Back to work!

Tags

, ,

I’ve been back in DC since mid-May. I left Juarez the end of April and went on a whirlwind road-trip tour of the US, visited my parents and siblings in Utah, hung out with friends in Chicago, met my adorable new nephew in NY, and managed to cram in some quality time with my in-laws in PA and NJ. By the time I made it to DC, it was time to organize my husband’s pack out, move into my new apartment, and get him on his merry way to Qatar.

I’m 6 weeks into Arabic training. It’s weird being back at FSI and I haven’t quite found my language-training groove yet. Part of the problem is that I’ve only ever studied Arabic really intensely, so only being in class 5 hours a day with 3-ish hours of homework feels like I’m somehow doing too little and like I should be working much harder. Another part of the problem is that FSI is really only set up to get you to a 2/1, and anyone who wants a better score than that (especially in speaking) only means more work for the Arabic department, so there’s really not much incentive on the teachers’ end of the spectrum for students to get beyond the minimum. Of course, I don’t want the minimum. I want to get as much exposure to the language as I can, I want to be able to do my job in Doha confidently, and I want a better score if at all possible. So needless to say, I’ve found being back in class to be a bit frustrating and I haven’t made as much progress at regaining my Arabic as I had hoped to have made at this point.

It’s also been hard to be so far away from my husband. I really like that guy, you know? July 14 marks 1 full year since we’ve lived in the same house and the 7 hour time difference right now is really difficult to deal with. I’m already counting down the days until I get to see him in September (67 days!). He seems to be settling into life in Doha pretty well and he’s making friends and exploring the city as much as he can without a car. His UAB arrived last week and the HHE and our car should be there in the next 2 weeks although between the heat-induced shortened work hours and Ramadan, it’s likely that it’ll take some extra time for things to clear customs and to arrive at the Embassy. For the meantime, he’s making do and seems to have found local sources for most things. Between his busy schedule, my classes and other obligations, and the time zone difference, we are lucky if we can cram in a 30-minute FaceTime session awkwardly in the back of the cafeteria during my lunch break. It’s better than nothing, and having video chatting abilities is eons away from what our early long-distance days were like a decade ago, but it’s still hard.

I’m still working on back-posting the rest of my Juarez adventures, so for my understandably-dwindling-readership (hi mom!), look for posts soon about our Christmas trip to Barcelona, my 30th birthday in Mexico City, and my Oaxaca-Puebla Semana Santa trip, among others.

Incongruities

Tags

It’s a gorgeous, Juarez day today. 65-ish degrees and sunny with a gorgeous, clear, blue sky. These are the kinds of days that make me really love this place. For all the awful-ness of the weather during the summers here, the rest of the seasons are, minus the occasional dust storm, quite lovely.

I’m currently just over 1 week into a 1 month rotation where I come in at 7 a.m. and leave at 4. It’s a nice break from the grind of the visa line, but I am not crazy about being at work at 7 a.m., and the first Monday after the switch from Standard to Daylight Saving Time proved to be difficult. It sucks to leave the house for work in the pitch black, so I actually didn’t know just how lovely a day it was until I left for lunch around 1 p.m.

I had my windows rolled down, NPR classical music blaring (because I’m cool like that) and I was thinking about how perfect a day it was, and how happy the weather made me feel, when I came upon a funeral procession. It’s actually the very first one I’ve seen since I got to Juarez over 22 months ago, if you can believe that. There were more than 30 cars in the procession, and all of them seemed to be full of mourners. All the cars had black crepe flyers attached to them somehow, and right behind the hearse was a pick-up truck with a bed just LOADED with flowers. 

As I was waiting for them to pass so I could merge, it just struck me as so stark and incongruous. Such a beautiful day and such a painful, sad event. I’m projecting, of course, because I don’t know a thing about the person who died or their family, but it made me really think about the inevitability of loss. I suppose I should be happy for them that it’s not a blustery, rainy day, because who wants to stand in a cemetery in the mud and rain? But I just couldn’t help but feel like this perfect day shouldn’t have to be used for burying a loved one. It should be used for flying kites at Chamizal. Or running laps around the neighborhoods behind the Consulate. Or visiting Modesto the lone giraffe at Parque Central. 

And then of course I started to think about all the things I haven’t done here yet and all the things I want to do again before I leave and that just made me sad all over again. Le sigh. I am leaving in 51 days and there is so much to do, so much to see, so much to write about.

