Friday, October 19, 2018

whipping up dreams


"My favorite Mexican food is fajitas."

That apercu was from my friend Doug. We were discussing the local restaurants when the conversation took one of those cul-de-sac turns.

I have long had a love-hate relationship with fajitas. I think I dug into my first fajita in Olympia in the 1980s. Dos Hermanos, if I remember correctly. I fell in love with the blend of grilled beef and vegetables in their secret sauce -- all wrapped in a tortilla.

And then I got sick. Every subsequent time I ate fajitas, I got sick. And I have no idea of the root cause for the bizarre reaction. Because I enjoy good food, I was willing to put up with the occasional bout of St. Helens nausea.

But that was not what caught my attention with Doug's romantic infatuation with fajitas. It was his reference to "Mexican food."

One of the joys of the internet is having the equivalent of the Library of Congress at our fingertips. Gary, my American-Canadian restaurateur friend, and I often have our personal mini-pub quiz about the origin of things considered quintessentially Mexican.

We all know that tomatoes, corn, and chili peppers were originally from Mexico and were spread around the world by the Spanish and Portuguese. But, what about the coconut? Asia. Mangoes? India. Those fantastic flamboyan trees? Madagascar. Limes? Maybe Indonesia. Possibly, southeast Asia.

But there are also plenty of foods that were considered to be Mexican where I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Most of my friends still believe that the chili con carne is as Mexican as Salma Hayek. Of course, it isn't. I suspect it is that Spanish-sounding name that does it. Chili con carne, that is. Not Hayek. That is a German name.

That is why I was a bit surprised to discover that fajitas are no more Mexican than was Lyndon Johnson. Well, maybe a bit.

The flaw in food history is that most dishes were not created one afternoon in a specific restaurant. We know peaches Melba was created by Auguste Escoffier at the London Savoy Hotel to honor soprano Nellie Melba. Or that Caesar salad was cobbled together by Caesar Cardini in either San Diego or Tijuana (giving some credence to the claim the anchovy-flavored dish is actually Mexican). Or that the recently-stirred-up Caesar cocktail was given to us by a restaurateur in that culinary capital Calgary to celebrate the opening of an Italian eatery.

But, they are the exceptions. Most foods have their roots in some provincial kitchen, and the most arduous Holmesian endeavors will never disclose them.

The history of fajitas is not that obscure. The earliest mention of the name is in the ranch land of southern Texas in the tough times of the 1930s. Texas ranchers would give their vaqueros (Mexican cowboys who helped create the myth of the American cowboy) the portion of slaughtered cattle that could not be marketed. That included the hide, the entrails, the horns, and trimmings from the skirt steak -- giving them the ingredients for head barbecue and tripe stew.

The vaqueros would grilled the otherwise tough skirt steak trimmings into something that was not quite as reminiscent of shoe leather. "Fajita" was the name of the grilled strips of skirt steak.

In 1969, an Austin meat merchant, sold the first fajita (similar to the dish we know) at a fast-food fair booth. T
hat same year, restaurants in Texas had fajitas on the menu. It took some time for the dish to become popular. But, it spread through Texas, on to Arizona, through The States, and other countries.

So, Doug was not entirely wrong. The vaqueros were simply cooking beef strips as Mexicans had in the northern Mexican states for years. But what the vaqueros ate bears as much resemblance to contemporary fajitas as a grilled peach resembles peaches Melba.

I am not certain I had ever made fajitas at home. And that surprised me. It is a rather simple dish to prepare -- most of the time being spent in slicing and mincing. And, because there is no such thing as an "authentic" fajita, I could indulge my culinary creativity.

So, off to Hawaii, my favorite grocery, I went. The first thing in my basket was a packet of oyster mushrooms. They would add body to the dish. A couple of habaneros. Four serrano peppers. Red and yellow bell peppers. Garlic. Red onion. Tomatoes. And some whole-wheat tortillas. (If I am going to eat carbohydrates, I want my digestive system to fight for them.)

I considered using firm tofu as my protein, but decided against it. I am not extremely fond of its texture. (They have that same feel in the mouth as avocado and papaya. I would prefer to pass on the experience.) Instead, I stopped at the butcher and bought two chicken breasts.

Sauces are the canvas where cooks develop their art. I wanted mine to be simple. Fresh lime juice. Cumin. Coriander. Hot smoky paprika. And a healthy dash of ghost pepper chili powder.

