Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Blessing of Totato Soup

It's Thanksgiving Day, and our hearts and minds fly to friends and family who are gathering today to feast and celebrate. I love Thanksgiving; even with all of the food prep it is essentially a lazy day. There is no big agenda. The goal is to be. And to be together.

Of course, here in Mexico it's a regular day. The kids are at school and Kraig is giving exams. I went grocery shopping this morning and the laundry is running. It's hard to believe it is Thanksgiving when one looks out on green trees and grass. There's a nip in the air, but that's as close as it will get to cold. I'm glad it's not blatantly obvious what we're missing, but at the same time, I am thankful that we're looking forward to a gathering on Saturday with our friends from Ajijic. There will be turkey and green beans, and I'm bringing pumpkin pie. I found real whipping cream this morning, which I would say is the icing on the cake, but that's a misplaced idiom for this. It's the whipped cream for the pie--literally and figuratively.

Yesterday my sister Jessie who lives in Singapore wrote about the joy of being invited. Even though in some ways it's easy to forget these American holidays when one is in another country, there is still a longing. It is a longing for place and family, but it is also a longing for gathering, particularly with like-minded folks. We can always reach out and bring them into our homes, and as Jess put it, we do that. We were raised to do that. But when someone else turns and says, "Please come, " it means a ton. So we were warmed when Blair and Barb said, "Would you like to come? We don't make a big deal about Thanksgiving, but we like to have something with friends."

When I think of the blessing of gathering it is always associated with food. The best gatherings have food that brightens the eye as well as feeds the stomach. Good food encourages conversation. It can also be said that good food is best when shared. Every time I tell the kids I'm making a certain family favorite, there first question is, "Is someone coming for dinner?" They've already made the association. I wish I answered in the affirmative more often.

There was no question, though, that the first time I was able to make Totato Soup* here in Guadalajara we were going to have guests. For one thing, one pot of Totato Soup can feed a small army (or in this case, our family of five and our Ajijic friends who have four kids, three of them teenagers). For another, it is a melding of flavors that accomplishes everything I have stated good food should do. It is a pleasure to share it.

(yes, it really is that red)
I had to wait for our shipment to make the soup because my big pot was in the shipment. In the waiting time I scoped out stores to be sure I had all of the ingredients. Some items were easy to come by: a chicken, carrots, celery, onions, garlic and canned tomatoes. I had a rosemary plant and thyme, so no need to search for those herbs. Small white potatoes are a staple here; almost as flavorful as Yukon golds. Other ingredients were a little trickier to come by. Sausage here, chorizo, has little variation. In the States I use breakfast sausage with sage for the soup, but here there is basically one kind of sausage and it all has red coloring so cooks up to look rather fiery. It's flavor is not unpleasant, but it is distinctive. I found decent frozen corn at Costco (a lot of corn here is field corn, so tough). I haven't discovered chicken stock or broth in cartons (I expect if I did it would be too expensive), and I didn't have time to make some, so I went with dry bouillon which is available here by the bag.
powdered chicken bouillon

Once I got my pot it was a matter of putting the ingredients together and setting a date for the feast. I was a little apprehensive that it wouldn't taste right--I hadn't been able to find loose sage ahead of time, and I just wasn't sure whether the sausage would be right. But the magic of the recipe worked. The aroma of the bubbling soup filled the apartment and taste-tests freed me from anxiety. I shared some with Rosa our cleaning lady because I couldn't wait to spread its wealth. Our friends came and by the time they left the pot was lightened considerably. And best of all, it had been enjoyed along with good conversation.

I'm already plotting my next pot and am figuring out with whom we will share it. The blessing of Totato Soup has come to Guadalajara.
"papas blancas cambray"
*My Michigan friends can attest to the power of Totato Soup which originated, of course, with the Rabbit Room. They have tolerated my love of all things Rabbit because of blessings like Totato Soup. I can't take any credit for creating it. Hutchmoot chef, Lewis Graham, got the idea for it after reading the first book of The Wingfeather Saga, by Andrew Peterson. Lewis made the soup, and knew it was made to be given to others, so he shared the recipe:

I cooked the chicken in my crockpot this time
One 3 to 5 lb. bag of the small Yukon gold potatoes, sometimes called butter potatoes.

Two boxes of Kitchen Basics chicken stock.

One package Jimmy Dean sausage with sage.

One whole chicken, already roasted at your local store (or baked at home).

Three ears fresh corn (or one bag frozen corn), two whole carrots, three stalks celery, two medium yellow onions.

One large can of whole, peeled tomatoes (or two small cans diced tomatoes).

Fresh garlic, dried thyme, sprig of fresh Rosemary, two dried bay leaves, kosher salt, cracked black pepper, and a healthy pinch of red pepper flakes.

Directions (in Lewis Graham's words):
1. Two or three glugs of good olive oil in Dutch oven. Make warm, add sausage. When the sausage is done, remove from pan but save the grease.

