Sunday, June 15, 2014

Adventures in Cooking

In an effort to save money, try new things, and be more self-sufficient, I made ají de gallina at home last weekend!

For those of you that don't know, ají de gallina is a typical Peruvian dish.  It has chicken in a creamy sauce that is a bit spicy and cheesy, and there are usually hard boiled eggs mixed in and rice on the side.

So, was it a success?

Well, I didn't burn down the kitchen.  I also survived eating it.  Based on those two measures, my answer is an enthusiastic yes!

So, how do you make ají de gallina?

Here are the ingredients I started with:

chicken, onions, garlic, condensed milk, parmesan cheese,
carrots, white bread, tumeric, brown rice, and aji de amarillo
(yellow pepper) paste
The first step?  Cut up some onions, garlic, and carrots.  Put them in a pot of water with the chicken and let simmer for half an hour.

I have only once or twice in my life cut onions, and knowing the tears that result does not make it an activity to wet my pants over.  After googling it, I came across the advice of cutting onions in a bowl of water.  (They also suggested wearing swimming goggles while cutting, but I unfortunately didn't have any available).  So here was the result of that effort:

After cutting up the carrots and garlic (not in a bowl of water), I then added them to the pot of water along with the chicken.

I ran into a small problem though.  As you can see from the picture, the pot is practically overflowing.  

The recipe called for a specific amount of water, but I didn't have any pots that were bigger.  So before submerging the last piece of chicken I used a cup to scoop out some of the water.

It took a while for the water to come to a boil.  Whoops, maybe I should have at least heated it up before adding the veggies and chicken.

So while that was heating up I had to cut up more onions and garlic, and the recipe also called for white bread diced into small cubes.  

I had no idea that it would take me so long to peel off the coating of each clove of garlic!  Oh well, at least the water was starting to boil now!

As you can see, I also put some rice into a pot to cook.

After the chicken and veggies had simmered for half an hour, I had to strain out the water (which was now supposed to be chicken stock) and use it to make the sauce.

Well, I strained it out, but to me it looked just as clear and water-like as when I had put it in the pot.

I put the water into a mixer, and added the condensed milk and bread cubes.  After some mixing, I added in the parmesan cheese.  

The next step?  Put the garlic and onions that I had cut up before into a pan and let them cook.  While that was happening I had to shred up the chicken that was supposed to have cooled off by then (but hadn't).

I then mixed the sauce with the chicken:

After that, I added it to the pan with the onions and garlic, and I added in the magical ají amarillo paste and the tumeric.

The end result of almost two and a half hours of cooking?

And how was it?

Well, remember that I said I didn't burn down the kitchen and that I survived eating it.  I'm very proud of both those points.

The flavor was ok.  I was worried about adding too much ají, and after looking around at a few places I gave up on trying to find walnuts (which were another part of the recipe).  I also got lazy with cutting up the onions to put in the pan, so now I had long strands of onion mixed in with the chicken.  (No, it's not supposed to be that way).  Overall, I would give it a 5 out of 10.

What was the good that came out of this  (Besides not burning down the kitchen and surviving my own cooking)?

1. I have more confidence in my cooking abilities.  Growing up in the States (as in many other countries too I'm sure), cultural norms tell us that cooking is women's work and that men aren't good at it unless you are a master chef.  This was probably the most complex recipe I have ever cooked, and I did halfway decent with it.

2. I have developed a deeper appreciation for the effort that goes into cooking.  It can be time consuming, but it is a good way to let your mind decompress, and it lets you think things through when you have things on your mind.

3. I have a much deeper appreciation for the effort that goes into making Peruvian food.  I used to order Peruvian food from a restaurant that delivers to my apartment rather often, and I never really thought about the process that the cooks go through to make what they were delivering to me.  When I told one of my students about this experience (she is Peruvian), she told me that Peruvian food is delicious but also a very detailed type of cuisine to prepare.

Will I make ají de gallina at home again?  I doubt it.

The amount of time I invested to have the dish turn out to be mediocre was a bit disappointing, and I made enough for four days worth of food. 

Next time I think I'll go out to a restaurant to order it since there's a good Peruvian restaurant a few blocks away.  Or if I'm feeling too lazy to eat out there's always Papa John's.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Where there's smoke there's fire

Last Wednesday June 4th was another international first for me: I was evacuated from my job due to a fire.

So what happened?

It was about 1:30 in the afternoon, and I was in one of my student's offices going over his homework.  One of his coworkers came to his door and mentioned that there had been a fire in the building next door.  My student asked if we had to evacuate, and he said that we didn't but if anything changed that he would let us know.

Well, a few minutes later we had to evacuate.

I gathered up my teaching materials and headed outside with my student.  There were lots of small groups of people standing around in the plaza behind La Moneda (the presidential palace), and everyone was looking up at the smoke billowing from the top of the building.  The building was the ministry of foreign affairs, and there is also a bank there.


If there's an emergency, my boss has a designated meeting spot.  It was covered in smoke, however, so my student and I waited on the corner of Moneda and Teatinos, which was the corner furthest away from the fire.  He was worried about losing progress, so I continued to talk with him about English grammar for a bit, and then we chatted about the World Cup.  After a bit he told me that he was hungry and was going to get something for lunch, so I wished him a good day.

A few minutes later, my cell phone rang.  My boss told me that she was on the other side of the building with the other teachers, so I headed over there.  We obviously weren't going to get back into the building any time soon, so she suggested that we all go out for coffee to pass the time.  

One of the teachers had her wallet with her, so she paid for us and then our boss paid her back.  After about 45 minutes, She told us that there was no way that we would be getting back into the building to teach classes and that we could go home.  There was only one problem for me, though.