But something was missing. I inventoried the ingredients on the preparation table. What was it? There was something that would add umami to the meal. And it was not there.

It finally hit me. One of my favorite tastes with fajitas is sour cream. And I felt the frustration I often feel when I want an ingredient for a dish, but it is just not available.

When I moved here a decade ago, I discovered sour cream was unknown. There was crema fresca, a thinner and less-cultured version of sour cream. But it did not have the robust flavor of sour cream that fajitas require. (There is a Mexican product, crema agria, that is almost indistinguishable from sour cream. I bought some in San Miguel de Allende. I have never seen it here.)

I wish I could remember who taught me this trick (I suspect it was that doyen of cooking Leslie Harris de Limón)
, but it is possible to create sour cream from crema fresa with two simple ingredients. Lemon juice and a dash of salt.

The devil lies in that innocuous "simple." For years, finding a lemon in my part of Mexico was like finding privacy on the internet in Red China. (I know. I have tried.) Now and then, it might happen. But it was rare.

There was a reason for that. Mexico has long been one of the world's largest producers of limes. But, it was also once a major source of lemons -- for export to The States. Lemons, unlike limes, were not part of Mexican cuisine.

And then the market collapsed. More accurately, the trees collapsed. In the 1930s a plague killed most of the lemon trees in the United States and Mexico.

The trees in the United States were re-planted. And, as is the case with protectionist administrations, FDR put a staggering tariff on lemons from Mexico in the false hope of protecting American farmers at the expense of American consumers.

Because Mexico did not need lemons for its internal consumption, the lemon trees were not re-planted here. Some economists credit the lemon tariff as one of the justifications for Mexico nationalizing American, Canadian, and Anglo-Dutch oil companies. Mind you, a very small part. But, it did leave a sour taste.

It is now simple to buy lemons where I live. Alex, at Hawai, is one of the best Mexican businessmen I have encountered in our area. He knows his customer base (northerners in the winter and Mexican middle-class shoppers in the summer), and he caters to them. He is a man with a business plan.

And lemons are one of the items that now appear regularly at Hawaii. In a large box next to the cash register. They are not cheap, but they certainly add new possibilities to cooking. That always justifies the expense.

Hey, Steve. Weren't you telling us about a sour cream recipe?

Yup. Let's get back to it.

I bought a carton of crema fresca (450 ml) and a lemon. The crema fresca went into a mixing bowl, I squeezed in the juice from the lemon, and whisked for about three minutes. Almost immediately, the curdling effect of the lemon juice caused the crema to stiffen.

When I was done whisking, the result was not quite as thick as standard sour cream, but it was thicker than the crema in its natural state. I added a dash of salt and put the concoction in the refrigerator to cool.

When I tasted the scoop on top of my amazingly-layered fajita, I knew my mission was accomplished. It was not exactly like northern sour cream. But that was not my goal. I wanted a taste similar to sour cream to give me more flexibility in cooking. And I found it.

Having whipped up one of the best fajita dishes I have ever tasted, I can now move on to other projects. There is no sense in ruining the memory by trying to replicate it.

Doug, fajitas are not my favorite food. But, thanks for giving me the idea on this dish. We need to talk more.   


Thursday, October 18, 2018

i'm ready for my close-up, señor algodon


Woody Allen is a genius at character development.

The plots of his films are most often gossamer. But his portrayal of the human condition is always witty -- and bittersweet. Tales of who we think we are. And how the rest of the world sees us.

Jasmine Francis, the eponymous main character in Blue Jasmine, is a perfect example. We meet her on an airplane flying to San Francisco. She is sitting next to an older woman she does not know.

Her opening lines are like any normal small talk on airplanes. "
There was no one like Hal. He met me at a party and swept me off my feet. 'Blue Moon' was playing. You know 'Blue Moon?'"

But her chat quickly morphs into a rambling lost-soul monologue that continues as Jasmine follows the woman to the luggage carousel, and ends only when the woman walks away with her family.

When her son asks her who Jasmine was, she answers: "
I was sitting next to her on the plane. She was talking to herself. I thought she said something to me. I said, 'What?' But she couldn't stop babbling about her life."

Anyone who has spent much time on airplanes could tell tales of their own travails trapped in a tube with the corresponding secretary of the Logorrhea Society.

I thought of Jasmine this week while reading The Oregonian.


I almost never read personal advice columns.

