Monday, February 28, 2011

how I learned to stop worrying and love the school

There they go
Today's the first day of school here in Panama.  Since having children I've noticed that one of the most recurrent topics of discussion with other mothers is school.  When to send them?  Or  maybe homeschooling would be better?  Which school is best?  Should they go to a bilingual school?  Or maybe they should just stick to English, or maybe Italian, or Chinese...  I used to fret about these things.  I worried that school was too conservative, that they would teach too much religion (this is Latin America), and that my brilliant, creative children would be warped.  I don't really worry about any of this anymore.

I send my kids to a bilingual school that is connected to a church.  It is academic, conservative and pretty old-fashioned.  The kids study both an American curriculum and the Panamanian one.  There is homework everyday; there are a lot of tests. When we first moved to Panama, my kids went to a less traditional school.  There were many things I loved about that school, but I was not satisfied with the education they were receiving.  I realized I wanted more for them.  To my surprise, strong academics were more important to me than a non-traditional environment.

My kids are smart, and I want them to be challenged, even pushed a little.  My kids need to learn structure and organization at school because they probably won't learn that from me (I wish it weren't so, but I'm kinda all over the place).  They also need to learn how to act around the spiffy people.  They don't have to be spiffy people, but they don't need to be intimidated by them.  I can give them the other stuff: travel, and adventure, and scope for imagination, heaps of books to read, homemade chocolate chip cookies, messiness and a repertoire of fart jokes (I have a lot to offer in all of these areas!).  Yes, my kids go to school where their skirts need to be past their knees and good manners have a high value, but I'm cool with it.

Friday, February 25, 2011

vegetable soup with pistou

Our Culantro Rojo basket was filled with the usual veggie goodness.  We are not vegetarians, but I cook vegetarian about half of the time.  I thought I'd use the shell beans as the base for soup.  Soup seems all wrong for the tropics, but I think it works when it's not too heavy (with cream or meat).  A light soup, finished with fresh cilantro or basil is just about perfect on a hot day.  This soup is finished with pistou, which is like pesto without the nuts.  This soup is very simple, almost too plain, but the pistou makes it surprisingly tasty.
shelling beans is the perfect job for a kid
Vegetable Soup
shell beans (these came in a sweet little bundle--about a cup and a half shelled)
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoons thyme
1 onion chopped
2 carrots diced
1 cup cubed squash 
2 cups green beans chopped 
2 cups zucchini diced
6 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (reserve blanching water for soup)
salt to taste
pasta (I used half a box of whole wheat rotini that was in the cupboard, but orzo or something small would be nicer)

To cook the beans, bring a medium pot of water to a rolling boil.  Add the beans and bay leaves.  Cooking time depends on the beans--up to two hours of simmering. 
beans and bay
When the beans are just about cooked, start the soup.  Saute the onion, thyme and carrot until the carrots are tender.

Add the green beans and squash.
strings off!
Next add the zucchini and tomatoes and their water.  Add the shell beans with their cooking liquid (leave the bay leaves in).  Top up with water to get a nice soupy consistency.  Salt to taste. 

Bring soup to a boil and add pasta.  When the pasta is done the soup is ready!

While the pasta cooks, make the pistou.

too bad there's not scratch n' sniff on the internet!
large bunch of basil
1/4 cup olive oil
2 (or more) cloves of garlic

Pulse in the food processor to an even consistency, or if you're fancy use a mortar and pestle.

parm and pistou

Serve the soup.  Finish the soup with grated parmesan and a large dollop of pistou.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

the backyard

After living in Panama a year (our rent was raised) we decided to buy a house.  I took on the house-hunting, and it was very discouraging.  I would optimistically get into the realtor's car only to view huge, air-conditioned monstrosities with postage stamp yards.  I didn't see one place I liked.  I wanted to live in the city, not a suburban gated community.  I wanted a walking-distance, supermarket,  and a nice park for the kids.  I also wanted a yard.  The neighbourhood we were living in had this kind of house, but there didn't seem to be any places for sale around that we could afford.

One day, on my way to the store, I saw an inconspicuous for-sale sign.  I immediately called the realtor and made an appointment.  The first appointment was cancelled by the owner.  I made another appointment; she cancelled three times before I finally got to see the house.  It really seemed like it wasn't going to happen.  The woman suffered frequent migraines and in fact, when I did finally see the house, she was in bed.
One look at the backyard and I knew it was our house.  We've lived here almost three years now and I was not wrong.


budding bastón del rey

home to iguanas

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Chagres National Park, Cerro Azul

view of the city on the way up
So I've been wanting to visit Chagres National Park for a while, and I decided that the easiest day trip would be up to Cerro Azul.  Cerro Azul is best known for its chicken barns and private gated community; it also borders on the park.  Cerro Azul is an hour from Panama (after Tocumen, you keep going to 24 de Dicembre, here you turn off at the Super 99--keep a close eye out for the signs because it's easy to miss them and end up in a maze of neighbourhoods).  On the road up, there are some nice views of the city and ocean (you may not want to stop, as people seem to be using these viewpoints as impromptu, garbage dumps).

