Monday, May 30, 2011

mustard greens

I love greens.  When I was pregnant with my oldest daughter I bought and ate ridiculous amounts of greens.  I remember particularly liking turnip greens, and that's funny because I'm pretty sure I haven't eaten turnip greens since.  Sardines were my other obsession and I still love a pan of greens sauteed in the oil from a tin of sardines; a delicacy I invented while pregnant (it's probably not to everyone's taste).  My zeal for greens when I was pregnant came from my desire to eat healthfully and really, I doubt there many foods more wholesome than a big plate of greens.  Mustard greens are a recent discovery for me and lately we eat them a couple of times a week.  They are cruciferous (like broccoli, cabbage or kale) and excellent cooked or raw.  The flavor is stronger when it's cooked a short time and it mellows with longer cooking (lightly sauteed=strong, braised=mild).  Mustard is high in vitamins A, K, and C and it is also antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.  It's pretty common in Chinese, Indian and Caribbean cuisine.  It can be used like you would use any other bitter green.

We like it best in salad.  Our favorite salad is half mustard greens, half romaine, with some chopped mint, dressed with lemon and olive oil, and served with generous handfuls of kalamatas and feta cheese.  I had been trying to get my daughter to eat salad for a while by making sweet or creamy dressings (that I imagined to be kid friendly) and she never liked it.  But this salad she loves, and that makes me very happy.  My younger daughter does not eat any green food, so I don't even offer her salad (I keep hoping she will grow out of her infernal fussiness, but there are no signs of that happening any time soon).

Mustard greens are nice cooked too.   They are good simply sauteed and dressed with lemon and they are also great braised.  Braised is probably more traditional and the flavour is definitely mellower.

 Braised Mustard with Bacon
4-5 slices of bacon
1/2 onion chopped
2 bunches of mustard greens, stemmed, washed and chopped
1 cup chicken stock

Fry the bacon and remove from pan with slotted spoon.  Chop the bacon and set aside.  Saute the onion in the remaining bacon fat (remove some if it looks like too much).  When the onion is soft, add the mustard greens.  Let the mustard greens sizzle with the onions for a couple of minutes and then add the chicken stock.  After you add the stock turn the flame down low and let the greens cook gently for twenty minutes.  The greens should be tender and the liquid reduced.  Add the chopped bacon back to the greens and serve.

If you have leftovers, this also makes a nice filing for omelettes.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Not many big North American stars play concerts in Panama; Panama is small and the venue is not very nice.  So it's always a big deal when somebody does come and people get pretty excited.  But a few weeks ago when we heard Miley Cyrus was coming to town I didn't think much of it.  My husband said "you should take the girls," and I probably shrugged.  My girls are not huge Miley Cyrus fans.  Sure they've watched Hannah Montana and heard her songs on the radio, and my eleven year old is pretty fascinated by Miley's recent tattoos (we have some mother-daughter bonding over celebrity gossip--neither one of us can resist it).  But the expense and effort of a school night concert did not seem necessary to me.  My husband on the other hand, decided that they should go to the concert (he is the fun parent, if he could, he would take them to every concert and event that came to town).  I thought he would forget about it, he's a pretty busy guy and the girls were not begging to go or anything.

Then, in an odd convergence of events, he and I were at the mall together, on a weekday morning, doing an errand.  There was a big Miley Cyrus promotion going on: if you spent fifty dollars at the mall, concert tickets were half price.  Well, that was all the encouragement my husband needed, and within minutes I was in line with a lot of other parents for Miley Cyrus tickets.  Despite all my school-night, mom, trepidations and my total lack of desire to attend this event, I decided to just roll with it--I never do this kind of tacky, over-indulgent thing for my kids, and I thought it would be fun to surprise them.

So that is how is how I ended up escorting four preteen girls to a Miley Cyrus concert.
The concert was full of little girls and tiredish moms thumbing their blackberries.  I have to confess that I was fascinated by the spectacle.  Miley Cyrus is eighteen (I kind of suspect she feels much older) and her fans are mostly girls who've watched her as Hannah Montana.  Miley Cyrus is working hard to shed the whole Disney, teen-star image and cross over to regular, adult stardom.  However, her current fans are mostly girls, and stardom for a young woman is all about the male-gaze.  So there she was, in her leather underwear, covering "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for a bunch of twelve-year-olds in Central America and I could not look away.  Awkward  contradictions are my favourite! (I can't help it, I went to art school).  She did a Joan Jett medley complete with "Cherry Bomb" and "Bad Reputation" (two songs I love).  She sang her songs (how awful is that "Party in the USA" song?).  My girls seemed to enjoy it.  All in all it was a successful evening and not nearly as bad as I thought it would be.

