Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Where have I been for 2 months?! Well, sadly, I left my camera cord in Nashville between trips, and posting is much less fun without pictures, so I just didn't post at all. A little mean of me to leave you hanging, though!

What am I doing now? Well, I'm back in Nashville and decking the halls of our little duplex. Since I have to be in Nashville for Christmas, I'm making family come here to celebrate, which means this is also the first year I've ever actually been able to decorate for Christmas. That means I'm stretching my creative muscles to accomplish all sorts of feats, like this advent wreath. What was at one point a plain wreath, glass candle holders, last year's candles, pine cones, canned fake snow, and unshatterable ornaments is NOW an awesome advent wreath! Once the goods were purchased, total prep time was 20 minutes.
Christmas Project #1: Advent wreath - success!

What about all those Argentina pictures? Ah, yes, not to worry. I will post stories from Argentina, just as if I were still there. Give me a couple days to sort through my pictures, but here are a few events you can anticipate:

A peak into the French Embassy, a sight seldom granted by the gov't
Our weekend in Santiago during Chile's big victory over Columbia
A vineyard tour in Chile
A tour of downtown Buenos Aires
A culinary tour of Argentine food
A tour of the Casa Rosada ('Pink House,' equivalent to our White House)
Tango show in Buenos Aires
A weekend getaway to the beaches of Uruguay
The US Ambassador's residence
The only form of natural beauty I enjoyed in BA (it's a surprise)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Asado Lunch

Last weekend, Chad and I ventured to Lujan an hour outside of Buenos Aires to stay at an estancia, which is like a ranch. Many estancias advertise themselves as relaxing, bed and breakfast sorts of getaways, except the focus is on lunch. They typically serve asado, a series of different cuts of meat that have been slowly cooked on a grill or over an open fire. They also usually serve bread, sides, and a dessert, so you have one giant, delicious meal. I'll walk you through ours.

We began with classic South American carne empanadas. Chad and I have eaten a fair number of empanadas in Buenos Aires, so we've become trained in the ways of discerning the best. These empanadas had very good crusts, flaky, with a slightly crisp outer layer, and enough substance to hold the empanada together after being bitten into. The meat filling was pretty good, but it was mostly ground beef and lacked the spicy sauce and potato chunks that many other high quality carne empanadas have. So, satisfactory, but we didn't devote all our stomach space to empanadas.

Our first meat course was chorizo and morcillas. Chorizo is a spicy sausage, although South American chorizo is not as spicy as Spain's. This chorizo was quite tasty and had a lovely grilled crunch to the exterior. Morcillas are blood sausages, which both sound and look gross to me. It's made by cooking blood with some sort of filler, such as ground up pieces of pork and breadcrumbs. Most other countries have a version of morcilla. In Germany it's blutwurst; in the UK it's blood pudding; in Asia it's blood tofu or red tofu. I didn't even try it, but Chad assured me it was gross.

They also brought out salad at the same time. Well, they brought a bowl of lettuce and tomatoes, a bowl of spinach, a bowl of shredded carrots, a bowl of purple cabbage, a bowl of sliced radishes, a bowl of arugala and onions, and a little tray with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, and half a lemon. I hadn't even realized how much I'd been craving a good salad. I had four helpings of salad, polishing off the bowls of lettuce, spinach, and carrots. This is a picture of Chad's salad, and you can't even see have the radishes on his plate. The oil/red wine vinegar/lemon combo was excellent - a great way to cut the fatty taste of the meat.

Then they brought what they simply called "asado." I'm not entirely sure which cut of meat this is, but it was de-double 'e'-licious. With the bone in and fatty juices all marinating inside and the crisp layer of charcoaled goodness outside, we definitely ate our fill. I will say it wasn't the most tender cut I've ever had, but, man, it was dripping flavor. Plus, I wouldn't be surprised if they had just plucked the cow right out of their own pasture two days beforehand. I could almost taste the cow's willing sacrifice. (Weird, I don't care.)