2. Cut potatoes in half, and rub well with sea salt (About one tablespoon is plenty for the batch). Heat the saved grease up in the pot, add potatoes. Let them sit awhile, frying the skins a little.

3. When potato skins have browned a little, add fresh veggies, chopped up of course. Cook them a little; when the onions are translucent and celery pliable, add chicken stock.

4. Add chicken, pulled from bones, sausage, tomatoes, and everything else.

5. Let that bad boy cook awhile. When it boils, reduce the heat and let it simmer.

Lewis concludes: "The rule with soup is the longer it sits, the better it gets. Mind it occasionally, stirring to keep anything from burning in the bottom. Fresh bread is always good. Be sure, absolutely sure, to do a little celebration dance after each taste, each seasoning."

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Planning Ahead...Or Not

A few weeks ago I helped out in Evie's class. Her teacher has wanted to do something special for Thanksgiving and figured Evie and I could give some input there. Why yes! The class decided to do a feast, and I volunteered to make pumpkin pie--real, homemade pumpkin pie. I wanted them to know there was something more to life than the pies one buys at the supermarket.

Thankfully when I promised this I knew that it was possible to get canned pumpkin, though perhaps tricky and expensive. Friends who have lived here longer spoke of finding it at local Wal-Marts, or even finding whole pumpkins to make it that way. I hoped to go the canned pumpkin route. Unfortunately I didn't see canned pumpkin in the local markets, but thankfully our friends in Ajijic were able to go to one of the big ex-pat stores there and found three big cans for me. The price was worth it. I figured I'd do a big pie-baking bash next week before the kids had their feast and before we had a Thanksgiving dinner with church friends.

Yesterday when I picked up the kids I saw Ev's teacher. "I have the canned pumpkin!" I said. "Good!" she answered. "Our feast is tomorrow!"


I was sure I had heard wrong, but Ev assured me that they had parceled out different types of food to the kids in the class, and as I promised, I was assigned pumpkin pie.

This is not the first time something like this has happened at school. Jon's teachers are notorious for sending home sweet little notes asking for Jon to bring something in the next day. Things like "gel in a bag" and "napoles, cooked". Half the time I'm scratching my head as I try to figure out exactly what the item is, and then have to figure out how in the world we are supposed to find it before the next day. I thought at first that these last-minute requests were because Jon's teachers are fairly young and inexperienced, but apparently not. Clare hopped into the car one day after school and said, "I have to do a poster for tomorrow on a topic." A poster, as you know, requires poster board. I don't usually stock up on poster board. Thankfully, that particular time I had just bought three for another project I had wanted to do and hadn't gotten to yet. All this to say, I shouldn't have been surprised when I was asked to bring in pumpkin pie for two second grade classes (about 36 kids total) the following day.

There was no help for it. We needed evaporated milk, pie tins, and whipped topping of some sort. I knew evaporated milk was easy to come by, as were disposable pie tins. What I hadn't seen was any sort of whipped topping (Cool Whip is not a staple here). I also had faint hope of finding pre made pie crusts, so it looked like I was going to have to make those from scratch as well. I can make a decent pie crust, but they never look as nice as the prefab ones, and a bunch of second-graders weren't going to be concerned with the quality of the crust's flavor.

I hate driving out after school because that's when the traffic builds up, so the kids and I decided to walk down to the corner market, about a five minute walk. Sure enough, we found plenty of evaporated milk and pie tins, but no pre made crusts--sigh! As for whipped topping, I found something that said "whipped topping" in a freezer chest. The box looked like one that would have whipping cream in the States. My hope was that it would suffice. We trekked home and got to work on the pies. Clare put together the innards and Ev and Jon helped me with the crust. Unfortunately Ev didn't realize the water I'd put out for her had to be measured and she dumped it all in before we realized. My shortening was gone, and the crust was now unmanageable. I saved it--we'll see if I can make it work for a cobbler. My patience had about hit its limit, but thankfully Kraig arrived home just then and suggested hamburgers for dinner from a restaurant a stone's throw away. Wise man. He and the kids traipsed off for those while I made new pie crust...with pure butter.

The pies turned out beautifully, and the little bits of crust I tried melted in my mouth. I sent three in with Ev today and we kept one for us. I'm not about to give up all of that pie crust! The class had their feast this morning and the pies were a huge hit. The other teachers got to have some, too, so I think that makes the butter worth it. However I told Kraig last night that from now on I am going to plan for the unexpected. Because apparently that's what one must do here to survive.

How much canned pumpkin do you think I'm going to need?

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Jon's dragon puppet for school
If anyone wants to break out in the "Hallelujah Chorus" now would be the perfect time for it. We have our shipment at last!!! The reality of this has not sunk in, nor have we really begun to unpack (barring a few items the kids discovered in one of the boxes). But over dinner joy was building. Clare mentioned a book she loves and I said, "Guess what! It's in the shipment. And the here!" That kept happening and we'd all look at each other and giggle. Yes, there was a lot of giggling this evening.

