Post Writers Conference Therapy

Diagnosis – Writers Conference Fatigue

Contagion – Attending Chuckanut Writers Conference

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My first public reading.

Therapy – Exercise creativity through medium other than writing

Chosen therapy – Cook dinner

Find ingredients in the house, use creatively.

In freezer find main ingredient – Wild boar ravioli (plin) – bought at farmer’s market too long ago to remember (< six months ago).

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Garden – find fresh herbs, oregano, thyme and rosemary.

Pantry – find two cans of chopped tomatoes

Kitchen counter – find head of garlic and onion

Proceed to chop ingredients

IMG_5925Sweat onions and garlic

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Add rest of ingredients

IMG_5926Add salt, and pepper then stir, simmer for magical amount of time.

Use immersion blender to create saucy sauce.

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Boil frozen plin, then plate. Garnish with sprig of rosemary and slice of olive bread.

Post writers conference dinner. Books from local Seattle authors, Elissa Washuta, Erik Larson, Stephanie Gallos and Carol Cassella. Wine from Woodward Canyon - Walla Walla Washington.
Post writers conference dinner. Books from local Seattle authors, Elissa Washuta, Erik Larson, Stephanie Gallos and Carol Cassella. Wine from Woodward Canyon – Walla Walla Washington.

Note: The Chuckanut Writers Conference was an amazing experience. The faculty list was A plus list. I’m so happy to live in such a creatively rich place like the Pacific NW. Cheers! (With a bottle of Woodward Canyon 2013 Dolcetto)

Cocina Criolla cookbook

Cooking Cuban – Arroz con Pollo

I sat at the table watching my grandmother uncover the large pot sitting on the stove. As steam billowed from under the cover, the fragrance of oregano, garlic, onion, tomato, chicken and a hint of white wine, tickled my nose and made my stomach growl. I eagerly awaited my plate of arroz con pollo piled high chicken with rice dotted with green peas, bell peppers and red pimentos. Before I dove into my dinner of this dish, that I consider my childhood favorite, my grandmother placed a paper towel lined plate piled high with tostones, twice fried green plantains, sprinkled with the right amount of salt. The tostones would serve as part food item, part utensil, helping push the rice and chicken onto my fork before I took each mouth-watering bite.

This is the vision I have of Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s house. She lived in a townhouse, three blocks away from the apartment I shared in Chicago with my mom, dad and older brother. It was a  different world from my multicultural German, Cuban household. In her house Cuba was the root of everything, or so I thought in my child’s mind. Her cooking, the music she played and her language, was all Cuban. Thanks to her, I learned to cook tostones and arroz con pollo. And whenever I want to get in touch with my Cuban roots, energizing my Cuban DNA, and remember my grandmother I cook these two things.

Cocina Criolla cookbook
Some ingredients and Cocina Criolla by Nitza Villapol.

This time I needed some help to remember the ingredients. Thanks to inspiration from My Big Fat Cuban Family blog and the cookbook my grandmother left me, Cocina Criolla by Nitza Villapol, I began my journey towards feeling Cuban in Seattle.

Not only did I want to reignite my internal Cubana, I wanted to use up some food I had in the house. Nitza’s recipe calls for two whole chickens. I had two boneless, skinless breasts in the fridge, this was a problem. I recalled my grandmother loved cooking with chicken thighs, for flavor and for economic reasons, so I headed to the store to buy four chicken thighs plus strained tomatoes, plantain, an onion, dry white wine and bell pepper (red and green). The rest were in the pantry or cupboard.

chicken marinading
Marinade chicken in sour orange juice (made with orange juice with a splash of lime, since I can’t get bitter/sour oranges in Seattle).

The first step is to marinade the chicken in a cup or two of sour orange juice and several cloves of garlic (minced) for at least an hour. Since I live far from where bitter oranges grow, and have never looked to see if it is sold bottled anywhere in Seattle, my trick is to use orange juice and a splash of lime.

Charred pepper on grill.
Charring the red bell pepper.

While the chicken was marinading, I began prepping the rest of the ingredients. My grandmother never liked cooking with canned or bottled vegetables, but most recipes for arroz con pollo call for canned peas, asparagus and bottled pimentos. Since I grew up with a mother who cooked from a can, box and frozen meals, (she was a woman caught in the age of “easy food”), I too stay away from those things. So I made my own pimiento with red bell pepper (yes I know pimiento is different from red bell pepper), used frozen green peas (petite peas would be better) and fresh asparagus (which I just so happened to have in the fridge).

Peeled and sliced - reserving some for garnish.
Peeled and sliced – reserving some for garnish.