Cooking class

Tags

, ,

Tonight I taught a cooking class at my house. I have this killer scone recipe and the last few times I’ve made them and brought them to work I’ve had several people ask for the recipe. Rather than just give it out, I decided it would be way more fun and more useful to just have a class where we make them together. For those bakers out there, scones are one of those breads that require a bit of technique to master and it’s hard to understand the technique if you’re just reading the text. Plus, I’ve got several sneaky short-cuts that I’ve worked out over the years that make my recipe super simple (only dirty 1 bowl, 1 fork, and 2 measuring spoons!), and super fast (freeze them once they’re cut out and have fresh scones any time you want!).

We had 9 participants including EFMs, local staff, officers, and even an adorable 10-year old cooking assistant. We made bacon-cheddar-jalapeño scones and they turned out awesome. I think everyone had a good time and I’ve already been asked (and have started contemplating) a pie crust course for next month. I’ve got just over 2 months left here at post before moving on and it’s events like tonight that make me want to stay here forever. I love the friends I’ve made and the staff I work with. I don’t know what I’m going to do without them.

I was sure that I had posted this recipe before seeing as I make these literally twice a month, but apparently I’ve never managed to post it, so here it is, in all it’s glory: my fool-proof scone recipe, adapted from the always amazing Smitten Kitchen’s dreamy cream scone recipe.

Bacon Cheddar Jalapeño Scones
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s adaptation from America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook

2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached flour (all-purpose or bread flour)
1 tablespoon baking powder
2.5 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons frozen butter, cut into small cubes
1 cup whole milk or half and half, or heavy cream (or a combination of any of the three)
4-5 thick slices bacon, cooked and crumbled or cut into bite-sized chunks
3-4 oz shredded cheddar cheese
1 medium jalapeño pepper, finely diced (if desired)

  1. Heat oven to 425°F and adjust oven rack to middle position.
  2. Whisk flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt in a large bowl.
  3. Using 2 knives, a pastry blender, or a fork, quickly cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. There will be a few slightly larger butter lumps. This is ok.
  4. Fold in bacon, cheese, and peppers and toss until evenly distributed.
  5. Stir in milk/half-and-half/cream with a fork or wooden spoon until shaggy dough begins to form.
  6. Tear off a large sheet of parchment paper and sprinkle the middle with a bit of flour.
  7. Transfer dough and all the dry, floury bits to the parchment paper and knead just until the dough comes together. I do this by taking 1 corner of the paper and pulling it tight around the dough, then you release, rotate the parchment, and repeat with the rest of the corners until all the floury pieces are incorporated. The goal is to use the floured paper to “knead” the dough instead of your hands. This means less melted butter and more flaky layers in your scones. If the dough sticks to the paper, sprinkle it with a bit more flour.
  8. Press the dough into a circle or a rectangle and then cut out scones using a sharp knife or pizza cutter.**
  9. Place the scones on an ungreased baking sheet (or you can put them on a parchment lined baking sheet) and bake until light brown, 12-15 minutes.
  10. Cool on wire rack for at least 10 minutes.

**At this point, if you like you can transfer the scones directly to the freezer. Place them on a piece of parchment in a single layer and freeze until solid (about 24 hours). Then gather the frozen scones and put them in a freezer-proof Ziplock bag. When you’re ready for fresh scones, put the frozen scones directly into a preheated oven and bake for 15-18 minutes, or until golden brown.

 

Thanksgiving 2014

Tags

, , , ,

Everyone who knows me in real life knows that in my house, Thanksgiving is Serious Business. I start thinking about a theme months in advance. In early October, I start thinking about menus and planning my guest list. As soon as the Bon Appetit November issue comes out, I snap up a copy, drag out my old editions, and start bookmarking recipes to try to pull together a cohesive menu. I look through all my cookbooks with the selected theme in mind, and I comb the internet for centerpiece ideas and interesting cocktail recipes.

By the first weekend in November, I have my guest list narrowed down, my invites done, and my recipes more or less selected. The next week, I write up a giant, handwritten grocery list broken down by dish so that I don’t forget to buy anything. I cross reference this list with local grocery stores, so that I don’t end up at a store where they don’t sell a particular item. This is especially important in the Juarez/El Paso area, where only a few stores carry “specialty” items. Finally, I work up my master schedule of cooking/baking. The goal of my schedule is to do as much as I can in advance and to minimize extra prep work. For example, I set aside one evening to chop all the onions, carrots, potatoes, etc for all of the recipes. Everything gets measured and put in a labelled ziplock bag in the fridge, which is organized shelf by shelf. This sounds like an insane process, and I’ll be the first to admit that it kind of is, but I love love LOVE it.