For a lot of reasons -- primarily, the questions that are asked often have the distinct odor of being composed by a group of office pranksters in the office cafeteria. Or they sound like something you might overhear standing in line at a 7-11. Seldom edifying. Almost always prurient.

Now and then, though, a headline grabs me by my forelock. This one did. "Brother's girl a 'boredom missionary.'"  "Boredom missionary" is a bon mot I have occasionally used myself. So, I had to read the question.

There is no way I can paraphrase the question. The voice is far too personal. Here it is in its full glibness.

My brother wants to know what I think of his girlfriend. I don't like her. It isn't actionable dislike -- she isn't controlling, criminal, or abusive -- but I find her boring and worse, a boredom missionary. No hobbies, doesn't watch any TV shows, thinks fandom for anything is stupid, and doesn't have a team (in any sport) that she supports.
Our plans to do a panic room, see a dumb movie or eat at the weird new fusion place are all "a bit silly." Instead she just wants to do dinner at some place deemed nice and an indie movie about sad people being sad -- fine if that's her thing, but she never seems to enjoy it, or anything. She doesn't even like animals!
I have dodged my brother's question, but he is pushing. The best I can think to say is that she is unobjectionable and has lovely hair (tried to ask about that -- she just washes it, "that is a bit of a silly question"). I can do the old "she makes you happy" dodge, but pretty sure my brother will see through that. Plus, do I owe it to him to point out that she obviously loves him but doesn't share an interest in anything he enjoys and probably won't want to do any of the big-adventure-stuff holidays he has always planned? Or even get the Great Dane he has wanted since our childhood dog died?
On the other hand, he has picked her, maybe a life of gentle boredom is what adult bro is all about? I just don't know. I think if she didn't do this passive roadblock of disapproval about things she considers silly -- like,  all fun stuff -- I could appreciate her other qualities more. As it is, she just exists as this big buzzkill in my head.
-- A Bit Silly 
It really does not matter what the advice columnist had to say. Though, it was nearly as vapid as the question. But it does raise some interesting perspectives on how people deal with the world.

As much as I like Anne Lamott's writing, we do not share the same temperament. Her 
idea of everything running smoothly on an airplane is that: "A) I not die in a slow motion fiery crash, or get stabbed to death by terrorists, and that B) none of the other passengers try to talk to me."

That is not me. I am one of those people who loves meeting strangers on airplanes. But I am not a Jasmine Francis. When people begin fading, I quickly retreat to The Economist on my telephone.

Both Jasmine and "A Bit Silly" are representatives of a class of people we all encounter. On the surface, they appear to be almost narcissistic -- the rest of the world revolves around their experiences. And that impression is magnified when, like Jasmine's, the conversation has been slicked down with alcohol.

That last element is a common detriment to conversation here on the Mexican Pacific coast. Alcohol flows faster than opinions about cheap tacos.

But, something these days is getting in the way of enjoying rational conversations. And I am not talking solely about politics -- though it is usually the most glaring furnace-feeder. Conversations about restaurants or airlines or even the weather can reduce people to Serbians and Bosnians. If the topic has an element of opinion, the tone soon escalates to ethnic cleansing levels. Whether on message boards or in person.

I suspect narcissism and alcohol are not the causes, though, they are certainly contributing factors.

The problem Jasmine and "A Bit Silly" have is that they are far more interesting in making their point than in listening. And I mean really listening to what the other person said.

I taught a rhetoric class when I lived in Salem in the 1990s. On the first day, I would introduce the concept of persuasion with: "You cannot persuade anyone to do anything unless you actively listen to what they say and respect their point of view."

As an exercise, I would ask people to raise their hands which side of difficult issues they supported. Abortion was usually my first choice. Sometimes, capital punishment.

I then picked a person from each side to sit in front of the class. If a person was pro-life, I asked her to state why she believed in the pro-life position. The listener was then required to state what the first person had said.

No one could do it on the first try in the years I taught the course. No one. Inevitably, the re-statement would be what the listener wished the other person had said. It was inevitably some straw man argument.

When I asked them to try again, occasionally it improved. But, in about 40% of the experiments, the other person could not respect the other person enough to actually simply re-state what the other person said.

I run into that experiment writ large every day here in Mexico. But only with people who are expatriates or tourists. The reason I do not hear it from my Mexican friends is complicated -- and I am not the best person to write about it. Though, that is not enough to stop me from taking a stab at it in the future.

Mexico has been my sole home for ten years now. At least, I am in the tenth year of living here.

