Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mushroom, Bacon, Cheese "Burgers" with Roasted Potato Wedges

Pre-Belize, one of our favorite sandwiches was a Portobello-Prosciutto burger. I mean how can you go wrong with marinating those meaty mushrooms in red wine, grilling them up, then topping them with lovely prosciutto, which is a kissing cousin to bacon? The answer: You can’t; they are delectable.

Having not had one of these burgers for at least the last six months, my craving for one was getting intense. There were just a couple, small obstacles:

No Portobellos – Don’t know about other areas of Belize, but here in Corozal, there are no Portobellos. Matter of fact, there are no cremini, shiitake, oyster, or any other kind of mushroom, except white button ones. And even those can be scarce.

No Prosciutto – If it lives here, it’s a recluse ‘cause I haven’t seen it in any store. Same goes for pancetta.

What’s a girl to do? Improvise! As luck would have it, I scored a package of button mushrooms at the market this week. The butcher also had some bacon. The cooking gods were smiling down at me, so I went to work.

First, I stemmed the mushrooms and sliced them.

The mushroom slices went into a plastic bag, along with about a cup of red wine, a splash of olive oil, and some salt and pepper. 

They hung out in their wine bath for about 40 minutes. In the meantime, I cooked up some BACON and reveled in the aroma.

Once the bacon was done, I reserved the fat because I was going to be very, very bad later.

Next, I moved on to the potatoes and cut two of them into six wedges each.

A quick digression. The day I made all this, David had been busy removing the left upper kitchen cabinet and tile backsplash. As it was a two-day job and it didn't make a lick of sense to take down the protective plastic sheeting from the work area, this is what conditions looked like while putting this meal together:

Ummm, kinda' quaint, isn't it? Of course, IF WE COULD GET OUR NEW CABINETS AND COUNTERS ALL WOULD BE RIGHT WITH THE WORLD! (I know, shouty caps don't solve problems. Ms. Crankypants signing off now. Back to our recipe.)

So about those potato wedges. I drizzled them with the reserved bacon fat. Oh yes I did! Then sprinkled some salt, pepper, and paprika on them and gave them a good mix.

Because what could be better than potatoes with bacon?
The wedges were spread in a single layer on a sheet tray and popped into a pre-heated 450-degree oven for about 25 minutes.

About 10 minutes before the potatoes were ready, I went back to the mushrooms. After draining off the wine marinade, I put the mushroom slices into a pre-heated saute pan that I had drizzled with a bit of olive oil.

I let them cook over medium heat until most of the liquid had evaporated and the mushrooms were tender. Then I divided the 'shrooms in two.

I left them to cook just a little bit more until I could see the edges of some of the mushrooms begin to brown. While that was going on, I grated some cheddar cheese.

After separating the cheese into two sorta' equal piles, I placed each pile on top of the still simmering mushrooms. While that was melting, I pulled the potato wedges out from the oven. With everything good to go, it was time to plate.

I forgot to mention that I had toasted two rolls. Oops. Anyway, On the bottom of each roll, I put the mushroom cheese "burger" then topped it with slices of BACON. The crispy potato wedges found a home right next door.

The verdict? Not too shabby. Not quite the same as the original recipe, but close enough that it brought grins to our faces and I'd make them again. And those potato wedges that were drizzled with BACON fat? Crispy on the outside, with just enough fluff factor on the inside to be crazy good.

Kitchen Remodel: Cabinet and Tile Removal Continues; Patience Being Tested

So after removing the first overhead cabinet and tile backsplash, we learned a few valuable lessons that got applied when work started on the second cabinet and tile area.

To reduce the amount of concrete dust from chipping off the tile and mastic and embedding itself into every crevice in the house, David put up some plastic sheeting around the work area.

To reduce the chances of having sharp pieces of tile and bits of concrete dust invade his eyeballs, especially as his eyes had just recovered from the fire ball incident, plastic goggles were worn.

And while no long-sleeve shirt was donned to prevent the appearance of being pecked to death by a flock of rabid chickens, gashes were all minor.

Our common sense knows no bounds.

In just a couple of days, the work was completed sans injury and much easier clean up.

Left upper cabinet removed, along with tile

Full view of wall minus cabinets and tile

There's still a bit of tile left around the window frame that needs to come off and some sanding to be done on the right side where the tile used to be. But other than that and some painting, this area is good to go.

At this point, the logical next step would be to tackle the bottom counter run. If you recall, we have some tile voids and sink issues to contend with And, call us crazy, but we would prefer to keep the days without running water in the kitchen to a minimum. 

But there’s just one small problem: we still have no idea when the new cabinets, counters, and island are scheduled for completion. We were supposed to have dates from the contractor two weeks ago. We were also told that we would be able to see the roughed out island, with its wood counter, this week, along with the sample cabinet door design. Emails have been sent, calls have been made, but we can’t seem to get any answers. 

