Monday, March 3, 2014

El Teatro Salamandra

I spent both Friday and Saturday night in one of Cali's classic artsy spots -- El Teatro Salamandra. They were celebrating their 20th anniversary, with an art exhibition and Latin jazz (Felipe and friends were playing) on the evening's menu. I love this side of Cali-- the eccentric characters and bright colors, and the embrace of the city's artistic heritage alongside newer cultural projects.

I also love the neighborhood-- El Teatro Salamandra is located in San Fernando Viejo, one of Cali's oldest and most traditional areas. San Fernando Viejo is filled with beautiful old multi-story houses and rustling trees, and I can personally attest to the the 1,000 COP (~.50 cents) arepas con queso being top-notch.

I do hope is that El Teatro Salamandra and San Fernando Viejo will be around, classy and funky and fun, 20 years from now. They just don't make fridges like that anymore...

El Teatro Salamandra del Barco Ebrio
Carrera 36 #4A-31
Barrio San Fernando Viejo
Cali, Colombia

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Love-Hate Guide to Bogotá

Bogotá is like many capital/large cities in South America (see: Buenos Aires, São Paulo): born and bred natives think it's the best place in the world, whereas everyone else in the country tends to think it's pretty much the worst.

Or at least they say it's the worst: non-bogotanos love talking shit about Bogotá, about the terrible weather, about how unfriendly the people are (unfriendly for Colombia, that is), about the insufferable bogotano accent (uy chino), about the stratospheric prices and the congested traffic and, above all else, about how bogotanos think they are the greatest thing since sliced bread and how they can't dance. at all. 

And then they all move to Bogotá, because that's where the jobs are. 

Or, at a minimum, they end up going to Bogotá fairly frequently because Colombia continues to be a very centralized country and they need an international visa or their companies are based in Bogotá or because there is a Red Hot Chili Peppers/Paul McCartney/Beyonce concert that they can't bear to miss.

Last week, I found myself in Bogotá because that is where the Foreign Relations Ministry is, and I, of course, am a foreigner. Let's not pretend that fun things happen at the Foreign Relations Ministry; I won't say that anything I did last Friday was even remotely pleasant; for all intents and purposes I have erased it from my memory.  

I will say this, though: Bogotá is too cold for me, and I have some serious hate for the heavy metal culture that currently predominates, but after the bureaucratic trials and tribulations were over, we had a really nice weekend.  

We ate ajiaco at a place that proclaimed to have "The Best Ajiaco in the World," and very well might. We walked around the colonial Candelaria neighborhood and went into the (free) Botero museum. We went to the central market and ate ginormous fruit salads overflowing with shredded cheese and sweetened condensed milk (ugh, so good), and then we went to this amazing seafood restaurant/market that is so popular that traffic was stopped outside as people pulled into its parking lot. We spent a drizzly afternoon in Usaquén over coffee and cake. It was nice. 

Throw in the fact that many, many of our friends from Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro are currently living in Bogotá, and by Sunday night, Felipe, Sr. I Hate Bogotá, was letting it slip that maybe it wouldn't be so bad to live in Bogotá for a year or so. 

Or maybe it would be, but it can be quite a nice place to visit. 

Antigua SantaFe
Calle 11, No. 6-20
Candelaria, Bogotá

Coctel del Mar
Calle 69, No. 17-60, 2º piso

Museo Botero
Call 11, No. 4-11
Candelaria, Bogotá

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Condoricosas: Someone's Comic Fantasy...Just Not Mine

I enjoy moteles probably more than the next girl-- whereas some people might see sex motels as sleazy and to be avoided at all costs -- and I certainly did at one time-- I find the best ones to be rather entertaining, an interactive living museum of sorts. And after my experience at Kiss Me last year, it was only natural that the other (and original) motel by the same owner of Kiss Me, Condoricosas, deserved a visit.

I should probably preface the following by saying that before going to this motel, I was not aware that it was based on a comic strip character. I just thought, Condors, this should be interesting! Which is not to say that I wouldn't have gone had I known, but it sort of made it all worse after the fact. But ok, let's get it out of the way: Condorito is a Chilean comic strip, and a rather conservative, machista one at that. Super hot.

