Happy Baking

My mom baked. My grandmother baked. I bake.

When my mom passed, I inherited her boxes of recipe cards. Here is her recipe for Congo Bars, which I have been trying to adapt for high altitude baking.

You should bake these. Easy. Delicious. Dense. Slightly chewy. Use butter, not margarine (my mom was of the margarine era).

High altitude people: 1/4 cup LESS sugar. 1/4 cup MORE flour. 1-1/2 tsp baking powder only. And watch your baking time carefully.

A “small package of chocolate chips” is about a cup. Nuts? My mom used walnuts. OH, and I have no idea why they are called “Congo Bars.”

Vegan Sloppy Joes – quick meal

Vegan Sloppy Joe’s

Since I now have a fabulous kitchen, I am digging out some of my favorite recipes, recipes I haven’t seen in a while (like, 2 years).

This is an easy favorite that will please everyone. It’s vegan, so you’ve got the vegetarians and vegan covered. It’s also reminiscent of the ground-beef sloppy joe’s served in school cafeterias (or by moms) back in the day. So your carnivore friends will like it too. And: nostalgia!

This recipe has been tweaked from one I got years ago from the Nearly Normal’s Restaurant in Corvallis, Oregon. They published a calendar one year with recipes. They called it “Sloppy Norm’s.”

First, a word about the tofu. I like to freeze the tofu (in fact, I store my tofu in the freezer). For this recipe, you thaw it and then squeeze out all the liquid that you can (use your hands, do it over the sink). If you use fresh (e.g., not frozen) tofu, you will have a softer texture. The frozen stuff gets kind of rubbery and meaty, perfect for this application.

Vegan Sloppy Joe’s — serves 4

1 14-ounce package of firm tofu (see above re: freezing and squeezing)

Scant 1/4 c soy sauce

1 large green pepper, chopped small

1 cup chopped white onion (chopped small)

1 345-gram box of pure de tomate condimentado (or, in the US, a 15 ounce can of tomato sauce)

1 T mustard (Dijon or yellow)

1 T agave syrup (or honey if you’re not trying to do vegan)

2 T chile powder (the kind you get in the US, with cumin in it) OR 1 T real chile powder and about 1T cumin powder

About 1/3 c olive oil

Marinate your crumbled tofu in the soy sauce. Let sit at least 20 minutes.

Sauté onion and pepper in about half of the oil (a few glugs) until soft. Add tomato sauce, spices, agave, and mustard. Simmer about 20 minutes.

Sauté tofu in remaining oil in a hot skillet until brown and somewhat crispy.

Add tofu mixture to sauce and simmer a bit. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Serve on buns. Buen provecho!

Any leftover? It’s awesome served with tortilla chips.

Maybe next time I make it, I can remember to take a pic of the FINISHED dish. <sigh>

Oaxaca visit

Oaxaca

Everyone has told me, “You must go to Oaxaca! It’s amazing!’ So finally we went. And it was.

Our “excuse,” if we needed one, was to take intensive Spanish classes. Each of us had two teachers — one in the morning and one in the afternoon. That’s right, 1:1 for five hours a day. I found it a great way to learn and to improve my skills. My teachers, both young women, were smart, friendly, curious and patient. I think language teaching attracts similar people as language learning, — people who like to travel and who are interested in other cultures and other ways of life.

One downside of taking five hours a day of classes is lack of time and energy to explore. Who knew how absolutely exhausted I’d be after my classes? Sleeping on a soft, worn-out AirBnB bed didn’t help (nor did being on the bus route, but hey, I do travel with ear plugs). Still, at 3 p.m. when classes were done, I was done. We retreated to our apartment where we had cold drinks and a rest.

Still, despite being busy and tired, we managed to see some sights, eat some great food, and absorb the vibe of the downtown area.

