Friday, September 28, 2012

Going for a Touchdown with Chili

Maybe because it’s football season (YAY! The regular refs are back!), or because it’s officially fall and a nip is in the air (well, maybe not here, but the daytime temperatures have started to drop to the high 80s), or because we’ve had a string of rainy days, but lately I’ve had a yen for some chili. 

In order to give into this craving, I turned to our most trusted recipe…

…which comes from The Silver Palate cookbook. As you can tell from the various blotches, we’ve used this a lot and have never been disappointed.
I got the party started by heating about 2 Tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot and roughly chopping up some onions.

The onions cooked away over low heat until they were tender and translucent.

Next up was the meat. Because ground meat is so lean here in Belize, I opted to use only ¾ pound of that and added ¾ pound of ground pork. To make things a bit sassier, I also added some Italian sausage.

All of that was crumbled into the pot. I turned the heat up to medium-high and started the browning process. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be patient and allow the meat to become well browned. That caramelization will pay big dividends to the taste later on.

While the meat was doing its thing, I gathered up the rest of the ingredients. The play list includes red wine, cumin, coriander, oregano, chili powder, Dijon mustard, whole peeled tomatoes, and tomato paste…

…and their very close friends, chopped garlic, salt and pepper, fresh chopped oregano, and fresh basil leaves. 

The recipe doesn’t call for those last two fresh herbs, but I had them and decided to throw them into the mix. I know, I’m such a rebel.

When the meat was all nice and brown, I added all the ingredients mentioned above. 

The whole tomatoes were drained and I smushed them up by hand. You could use a wooden spoon for that, but I find hand smushing works better. But if you're like me, no matter what method you use, tomato juice will squirt someplace other than the pot.

After giving the mixture a good stir, I added some black beans. Now I can hear the cries of outrage now. Either there are those fanatics who don’t believe beans have a place in chili to begin with or those who only believe that kidney beans are the blessed legume to be used. But as I had leftover black beans from a previous meal, I decided to buck the trend and use ‘em. If you don’t like it, sue me.

Anyway, with the black beans making their defiant statement in the pot, I gave everything another stir, tasted for seasoning, then let it all simmer away for a bit. Oh my. What goodness.

Now just like there is the debate about beans in chili, there is also a debate – at least in our house – about how to plate it. While I prefer just to have the chili au natural in a bowl, David loves to have his served over noodles. Specifically, these noodles:

Yeah, I know they’re good for you being 99% fat free. But really? If you’re going to have a starch, then why not go the whole nine yards with regular noodles? But whatever. It’s a moot point, because I can’t find any kind of broad, egg-based noodles here. At some point, I may try making some from scratch (with the fat, I might add), but until then I wanted some alternative.

After some thought, it came to me. What goes better with a great bowl of chili than corn muffins? I recently made a batch of these muffins, courtesy of Ina Garten (check out the butter content…BWWAAAHAAHAAHAAAHAAA! Bless her heart!). Hey, we’ve both lost 10+ pounds since moving here. We can splurge.

But regardless of the way of making or plating the dish, this chili is a winner.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Wright Kitchen Remodel --- Prep Stage

One of the things we really like about our new home in Belize is the open floor plan in the kitchen and living room. With cooking being such a passion, it’s great having the ability to work on a meal while still being able to chat with David, watch TV, or socialize with guests all in the same space.

However, there are a number of things we don’t like about the existing kitchen. For starters, there are too few cabinets, and the dark wood makes the entire room look sad and depressing. The Formica countertop is beat up and not pretty to look at. The backsplash tiles are, well, I don’t know how else to say it, but just downright ugly.

There also is almost no prep area. 

See that tiny space between the range and the dish rack where those muffins are cooling? That’s pretty much all the room there is for prepping and plating. With space being at a premium, I’ve learned how to maximize the area, but often commandeer the kitchen table to give myself more room. 

We knew when we bought the place that remodeling the kitchen would be high on our priority list. Our objective: to make the space functional, provide more storage and counter area, but make the whole room feel more open, brighter, and airy. We agreed that some sort of white cabinets and appliances would help us achieve that goal, along with having an island/bar area. While David got busy working on design layouts, we forged ahead and made some purchases in the last month to get things moving in the right direction. 

