Saturday, January 28, 2012

Blasphemy

I lived in Buenos Aires for a bit longer than 2 years, during which time I ate 37,452 empanadas, approximately. Anytime I was starving and looking for something quick to eat, I ducked into a shop and bought one cheese and onion empanada and one chard-stuffed empanada, or maybe two corn and cheese ones. Sometimes I'd even buy a chicken one, though my vegetarian upbringing still makes it hard for me to admit. They're kind of the perfect food-- portable, filling, satisfying. They are also the sort of thing that I, at least, was not particularly interested in making at home. I missed a lot of foods living in Argentina, and cooking at home was one way to help fill that void. Making empanadas, as much as I loved them, was not a big priority, not when I could buy perfectly good ones down the street, around the corner, and up the block. 



We did occasionally buy the premade empanada wrappers which are readily available and inexpensive. I hope no Argentine ever reads this, but...I used them to make peanut butter, banana and honey empanadas. They were the perfect breakfast alongside a mug of hot chocolate. Really, if any Argentines are reading this, I'm so sorry, I couldn't help myself. It was blasphemy, I don't deserve to have access to ready-made empanadas wrappers. If you're not Argentine, let me explain: I'm not going to make any blanket statements, but most Argentines I know hate peanut butter...and they don't generally take to people screwing with their national cuisine. On the other hand...Brazilians put chocolate sauce on carrot cake, which makes me want to gag and kind of offends me. Chocolate sauce! Carrots! So it's not like I don't understand the feeling.

I'm only confessing to all this because what follows is an attempt to redeem myself. I've been making lots of empanadas lately, the real kind, no peanut butter in sight. There are a lot of different varieties of empanadas in Argentina, but in my mind they are primarily divided into two camps: the baked kinds and the fried kinds. I always tend to go for the baked kind, though I have nothing against the fried ones, and an empanada salteña (fried empanada from Salta, in northern Argentina) is a beautiful thing. For baked empanadas, there are two general kinds of dough. The first kind is a bit like a thick wonton wrapper-- pliable and not particularly oily. It's a pretty sturdy envelope, and most empanadas on the cheaper end of the spectrum are made with this kind of dough. The second kind of dough is flaky, buttery and less sturdy (due to the flakiness). Though I like both kinds, I think of the first kind primarily as a vehicle for the filling. I wanted to make a dough that I really liked the taste of, and at the end of the day the best empanadas I've ever had definitely had were made with the flaky kind of dough, called masa hojaldrada. It was tricky to get the dough right; the first time, I used a recipe I found on an Argentinean blog, and quite honestly it was one of the more inedible and disappointing things I've made in recent years. Empanadas are a bit of a project, so when they suck it's depressing and frustrating. After screwing around with the proportions of a quick puff-pastry recipe, I came up with a recipe that I'm very happy with. I've been making extra and freezing them; like tamales, it's not much more work to make 12 than it is to make 24, and they work great as a last minute lunch or dinner that you pop in the oven while you make a big salad to go alongside. As far as the filling goes, you really can use anything you like, but I've been making a lot of chicken (cough) ones lately, and they are lovely, full of chopped green olives and sweet stewed red pepper and onion. They are the type of thing that, every time we have them, Felipe goes, man these are so good. And he should know-- he lived in Argentina for twice as long as I did, ate twice as many empanadas and it never, not even once, occurred to him to make a rice and bean one.*







*in my mind, beans and rice is to Colombians what peanut butter and jelly/honey is to Americans...it's by no means a perfect analogy, but it's definitely what they eat, happily, when there's nothing else around

It's difficult to give exact quantities as to how much filling you will need-- making empanadas takes practice and at first it can be difficult to close them successfully if they have a lot of filling. If you bear with it, though, you'll quickly get a feel for how much filling you can squeeze in. 


 Chicken Empanadas

1 batch empanada dough (see recipe below), or 10-12 premade wrappers
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 medium onion, quarted vertically and thinly sliced
2-3 scallions, chopped
1 small red pepper (or 1/2 a large one)
1/4 tsp. turmeric
10 green olives, pitted and very roughly chopped
salt
white or apple cider vinegar
2 chicken thighs, or 1 thigh and 1 breast (you'll need a generous 6 oz. shredded meat), poached/roasted and shredded 
egg wash (optional) 

Cut the onion in half through the root. With the cut side down on the cutting board, cut the onion in half vertically almost to the root so the pieces stay connected, then thinly slice the onion crosswise. Repeat with the other onion half. Finely chop the scallions. Saute the onion and scallions in the oil over medium heat, covered, until soft and translucent. Quarter the red pepper then thinly slice it crosswise. Add the red pepper, turmeric, and a pinch of salt, and continue to cook, covered, stirring every once and again, until very soft and nicely stewed, about 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the olives and shredded chicken. Check for salt. Sprinkle a bit of vinegar-- less than a teaspoon-- to brighten the flavors. You want the filling to be well-seasoned. Leave to cool completely-- a hot filling will immediately melt the butter-heavy dough.