You enter Condoricosas to life-sized statues of animals and, of course, Condorito in various incarnations. There is clearly a tendency to overdecorate, making the shared ownership between Kiss Me and Condoricosas apparent, but Condoricosas lacks the over the top mental-patient-illustrating-the-history-of-the-world nuttiness that Kiss Me revels in and just seems a bit (no laughing) trashy and run down.

Condoricosas is, of course, a motel temático, or more accurately a double motel temático as the rooms are not only "international travel" themed but also incorporate Condorito into the themes. We were given a French conquest-themed room, which translated into murals of Condorito in French soldier garb, elaborate Fleur de Lys decorations, and a large mirror directly above the French-king-in-a-Disney-cartoon bed.

As far as standard motel requirements -- cheap, clean, private, and with free condoms (I don't know if this is a legal requirement but all motels in Cali seem to provide them. A+++, guys) -- Condoricosas does just fine. At the end of the day (or on their lunch breaks, as it were), most people go to these places to have sex and are, I would imagine, fairly unconcerned with the decorative sense and humor quotient of the facilities. I suppose one of my main complaints with Condoricosas is that I found the dual comic book character/international destination themes confusing, or just unappealing. Yes, I am a discerning customer. And for that reason I must tell you, if you're looking for entertainment value (and I always am), Kiss Me reigns supreme.

Should you happen to harbor an unrealized Condorito fantasy, or just want to check Condoricosas out for the hell of it:

Residencias Condoricosas
Carrera 8 No. 24-24
Cali, Colombia

Saturday, January 11, 2014

New Year's Edition: La Finca

Everybody left town for the family finca to celebrate New Years', and we were no different. Can you blame us? Citrus trees lining the driveway, guanabanas thumping off their trees, ripe and too heavy to hold on any longer, hummingbirds flitting in and out of the flowers hanging next to the hammocks...did somebody say Cali? My whole body ached after the week-long salsa-a-thon a.k.a. the Feria, and did I mention the hammocks?

This particularly beautiful finca, located in el Eje Cafetero (the Coffee Region), is owned by Lucy and Roberto, two retired university professors who are old friends of Felipe's family. Run down and lifeless when they bought it 20 years ago, they have slowly filled it with greenery and antiques. Ancient sewing machines, corn grinders, and even a coffee bean miller (Our neighbor lost his hand in one of these! -Roberto) line the walls. We eat arepas and fried eggs for breakfast and sancocho cooked over a wood fire for lunch; all in all pretty idyllic, and not a bad way to bring in the new year, not a bad way at all.

Happy 2014 to all! Especially to those freezing their culitos off in the Northern Hemisphere (not to mention those roasting in 110ºF weather in the Southern one)! Sometimes you just got to get some equator in your life.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Calvin & Haroldo

I stay away from translations if I can understand the original language (no Hemingway in Spanish, please), but reading Calvin and Hobbes in Portuguese is super fun. It's a great way to learn "kid" words, too, the ones that you rarely hear in typical adult language but that make up every child's vocabulary, or at least the Brazilian Calvins of the world. Can you guess what "invertebrado acefalo" means?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Dulce de Leche + Postre de Vainillas

In a surprising and unprecedented occurrence, one of the containers of dulce de leche that I brought back the last time I was in Argentina has remained unopened until now. Over the past month or two, Alejandra and I have had multiple conversations on how to use this last hold out, most of them starting with her saying, "Do you understand what it's been like for me to have to ignore that dulce de leche in the pantry all this time??" Almost all Argentinean desserts include dulce de leche, sometimes in several forms, and Argentinean dulce de leche is universally recognized as being superior to dulce de leche produced in other countries (except maybe for Uruguay, but that's another regional rivalry for another day). Alejandra told me about a dessert they make in her family called postre de vainillas, and decided to write her aunt asking for the recipe. Meanwhile, I thought about all the other things that are traditionally made with dulce de leche. Say someone gives you a jar of dulce de leche, or you bring back a jar from a trip. What to do with it, other than consume the entire jar in one sitting, inducing blind sugar coma oblivion? (which is totally fine, too, we've all been there) 