Monday, May 23, 2011

biodiversity and a bike-ride

On Sunday we headed down to the causeway to have a look at the Biodiversity Fair.  The fair was hosted by the Biomuseo.  The Biomuseo is not opened yet, so the fair took place beside the construction site at the old officer's club (this building houses maquettes and information about the museum).  The theme of the fair was "soil is life."  There was an organic market, our friends from Culantro Rojo were there with lots of lovely produce.  There were some interesting small organic projects with soap and traditional medicines.  There was information on worm composting--the kids got to hold worms and dig around in the compost.  The Smithsonian had a presentation on leaf-cutter ants, complete with a queen ant on display (the queen ant can live as long as fifteen years and the male ants only live for one day).  There is probably not as much interest in biodiversity, organics and composting here in Panama as there is in Canada, so it was very heartening to see so many people at the fair.  It was nice to see people so interested  and engaged at this fair.
  After the fair we took a look at the museum.  It is always interesting to have a look at this weird construction site and it really seems to be coming along.
No causeway adventure would be complete without renting an enormous six-person bike.
If some of the six people on the six-person bike are children who want to peddle, the one or two adults who are actually peddling will do all the work.   The kids laughed so much, it was totally worth it (pain and sweat included).

Thursday, May 19, 2011

rainy season

The rainy season is upon us.  This year it rained through the dry season.  But, as if to demarcate the official start of the rainy season, the weather has been sopping; jeans and towels no longer dry on the line.  I used to think of rain as refreshing and cleansing and definitely cool if not cold.  But it's as hot a ever when it rains in the day, and actually it seems hotter.  When we walked home from school the sun was out but there was still a fine mist of rain.  It was steamy; the air felt like thick, wet gauze.  The three of us arrived home soaked in sweat and red-faced, exclaiming at the heat.  This is why air conditioning was invented.
When it rains in the afternoon it is torrential.  I am grateful to be at home and not out somewhere struggling with an umbrella.  A lake forms in the backyard.  The streets fill up with water in places where the storm drains are clogged with garbage.  It does not surprise me that this is the start of the flu season here.  Between the constant fogging for mosquitos, and the rats looking for  dry homes, it feels terribly insalubrious.  This goes on for a few days, the dampness invading everything.  The pages of my book feel clammy; there's a rash on the inside of my elbow...

And then the sun comes out.
The sun comes out and this incredibly, lush and green world sparkles and shines.  We bask in the park despite the mosquitos.  These glorious sunny afternoons are cherished not just by us, the park is bustling with families.  Shadows are magical after days of cloudy dullness.  Light filtering through trees is positively miraculous.  We are just at the start of the rainy season and these desultory, sparkling, sunny days will buoy us through to December.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

the land of fast-forward

I’ve been shopping for you in the children’s section forever, for your whole life.  You were size 14 for so long and size 16 seemed so big, impossibly big (I imagined teenagers wore that size--girls much older than you).  Then suddenly it fit you and now four months later, it doesn’t.  This telescoping Alice act of yours scares me a bit (there is no tiny bottle with a drink me label is there?).

I know that this astonishing growth will continue for the next couple of years.  And I will adore you madly, all pointy elbows and jutting knees, just as I did when you fit snugly in my arms.

I will relish your healthy appetite; beam when you take seconds.

I will let you wear my shoes and clothes.

But I know we crossed a border, when we entered the junoir section with the same slouchy neon t-shirts that were in fashion when I was your age.

You asked me the other day if I would rather be able to rewind or fast forward life.  This, my dear is the difference between adults and children.

I know we are in some new territory.  A land where you seem more sure than me; the land of fast-forward.

Monday, May 9, 2011

breakfast place

When I was in university in Vancouver, Sunday morning breakfast with friends was an important weekly ritual.  I think now that this might have been because breakfast was the most affordable restaurant meal, but I remember it fondly.  We went to funky little places on Commercial Drive, or the Guatemalan place on Main St.  These were good breakfast places with big tasty portions and I've sought out something similar everywhere I've lived since.  In Costa Rica this was easy.  Gallo Pinto (beans and rice fried together), with sour cream or fried eggs is a typical breakfast.  A good breakfast (and by this I mean, really yummy) in Costa Rica is cheap and easy to find.  Panama is quite another story.