When both the chicken and the empanada dough are completely cool, preheat the oven to 400F. Remove the empanada dough circles from the fridge. Take one circle and roll it out very lightly with a rolling pin. Place ~2 tablespoons of chicken filling on the half of the dough closest to you, leaving an inch of border free of filling. Fold the empanada dough over the filling, towards you, lining up the edge to make a half moon, and pinch the edges together to seal the border. You want to pinch quite hard, making the two doughs into one thin one. Now to make the border, you can either continuously fold the dough over on itself (which is what I did in the pictures), or you can simply use the tines of a fork to seal the border, the way you would with a pie. Place the empanada on a baking sheet and continue with the rest of the dough. If the dough gets too warm, return it to the fridge for a bit. 

Once the empanadas are formed, you can either freeze them or bake them right away. If you want to freeze them, I would recommend freezing them on a covered baking sheet first, then once they are frozen you can transfer them to a plastic bag. If you plan on baking them right away, you can paint them with a bit of beaten egg, which will give them a nice sheen, though I find this unnecessary. Bake them until they are golden brown underneath, and the crust is flaky and no longer appears transparent. Serve fresh out of the oven but be aware that the filling can be extremely hot.



Empanada Dough

7 oz. (200 g.) very cold salted butter, cut into cubes
7 oz. (200 g.) flour
1/4 tsp. salt
3 oz. (85 g.) ice water

Rub the butter and flour, and salt together with your fingers, leaving some large flattened pieces of butter the size of almonds. Drizzle in the ice water and lightly mix the dough with a spoon just until the water is incorporated. Use your fingers to push the crumbly dough into a ball. Flour your counter well and have 2 sheets of wax paper ready on the side. Working quickly, roll out the dough into a long rectangle. Fold the two sides in, overlapping them to make a square, then flip the square over and proceed to roll out the dough again. Repeat the process one more time for a total of 3 times, then roll out the dough to 1/2 cm. thick, making sure to flour well underneath so the dough doesn't stick. Using a small bowl or cookie cutter, cut out 4 in.-diameter circles. Transfer the circles to the wax paper. Gather up the scraps and re-roll the dough, working the dough as little as possible. Continue to cut out circles until you have used up all the dough, transferring the circles to the wax paper. Place the sheets of wax paper with the dough circles on a large plate or cookie sheet (you can stack one sheet over the other), cover the plate with plastic wrap or a plastic bag, then place it in the fridge to chill for at least 30 min. Well covered, the dough will last a couple of days in the fridge. Makes enough for 12 empanadas.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cali Pachanguera: So you want to live in Cali...


As promised, to the person who makes me breakfast in the morning (and with his invaluable help), here is my guide to moving to Cali. Though Colombia is still fighting with its reputation as being dangerous, more and more foreigners have been making the trip...in general absolutely adore it, meaning that many do, in fact, end up deciding to stay, at least for awhile.
 

Housing

Housing in Cali is generally quite inexpensive. It's very common to rent directly from the owner-- many places will have a sign outside saying SE ARRIENDA with the number of the owner. Newspapers (El País, El Diario Occidente) have listings as well. One thing to keep in mind is that most houses do not have hot water (supposedly it's "not necessary" because of the year-round warm climate. I disagree.) If you're planning on renting a place that isn't furnished, keep in mind that apartments/houses don't come with refrigerators; most don't come with stoves either, and even if they do have stoves, they may not have ovens. Normally contracts are for 1 year, but people are often open to other arrangements as well.


Good neighborhoods to live in as far as I'm concerned are San Antonio, San Fernando, San Cayetano, Miraflores, Libertadores, El Peñon, and Centenario, as they are all centrally located, fairly inexpensive and low key. San Antonio has recently become very popular with tourists and many Europeans have bought property, so it's gone up in price, but many artists live around there and there are always lots of music and art goings-on. San Fernando, Miraflores and Libertadores are close and similar but still pretty much tourist-free and very family oriented. People hang out on their steps drinking beer, there is almost always salsa on in the background, and you only need to walk a couple of steps to find street vendors selling empanadas, grilled sausage, arepas, and anything else greasy and delicious you might be craving as the sun goes down.

