Friday, May 22, 2009

cooking a piston engine

One of my favorite Monty Python blackouts is the "Been shopping?" bit.

Two women sit on a bench. One asks: Been shopping?

The other responds: No, ... I've been shopping.

First woman: What'd you buy?

Second woman: A piston engine.

For some reason, it is one of the funniest lines on television. And I have just been waiting to pull it put during a conversation.

But, as likely as the topic is, today is not that day.

I have been shopping, though.

Like many of you, the most frequent question I am asked is how expensive is it to live in Mexico?

Of course, the real question is: I have heard that an American can live in a beach house with a pool, a maid, and a cook for $800 a month. Does it cost that much?

I usually ask the questioner: How much does it cost to live in the Unites States? And the response is always: "It depends."

The same problem exists with the Mexico question. It depends on how you want to live and where you want to live.

Any more, I simply cut to the chase. I tell my friends that I managed to reduce my monthly living budget in Salem to $2000 a month. In Mexico, I have been able to save about 10% to 20% off of the prices I would pay in Salem.

Most of them get stuck on the first figure.

Let me give an example. I went to the fruit and vegetable stand on Wednesday. I purchased:

  • 1 head of red leaf lettuce
  • 3 bananas
  • 6 limes
  • 2 jalapeño peppers
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 yellow pepper
  • 3 cucumbers
  • 1 head of garlic

And I paid only 40 pesos for the lot. Currently, one US dollar purchases about 13 pesos. My total was just over $3 US.

When I left Salem, one yellow pepper cost $2.50. I have no idea what the rest would cost.

So, you are probably asking: why am I not saving more than 10% or 20%?

If I became a vegetarian, I could probably save a bundle -- or a bundlette. (My food bill is only about 10% of my budget.)

What is missing from the list is meat. Chicken and beef are generally more expensive than in an American super market. The chicken is better in quality; the beef is terrible -- tough and tasteless.

Pork, on the other hand is a succulent bargain. And that was before the Great Swine Flu Husteria of 2009.

But, before we leave the food basket, I have an opinion to pass on.

Before I came down here, I was told that the fruits and vegetables were better-looking and tastier than anything in my local super market.

That is true for the fruit. The bananas, mangos, and pineapple are almost indecently good -- because they ripen on or near the source of production.

Not so much the vegetables. With the exception of the carrots and onions, vegetables have been a major disappointment. Most of them look like the vegetables you would see in the cart of a hip organic shopper mere moments before the produce would be chucked out the back door.

Looks are not everything. After all, think of how tasteless some good-looking vegetables are.

Well, I am here to tell you that the ugly vegetables here just do not have much taste to them at all. Like the homely girl whose personality is extolled -- these have no personality.

That was a bit disappointing. But I have managed to develop some recipes where liberal amounts of pepper flakes can disguise the blandest potato.

Perhaps, I simply need to learn how to cook a piston engine.


Anonymous said...

$2.50 for one bell pepper in Salem?!? Red and Yellow bells are $2.50 per lb. here in Southeast Michigan. I once had the best Italian meal EVER at a small restaurant in Puerto Vallarta. When I complimented the owner/chef (same person) he replied it was partly because the vegetables were so good in Mexico, not as good as Italy he pointed out, but very good. I wonder if Barra being such a small market is the reason you don't find good vegetables there?

Islagringo said...

I wonder why the vegetables are so bad there? Even on the island, where everything is shipped in, the vegetables are usually (key word, that!) fresh and tasty. What about zucchini, broccoli and cauliflower? And some of the Mexican squashes? There are many vegetables here in Mexico that I was unfamiliar with at first. I solved that problem by asking my veg guy what it was, how it was cooked and what kind of dishes it was made into. Good luck!

norm said...

I have cooked a piston engine: break water hose for 30 sec., overheat engine for 60 more, blow all the engine oil out the breather for as long as that takes and the piston engine is well cooked.
My advice on vegetables is to ask around for people who grow their own and might want to make a few $ on the side. People who grow their own food are the salt of the earth, not only will you feed your body but you may gain some local friends. Good luck.

