Friday, March 27, 2015

chasing the tomato

Our recent rainstorm has had one effect that I did not predict.

Tomatoes have been an ongoing topic for my essays.  And I have not been alone in my lamentations.

For some reason, I thought I would find tasty tomatoes at every turn in Mexico.  After all, this is the country where the original was developed by the Indians as a food item.  Back then, it was probably yellow and about the size of a cherry tomato.

With that pedigree, I was under the impression that I would be in tomato heaven in Melaque.

It was not to be.  Our local soil is rife with tobacco mosaic disease and 'mater-chomping insects.  As a result, all tomatoes here are regularly doused with chemicals of every brew.

And the tomato varieties grown here are exactly what you would find in your local Safeway -- Romas and a rather tasteless round variety.  Don Cuevas informed us in You say "Tomato," she says "Tomahto," I say "Criollo" he discovered another variety on his travels to Oaxaca. 

I also noticed the Criollos in the markets in Oaxaca when we were there in January.  They appeared to be a variety similar to the tomatoes I enjoyed in Barcelona.

But we have none here.  The best we can get are cherry tomatoes.  They are an adequate substitute for my Greek salad.

What I was not prepared to see were the piles of green-yellow-red blotched tomatoes that are currently in almost all of our local grocery stores.  They started showing up a few days ago.

I asked Alex at Hawaii what had happened.  "The rain," he responded.  The heavy rains earlier in the month caused the plants to collapse.  The tomatoes are refugees of disaster.  The Syrians amongst us.

Southerners could turn this into a culinary opportunity by pulling out their fried green tomato recipes.  Me?  I am going to wait until the shelves are cleared before I start cooking any tomato-based dishes.

But I may indulge in one of my favorite Mexican dishes -- chicken.  I prefer mine char-grilled.  However, this street advertisement may convince me to take a turn with a rotisserie chicken.

I cannot quite figure out if the chicken is still wearing its bathing suit -- or if those are merely tan lines.  Either way, it was creepy enough to catch my eye.

Imagine the reaction if that sign appeared on a street in Chicago?  Or imagine the comments if a blogger posted it online in Mexico?

But I have stirred enough pots this week.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

jarring discovery

When I started visiting Mexico -- in my cross-border jaunts from pilot training in Laredo -- in the 1970s, visitors to Mexico could not find much on the shelves of Mexican grocery stores.  Even finding a Coke back then was a major discovery.

In the six years I have lived in the Melaque area, I have seen a marked change in what is available from our local grocers.

Between 1970 and 2009, of course, Mexico went through a drastic economic change.  Much of that was fueled by Gulf oil.  But the combination of oil wealth, NAFTA, and an expanding manufacturing base turned Mexico into the 12th largest world economy.

With the wealth came an expanded middle class.  And that middle class wanted a different mix of groceries on the table than what they had experienced in their less flush days.  That effect was magnified by the number of Mexicans who returned from the north with new tastes in mind.

My current trips to Walmart or Soriana or Comercial Mexicana could make me believe I was in almost any middle class store in Omaha.  There is no mistaking that the stores are appealing to Mexican shoppers.  But you can find almost anything imaginable there.

When I first moved down, I would regularly bring down some of my favorite food stuffs in my suit cases -- or I would do without.  I can now find almost anything here.

And if I cannot find it at Soriana, I can find it at Super Hawaii in San Patricio.

Alex, the owner, has created a store that is a merchandising dream.  His suppliers can get him almost anything a northerner could desire during the winter, and everything that a middle class Mexican shopper could need in the summer.

I like to surf the shelves for new products.  I told you about the best pasta I have tasted in some time in pasta and phil.  It came from Hawaii.

While browsing the jugged salsa shelf, I noticed something that looked out of place.  Tomato paste.  Not in the usual Kirkland tins, but in a rather fancy jar.

The first thing I noticed was the Arabic script.  Now, Mexico is not known for its contacts with the Arab world -- other than what it inherited through Spain from the Moors.  There are fewer than 4000 followers of Islam in Mexico.