The first few Thanksgivings we hosted, I provided the turkey, stuffing, and dessert but as the years have passed, I’ve slowly started providing more and more. My ultimate goal is to host a full Thanksgiving where I just invite people to show up with a bottle of something tasty and their appetites. This year, I made the turkey, gravy, stuffing, traditional Scottish skirlie (a type of oat-based dressing), 2 potato dishes, 3 veggie side dishes, 2 desserts, 2 appetizers, and a signature cocktail.

Last year’s mega-party (17 guests!!) was super fun but so exhausting so I decided this year to do something on a much smaller scale. I handmade paper invitations and delivered them to a very small group of friends and I asked everyone to contribute a single side, appetizer, or dessert that went with the theme, which was Agave, Tequila, & Mezcal. 

My husband flew in on Thanksgiving day mid-morning so I had to pop the turkey in the oven early before heading across the border to pick him up. Initially, I thought that I’d really need him to be sous chef for me, but I actually had things pretty well in hand. I had pre-cut, pre measured, and pre-made almost everything and I got up early to put together the few things that had to be done last-minute. Of course the last hour is always insane, as I have yet to manage to input adequate time in the schedule to shower and get myself ready for the formal event. It’s the one thing I consistently forget to plan for and I really should just take whatever amount of time I figure into the schedule and double it to give myself a few minutes of downtime before the party starts.**

The event was spectacular, if I may say so myself. My friends are all amazing cooks and bakers, so we had some pretty incredible items to choose from. Here are some of the things that were on the menu:

Mezcal-tequila-sage-cocktails
Cranberry Margaritas
Wine
Pumpkin-tequila soup
Tequila Queso Fundido with tortilla chips
Mezcal-agave-glazed turkey
Mezcal-cider gravy
Mashed potatoes with agave caramelized onions
Apple sage stuffing with tequila glazed croutons
Kale & Brussels sprout salad with agave glazed nuts
White-chocolate mezcal ice cream sandwiches with gingersnap cookie crusts
Apple tart with mezcal-salted caramel sauce

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It. Was. Awesome. Great food, great company, all-in-all an excellent way to spend a holiday. I can’t wait for next year, when the theme shifts from Mexico to the Middle East!

 

**Future Self: Take note!

So. Much. Work.

Tags

, ,

Work has been utterly insane lately: I’m training a new officer to the IV section, our new IV chief just arrived so I’ve been busy in-briefing him, I just got assigned to be site officer for a very important upcoming visit, I’m re-vamping our entire IV training program in the next 6 weeks, AND on top of all of that, we just got the mandatory Windows 7 upgrade which has made a very large portion of my job pretty much impossible to do. So needless to say, work has been fun lately.

I can’t believe I only have 6 months left at post. I have SO MUCH WORK to do between now and then. I need a second set of hands and about 10 extra hours in the workday.

 

Queremos Jalowin!

Tags

, , ,

Halloween. I have never been a huge fan of the holiday, but here in Juarez it’s a pretty big deal and people get really in to it.  The Consulate has a big Halloween party every year and all the employees bring in their kids for trick-or-treating.* The warehouse guys set up a terrifying spook alley and every office or section decorates their area and has a table with candy and treats. It’s super fun and so so cute to see all the kids in their costumes.  This year there were a LOT of Spiderman costumes, a couple of really cute mermaids, a tiny Khaleesi, and an even tinier Mike and Sully from Monster’s Inc. I didn’t dress up for work, but one of my fabulous coworkers had brought a bunch of props so I grabbed a few and threw together a last minute costume.

After work, I spent a few hours trying to figure out what I was going to dress as for the crazy, Juarez-wide Halloween party I went to with a bunch of friends. Most of my friends were going together as a a group of sexy female mariachis. Somehow I missed the invite for the group costume, though, so I had to come up with something on my own. Seeing as I’m an ex-theater nerd I almost always have some costume-y things laying around the house and even though most of my stuff is in storage, I did mange to ship one gigantic box full of costumes etc. I wanted something really really easy this time. I hate spending money for Halloween and I didn’t want to have to buy anything for the costume, especially as I didn’t really even start thinking about it until T-minus 3 hours from the start of the event.