Calypso said...

"Before I came down here, I was told that the fruits and vegetables were better-looking and tastier than anything in my local super market."

Hombre you have a LOT to learn - first off whoever told you the fruits and vegetables are better looking in Mexico must live in SMA - because that is the FARTHEST thing from the truth.

People in the U.S. have been brainwashed their entire lives with tasteless food that looks like a Ferrari in the show room.

You will not find shiny waxed glorious looking produce in any REAL food Mexican store - things have dirt on them and brown spots just like the disappointment you might get when you realize your favorite film star has blemishes that just never showed on the silver screen.

It takes a while for the brainwashed to realize that food is about taste not looks - that isn't to say that a Rick Bayless presentation isn't fun and eye candy - but that food started off without any makeup.

Go buy some of those fruits and vegetables that don't look like they came off a Denny's menu and taste them - you will be surprised.

Steve Cotton said...

Francisco -- After talking with some folks in the area, it appears that the better vegetables head to the Puerto Vallarta-Manzanillo- Guadalajara market. It is all about price. Some of the owners of local food establishments travel to Manzanillo to buy better-tasting produce. Your market theory has validity.

Islagringo -- Part of the problem may be my narrow range of vegetable eaing. I would not normally buy and cook zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, or squash. But I need to start trying some different items. Even my brother noted how tasteless most of the vegetables were.

Calypso -- The appearsance did not surprise me as much as the tastelessness of most of the vegetables. I am going to start experimenting with things I would not otherwise eat -- that is part of the adventure, after all. And, for the produce that is shriveled, there is always soup.

Anonymous said...

steve, i feel the same about the veggies. i had the same thing happen to me in chacala. actually, in las varas too, the bigger town that's inland. it took me quite a while to find what i wanted. you should try plantains, easy to cook and of course they are everywhere, although i have only had them in a restaurant in mexico one time and that was in a stewlike dish. i'd be happy to pass along some cuban recipes-i'm sure you'd enjoy them.

we're due for good weather for about 10 days-it's about time. going hiking on sunday.

have a nice weekend and give the prof a pat on the head from me and a woof woof from jack.


Christine said...

Now that I think about it, I don't think they eat the same way in Mexico as we do in the US by which I mean: a piece of meat, a starch and a cooked vegetable all neatly separated on the plate. Perhaps the vegetables are intended to be mixed with other things and thus the looks don't matter so much.

Calypso said...

I can only guess that the west coast of Mexico is very much different than the east. When we return to the U.S. (as little as possible)being vegetarians - we starve from the tasteless fruits and vegetables there - they sure look pretty though.

Over here in the tropics it is hard to not get excellent veggies.

Billie said...

Steve, you will also figure out which days the fresh vegetables arrive in the market. Potatoes here are a starchy variety for the most part. I like the tiny red ones best. The carrots are usually very sweet and chunchy. We have great broccoli here in SMA because some of the organic broccoli for whole foods is grown around here. There are several small organic farms around here that are catering to the gringos and we can get fennel and brussel sprouts and asparagus. Oh and we can almost always get beets. Love slices of roasted beets. Now I have to agree that the veggies don't always look picture perfect but we find them very tasty. Since they are not waxed, etc. they don't have a long shelf life. I try to keep two or three venders that have different delivery days so I know that on Tuesday this one will get veggies.

Christine said...

Also,I am curious. If you don't eat Zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower or squash, what vegetables do you buy to eat?

glorv1 said...

Bell peppers sauteed with onions, chili's, squash, s/p and tomatoes are pretty good. I make that often and then spoon it on grilled french bread. I love that and actually I can live on the simple things. Sounds like you are taking care of business. Have a great weekend and ::hugs:: to Mr. Jiggs and hope he is doing a little better. Give him carrots, I give my chocolatte a few carrots, she loves them. Take care.

