Sunday, December 24, 2017

We Were Just Going to Get Some Pork----

For our Christmas Eve dinner Cynthia and I decided to have pork as the entree to accompany her cornbread dressing, green beans, and pumpkin pie. A weekend walk we often enjoy along the Yanuncay river takes us right by a local mercado, and there's no better pork to be found than from the whole pigs at food stands in all of these emporiums. Here's a pic from our look/see trip to Cuenca years ago.

Off we went yesterday on a glorious sunny morning to combine some exercise with that one purchase. I wore my backpack just in case we spotted some lovely fruits and vegetables to buy so our walk wouldn't be burdened toting extra bags.

Upon our arrival at the already bustling mercado we headed straight to the section featuring pork (other areas serve seafood and chicken). Three vendors had their pigs on display with the ladies giving out samples of their wares.

Insider tip: accept their offer. The first sample was tough and incredibly salty, while the one chosen was succulent and delicious. We bought a pound and a half, and couldn't resist the potato patties fried in pork fat. Hey, it's a special occasion!

We roamed through the market seeing who had what and which produce looked the freshest. Most stands have the same stuff, but it turns out our favorite lady was the only one in the entire place with green beans. Another tip: develop relationships with these folks. We ended up buying the beans from her plus all these strawberries, pears, tomatoes, and onions. She charged us $4.50. Wow.

OK, we're done! Well-----

There's a Columbian grocery adjacent to the mercado so we might as well stop in there too while in the neighborhood. Six dollars later add walnuts, organic spring onions, ginger, cherries, and a papaya (38 cents? What??) to the backpack.

On the walk home why not visit the liquor store to check out their wine selection? Nothing special so we actually leave without buying anything. Further on we notice that a big new deli under construction for some time is now open. Let's go see what it looks like!

They have an excellent meat selection and lots of other goodies but somehow we again resist temptation, making a mental note to come back soon. Not so with the bakery we next encounter. How can you turn down fresh-from-the-oven croissants and ciabatta for a whopping $1.40?

We've been out much longer than anticipated and it's close to lunchtime, so I suggest heading over to our local "sandwich guy" to pick up a couple of hand-carved turkey sandwiches. Add a little mayo and lettuce and these are absolutely delicious. The price is right too--$2.50 each.

By now the single purchase we set out to make has mushroomed into such an extravaganza that my backpack is full and both of us are carrying extra bounty. Here's everything that order of pork became:

Final thought. None of this grand adventure would have happened if we had initially set out in a car. Drive to the mercado--buy the pork--come home. Instead we had so much fun wandering around on a beautiful day discovering happy surprises along the way.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Finding Christmas Wherever You Are

Cynthia and I are in Cuenca during December for the first time in six years, and holiday-wise we haven’t known exactly what to do with ourselves. There are lots of special Christmas events around town but we’ve not been motivated to even find out what's going on.

Instead of spending time with our little grandchildren excited about Santa Claus, it's just the two of us. Almost all of our Christmas paraphernalia is stored in our daughter's basement, so the apartment looks pretty much the way it always does. Cynthia did manage to scrounge up a tiny tabletop tree and a few other bits and bobs that pale in comparison to decorating extravaganzas of the past.

We did some shopping in the States but there are no surprise presents to exchange, and our gifts to the family were wrapped and put under the tree before we left or have arrived through Amazon. Plus it's summer here and while the warm, sunny weather is magnificent, images of stockings over the fireplace and a cup of steamy hot chocolate don't come to mind.

This probably sounds like we have a severe case of "Blah Humbug" but that's not true at all. As you know we've traveled in and out of Cuenca almost since we arrived. We joke that we've lived in Ecuador for 7 1/2 years but only have actually been here for about five of them.

We leave. We come back. Just like every other time, since we returned several weeks ago we've relished the opportunity to reconnect with dear friends.

Our normal experience with Christmas involves family--lots of presents under the tree--a special meal together. So while we're used to plugging and unplugging our lives, being apart from a lifetime of tradition has created a profound sense of disconnect. As we do about everything, Cynthia and I discussed the situation and agreed that it is what it is. This year is simply going to be a different Christmas for us.

We're looking forward to a charity gala tonight. We'll visit with our family via Skype both on Christmas Eve and the big day so the kids can show us what Santa brought them. We plan to prepare some of favorite holiday dishes. But since we’re totally out of sync with the rhythm of local revelry it seems a bit disingenuous to act otherwise simply because "we're supposed to."