When I pulled my old cheerleading outfit out of the box (complete with pom poms and matching scrunchy!) I knew that was a good starting point. I could have just been a cheerleader and called it a day, but I wanted to somehow incorporate Mexico into the costume.  I started googling like mad and racking my brain trying to figure out how to add a touch of Mexico to my pretty ubiquitously American cheerleader costume. And then it hit me: a calavera Catrina! Luckily, I had leftover white make up from last year’s Labyrinth couple costume, so I did a google image search, found a classic style that I liked, and got to work. It turned out great and thanks to my awesome face-stay-spray, it stayed on all night even when I forgot about it and scratched my cheek. The party was awesome: great location, good music, good drinks, AND my sexy mariachi friends won the costume contest! Hooray!

I don’t think Halloween will ever be a holiday that I look forward to all year, but it’s good to know that even at my laziest, I can still manage to pull of a great costume. Next Halloween I will be back in DC, just days before my final Arabic exam and my move to Doha. Hopefully I’ll be able to kick back and enjoy the holiday a little bit, but I already foresee another lazily planned costume. Calavera Congressional Intern? Calavera Martha Washington? Vamos a ver…

 

*Trick-or-treating here is different than it is back in the U.S. At work, the kids don’t  say anything when they came to the candy booths, we just give them candy and tell them how cute they are. But if you are lucky enough to get trick-or-treaters at your house, they come in gigantic groups and they stand on your porch and chant “queremos jalowin!” (literally: “we want Halloween!”) until you open the door and give them candy. I kind of love it. I always wondered why we say “Trick-or-Treat” when clearly we just want candy, so to me, queremos jalowin really gets across the message that Halloween = candy. There’s no pretense. There is no pretending like there’s another option. Just give us the candy and we’ll get off your porch.

Spreading the love

Tags

, , ,

As you all know, I bake a lot. Even more now that my husband is gone and I’m all alone in the house. Most of what I bake gets delivered to neighbors or taken to work where my colleagues kindly eat even my less-than-perfect creations. One of the things I have found myself making with growing frequency is this filled bread recipe from Smitten Kitchen. I’ve made it now with several delicious permutations, my favorite of which to date has been the roasted peach-lime filled braid I made a few months ago. Until now…

Last week, one of my colleagues asked me if I would be willing to share the recipe with her. I always like to spread the joy of baking, so when asked to supply recipes I almost always* say yes. I’ve made this braided loaf enough times to have come up with an adaptation that works well for me at this altitude, that takes into account the dryness in the air, and that makes sure that every bite is filled with cheese-cakey, fruity, delicious filling. Rather than try to type it all out here, I’ll just direct you to the link above and tell you that if you live at altitude (I’m at about 3,700 feet) and/or if you live in a dry, dry desert, you may want to try the following adaptations:

  • I find that I have to add about 1/2 tablespoon of extra water to the sponge, and about the same measurement of extra sour cream to the dough.
  • I always, ALWAYS, double the cheese filling part because I like to have a super thicker layer.
  • I never use lemon juice in the filling because it’s next to impossible to find here and I find that the slightly more subtle flavor of lime juice really brings out the creaminess of the cream cheese filling.
  • It takes way longer for it to raise here in Juarez, so I usually leave 2 hours for the first raise and between 60 and 90 minutes for the second.
  • I never have pearl sugar so I usually use raw sugar, the kind you can buy in little packets for coffee or tea, which give it a nice, sparkly top but also mean that you have to watch it very carefully so the sugar doesn’t burn.

This is one of my very favorite recipes to make and to eat so I am totally excited to get to share it with you here and to get to share it with my friend at work. Food diplomacy at it’s finest!

 

*There are a few recipes that I have been asked for but which I have to refuse to share. My family has a long history in the kitchen and there are a couple of top secret family recipes that Grammo forbade us to give away outside the family. I make them and feed them to my friends, of course, but I just can’t give out the recipes. Gotta keep them guessing somehow!

It’s different this time

I used to love living alone. I only did it for a short period of time, but it was one of the best times in my life. I was 21 and in the throes of my senior year of college. I had no money: I sold plasma twice a week for grocery money and to pay my utility bills and I survived on mostly coffee, peanut butter & celery, and the occasional loaf of garlic bread. I lived in the basement apartment of a 100-year-old house with creaky pipes, terrible insulation, and the biggest, deepest, claw-footed bathtub you have ever seen, I basically lived in that bathtub, especially when it was freezing cold in the winter and the ancient heater couldn’t get the temperature in the apartment above 62 degrees. I lived alone because I wanted to and it was awesome.