The typical breakfast in Panama is a plate of fried food.  Fried dough (hojaldre) fried plantain, and maybe some meat or sausage.  I love Panama, but the typical breakfast here is not for me.  I've tried; doused in hot sauce with fried egg I will eat and even enjoy it.  But I do not seek it out.  So the breakfast place thing became a bit of an issue for me.  I lamented the lack of breakfast as I like it.  Now that I've lived here a few years I've figured it out.

Dim Sum is popular and Chinese restaurants do brisk business on Sunday morning.  Also, the Marbella location of the Colombian Chain, Crepes and Waffles, has a Sunday brunch with waffles and pancakes and eggs benedict.  My favourite place though, is The New York Bagel Cafe in El Cangrejo.  You have no idea how happy this place made me the first time we went.  They have pancakes and bagels and egg things, hash browns and toast.  The music is decent and the vibe is relaxed and fun.

Everything we've eaten here has been good.  I love that the huevos rancheros are served on Panamanian tortillas (which are thick and chewy).  It's probably better to order regular coffee rather than expresso (this would be my only quibble).  It's a yummy place for breakfast and now that they've expanded it's possible to be leisurely.  Sunday morning exactly as it should be.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Passion Fruit

I never call passion fruit passion fruit.  I always call it maracuyá.  Now this is possibly a little pretentious of me, but I have my reasons.  Do you know why it's called passion fruit?  The Catholic missionaries who came to the new world with the Conquistadores, thought that the flower looked like Christ's crown of thorns.  They named the plant passiflora for the passion of Christ.  Now I know that this is one small thing in a catalogue of acts that include tremendous brutality.  But, what kind of person looks at flower and sees a crown of thorns?  It makes me think of subjugation, and the naming of things that most certainly already had names.  So, at dinner parties, when someone waggles their eyebrows lasciviously and says "mmm passion fruit mousse" I usually shut them down with a story about Conquistadores and zealous Jesuits.  Yes, I'm that wet  blanket.

Maracuyá is possibly my favourite tropical flavour (I'm awfully fond of tamarind as well).  It is tart and refreshing; perfect for this climate.  I have been trying out recipes for this post all week, sometimes without much success.  There was a homely tart:

 and some runny mousse:

I was most satisfied with these custardy squares.  But honestly, the best thing to do with maracuyá is mix the strained juice with some simple syrup and water and make juice, popsicles or sorbet.

Passion Fruit Bars
3/4 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups all-purpose flour

4 eggs
1-1/4 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup passion fruit juice*
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder

icing sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 325°F.   Grease 9- x 13-inch pan. Set aside.
In bowl, beat together butter, sugar and salt until light; stir in flour until blended. Press into prepared pan. Bake in centre of oven until golden, about 25 minutes. Let cool.

Meanwhile, in bowl, beat eggs with granulated sugar until pale and thickened. Add passion fruit juice, flour and baking powder; beat until smooth. Pour over base.  Bake for 25-30 minutes.  The custard should be set.  Let it cool and then dust it with icing sugar.

*Split the fruit in half and scrape the seedy pulp into the blender.  Pulse the pulp--the idea is to loosen the pulp from the seeds.  If you break up the seeds your pulp will have pretty black flecks (nice for ice cream).  Push the seedy pulp through a mesh strainer.  Four good-sized maracuyás will yield a cup of strained juice/pulp.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

sunset on the causeway

We had another long weekend here for the May 1st holiday.  We didn't get out of town; we enjoyed to be in town.  Traffic was lighter than usual and somehow it was nice to just hang around at home.  On Sunday afternoon we managed to get out for a walk on the causeway.  It was a beautiful evening and there were lots of people out enjoying it.

We thought about renting one of those four-wheeled bicycles, but ended up just going for a leisurely stroll.

It was a very lazy Sunday.  Some homework got finished.  Pancakes were eaten by noon.  I thought about pushing for a hike, but my girls were defiantly wearing their pajamas and could not be coaxed into clothes.  I had intentions of  something more strenuous...

But all we managed was sunset stroll.  The promise of ice cream was really the only reason my daughters got dressed at all on Sunday.