For the final course of meat, they brought us what tasted quite similar to the previous course, but there was no bone. Chad and I agreed that this meat didn't have quite the same "bang" as the previous, maybe because of the lack of bone, but it was still tasty. We knew that we would have to preserve the last of our stomach space for desert, though, so we ate of this course sparingly.

Rich custard, a fluffy layer of meringue, drizzles of chocolate, and a bowl of warm dulce de leche with which to smother it all - Dulce de leche is like a heavenly version caramel. Carmel is already wonderful, but imagine caramel dead, purified, and resurrected in heaven. That's dulce de leche. Or if you want to go Platonic, dulce de leche is like the Form and caramel its shadowy image. I realize that doesn't totally work because I'm on earth, so I couldn't have actually participated in heavenly things or Forms, but roll with the metaphor. If you've had "dulce de leche" from a can or plastic container or in a latte, that's not the real deal. The real deal comes from Milena, the genius cook at the estancia.

See? The dulce de leche actually was so good that Chad passed onto the next world. His last words were, "This dulce de leche is so good it's killing me. I'm dead." I brought him back, though, don't worry.

And, that, my friends, is a 2 1/2 hour asado lunch at an estancia in Argentina.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Offbeat Argentine Cuisine

I must admit that adjusting to the Argentine cuisine has been a little more difficult that I had hoped. I'll just go ahead and blame it on the pregnancy, but deep down, I may just be a pickier eater than I pretend. So, first an overview, then I'll show you some of our interesting little discoveries.

Breakfast (roughly 8-10:30 am) is generally a cafe con leche and a pastry. They serve 'medialunas,' which are like croissants, but a little more dense and with a sweet glaze on top. I am definitely a medialuna fan, so breakfast is generally a good meal for me, if I get myself out of bed and ready for the day early enough. Lunch (roughly 12:30-2:30 pm) seems to be usually a sandwich, empanadas, tortas (like quiche), pizza, or Milanese (thin cuts of beef or chicken that's breaded and fried). Their sandwiches are funny because they're often just ham and cheese, or ham and cheese and tomato, or a big slab of Milanase between two pieces of bread. Now, those two pieces of bread could be white bread, with the crusts removed, or pita-like bread, or giant baguettes. So, for instance, the other day I got a Milanese sandwich, which was a huge piece of breaded and fried beef put in between two baguette slices. There were like four inches of meat hanging off either side of the baguette slices. And, of course, there are no condiments or add-on things like lettuce. Meat and bread. Maybe meat, cheese, and bread. Dinner (8:30-10:30) seems to bring on more variety, including steaks.

Perhaps the frustrating part is the general lack of variety. Nearly every restaurant in our posh little neighborhood serves basically sandwiches, empanadas, pizza, and Milanese. Or you can go to a steak-house. Sometimes an American just wants a salad bar or a yummy soup, you know? Or a chicken salad, mmm.

Oh, speaking of salads, most of the 'hip' restaurants that want a foreign sort of edge offer salads, but they're often very offbeat salads. Take this Waldorf salad, for instance, at which I am looking quite skeptically in this picture. Yes, yes, the main ingredients in a Waldorf are apples, grapes, celery, walnuts, and mayo, but this was literally chopped up apple, slathered in mayo, and sprinkled with walnuts and hearts of palm. I don't know. I felt like I basically was just eating mayo-covered apples. It was weird.

And delving even deeper into the weird, we have mate. Chad was brave enough to order this traditional beverage. They bring you a mate cup, filled with dried leaves (same idea as tea), a metal straw, and a thermos of hot water. You pour the hot water over the mate leaves, let it steep, and then drink with the straw. Repeat. The straw has slits that essentially act as a filter. Mate is extremely popular all over South America, and they generally drink it when socializing in groups. They'll often even pass the mate cup around to share. Well, Chad offered to share with me. Let me tell you, mate is gross. I'm sorry to sound so closed-minded or whatever.
I bet, though, that if you steeped alfalfa and hay in hot water and drank the liquid from a straw, you'd basically be drinking mate. Yep, alfalfa and hay. Maybe some plain ole grass mixed in, too. Just take a good, close look at it. Ick. But Chad drank all of it, so maybe it's just me.

