Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Quesos Chela

If you are driving between Panama City and the Pacific beaches, you will pass Quesos Chela and you will see tons of cars packing the parking lot, and you will wonder.  You will wonder, "What's so great about that place?"or "is it really worth stopping?"  I'm here to tell you it is.

Quesos Chela is a take-out place in Capira, and on the weekend it's busy.  The queues are chaotic and, if you don't have experience getting in line for things in Panama, daunting.  My advice, just relax, look around, figure out more or less what want (two or three people will probably push in front of you while you do this) and then really get in line.  When you are really in line, pay attention, and keep moving to the front with determination (very similar advice could be given about driving in Panama).  If you don't hesitate, the line will move quickly, if you do hesitate, people will butt in front.

Buy some cheese.  The cheese here is all mild, fresh cheese.  I like wedges of the big, round, fresh cheeses (plain. or  with herbs or olives).  These seem tastier to me, and have better texture than the cheeses that are prepackaged.  The vacuum packed cheese always seems a bit rubbery.  The bread is delicious, crusty and chewy.  Don't make the mistake of buying just one of anything!
The empanadas are excellent.  Like any fried food theses are best fresh, and at this place, everything is fresh.  The crispy, corn flour pastry is a little sweet and an excellent foil for the salty fresh cheese inside.  This kind of empanada is sold all over the place in Panama, but they are rarely as good as these are.

So get out of the climate controlled comfort of your car and get into a hot, pushy line to buy some cheese and empanadas.  I promise you, it's worth it!

Friday, March 25, 2011

tomato fish soup with basil croutons

I love soup made with fresh tomatoes.  If the tomatoes are very ripe and tender (as these were) I don't fuss with peeling, seeding, and coring, I just chop them up as they are.  I used sole (lenguado), but something sturdier would probably be better.  The basil croutons really make the soup so don't leave them out. 

for the croutons:
half a loaf of stale whole wheat bread cut into cubes
handful of fresh basil
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Finely mince the basil. In a bowl, toss the basil with the bread, oil and salt and peper.  Spread the bread onto a baking sheet and bake at 350º for 10-15 minutes.  The croutons should be crunchy.

for the soup:
1 bulb of fennel chopped fine
1 carrot chopped fine
1 leek chopped fine
1 stalk of celery chopped fine
3 cloves of garlic minced
3 small potatoes diced
8 plum tomatoes chopped
3-4 tablespoons of olive oil
4-5 fillets of firm fish
3/4 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups stock or water
salt and pepper to taste

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in dutch oven or large pot.  When the oil is nice and hot sear the fish--about a minute a side.  It won't be completely cooked.  Take the fish out of the oil and set aside.  Add the remaining oil, bring to heat and add the fennel, carrot, celery, leek and garlic.  Saute the vegetables and after a couple of minutes add the potatoes.  When the potatoes are glistening and the other vegetables are soft, add the wine.  Deglaze the brown bits from the bottom of the pot.  Let everything cook until the liquid is reduced by half.  Add the tomatoes and the remaining liquid (water, stock), salt and pepper.  Let everything cook at medium heat until the potatoes are soft and the tomatoes broken up (about 20 minutes).  Just before serving, cut the fish into bite-sized pieces and add it (and its accumulated juices) to the soup.  Let the fish finish cooking in the soup (3-5 minutes).  

Serve the soup with the croutons.

This soup was enjoyed by my whole family, except for one small person who only eats peanut butter sandwiches and quesadillas.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

my little one

My youngest daughter is a spirited child.  She hates being told what to do.  She is smart, but sitting still and focusing are hard for her, and she gives up easily.  She is impulsive and quickly bored.  She's tall for her age, so they seat her at the back (I will be talking to her teacher about this).  Her notebooks are disorganized and she often doesn't write down or remember homework.  She rarely finishes classwork--except math, which she loves.  I've been a teacher, and I know this kind of kid from the other side; I worry.