-Unquestionably one of the best options, and not at all similar to the vanilla ice cream-based version sold in the U.S., is to make Argentinean dulce de leche ice cream. You can swirl more, unadulterated dulce de leche through the ice cream once it's almost set, the way you would with a chocolate stripe (which is also a good option here).
-Make alfajores, or use it to fill sandwich cookies, which is basically the same thing.
-Spread it on toast. It sounds ridiculous, and the first time I saw a mother give it to her kid as a snack I thought, that is the least healthy snack I have ever seen, but it is really, really delicious (and let's be real, it's not as if most jams are actually less sugary).
-Use it to fill a jelly roll cake, or pionono. For that matter, use it to fill any cake.
-Eat it with milanesas, aka schnitzel. Just kidding, although I did have a Spanish teacher a long time ago who told me that his dad did just that.
-Dulce de leche with bananas. Slice a banana. Layer half into a small bowl, (generously) top with dulce de leche, then add in the remaining slices and top with (lots more, way more than seems reasonable) dulce de leche. Breakfast!
-Fill donuts, croissants, or other sweet rolls. When I was doing field work for my master's thesis in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the most exciting part about getting up at the crack of dawn was the knowledge that there would be dulce de leche-filled donuts waiting for me next to the bus stop. They were massive, greasy, and rolled in granulated sugar, and the lady sold them for 1 peso until she ran out.
-Which leads me to more memories of dulce de leche-filled, chocolate-covered churros in the train station at Retiro, and the ones sold on the corners of Once that Felipe would bring home for merienda.
-Dulce de leche flan. Then serve the flan with whipped cream and a big dollop of dulce de leche alongside. Really.
-On a spoon, next to a shot of espresso or a cup of strong coffee. This is Felipe's routine after lunch every day whenever we have dulce de leche in the house (now you see how amazing that the dulce de leche had survived until now), and it is pretty wonderful. There is a fancy La Salamandra cafe in Buenos Aires that does the same, serving a dollop of dulce de leche alongside its cafes instead of the typical tiny cookie.
-Eat it with crepes, called panqueques in Argentina.
-Chocotorta, the classic Argentinean birthday cake. Basically an icebox cake, but the filling is dulce de leche mixed with a lightened cream cheese. The first time I had it my eyes almost rolled out of my head.
-In the interest of full disclosure, I feel like I have to mention one more classic use for dulce de leche, with the warning that every time I've ever had this I immediately regretted having put it in my mouth: la torta rogel, a.k.a. torta milhojas. Tasteless cardboard layered with dulce de leche and capped with sickly sweet meringue? I'll pass, thanks.

As soon as Alejandra got ahold of her aunt's recipe, we set about collecting the ingredients. We bought and then promptly ate the packages of vainillas (lady fingers) three times before a fourth trip to the supermarket resulted in an untouched package. If you don't have access to Argentinean dulce de leche, you can make your own. The dulce de leche is covered with two layers of vanilla and/or chocolate pudding, and the lady fingers are soaked in strong coffee. The dessert itself comes together very quickly and then has to chill in the fridge for a couple of hours while the pudding sets and the lady fingers soften. In our house, the postre lasted all of 24 hours, and that was solely out of politeness to our significant others. It is similar to tiramisu in its construction, but the flavor is very, very Argentine, the kind of dessert you'd be served by someone's abuela. Next time I make it I'll probably skip the chocolate in the pudding so that the dulce de leche flavor is more prominent, though a little extra chocolate alongside your dulce de leche never hurt anyone, and especially no one Argentine...

