Thanksgiving 2013

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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.

 

Queremos Jalowin!

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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

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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!

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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.

Some days are just awesome.

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I have lots and lots of things to write about, but I’m going to try to break things into a few smaller posts. I’ve set myself a goal of posting twice a week to get into the habit of writing so please help keep me honest. 🙂 More posts should also help me to better catalog my thoughts so I’m not throwing posts up that are full of total non-sequiturs.

I had a great day today. It was my first day back in Juarez from a 3 week NIV TDY/Exchange (more on that in another post) so I was a bit rusty on the IV line, but I got to spend the morning observing interviews for one of my good friends who just made the switch from NIV to IV, so it was nice to kind of ease my way back into IV. It was also a great reunion for us because we haven’t really seen much of each other since June due to crazy TDY schedules and travel.

I also got reunited today with another friend at post who has been on this crazy 4 month TDY assignment so it was also totally great to get to see her and catch up a little bit. It’s pretty amazing how fast you make friends in this job…a year ago I didn’t know either of these wonderful ladies, and now I can’t really imagine spending a day without talking to them via email or IM.

This afternoon, I had a counseling session with my supervisor. I was a little confused about why we were having another one, since I literally just had one with him the very end of August right before I left for my grandma’s funeral and then this 3-week assignment, but as it turns out there was nothing to fear. He just scheduled the meeting to tell me that I’ve been selected to take charge of a really interesting portfolio that I have been eyeing for a while now. I’m going to be co-coordinating the new officer training for the entire section, which is a huge undertaking. I’ll be working with another officer who is one of my very best friends at post and we’ve already started brainstorming and coming up with what I hope are some ways we can make IV training a little less daunting.

Then, when I got home, I went for a fantastic run with my new running shoes and my new running leggings, both of which exceeded expectations. My new shoes are SO light, I felt like I was flying. I ran my fastest 3 miles ever, which felt great. And my new leggings have pockets (!!!!) so I didn’t have to wear my vest or carry anything in my hands. AMAZING.

Here’s hoping the rest of this week is as good as today.

When it rains, it pours

In Juarez, rain is serious business. It doesn’t happen very often and when it does chaos ensues. The roads, which have little to no drainage, flood and even major roads become impassible to people who drive smaller vehicles with lower clearance.

Thursday morning, about 3 a.m., many of us here in CJ were awoken by what I can only describe as a torrential downpour. Lightning flashed, thunder rolled, and the rain fell so hard and fast it sounded like someone was pouring a bucket of water straight down from the sky. I knew when I got out of bed later that morning that it was going to mean a lot of flooded streets and a slower commute. I had forgotten that I made lunch-time plans with some friends to check out a new aesthetician. Thank goodness my friend, A, drove her trusty Honda Civic (195k miles and still going strong!) and we didn’t take my little Scion.

The salon is located at a pretty major intersection, but like all major roads and intersections in Juarez right now it’s under construction. The trip from work to the salon should have taken 5-10 minutes tops. It took us almost half an hour, as we were driving for most of the way through literal rivers of rain water. At one point we were both convinced the engine was going to flood and we were going to have to swim to safety. SUVs in front of us were bouncing up and down over the underwater potholes and there was no way for us to avoid them. The whole front end of her car scraped the bottom at one point while going over a particularly bad series of potholes and I when I saw the front of the hood dip below the surface of the water I seriously thought we were done for.

You should have seen it. I was terrified and would have probably started hyperventilating had I been in the driver’s seat. Not A. She said something like”holy shit this is insane” flipped the car into the lowest gear, and drove right over that series of water-filled potholes. Then she forded the rest of the river like a boss, zipped through the last traffic light, and parked us perfectly in front if the salon. That girl is incredible. She’s one of the people here who I will miss most when I leave, and we are already scheming a meet-up during our next tour.

This is one of the best parts of the Foreign Service–the amazing people you meet and get to share these (awesome and sometimes terrifying) experiences with. I’m so lucky that when it rains I have friends like her to help see me through.

Grammo

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While at the airport today, awaiting my flight to DC, I got some bad news from my mom. My grandma, whom I’ve called Grammo for more than decade for reasons I can no longer remember, had slipped into a coma in the long-term care facility in which she’s lived for the last several years. The nurse who called told my family that it was unlikely she’d make it through the night. I spent the entire layover crying in the most deserted gate of DFW I could find.

Anyone who knows me in real life and who has heard me talk about why I bake and how I learned will understand just how devastating this is to me. Grammo was a home economics teacher, you see. I don’t remember how many years she taught, but I have friends whose mothers and grandmothers were her pupils, so that should give you an idea of how much time she spent in the classroom. She was in her mid-sixties when I was born, and I am pretty sure she was retired by then, but she never stopped teaching us.

Some of my earliest memories are of spending time with Grammo in her house with the green shag carpet and matching green-and-orange textured sofa. Grammo’s house is where I learned to love ramen noodles with peas, carrots, and diced hot dogs (confession: I still sometimes eat this). It’s where I learned about movie musicals and fell in love with Howard Keel and every musical he ever made. It’s where I first remember eating pot roast, and Yorkshire Pudding, and my family’s super-secret trifle recipe.