A friend was recently telling me how he hated school as a child, and how useless he thought school was--a total waste of time.  I know what he means, but I think he's wrong.  I agree that schools have rote learning and spent teachers and that these things can be awful.  But I don't think they are always awful.  I think having lines of poetry committed to memory is a good thing (if it's Shakespeare, even better).  Teachers can be lame, but this world is full of lame people, people who hate their lives and their jobs.  I know it sounds perverse, but I think school is an introduction to the world and society and there is so much to learn there besides what you write in your notebook.

Of course I don't want my girl to learn that she is stupid or bad (and I know this can happen too).  My third grade teacher told my mom that I was a poor student, and that I probably would never even graduate from high school.  She was wrong, and foolish to make such a prediction about an eight year old and I hope my daughter never has a teacher as nasty as she was.  But, that awful, past-her-expiration- date, teacher, taught me that adults can be wrong, and that they can be mean--this was incredibly important information for me and I've never forgotten it.  Of course, I hope for excellent, caring teachers for my children; teachers who provide stimulating environments for learning.  But I know something can be learned from even the worst teacher.

I sometimes worry about this messy, distracted kid.  I hope she learns what is being taught in the classroom, and what isn't.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

5 fun places to go with kids around Panama City

A couple of things you should know, I am not talking about places designed specifically for children, rather places that will appeal to the whole family.   Also, Panama City is hot and humid and you probably want to plan outdoor activities for earlyish morning and late afternoon (you will end up red-faced and soaked in sweat if you hike in Parque Metropolitano at high noon--trust me, I know).  In no particular order (and I'm sure this is not the definitive list), here are five great places to take kids in Panama City that are not the mall:
Parque Metropolitano
This is a beautiful park right in the city.  It is called the "lung of Panama."  On a recent morning visit we saw monkeys and a Motmot.  It always seems incredible to me that these beautiful animals are just right there (who needs zoos?).  The trails are all easy and well marked; it is possible to walk the network of trails in under three hours.  There are some of the best city views from the top lookout point (this is also a great spot to stop for a picnic).   The park is also home to a rehabilitation center; when we were there the other day, they were bringing in a tranquilized deer that had wandered out of the park and into the city.

The Causeway
The Amador Causeway has 5 kilometres of bike path/walkway along the Pacific entrance of the Canal.  It is possible to rent bikes and there are places to get ice cream and cold drinks (as well as lots of restaurants).  You will see spectacular city views and you can watch ships entering the canal.  There is usually a decent breeze on the causeway, making it a great place for kite flying.  The Smithsonian has a small nature centre on Punta Culebra, where there are touch pools (you can hold a starfish) and other marine exhibits.  Something I am very excited about is the opening (at the end of this year) of the Museo de Biodiversidad.  This natural history museum and botanical garden was designed by Frank Gehry and is interesting to look at under construction; it will be a great addition to the city.

Unless your kids are fascinated by feats of engineering (and I know some kids are), this is probably a place you'll only want to visit once.  Miraflores has a very good museum explaining the workings of the canal.  There is also a viewing deck to watch the locks in action.  The museum has some good hands-on exhibits that children will enjoy (a simulation of driving a boat through the canal).  It is one the most visited tourist spots in Panama, but with good reason.

Casco Viejo
The old city is beautiful.  The cobblestone streets and plazas around every corner make for some fun exploring.  You can get fancy ice cream or just a raspado (snow cone).  There are little shops and interesting buildings in various stages of repair and disrepair.  Casco Viejo is the cultural heart of Panama City and there is some interesting street art to look at as well as galleries to duck into.  Casco Viejo is great for a couple of hours of wandering on quiet afternoon.

Kiwanis Park in Clayton
I chose Kiwanis over Parque Omar because you can cycle on the loop around Kiwanis.  Parque Omar is a beautiful park but you can't cycle there.  If you don't have your own transportation, Parque Omar is probably a better choice than Kiwanis (taxis to Clayton can be difficult).   Kiwanis is a large sports complex in the canal zone (it's beside Ciudad de Saber/City of Knowledge) in Clayton.  There are soccer fields and baseball diamonds, a running/cycling path,  a gym, and a full-sized pool ($1 to use the pool!).  The pool facilities are clean and well maintained and there is a kiddie wading pool beside the big pool.  There are some beautiful trees on the perimeter of the park.  The park itself has picnic shelters and a playground.  The park gets quite busy on Sunday afternoons, but the rest of the week it's  quiet.  We taught both of my daughters to ride their bikes in this park.