Because tourists and expatriates are people, there has always been tension on the message boards and at social events. People have opinions. And they state them. And, sometimes, people get upset that other people actually have differing opinions. I will not bother trotting out that famous Bill Buckley quotation.

Some people believe matters have deteriorated recently. Even though there were Obama-haters during my first eight years here, people think the Trump-hate is of a different degree.

I am not certain. All I know is that it is very difficult to have rational discussions these days about almost any topic. In fact, tables overturned in the temple are not an unusual occurrence.

It does not have to be that way. Here are a few modest proposals. Do with them as you wish. You have nothing to lose but your rage.

1. If we are discussing a serious topic (immigration, religion, whether ground beef can ever be properly folded into a taco) and you want to persuade me with your argument, put down the bottle. Alcohol is great at lowering IQs, but terrible at enhancing logic.

There is a reason participants in presidential debates are provided with water rather than tequila. Though, I must confess the debates over the past twenty years might have improved with a pitcher of margaritas on the podium.

2. Please listen to what the person who is talking with you is actually saying. It is a difficult exercise. While listening, just keep repeating in your head what is being said, rather than trying to come up with a political-commentator-inspired snappy retort.

3. And that is another thing. Use your own logic. And your own words. We have been bombarded with the reductionist ravings of the Rush Limbaughs and Rachel Maddows for so long that we think that is what social intercourse is all about.

I have had several discussions recently where the person I was talking to could only repeat the party line without any personal filtering. In his case, it was the MSNBC propaganda machine. But I have heard the same lack of individual thinking from people who watch Fox.

That is the classic appeal to authority fallacy of rhetoric. If I do not accept the authority of the person you are citing, you are simply treading water. Your personal logic is a far better tool to persuade than relying on academic hacks like Robert Reich and Larry Kurdlow. Accepting the king's coin comes at a price.

4. If you want to talk politics, talk politics. Most political discussions quickly devolve into personality rantings. If the person you are talking with says he agrees with your assessment on a politician's personality, move on. There is nothing to be gained by repeatedly atempting to capture ground you already occupy.

5. Maybe it is just as well to avoid personalities altogether. Politicians have positions on issues. That is what is important. But that often requires facts that are not immediately available. Isn't that why we have conversations? To learn new information. If you want to waste time on whether a politician has a big butt, I suggest spending your energy on the Kim Kardashian site.

6. Take responsibility. Facebook has become the beacon of unthinking posts. Someone sees something a friend has posted, and, without any analysis of what the piece says, will re-post it under their own name. (That behavior is not new. Just think of the number of emails forwarded to you that fall into the "Jehovah's Witnesses will be frightened away from your house if you spray Windex on the front door.")

If someone responds to one of those posts with: "Did you just call me a communist/fascist?," the defensive response is: "Well, I only published it because I thought it was funny. I didn't mean anything by it."

I have a rather tough skin when it comes to politics, but if someone calls my mother a "racist, women-hating bigot," I am going to call them out.

The best answer is to stop publishing all of the hate-filled screeds. They are not just offensive; they have no persuasive power. Most of us learned in kindergarten that tantrums do not get us what we want. Apparently, a lot of people never learned.

If you want to sound like screaming monkeys dipped in turpentine, be my guest. Just don't be offended when exposed.

So, there are six simple suggestions. I have to confess I am chuckling as I write this. I know it will do no good. My advice about listening (
"You cannot persuade anyone to do anything unless you actively listen to what they say and respect their point of view.") sounds almost naive. Like Canute willing the tide to obey him.

Maybe no one wants to persuade anyone of anything. If that is true, it is not just sad, it is dangerous.

Earlier this year, our local message board started a thread about the animosity Canadians felt toward Americans because of some of President Trump's comments -- and a subsequent loathing of Canadians by Americans. I asked a Mexican friend who is a waiter what he thought of the controversy.

He smiled and said: "Look. We don't care what you think of each other. You are all the same to us. Walking piggy banks."

He probably has summed up the whole thing better than my long rambling. Honesty usually does that.

In the end, it really may not matter at all. We northerners are a small minority here. And our internal bickering is of no consequence to the Mexicans.

As my friend said: "Knock yourselves out. Just leave your wallets." 


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

reading between the bars



"Miss Dix taught me a love for poetry in the sixth grade. I have stayed in touch with her ever since. She is now 102 years old."

I often hear or read a variation on that theme. A mentor who turned someone's life around and has been a boon buddy for life.