I thought the script odd.  I was even more surprised when I saw the jar and its contents were from Jordan.

Jordan has always had a soft spot in my heart.  Petra is the obvious connection.  But the late King Hussein was always one of my Arab heroes.  And they are few and far between in the Middle East.

So, I grabbed the jar.  It was $62 (MX) (or $4.25 (US)) for 24 ounces.  A little less than buying the same amount of paste in those annoying tiny tins.

Tomato paste is a rarity here.  Alex says his Mexican customers do not generally use it.

That is too bad because this Jordanian tomato paste is some of the best I have used.  I created a decidedly non-Italian Bolognese sauce with it.  (If it had truly been Bolognese, the meat would have been veal and the tomato base would have been cream.)

The taste of the paste was excellent.  It retained the sweetness and acidity of its parent tomatoes, but it also had a subtle citric flavor.  Almost like a sour orange.

I have not tasted tomato paste that good since my last visit to Italy.

As testament, I purchased two additional jars.  I may end up buying Alex's entire stock, if only to have tomato paste on hand.

The purchase caused me to wonder just how much trade passes between Mexico and Jordan.  It turns out -- not much.

Recent statistics show
Jordan imported $41 million in products from Mexico, and Mexico imported $17 million in products from Jordan.  Those are not big trade figures considering the size of Mexico's economy.

But Jordan and Mexico have big plans.  They are currently negotiating a free trade agreement.  When it is complete, Jordan will be the only Arab country to have free trade agreements with each of the NAFTA nations.

Now, I will have another reason to keep Jordan on my personal most favored nation list.

Combined with my boutique pasta, my sauce was better than any spaghetti I could get in town.  Once again proving the best food comes out of your own kitchen.

¡Buen provecho!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

moving to mexico -- the food

I belong to a Yahoo forum where new members are asked: "What do you like best about Mexico?"

The answers vary.  But there is always the holy trinity.  The People.  The Culture (which seems a bit redundant to me).  And, of course, The Food.

I would love to cross-examine the people who give those answers.  What do they actually mean when they throw out those broad categories?  But, it is the internet, and actual human interchanges are limited.

It is that last one that sticks in my craw.  What do people mean when they say they like the food in Mexico?  I am going to assume that they mean Mexican food -- that it is so much better here than in Mexican restaurants up north.  Or wherever they came from.

I have had several real conversations with visitors on this topic.  They usually do not get past "I didn't know tacos could taste this good."

And there is the rub.  The Mexican food whipped up around these parts is really simple stuff.  The list of ingredients includes a handful of choices.  "Would you like your pork wrapped loosely or tightly in a tortilla -- and would you like some salsa on it?"   Same ingredients, but we will call it three or four different things.

I am going to raise my hand right now.  It is very likely that this has more to do with my personality than with the food.

When it comes to food, I love experimentation.  The same with music.  If I have heard a piece of music three times, I don't need to hear it again.  The chances of finding anything new to analyze decreases with repetition -- unless the piece is one of those rare masterpieces of music.

Food?  Same thing.  I am constantly looking for new things to pique my interest.

The cook in one of my favorite Villa Obregon eateries prepared salsas with unexpected ingredients.  Like mango, habanero, and jicama soaked in lime over chicken. 

Some worked.  Some didn't.  But it was always a joy to see what her imagination put on the plate.

She stopped her little project when northern tourists complained that it was not the food they expected.  Fair enough.  They are paying the fare.  But it was fun while it lasted.

Another restaurant here on the coast caters to my particular eccentricity.  I consider a menu to be a list of ingredients to be combined at my whim.  During the past two years, I have enjoyed a series of experimental foods.

The constant is my
sauté: made up of  jalapeño peppers, bacon, and onion.  I have combined it in pancakes; as the filler for a chimichanga along with the topping for chili dogs; and as an addition to oatmeal.  Not all of them work.  But there is always something else right around the corner.