To make my version of bottled pimiento, I fire-roasted the red bell pepper to char the skin, about 10-15 minutes, turning every few minutes, to get an even char. Then I place the roasted bell pepper into a paper bag to continue steaming the pepper, about 5 minutes. Now the pepper was ready for pealing, the skin should come off fairly easily with your fingers. What I love about this method, is you get a nice smokey flavor on the bell pepper and the consistency is just like the bottled pimiento.

Making sofrito
Making sofrito.

I browned the chicken in some olive oil using a large, deep skillet. Once browned, take the chicken out of the pan and deglaze pan with white wine, getting all the flavor-filled tidbits off the bottom of the pan. The pan is now ready for making the sofrito. Add the green bell pepper and onion, stir until they are soft. The smell of the sofrito will transport you to my grandmother’s kitchen. Find an album by Paquito D’Rivera (I was playing Havana-Rio Connection album playing in the background) and you may get a nostalgic vision of Cuba B.C. (before Castro)

Rice bathed in sofrito
Adding rice.

The sofrito continues to cook by adding the tomato sauce (about 1.5 cups), white wine (1.5-2 cups), cumin (1 tsp), and oregano (hefty tsp).  Once combined, the pan is ready to add the rice (3 cups), chicken stock (2 cups), two bay leaves, and annato for color (1 tsp).

Ok, here is another place where I deviate from Nitza’s and other recipes. Many recipes ask you to add Accent or some spice pack from Goya. I don’t add these because their main, if not only, ingredient is MSG (you know the stuff you don’t want to eat at Chinese restaurants, monosodium glutamate). Instead, I add a little more salt than the recipe calls for, and then put it on the table.

beer
Adding beer!

Since I used a deep skillet, I was able to place all the chicken in the pan without having to use a dutch oven. Cover and let cook until the rice is done – about 20 – 30 minutes. To finish I added some beer I had in the fridge. I then placed the garnish of fresh asparagus, thawed peas and fire-roasted red pepper. And voila dinner is served.

finished product.
Final result.
The author and her grandmother 1998

What era are you in?

Have you ever thought about what era your life is in or was in?

I was asked to consider this in a memoir writing class I am taking this quarter. The instructor promised this would lead us to a story or two even…  There was one caveat, the era had to be linked with an obsession.

View from Dolores park, a half mile from my grandmother’s house.

Beginning when I was about 13 years old, I was obsessed with moving to California from my hometown of Chicago. I wanted to go to high school there, I wanted to go to college then graduate school there, I wanted to live there more than anywhere else in the world. Why?

Was it the salty ocean air while walking along Ocean beach? The fog rolling over Twin Peaks bringing cool ocean air inland, on a hot summer afternoon? Was it the sour dough bread? Or was it the cable cars? The natural and man-made beauty that makes San Francisco so special makes everyone fall in love with her, but there was more.

I was attached to my grandmother. She moved to San Francisco, from Chicago, when I was 8 or 9. She was the woman I aspired to be. Beautiful, confident, fiercely independent and unassumingly intelligent.

The author and her grandmother 1998
My grandmother and me outside of her apartment in 1998.

She was also an amazing cook. On one visit, she taught me how to shop for ingredients at different stores in her neighborhood of the Mission district. We would walk to the produce market on the corner of Mission and 24th, selecting not too soft avocados and fresh green cilantro for her famous guacamole. We would stop at the butcher that was within a mall off of Mission between 21st and 22nd, to buy a quartered chicken for her famous arroz con pollo. And on special occasions she would buy freshly made ravioli from the Italian market, on 22nd and Valencia, only a block from her apartment, and cook them up with a sauce she would make from scratch with fresh Roma tomatoes, oregano, rosemary and other fresh herbs.  I had never experienced a culinary world like that in Chicago. Shopping was at a grocery store and dinner was made from ingredients that were from a can or a box.

Life in San Francisco was a rainbow of colors and smells that I had not found in Chicago. My entire being glowed when I was in San Francisco, only to fizzle when I went back to Chicago.

The era of obsessing over moving to California lasted almost 10 years. To an adult 10 years may not sound like a long time. So let me put it into the perspective of a teenager.

It was FOREVER!

I graduated from elementary school, high school and college before I finally moved to San Francisco.

Pause.

And this is where my instructors directions became unclear. I didn’t know what to do with the eras within this larger era or my obsessions within the bigger obsession. Obsessions don’t happen consecutively in my life.

There was the era of obsessing over the older brother of one of my classmates. For two years I suffered with a major infatuation for a tall, olive skinned, guy with black curly hair and eyes that were blue like the Caribbean sea. By the time he noticed me, I was on to my next obsession. I was obsessed with bicycle riding along lake Michigan from the north side of the city, where I lived, south 12 miles to Soldier’s Field or north 6 miles to Baha’i temple in the northern suburb of Wilmette.  I was obsessed with the 1985 Bears! “Da Bears!” I was obsessed with becoming a Marine Biologist, and so on, and so on…

My instructor had us think of a scene at the beginning, middle and end of the era. She said, that is the backbone of a story.