Lady Finger Pudding (Postre de Vainillas)
     adapted from Alejandra's aunt

14 oz. (400 g.) lady fingers
1 c. (8 oz., or 225 g.) strong coffee (we used espresso from my beloved Moka pot)
14 oz. (400 g.) dulce de leche (if using Argentine dulce de leche, Sancor and La Serinissima are good options here-- you want good quality but non-expensive)
Double recipe vanilla bean pudding, recently made and still hot off the stove
2 Tbsp. dark rum
3 oz. (90 g.) bittersweet chocolate (optional)
shaved bittersweet chocolate or chopped walnuts to sprinkle on top

Line the bottom of a glass 9- or 10-inch square baking dish with lady fingers, breaking of edges as necessary to make them fit. Now, dunk each lady finger thoroughly in the coffee and then place it back in the dish, working quickly so the cookie doesn't disintegrate on you (you should use half of the coffee here). Carefully spread half of the dulce de leche over the layer of lady fingers (they will be fragile from being soaked in coffee), using an offset spatula/butter knife to make an even layer. Stir the rum into the vanilla bean pudding, and then pour half of the pudding over the dulce de leche layer, carefully spreading the pudding out with your spatula as to not disrupt the underlying layers.
If you want the second layer of pudding to be chocolate, stir in the bittersweet chocolate into the (still warm) pudding, letting it melt thoroughly. Dip more lady fingers into the remaining coffee and arrange a second layer of cookies over the vanilla pudding layer. Spread the rest of the dulce de leche over the ladyfingers, then pour the rest of the pudding over the dulce de leche and smooth into an even layer. (You may have extra pudding-- don't overfill the baking dish. I would recommend eating it while you wait for the dessert to set.) Put the baking dish in the fridge to chill, at least 4 hours and ideally overnight. Once the pudding has chilled, and before serving, shave bittersweet chocolate over the whole top, or sprinkle with chopped walnuts.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

All the secrets

If you're now reading this, I don't need to tell you that I've been AWOL lately. We went to the states to visit my family, and then on a whirlwind trip of Scandinavia. It was wonderful, and also pretty much the polar opposite of what my daily life has been like for the past 5 years (white-blond tall people everywhere! buses that run on time! awkward dancing!)

I'm back in Brazil now, and back to business as usual, I suppose. I've been obsessively listening to Alex Alvear's incredible Mango album. I've been staring at these pictures for the past hour. A while ago, I wrote up two itineraries of super fun stuff to do in Cali for a new travel site that recently went live; if you're interested, you can find it here. And by "super fun stuff" I do of course mean "what I do when I'm in Cali, and what I wish I were doing right now." Felipe's already planning our trip in December; if it were up to him I'm pretty sure we'd leave tomorrow. 

It was too hot this last weekend to even think about turning on the oven, but I've been wanting to make Argentinean empanadas lately, ever since I learned ALL THE SECRETS to perfect empanadas from a trial-by-fire-style round of 100 empanadas de carne that I made a couple of months ago with my friend Alejandra. One of our Tipo Colombia parties this year fell on a Colombia vs. Argentina soccer game day (eliminatory games to determine who will play in the World Cup); as you might imagine, those kind of games are a big deal around here, and for the party we made both Colombian and Argentinian empanadas. I talked Alejandra into helping me make the Argentinean ones --  I've made plenty of Argentinean empanadas in the past but never beef ones, which is funny given that beef empanadas (empanadas de carne) are the most common in Argentina. And they came out really, truly great, mostly due to Alejandra's father's recipe (he owns a restaurant down in Patagonia) and Alejandra yelling at me so that I would actually follow the recipe during the cooking. By the end of the 100 empanadas, our repulgues (folded edges) were actually very respectable looking.

But the main, HUGE aprendizaje (lesson) that I took away from the empanada-making was what separates the real empanadas that you get in restaurantes in Buenos Aires and my previous homemade attempts: the empanadas have to be flipped. I had always done what I had been instructed to do, by Argentinean friends and internet tutorials alike: painted the folded pastries with egg wash, and baked until golden. The empanadas always turned out tasty, but somehow not the same as the restaurant ones, a difference I had always attributed to restaurant ovens or different dough or whatever. NOPE. Here's the secret: start the empanadas face down on an oiled/parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Halfway through baking them, flip them over carefully, then paint the now face-up empanadas with egg wash, and finish baking. The flipping browns both sides evenly and redistributes the filling, leaving you with a pleasingly plump, golden empanada. 