The latest was in this week's edition of The Economist. Melvyn Bragg is the host of a weekly conversation program ("In Our Time") on BBC Radio 4. The show's format is rigid. Interviews with three academics.

But the topics are eclectic. High culture. Science. Mathematics. It is an interesting program that strives to find cultural unity in what Matthew Arnold called "the best that has been thought and known in the world."

Reading that sentence, you have probably concluded Bragg is the product of some manor house. He isn't. He is a working class boy who made good.

He believes he made good because of education. The reason he went on to university is because his history teacher convinced his parents that he should stay in school rather than leave to get get a job.

Then, the inevitable sentence appeared. He "keeps a house in the town where he grew up, where he regularly sees his old history teacher, now 97."

With the exception that I am not British and I do not have a long-running radio program, that could be my story. I had several teachers who inspired me over the years and gave me confidence that were my dreams were not a bunch of rubbish.

Mrs. Metz, my high school English teacher. Miss Riddle, speech. Mr. Adamson, band. Mr. Jackson, social studies. Mr. Herauf, creative writing.

But, once I left their tutorial clutches, I did not keep in touch. I guess you might call them temporal mentors.

Last week, I was talking with an artist acquaintance about our respective tastes in art. Even though I have long collected paintings and sculpture, I told her I did not agree with Winston Churchill's assessment that "painting is the highest form of art." For my taste, it is music.

She had read my essays on the San Miguel de Allende Chamber Music Festival and commented that I seemed to have been excited about discovering videos on Youtube that not only showcased highly-talented chamber music performers, but also displayed the scores (turning up the thermostat).

She was correct. When I found the videos, I felt as if a portion of my music-listening ability had been restored. As if my listening myopia had been corrected -- to completely mangle sensory metaphors.

She grimaced. "I hate to admit this, but I have no idea how to read a score."

That surprised me coming from someone who has spent her life refining her production of visual arts. For me, reading scores helps me to hear the subtle variations the composer intended. Not only do I hear when Beethoven begins in the tonic and moves down a third; I see it.

She just shook her head. "No one ever taught me how to read music."

Last month, we talked about the importance of reading and how that skill is not readily apparent in our villages by the sea (taking AMLO to school). I have always considered reading music to be part of the reading process.

But my acquaintance had a point. If you have never been taught to read music, it can be as foreign as looking at a Maya hieroglyphic.

And this is where we get back to mentors.

I was surrounded by music growing up. My grandmother was the church pianist. My mother played the accordion. We sang at family gatherings from carol sheets complete with sheet music. We sang from hymnals in church with the four-part harmony staring us in the face.

I cannot say when those notes started making sense to me. I may have learned to read music before I started violin lessons in the fourth grade. But I do know that was the first time I produced music from an instrument while looking at those scriggles on the parallel staffs.

But that was one-on-one. The next year all of my classmates were required to buy tonettes. A plastic instrument vaguely resembling a recorder.

The tonette was our student introduction to reading music and making sounds with them that had a passing resemblance to melody and harmony.

The next year, the same music teacher introduced us to more complex concepts. He passed out copies of the score to Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, and then asked us to follow along while a scratchy vinyl performance played on the music room's record player. The second time through, he asked us to set aside the scores and write an essay about the music.

When I related that story to my artist acquaintance, she was amazed that a public school would have such an intensive music program. To me, it was just part of my education.

She is about my same age, so I assumed we would have similar elementary education backgrounds. But she was schooled in Canada. She had not heard of tonettes or reading music in any elementary school near her.

That is too bad. I feel the same way about reading music as I do about reading biographies. It opens an entirely new world to me.

You may notice that I have not referred to the name of the man who completely changed the way I listen to and analyze music. There is a good reason. I cannot remember it.

I remember the name of my saxophone teacher., That is because he was also my seventh-grade teacher. Mr. Vaught. But the name of the man who started it all, is a mystery to me.

You will not be surprised to hear that I do not visit him in his home or send him hand-written notes.

But I do not feel that bad about this particular lapse of my memory. I may not recall his name, but I know what he did to give more depth to my life.

Each time I read a musical score, he is right there with me.

And that is sufficient for me, as Matthew Arnold puts it, to live in an "atmosphere of sweetness and light."



Note -- Such a mentor cannot go unnamed. A school friend filled in the gap in my memory. It was Mr. Knauss who initiated me into the mysteries of music.


Monday, October 15, 2018

rainy day in barra town


Every screenwriter knows the trick.