Cynthia and I are nonetheless content with our present circumstance because for us true Christmas spirit is more than decorating a tree, listening to holiday music, and if you're so inclined, celebrating the birth of Jesus. It's about love, caring, being thankful.

Over the next few days we'll reach out to family members and friends to let them know we're thinking about them during this special season. We'll spend time recounting the many blessings we've enjoyed this year, especially the recovery of our dear daughter's health. And we'll look ahead to the exciting plans we've made for 2018.

So in that spirit let me extend to you, the wonderful friends who have followed our journey, my deepest appreciation for the love, encouragement and support you have freely given to us. Over the years I've received a multitude of kind messages from thoughtful folks I may never have the privilege to meet. Your interest in our lives is what has kept this blog going for over eight years.

May you all have the merriest of Christmases, and I wish you abundant health and happiness in the New Year!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

An Evening to Remember

Ah, an elegant dinner party. The flowers, candles, and music. A beautifully set table. Wonderful food, drink, and camaraderie. What’s not to love?

Well, if you’re the host, there’s those annoying little details like planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, and serving. And worst of all, facing that mountain of dirty pots, pans, dishes, glasses, and silverware after the happy and satisfied guests have departed.

Cynthia and I chose a different option this holiday season, hiring Grits Catering to prepare the food for our party of six. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed Jennifer Martin’s meals and hoped a catered dinner would allow us to better relax and enjoy the evening with our friends.

We assumed our order would be brought here in the same fashion as her lunches and dinners (although we wondered how the delivery guy was going to transport five courses for that many people on his motorcycle), and that we’d unpack and transfer each course to the proper serving dish.

So we were surprised when Jennifer called us to schedule the time when she would arrive. “You’re coming??” I asked. “Of course,” she replied. “I’ll be cooking the entree in your kitchen.” Cool!

Cynthia takes great pleasure in setting a lovely table and I think you’ll agree she does a fab job. Then all we had to do was wait for everyone to show up.

Jennifer got here with the food and her assistant Jennie (another surprise!) shortly before our guests arrived. When all were present I served libations and in no time a yummy appetizer platter of baked brie topped with caramelized onions and a jalapeƱo sauce was brought out.

Me serving that initial round and Cynthia refreshing wine and water glasses the rest of the evening turned out to be the total extent of our involvement. Shortly afterwards we were summoned to the dining room table for creamy cauliflower soup garnished with fried shallots,

followed by mixed greens tossed with Champagne-poached pears, candied walnuts, goat cheese and a honey-Dijon vinaigrette.

It was like our home had been transformed into a restaurant! While Jennie served each course Jennifer explained what we were about to eat. When we were done the dishes and silverware were quietly cleared. Our entree was Beef Wellington encased in flaky puff pastry served with prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, roasted tomato and mashed potato puffs with ricotta cheese. Does this look delicious? It was!

After all the scrumptious food no one was ready for dessert--dark chocolate cake with red wine glaze--so Jennifer plated our final course for later and got ready to leave. When we went to say goodbye we got the biggest surprise of all--they had washed, dried, and put away every single thing. Our kitchen was spotless. WHAT?!?!?

For those of you who have hosted a party like this on your own, you know it’s fun but also stressful and exhausting. Or maybe you’ve never taken the leap because the whole thing just seems too daunting.

Trust me, this is the way to go. We all had a great time and wonderful meal, plus Cynthia and I got to visit with our guests the entire evening without distraction. Once everyone had departed we sat with a nightcap marveling that the occasion had been so enjoyable and effortless.

And considering that all the time-consuming and energy-draining aspects associated with hosting such an event were totally eliminated, we concluded having such an upscale dining experience in the comfort of our own home was actually a tremendous value.

Thank you, Jennifer Martin and Grits Catering, for a memorable event. We highly recommend you to everyone in Cuenca!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Time Travelers

Cynthia and I pretty much take our daily lives for granted. You most likely do the same. I mean, it's your life and you live it all day every day. You've been doing it for years. What's to think about, right?

So we tend to forget that to you our lives are kind of unusual. For starters we reside in a foreign country that most people know little about. To some of you this blog may constitute your entire knowledge of Ecuador.

Then there's the fact that we leave for weeks, even months, at a time. Whereas your trips are probably long weekends--a week--two weeks tops. We just returned home Monday night after almost six weeks in the States and it dawned on me that you might be curious to know what it's like to be gone for extended periods of time.