First, we bought a new refrigerator. The one that came with the house was about 10 cubic feet. And while it was okay, we were always struggling to find enough space in there, especially in the freezer area. There were times I felt like we had something out of a Playskool kitchen. Our new one is 16 cubic feet, which gives us much more room to freeze things and two nice size drawers in the fridge area to watch veggies wilt. Really, I do try to use up any vegetables we buy at the market as soon as possible. Honest! But because they aren’t treated with any preservatives, their shelf life is very limited. As a result, there always seem to be some poor carrot or pepper or some such thing that gets shuffled to the bottom of the bin and meets its demise. 

I must admit that I kinda’, sorta’ miss having an automatic icemaker, but here we haven’t seen any refrigerator/freezer models that come with this feature. Not that dealing with ice cube trays is a big deal, but considering how much ice we go through on any given day, it would be just lovely to have it made and sitting in a bin ready for scooping out. 

The other purchase we made was a new gas range. The Acros model that came with the house had some issues; namely a rusted bottom pan in the oven, as well as the stove grates. Like the Mabe brand that is popular down here, the Acros oven area has almost no insulation. As a result, as soon as you opened the oven door, the temperature dropped dramatically. It also raised the temperature in the kitchen area to an ungodly degree. I know, I know, if you if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. But really, when it's 90+ degrees to begin with, you will have no desire to raise the heat level if you can help it.

After checking out some stores downtown and one in Belize City, we stopped into the MVC Gongora Store, located about 10 minutes away on the road to Mexico. This place imports Frigidaire appliances from the U.S. What it may lack in aesthetic appeal (think a large cement garage), it makes up for with the best prices we found thus far. We ended up with this gas range model...

...and Fidel, the store’s manager, knocked $150 off the list price. He also had already installed the conversion kit, so it would work on butane versus natural gas.

Isn’t she a beauty? It has great insulation and all kinds of features, including:
  • Five burners

o    5,000 BTU simmer burner/9,500 BTU standard burner
o    9,500 BTU center burner
o    9,500 BTU standard burner
o    9,500 BTU/12,000 BTU/14,000 BTU burner, including Quick Boil feature
o    17,000 BTU Quick Boil burner

  • Electronic oven control with kitchen timer
  • Quick Bake Cooking System control
  • Self-cleaning oven
  • Three adjustable interior oven rack(s).
  • Effortless Oven Rack™ system
  • Full width oven door with window
  • Storage drawer

Since David installed it last week, I’ve been putting it through its paces. From simmering chicken stock or beans, baking muffins, to sauteing chicken breasts, creating sauces and cooking rice, it’s works like a real champ.

So with those two appliances out of the way, we move to the next steps in prepping our kitchen for a makeover. In upcoming posts, we'll share the details and diagrams of our new kitchen design, chat a bit about our decision to not make this a total DIY project, and let you know what work we will be doing in the weeks ahead.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Slices of Life from Belize - 9/25/12

See Ya’ Later, Crocagator 

During a recent field trip to Orange Walk with friends of ours, Colleen and Bruce, they gave us a tour of some of the go-to stores in town, including a bakery. There were all kinds of yummy bread options to choose from, and we walked out of there with four croissants, two lovely sandwich rolls, two sweet rolls, a large bottle of water, and this guy:

Isn’t it great? Apparently, the bakery is known far and wide for this little croc. Guess how much he cost. Would you believe $1.75 BZD, which is about .88 cents USD? The total for everything we bought came just over $3.00 USD. Man, you can’t even buy a large bottle of water for that in some places in the States.

Right after taking this shot, I couldn’t resist the urge to sample it, and I’m sorry to say (well, not really) that our croc is now without a tail. While breaking it off, it took me back to those chocolate bunnies I would get at Easter. How well I remember asking my Mom if I could have a piece for a snack and being told, “Yes, but only one ear.” Or, “You can only eat his feet.” Cannibalism by chocolate or, in this case, by crocodile.

Leaving the Scene of the Crime 

So not that long ago, we decided to pull out the bedding plants that were on either side of the porch entrance and transplant some marigold seedlings. David turned over the beds, mixed in some sand, and generally made the area all ready for its new plant residents.

Once the marigolds were in the ground, I kept noticing that dirt from one of the beds kept showing up on the pavement. Then I noticed that one of the marigolds had gotten uprooted completely. Dirt was everywhere. Did we have some kind of varmint? 