There are many signs marking out the border of the park (often with chicken barns and big houses behind them), but there was no sign of a park office.  There's a police station, near the entrance to a private gated community, so we stopped to ask directions.  The officer told us that there was no park office, and that the road just ended about a kilometre further (both things totally untrue!).

We decided to head back to a restaurant we'd seen on the way up (it had a pool, so it wouldn't be a total bust for the kids).  While we drank cold beer, munched torrejitas de bacalao (salt cod fritters), and watched the kids in the pool, we talked to the owner.  The owner set us straight on the park office (it's about a kilometre past the police station).  I have no idea why the police officer lied to us--maybe he thought we looked a bit dicey in our SUV with two kids in the back.

After lunch we went to the park office and talked to the ranger.  He directed us to a trail down to a river.

the girls leading the way
pretty in pink
It's always important to look up in the jungle
It was a very pleasant ten minute walk down to a pretty river.

We got into our bathing suits and spent a relaxing couple of hours.

Later we drove further up the road to see what we could see.

a lovely view despite the deforestation
The Chagres River basin provides water for Panama, Colon and the canal.  The Chagres National Park is a huge park/conservation area, and seeing this little corner of it only made me anxious to see more.  I'm hoping we can check out the park by Lake Alajuela in a week or two. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Beach

Playa Santa Clara, Panama
We love the beach.  Like connoisseurs of sashimi or oysters, we like the beach unadulterated.  To me, resorts are like mayonaise spoiling a perfectly lovely piece of fish.  I have nothing against resorts (or mayonaise); I just prefer the beach without them. 

When we lived in Costa Rica, we spent every weekend at the beach.  We lived near a long stretch of pristine beach that has pretty much spoiled us for any other beach.   We would load the car with lunch and dinner, beach chairs, boogie boards, and kayak and we would spend the day, leaving only after the sun had set.  We shared these weekends with an amazing group of friends.  Those really were the best of times, and are the source of some of our fondest memories.

at the beach in Costa Rica (Esterillos Oeste)

Of course my children adore and exult in the beach; nobody gets the beach the way kids do.  My children arrive at the beach, throw open the car, and inhale (it's like some kind of primal homecoming).  It seems criminal to deprive them of this, and we try to get to the beach as often as we can.

When we first moved to Panama, one of our first questions for new acquaintances was, "Where do you go to the beach?"  The answer was never very satisfactory, either they didn't like the beach (?!) or they'd recommend a resort.  We started to wonder if there were any good beaches in Panama.  Turning to the internet, I found a great site that catalogues our kind of beach (Almanaque Azul) and we've been exploring all kinds of beaches since.  Last Sunday, we discovered a beach that meets all of our criteria (shade, no quads, no jet skis, no resort).
Playa La Ermita, Panama
Playa La Ermita is one of the last beaches in the province of Panama.  The entrance for this beach is at the first pedestrian bridge after the town of El Higo.  When we turned off the highway there was a police checkpoint, (they were checking for guns and hard liquor) and a couple of nice ladies collecting an entrance fee for the municipality (I don't mind paying this kind of thing at all--I applaud and support communities that look after and take pride in their beaches).  After two and  half kilometres of roughish gravel, the road divides; take the left road down to the beach.  At the beach there's a couple of restaurants (we had a packed lunch so we didn't stop).  There were two buses parked at one end of the beach, we just went the other way--there was plenty of room for everyone. We found a nice shady spot and settled in for the day.

The day was spectacular.  The beach was nice and clean and not crowded at all.  There is quite a large estuary that seemed popular with the local people.  The beach is quite steep going down to the water, but we didn't notice a big drop off in the water.  The kid-sized waves were perfect for playing in, and my youngest could not bear to be out of the water.  It did look like there was a surf break at the far end of the beach, but I didn't check it out.
After eating and walking and lots of playing, we left at three, hoping to beat the traffic.  The traffic back to Panama on a Sunday can really spoil the relaxing effects of the beach.  Thankfully our tactic worked, and we had a nice drive back to the city.  All in all, a marvelous day!  

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Happy Valentine's

So we are not big celebrators of the day.   The armloads of roses being sold at every traffic light are lovely, but not really my thing.  I do love to speculate about the men buying those traffic light, roses (for his wife, mistress, maybe his mom...).  For me, a good bottle of wine and some homemade cards from my kids are preferable to roses (I'd like to think he cares enough to get out of the car!).  And I do like to make something sweet for my darlings.  This year, I made a Red Velvet Cake (as red as any street corner rose!).  I'd never heard of this cake, and I kept seeing it on different food blogs; It looked so pretty I had to try it.