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve, I couldn't agree with you more about the vegetables in the Barra Melaque area with the exception of a lady that sells off her truck. She stops daily and has produce that is beautiful with all the great taste of home grown. Plus, she usually has all the variety you would find at a produce mart in the U.S. and if she doesn't she will bring it to you the next day including all the good breads you can't find in the local markets. She is more expensive but worth every peso. I would think she goes to Villa Obregon but I'll find out and leave you another comment. I hope Jiggs is having a good day. All the best to both of you, Joan

Constantino said...

You just eliminated a couple of the better vegitables that make cooking fun.
I am sure you know how to stir fry, try those undesirable ones with a few of your favorite ones in those kind of recipes.
Vegetables and fruits that are imported for the large corporate conglomerates, they will always look better than they taste because they were picked eons ago.
There has to be a vendor or two in your little pueblo that goes to PV every day or two to stock up. Find them and check out the prices vs someone else, be careful that you are charged reasonable prices.You probably have a target on your forehead so ask around. IConsider tossing some seeds in the ground to have a great garden if you have the room for it. ( It will also give you something to do )
And your monthly nut, of your 2K per month, I must have misunderstood it. We live very happily for less than half of that. That includes daily cafecitos with pan dulces...and a dinner or two out each week.Possibly because you may have to run your AC 36 hours a day?

Anonymous said...

In the Chetumal supermarkets there is very little variety of fruits and vegetables and they are frequently of poor quality. For really fresh and inexpensive veggies and fruits I go to the public market and buy from the street vendors. Unfortunately, they also do not offer much variety....I am pretty bored with cabbage, beets, carrots, chayote, broccoli and cauliflower. Would love some really good string beans or good corn on the cob....I know that the latter item is better in the US because of genetically modified corn, but it sure is good. KK

Steve Cotton said...

Teresa -- I really think there is something to the theory that the "good stuff" goes to the population centers where it can garner the best price. But that makes more sense for looks than taste. I will just keep trying to find the best I can. But the fruit helps save everything.

Christine -- You are correct about the manner in which most Mexican meals are consumed. Most things are mixed -- as they are in southern Europe cuisine. It is a cuisine based on using even the smallest food item. As for vegeables that I eat: onions, corn, peas, string beans, garlic, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes. I am certain there is more. I have been known to eat the odd broccoli, but never cauliflower or squash. And a lot of that is in stir fry -- the Asian equivalent of Mexican cuisine. I did bring my wok down.

Calypso -- For some reason, a lot of our vegetables seem to lack taste. I have no way of knowing why. I will simply keep shopping around.

Billie -- Our vegetable market gets its deliveries early Wednesday and Saturday. I am always there to get the best I can. I think you are correct about the problem with Mexican potatoes: the starch content is incredibly high. I tried stir frying some sliced new potatoes. They stuck so closely together that it was like cooking pasty pieces. I will try the reds. I have not done that yet.

Gloria -- I concoct a similar stir fry that I spoon over red rice or pasta. When Jiggs could chew without pain, he loved almost all raw vegetables. I should try cooking up some carrots for him. He probably would like that.

Joan -- Thank you for your wishes for Jiggs. He is now resting. He has little interest in leaving the property. Please let me know where and when I can find the vegetable lady.

Constantino -- As I mentioned above, I live and die by the wok. When I eat broccoli, it is always as part of a stir fry dish. But not squash and cauliflower. I would love to tend a vegetable garden. Unfortunately, the house is smack dab against the ocean. The salt air is deadly for vegetables. If I lived one block away, I could probably get away with it. And no A/C here. Well, not actually true. There is a mobile unit, but it is not very efficient. I tried it twice to get some relief for Jiggs, but to no effect. So far, my budget is an estimate. I will have a better idea in six months. However, my "rent" is almost 40% of the budget.

Steve Cotton said...

KK -- We do not have a public market here. I miss that. There is the odd vendor who drives through the neighborhoods, but not so many now that the snowbirds have headed north. I can do a lot with my stir fry and a limited number of vegetables. But I just need to find a source for my limited selection.

Ron said...

At one time I did a price comparison on food costs on items purchased by Theresa in Merida and Belina who lived in Merida then but has since moved to Puebla. They provided me with prices of food items they had purchased (off of their receipts with per kilo or per item prices), and I looked up similar items at Safeway's online grocery shopping website.

