Gluten-free banana bread

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For a blogger whose blog title included the word “cupcake”, I have not done very much blogging about baking lately. That’s not to say that I haven’t baked a bunch of stuff, I’ve just not been good about photographing and actually getting recipes written down. But I made some banana bread last night that deserves a place in blog-history. Seriously, it’s delicious. And gluten free. And low fat. I know, I know. How could something low fat and gluten free be amazingly delicious? Read on and I will tell you how!

This was my first ever foray into GF baking and as I plan to make this recipe to give to someone as a gift, I wanted to make sure that I got the texture right and the flavor right without the gluten. I used Bon Appétit’s Best Banana Bread recipe as the base to figure out my ratios, and I used a variety of websites to read about and to come up with the best way to replicate the texture and crumb without pricey ingredients (read: xanthan gum) or chemical dough conditioners. Pack-out is coming and I don’t want a bunch of expensive, one-trick-pony ingredients to try to get rid of before then. After reading up on a bunch of options, adding an extra egg and using chia seeds seemed to be the best and most readily available options.

I took the loaf to work today and had a bunch of people taste test for me and not one person guessed that the loaf was gluten free so I’m counting it as a mission accomplished. Here’s the recipe. I’m making it again later this week and will update this post with pictures once I have them.

Gluten-Free Banana Bread
adapted from Bon Appetit

1 1/2 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour. (I used Bob’s Red Mill brand.)
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp chia seeds
1 1/2 tbsp water
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/3 cup Kefir yogurt (or cream cheese)
1/4 cup applesauce (you could use 1/2 stick of room temperature butter instead)
3 large eggs
4-5 ripe bananas
1/3 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

  • Preheat oven to 350. Grease a loaf pan with shortening or cooking spray and line with parchment. Make sure enough parchment overhangs the sides so you can pull it out of the pan easily. If you are lazy like I am and don’t want to have to wash your pan after, you don’t have to grease it but the grease does help the parchment to stick to the pan.
  • Whisk flour, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl. Set aside. Pour chia seeds and water into a small cup, swirl the water around to coat the seeds and set aside. In a large bowl, use a mixer to mix brown sugar, yogurt, and applesauce until smooth and no longer gritty (about 4 minutes). The mixture will be quite thin and will not be fluffy like it would be if you used butter. Don’t worry. This is normal. Add the eggs and beat thoroughly to incorporate them. Make sure you get all the whites beaten into the mixture because they’ll help act as a binder in the absence of gluten.
  • Add the flour mixture and beat on low just until combined. Scoop the chia seeds out of the cup and add them to the bowl. Mix briefly (30 seconds to 1 minute) to combine and then set the bowl aside for 10-15 minutes. This step is CRUCIAL to get the correct texture without the gluten. Seriously, don’t skip it.
  • While the mixture is setting, peel and mash the bananas in a small bowl. After the time is up, mix the bananas into the batter, keeping the mixer on low speed to avoid splatter and to preserve a few yummy banana chunks. Stir in the walnuts by hand.
  • Pour the batter into the prepared pan and cook for 60-75 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
  • Cool on a wire rack in the pan 10 minutes. Then, using the parchment, gently pull the bread out of the pan and set back on the rack to cool. For an extra treat, brush the top of the bread with melted butter or maple syrup.

I think that the best part about this bread is the crust. It gets kind of shiny and is the perfect combination of smooth and craggy. The bread itself is rich and delicious and would be absolutely perfect with a tiny cup of espresso as an after-dinner treat.

Enjoy!

اللغة العربية

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I’ve been at FSI in Arabic for 14 weeks. I’ve got 6 weeks left before my exam and I’m trying my hardest to make the most of them. Arabic is hard and unfortunately, FSI hasn’t done much to make the learning process very smooth for someone coming in with prior knowledge. I have some pretty strong fundamental disagreements about the curriculum and the way certain topics are introduced but I have to keep reminding myself that FSI’s program is only set up for people to reach a 2/1 so I can’t expect classes geared toward earning a 3/3, even though that’s what I want.