We’re really trying to go with the flow here, but it's almost a month since we began this project and were given the expectation that work on the new cabinets would get underway in the same time frame. I know it's said that all good things come to those who wait, but for the love of Calphalon, can we just get some dates?

Ms. Crankypants

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Moors and Christians

Ask someone who lives or has traveled in Belize to name one of the most common dishes, and it's likely that beans and rice will be one of the top answers. 

Interestingly, before I even knew where Belize was on a map, I was making a similar dish called Moors and Christians. It's really just a variation on a theme, as the recipe is the Spanish-style equivalent of what we refer to as beans and rice here.

One of the many things I love about this dish is its versatility. Have leftover ground meat, some sausage hanging out in the freezer, some bits of chicken looking for a home? Any of these can be added. Or, you can omit the protein and have a yummy vegetarian dish. It's also fun to play around with the rice component. I've used some of the bean liquid to make the rice, like the version we'll walk through here, but have also added harissa sauce, and made just plain old white rice. Whatever floats your boat.

So let's get started, shall we? I'll start with the beans. I've used both canned and dry beans when making this dish and found we really prefer the taste and texture of the dried ones (once they are cooked obviously; dried beans on their own aren't very appetizing). Granted, it takes a bit more time and planning working with the dried ones, but nothing that takes too many brain cells. The other advantage to working with dried beans is that they contain way, way less sodium compared to their canned cousins. And with dried beans so readily available here in Belize, they're easy to find.

I soaked some black beans overnight (about 1 1/2 cups), drained the liquid in the morning, then put them in a large pot, covered them again with water, and let them simmer away for about two hours. You want them to be tender, so taste more than just one or two. Once they were finished cooking, I removed the pot from the heat and added just a bit of salt and let that soak into the beans for about 20 minutes. When I drained the beans, I reserved some of the cooking liquid. You'll see why in a bit.

Drained, cooked black beans

I had some ground beef and pork leftover from a previous meal, so decided I would add that to the mix. In a large saute pan, I browned the meat. When done, I removed it from the pan and set it aside.

As I mentioned earlier, you can use your imagination and leftovers. Try substituting the beef and/or pork with chicken, chorizo, or italian sausage (mild, spicy, or both). The world is your oyster, so to speak.

With the meat now out of the pan, I added a bit of olive oil, chopped onions, and a pinch of crushed red pepper. It also tastes great if you add some chopped red bell peppers while sauteing the onions. I just didn't have any on hand on this particular day.

When the onions were soft, I tossed in two cloves of minced garlic and let that cook with the onions for about 30 seconds. Heaven!

At this point, it's time to add the rest of the cast of characters. Into the pan went the drained black beans, about a cup of the reserved cooking liquid, one can of diced tomatoes and their juice (feel free to use whole plum tomatoes instead), the browned beef/pork, about a 1/2 tsp. of thyme, some ground cumin, a pinch of oregano, plus salt and pepper.

Bring the whole shootin' match up to a boil, then let it simmer for about 10 to 20 minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated. If you have some parsley or cilantro, which I didn't, now would be a good time to mince it up and throw it in.

While the bean mixture is doing its thing, I turned my attention to the rice. On this particular day, I decided to make the rice with some of the bean cooking liquid. Why? 'Cause I could. The ratio I used was 1/2 cup of bean liquid, along with 1/2 cup of water to 1/2 cup of rice.

When the rice was done, I fluffed it up with a fork and spooned it into the bottom of our bowls. On top of that, I added a healthy ladle of the bean mixture, and voila:

It's what's for dinner!

Again, the versatility of this dish is limited only to your imagination. Be creative. Play with your food. Experiment with the seasonings. I should also note that this is a great make-ahead dish and actually tastes even better if made the day before serving. Nothing like giving all those yummy flavors a chance to marry overnight.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On the Road in Belize

Oh the adventure of owning and driving a car in Belize, specifically Corozal. Let's start with the process of getting your vehicle registered, which we did just today. 

Until recently, the Department of Transport (DOT) office was located in the bus terminal downtown. We had no idea they had changed locations until some fellow expats went to renew their car registration and found a note on the window of the bus terminal that said they moved. You learn lots of things here by word-of-mouth, especially as there are no daily newspapers and local Internet news is sporadic.

Now the DOT is located in the Ministry of Works building here in Ranchito:

Business hours can be a bit hit or miss. Sometimes the government offices are open as advertised; other times, not so much. We decided that going early in the day was our best bet and we lucked out. Upon our arrival, we greeted the gentleman who is in charge of vehicle registrations while he was ordering a breakfast tostada at the little stand in front of the Works building. We proceeded upstairs and found we were the only customers (YAY!). The vehicle registration guy showed up a short time later, tostada in hand, and proceeded to process our paperwork. 