I'm not a big fan of Ciudad Jardin, it's expensive and has very much of a "new money"/Miami feel due to the large number of people involved in the drug trade that live there. El Cany is similar, as are some parts of El Ingenio. Capri, El Limonar, Quintas de Don Simon y La Hacienda are nice, familiar neighborhoods, but they're quite far to the south and a bit suburb-ish. Same with La Merced, La Flora Vipasa, and Prados del Norte, which are similar but in the north. Granada has recently become a restaurant hotspot, which makes it loud and hard to find parking.

Other areas that I would not recommend include Aguablanca and El Centro because they are generally quite dangerous.


Transportation

The mass transit system in Cali is called the Mio; it's a system of above-ground buses that have their own traffic lanes; instead of getting them from the sidewalk, you enter a station in the middle of the street and take them from a platform. One ride costs 1,500 pesos (~.75 cents). You can buy a Miocard for 1,500 pesos to put money on; this is beneficial both because it saves you the ticket line but also because there are auxiliary Mio buses that you can take on the street and that go into some neighborhoods that the normal Mio line doesn't, and it allows you to transfer from one to the other without paying extra. The Mio is open until 11 pm.  Buses, which are private, run until 10:30 or 11pm, and they generally cost the same as the Mio. There aren't formal bus stops, so you have to flag them down. The buses are small and the drivers both drive and give you change at the same time, which can be scary. Some bus lines like the RioCali are so low maintenance that you worry the bus might fall apart during the trajectory of your trip, but most are okay, just watch out when you get off because sometimes they will let you off in the middle of the street (as I said, no formal bus stops). At night people use cars or taxis. Many people will tell you that it's better to order taxis from a company than to get one in the street, although we've never had any problems. Taxis are not very expensive and you can sometimes talk the driver into letting 5 or 6 people ride even though supposedly only 4 can be taken. After 8 pm, there´s an additional 1,000 peso (~.50) surcharge in taxis.


Food

The best place to buy groceries is La Galeria, a large covered market where vendors sell produce, panela, coconuts (they will grate them for you), and herbs, amongst other things. In general the produce is very fresh and you can bargain with the vendors; it's best to go earlier in the day, before lunch. Around the Galeria are tons of shops selling baking supplies, milk products, butchers, bulk grains, and some imported Asian and American products.
Mercamio is probably the cheapest supermarket chain in Cali, it has a pretty typical selection and can get really crowded in the late afternoon. Carulla is the very fancy, expensive supermarket in Colombia, which we never, ever shopped at, but if you're looking for imported groceries and produce, that's where to find it. La 14 is the most ubiquitous supermarket, the prices are pretty standard and they have a good produce section. It's kind of like Target in that they also have lots of decent home stuff and clothes. There tend to be a lot of women with very obvious plastic surgery shopping here.

As far as eating out, los corrientazos, which are cheap lunch spots, are everywhere, and are a great deal. For 4,000-5,000 pesos ($2-2.50), you are given soup to start, followed by rice, plantains, salad, beans and your choice of meat, juice (with a refill if you ask), and often dessert.

La Alameda, which is next to La Galeria, is full of great restaurants that serve traditional food from the Colombian Pacific-- lots of seafood and coconut-based dishes. Lunch time is consistently packed with office workers during the week, and with families during the weekend.

If you absolutely have to have your sushi fix, it can be found in the trendy and expensive restaurants in Granada.


Additional tips

If you need to get your cellphone unlocked, an electronic fixed, or some random part, almost anything can be found cheap in El Centro-- as well as tons of cheap fake merchandise, inexpensive shoes, and household items.

For anybody interested in salsa, Cali is more or less the ultimate destination. There are a bazillion places to go, but two places that are inexpensive and always fun are Tin Tin Deo (one of the most traditional salsa clubs in Cali) and Donde Don Ever (which is really just a tiny bar that blasts lots of good salsa into the street). Culturally speaking, it's a small city, and other than salsa there isn't all that much other variety. There is quite a lot of vallenato, and a fair amount of reggaeton, a couple of rock bars, and one or two jazz bars.  

Strangely enough (to me), shopping malls are a very common place for people to eat and to meet up with their friends. Because of security (this has changed a lot, but the custom persists), there aren't a lot of free-standing cafes is certain parts of the city; shopping malls occupy the position of a safe, worry-free place where you can meet up with your friends.

And although Cali has gotten way safer lately, it's still not a good idea to walk around with an iPod or anything else that draws attention.