Friday, March 18, 2011

corvina grilled on banana leaves

So it's Lent, and fresh fish are plentiful and irresistible in the supermarket.  The fish case is full of small corvinas (sea bass) and red snappers stashed in ice.  I grew up on the prairies, and obviously didn't eat a lot of fish (Captain Highliner fish sticks were a rare treat) but adore it.  I'm figuring fish out, everything beyond breaded fillets is an adventure.

We were admiring the fish counter the other day, debating corvina or red snapper, and we finally asked the opinion of a nice man who was looking over the fish himself.  He told us corvina were flavourful enough cooked simply and that the snapper really needs a marinade or sauce.  He was a very enthusiastic advisor, and I totally took his word for it; we bought the corvina.

One of my favorite Panamanian dishes is the whole fried corvina.  It is the simplest thing, but so tasty.  The key is really, fresh fish and the short, hot, cooking time in the deep fryer.  I don't have a deep fryer or even really the will, to attempt deep frying a whole fish at home, but fresh fish and hot, cooking temperatures I can do.   I've been experimenting with grilling.

One of the problems with grilling fish is the sticky mess that can result.  So, to avoid mess I did parchment packets on the grill.  This worked well but I wasn't happy with the parchment--it's really too expensive to be practical.  I also didn't think the texture was as good as it could be, because the fish was steamed--corvina seems to get mushy when cooked like this.  It occurred to me that all kinds of things are cooked in banana leaves, and then I remembered some delicious, grilled arepas we ate on the beach in Colombia years ago--grilled on banana leaves.  A quick internet search revealed that this was a common South Asian technique for grilling fish.

I did some research and decided to stuff the fish with fresh herbs.

I used culantro and basil.  The basil that is widely available here is sweet basil, with a strong anise flavour.  It's important to slash the sides of the fish a couple of times for even cooking.  I stuffed a sprig of a basil, a couple of culantro leaves, and a pinch of salt and pepper into each fish.  I tied the fish closed with twine and brushed them with oil and sprinkled them with course sea salt.

When I had a heap of very hot coals in the barbecue, I covered the the grill with two layers of banana leaves.  I had washed and cut the spine out of the leaves making flat, paper-sized, sheets.
I didn't brush enough oil onto the leaves so I lost some skin when I flipped the fish over (at least it stuck to the leaves and not the grill).  Also I think three layers of leaves would be better.  The fish cooked very quickly 7-8 minutes a side--so make sure the rest of your dinner is ready!
getting a little dark for a photo!
The fish was excellent, the texture was flakey, and the smoky flavour from the banana leaves was very nice.  I served this fish with coconut, brown basmati and a big mixed salad with ginger miso dressing.  We drank cold beer and the kids had icy maracuya juice.

Next time I'll try some snapper in banana leaf packets.

Monday, March 14, 2011

“Don’t forget to marvel at the wonders of the world.”-Quan Yin

picnic in the pagoda
Sundays are for getting out of the house, for leaving the computer, for sitting under a tree.  We packed up some chocolate chip cookies and bought some ceviche on the way, and had a picnic at the little park behind the Chinese school.  

statue of Quan Yin (bodhisvatta associated with compassion)
The day was hot and bright.  There was a rowdy game of baseball on a diamond just below us and the sound of traffic from the corridor was relentless.  My youngest eyed the food; there was nothing she liked on the tablecloth.  I have to confess that sometimes I think that if I ignore her fussiness, it will go away (like one day she'll wake up and ask for a grilled eggplant and fontina sandwich).  She looked away from the food down to the, mostly dry, fishpond; she sighed dejectedly.  But she knows me too well, and instead of whining voicing her discontent,  she grabs a cookie and wanders off to discover the koi hiding in the shade of the bridge.

