a computer with me (just the ipad and my iphone), so I had to go to an internet cafe and pay to use a computer just to blog… and well, who wants to be sitting in an internet cafe when there are colonial buildings to see, toucans to listen to, and Spanish to speak? Yeah, me neither. So hopefully I can catch up on some of the things I’ve been up to now that I’m back… of course, though, I’m now back in school – and loving it after my first week – working part time at the same engineering firm, and soon I will start my Research Assistantship, which adds another 10 hours per week to my workload. yikes.

Anyway… what most people want to know now is if I can speak Spanish or not. The short answer is un poco… a little. I took two weeks of Spanish classes – 40 hours of instruction – and while I learned a lot, how much actually stuck with me is a different story. Once I left my Spanish school, I started staying in hostels… and well, hostels are not good for Spanish! You meet people from across the globe who have varying levels of Spanish skills, but most commonly, everyone spoke pretty competent English. So we spoke English. I found myself using the same words and phrases in Spanish over and over… where is the bus station? How do I get to Boquete? Me llamo Abril. Como el mes. My name is April. Like the month. Yes, my name is a month.

Anyway, Nicaraguans and Panamanians speak fast… and don’t exactly pronounce the s at the end of words, so even if I could ask the question I wanted to ask, I was not guaranteed to understand the answer. And this fear of not understanding the answer made me a rather shy Spanish speaker. I found it best when I was with others who spoke no Spanish at all… then I had to be the one to speak and listen and understand. If I was with someone who spoke better Spanish than me, I’d often just lean on them to catch the answer to our question.

In the end, I learned enough to get around comfortably… enough to know how to get to these cool places:

IMG_0122
The cemetery in Granada, Nicaragua.

IMG_0285
Sunset in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

IMG_0510
Costa Rican beach near Corcovado National Park in the Peninsula de Osa

IMG_0043_2
Scarlet Macaw in Corcovado National Park

IMG_2586
Passion fruit at a coffee farm in Panama

IMG_2790
The Panama Canal

IMG_2885
Flowers and buildings in Panama City

IMG_2990
Graffiti in Casco Viejo, Panama City

IMG_3031
Casco Viejo – the old colonial city in Panama City

I’ll share stories and food another time… must get to some homework now!

Bienvenido a Nicaragua

It’s been quiet around here lately, but that’s because I have been on the road and barely cooking a thing!

Instead, I spent a fabulous week and a half roaming the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, eating all sorts of goodies and seeing some pretty amazing sights (I swam with whale sharks! Hello!). After that, I had two days in party city, aka Miami, before I embarked on my month long tour through Central America.

I’m starting my time in Granada, Nicaragua, taking classes in Espanol and living with a wonderful Nicaraguan family. From here I will be moving south, working my way towards Panama City, from where I will fly home.

So far, Granada has been treating me well. My mornings are spent practicing forming sentences in Spanish from the massive list of verbs my teacher has given me (the main problem is, I’m running out of nouns to form these sentences with!). After class, I head home for a huge lunch cooked by my Nicaraguan mama. Yesterday I had spaghetti served with rice AND tortillas. I haven’t seen many vegetables yet, but I try to communicate to Damarys (my host mom) that I love salad and fruit and all vegetables! This backfired on me when she served me pineapple yesterday morning – the one fruit that I cannot eat because I get severe stomach aches from it. In broken Spanish, I explained the problem, and she completely understood. Instead, she served me a big plate of Gallo Pinto (a mixture of beans and rice), eggs, and bread.

In the afternoons, I have been going on excursions organized by my school. I will write more about those later – mi mama is serving lunch in just 10 minutes – but suffice it to say that so far they’ve been fun, interesting, and a great way to meet other people.

I’ve also been hanging out with my host brothers – Joel and Ernaldo – ages 20 and 21, respectively. Joel is currently in law school, while Ernaldo is studying to be a doctor. They help me out quite a bit when I cannot understand what Damarys is saying – both of them speak excellent English.

Until later then… adios!