That is, of course, out of date now, but that exercise could certainly be repeated occasionally.

There is the blog where I posted that:

Nancy said...

Steve, Everyone has a ton of advice for you...I hope you like that!

I agree about the produce just being ok. I don't moan and groan about the delicious fresh tomatoes here like I could buy at a farmer's market up North. And this is the tomato capital of Mexico!

But I have learned some things to enhance them.

I squeeze lime on almost anything.

I love to shake herbs on things. Cucumber and Jicama especially.

A bit of jalapeño, serrano, or habañero makes anything taste great. Also cilantro.

We have gorgeous flat leafed parsley here and I use that in sandwiches like I used to use lettuce.

I hope you have a blender. I make fruit or fruit and vegie combo drinks in my Vita Mix. Mmmm.

When I make my baked french fried potatoes and sweet potatoes, I always soak the potatoes in cold water for a half hour and then dry them off before tossing with olive oil and herbs and baking...I wonder if that would help them taste less starchy? By the way I love the boxed potato cubes, perfect for hash browns or throwing in a stir fry or scramble.

I love the celery here, lots of flavor.

Hope you get it figured out soon, sounds like the truck lady is the answer!

Anonymous said...

I just spoke with my friend in Barra and she doesn't think that she goes to Villa Obregon but said her friends have been getting veggies at Hawaii or the new large market going into Cihuatlan. I would check the truck vendor when you see him. On another note, have you tried to contact people involved with Cisco's Amigos on the La Manzanillo board? They could connect you with the vets in the area. Kindest Regards, Joan

Steve Cotton said...

Ron -- An interesting exercise. Sometimes, someone should run a comparison between what Mexicans and expatriates pay -- if you could find a way to gather the data.

Nancy -- Some great suggestions -- from a true vegetarian.

Joan -- Did that. Jiggs is headed to Manzanillo tomorrow. A long drive for him, but I hope it will be worth it.

Jonna said...

I think you are right that part of it is that you are in a small town. The big cities have much more selection and that's true anywhere.

There was a vegetable truck that came around when we spent several months in Perula, if you can find them once they will return on a regular day for you.

I think you do have to also change the stuff you buy and eat. I really dislike Roma tomatoes and find that I most miss the wonderful heirloom tomatoes in farmer's markets in Calif. I don't eat many tomatoes anymore. Lettuce is a bit hit and miss as well. You will find that salad is not a big part of Mexican food, neither are veggies really. Chopped cabbage seems to suffice for both. Corn is all going to be field corn, I've grown to like it as it is chewier and has more corn flavor and less sugar. It's a change though.

Carrots are my favorite veggie here, they have so much more flavor than the ones up north. I now think of those carrots as cardboard. We eat carrots every day and I never get tired of them.

Hugs to Mr Jiggs.

Steve Cotton said...

Jonna -- The carrots here are good. Maybe that is a universal down here. I grew up in a small town in Oregon. I used to hear my urban friends talk about how good the vegetables must have been -- under the assumption that our neighbors were amateur truckfarm farmers. When I told them that everything was trucked in to our mountain community, was expensive, and not very fresh, they were shocked. Must be a similar story here.

Theresa said...

Steve, try raw cauliflower, jicama and carrots with some sort of dressing to dip into. Sometimes I think pico de gallo is our main salad source. Also chili and lime is good on jicama. (So is curry powder, salt and cayenne). You can substitute jicama for water chestnuts in your stir fry btw. Nopales are good on the grill, and are pretty tasty in a salad.
I sprouted some lentils and they were really good in a sandwich.
I tend to shop at the supermarket not the mercado, the produces is better there.
Eggplant is usually pretty good here (in Merida) too, sometimes it's really cheap. Mexican celery has more taste than the imported kind to me.
You will get into a new routine. It just takes time to find out where you can buy what.
It's amazing what you can make from tomatoes, onion and garlic.

Steve Cotton said...

Theresa -- Thanks. I like jicama. I just need to lerarn how to choose it. Preparing it, I think, is easy. Much like a potato.