Perhaps I spent too much time describing the oddities of Argentine cuisine. We actually had a delicious meal just this weekend at an estancia an hour outside Buenos Aires. I'll post about that next time, so we can balance out the picture of Argentine cuisine.

Addendum: Omg, they make mate soda. Some of you lucky folks just might be getting a six pack of this for Christmas.

Monday, September 28, 2009

La Boca

At 'the mouth' ('la boca') of the Riacheulo River, is a brightly colored neighborhood, whose history began in the 16th century. Juan de Garay, from the Basque Country of Spain, sailed to the South American continent on a number of exploratory expeditions and founded cities along the way, including the 'second' foundation of Buenos Aires in 1580. (I'm not entirely clear how you can found a city for a 'second' time, but so the history websites say...)
The area of this second founding was primarily a port that sustained a neighborhood of humble houses and grocery stores. When ship trade increased in the 1800s, the neighborhood expanded with immigrants, who asked the shipyards for leftover paint to color the exterior walls of their houses and businesses.

The colorful neighborhood became famous, and, as with all interesting poor areas of town, it soon attracted artists and bohemians. By the end of the 1900s, La Boca had shifted to a tourist attraction with a rich history, although the hints of poverty are still visible, and the locals still recommend only visiting La Boca during daylight hours.

If the building had a fresh coat of paint and served cafe con leche or sold souveniers, we assumed it was part of the tourism industry. If the building was older with chipping paint and was only accessible through the narrow alleyways, we assumed it was a remnant of the immigrant/bohemian neighborhood.

The buildings with creepy plaster figures hanging out the window we avoided. This particular creeper is a prostitue, commemorating the brothels that used to be (perhaps still are?) a part of La Boca.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

La Recoleta Cemetery

Rather than a field of grass with tombstones, La Recoleta cemetery is filled with rows side-by-side small stone houses, each with a door and a name plate of the family, an altar, decorations, coffins for one or two of the family members, and a basement to hold the rest of the family members. Apparently there's no rule or tradition about who gets to be in the top floor coffins and who gets sent down to the basement.

Most of the altars had crucifixes, vases (some with flowers, some without), and candle holders, but a few had little toys and memorabilia. It seemed like the living family was supposed to come by (with their keys to the tomb-houses) to put in flowers, dust, and clear out the cobwebs. Obviously, some were better kept up than others.

Now, there were plenty of odd people like me who would wander around just to see what people put in their tomb-houses (that's my word for the funny looking graves), but the real tourism draw is Evita's tomb-house.

Evita was the wife of President Peron, who was both elected three times as president and took control of the government through military coup. Since Eva was his third wife, she only remained in the lime light from 1946 till her death in 1952. She was loved by the Argentine people for her charity works, feminist philosophy, and support of women's suffrage. No surprise that hers was definitely the most decorated tomb-house.

Here are more pictures of La Recoleta Cemetery.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Argentine Steak

Before we left the States, everyone told us that the Argentines are famous for their steaks. I sat next to a Buenos Aires native (called a "porteno") on the plane, and when I asked what the food is like in Buenos Aires, he laughed and said, "Meat, meat, meat! We eat steak for every meal." Since Chad and I are from Texas, we do pride ourselves on knowing a thing or two about meat, so we felt like testing out Buenos Aires' best steak should be our first goal.

I arrived in Buenos Aires on Chad's 25th birthday. Since I know nothing of the city, he said he would reserve a place for us to eat dinner. Chad had tried steak several times already, but never at high dollar restaurants, so he was still unimpressed with the steak but reserving judgment. With a special occasion to celebrate, we headed to the Fodor recommended steakhouse called "La Cabrera Norte." The original restaurant, "La Cabrera," was so popular that they built a second building, a block North.