I'm often asked, "Don't you worry about your place while you're away?" The answer is we don't even think about this apartment when we're not here. Why? Two reasons: 1) we live in a secure building and 2) we continue to pay our maid while we're gone so she can come by every week to check on the place plus do extra cleaning projects. In fact, we rarely think of Cuenca at all.

This latest trip started in Las Vegas where we had dinner with my sister and her hubby, and celebrated our anniversary (it was in July but after this many years----) with an exciting helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon. On to Phoenix for a conference, then to New Jersey for trick-or-treating with one set of grandchildren, a day trip into Manhattan, down to North Carolina to visit our son and the other two young’uns, then back to New Jersey for a family Thanksgiving feast and Christmas decorating, and now here we are at home.

That sounds like a lot. It is a lot. And in the midst of all this bee bopping around a funny thing happens with our perception of time. When looking back on all that activity time feels like it slows down. As in, "We were in Vegas six weeks ago? It seems like six months ago!"

I still remember my grandmother telling me about how time flies when you're older. Approaching middle age I was actually concerned about her dire warnings. For us the opposite has been true, and I'm convinced it's because we stay so busy doing fun and interesting things. Bless her heart, towards the end my grandmother's life the only events marking her mental calendar were annual holidays and birthdays. So each year for her was less than 30 days long. No wonder they seemed to be zipping by!

In addition to the stimulation of the travel experience itself, spending time with our young grandchildren contributes to this time slowdown because they change so much between visits. One of our granddaughters lost her first two teeth while we were there and another one celebrated her third birthday.

But things get almost surreal in the opposite way when we return home. Because once we've unpacked and bought groceries it feels like we never left. Like the whole multi-week trip we just completed was a dream. Think about it. Our place is exactly like we left it. There are even clean sheets on the bed! Nothing has radically changed in the neighborhood. We may not talk to our friends for weeks at a time anyway so while we're gone they keep living their lives with or without us. It's very much like we simply turn our lives on and off here.

In spite of all these metaphysical time musings I must admit that Cynthia and I haven't thus far found a way to halt the aging process, so more and more we pay a price for all our frenetic travel adventures. While we wouldn't have it any other way, giving our all to being hands-on grandparents to little kids for weeks and weeks is exhausting. Combining that with hours on airplanes and getting readjusted to Cuenca's high altitude, we're pretty beat down at first.

Lugging lots of max weight suitcases up four flights of steps, as we did Monday night, isn't the ideal "Welcome Home!!" activity. The remainder of that evening consisted of some unpacking, a few cocktails, and peanut butter crackers for dinner. Since then we've been sleeping more than normal, getting the pantry and refrigerator restocked, and easing back into our routine.

Having said that, reconnecting with friends is a high priority so we already have five social activities on the calendar in the next 10 days. Just as we walk around our apartment plugging in lamps when we return, it doesn't take much time at all to plug back into our lives here in Cuenca!!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Special Delivery

Mug cakes aren't the only food category where Cynthia and I arrived late to the party. A much more basic topic hiding in plain view has until recently eluded us for years.

Our daughter's home in New Jersey is in that raising small children mode with which we're all familiar. There never seems to be enough time and everyone's always tired. So when we're there visiting the drawer with menus from local eateries is often opened, a phone call is made, and shortly thereafter the doorbell's ring announces that dinner has arrived via delivery.

We came to Cuenca in 2010 before the appearance of this home delivery idea. And truthfully the food scene was so abysmal then there wasn't anything you would have wanted to order anyway. Fast forward to today when a remarkable explosion of culinary choice has blossomed.

We've seen the motorcycles with boxes on the back for making deliveries. We've even been in restaurants and seen boxes of pizzas going out the door. But somehow those observations never translated into our participation. I often say there's a fine line between being in a groove and being in a rut. Perhaps, as with the story awhile back about the gas guy, we had fallen into the latter category.

About six months ago, after 6 1/2 years, we finally took the plunge and ordered a to-go pizza and Caesar salad from one of our favorite Italian eateries. As expected the delivery guy couldn't find our building (the number is out of synch and no one seems to be able to find it the first time) and I had to walk down four flights of steps to complete the transaction. But the food was wonderful and we're sitting at our table asking, "Exactly why have we not done this before? The delivery fee is about the same as the tip we would leave and we didn't have to go to and from the restaurant, wait for the order, wait for the bill, wait for the change--this needs to happen more often!!"