A story?! Easier said than done!

I must have a gazillion stories I can tell. But that is a good thing. And I hope you can find them in yours too.

Keep on sifting!

For now, I have some work to do… I need to sift through all of those obsessions, within those eras, or those eras within those obsessions and tease out focused stories.

This is not going to be a piece of cake.

But it will be fun!

Challenging Status Quo

On Monday I decided I was going to do something different in my life.

It began when I wanted to add a cover image to my LinkedIn account. I know, nothing big, especially because I’m not sure what the value of my LinkedIn account is, and I’m pretty sure no one in my “network” cares about the cover image on my LinkedIn page, at least, not as much as my FB friends would care if I changed the cover photo on my FB page.

My niece learned of my true identity...  But is she right?
My niece learned of my true identity… But is she right?

It was the process of finding the image that mattered. Into my disorganized iPhoto library I went, to look for one of my favorite photos from a trip I took to Scotland in 2013. I scrolled through hundreds of photos. Some I wondered why I hadn’t deleted. Others, I wondered why I hadn’t printed and framed. Then came the photos of people, of me and my partner, in particular.

“We looked thinner back then.” he said,  while sitting on our sagging couch, a few feet in front of the HDTV, cable box, and Blu-ray player, remotes splayed across the scene, as he looked through the pictures on my laptop with me.

He was right. I saw it too. The milliseconds the images were up on the screen was enough time for our brains to pick up on the fewer inches of pudge that wrapped his mid-section or my back-section “only a year ago.”

The last year was fraught with so many – I need to work out more’s and I need to drink less beer’s – that it sounded like a broken record. Obviously, we were eating, sitting, drinking and wishing, more than we were sweating, walking, standing or doing.

So I went to the gym on Monday morning and sweat. I was sore on Tuesday, but I went to the gym again. I stayed away from those tantalizing carbs. I didn’t stop at Grateful Bread – whose current scone is the best in Seattle. I didn’t “celebrate” my second day at the gym. On Wednesday, I was feeling good, so when I went out to lunch I had a lovely cup of white bean and pesto soup with a think slice of homemade bread  and shared a little pizza with my partner at Element in the UVillage. Simple, small, healthy but loaded with carbs. The rest of the day I felt bloated . “Damn I think I do have gluten intolerance,” I thought after feeling massive in a pair of jeans I squeezed into the next day. Those jeans that were a little big “only a year ago.”

Was it all the traveling I did? My dad’s death? The “too hot” summer in Seattle? The amazing IPAs of the Pacific NW that I just can’t seem to stop drinking, especially during the “too hot” summer in Seattle?

Why did I gain weight?

I got lazy. My mind was not aware of my growing girth. My mind was too preoccupied with the stress of life. I failed at balancing recreation and work. I failed at balancing being active with being sedentary.

When my mind finally recognized that the girth of my ass had grown, I played a game with myself. Telling myself – “It’s not that bad.” or “I can work that off in no time.” Was I buying me some time? Or killing me softly, slowly?

My niece somehow knows of my challenges with the evil - Status Quo.
My niece somehow knows of my challenges with the evil – Status Quo.

I am going to the gym, I am starting to be conscious of what I am eating and drinking. I have a birthday coming up and I will not be “one year younger.” I’m challenging the status quo – I’m challenging the way things are or have been. I’m challenging the sloth within.

What are your challenges with status quo? What are your plans of action to defeat it? No plans? That’s okay, sometimes we just have to “do it,” to “act differently than usual,” to create the change we all so desperately want to achieve.

Challenging Status Quo – make it your mantra too.

How to roast a pig…

It begins with a homemade caja - cooking box.
It begins with a homemade caja – cooking box.

Disclaimer: This post is not meant to be used as a recipe and it may contain images that vegetarians and vegans may find offensive. Yes I am an omnivore, please don’t judge me.

A pig is roasting over smoldering coals above an aluminum box under palm trees, a garlic tinged smokey haze drifts through the warm humid air, Cuban relatives chatter urgently about their Christmas shopping adventures, saliva escapes my half open mouth and my stomach growls. It is Christmas Eve day and I am witnessing a ritual woven into my culinary DNA, in a world far away from my Seattle WA home; Miami Florida.