An option at the Spanish school was to leave with your instructor and have class in a café, a park, a library or other location. I loved that. One, it kept me awake in the afternoons and two, I got to see more. One morning, my teacher Gris and I had class in the plaza at the Soledad church. We sat in the shade on the big concrete steps, watching people and teaching/learning. I also got to visit some nice cafés and enjoy hot and cold chocolate drinks and teas.

The Sunday before classes began, we went to the museum of Oaxaca cultures, located in an ex-convent next to the Santa Domingo church. This is a huge museum with exhibits from various eras — from prehistory to Spanish invasion to modern times. A highlight was the exhibit of artifacts (gold jewelry!) from Tomb 7 at Monte Albán.

Jesus goes vegan:

One afternoon after classes, we dragged ourselves out for the 5 p.m. tour (en español) of the botanical garden. I probably understood about 60%, which was enough. The garden is a lovely oasis but alas you can’t visit unless you’re on a tour. The plant collection contains those that have been used forever by the local people for food, clothing, dye, art, etc.

One weekend day, we took a shuttle bus out to Monte Albán, which is a lovely and uncrowded archaeological site. The view from the site is impressive too.

Oaxaca is known for its art and its food. Food-wise, we did pretty well. It’s always a challenge for me to find non-meat food when traveling. Oaxaca was more veg-friendly than most Mexican cities, which made me happy. The hours at our school were a bit problematic as we had to be in class by 9 (not many things open before that) and then our break was 11:30 to 12:30 (too short a time and too early for a proper lunch). Still, we managed.

Some things I ate/drank:

— Nieves (ice cream) in the Soledad plaza. There are about seven different ice cream cafés, each with about 100 flavors. Alas, I only tried two: mamey and coconut. Yum.

— Chocolate drinks — hot or cold, with milk or water.

— Tacos guisados assortment: calabacitas with green mole, rajas and queso and huitlacoche.

— Salad with guayabas.

— Molletes.

— Salad with goat cheese, nuts and cranberries.

— Broccoli sandwich.

— Fried Oaxaca cheese with sides of beans and guacamole.

— Fruit and yogurt plates.

— Chilaquiles (red and green, with and without eggs)

— Enfrijoladas.

— Tostadas with smoked marlin.

— Smoked salmon sandwich.

— Salad of nopales, olives and cheese.

— Tlayuda with beans and greens.

— Spinach and cheese raviolis.

— Vegan enchiladas in green mole.

— Mezcal cocktails.

— Pastries!

— Cheeses!

— The crappiest French toast I’ve eaten.

Next time, for sure, I need to try the potato chips they fry fresh in street carts. And more moles.

If you’re a shopper, you will love Oaxaca. I’m not a big shopper (see my prior posts about minimalism) but even I loved all the choices. So much impressive art — rugs, ceramics, alejibres, and textiles of all possible types and descriptions.

The downtown Oaxaca area is very cosmopolitan with its zillion cafés, restaurants, bars, art galleries, museums. A few wide pedestrian streets provide respite from the cars and exhaust fumes and serve as a marketplace for street vendors. We enjoyed walking around and entertaining ourselves by people-watching, window-shopping and hanging out.

Monte Albán:

16 de septiembre

The holiday season has begun here in México. 16 de septiembre is Mexican Independence Day and the festivities are a blast. Someday, I guess, I will live here long enough that I can’t rouse myself for a 10 minute walk to see lovely things and have fun. But now, I’m al in.

Ajijic has an annual Regata de Globos — a hot air balloon festival. These aren’t the kind you ride around in; they are smaller. They are made of tissue paper and sent aloft with flames creating hot air. The event takes place in the fútbol field and is well attended. There are food and drink vendors and many teams making and launching their globos. Some go off without a hitch, after a lot of hard work, and sail up until you can no longer see them. Some fly for a while and then start on fire and drop from the sky. Some go aflame right there in the campo de fútbol. It’s a wild time and beautiful to see the handmade creations take flight. It’s sad, exciting, and funny when they don’t.

The day before Independence Day, kids’ games are held — running races, sack races, the greased pole climb, and one game where kids try to pry coins off a comal with only their mouths.