If you want to change the mood on screen, change the setting. Especially, the weather.

And that is one reason writers simultaneously mock and admire Edward Bulwer-Lytton's "It was a dark and stormy night." Sure. It is purple prose. But it effectively sets the mood. Readers pick up on the cue.

Usually, the mood cue in Barra de Navidad is languid sybaritism. Sunny. Blue skies. Warm.

Luxurious? Certainly. But a bit tedious for moods.

That changed yesterday afternoon. Clouds moved in with a slight drizzle. The type of rain I knew in the Pacific Northwest. Not bad enough to prevent my walking exercise. But sufficient to create a beatnik bongoing on the plastic lounger.

It persisted through the night. Without a need for a fan or air-conditioning, I could hear its soft report on the skylight at the top of the shower's heat chimney.

And it lingers through the morning. Constant and soft.

That is remarkable only because we live in the tropics. When it rains here, the force seems strong enough to pummel motorcyclists from their mounts. The streets fill with the immediacy of a Jonestown flood.

Our rain is a gift from tropical storm Tara that is making its slow slog northwest a safe distance away over the Pacific. But it is close enough for us to have our own reduced Bulwer-Lytton moment. It is a bright and drizzly morning.

While the Atlantic has churned out killer hurricanes this summer, the Pacific has only given us here in Barra de Navidad a few glancing tropical storms or weepy depressions. For that we can be thankful. There are some dramatic mood changes we do not need.

But today is not a tropical deluge day. It is easy to imagine living in Oxford again. That may explain why one of the first things I did this morning was to brew a pot of rose green tea.

I now sit under my red-faded-to-pink umbrella watching the rain play on the surface of the swimming pool while listening to Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15. I thought it would strike just the right mood for the day.

Monet may have had his lily pond. I have a pool with ever-changing rings that emulate eternal lily pads.

And, on this day, that is sufficient for me.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

using my hammer


You don't use a wrench when you need a hammer.

So said my wise Dad. There is a proper tool for every job. Well, except maybe for that utility player: the pliers.

You know all about my new Utility Pot -- the 21st century answer to the traditional pressure cooker (not that kind of pot, canadians). I have been holding off on rolling it out for its initial mission. And I have two excuses. Or had.

The young man from Estafeta snatched the first from my preparation table this afternoon. The Instant Pot's lid is designed for its pressure-intensive specialty. But, if you want to use any of the multitudinous other functions, you can buy a glass lid -- just like a regular pot that has no instant delusions.

I ordered one along with the Instant Pot. The pot arrived on Friday night. The lid arrived today.

That left just one excuse. Because the Instant Pot is a special tool, I took my Dad's advice in using it only as it is intended. That means learning a bit about its concepts.

After a bit of research, those-in-the-Illuminati highly recommend a concept cookbook for Instant pots. That is exactly what I need. There is plenty of information on the internet. But most of the recipes sound as if they started life either as filler in Better Homes and Gardens or as leftovers from old crock pot cookbooks.

So, I ordered the book. According to my package tracker, it will arrive on Friday. If experience is prelude, DHL will have it to me earlier. But only after notifying me of its premature delivery.

I had planned on testing the Instant Pot with a simple rice and pork dish. Today I purchased a very nice piece of pork tenderloin. But, my church friend (and fellow Instant Potter) Dennis warned me that lean cuts of meat are better cooked elsewhere.

And the food angel was with me today. Our local grocer, Hawaii, gets new produce on Sundays. I was looking for something interesting to accompany the pork in the Instant Pot. There was some young asparagus. Oyster mushrooms. Habaneros.

The produce section is a dangerous place for my attention span. The discovery of a new item almost always makes me forget what my purpose is in being there. And it happened again today.

I found a container of snow peas. For you in the north (and maybe elsewhere in Mexico), the discovery of snow peas would not be remarkable. Here in the tropics (in summer weather), it was a find as rare as discovering an honest Red Chinese security official.

That, of course, changed my food plans. When Nika Hazelton was the food editor at National Review, she confessed that she considered choosing a recipe and then shopping for the ingredients was the equivalent of Soviet economics. Her preferred shopping method was to find what was fresh and interesting and then turn it into an interesting dish. I refer to it as the free market libertarian approach to cooking.

And I did just that. I scurried home with my snow peas and some other vegetables with no real recipe in mind.

But I knew to preserve the freshness of the snow peas, there was only one method of cooking. Stir-frying.