 Now, I think when I was a kid, people put red food colouring into Devil's Food Cake.  Devil's Food is very similar to Red Velvet, but chocolatier, and I don't think anyone puts colouring into it anymore--it's reddish enough from the cocoa-baking soda-vinegar reaction.  I'm not really into food colouring, and the recipe called for 2 oz of the stuff!!  I made it with 1 oz and I think the results were sufficiently red.

I'm not going to link the recipe because I didn't actually like it that much.  It's very pretty, but too sweet and not enough chocolate for me.  In the end, I kind of felt all that beautiful, cream cheese, frosting was wasted on a mediocre cake.  Oh yeah, and if you thought that frosting this cake, and eating great, glopping,  tablespoons of frosting, and then going for a run would give you terrible heartburn, you'd be right.

 Happy Day!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Squash Sweet Corn Fritters

On Sunday our bi-monthly basket of organic produce came (thanks Claudia and Eylon!).  There were lots of good things in the basket as usual, but I was inspired by a big piece of squash.

The following recipe was adapted/inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi's fritter roulette recipe.  I don't have a kitchen scale or padron peppers (or coriander seed for that matter) so inspired is probably more accurate than adapted.

Squash Sweet Corn Fritters

3 free-range eggs
1 can coconut milk
3/4 cup self-raising flour
1/2 cup cornflour
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
½ tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper
4 cups squash grated
kernels cut off 4 cobs of sweet corn
3 green onions, chopped
oil, for frying

Mix the first twelve ingredients together.  I recommend  sifting the flour into the batter.  Here in the tropics sifting is essential; the humidity causes terrible clumping.

Heat the oil.

Drop spoonfuls of the batter into the hot oil and fry a couple minutes until golden and crispy.  Carefully flip the fritter over and finish frying it (another minute or so).

Remove fritter from oil and drain on wire rack.  I put paper towel under the rack to catch drips.

Serve with wedges of lime and hot sauce.

We enjoyed these fritters for supper with a nice big salad.  The fritters were light and crispy with sweet bursts of corn.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Plantation Road

On Sunday we hiked the Plantation Road trail in Soberanía National Park.  This trail was originally a road, built by the Americans, to access plantations during the construction of the Panama Canal. The trail goes 7km into the park; it's an old road so it's easy hiking--perfect for kids.

To tempt my kids out of bed I made some banana chocolate-chip muffins (I'll post the recipe later this week).  The muffins weren't really a necessary measure, because we were picking up one of their friends to join us, and they were both very complacent.  It's amazing how the addition of one friend can change the whole dynamic; instead of surly they were actually enthusiastic about the prospect of hiking all morning.

We were at the head of the trail, ready to go in, just after nine.  There were some mountain bikers coming out, and the park ranger happened to be there too.  The park ranger wasn't very enthusiastic about the cyclists, but the trail is really perfect for that.  I would love to go back with the bikes some time.

About a kilometre into the trail we saw (actually smelled first)  some howler monkeys.  They were high up in a tree.
Howler monkeys are impressive for their large size, and of course that incredible sound they make.  Their call can be heard for long distances, and it is ubiquitous on most of the trails in Soberanía.  We've heard them before in the park, but it was the first time we actually saw them there.

A few steps after the monkeys we came to a pretty waterfall.
The day was beautiful and the hiking was very pleasant.  There are many spectacular trees in the park and we seemed to stop every few steps to marvel at one.

We didn't make very good time for the first couple of kilometres just because the day was so lovely, and we all needed to just bask in it.  At the 2K marker I handed out packets of cashews and reminded everyone that we had five kilometres to go before lunch.  We picked up the pace a bit after that.

At about 5k (the markers stopped after 3K) the trail opens onto a clearing--that probably once was some kind of planation; but whatever was planted there has been choked out by canal grass (an Asian species that was originally introduced to stop erosion in the canal).

The kids were getting tired and needed a bit of distracting (singing, storytelling, cheerleading) for the last couple of kilometres.  We didn't see any wildlife, as we were so focused on arriving, but we did pass some beautiful red flowers.

 The trail ends where it joins with the Camino de Cruces trail.
The Camino de Cruces trail is an important historical trail; it was built by the Spanish in the 16th century to connect the Atlantic port to Panama City.  The original cobblestone can still be seen in sections of the trail. Someday we'll tackle it--it sounds like it might be a little challenging for the kids--so we might have to go without them.  

We stopped at the crossroads and ate our picnic.
With bellies filled and legs rested, we made our way back to the car.  On the way back we saw a three-toed sloth high up in a tree, and coati on the side of the trail.  The kids actually ran most of the way back to the car.  It's amazing how much shorter a trail can seem on the way back.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

pickles on the grill

We often barbeque.  A meal of grilled meat, green salad and loaf of bread is a wonderful thing (a respectful nod to my Argentine in-laws who taught me everything I know about grilling!) .  Wash that down with big glasses of red wine and club soda and you have something like perfection!  It's the kind of eating that suits this climate. 