Thinking about what I've written above, I realize that Cali sounds like some very foreign, very third world, tropical town...but to me it's just a really nice, generally low key place to live. People are very friendly, they love to go out, and there is good, inexpensive food everywhere. Colombia does have a very strong culture of bargaining, and a lot of laws and regulations are taken as, well, optional, something that I think is difficult for Americans to make peace with. In terms of quality of living, though, as long as you don't mind the heat, Cali's a great place to be.

Qué comen los vegetarianos #10



Raw collard greens salad
Watermelon, fresh cheese and mint with lime and olive oil
Roasted sweet potatoes with cumin seeds
Cucumber raita

Ensalada de couve (parecido a la acelga) crudo
Sandia, queso fresco y menta con limón y aceite de oliva
Batata asada con semillas de comino
Raita de yogurt con pepino

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cochinos


We're moving, to another neighborhood, and within the many discussions surrounding the moving process (new roommates etc.) lies the inevitable conversation about peoples' differing hygiene practices, which leads to a conversation about regional variations. We're talking broad generalizations, people, obviously there are exceptions. I'm not saying everyone does or does not do these things, just that certain trends have been noticed and noted. So I made a list; if I were more technologically-savvy I would have made a Venn diagram:

U.S.
OK not to take a shower every day
OK to spit in the street
OK to blow your nose in public
Mostly OK to fart and burp (I mean not really, but people do it all the time)
NOT ok to share drinking vessels/utensils with people you don't know
NOT ok to throw garbage on the street
NOT ok to leave your dog's crap on the street
NOT ok to pick your nose in public

Brazil
OK to do snot rockets in the street
OK to spit in the street
OK to pick your nose in public
OK to cut your nails in public
OK to bleach your leg hair at the beach
OK to throw garbage on the street
NOT ok to not shower every day
NOT ok to have dirty/unmanicured hands/feet
Spray hose necessary for proper hygiene

Colombia
OK to talk about diarrhea and farting (the way Americans talk about vomiting: "I was up all night with diarrhea after that hamburger I ate.")
OK to share shot glasses and soda bottles with people you don't know
NOT ok to not shower every day
NOT ok to have dirty/unmanicured hands/feet 
NOT ok to fart or burp
NOT ok to blow your nose in public 
NOT ok to spit in the street
NOT ok to throw garbage on the street
NOT ok to leave your dog's crap on the street
NOT ok to not brush your teeth after every meal (many people bring toothbrushes with them to work for after lunch)

Argentina
OK to talk in detail about your health problems to strangers
OK to throw garbage on the street
OK to leave your dog's shit on the street
OK not to take a shower every day
OK to pick your nose in public
OK to spit in the street 
OK to share drinking vessels/utensiles with people you don't know
NOT ok to burp or fart 
Bidet necessary for proper hygiene

Confused yet? Saying "Americans are gross, Brazilians are clean" (which I've heard, a lot) is pretty simplistic. Also, when you travel to another country, it's inevitable that you will unwittingly do something inappropriate. It's taken me awhile to understand just how gross Felipe's mother finds it that I don't shower every day. Colombia is the cleanest country I've ever been to, probably by far. You could eat dinner off the floor of its public bathrooms. On the other hand, Colombians find most of the rest of the world extremely cochino (dirty/gross) so I feel like there's got to be a balance before perceived cleanliness becomes a prohibitive factor that makes you uncomfortable to leave your own country.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Arnold in Rio

This video is INSANE. I can't tell if it's actually supposed to be serious in any way at all. All I can say is, not so shocked by last year's scandal in the California governor's mansion...and if anyone ever tried to teach me the word "biting" that way, I think I'd do my best to bite their hand off.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy Chanukah, Happy New Year




Happy Chanukah turned into Happy New Year, and we got seriously rained on at the beach here in Copacabana. We still had a good time, though, and I only paused a couple of times to wonder how good a combination drunk people + ocean might be. Along with 2011, I am belatedly drawing to a close my virtual Chanukah quest, with my grandfather, who was sick recently but is steadily on the mend.

Catherine The Great biography, recommended as one of the best books of the year

Flannel-lined khakis, for long walks in the winter

Peacetime, a movie we really enjoyed about Brazil and European immigration after World War II 

Cool and easy-to-read watch

Vegetarian meat and potatoes cookbook, for the ham and cheese order-er in the family, so my grandmother will let him eat something at least resembling meat and potatoes every day
Fleece-lined cap, because it's warm and looks nice


Happy New Year to everyone, happy belated Chanukah to my family and happy belated birthday to my mother (Dec. 31)!