Saturday, August 14, 2010

EFM: Embracing Foreign Methods

Being able to adapt. Accepting other cultures are not inferior - just different. Willing to try new things.

All pretty basic stuff if you want to enjoy your stay in the foreign service. And a lot easier to say than to actually practice.

On Thursday (our first month in the books) I found myself in the grocery store by myself (for the second time) and having some difficulty buying food to prepare for dinner.

In my cart, there were some fruits, a package of chicken breasts and some processed foods. Staring at it, I couldn't think of a thing to make with what I had and I found myself growing irritated and depressed simultaneously.

Which led to my come-to-Jesus moment. My cart was bereft of local staples. During my previous solo grocery trip, I took note of some of the subtle difference between American and Mexican grocery stores. Some of the differences in the aisles and some of the different products available. But I was still pretty certain I would be cooking my foods. The stuff I was used to doing.

Now granted, once my toys arrive in our ground/surface/sea freight, that will make it a little easier to go back to cooking what I know, but for the most part, those toys just increase cooking efficiency. In other words, I'll probably still be facing the same problems of not knowing how to work with what they sell here.

Throwing caution to the wind, I went back to the produce and started filling my cart with some vegetables. They have a lot of tomatillos here, and in different places, so these must be important. Let's pick some up. Have to have some chili peppers, right? How about a couple of serranos, then. Onions are important in every culture, let's get one of those, too.

A brief side story: I don't know much Spanish, which can make grocery shopping a real treat at times. So I grabbed a reporter's notebook for this trip and wrote down the names of all of the foods that I didn't recognize or wasn't a 100% sure on. Then I looked them up on SpanishDict when I got home. The notebook will be my grocery shopping Bible. Best translations to date, a toss up between "chicozapte" (a delicious American fruit, which is odd because I'm not familiar with this fruit) and "grasa mixta comestible" (which literally means edible mixture of fat, but in practice, this is lard).

Now I have some stuff I can work with, but I still have no idea how to blend this altogether to make something "comestible." I try a few Internet searches with lines like, "These are my ingredients" until I finally came across a Web site I favorite'd immediately, Go play with this Web site. It is incredible. You just enter the ingredients you have, then you can highlight the stuff you want to use, and it is filtering through various other recipe Web sites what options are out there for you.

I ended up with grilled chicken breast and a roasted tomatillo and tomato salsa. Not too bad.

But I was on a role now, so I needed to make a side, too. I love black beans, but I can never cook them well. So I did a few searches and apparently every one cooks canned beans. I wasn't interested in canned bean recipes, I have dried beans. Through the magic of Internet surfing, I eventually found the Web site to the American Bean Association which offered great tips on cooking dried beans.

I found that one of my fatal flaws was adding salt to the beans while they cooked. A big no-no that leads to very dry beans. And here I was just thinking I wasn't letting them soak long enough, which, by the way, the whole soaking over night nonsense is just a myth. Instead, add beans to hot water, bring to a boil, and let the boil continue for a couple of minutes. Then remove from the heat, cover and leave it alone for about four hours.

Using these tips and what I had in my pantry, I made my first successful black bean dish. And there was much rejoicing not only because now I can cook one of my favorite beans, but because I finally decided to alter my methods to fit the environment.


  1. That is great! There are so many great flavors in Mexico. I am definitely going to look at that website.
    Something I recommend:
    Chilaquilas. It is tortilla chips in red or green sauce (I like the red). It is a breakfast/brunch dish, and it is awesome. I usually get mine with chicken, but they also come plain or with eggs. So good.
    By the way, jealous of your exchange rate. We are just around 12.

  2. hey david, I just had to send you this recipe- until I found this, I never saw the point in making my own black beans (from dried). Now I make and freeze them all the time. This recipe introduced me to cilantro, too. it's delicious and easy. Good luck w your culinary adventures...

  3. You rock!! Something we do here is experiment with making salsa. They have the best ingredients for some incredible salsas!!!

  4. Very well done! Once we know where we're going (T minus 11 days to flag day), I'm going to look for some good cookbooks for the region where our next home will be. For Mexico, I recommend Diana Kennedy: The Essential Cuisine of Mexico. Also, Chilaquilas are AWESOME.

  5. Rick Bayless is an excellent source...may he guide your culinary adventures, David.