The menu listed quite a few cuts of beef, including the equivalents of prime rib, tenderloin, flank steak, rump roast, skirt steak, and intestines. We asked the waiter for his opinion on the best steak in the house, and he resoundedly told us to order the Kobe beef steak. Chad said, "Kobe bife? Las vacas estan de Japon, si?" The waiter assured us that the cows are born and raised in Argentina and that they produce the best steaks in the country. So, we ordered Kobe beef steaks (including side dishes) for just about US$17, not bad. We were greatly delighted when they brought out two sizzling steaks, flanked by small bowls of side dishes, plus another platter of side dishes.

Below the two steaks are bowls of hummus, pureed olives, and spicy lima beans. Above the steaks are bowls of pine nuts, mushrooms, and some other sort of bean. On the circular platter of bowls (beginning with the '6:00-ish' position and moving clockwise) is mashed potatoes, olives, roasted garlic, apple/pear sauce, more olives, pears marinated in something tangy, and (in the middle) pureed squash.

The judgment: The steaks had excellent flavor and a hint of crispy char on each side, with just the right amount of dark pink in the center, but the meat just wasn't as tender or juicy as steaks we've had in the States. I hate to say it, but these Argentine Kobe steaks didn't win the MacDonald award. For the sides, we liked the pureed potatoes, roasted garlic, apple/pear sauce, pears, and pureed squash. We thought the lima beans and pine nuts were interesting, but the rest, we could have done without.

After they cleared our plates, we turned down the offer of a desert menu and awaited our check. To our left, we saw a waiter bring a tree of lollipops to a table of middle-aged British men, and I nearly laughed out loud when one of grey-haired Brits smiled widely and exclaimed, "It's a lolly tree!" Our waiter brought us a lolly tree of our own, although we couldn't top our neighbor's excitement.

All-in-all, it was a very good dinner and lovely Argentine (/British) experience. We'll still be on the look-out for more Argentine steaks to try over the next few months.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Two ladies starting out on a journey

A rolling bag, a backpack, and a messenger bag for the two of us girls, I'm sure we'll never travel this light again. At 2pm Central, we're off to Buenos Aires, via Miami, and Chad will be waiting at the airport at 6:15am local time (one hour East of the Eastern time zone). He's already made all our living arrangements, and he even prepped the apartment for my arrival. He bought hangers for my clothing, picked up snacks for my frequent hunger, and asked the maid service to come a day early so I could sleep Friday afternoon. I could adjust to this sort of traveling. Hostels are entirely overrated.

Well, I'm off, and the next update will be from Buenos Aires. Adios!
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Monday, September 14, 2009

A series of updates

1. We're having a girl!

Well, this sonogram photo doesn't exactly distinguish her gender or her from any other baby's sonogram, but you can take my word for it.

2. We've moved to a duplex.

Living on the 10th story of an apartment building was doable for two years, but I didn't much like the idea of hauling baby and groceries through a parking lot and up an elevator or hauling baby and laundry down an elevator to the laundry room. Now our cars are parked three feet from our back door, and we have our own washer/dryer. We're kinda like real adults now.

3. I have a Masters degree in Sociology from Vanderbilt.

This also means I'm on the hunt for online employment, preferably editing or writing. I'm applying to a variety of places, but nothing yet. I'll probably do some travel writing while in Buenos Aires and see if I can get something accepted. Clearly, the masters in sociology may not pay off in the immediate future. It's not helping me find a job, and it will only screw up the way I raise a little girl.

4. Chad has a job in New York.

Chad will start at the firm "sometime" in 2011. That could be January 2011 ooor October 2011. We'll likely stay in Nashville until a few months before the TBA start date, but once we move to New York, we might be there as long as five years.

5. Chad's in Buenos Aires now, and my flight leaves this Thursday. I'll do my best to blog a bit while I'm there and post some pictures. Man, life changes quickly. Or, I should say, rapidamente.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Mexico City Spring Break 2009

The long-awaited pictures from Mexico City! Chad and I were there for a week in early March - before the news about the drug gang violence broke in American news - and we would definitely go back again. We felt totally safe, ate delicious food, saw a bull fight, and visited ancient ruins. Plus, the dollar vs. the peso? Awesome.

Check out the slide show (I recommend 4 seconds per slide):