I know that I’m not going to get a 3/3 this round, especially not with only 20 weeks of instruction. But it still irks me that I have spent almost half of my time here in classes that were far too simple and slow-moving. It makes me crazy that I’ve had to beg and plead to get a teacher who is equipped to answer my grammatical questions and who is willing to help me excel. Shouldn’t all teachers be able to answer grammatical questions? Shouldn’t every teacher want their students to excel?  Shouldn’t the goal of every language program be to get every student as far along down the language learning path as possible?

I’m trying really hard to be positive, especially since I’m pretty confident that I’ll get at least the 2/1 I need, but I’m an over-achiever. “Just” passing makes me crazy, especially when I know I can do better. I just don’t know if I can do better by myself, and the teacher that I have now does not seem at all equipped or motivated to help me get where I want to be.

I’m going back into the office tomorrow to see if I can switch to a new teacher or get a one-on-one class. I’m hoping they can make it work for me, but I’m afraid that I’m going to have to really, really fight to get the kind of instruction I know I need. Blergh. It should not be this complicated.

Christmas in Barcelona

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I know it’s August now, but I’m still working through the last 6 months of my Juarez tour, so bear with me!

Two of our best friends from Juarez got married in Barcelona over Christmas. We weren’t sure if we’d be able to make it work financially and logistically, but after a bit of research and some math, it actually worked out to be a pretty affordable option. I flew from Juarez back to DC on the 21st of December and after spending Christmas Eve wandering DC in the snow, we had a lovely Christmas breakfast at home and headed to the airport. Our flight was supposed to leave from National Airport, but of course after sitting at the gate for 2 hours the flight was cancelled and we were rerouted on a later flight from Dulles. So we reclaimed our bags and headed out to the taxi line. The new flight put us transiting through Heathrow which was an exciting first for me, but the delay in departure meant that we arrived in Barcelona more than 12 hours after our originally slated arrival time. When you only have a 5 day trip including transit time, 12 hours makes a big difference, so I was pretty peeved about the whole thing.

But once we got to Barcelona my annoyance melted away and I fell in love with the city. It is seriously cute. Our hotel was about a 10 minute walk from Sagrada Familia, so we took advantage of that and went for a late night stroll to see the church lit up. It was gorgeous, simply beautiful, and after seeing it in the dark I was pumped to get to see it in daylight.

The next day (Friday) we met up with the bride, groom, and some other out-of-towners and went on a guided tour of the Barrio Gotica and La Rambla. The groom is a Barcelona native, so he knew all kinds of interesting tidbits about the city and he gave us great recommendations for tasty treats in the open-air market. As Spain is a Catholic country, the Christmas season lasts through Epiphany so the whole city was decked out in holiday lights and wreaths. The Barrio Gotic is super old and just packed with cute shops and gorgeous churches. After the tour, we went back to the hotel for a nap and then headed back out into town around 9 for dinner. We ate delicious tapas and drank amazing wine and we ended the night at Caelum, a coffee/pastry shop that also sells jams, jellies, and liqueurs made in local monasteries. We spent a long time trying to find the perfect gifts for some foodie friends and finally decided on some bitters and a jam sampler. YUM.

On Saturday we headed to Sagrada Familia to do the guided tour. The line was INSANE. Like, half a mile down the block insane, and we spent probably a good 2 hours just standing there waiting to get tickets. But it was totally, completely, 100% worth the wait. Gaudi was such a visionary and the way he incorporated plant biology and cell-structure into the cathedral is just astonishing. The stained glass is similarly phenomenal and since it was mid-morning by the time we finally got inside, the lighting was incredible. The whole interior just glows, quite literally, and it’s almost entirely done with natural light. It was really windy, so the tower tours were cancelled, so someday I’m going to have to go back to see the view. I can imagine how amazing it is, but it’s just one of those things I need to see in person.

After the tour, we stopped for chocolate and churros and then headed back to the hotel to get ready for the wedding. The wedding site was in a restaurant on the top of a hill and the traffic pattern up the hill is a bit confusing so we had to pull out our phones and google map it for the taxi driver, because he kept driving past the turn off (he didn’t think the road went all the way through). We made it to the wedding with minutes to spare, but being literally the last guests to arrive meant that there weren’t any seats left together so we had to sit separately. Kind of a bummer, especially for such a romantic wedding but it was our own fault so we weren’t too torn up about it.