Last night, needing some inspiration, I took a look at Mark Bittman's list of grill recipes, and decided to give the grilled pickles a try.  I love anything pickley, and I was in the mood for doing something weird, but easy so...

I sliced five medium sized cucumbers lengthwise and grilled them quickly while the grill was hot (too hot for meat).  The cucumbers came off the grill with grill-marks on the cut side, and slightly charred on the peel side.

I chopped them roughly, but I think I'd go for a finer slice next time.

I put the pickles in a bowl with some course salt, white vinegar, and sugar to my taste (more salty and sour than sweet).

They were good, kid-friendly and simple.  I think they'd be better with some grilled pepper and onion (unfortunately, my kids won't eat onions and peppers).

Of course we didn't just have pickles for supper.  I grilled some steak, rolled chicken breast (also from Bittman's list) and chorizo.

The perfect end to a busy Saturday.  Everything was great, except the green salad.  I had added some truffle oil to the vinaigrette, and it turns out I don't like truffle oil.  So don't believe the hype about truffle oil; a few drops can ruin a perfectly good salad.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Sunny Sunday

On Sundays we like to get out of town.  If we don’t get out of town, my kids start asking to go to the mall.  The mall on Sunday makes me feel like a loser.  Really, the mall, as a Sunday outing, depresses me.  Luckily for me, my kids are still young enough that they can be forced tricked persuaded into adventure.
On Saturday, I told the girls that we would be climbing a mountain, and then going to the beach (without the the promise of the beach it’s unlikely I’d get them up the mountain).  I told them we’d have to leave earlyish, and that they could sleep in their hiking clothes and eat breakfast in the car.  In this way, we managed to leave the house by nine without whining or complaints.


The morning was lovely; the kids were content.  The start of a road trip always makes me feel so good, and really, it was very satisfying to have gotten everyone out of the house so effortlessly.

We were headed to a national park called Altos de Campana.  This park is an hour's drive out of the city.  We arrived just after ten and met some birders on their way out.  Those birders were probably grateful that we (chattering children in tow) are earlyish, rather than early on Sundays.

The park has a few different trails, and we had hiked the short Podocarpus trail in December, when it was much too wet to attempt anything steep.  This time we planned to hike "La Cruz," a trail that goes up to a cross on a rocky peak.  The, not very informative map, said it was an hour's hike. 

The trail is quite steep, but totally manageable.  The temperature was cool and comfortable for hiking.  

Everything went very well until we came to a fork in the trail.  There was no fork in the trail on the map.  What to do?  Continue straight up, or head down a washed out path with some broken and bent handrails?  We decided to continue up; it seemed to us that if we were going to the top, we needed to go up.  The trail got steeper and muddier.

After about fifteen minutes of climbing, we got to the top.  There was no cross, and the view was through the trees, and worst of all, it was very wet.  This was not the great picnic spot we all had been imagining.   We took a few pictures and turned around.  

So, as you may know, going down, is a lot harder than going up a steep, muddy, mountain trail.  After my daughter slipped flat on her butt the second time, she started to scream.  Not crying, although there was that too, but unrestrained, furious screaming.

"I hate you!  I hate this!  You are the worst parents!" 

She totally lost it.  Now, I'm not a stupid or mean person, but my reaction to her was not exemplary.  I pretty much bullied her down the mountain.  Thank goodness her patient father was there, because I was not being very nice.  Oddly, on this fraught stretch of trail we saw some kind of trogon (really,  the only wildlife we saw). 

We arrived back at the fork in the trail.  It was reasonably dry and flat so we set out our picnic.  We had sandwiches and apples and rocky road bars.  I thought the marshmallows would make the nuts more appealing to my seven-year old (totally wrong about that).

As we finished eating I noticed my recently crying daughter smiling contentedly.  Yeah, she's a gangly, growing, eleven-year-old girl WHO NEEDS TO EAT!  sometimes I am so thick.  The whole tantrum on the trail situation could have been averted with a cookie. 
Suddenly some hikers popped up from the descending trail and sure enough, that was the trail to "la Cruz."  Well now we know for next time (I didn't even try to make them keep going--even though I would have liked to).  

We headed back to the car and on to the beach.  We went to Playa Santa Clara.  There are other beaches that are nearer, but this is where we usually go.  We take the public entrance  at Las Sirenas.  It's not too busy at that end of the beach, but you need to bring your own shade and provisions.

We had an excellent afternoon messing around.  Apart from a couple of entitled jerks on quads, it was an idyllic afternoon.  Way better than the mall!