September 5, 2014

Perfect Pumpkin Bread


One of my favorite things, after alliteration (see what I did there?) is pumpkin bread. Back in the states, my go-to recipe was the Downeast Maine Pumpkin Bread by Laurie Bennett. Here in Paraguay, however, the shelves are not stocked with cans of pumpkin puree, so I had to get inventive. Well, I just had to make my own pumpkin puree, which sounds daunting, but is actually quite easy. It just takes time. Making your own puree is kind of a no-brainer, but if you're doing it for the first time, it helps to have a good step-by-step guide with photos. My favorite is over at The Pioneer Woman Cooks, one of my favorite blogs. I've only seen Ree Drummond's Food Network show once, but I read her blog all the time. Great recipes. I also relate to her life story as I, too, have been whisked away to the country and have a much closer relationship with cattle than I'd ever imagined. But I digress.

Having made my own pumpkin puree, I adapted the Downeast Maine Pumpkin Bread recipe to suit the type of baking and eating that is generally preferred in my current household. Turned out great!

Pumpkin Bread/Torta de Calabaza:

2 cups homemade pumpkin puree
4 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup water
3 cups sugar
4 cups self-rising flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

Beat the pumpkin puree, eggs, sugar, vegetable oil, and water together in a very large bowl. In a separate, medium-sized bowl, mix together the flour with the spices. Slowly beat this mixture into the pumpkin mixture until thoroughly combined. Add into greased bread/cake pans (about three bread pans) and place in the oven at 350F/175C for about 45 minutes. When the knife/toothpick comes out clean, it's done!

If you want to make this a smaller recipe, it's pretty easy to cut in half.


P.S. Kivevé is a traditional Paraguayan dish consisting largely of mashed pumpkin. Leftover Kivevé makes a great substitute for regular old pumpkin puree, and gives the bread more Paraguayan flair. If you do an online search for Kivevé you'll see a recipe that includes onions, which would not be yummy in a sweet bread. The version of Kivevé made in my household does not include any onions, oil, milk, or corn flour. It simply includes mashed pumpkins, sugar, salt, a little white flour, and fresh Paraguayan cheese. When using it to make my pumpkin bread, I simply remove the cheese, and voila! An excellent version of pumpkin puree to use in my pumpkin bread recipe. I will post an actual recipe for Kivevé (sans onions) later on.

Pumpkin bread made with leftover Kivevé.

August 4, 2014

Fiesta de San Juan: Contemplations on History & Culture

Aaaah, traditions. Much like language, religious beliefs, social conventions, and other defining aspects of human cultures, their origins can be hazy. Many of the celebrations we observe today are the result of hundreds of years of cultural and religious confluence, as evidenced by the many similarities among traditions across countries in various parts of the world. Christmas, Easter, and Halloween are excellent examples of early Christianity's success at adapting existing pagan celebrations to their religious calender, giving age-old traditions new meaning. Nowadays, most folks don't give a second thought to egg hunts and chocolate rabbits on the anniversary of Jesus Christ's resurrection. But clearly, there are several very distinct historical influences at play in our modern-day traditions.

Moving to Paraguay has introduced me to another of these fascinating holidays, one which is little known in the U.S. but widely celebrated in Europe and Latin America: St. John's Eve. It is the eve of St. John's Day - that is the day St. John the Baptist is supposed to have been born (June 24). Now, when the holiday was introduced to me here in Paraguay, I did not make this connection to St. John the Baptist. Further research had to be done. I was simply told it was the Fiesta de San Juan, which takes place in June, and includes traditional foods and games. After having spent a lovely time with my boyfriend's family partaking in said traditions, I became curious. What's the history behind this beloved holiday?

When I initiated my Google search, I figured I was going to learn about something oh-so-Paraguayan. Quite the opposite. While each country has taken and made of this holiday it's own, it is popular in many countries, particularly Northern Europe. If you've got the gist of my post thus far, it probably won't surprise you that this holiday has pagan roots. Mid-June, of course, is Midsummer. Well, in the Northern Hemisphere, at least. Here, it would be Midwinter. Either way, it is a significant time of year. In the northern latitudes, the Summer Solstice marks the longest day and shortest night of the year - a major turning point for the sun which then begins its long descent into winter. This was important for our European ancestors.