The ceremony was done in English and Catalan and it was truly one of the most intimate, romantic ceremonies I’ve ever attended. I took a bunch of pictures but I don’t like posting pictures of people without their permission so I’m not going to share any of them, but trust me, it doesn’t get much more romantic than a candlelit ceremony on a mountain in Barcelona. Post wedding we enjoyed a fantastic dinner, delicious cake, and countless glasses of yummy Spanish wine and cava. After the wedding (about 2 a.m.) all the friends/siblings of the bride and groom piled into taxis and headed downtown to dance the night away. We showed up at what is supposed to be one of the hottest clubs in Barcelona, but they wouldn’t let us in because the men in our group (this is a direct quote) “looked too fancy” and no amount of pleading and explaining could change the bouncers mind. We were all baffled. I mean, the mean in our group did look fancy, BECAUSE WE WERE AT A WEDDING, but they weren’t in tuxes. Even the groom was just wearing a suit. It was a really really nice, custom, Caroline Herrera suit, but it was a suit still the same. So we nixed that plan and headed to a different club with less douchy bouncers. Like most clubs in Barcelona, girls get in free, but guys pay a hefty cover (30 Euro!!). Cover comes with a drink though, and at this place that meant a drink the size of a fishbowl. Seriously. the drinks were insane. We stayed at the club till around 4:30 and then walked the 4 blocks back to the hotel.

Not going to lie, we were pretty hung over the day after the wedding. Not like “OMG I’m going to die” hung over, but neither of us were at our best. So we decided to take it easy and have a slow day, even though it was our last day in town. We did a mini architecture tour down Passeig de Grácia, did some shopping, ate a bunch of tapas and churros, and sat down at the port people-watching and watching sailboats. It was a pretty perfect day and was a great way to end a fantastic trip.

After one last breakfast of pastries and chocolate, we flew back to DC. It was a whirlwind trip and I wish we could have stayed longer, but we had a great time and can’t wait to go back.

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Back to work!

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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

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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

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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.

 

Santiago de Querétaro, Part 2

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We rolled into town mid afternoon on Saturday. The Mexico City-Querétaro tollway takes you through these beautifully rolling mountains so your first view of the city is from the top of a crest. It’s gorgeous. After taking in the view, we drove down into the valley and under one of the 74 arches of the aqueduct to get to our hotel. The aqueduct is enormous: almost 1300 meters long with arches of up to 30 meters tall. Amazingly, it provided water to the city from its completion in 1738 all the way until 1970. Nearly 250 years!

The hotel we stayed in is a renovated hacienda and our room was gorgeous, if a bit dark. Since we were both STARVING by the time we got checked in, we decided to venture out to find food. As luck would have it, just across the street (and the canal/stream that runs down the median) was a taco place. We ate some of the most delicious tacos I’ve ever had and I’m not only saying that because I was hungry at the time. The chorizo tacos were killer and the house made horchata was to die for. You know the food is going to be legit in Mexico when the salsa bar has more options than you have fingers. My husband is a salsa fiend so he had to try all the varieties and we ended up with a bunch of tiny bowls of salsa and toppings at our table. The restaurant also makes their own cafe de olla, one of my very favorite Mexican treats, so we each ended the meal with a cup before venturing out into the town.

After a quick orientation walk through the old colonial part of town, we headed back to the hotel to relax, shower, and get some sleep. We were both exhausted from the travel and from both the hotel and car drama. Unfortunately, the hotel was hosting a wedding that evening and in a room with cement walls, that mean echo-y banda music playing at an ear-splitting level until 4 a.m. I was pretty pissed especially as the hotel had been billed as spa-like and quiet. My husband, bless his heart, slept through much of the music, but that is not a talent that I possess. I spent hours fuming and wishing I had earplugs until I couldn’t take it any longer.

I wanted so badly to go up and give those partiers a piece of my mind but then I thought about the bride and the groom and their families and how much of a gringa asshole that would make me look like, so I put on my very best metaphorical diplomat hat and instead walked across the street back to the taco shop and ate more extra-spicy chorizo tacos and downed several tasty glasses of fresh horchata. Because nothing quite kills sleepy-rage like tacos. It was about 4:15 when I finally got back to the hotel and into bed so I turned off both our alarms before I crashed.