Noooo, we had Sam:

Suspect caught during escape
Seems he likes the area now that the dirt is nice and soft and thinks it’s a cool place to make a little nesting area. Ay, caramba!

If he didn't have such a cuteness factor...

...well, who knows what I might be tempted to do.

Splitting Hairs 

While living in the States, I wasn’t the type of girl to buy all kinds of beauty and fashion magazines. My guilty pleasure were cooking publications. However, I did have a reasonable idea of what the various trends and fads ladies just had to have to stay pretty and youthful looking (can you say Botox?). But when I saw this sign in downtown Corozal, I was stymied:

What in the world? Are your eyebrows sewn together in some way? Made to look fuller? Does it require a needle to go with the thread?  It sounds like something that would really hurt, doesn’t it? 

Curious, I did some Internet searches and discovered that it’s a beauty technique whereby a thin, twisted piece of thread is rolled over unwanted hair to pluck it out. Apparently threading can take out an entire row of hair, which gives a straighter line. Furthermore, the practice has been around for ages and ages.

Who knew? Well, clearly I didn’t, but think I’ll stick with my trusty tweezers.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Too Close for Comfort

As I mentioned in a previous post, the four lots just down the lane from our house were recently purchased by a woman from the States. She contracted with a local guy to clear the land, which he did.

With all the bush and a good number of trees chopped down, the game plan was that the contractor would burn off the debris. Well this past Wednesday, he did exactly that and then some. We weren’t home for a good part of the day, but here’s what we were told happened:

Sometime after 9:00 a.m., the contractor struck the match to the lots. 

What ensued was less than optimal, to say the least. For starters, he never let Delia (our neighbor and whose house abuts the cleared property) or Fernando know that Wednesday would be “Burn Day.” Apparently, the smoke and ash were so intense that Fernando couldn’t see or breathe, Delia had to leave her house, and, I would think the dogs belonging to us and Delia were having breathing issues as well.  This kept up for a few hours, because the contractor didn’t do anything resembling a controlled burn.

Then the contractor left, even though flames were still visible and there was still a great deal of smoke, and never returned.  

Around 1:00 p.m., Fernando told us that the flames jumped the lane and proceeded to burn along the property line opposite our house, with flames leaping several feet in the air.

When we arrived home around 3:00 p.m., we immediately noticed the clouds of smoke coming from the lot’s direction as soon as we entered the lane. The closer we got to the house, we saw the brush on our right was burned beyond belief, and we could hear the fire crackling all along that side. 

The smoke burned your eyes and there was ash flying around everywhere. We immediately checked in with Fernando to find out what the hell was going on.

When we got into the house, everything, and I mean everything, was covered in ash.  The smoke didn’t clear out for another few hours, but you could still hear and smell some stuff burning throughout the night.

Here’s what the areas looked like after the burn:

Cleared lot before burn

Lot after the burn. Delia’s house is just to the right of this picture.

The lane in front of the burned lots, impassable from debris and wood pile.

The fire jumped across the lane and burned down the left side in this shot.
Our property is on the right.

The damage extended several feet deep. So much so that a house that’s been under construction on the opposite lane and never visible from our place because of the dense brush, can now be clearly seen.

The trunks and lower branches of these palm trees were burnt like toast.

So here’s the thing: We understand that the accepted way of clearing land here is to burn it. When done by someone who is conscientious and knowledgeable, it’s an effective method to prime land for planting crops, like beans, landscaping, or building. When done right, a controlled burn lasts about 30 minutes. We know, because we’ve seen Fernando do it a couple of times around our property. 

What we can’t understand is how someone could be careless enough to not make sure the burn was fully under control before leaving the property. When the fire jumped the lane, we were damn lucky it didn’t jump to our side, especially as we have palm-thatched roofs on two palapas, or to Delia’s house. One spark and both properties could have been gone in no time. 

The logical question is why a call wasn’t made to the fire department. If we had been here, you can bet they would have been notified.  How they may have responded is quite another matter. Our understanding is that as burning land is a long accepted practice and as long as a fire is not damaging your personal property, the decision by the fire department may be to let it take care of itself. Now granted, the flames didn’t jump to our place, nor Delia’s. But it was very close. Too close for comfort.