You have the option to renew your registration for three, six, nine, or twelve months. We opted for nine to coincide with our insurance policy expiration date. While taking a look at our vehicle title and proof of insurance (this time David wasn't asked to show a valid driver's license), our registration guy proceeded to tell us just how bad the roads in Corozal have become. We kinda' knew that from our drives into town, but it was interesting to hear the DOT guy go on a rant.

Normally, there is a quasi-inspection of your car when you do the whole registration thing. They check to see if your headlights and tail lights work, along with your wipers. That's about it. No checking tires, emissions, or anything else. For whatever reason, today we didn't have an inspection. After our paperwork was completed, we paid our $150 BZD ($75 USD), got our new sticker, and were on our way. Nine months from now, it wouldn't surprise us in the least that the DOT office is located someplace else and the process will be completely different. Just go with the flow baby.

But let's circle back to the road conditions. Here in Corozal, we live and drive in the land of potholes. While the Northern Highway is paved, the majority of side roads aren't. Limestone, otherwise called "marl", is the surface material. When it rains, which happens more frequently than you might think, the roads becomes mires of mud and slick as all get out. To give you some idea, here is what the intersection to the road our friends Dave and Dianna live on looked like this morning:

This, my friends, is a vast improvement over what it used to look like. The ruts made from construction vehicles and buses were so deep, it was almost impassable. Then when it rained, it got even worse. What you see here is what it looks like after the road grader went to work.

The same grader was also busy trying to smooth out the road leading up to the intersection:

The streets in town aren't much better. There are stretches where you really, really need to go only a few miles an hour so you don't mess up whatever alignment your car does have. That's providing you remember where all the speed bumps are and haven't hit one of those going at any speed. Oh, and let's not forget about dodging other vehicles on the road, foot traffic, and bicycles. As our friend, Colleen, describes it, it's like driving in your very own video game. Bonus points if you don't cause bodily harm to yourself or others. It should come as no surprise that vehicle traffic diminishes dramatically once it gets dark, especially when you consider that there are only sporadic street lights on the main roads and virtually none on any side roads.

And if you think that all drivers here are cautious on the road due to all of the congestion and road conditions, think again. I think one of the best descriptions of what it's like to drive in Belize comes from the Pioneer Bookworm blog. Here's an excerpt of her experiences:

"In Belize, the possession of a license does not guarantee the person knows how to drive.  Not just in the US sense, where we yell about people who don’t know how to drive as they are going slow on a highway. In the US you at least need to take a written exam and drive around with some guy who makes sure you sort of know what you are doing.  Here, some people truly don’t know how to drive—and they buy their license instead of acquiring it legally.   A lady I know has had her driver’s license for 10 years.  She does not know how to drive a car in reverse.  This does not stop her from driving- she just makes sure she can always drive forward. 

Interestingly, knowing that some people really and truly do not know how to drive makes me less likely to have a nervous breakdown when driving here. I drive with an attitude of expectation:  whatever is the most illogical and stupid move should be anticipated and expected from fellow drivers.  When I am driving down the highway, will the car in front of me stop and park in the road? Could happen.  When I turn onto a street, will there be a car driving in reverse down the street in my lane? It’s likely.  When I am stuck behind a slow-moving bus, will the guy three cars behind me attempt to pass all of us and the bus on a blind curve? That’s pretty much guaranteed. All of these things have happened to me in the last month I’ve been driving."

But in case you think we don't have any rules of the road, here are some pointers from the transportation page from the city of Belmopan:
While driving in Belize here are some common road rules to follow:
  • Drive on the right-hand side of the road
  • Wear seatbelts - drivers and passengers
  • Observe speed limits: 55 mph on highways and 25 mph in cities and towns
  • You can make a CAUTIOUS right-hand turn on a red light
  • Left-hand turns on the highway, as per regulation, requires the driver to indicate a left-hand turn then pull on to the right-hand shoulder of the road until traffic is clear both ways in order to complete the left-hand turn. However, keep an eye out on these turns as most drivers in Belize tend to disregard the regulations.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Rising From the Ashes

About this time last month, we shared the details when the lots down the lane from us were set on fire to clear the land and how the flames then jumped the lane to scorch the vegetation opposite our house.

While the event was a bit too close for comfort to our liking, it's been interesting to see what's been going on with those parcels between then and now.

This is what the grounds across from our house looked like after the fire:

We figured it would just look this way for some time until the bush and trees grew back. But much to our surprise, a crew showed up about two weeks ago and started clearing out the debris. Using only their machetes, they hacked away at all the dead brush and tree saplings. 

Cleared lot

Once the ground was cleared, they started planting -- old school style. Using a couple of the sticks they chopped down, they sharpened the ends with their machetes. Then the guys would poke the sharpened end into the ground, about four inches deep. Reaching into pouches they had around their waists, they would drop in a few seeds of corn or beans.