Sunday was a gorgeous day, weather-wise. We got up late, had breakfast and decided to wander more in the colonial part of the town. There’s a lot of history in Querétaro and we wanted to absorb as much of it as we could. Here are some of what I think are the most interesting facts about Querétaro:

  • Querétaro’s city center is unique because it’s one of the only cities in the New World where the indigenous populations and colonizers lived in the same space.
  • The architecture of Querétaro was largely the reason for the city’s addition to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Most of the colonial buildings are Baroque in nature, but with a twist: incredible “multilobate arches” made of sparkly pink stone.
  • The plot that began the Mexican War of Independence (1810) was hatched in Querétaro.
  • It was the temporary capital of the country when U.S. forces invaded Mexico City during the Mexican-American war (1846).
  • In 1848 the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was signed in Querétaro to end that same war and to establish the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico.
  • Maximilian I of France was captured and executed in Querétaro in 1867 ending the French occupation of Mexico.*
  • In 1917, the Mexican constitution was drafted and signed in Querétaro. This same constitution governs Mexico today and was the blueprint for both the Russian (1918) and the Weimar (1919) constitutions.

We toured a bunch of the historic buildings, many of them churches or residences-turned-museums. It really was incredible. Querétaro is also a city of gardens and squares. Most of the squares are surrounded by trees that are planted in straight lines and pruned into geometric shapes right out of Alice in Wonderland. Since we were visiting in the off season for tourists, we pretty much had the run of the place and we thoroughly enjoyed exploring the buildings, churches, and public spaces of the town.

After an quick afternoon nap, we decided to take the rental car out for a spin and to venture a few kilometers out of town to check out La Peña de Bernal. San Sebastián de Bernal is a tiny–and I mean TINY–town at the base of one of the largest natural monoliths in the world.** The drive was pretty but the instructions we had to the town were a bit sketchy and our car had a tiny, automatic transmission so the approach was a bit touch and go, but we made it in time to hike up to the base and watch the sun go down. As luck would have it, the day we were there was also the Catholic Festival of San Sebastián, so we got to witness the processional and we stayed in the square for a little bit of the party before heading back to Querétaro.

Monday we didn’t have much time to explore because we both had flights to catch in Mexico City so we got up and packed and headed out of town. The drive back to the city was blissfully uneventful and we made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare. It was good that we got there early because it took nearly an hour to return the rental car due to a total system meltdown. The girls at the car rental counter were very sweet and apologetic and as payment for all the car drama and the system issues, they gave us a pretty sweet discount on the rental. After returning the car, we had just enough time to get some lunch in the airport and for my husband to head through passport controls on his way back to DC. I got to take the airport train from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2 (wish I had known about that when we arrived!) and my flight left without a hitch.

Even with all the car drama, our 3-day weekend in Querétaro was one of my very favorite trips we went on in Mexico. It’s such a cute town, chock full of history, with good food, great wine, and incredibly sweet people. It’s the kind of small town that I’d visit regularly if I lived in Mexico again, especially if I lived in the center of the country, where it’s easy to reach via car.

 

*I had no idea that the French had occupied Mexico until I moved to Mexico. My mind was seriously blown. To read more about this crazy interesting part of history, click here.

**For those (like me) who didn’t know what that actually meant before googling it, monoliths are essentially isolated mountains or rocks that rise above their surrounding areas. There is some debate in the geologic communities as to exactly what constitutes a monolith scientifically, but so you get an idea in your head about what a monolith looks like, Sugarloaf Mountain in Brazil and the Rock of Gibraltar are excellent examples.

Santiago de Querétaro, Part 1

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As far as tandem couples in the Foreign Service go, we’ve gotten pretty lucky. Juarez isn’t terribly far from DC, and since the husband is also going to Qatar, eventually we’ll sync up and be in the same place at the same time. But as we like hanging out with each other, we’ve tried to see each other every 4-5 weeks these past few months and lucky for us, between US and Mexican holidays that hasn’t been terribly difficult.