Kraig and I are wiped and the kids are out cold. It was a long day. It's been a long four months of waiting, for that matter. Last Friday I went in to the purchasing office again to follow up on things and found that as usual, nothing much was happening. Thankfully a staff member was there who has been able to mediate translation the past few times I've gone in. He hasn't been on the project, but it seemed that every time he was there, movement occurred. Friday was no different. In fact, by the end of the discussion Friday he took over the case--and suddenly things moved. We had word by the end of Friday that our entire family would have to go to the airport in order to retrieve the shipment, and we could go this week.

So this morning at 10 a.m. we met a university van and our staff member, Israel, and started off for the airport. The kids were thrilled to get out of school for the day, though we tried to warn them that waiting would be part of the events of the day. Little did we know....

First off, it rained last night. It's dry season now in Guadalajara, and we haven't had rain for a couple weeks. Apparently the weather decided it was time to make up for this, because not only did it rain during the night, but it kept up all day. When it rains, streets flood, and accidents occur. Today was no exception. We were only about seven kilometers from the airport when we got stuck in a traffic jam for at least half-an-hour. The kids played games and we inspected the ads on trucks and cars passing us.

When we reached the airport and the place where packages and shipments are stored until retrieved Kraig told the kids to leave their backpacks in the van. We didn't want them to have to cart them all over the place while we tracked down shipping questions. Once we got into the gatehouse (I can't think of a better name for the first building we entered) we discovered that no, the whole family was not needed, just the passports. In fact, kids weren't allowed into the shipment area because of all of the moving equipment. Kraig waved goodbye and he and Israel headed through creaking turnstiles while the kids and I commandeered two of the three seats available in the gatehouse.

And we waited. We probably arrived there at about 11:30. In the course of the next few hours we caught two glimpses of Kraig and Israel--once passing out of the main office, and once in the distance by the entrance of a warehouse. At two or so, Kraig came through the gate and grabbed all of the cash I had...and the next time we saw him was at about 5 when he and Israel came up from the street.

Can I just say, the kids were pretty amazing. It was probably the most boring day of their lives. We made do with Clare's tablet and my phone for a few games, but batteries ran low, and then it was a chapter of one of the Chronicles of Narnia (but not the one we're on as a family 'cause that was stuck in the van), and paper from a notebook I had. There was a game of Simon Says when they got antsy and on each others nerves (and mine), and they ran races down the chain link-lined walkway leading from the street to the gatehouse. Thankfully I packed a substantial lunch, so we had food, but that wore off toward the end. I also was thankful that while it seemed the kids weren't needed after all we had brought them, because if we hadn't they would have had no one to pick them up from school.

There were a few workers in the gatehouse--a man and a woman behind the check-in desk and a security lady who used her security wand to check all of the workers and visitors flowing in through the gate. They accepted my kids with smiles. At one point in the afternoon a young man with horn-rimmed glasses and blue rubber bands on his braces was checking out and chatted with us a bit. He'd spent a year in Minneapolis as an exchange student and wanted to know what had brought us here. We waved goodbye after the chat, but a few minutes later he returned with a simple wooden toy in hand for Jon (who was pretty cranky at that point). "I found this in my car," he said as he handed it to my now-grinning boy. "I remember playing this game many times when I was a kid. My dad was a physician and I had to wait without him a lot."

Kraig and Israel's final return was a huge relief, no question, and even more a joy when we saw that the van was packed with our fourteen trunks. All had been done! Israel headed back toward the apartment in that van while our family got in another that had been ordered since the trunks took up a lot of room. Kraig gave me the rundown of his adventures which involved a ton of standing and waiting and getting wet in the rain.

The biggest item that we'd been concerned about was the storage fee payment. The university was covering it, but there was no way to cut a check ahead of time since we didn't know the amount, and we didn't know how much cash we needed on hand (and weren't sure we could afford it even if we did know the amount). As it turned out, we couldn't retrieve cash there as the airport only uses one bank, which isn't ours. At first Kraig and Israel thought they'd have to leave to go get it from the university, but then Israel stepped up and personally pulled all of the money from his bank account. He'll be repaid by the university, but it was a huge thing that he did. Kraig and I are both a little overwhelmed by it. The cost of the late fees was equal to what it cost to ship our things here in the first place. Not only did this guy help us immensely this past week and today, he went above and beyond what was needed to give us an amazing gift. We might not have had time to retrieve everything today if he hadn't chipped in personally. He was so nonchalant about it, too, when we thanked him. His only request was that we call him when we needed a guide for some of the places in town as he loves to show people the city. To say the least, we'll be taking him up on this, but we're busy figuring out what more we can do for him.

And that was that. Our ride back to the apartment was amazingly traffic-free, and the trunks were unloaded in no time. Now they're scattered throughout the apartment waiting for their contents to be revealed. Everything was accepted by customs, so as far as we know, everything we packed is there. My fingers are itching to dig...but not tonight. Tonight, I'll just sing.

Ten of the fourteen trunks. The others were already transferred to other rooms.