The night before Independence Day is the Grito de Dolores — a cry by Miguel Hidalgo that roused the people to fight for independence. It took place in the town of Dolores, which you may know now as Dolores Hidalgo. The grito commemoration at 11 at night. In Ajijic, the time leading up to it finds the plaza full of people watching ballet folclórico (the troupe included some very tiny girls who could really whirl their skirts around), mariachis, and a local singing contest (the crowd votes the winner with applause and the prize is a bottle of tequila). This year, it was a mighty close decision between an older man on crutches (who sang “Mi Lindo Ajijic”) and a tall young bearded hipster-y guy who the female MC asked to turn around so the ladies could admire his backside. In the end, the older man won and crutched off the stage with his bottle. Many of the singers this year were reading lyrics from iPhones, making us think of karaoke nights.

The local bellezas (beauty queens) were present with their intricate up-dos, perfect makeup and expensive gowns. A group of runners from Guanajuato arrived with the flame of independence— they had been relay-running for several days. They looked tired and so proud and patriotic. Touched my heart.

Earlier in the evening, we saw some high school aged kids in uniforms practicing their marching. They were the ones who marched the flag to the stage at the opportune moment. Someone read the Mexican declaration of independice, of which I understood more this year than I had in the past. Lots of stuff about the Catholic faith in there; who knew? The national anthem was sung (it’s long). The local delegado made the grito (cry) of Independence and everyone responded “VIVA! VIVA!” And then there were fireworks. The plaza was packed, many folks toting a bag of ice, a bottle of tequila, and plastic cups. A band would play long into the night/morning, long after we tottered off to home and bed.

On the actual Independence Day, a parade wound through the narrow streets consisting mainly of groups of uniformed school kids (all ages, with varying abilities to stay in formation), and horses. I love watching this, seeing the kids’ pride and that of their hovering parents. The horses? They’re big scary animals, okay? But some are pretty and have nice braided manes.

Other holidays will follow: Revolution Day, San Andres Festival, Dia de los Muertos, and then on to the Christmas season and the new year.

We’re ready. Bring it on.

Romania, the final leg of our trip

And some highlights from Romania

We have been back from our trip for about a month, and I realize I never posted about the last bit — Romania! So here goes—

Our boat trip ended in Giurgiu, Romania. From there, we bussed up to Bucharest. Our package included two Bucharest tours — a walking tour and a tour of Ceaușescu’s palace.

On the walking tour, we visited Revolution Square and learned something about the 1989 revolution. (Did you know all of it was televised worldwide? I don’t remember that!). We also ate delicious pastries. I chose one filled with salty cheese. We went through a lovely park, toured the Athenaum (concert hall) and generally got the lay of the land in downtown Bucharest.

Ceauşescu’s palace was something else. While his people lacked heat, food, and electricity, he was living quite nicely. Indoor pool. Sauna. Big closets. Gold bathroom. Fancy furnishings, rugs, and paintings. Peacocks.

We had some good food in Bucharest but came to the conclusion that customer service isn’t usually a priority. In fact, one night, we felt the waiter was quite rude to us and the other customer.

(Hey, give that kid a cigarette…)

After our official tour ended, we spent time with my husband’s brother and his wife, a Bucharest native. We got to do things that locals do, such as go to Ikea! (I miss Ikea; it’s supposed to arrive in Guadalajara soon….).

We had dinner and drinks in a huge beer garden in one of Bucharest’s parks. A band was playing Romanian classic rock (80s, we were told). I had a vegetarian plate which featured a bean spread, an eggplant salad/dip and a very red salad/spread made from roasted peppers and tomatoes. Perfect food, perfect evening.

After, we went to Nuba Cafe and ate the best dessert, which my sister in law called bezea: a big piece of meringue covered with vanilla pastry cream, fruits, and (I think) a mango syrup.