It’s also where I first remember learning about how fragile life could be: watching my mom clean the tracheotomy opening in my grandpa’s throat, the devastating results of emphysema. My grandpa died when I was about 4 years old, I don’t remember a lot about him, but I have some great memories of eating Planter’s cheese balls with him, of fishing in mountain rivers with him, of laughing at every meal when he, without fail, would manage to knock over an entire glass of water.

I have decades more of memories with Grammo. I could literally spend all night writing down the memories I have of her. Actually, that is something I probably will do sometime in the near future–create a written memory bank so that I don’t forget all the little things about her that made her so special. But while that list will likely be private, I would like to tell you all a little bit about her.

She was born in 1919 and would have turned 94 this year. She lived her life in Utah and Idaho. She had one older sister, and they were never very close. I think this is why she always tried to make my siblings and I get along. She had lifelong knee problems which were caused by a terrifying car accident that happened when she was a child: she fell out of a moving car, got caught on a piece of metal, and was dragged down the street on her knees for several blocks before the driver of the car was able to safely stop. Because of the knee injuries she used a cane for almost as long as I remember, and in later years my siblings and I used to tease her about buying her a sword-cane that she could whip out anytime someone annoyed her or walked too slowly in front of her.

She loved cooking and baking treats for family parties and events. She used to work with my mom to make us epic birthday cakes when we were little. Every Sunday for years my family would meet at her house for a big family dinner. The parents usually ate in the kitchen around her small round table while the kids got to eat in the living room, on what we thought were fancy aluminum TV trays. We always watched the ABC Sunday Night Disney Special while we ate dinner, and somehow she always managed to serve dessert during a commercial break. In later years the dinner would rotate between her house, my aunt’s house, and our house, and I can’t remember a time when she missed one because she wasn’t feeling well or because she made other plans. We were her plans come rain or shine.

Every year she and my aunt would start Christmas shopping in September so they had time to buy us all boatloads of presents. She went to Europe with my aunt one year and bought I think about 5 years worth of Christmas presents for me, all 5 of my siblings, and my cousins. Actually, about three years ago she and my aunt gave me a set of paper dolls that they had bought and misplaced on that trip, more than 15 years ago. I loved the set when she gave them to me, and I will love them even more now. She loved animals and over the course of my childhood she “raised” two cats, Bootsie and Missy, and two dogs, Mitzi and Peaches (though not all at the same time).

She loved movies and had a crazy huge collection of them. She had so many that we used to have to check them out from her so she wouldn’t lose track of them. I’ve already mentioned how she got me hooked on Howard Keel movies, but she also owned pretty much every Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe film, most of Elvis’ movies, and every single Disney movie that ever came out on video (including the live-action ones from the 60s, 70s, and 80s).

One year she bought banana chairs (remember those??) and oh man did we love them. I remember rocking on them so hard she said it was making her dizzy to watch. She also had the only video game console anyone in my family had until I was well into college. I used to sit in the kitchen while she cooked, playing Duck Hunt or Weapons and Warriors on the tiny TV she kept on a small stand in the corner. Sleepovers at her house were the best because she’d make popcorn and let us stay up late to watch a movie, and if we were really good and didn’t keep her up with our late night giggling, talking, and occasional fighting, she’d make us English Pancakes (which are kind of like lemony crepes) in the morning.

The year I got married, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and about two months before the wedding she underwent a double mastectomy at age 88. We were all worried about her flying across the country for the wedding, so my intrepid aunt packed up the car and drove with her for 5 days from Utah to Pennsylvania. They turned it into a fun-filled Americana road trip, stopping at Mt. Rushmore among other sites along the way.

I told you I could sit here all night and do this. She lived a good life, although the last few years have been hard. Dementia claimed much of her memory, but every time I went to see her she remembered me, at least for a little while, and I know it meant a lot to her to have family visit. My aunt is staying the night with her tonight and my uncle and his family were with her for part of today. Both of my parents are in DC for swearing-in, and I feel kind of terrible that they won’t be with her at the end. I’m actually pretty sad that I’m not there too. I haven’t been home in over a year at this point, but I spent a whole morning with her last summer. Her memory did falter for a bit that morning, but we were able to have a long conversation after I helped her eat breakfast. She remembered that I’m a diplomat now and that we lived in Mexico. She made me promise to always take care of my “sweet husband.” I gave her a big hug and a kiss when I left, and I remember thinking then that that just might be the last time I saw her.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Juarez over the last year, but one thing I am so grateful for is the proximity I am to my family. This might seem juvenile, but one of my big fears in joining the Foreign Service was that Grammo would pass away and that I’d be halfway across the world and wouldn’t get to say goodbye or be there for the funeral. Thanks to Juarez, I was able to say goodbye to her last year and I will get to go home for her funeral.

****UPDATE****
Just got off the plane. Between when I talked to my aunt around 6:50 pm MDT and now, just after 1:00 am EDT, Grammo died.