The Instant Pot was out. Even though there are stir-fry recipes aplenty online, they all sound like what far too many people consider stir-fry. Dump a lot of vegetables (preferably out of a freezer bag) into a skillet and cook it into a gelatinous goo. The type of travesty that appears to be de rigueur in local Chinese restaurants here. Using the Instant Pot would be like using a wrench as a hammer.

You may recall I told you about my cooking school service under the much-feared Dragon Lady, Linda Chan (stirring the pot). Her classes were a real challenge, but I learned a lot from her.

One of the concepts I developed under her tutelage was a class of stir-fry I labeled either as Imperial or Forbidden City. It is based on vegetables with the same major colors as the Imperial palaces and temples. Red. Purple. Yellow. Green. And because it is color-based, the arrangement of vegetables is different each time.

These dishes often take their names from the meat they contain. Phoenix and Dragon being one of the most popular. If I am being grand, I will combine four of my favorite proteins -- pork tenderloin, chicken breast, shrimp, and beef.

I did not need to be grand today. I had a beautiful piece of pork tenderloin ready to star in the Instant Pot. Instead I repurposed it to star in a stir fry with a supporting cast of red and green bell peppers, purple cabbage, red onion, garlic, yellow habaneros, green serranos, yellow carrots, green celery, red tomatoes, mushrooms, and, of course, those extremely rare (and not-too-expensive) snow peas.

The sauce was simple -- to let the freshness of the layered vegetable flavors play on one another. Soy sauce, fish sauce, and sake.

It was the best stir-fry I have eaten in perhaps a decade. And I can cook up a great stir-fry. The two hours it took to prepare and cook were worth every minute.




And it is healthy -- sticking with my far-better diet I have created for myself during the past four months. I fast from 6 PM until 2 PM the next day. During the four-hour eating period I eat two meals. A portion of stir-fry and a bowl of homemade soup for lunch. For dinner, I usually eat a salad and maybe some stir-fry. For a snack, celery and carrots along with a bit of hummus. But only tea and water during my fast.

When the concept book arrives for the Instant Pot, I will see what healthy options are available. That pork and brown rice casserole sounds tempting. Perhaps with a tougher piece of pork that would benefit from the massaging ministrations of pressure cooking.

Since I am talking about health, I have been laid up for a couple of weeks with tendinitis (we think; my doctor seems to be better at selling medicine than at diagnosing ailments) in my left knee. While I was convalescing my blood pressure decided my knee was getting too much attention.

But my doctor released me yesterday for limited walking. I trust with the fasting, the new diet, and exercise, I will get everything under control again. It is inevitable that the mileage (and age) is going to have an effect on the chassis.

And who knows what the right tool is for that? 


Friday, October 12, 2018

not that kind of pot, canadians


I love the blog community.

It has become very fashionable lately to attack social media. But blogs, for over a decade, have been a reliable source of information for me. And a place to build relationships.

I am not referring merely to the authors who share their thoughts with us. Authors would toil in vain without readers to ponder their meanderings. What Marcel Duchamp said about the art of painting applies equally to the art of writing. 


The spectator completes the art.  The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.

The great thing about blog relationships is you never know where they will lead.

A couple of months ago my blog chum Jennifer Rose told me she had purchased an Instant Pot on Amazon -- and it had changed her life. She said I needed one.

I should have listened better. Jennifer has never steered me wrong in the years we have known one another reading each other's work.

For some reason, I thought an Instant Pot was a slow cooker -- one of those 1970s fad items gifted by grandmothers, to be tucked away in a dark corner of a lower kitchen cabinet.

Just over a week ago, Jennifer and I were in the midst of a post mortem on the Kavanaugh confirmation process when she asked me if I had looked into buying an Instant Pot. I told her I had no interest in a slow cooker.

Elizabeth II may be Defender of the Faith, but Jennifer is one of The Defenders of the English Language. If I had given the name much thought, I would have realized "instant" and "slow" are not synonyms.

Her defense of the Instant Pot was so eloquent, a jury would have found Brutus not guilty of assassinating Julius Caesar. It sounded like a miracle appliance.

So, I ordered one from Amazon.Mx. At 8 this evening, the man from Estafeta (rather than DHL) showed up just as I drove into my garage.


When I opened the box, I discovered what looked like an R2D2 impersonator. And that is not a bad thing. After all, familiarity and modernity are not always fellow handmaidens.