 I've been telling my kids a lot lately (in a thoughtless, get out of my hair, kind of way) that, "boring people get bored."  I know this is frustrating and not helpful to them, and a total cop out on my part.  But I do actually believe it.  And I honestly wonder, how do you teach your children to get inside the dull, and not so pretty, and see the beautiful and profound that is hiding there?  How do you keep them from carelessly turning on the TV, and flopping down in front of it at the first sign of a lull?  I know I probably can't force them into creativity and contemplation, but I so wish it for them.    

  It was not perfect idyll, but we did find some peace and beauty in this small, unexpected park.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

lentils for lunch

Homemade pita, salad and lentils with mushrooms
I am a lentil evangelist.  I think everybody should make and eat lentils, often.  They cook quickly and are virtually impossible to mess up.  They are tasty and cheap.   Hot, or cold in salad, as a spread, or a soup, they are amazingly versatile.  If I don't know what to cook, lentils are my fallback.  I didn't always love lentils (I am a relatively recent convert).  I actually thought I hated them.  Then, one day while staying at a friend's, I discovered lentils in all their, last-thing-in-the-pantry glory, a lentil epiphany you might say.

My friend's recipe was unbelievably simple, you saute onions and carrots then add the lentils.  Brown everything, and then add some tamari and dijon mustard (tamari is pretty salty so go easy)--loosen anything that's stuck to the bottom.  Top up with water, and cook the lentils.  Now you may not believe me, but really, this is delicious.  Add some rice and a salad and you have a fine (if a bit hippyish) meal.  Honestly, this recipe was a revelation, and I've been cooking lentils regularly ever since.

split red lentils, whole red lentils, brown lentils 
If I don't have a lot of time, or if I'm making a spread, the split red lentils are a good choice.  They cook quickly and don't hold their shape.  Whole red lentils take a little longer to cook and hold their shape fairly well.  Brown lentils are classic, and are great with chorizo or bacon--they hold their shape well and take the longest to cook.

Lately my favourite spice combination is:
cumin, oregano, bay,  smoked paprika and sea salt
Now this combination of spices is great for meat (I make an awesome BBQ rub with a combination like this) but it is also excellent with lentils.

Lentils with Mushrooms
2 cups dry lentils (I used red lentils)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion chopped
3 cups chopped mushrooms (I used meaty portobellos)
3 cloves garlic chopped fine
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 teaspoons oregano
3 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups white wine
2 tablespoons wine vinegar (optional)

Rinse and pick through the lentils (watch for pebbles).
In a large pot or dutch oven, saute the onions in the olive oil.  Cook the onions until tender and add the mushrooms, garlic, cumin, paprika, oregano, bay, salt and pepper.  When the mushrooms are juicy add the clean lentils.  Cook over medium heat for a couple of minutes--until it starts looking a bit dry.  Add the wine.  Cook until the lentils start to look dry again and cover with water--there should be a centimeter or two of water covering the lentils.  Cook the lentils, frequently stirring and checking the liquid level--add more water as you need it.  When the lentils are done check for salt.  If you feel like the lentils could use a little zing add the vinegar.

Serve with rice or pita.  This also purées nicely into a spread.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

quiet carnaval

sleeping queen

I've lived outside of Canada for eight years now.  Something I've learned is, that no matter how long you live somewhere, you are always a foreigner.  I have met some amazingly, assimilated foreigners in Latin America, but they are always introduced with some reference to their foreignness.  One of my neighbours is a ninety-five year old man who came to Panama from Yugoslavia in his twenties; he has pretty much lived his entire life in this country, and is still a foreigner.

To my thinking, this is not bad, in fact, this is what is great about being an expat.  You get to exist in a limbo between the social norms of your passport-issuing country and the norms of where you are living.   If something you do seems weird to people, they will excuse you because you are foreign.  It means you get to travel like a tourist.  You can go places that are locally stigmatized by race and class (seriously, if you limited yourself to the beaches that middle-class Panamanians frequent you would miss some of the nicest spots).   It's very freeing.  

