Thursday, April 28, 2011

Costa Rica

We went to Costa Rica for the Easter long weekend.  We lived in Costa Rica for four years; my younger daughter was born there.  It always feels a bit like coming home after we cross the border at Paso Canoas.  Costa Rica really is just as beautiful as everyone says.

We spent a couple of days in San Isidro enjoying the company of old friends, and then we drove down to the beach.

It was good to be there.

Monday, April 25, 2011

beach bliss

We spent the long weekend in Costa Rica.  I'm planning a full post when all the laundry is done...

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Plaza de la Catedral

It is the color closest to light. In its utmost purity it always implies the nature of brightness and has a cheerful, serene, gently stimulating character. Hence, experience teaches us that yellow makes a thoroughly warm and comforting impression. With yellow the eye rejoices, the heart expands, the spirit is cheered and we immediately feel warmed. Many people feel an inclination to laugh when looking through a yellow glass.
-Johann von Goethe 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sunday in Casco Viejo

We had a great afternoon in Casco Viejo on Sunday.  We started with pizza at Caffe Per Due, a cute little, place with good pizza.
We wandered over to to Granclement for some ice cream.
and then we made our way over to plaza de la catedral, for the flea market.
We walked through the stalls and were delighted by a teenage folklore group doing some dancing in the middle of the plaza.  They really looked like they were having a good time, and the foreign tourists around us were totally blown away by them.  The girls were beautiful and the boys sang and yelled and waved their hats with joy and without irony or self-consciousness.  The folk dancing from the interior of Panama is full of good humor about hard work and country life (in one dance, the boys fan their hats just behind the girls because they are just too hot to handle and in another they wave their machetes as if they are going to cut the back of the girls skirt off)).  It was fun and totally unexpected.
There was also a group of kids from Colon doing the folk dancing from that province.  This particular folklore tradition is fascinating because it is a wild mix of Catholic and African that goes back to the Spanish Colonial period, and the communities of escaped slaves on the Atlantic coast of Panama.  The music is all drums and singing.  The songs are laments, it struck me yesterday how sad the words to the songs are.  The dances are very theatrical with a narrative about the devil trying to steal one of the children.  We went to the Festival of Diablos and Congos in Portobelo a couple of years ago and I can't recommend it enough.  The festival is a little rough around the edges, but the singing will give you goosebumps, and the devil masks are spectacular.  The kids yesterday did a nice job, and even got some the crowd in dancing with them.
My kids are convinced that the raspados in Casco Viejo are bigger and better than the ones we can get in our neighbourhood, and no visit to Casco is complete without one.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

the cats that live at my house

About a year ago I was on my way to the park when I heard the cries of a young kitten; insistant and constant.  I looked and found her in the garbage.  There are quite a few street cats on my street and I assumed she had just gotten separated from her mother.   When I was heading back it was starting to rain, and she was still there crying pitifully.  I tried to grab her but she ran off.  The next day, on the way to the park with my girls, the kitten was still there and crying loud, constant meows, I don't now how the neighbours could stand it.  I told the girls if she was still their on the way home, we would take her.  This of course was easier said than done.  Even though she was tiny and half starved, it took three adults and three kids to catch her (she bit one guy trying to help us).

Hungry, dirty, and full of fleas Cookie came into our lives.  She was too small for solid food when we first brought her home.
But within a couple of weeks she was eating kibble.  As a little kitten, she spent a lot of time with the kids, I would often find her sleeping in the doll house while the girls played beside.  She has grown into a lovely cat and we all adore her, even my, not very pet enthusiastic, husband.

A few months after we found Cookie, as I was getting up to start lunches and breakfast, I coud hear a kitten crying.  I opened the front door just in time to see a tabby kitten running away.  On our way home from school I told the girls to keep an eye out for him.  We saw no sign of him until we got to our house and there he was meowing under the hedge.  This is how Mowgli came to live with us.

Mowgli was very wild.  Already able to eat solid food, he was not that hungry and the flea bath traumatized him.  He spent the first week under the cupboards.  I told the girls we'd take him to get fixed and release him back to the street; he seemed so miserable and scared.  But somehow he came around.  He doesn't like the kids as much as Cookie does but he's very affectionate.
Cats are really not ideal pets in the tropics because they kill stuff, and there are so many little creatures for them to hunt here.  Every lizard and bird that they kill is a tragedy and I really wish they didn't.  But Mowgli killed a rat that ran into the house the other night (that was me shrieking, up on the kitchen counter) and that seemed much more felicitous than tragic to me.  There are rats here and when the rain starts they try to move in where it's dry.  So I forgive dear Cookie and Mowgli their bloodthirsty ways.

Occasionally since I've been here in Latin America, I've encountered some pretty incredible superstition about cats.  I remember in Costa Rica, this one woman telling me how cats can steal your soul when you sleep and she was not joking.  She seemed to attribute all crib death to cats.  A lot of people in the countryside seemed to think cats were evil, dangerous and dirty.  You really only saw cats as pets in foreigners' houses.  The city is different, and here in Panama I've met quite a few people with pet cats.  So I was a little surprised when my daughter encountered the whole evil cat thing in the playground.