I was not surprised to discover my little robot has a very short electrical cord. That seems to be standard issue in Mexico. The blender. The food processor. The toaster oven. All have cords so short, I need to be a contortionist to use what are sardonically called labor-saving devices.

It turns out this cord is not a Mexican truncation. Glancing through the safety warnings (Yes. I do read them. I am a lawyer, after all), the cord is short to avoid accidents that will pull the whole pressure cooking mess onto some poor unsuspecting soul -- like hot oil on invaders scaling the castle walls.

The pot is now sitting on my kitchen work table awaiting the arrival of a much-acclaimed Instant Pot cookbook. "Cookbook" is probably the wrong word. I looked at a sample of it on my Kindle. It is a cooking concept book. Rather than being stuffed with recipes, it teaches new users of the Instant Pot how to manipulate its characteristics to make healthy meals.

By mere chance, another of my blogger pals, Leslie Limon, has a new cookbook that will be released on 30 October. Everyday Mexican Instant Pot Cookbook: Regional Classics Made Fast and Simple. You can pre-order either a paperback or Kindle version. An Instant Pot and Mexican food. Jennifer was correct. It is versatile.

You can brace yourselves for more cooking tales from my kitchen. I am looking forward to sharing my failures. After all, that is how we truly learn.

If any of you have Instant Pot tales, let's put Duchamp to the test. A tale read is a work of art completed.

I may have just proven my own point.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

gimme a "d"


Love can blind us our true affection.

I have written several times about Amazon's penetration into the Mexican general merchandise market. Living here used to mean living with what Mexico had to offer. And we did.

But, as my Mexico City amiga Maria the Modernist likes to point out, that version of  Mexico is swiftly disappearing. Once an insular society, Mexico (with its economy 15th largest in the world) is becoming a major player in global trade. We can thank NAFTA for the psychological shift.

Amazon has long offered merchandise to customers in Mexico. But the online system that worked like a Cook County Democrat ward heeler in The States tended to get a little clunky in shipping across borders. Taxes. Customs duties. The full panoply of bureaucratic barriers.

Then, Amazon christened Amazon.Mx -- its Mexican manifestation -- a couple of years ago. What could be better?

Well, I thought it was all Amazon. It turns out the miracle of transforming a book in a Kentucky warehouse or an instant pot in a Mexico City bodega into something in my house requites more than just Amazon. It requires a delivery service.

Now, it would be nice if a liveried footman would fetch my goods directly from Amazon. But, all of mine have been hired away by Downton Abbey and The Crown.

I have long been reluctant to order products online for delivery at the house because I am so seldom there -- and the delivery windows, often ranged over a full week.

I thought I had maneuvered around that by using my postal box for deliveries -- until a new postmaster declared that private carriers could not use the post office as a drop-off point. Without paying a fee.

I should have known technology would come to the rescue. And DHL, our local service, is a paragon of efficiency. Not only do the drivers find my house on the first try with GPS, but the company keeps me informed about the exact delivery date of my orders.

Yesterday, I received an email that my Ecco shoes would be delivered this afternoon. In the morning, a second email updated the delivery to today. I also received a text message informing me of the good news.

I was sitting next to the swimming pool finishing up the last chapter of Testimony, when I heard tires crunching on the gravel in front of the house. A flash of yellow through the crack in the garage door removed all doubt. DHL was here with my package.

With a quickly scrawled signature on the screen of the driver's telephone, I had my package. And within 10 minutes, my smart phone informed me my package had been delivered.

Let me compare that with a not-so-successful system. I like the Mexican postal system. But no one will ever compare it successfully with DHL.

I bought a pair of pajamas from an Amazon vendor in Mexico City. Rather than place the package in the hands of DHL, the vendor dropped it into the postal maw.

Amazon has a usually-informative on-line delivery status for each order. For over a week, it showed my pajamas with only the last action -- "delivered to postal service." T
hen another week. No change.

On a whim, I stopped by the post office in Barra de Navidad. When I asked about my package, the clerk dug through piles of packages and letters. And there it was. It had been sitting unsorted for 10 days. To this day, the Amazon system has not been informed the package was delivered.

So, as much as I celebrate what Amazon now offers to customers in Mexico, it is the DHL delivery system that has won me over with its efficiency.

And that is not just talk. In the midst of this essay, I ordered four books and a DVD from Amazon, and an instant pot from Amazon. Mx. And I am confident that I will soon be scribbling on the DHL driver's telephone after being informed exactly when I need to be home.

It is a great life.