Now, close to a decade later, living alone is completely different. I’m nearly 30 years old and both college and graduate school seem like an eternity ago. I am lucky to have at least a modest amount of disposable income. I have a good job that is mostly interesting and which affords me the ability to travel and to live comfortably. Aside from an admittedly unhealthy love of Annie’s mac-n-cheese, and bacon, (although not generally together), my diet has much improved. I live in a kind of weird but charming house and I traded that gorgeous claw-footed tub for one of the newer and jetted variety. But perhaps the biggest difference in my life now is that this time, I don’t live alone by choice. I live alone because in order for my husband and I to both have fulfilling careers, in order for us to be able to work in our chosen field together someday, we have to be apart now.

It’s a choice we did not make lightly. We agonized about it for months before we finally pulled the trigger. But just because it was a choice doesn’t make it any easier. Living alone this time isn’t as much fun. Yes, I can watch trashy reality TV without my husband mocking me from the other room. And yes, I can sleep right in the middle of the bed and hog all the blankets. I do both of those things, practically daily. But I still wish he were here. It’s just not the same this time around.

Flu season

One of the major downsides of consular work is the sheer volume of people we interact with on a daily basis. Don’t get me wrong, this is also one of the major upsides of consular work–we meet and get to talk to hundreds of complicated and interesting people over the course of the day. But when flu season rolls around, consular work takes a physical toll. In addition to talking to people all day long, we constantly touch documents, passports, and photographs that have been handled by countless people. It’s enough to make anyone sick but couple that with the seasonal desert climate change here (think daily 40 degree temperature swings) and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

I’ve been on knocked flat with the flu and an ear infection for going on a week now. Just when I start to feel better, I push myself a little bit too hard and I end up back where I started. Case in point: yesterday was the Juarez Marathon and I signed up months ago to run a 10k leg on one of the Consulate’s marathon relay teams. I knew that with the flu, I wasn’t really in a good place to run, but if I had dropped out three other people wouldn’t have been able to run either so I decided to suck it up and try my best.

The results were…not spectacular. It was my worst 10k time ever, and I actually blacked out partway through it so I ended up walking to the nearest water station and chugging some Gatorade to get my blood sugar up. I finished, which is great considering the circumstances but it was definitely not my best work.

I’m feeling better-ish now but still coughing and super congested. Here’s hoping a few more days will clear this up and the rest of flu season will be kind to me.

Life swap!

Tags

For those who don’t know this already, the U.S. diplomatic mission to Mexico is huge: an embassy and 9 consulates. Almost half of all entry level officers will do their first or second tour in Mexico and we process a huge percentage of the worldwide workload of visas. So earlier this year when the announcement came down from the Embassy that we were going to try to manage shifting workloads “in-house” I wasn’t surprised. Basically this means that instead of getting temporary help from Washington or from other posts overseas, we’ve been sending officers from posts in Mexico to other posts in Mexico to help with demand when numbers are high. This is why I was sent on two temporary assignments earlier this year.

But because our presence here is so large, it’s sometimes hard to feel like a single, cohesive unit. At my level (so basically as low as you can possible be) there is virtually zero interaction between posts. At least, there was until earlier this summer. Someone in the Embassy had the brilliant idea of doing what I like to call Life Swaps of entry level officers within the mission. The goal is to have officers who work in different parts of the country swap jobs and houses and cars for a period of time to get a better feel of Mexico as a whole and of how we operate here. I LOVE traveling within Mexico and my two temporary assignments were eye-opening, so I jumped at the chance to swap lives with someone.

We had to get management approval, of course, and had to write a little blurb about what we wanted to learn and what we could bring to another post. Then those who were selected were matched with someone and left to agree upon dates and work out the details. I got paired with an officer from Monterrey, which if course I was thrilled about, and we worked it out to do the swap for 3 weeks starting in mid-September.

It was fantastic to get to do a temporary assignment with a specific goal in mind and I learned a lot about scheduling, process flow, and training. I came home with what I think are some good ideas that I hope to be able to incorporate into our procedures in CJ. I don’t know how prevalent swaps like this are in other large missions, but I hope they become popular. They’re a great way to exchange ideas, to standardize procedures, and to make friend.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 56 other followers