Many Midsummer and St. John's Day celebrations take place sometime around the Summer Solstice, usually between June 21-25. Here in Paraguay the dates are loose, too. Sometime in June, schools, towns, neighborhoods and families organize events as best suits them. While each country has a specific set of unique cultural traditions, one of the common themes among St. John's Eve celebrations worldwide is fire. In Europe, bonfires are set. Here in Paraguay, a ball is set on fire and kicked about the neighborhood. Another traditional activity is walking on hot coals. In many towns and neighborhoods the ball-on-fire has been restricted, for obvious reasons. Other fun activities include include trying to break open a clay jar piñata full of treats with a pole while blindfolded and competing with others to climb a greased post with some type of reward at the top. There are a great many other traditions (one of the other common themes seems to be weddings) and plenty of traditional food, which I had the opportunity to enjoy just recently (our Fiesta de San Juan was particularly late this year). And apart from the old traditions, there are always good, fun, family-friendly games for all to enjoy.

One interesting thing to note about these Paraguayan traditions, is that they all have Guaraní names. Guaraní is an indigenous language, estimated to be spoken by more than 80% of Paraguayans, and one of Paraguay's two official languages alongside Spanish. Many Paraguayan customs and foods are the result of a fusion of indigenous and European (mainly Spanish) cultures. It's hard to know which had more influence on the ball-on-fire tradition, though.  More research is needed.

Cooking chipa asador over open coals. A simple dough of corn four, manioc (cassava/yuca) starch with cheese and fat.

July 16, 2014

Winter and Orange Bread

So, winter is a strange time here in Paraguay. This morning it's about 20 degrees Celsius, which equates to about 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Normally, it's supposed to be rather cold this time of year. Since I've been here, it's gotten down into the low 40s (F), which feels pretty damn cold when the buildings aren't insulated and there's no central heating. Those types of things aren't worthwhile investments in a climate that isn't cold enough for long enough. Instead of the leafless, bug-less, frozen wonderland I'm used to, winter now means a time with variable temperatures, alternate heavy rain and breezy, sunshiny days, and a time of the year when trees flower, sugarcane is harvested, and citrus fruits come into season. We have lime, orange, mandarin orange, and pomelo trees in our backyard.

Lime is more of a garnish, but oranges are a main event. The folks I live with have the magical ability to eat several in one sitting. They carefully peel the rind away in a spiral pattern with a knife, then cut a small opening at the top and suck out the juice. Then the orange is opened and the flesh is consumed. As a stubborn American, I still plug away at peeling my orange with my fingers and eating the segments one by one. The oranges here are sweet. They are harvested while the rinds are still green. If you let them turn orange, the birds will get to them first, as they do with the mandarin oranges. Limes are referred to as limón here. The yellow kind we know as lemon is simply another variety of limón. There's also an orange variety, which you want to be careful not to mistake for a mandarin orange, or you're in for a bad time. You also want to be careful not to take down a naranja agria, or bitter/sour orange, which is grown for it's essence, not for consumption. As an American who is still learning to have a relationship with her food from its source, I am often confused by all the different types of citrus fruits hanging around the house. Luckily I'm surrounded by experts.

Orange bread, or torta de naranja, is a very popular sweet treat in my current household. While my boyfriend's mom has her beloved recipe, I, as the lazy baker that I am, came up with something quicker, simpler, and almost as delicious ;)

It's certainly strange to be enjoying a citrusy treat in winter, but then it's not all that winter-like to a Midwesterner, anyway. If you're looking for a warm, sweet, happy treat with a fresh, citrusy kick, this is the recipe for you. If you pass it along, I would appreciate getting credit for it. It's not particularly mind-blowing, but I came up with it myself! And I'm pretty pleased with myself :) Here we go:

Orange Bread (Torta de Naranja)

2 cups sugar
3 eggs
2/3 cup of vegetable oil
juice from two small to medium sized oranges
3 cups self-rising flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
orange zest

Preheat your oven to 180 C (350 F). In a large bowl, beat together the sugar, eggs, and oil. In a separate, smaller bowl, mix together the flour and spices. Slowly add the flour mixture into the larger bowl, alternating with the orange juice. Make sure you finish adding the flour mixture first so you can determine if all of your orange juice is necessary. The consistency of your batter is important: not too thick, but definitely not too runny. At the end, mix in a little orange zest to taste.

Grease a cake pan or a couple of bread tins, whatever strikes your fancy, and pour in the batter. Stick into the oven and bake for 30-45 minutes. Tops should turn golden brown. Knife should come out clean. Bake time will depend on the whims of your individual oven.


Note: I wanted to add ground cloves, too, but was too lazy to grind up my whole cloves. If you try it, please let me know how it comes out! I'm guessing 1/4 teaspoon would be enough.