Our first months in Panama we went to Carnaval here in the city.  We had no idea that this was considered dangerous, and we even took the kids to the evening concert (we left before the big reggaeton star hit the stage--we were oblivious but not stupid).  It was a good experience, I love the raucous, fun-loving spirit of Panama and that is the main feature of Carnaval.

It's Carnaval again in Panama this week.  We've never been to the traditional Carnaval celebrations in the interior, and someday I'd love to go.  I love seeing everyone all packed up (cars loaded down with mattresses, and buckets for the water fights). I love seeing the large, colourful floats parked on side streets.   I love that my kids have no school this week.  But because of work and bad planning, we are just relaxing and laying low at home.  The city is weirdly empty and quiet, which is nice in its own way too.

Friday, March 4, 2011

bread every day

During my twenties I was a tree planter and later, a tree planting camp cook.  To be clear, I mean all of my twenties (age 19 to 30).  It was much more than a summer job, it made me who I am (example: I met my husband tree planting).  In tree planting camps I learned many important things: don't be late for dinner, bears like toothpaste, toilet paper and duct tape are indispensable,  and I learned bread.  First, I learned to eat it, warm and slathered with butter, held in filthy hands, waiting in line for a shower after a day of work.  Then I learned to make it, that beautiful mound of dough expanding on the counter of the hot, cramped, camp kitchen.

I grew up with homemade bread.  Both of my grandmothers knew, and my mother knows, their way around a bread pan (my mom is famous for her buns).  A huge pan of bread dough rising was a familiar sight in my childhood.  Funny thing, I never learned how to make bread from my mom (I did make an experimental documentary about it once though).  I learned how to make bread on my own, in a camp kitchen.

I started out with  Edward Espe Brown's  Tassajara Bread Book and it served me well.  The basic recipe in that book is perfect for quadrupling, and I used to make six or eight big loaves every day.  Following Brown's instructions, I never had a bad batch of bread.  I put that bread out hot, with  a big pot of soup, at the first sound of hungry planters bursting out of the trucks (My anxiety dreams to this day, start with the sound of truck doors opening---oh my god I haven't even started dinner!  Why don't I have any pants on?).   Bread was my signature as a camp cook.

I still make bread often.  I don't use the Tassajara recipe anymore.  I use Mark Bittman's food processor technique (not the no-knead NY Times one--which I haven't had luck with to date).  It is ridiculously easy and more or less 'no-knead.'  I usually set it up some time in the morning; my hot humid kitchen is the perfect environment for bread rising.

Campesino Bread (they call the baguettes made with a whole wheat-rye mix 'campesino' at the supermarket here)
1 cup rye flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups bread flour
1 teaspoon yeast
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 1/2 cups water

Put the flour, salt and yeast into the bowl of the food processor and pulse to mix.

With the food processor on, add the water.  The dough should come together into a sticky ball.  Process for 30 seconds.

Put the dough into a bowl and cover with a plastic bag; leave it to rise for at least two hours.

On a floured surface, shape the dough into a boule.
it should have a smooth tight surface
Put the boule onto a pan lined with parchment, cover it and let it rise another hour.  Half way through the rise preheat the oven to 450°

Bake for 30-35 minutes.  It will be beautiful!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I scan the horizon for you, Mimi

We had a quick overnighter at the beach on the weekend.  It wasn't the greatest place; overpriced and only okay.  We needed to get away though, first-day-of-school anxiety was making an insomniac of my sixth grader.  The beach was the best remedy I could think of.
She reread all her Judy Blume books in the weeks before school started.  We chatted about  puberty and popularity.  Me, paddling madly beneath the surface, keeping my head up, maintaining a calm, effortless, buoyant, composure.  She's wading in and it scares me a little.
When I run, I often repeat the mantra, "step lightly" and sometimes just the word "light."  I think of it often when I'm talking with her; how important it is to not slam down on her with the full force of my own anxiety and fear.  light.  light.  light...