The following day, we took off for Brasov, a town of about 200,000. We stopped for lunch on the way where I had an Ursus beer and a dish of polenta served with sour cream and cheese. (It looked kind of like boobs.) We found Brasov’s center to be charming. We toured the Black Church and I ate a pastry called kurtos — which I can describe as dough wrapped around a stick and cooked and then somehow burned with sugar. After that, they cover it in a variety of crunchy things (mine had walnuts).

While in Brasov, we toured the nearby Bran Castle (the alleged Dracula castle) and the castle/fortress of Rasnov. We also took a cable car up to the large hill where the BRASOV sign is located.

We also went to the Rasnov castle/fortress, a lovely view!

On our way back to Bucharest, we were lucky enough to get a break in the weather so we could take the cable car up to the Bábele rock formation. Adjacent, is the Sphinx formation. There is supposed to be a special energy there. We certainly felt the energy of the approaching thunderstorm so we hurried back to the cable car after our walk to the rocks.

In Bucharest, we had a nice visit with my sister-in-law’s mom, who graciously hosted us in her apartment. After, a traditional dinner at Caru’ Cu Bere, a famous old beer hall. I had a bean stew and we shared a big plate of Romanian cheeses.

The following day, we left Bucharest for our 24-hour trip back to Guadalajara.

The emotional highs and lows of a river cruise

Going on a big trip is an emotional experience for me. The looking-forward-to part is always great. And in the case of a river cruise, there is the sharp excitement of boarding the boat for the first time. The welcoming crew, the perfect stateroom, the prospect of sights and tours and fine foods and fine wines. I felt that when we stepped onto the Uniworld SS Beatrice. Everyone was so nice as we checked in at the desk next to the glittery cases of the gift shop. We had some sparkling water in the lounge and used the wifi, and then headed out for some tourism in Budapest as our room was not yet ready.

We caught up with some friends on the ship, who we hadn’t seen in a while. And we met some new folks, many of them interesting and fun. Each night, we’d gather for cocktails in the lounge — sparkling wine, Aperol or Campari spritzes. We’d listen to our cruise manager, Gabriel, give the briefing the next day and perhaps to a short talk by the captain (who was hilarious). Laura, the eloquent and professional sommelier, would describe the evening’s wine for us and then we’d head to dinner where delights awaited us.

As a non meat-eater, I was particularly happy with the menus on Uniworld. There were always several things I could eat — green tomato salad with fried cheese, fried tofu, asparagus soup, rolled zucchini slices stuffed with veggies and cheese, tuna rillettes, tiny whole calamari, something delicious with quinoa. Every night, I passed on the tarts and cakes and ice cream and I had the cheese plate for dessert.

Mornings, we grazed the breakfast buffet, which had warming trays filled with scrambled eggs, roasted tomatoes, beans, meats (not for me!), pancakes, French toast. The cold bar had yogurts with many toppings, juices, chia puddings, parfaits, cheeses, croissants, breads, salads. A friendly cook was on hand to whip up omelets and waffles. We had Brazilian coffee and proper English Breakfast tea served in a teapot.

After, the adventures would begin — walking tours (in the rain!) or bus trips to archaeological sites or monasteries or fortresses or palaces. Each day was more fun and interesting than the last, often with some scenic cruising in addition to the tours. We sent our laundry out. We had massages. We talked to people. We dined. We attended wine tastings. We danced. We watched folk dancers and listened to musicians and lectures.

The last day of the cruise, I started to feel empty and sad. No more four-course dinners with fun people and unlimited wine. No more gorgeous scenery going by outside the window. No more pampering. No more camaraderie. We boarded buses for Bucharest where our cruise included two nights at a hotel and some tours. There, it seemed, we were unceremoniously dumped and the cruise let-down set in. Alas, we were on our own, no one to cater to our needs, no group of friendly faces to share (included and unlimited!) drinks or meals. Instead we had an impersonal hotel with indifferent service, and we rolled the dice at restaurants. I felt a bit down.

The emotional ups and downs of the river cruise…

Of course we rallied and enjoyed our stay in Bucharest….. more on that to come….