Is it bread or cake (torta)? Cakebread.

July 11, 2014

Cinnamon: The Great Uniter

Finding a solid recipe is always a joy. Solid, in my book, equals easy, fast, adaptable, and, of course, delicious. Enter cinnamon cake, or torta de canela, as it would be called in Spanish. I found the original recipe at Cocina, a site that compiles recipes from various blogs. At the time, I was very excited to find a recipe that was in Spanish, used metric measurements (good luck with cups and teaspoons outside the U.S.) and appealed to both my and my Paraguayan family's taste buds. Let's talk about the power of cinnamon.

Cinnamon has a long and storied history, and if we were comparing spices like they were superheros, cinnamon would probably have a Superman-level ranking. Originally prized for its aroma (and magical powers, maybe?), cinnamon has since become a principal spice in both sweet and savory foods around the world. Cinnamon is the inner bark of the cinnamomun trees, and curls up when it dries. While most cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka, other countries like China, India, and Vietnam contribute to its production. As if it's aroma and flavor weren't enough, cinnamon is used in traditional medicine and some research has been done to investigate its supposed healing abilities with regard to diabetes and other illnesses.

What's clear is that cinnamon is liked by a lot of people. As an expat, it's always interesting to see what kinds of flavors reign in your new country. I mentioned peanuts in my last post and how differently they are utilized here vs in the U.S. Some of my favorite herbs, like basil and rosemary, are lacking in the Paraguayan kitchen, while oregano is almost overused. It's also really important to understand the role anise plays in Paraguayan cuisine. The prevalence of anise is quite baffling to those of us who rarely use it, but I have grown quite fond of the spice. In Paraguay, it appears in bread as well as traditional foods like chipa and m'beju. It's also used as a tea (I drink anise tea, like, 2-3 times a day. Too much?) and added to mate for both it's flavor and as an aide to digestion. (Side note, did you know yerba mate is part of the holly family? Well, now you do.)

Anyway, back to the cake. Or bread. It's a cross-cultural crowd-pleaser and that's a win in my book. Also, my dog Pepper likes to watch while I bake it. And I like having her company. I bake when I'm happy-sad, when I've reached that emotional midpoint and I want to shove something sweet into my face and wash it down with a glass of milk. There's something nostalgic about that. The cinnamon cakebread is mild in flavor but makes you warm and happy for a few minutes. And that's what a good cakebread is all about, right?

Pepper watching me bake. In her usual crossed-pawed position.

Here's my take on the recipe (the original is buried somewhere on the Cocina facilisimo website, sorry):

120g vegetable oil
2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
300g white sugar
2 eggs
300g self-rising flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
160ml milk

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. In a large bowl, beat the oil, vanilla, sugar and egg together. In a separate, smaller bowl, mix the flour and cinnamon together. Slowly add the flour mixture to the oil mixture, alternating with the milk, until all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Pour into a greased cake pan and stick in the oven for 30 minutes. When the knife comes out clean, it's done. Try to wait for it to cool down, but end up cutting out a big piece while it's still hot and enjoy with a glass of cold milk.

Cinnamon cakebread. Fresh out of the oven and half eaten already.

June 20, 2014

Pumpkins, Peanuts, and Corn - Oh My!

I posted a little while ago about how memories and a sense of familiarity can be triggered in a completely exotic and foreign land. Almost as if there are global currents of smells and feelings that touch you no matter where you are. Well, in the case of food, there is a very obvious current that takes it around and that's us. As in, people. Human beings. For example, did you know that sugar cane is native to South Asia, not -- as many believe -- the Americas, where it is grown in abundance? Did you know that oranges are actually a hybrid fruit? Spend some time looking up your favorite fruits and vegetables on Wikipedia. You may be very surprised by some of their origin stories.

It always blows my mind when I remember that tomatoes, potatoes and cacao are New World crops and did not make their way to Europe until after the Spanish colonization of the Americas. How iconic is the potato in Ireland? Think about what Italian cuisine has done with the tomato. Can you imagine a more luxurious bar of chocolate than those manufactured by the Swiss? Europe took a hold of these news fruits (and tubers) from the New World and made them their own. Added their cultural touch and created dishes and treats we can't imagine living without today. It's very interesting the way the same foods are utilized by different cultures.