And indeed it has. In addition to the pizza place, a new gringa-run food delivery business called Grits Catering has quickly become an integral part of our weekly meal planning. Owner Jennifer Martin is cranking out some damned tasty food and we've been elated to wash a couple of plates, knives, and forks after a delicious meal instead of facing those plus a kitchen of dirty cutting boards, utensils, pots, and pans to clean up.

We've enjoyed shrimp and grits (What??), gourmet meatloaf and au gratin potatoes, barbeque chicken salad, shrimp po' boys. I'm in fact writing this blog right now while we're waiting for delivery of short ribs and mushroom risotto, and I can't wait to dig in!

Between inexpensive local almuerzos and meal delivery our grocery bill and kitchen cleanup time have both been slashed. OK, we're late to the party but the Staton's say:

Party on!!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Microwave Miracles

Have you ever heard of a mug cake? If so, why the hell haven't you told me about it? We were having dinner at a couple's home last week when the hostess said something about an easy dessert.

"What did you say?" I asked. "A mud cake?"

"No," she replied. "A mug cake."

"What does that even mean?"

"You put the ingredients in a mug, stick it in the microwave for like a minute, and you've got a small cake."

"Shut the _____ up."

I came home a little dubious, but curious enough to Google it. Sure enough, almost 8 million results appeared. Wow.

We enjoy delicious baked goods but rarely make them for a number of reasons. One, our oven sucks. It's the only one that would fit in the opening in our kitchen when we moved in and the temperature, which refuses to exceed 400 degrees, is reliably unreliable.

Second, baking at high altitude is notoriously tricky. And most importantly, what are two people going to do with a whole pie or cake? (Cookies, most likely because of their smaller individual size, avoid that question and magically disappear.)

So this mug cake idea eliminated a lot of problems and potentially opened up a whole new world of possibilities. But how could a cake that cooks in one minute be any good?

Only one way to find out. I saw a recipe for a molten chocolate cake and knowing that we have all the ingredients looked no further. But I was a bit flummoxed when it said to put everything in a 2 cup capacity mug. They make coffee cups that big?? Who knew?

I used an appropriately sized bowl and saw that this dessert was for sure going to be a "splitter." I thought if people are routinely eating this much cake all by themselves I instantly understand the U.S. obesity problem much more clearly.

Less than 5 minutes after I started--VOILA--this bad boy emerged from the microwave.

And when I dished it up---oh, my goodness!

Moist and delicious, my friends, this is nothing short of a miracle. I quickly went back to the computer and on deck for the coming week are a blueberry muffin with strudel topping and a yummy-sounding carrot cake.

Somebody stop me!!

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Goldilocks People

Happy Fall, y'all. With the official changing of the season many of you are probably looking forward to putting away the shorts and tee shirts in favor of jackets and sweaters. The leaves will be turning soon and it will be great to say bye-bye to summer heat and be outside enjoying that crisp autumn air.

Here in Cuenca we're looking forward to---tomorrow. Which will be about the same as today. In the "Land of Eternal Spring" weather fluctuations are pretty much confined to minor changes in temperature and whether or not it's going to rain.

We're now emerging from our "winter" season which in truth lasted maybe two weeks. Fourteen days of constantly chilly, overcast weather felt pretty miserable as temps inside our apartment ranged from the mid-60's to the high 50's. Again, that's inside our home!

It's Groundhog Day every time I open my closet. Twelve months a year I pick from the same clothes, which are mainly long sleeved shirts and jeans. I have more pairs of jeans than I do slacks--never saw that one coming. I honestly get tired of wearing them so much and welcome every opportunity to "dress up" when we visit friends or go out to eat. Packing for our recent beach trip took like five minutes since I have so few warm weather choices. My one heavy coat hangs in one of our daughter's closets in New Jersey because I never need it here.

Cynthia and I replace a few clothing items each time we go to the States. When we're in Phoenix next month a trip to a premium outlet mall is already planned. Usually the discarded clothes (Staton rule: get rid of at least as many as you add) we give to our maid aren't worn out--we're just sick of looking at them!

While staring at the exact same wardrobe every morning admittedly gets a bit monotonous, I'm not complaining. Because of our daughter's health crisis last year Cynthia and I were in the U.S. for much of the summer and enough of the winter to confirm our disdain for temperature extremes. Cuenca's mild climate was an important reason we moved here, and over the past 7+ years we've become total Goldilocks people--not too hot, not too cold--just right!