My wallet with my ID card, BIP card (to ride the bus and subway), and bank card were all inside.  
Whenever something like this happens my boss always locks the door, so I wasn't worried about anything getting stolen.  I just didn't know how I would get home or if I'd get my wallet back that day.

My boss told me that she could ask someone to lend me money so that I could get a taxi home or buy a new BIP card.  She took me up to one of the buildings that wasn't evacuated and introduced us to each other and explained my situation.  After he graciously lent me $10.000 pesos (about $20), we got a phone call that they were letting people back into the building to collect their things.  I was relieved, as I wasn't looking forward to the prospect of taking the bus or subway while balancing whiteboards, a bag of markers, and my tablet in my hands during the whole ride.  

We made our way to the front of the building, and there were a ton of people crowded around the entrance.  They were pressing up against it, as they were only allowing people in in small groups.  In a situation like that there were understandable safety and security concerns.  While people were anxious to get inside to retrieve their things and were very close together, there wasn't the pushing and shoving that I have become accustomed to on the buses and subway during rush hour.

As we walked in, we could smell the smoke in the hall.  It didn't make it into the office, but I know other people whose offices and belongings were closer to the fire and consequently smelled of smoke for a day or two afterwards.

Everyone that worked in the evacuated buildings were sent home for the day, and so I was done at 3:00.

The fire was big news in Santiago, mainly because it happened inside one of the ministries and also because it was so close to La Moneda, the presidential palace.  

If you're interested in seeing a video or reading about it in Spanish, click here to see a report from a national TV station.  Even if you don't understand Spanish you can see the video.

I was very grateful that it hadn't been worse.  As far as I know no one was hurt, and all of the safety precautions that they use for emergencies functioned perfectly.  Apart from a fire when I was almost too young to remember I had never been evacuated from anywhere because of a fire.

I've made a resolution to update twice a month, so you can expect to check in more often and see what else is happening.  Happy Sunday everyone!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

May Adventures: Catching Up, Green Cleaning, and Time at Home

I'm typing this while curled up in my bed.  Winter is well on its way, and my bed is now equipped with flannel sheets and a down comforter.  I also have my space heater on to help keep me warm.

Early in the month I met up with some former students to catch up.  We got dinner at Golfo di Napoli, the delicious Italian restaurant near my apartment.  There were 8 of us altogether, and it was great seeing what everyone was up to.  Some had traveled to the States, while others had finished their professional studies and were now working in their field.  One is working in the Netherlands now as an international researcher.  Others were getting married and having children, and one is going to the World Cup in a few weeks!

We met when I taught them during the second semester of 2012, and being able to stay in contact with them is a great feeling.  Apart from them I don't have many Chileans that I would consider good friends, and I'm so grateful to have them as friends.

I also got to catch up with some other friends over Mexican food at Taxco and another friend over Peruvian food.  There was good food, good drinks, and good company.  Some of them I hadn't seen since last year, so it was good to catch up and have that social time.

About halfway through the month I came to a few realizations:

1. I have been spending a lot of money eating out and buying prepared food.
2. If I want to pay back my student loans and also travel, something was going to have to change.

This isn't just about eating out with friends.  I had gotten into the habit of ordering Papa John's or Peruvian food each weekend, and I was also eating out for lunch a few days a week.  While it doesn't seem like much, it really adds up.

I also saw a friend's post on Facebook that got me thinking.  It said that cleaning and cooking are forms of meditation, and it really struck me.  I feel like I had been so engrossed in spending time online when I wasn't working that I had let these things fall by the wayside.  

My sister in law that lives in North Carolina had introduced me to green cleaning when I visited her and my brother in January, and I had brought back some supplies to start doing so.  I had used my standard cleaning products sparingly, somehow worrying that green cleaning would be difficult or that I would somehow mess it up.  

One Saturday I decided to give it a try.  I started with mixing some castille soap and baking soda to make a paste to clean the bathtub.  It fizzed and smelled good, and I put the paste on a sponge.  It cleaned easily, and it smelled great afterwards.  So then I decided to try a few other things.  Armed with a mini manual, I made a mixture of water and vinegar in a squirt bottle.  I used it to clean the kitchen and bathroom floor.  

I was so surprised and excited about it that I gave her a call shortly thereafter.  She was really happy for me and gave me some more tips.  Her biggest advice, however, was something that was really nice to hear: Have fun with it.

The other part of this meditation equation was cooking.  I cleaned through my cupboards and took stock of what food I had and what I'd need to buy to do some cooking.  I didn't really have to buy much to make some good, basic meals.  I started out with brown rice and veggies.  Letting the rice soak, steaming the broccoli and veggies, and then adding some meat flavoring made a nice meal that could be a full meal or side dish.  Other dishes have been chicken and veggies, spaghetti with homemade bolognese sauce, and oven baked chicken with mac and cheese.  Next week I'm going to give my own recipe of ají de gallina a try.

Another thing that came out of this new cooking and cleaning routine was the a new look at the physical space I'm living in.  While it isn't dirty, I have gotten into the habit of leaving papers and things lying in random places.  Organizing my physical space is still a work in progress, but with time I know it will get done.

It's so easy to get wrapped up in work and then to just fall into habits of spending time online or watching TV, but spending the time at home doing more productive things makes me feel better about myself and gives me a sense of accomplishment.

Wednesday May 21st was a holiday here, commemorating Chile's participation in a naval battle against Peru.  Even though Chile lost, the 21st was declared a national holiday to remember the lives lost and worthy effort of the Chilean navy.  It was a nice day to put the cleaning and cooking habit to good use.

To remind everyone of the opposite seasons here compared to the Northern Hemisphere, I leave you of a photo of what I looked like before going to work while people in the States were enjoying the nice spring weather on Memorial Day:

I hope all of the teachers reading this are having an enjoyable end of the school year and that everyone is enjoying the start of summer!