My first pig roast was Christmas Eve 1980, I was only ten. It was in the backyard of my cousin’s house. It was a huge backyard that bordered Alligator habitat, a canal, a place where we kids weren’t supposed to go near. The advantage of living near alligator habitat was the topsoil. The layer above the ancient coral reefs that make up most of south Florida was deep enough for my cousins to dig a hole to roast a pig by burying it. All night, as I played with my little cousins, all I could think about was tasting my first authentic Cuban roast pig. The roast pig I had back home in Chicago wasn’t authentic, it was cooked in an oven.  But after several hours of cooking, the clock ticking closer to Christmas, the pig was finally unearthed, only to find it was still raw in the middle.

Fast forward 33 years – that many really?- and I am witnessing my second Cuban pig roast. This time we were in a part of Miami where burying a pig was out of the question. Instead a cooking box or caja was used. There are several ways to make a caja, this one is made from a large aluminum sink cabinet reclaimed from a restaurant that went out of business. The bottom of the caja is layered with charcoal then lit. When the coals are hot, the caja is ready for the pig.

Weapons of Mass Marination

The pig began marinating the morning of the roast. The secret – making the marinade or mojo with lots of garlic and using sour oranges picked from a tree a few feet from the caja,  then injecting it into the muscle of the pork.

 

When the coals are ready the dressed pig comes out under a veil of banana leaves. The banana leaves, also from the backyard, cover the splayed corpse of a pig sandwiched between two aluminum mesh holders secured with wire. The holder fits perfectly on top of the caja, where the pig is placed skin side down.

 

 

The pig arrives...
The pig arrives…
Making sure the pig is okay.
Making sure the pig is okay.
Pig placed atop the caja.
Pig placed atop the caja.

After checking to make sure the pig is positioned correctly, the banana leaves are replaced then topped with a metal sheet. The pig is left for about twenty minutes to sear the skin.

Caja top...
Caja top…

Once the skin is seared, then begins the several hour long process of flipping the pig, every hour or so, to ensure proper cooking.

Turning the pig.
Turning the pig.
Turning the pig.
Turning the pig.

Unfortunately, our relative visiting schedule didn’t allow me to stay for the end result – something I will have to change the next time I visit. I just hope it is sooner than 33 years.

Note: If you want some instruction on how to roast a pig – Cuban style – or ideas of a marinade called mojo – you can google “Cuban roast pig” or visit these two website one on Martha Stewart’s website really? and one on the three Cuban guys website.

A big Gracias to my cousins and their friends who let this gringatina from Seattle observe this succulent ritual.

Picadillo Cubano – Pacific NW style

How do you connect to your cultural roots?

I like connecting with food.

Cooking Cuban food floods my house with the smells I remember from my Abuela’s kitchen. I felt her spirit guide me as I crushed the garlic, sauted the sofrito and swayed my hips to the Cuban music playing in the background. Last night, to  celebrate what would have been her 96th birthday, I cooked Picadillo Cubano. This dish of ground beef, raisins, bell peppers, olives and tomato was not her signature dish – that was Arroz con Pollo with Tostones (twice fried green plantain) – but it evolved from the ingredients I already had in my fridge.

ingredients
What was in my fridge…

The centerpiece of the dish is the ground meat. I had a package of ground bison (the Pacific NW part of the recipe), my new favorite meat that is available at Costco. The meat is lean, organic and easy to digest, unlike much of the beef available.

Prepping.
Prepping.

The most important thing I have learned about cooking is to prep all of your ingredients before beginning to cook. It sounds simple, but I know many people who struggle with this simple concept.

Sauteing garlic and onions in olive oil.
Sauteing garlic and onions in olive oil.

I forgot to say that this recipe is not from my grandmothers’s cookbook Cocina Criolla by  Nitza Villapol  or from an online recipe, but adapted from a recipe in the ginormous cookbook Gran Cocina Latina by Maricel E. Presilla. Can I just say that a 900 page cookbook is just not practical.

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After the sofrito of onion, garlic, bell peppers are cooked, add the ground bison and spices.

The other very important ingredient is Cuban music – tonight it is Cubanismo’s first album.  I believe the rhythms playing while cooking, impart a very special flavor into the food.

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Add tomatoes. I added two cans of organic diced tomatoes, instead of 20 fresh Roma tomatoes.
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Olives with pimentos is an important ingredient as it offsets the sweetness of the raisins, also added at this time.
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Let simmer for about 20 minutes. I put the rice on to cook at this time…

While the picadillo simmered, I left the kitchen to put laundry in the dryer. When I entered I had a flashback to my Abuela’s house. The fragrance of the picadillo embraced me with the warm memories of sitting in her kitchen and watching her cook with love and care. I love the way that food can bring me back to my roots and bring my Abuela back for a visit.

Warm embrace from my Abuela - circa a long time ago.
Warm embrace from my Abuela – circa a long time ago.