There's this girl we sometimes see at the playground, who verges on bully.  She's more feared than liked and honestly seems really unhappy.  I keep a close watch when my kids are playing with her, but kids know, there is always wariness when she approaches the group.  The other day she told my daughter in hushed, scandalized tones that "cats are the only animal that isn't in the bible."  This information was supposed to make my daughter feel bad or deviant for having pet cats.  The stupidity of it just kind of baffled her.  'What is that supposed to mean?"  We laughed all the way home to our devil cats.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tree Tomato Coffee Cake

Now I probably never would have even tried tree tomato (tomate de arbol) if it hadn't come in our biweekly organic basket.  So it's funny that I'm a little obsessed with it now.  I've made pies, crumbles, compote and I even tried it in a smoothie.  The smoothie was not a success; the fruit is really too bitter when it's not cooked.  I use tomate de arbol in anything that would be good with rhubarb.  Rhubarb is the fruit I miss most from Canada, which is probably why I have become so fond of this bitter, sour fruit.

Tree Tomato Coffee Cake

Butter for greasing pan
For the tree tomato filling:
6 tree tomatoes blanched and peeled*
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
For the crumbs:
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
1 1/4 cups flour
For the cake:
1/3 cup plain yogurt
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
*Tree tomato peel is extremely bitter, so you have to blanche and peel the fruit.

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease an 8-inch-square baking pan. For filling, roughly chop the fruit and toss with sugar, cornstarch and ginger. Set aside.
2. To make crumbs, in a food processor, mix sugar, spices, flour and salt; add pieces of  butter and pulse unti crumbly. This can also be done in a bowl with a pastry cutter.  Set aside.

3. To prepare cake, cream the butter and sugar; add the eggs one at a time add the vanilla. In a separate  bowl sift and mix the flour, spices, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  Add half the flour mixture to the butter mixture. Mix in the yogurt and add the remaining flour mixture. Set aside about 1/2 cup of the cake batter.
4. Scrape remaining batter into prepared pan. Spoon fruit over batter. Dollop set-aside batter over fruit; it doesn't have to be even.

5. Sprinkle the crumb mixture over the cake. Bake 40-45 minutes.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

bilingual girls

my beautiful bilingual girls 
The other day I was asking my youngest if she'd enjoyed the treat I'd packed in her lunch.  She proceeded to tell how she'd traded her wholesome home baked treat for "chocolate cornflay" (that is corn flakes pronounced in Panamanian Spanish--rising stress on the flay--apparently here in Panama, many people refer to all breakfast cereal as corn flakes).  My bilingual daughter, not knowing this, had not recognized that "corn flay" was corn flakes and thought it was something in Spanish she didn't know how to translate.  Her sister and I thought this was hilarious, but I am blown away by this translating that my kids do, normally it's so smooth--you'd think, talking to them, they'd spent their day at school in English and it's rare that there's a "corn flay" sized bump. They switch between the two languages easily.

I love their bilingual dexterity.  It is one of the things that makes me sure of our decision to live outside of Canada.  We could have attempted to raise our children bilingual in Canada (my husband is Argentinian) but I seriously doubt our kids would have such an easy command of both languages.  In our house mostly English is spoken (but certainly not exclusively) and books and movies and TV are mostly in English.  At school and extracurricular activities it's mostly Spanish (my kids go to a bilingual school, so they have core subjects in both English and Spanish). And of course there's all the day to day interactions in Spanish, out and about and with friends.  It makes for a very naturally bilingual environment--effortless second language acquisition.

When we left Canada eight years ago I really had no idea of what I was getting into.  I had this idea of our kids being bilingual, but I didn't know how amazing it would be. They are like chameleons, switching beween languages depending on who and where.  I never could have imagined all the language jokes, all the parroting of accents.  We take such pleasure in the vantage of knowing two languages, switching back and forth mixing it up (Spinglish, we call it in our house).  We enjoy anglicisms as if they were clever jokes.  At our house, I'm sure all breakfast cereal, from now on will be referred to as"corn flay."

Friday, April 1, 2011

whole grain chocolate chip bars

I grew up with homemade treats in my school lunch and I really enjoy making stuff for my kids' lunch.  Like many other people, this past year I discovered Kim Boyce's whole wheat chocolate chip cookie recipe.  It seems silly to me now, all those years making cookies with white flour, when whole wheat actually tastes better.  My kids love them; I make them regularly.  I'm really not interested in cutting butter or sugar from cookies because they're meant to be a treat (eat two, not five).  But, I like using whole grains, and honestly they taste great in baking.  So, it's not less fattening, but it is more nutritious.

Whole Wheat and Oat Chocolate Chip Bars
3  cups whole wheat flour*
1 tsp soda
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 cups oatmeal
1 1/2 cups butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 egg
2 tsp vanilla
12 oz  bittersweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375. Whisk together dry ingredients and set aside. Beat butter, sugars, egg and vanilla till fluffy and add dry ingredients. Stir in chocolate chips. Press onto a lined cookie sheet.  Bake for 20-25 minutes.

You will have school lunch treats for a week or more!

*A note about whole wheat flour
Whole wheat flour needs to be kept in the freezer.  The oil in the flour goes rancid really quickly; so only buy a small bag at a time.  I find that buying any dry goods in bulk here is a bad idea; even stuff in unopened packages goes mouldy from the humidity after a couple of weeks.