The granules of dirt that covered the beans when they were dropped in the hole was all the covering the seeds needed. We found out that the reason they plant the seeds so deep, but without much dirt covering, is that by the time the seeds sprout and make their way to the surface, the stems are thick enough and the roots established enough that birds can't pull them  out of the ground. 

Here's what the area looks like now:

Rows of corn

Believe it or not, It only takes about two months for the corn and beans to mature and be ready for harvest. Back in the States, you would be looking at around a four to five month growing time. Must be something in the soil here.

It's great not having to look out and see a burned lot, but it is a little weird seeing the back of the house on the opposite lane. Apparently, this place started to be built around five years ago, but has never been finished and not occupied (or even visited that we know of).

An interesting tidbit about building down here. There really aren't any zoning laws. For the most part, if you buy land you can pretty much build or place whatever type of structure that you want. It also means that you could have anything from a trailer, small house, McMansion, or gated community next door to a commercial establishment or landfill. It will be interesting to see, as the area builds up over the coming years, if there will be any push to get some type of laws enacted.

In the meantime, life has returned to its quiet pace here on our lane, and we are keeping an eye on the corn and bean crop. 

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

A New Solution to an Age Old Problem

(This is my first post to what Elizabeth kindly calls “our blog”.) 

Ya' know how we old guys tend to let our eyebrows grow wild. You know the long straggly, twisty bit just above our bloodshot eyes. Well I've discovered a solution to the issue. Fire balls. 

So I was thinking -- the guy who owned our house before us kept replacing the water heater and just kept cutting pipes and putting in junctions. There had to be a better way. From the look of things, he had replaced the water heater at least 6 times. You see, the water heater is outside and exposed to elements such as hurricanes, wind, salty sea air, sun.  And it was leaking, so something needed to be done.

So the first thing I did was to have a little shelter built to help protect said heater from the vagaries of tropical weather. It's pretty cute, isn't it? 

Shelter to protect the heater
Anyway, I thought that cutting out all the junction bits and replacing them with a single, easy disconnect fitting would be a good solution to future heater replacements. A hand job rather than a hacksaw/glue job.

I bought the parts I thought I needed and went at it. I warned Elizabeth that I was going to turn of the water. The husbandly thing to do. Turned off the water, cut out some of the messy bits, and inserted the hand-tighten connectors.  It all fit! Just goes to show that waking up at 3am and thinking about how to accomplish this task has its benefits. 

Easy change fitting in situ

OK, so I turned the water back on and with a minor leak, easily fixed by tightening the hand junction, my solution was actually working. No leaks. Water flowed.

Time to relight the water heater. Well the damned pilot light wouldn't catch.  After a little frustrated cursing, I remembered that I had turned off the gas tank. Gas (butane) in Belize is via tank rather than delivered by pipe. So I turned the tank back on and heard a rush of gas. Ah, I thought, it must be filling up the void from being disconnected. Now the instrucciones are all in Espanol in Belize. Not too helpful to a Brit, but at least I don’t have to wade through paragraphs of warnings. 

So I bent down with my handy long-necked lighter and lit the pilot. Now the pilot is back inside the bottom of the heater, so naturally I had to look to ensure that I was placing the lit torch in the right place.

The pilot light and source of kaboom

And bam, kaboom, and fireball, it was lit. The problem was, or the solution to eyebrow taming is, the fireball had no where to go but into my face. 

You know how in the movies, especially the Bruce Willis movies, the heroes run from the onrushing fireball?  Well, not so much. While my reaction time may have slowed a bit with age, there ain't no way one can flee from a fireball. 

So I got my eyebrow problem taken care of. Short and frizzy. No more long, straggly hairs to have people see and shake their heads. It also does an amazing job on eyelashes. Mine are now history. You should try this.  It is really effective. 

Now here comes the legal bit -- the contradictions:
  • You won't be able to see properly for at least a day, perhaps more. Then you'll see this fuzzy glow, sort of like the old Vaseline on the lens trick. (My theory is that your eyeballs swell, thus changing the focal distance of your lens.) 
  • Reading or working on a computer is very frustrating. I actually had to find out how to increase font size in FireFox (ctrl + mouse wheel).
  • Your eyes will get very red, the theory here is that small blisters form on your corneas that feel like large cinders under your lids. Frozen towels placed on ones eyelids helps immensely.
  • Your honey, in my case Elizabeth, will not only titter and outright laugh in your face, but will refuse to kiss you, since you eyebrows, mustache, and any other localized hair has turned extremely rasplike.

After a few days of ice packs, pain relievers, eyedrops, and recuperation, you'll feel like new, sort of. 

I won't have to worry about eyebrow overflow for a few weeks, but what a solution to that old age problem!

WARNING: Do not attempt this at home. This solution is only viable for a well trained, experienced ass.