For MLK weekend, we met up in Mexico City, rented a car, and drove up to the little town of Santiago de Querétaro. Querétaro city is a UNESCO world heritage site. That is not a typo. The entire town is a UNESCO world heritage site and it is incredible. But before I even talk about the town I have to tell you about how we got there.

Flying in to Mexico City from Juarez is pretty uncomplicated. The terminal is huge, but it’s easy to find your way around and everything is pretty clearly labelled. Flying in to Mexico City from the U.S. is a bit of a different story. We tried for weeks in advance to find out which terminal we’d each be arriving in, but we weren’t very successful. All domestic flights arrive in Terminal 2, but only most international flights fly into Terminal 1 and there’s not really a good way to tell where your flight is going to end up. Neither the airport nor the airline website mentioned arrival terminal so we just made plans to meet at the hotel shuttle stop and take it from there.

We arrived in different terminals and didn’t figure out how to find each other until the hotel shuttle had all but stopped running. Actually, we never did find each other in the airport, we just ended up taking different shuttles to the hotel and meeting there, which in retrospect was probably a smarter plan all along. Unfortunately, I had misread the dates on the hotel reservation and had accidentally made it for the previous night. The hotel had rooms available, but they insisted upon charging us anew, which was fine because it was entirely my fault, but the price of airport hotels in Mexico City is insane, and this single night in DF ended up being the most expensive hotel room I stayed in my entire 2 years in Mexico. Lesson learned: reading is fundamental.

In the morning, we took a shuttle out to the car rental terminal to pick up what was supposed to be a compact, automatic, 4-door vehicle. We reserved it online through the Mexican affiliate of a very popular American car rental company and thought all was well. Unfortunately, car rental “reservations” in Mexico literally mean nothing so the rental place tried to give us a manual SUV. I have never driven a manual with any regularity and the husband hasn’t driven one in years. Plus we were going to be driving out of Mexico City in Saturday morning traffic AND Querétaro is in the mountains which sounded like a terrible combination for a rusty driver of a standard transmission. We waited an extra half hour for them to find an automatic that fit our request and then we waited another half hour for their system to come back online from a small outage (more on that later). Finally, with car keys in hand, we headed out of town: optimistic about beating traffic (it was only 9:00) and excited for a beautiful drive through the Mexican countryside.

We paid extra for GPS but it took a little getting used to, so we missed a turn early on and ended up having to take city streets for part of the trip instead of taking one of the many highways that circle the sprawl. That added on a bit of time, but traffic wasn’t terrible and driving in DF was super fun (read: terrifyingly awesome) so we weren’t too worried. We finally made it to the outskirts of town and to the road toll where of course, there was a long, crazy line of cars waiting to pay.

We pulled up behind a small truck and stopped and not 3 seconds later, the engine sputtered and the car completely shut down. The battery was dead. Fried. Completely. I called the rental company and requested help and a new car, and we pushed the car to a median area to wait for help. But apparently, loitering in the median is not allowed, because the Federales came over no fewer than 4 times to tell us we needed to move. Finally, the last time, I said “Officer, we would love to move. That’s why we’re in a car. We want to be traveling somewhere, not sitting here. Unfortunately, this car is dead. I’m not sure what you want me to do about that…” He laughed at my sarcasm and helped push us through the toll to a safer shoulder where another Federale repeatedly told us to move. After explaining the situation to him approximately 23426365323412325 times, he got it, wrote our names down and license plate number, and said he’d tell everyone to stop annoying us (his words, not mine).

Nearly 3 hours later, the rental car company showed up and brought us a new car. By this point I was STARVING as we hadn’t really eaten breakfast because we were planning to eat a big, tasty lunch upon arrival in Querétaro. So there we were: both exhausted from arriving late and leaving the hotel early, hangry (hungry + angry), and annoyed at the rental car company for taking SO LONG to get to us. We dug out some gummy bears from the husband’s emergency stash and decided to stop complaining and make the best of it. Well ok, he wasn’t really complaining to begin with, that may have just been me…

The rest of the road trip was gorgeous though, so the pretty views and good company made up somewhat for the dramatic start to the trip.

Thanksgiving 2014

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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

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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.

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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.

 

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