When I was younger (and I could afford the luxury of applying filters to dates), I had a rule to determine if a second date would be forthcoming.  If my date, while ordering dinner in a restaurant, started telling the waiter all the things she could not eat and how she needed to take a lot of ingredients out of menu dishes, the date was over.  I was not looking for high-maintenance relationships.

Several years ago, a group of us were having dinner at Le Cirque, when it was still located in the Mayfair Hotel.  The beautiful young woman, in her mid-20s, sitting next to me glanced at the menu and told the waiter: "I will have the veal chop with the orange-sage sauce from the duck confit, and a bit of your fresh arugula."  He smiled, and responded: "A very nice combination."

She was a fellow experimenter.  I would have married her on the spot if she had not been young enough to be my daughter.

That is one reason I bought a house with adequate kitchen facilities.  There is no need for me to grump about the lack of variety in restaurant food -- here or anywhere else.  I can purchase my own ingredients and experiment away.

What do I like about Mexico?  The Food.  Because I can make almost anything I want whenever I want it -- at home.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

speaking of my house

Well, I was speaking of -- or, rather, writing about -- my house yesterday.  How am I starting to develop a living cycle in the place.

But there has been one glaring flaw in the diamond.  That garage door.

I have written about it recently -- filling the well.  The opening of my garage door is narrow enough that I do not always successfully clear it when I back out.  And my new Escape has the scars to show for it.

When I wrote the last essay, several of you came up with some great suggestions.  The best was to install a garage door opener to prevent the wind from prematurely shutting them onto my Escape.

Yesterday morning an idea hit me -- just after the garage door did.  My garage doors are bi-sectional -- they swing both ways.  I have been swinging them out into the street.  The down side of that approach is two-fold: they create a great sail to catch the wind, and they extend my exit tunnel, increasing the odds of a bit of auto decorating.

When my brother was here in November, we looked at the possibility of swinging the doors in: to avoid both problems.  It was a great idea -- except for one thing.  The garage is not long enough to fully accommodate the Escape and to then allow the doors to close.

That is not exactly true.  I can pull the Escape in far enough to barely let the doors clear my rear bumper -- if I pull forward to the edge of the pool, which also puts a concrete post against the driver's door.  There is about a 6 inch window where I can avoid all three.

I experimented with that solution yesterday.  And I think I will give it a try.  With summer winds on their way before too long, swinging the doors in is a far better idea.

Those of you who are already planning on reading the almost-inevitable essay of "How do I get my Escape out of the Pool?, " are simply being far more pessimistic than prescient.

I hope.

Monday, March 23, 2015

fixing my cycle

Several months ago, when I purchased the house with no name, I announced to one and all that I was finally settling down.  No more to roam.

I did add I would be on the road for a few trips.  But then I was tossing out the anchor to enjoy the sybaritic life of Mexico.

My trips would fill my calendar from November through early March.  My brother and sister-in-law came for a visit; I traveled through southern Mexico for a month with my cousin and his wife; I went north for a few weeks to attend to ministerial functions; and I traveled a bit locally with my Air Force chum the first week of March.  Since then, I have been acting as squire of the manor.

For six years, I lived on the other side of the bay.  Even though I did not have true routines over there, I did have networks of people where I could regularly slip in and out of their lives.  I have nothing similar in Barra de Navidad.

But I am getting there.  When I lived in Salem, a lot of my free time revolved around my hot tub.  I read in it.  I had meals in it.  I chatted with neighbors from its womb-like comfort.

I have discovered a good substitute at the house.  My pool.

I have not spent much time in it during the past four months after the heat of our late summer disappeared.  But that was because I simply was not around to enjoy it.

Yesterday, that changed.  I grabbed a bottle of water and my Kindle, and slipped into the cool embrace of what will soon be my primary living space in the house. 