And that leads me to pumpkins, peanuts and corn. All very notably New World crops. Most surprising to me, though, is the peanut. Yes, the peanut. Can you imagine anything more American? I mean, except apple pie? If you say baseball, I will remind you that peanuts are a staple snack at baseball games. What about peanut butter and PB&J sandwiches? So, where do you suppose the peanut originates? Why, in Paraguay, of course! And yet Paraguayans look at you weird when you extoll the virtues of peanut butter. So what's the deal? This is the peanut's home turf and people aren't consuming peanut butter by the spoonful?

However it made it's way to the U.S., the peanut was initially used as a feed crop for livestock and eventually exploded onto the scene when George Washington Carver (you should look him up; he's really interesting) developed over a hundred recipes and uses for the peanut, but I'm going to go ahead and say peanut butter is the best one. Here in Paraguay, the peanut is consumed most often in two ways: 1.) as a garnish (crushed and toasted), and 2.) mixed with miel negra (think a sweeter, less viscous molasses) to form a sweet treat known as dulce de maní. As a garnish, peanuts are often used at breakfast time, sprinkled into cocido (a traditional drink made from yerba mate and sugar). Dulce de maní is somewhat like peanut brittle, but with a much softer texture and honey-like flavor.

As a non-allergic American, I love peanuts in a fierce way. I was very intrigued by the idea of having a big container of crushed, toasted peanuts around the house. I wanted to get a little more creative than just tossing it in my cocido. I decided it would go great in my mom's peanut butter chicken recipe, in peanut butter cookies and also mixed with honey and cinnamon as a fun substitute for maple syrup. Oh, and it also goes great in oatmeal (with cinnamon and sugar, of course).

Homemade pancakes with a honey, cinnamon, crushed/toasted peanut topping.

I don't have too much to say on the topic of Paraguayan pumpkins except that they are much more like giant squashes (yes, pumpkins are a type of squash) than the round orange fellas that we give faces to on Halloween. Despite the difference in appearance, the smell is the same. The seeds are smaller and darker, but make for a delicious snack just the same (the idea of toasting and snacking on pumpkin seeds was particularly strange to my new Paraguayan family). Since I couldn't find any cans of pumpkin puree in the Paraguayan supermarkets, I had to make some myself, which is easy, but time-consuming. Gut it, cut it up, stick it in the oven, puree it. Then it goes into my favorite recipe for pumpkin bread, which everyone loves.

Lastly, corn. The odd one out. Just kidding. Peanuts are kind of the odd one out here. Pumpkins (squash) likely originate in North America, and corn (maize) in Mesoamerica. Beans, corn, and squash make up a powerful and wholesome trio called the Three Sisters, once cultivated by indigenous North Americans. Contrary to the peanut story, Americans tend to be purists about corn. We like sweet, mature corn -- crunchy and juicy-- and we tend to like it on the cob, or in a heap on our plate next to other food items. In Paraguay, corn is a bit more versatile. In the first place, they prefer something they call choclo, which is younger corn, rendering it softer and chewier. They put it in salads, on pizza (for shame!) and in one of their most beloved traditional dishes, chipa guazú, a type of moist cornbread which typically includes choclo, onion, cheese, milk, and eggs.

Gringaguaya fusion: Asado (grilled meat) with biscuits and rice with green pepper and choclo.

I absolutely love learning the histories and uses of different foods and coming up with what I call gringaguaya fusion plates. I can't wait to discover the next interesting combination!

June 17, 2014

Understanding Latin America

I think as humans (or simply an organism), we tend to seek out order, organization. In fact, we ourselves are a defiant manifestation of order in a perfectly chaotic universe. It really is one of the most amazing things about life. Our need to make sense of an often messy world can drive us to create boxes with labels and to want to place people within those boxes. I mean, if every single individual is unique, how are we supposed to work with that? The thought of getting to know that many people is exhausting and in order to live our lives at a normal pace, we sometimes make assumptions about people without knowing them that well. I'm sure there's a whole sociology paper on this somewhere, that explains how we use general cultural information to approach people we don't know, and how that is some kind of survival strategy, at its core. It's understandable. But as we all know, it can lead to problems.

I remember when I first visited Paraguay, people back home were surprised that spicy food is not a mainstay of the Paraguayan diet. It seems like most American assumptions about Latino countries are based around what they know -- or think they know -- about our neighbor, México. Of course, as many Latinos abroad find themselves repeating, not all of Latin America is like México. In fact, Latin America is wildly and almost mystifyingly (word?) diverse, while at the same time maintaining a percieved homogeneity that I guess is based around language, and perhaps a few other dusty relics of Spanish occupation.