For the party, we made the empanadas with Argentinean premade wrappers (the La Salteña ones are the best) and they tasted exactly right...these days, it's what almost everybody uses in Argentina to make their empanadas, anyway, so you don't have to feel weird about it (it's not at all comparable to using, for example, premade piecrust, which is almost always disgusting). However, if you don't have access to the wrappers, the good news is that after the party, Alejandra and I did another trial with a homemade dough recipe that came out fantastic. The link is here if you read Spanish (the masa criolla ojaldrada one); otherwise, give me a week or two to get everything together and write it up properly, until I can stand to turn the oven on again...

Beef Empanadas (Empanadas de Carne)

     adapted from Parrilla La Tranquera, Sarmiento, Chubut

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

5 medium onions, or 3 large ones, finely chopped
1 large spring onion or 3-4 scallions, finely chopped
1 medium red pepper, finely chopped
1/2 green pepper, finely chopped
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. aji molido*, optional
2 lbs. (1 kilo) ground beef
1/2 c. tomato puree (either an Italian-style passata or you can blend up a couple of canned tomatoes in their juice to make 1/2 c.)
4 eggs, 3 hard-boiled, cooled and chopped (don't overcook them as they will be reheated in the oven; check out Kenji López-Alt's method here), and 1 uncooked for the egg wash  
24 empanada wrappers (We used La Salteña's "Criollas para horno" wrappers; whatever kind you buy, make sure they are the kind that go in the oven, "para horno.")

In a large saute pan over medium heat, cook the vegetable oil and onions/scallions until translucent. Add in the red and green peppers, a big pinch of salt, and continue to cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently so nothing browns-- you're not looking to caramelize anything here. Stir in the oregano, thyme and aji molido, and cook for another minute, then stir in the ground beef. Cook, stirring every couple of minutes and making sure to scrape the bottom, until all the beef has changed color, then add in the tomato puree and stir. Taste for salt (it should be well seasoned but not overly salty, and then stir in the chopped boiled eggs. Cover the pan and stick it in the fridge until the mixture has completely cooled down. THIS IS IMPORTANT. Hot filling will melt the wrappers-- think about putting hot filling into an uncooked piecrust-- the butter would melt and then you just get a very sad disaster. 
Once the filling is completely cooled, turn on the oven to 400F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Set up a work surface with a clean counter, your empanada wrappers, the cooled filling, a soup spoon, a little cup of water, and your baking sheet off to the side. Take a wrapper and place a spoonful of filling into the center. (Don't overfill, it will make the empanada harder to close; with practice you'll be able to successfully get more filling in there.) Wet your finger with the water and run your finger around the edge of the wrapper, this will help it seal better. Now, the easiest way to seal an empanada is by folding it in half over the filling and then using the tines of a fork to seal it; press hard to make sure the empanada won't open in the oven. For the traditional repulgue, fold the wrapper in half over the filling and then pinch the two sides together hard. Starting at one corner, fold the border over on itself every 1/2 inch or so; this also takes practice, and you'll get better at it.
Place the empanadas on the baking sheet face down (you will probably have to do this in two batches). Bake for 15 -20 minutes, until they are golden brown on the bottom, then flip each empanada over and paint the golden brown side (now facing up) with egg wash. Return to the oven for another 10-20 minutes, until the empanadas are golden brown all over. Serve hot.

*This is one of those things that wouldn't have made a difference to me, but that Alejandra was very adamant about: if you don't have Argentinean aji molido (ground red pepper), leave it out. I wanted to use paprika or red pepper flakes, and she said absolutely not, that will taste WRONG (also, red pepper flakes are far hotter than Argentinean aji molido, which isn't really hot at all). You can order aji molido online here, or you can leave it out, which is what we did, and it will still taste both great and authentic, two criteria that are sometimes surprisingly different.