There are few things more pleasant than being surrounded by water while reading.  (Maybe that is why the classic question is "what books would you take to a desert isle?")  Yesterday afternoon, it was The Economist, National Review, and a couple of chapters in Eugene Rogan's The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East.

This house has plenty of space for all sorts of activities.  For dinner, I sat on the upper terrace watching the light shift on the walls as the sun went down.

I have some ideas on how to decorate the terrace upstairs.  Before I buy any formal furniture, though, I am going to buy a small table and a folding chair.  I want to set it up in different places at different times of day to determine just where I should define my living space.

A sitting area with a separate formal dining area will fit perfectly up there.  The question is where.  I can then start the dreaded search for furniture.

But, for now, I will be happy to play Stanley to the ever-elusive Livingston.  Perhaps, he will be down by the watering hole.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

old times there are long forgotten

My Quicken software reminded this week that some things in Mexico continue to improve.

The reminder?  "Pay visa fee to Immigration."  It was my annual reminder that my visa to live in Mexico was up for renewal.

But it was as outdated as a February 2017 memo to President Obama will be to check for crashed Secret Service cars in the White House driveway.  The notices convey information we will not need.

The immigration reminder was once very important for me.  Each year, I had to gather copies of my financial and related documents to prove I was eligible to remain in the country where I have chosen to live.  I would then cart the load to an office in Manzanillo where I would begin the process of gaining permission to stay in Mexico for at least one more year.

All of that changed two years ago when I became eligible for a permanent resident visa.  It sounded almost too good to be true.  By taking out permanent residency, I could avoid the annual cha-cha-cha of renewing my visa.*

When the immigration official informed me in 2013 I could renew my temporary resident visa for one year or I could obtain a permanent resident visa, I immediately grabbed the long-term option.  By then, I knew that I wanted to eventually apply for Mexican citizenship.  The permanent resident visa would get me rolling down the appropriate chute.

If Quicken had not reminded me of what I no longer need to face, semana santa  would have.  My visa renewal always came at an inopportune time.

March and April are traditional travel months for me.  But that is when my visa came due.  It was always a close run thing to submit the paperwork and get my new document in a timely manner.  On one trip, I had to pick it up at the airport while I was flying off to New Orleans.

The connection with semana santa is that it almost always fell in the middle of the processing time for my renewal.  That meant a full week was often eaten up because the immigration office was closed.

But all of that is now history.  I took great pleasure in deleting the reminder from Quicken yesterday.

And I suspect the president will be similarly relieved in less than two years.  Time gives us all different options.

* -- Mexico also offers temporary resident visas in multi-year denominations.  But that is not part of this story.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

uncircling the wagons

I write a lot about the cycles of my community.

We are entering another one.  Most of the northerners have already packed up and headed north.  Mainly Canadians in these parts.

I ran into a group of them today.  They were wrestling their motor homes and fifth-wheelers into position to return to the Land of the Red Maple Leaf.  They reminded me less of visitors to Mexico than transportation extras from an old television series.  I could almost hear a modern day Ward Bond call out: "Wagons ho!  Eh?"

This is a shoulder week.  Our town was filled for last week-end's three-day holiday with visitors reveling in the bacchanal that is St. Patrick's Day.  Unfortunately, our unseasonal rains kept them off the beaches.

The photograph is of Friday night's beach.  The weather was great.  But the crowds are gone.

Not for long.  By the end of the month the Mexican tourists will be back on the beach in full force for semana santa -- Easter holy week. 

Our streets, our beaches, our stores, our hotels, our restaurants, our grocery stores -- all will be filled with people from the interior of Mexico who equate Easter with a time for the full family to gather and fill their swimsuits with grit and brine.  It is one of my favorite times of the year.

Until the crowds re-emerge, I am going to enjoy the bucolic pleasures of the calm before the storm.

And I hope that mentioning "storm" will not wake up the rain god who seems to believe we need more moisture.  We don't.

If you want to enjoy the warm pleasures of the beach, you have about ten days to do it.