I began to really think about the cultural and geographical scope of Latin American yesterday while listening to the radio. Some type Reggeaton beat was going, and what seemed like distinctly Caribbean flair and dialect. Here we are, far, far away from the Caribbean (or the ocean, for that matter), surrounded by rolling fields full of cattle, where the staple foods tend to involve cheese and anise, listening to this groove that speaks of scantily-clad beach-goers -- rum and fried plantains, maybe. But Paraguayans listen to it, they like it, they "get" it -- whatever the moral of the story in a Reggeaton song may be (likely very little to do with morality). And that's certainly more than I can say about it. So where's the common ground? Is it really just the Spanish language? A common appreciation for the female backside? It's hard to put a finger on. Perhaps a secret that only Latin Americans know. Alike, yet so, so different.

So, this post doesn't really have a conclusion. I'm simply mystified (definitely a word) by the phenomenon that is Latin America. It is not defined by borders and it can't be boxed in by assumptions of commonality. It's a messy, chaotic, and nuanced beast. Like everything, no matter how much we struggle against it. I certainly tire of answering questions or making broad statements about America and Americans. It's hard to to break down something as complex as culture and just say, "this how we are, and this is how you are." At the end of the day, I really just want people to realize this is how I am, and realize that while I am influenced by culture, I am not determined by or beholden to it. Much less so a stereotype or assumption. Culture isn't something you can define with brevity. I just want respect for who I am as an individual, with a healthy but distanced appreciation for how culture may have shaped me. And I'd like to think I can return the favor.

April 2, 2014

Reflections on Cattle

I'm standing on a dirt road looking out over flat, interminable pasture as the swollen red sun descends rapidly below the horizon. It occurs to me that WE are the ones actually moving, not the sun, but it's impossible to feel. The cattle are dark brown, milky white and beige. They are grazing serenely as the glow of the sunset touches them. Some of them have climbed atop a dirt mound to get a better view over the sea of green and gold. I feel like a cowgirl, or a rancher. I feel like I'm in the Wild West, surveying my rangeland, with a few palm trees and strange bird calls to remind me I'm sub-tropical. But I don't own this land, and even if I did, I wouldn't. Land ownership has always been a strange concept in my mind. It's a system that only humans recognize, after all. There are whole ecosystems going about their business without anyone's say-so. Cattle, who graze among the hum and buzz at their feet, represent a crucial link between these apparently disparate worlds.

Here in rural Paraguay, we cohabit the scenery with these large, docile creatures. We share the roads with them, like in India. And they are sacred, but not like in India. Here their sanctity stems from what they provision. There are some that treat them carelessly, to be sure, but for those of us not part of the agro-industrial complex, their health and well-being is very important. Just days ago we observed with great interest as our elderly neighbor supervised a recently born calf's first hours in this world. His clumsy attempts to get the calf to stand and walk were futile, while its mother's encouraging tongue - and time - did the trick. Some things, when hurried, provide disastrous results - a cake, a birth, the grand processes of Nature.

Cattle are definitively not hurried creatures, though they startle easily. Paraguayan cattle provide some of the richest meat in the world and their milk comprises an important part of the Paraguayan diet. Queso paraguayo is fresh, white cheese made simply by heating and culturing raw cow's milk. The cheese is neither seasoned nor aged, and as such is not very flavorful, but perfect for cooking and baking. Paraguayans, according to my observations thus far, are great lovers of lactose. Milk, cheese, yogurt, ice-cream. Yogurt is sold in bags you can stick a straw in. People prefer drinkable over spoon-able yogurt here. A bag of yogurt can be a refreshing treat on a hot day. Paraguayan ice-cream, in my opinion at least, should be considered a national treasure.

In the end, human development has led us here: we care for animals with the purpose of consuming them. It is strange, and some may consider it barbaric. But when done right, there is mutual benefit to be had. On our farm, for example, cattle enjoy the life their oversize hearts desire. The open pasture is theirs - as much as we have the means to provide. During the lean times when the grass is thin they feast upon organic sugar cane. They drink from natural springs. Their health, comfort and well-being is seen to year-round. We know that when they live the life they deserve, we get the quality of meat that we desire. Their contentment is our contentment.

In sum, I can't put it much better than Temple Grandin, according to the HBO movie: "Of course they're gonna get slaughtered. You think we'd have cattle if people didn't eat 'em everyday? They'd just be funny-lookin' animals in zoos. But we raise them for us. That means we owe them some respect. Nature is cruel, but we don't have to be."

A bit of nuzzling before moving  from their feeding pasture to their sleeping pasture.