back “home”

Well, I am no longer in the UK. I am back in the US, and my it was a loooong trip. Ben and I went to Amsterdam for three days before I had to come back, one final hurrah if you will. Which means I flew from Amsterdam to London to Vancouver BC to Portland, all in the same calendar day. And I didn’t even get Canada/USA stamps in my passport. I was sorely disappointed. All this means, of course, that I am no longer away from home. But It leaves me asking, exactly what is “home,” anyway? Tune in soon as I will be posting pictures from my last week in the UK and then after that our trip to Amsterdam. Right now my allergies have given me eye-boogers and I can’t see straight to upload anything. Yes, eye-boogers. Think it over.

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the countdown begins

One of the biggest challenges of being in a new culture is reconciling the differences between that culture and your own. I suppose that any reasonable person is able to find good things in a new place, no matter how culturally different that new place might be from what the person is used to, but we all spend a lot of time adjusting, and learning to just take things as they come. Sometimes the differences are frustrating (getting cat-called constantly in Mexico), sometimes they’re downright confusing (trying to order sandwiches at the counter in a frenetic restaurant in Barcelona which appears to have no rhyme or reason to who goes next). Sometimes they cause amusing misunderstandings (saying “pissed” to a Brit when you mean you’re angry and they take it to mean you were drunk) and sometimes they’re adorable (being followed down the street by South Korean kids who shout “hello” and “I love you” then stare when you respond to them in Korean). Without a doubt, the UK most closely resembles the US compared to every other place I’ve been so far, but there are a few notable differences. Here are a couple things I won’t be missing when I leave:

Drunk men. All drunk Brits seem beligerant to me, even if they aren’t. I’ve yet to meet a “happy drunk” in the UK.
Vomit in the street. Again with the alcohol, if you go out on a Saturday or Sunday you will invariably see that someone has gotten sick on the sidewalk.
The exchange rate. Things are very, very expensive here, though thankfully the rate has improved greatly since we first arrived (thanks, Global Crisis).
Trash. Especially bottles and cans, everywhere, I assume because there’s no deposit refund program here. Such a shame to be walking in the woods and come across a pile of beer cans.
Tiny appliances. I look forward to being able to fit more than a single casserole dish in the oven at a time.

But now, some things that I will definitely miss, for which I’ve become quite nostalgic.

People kicking soccer balls around in the park; everyone seems to be good at this, too. Not so good with frisbees.
Seeing the train go by in the distance as I walk down our hill.
Walking down the street with a beer in your hand.
Funny phrases like “are you queueing for pudding?” (waiting in line for dessert)
An ATM is called a “hole in the wall,” even signs refer to them this way.
English children all look like little rascals and everything they say sounds so cute with their accents.
“Cheers” which can mean many things including: thanks, have a nice day, I agree, etc.
Popcicles and lollipops are both called “lollies.”
Curry-flavored potato chips. They are incredible why do we not have these in the US? (other awesome flavors: bacon, balsamic vinegar and sea salt, sweet chili sauce)
Being able to see into the back gardens of houses as you round a corner. I love peeking at other peoples’ stuff.
I’m not allergic to England.
Cream tea and scones, the only delicious English thing I’ve eaten here so far.
Catching a glimpse of the Channel when I look down a side street.

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quiero tacos

I think the thing I am looking forward to the most when I get back to Portland (aside from friends and family) is Mexican food. It’s virtually nonexistent here and what you do find is very expensive and inauthentic. In London we even came across a restaurant named Wahaca, which I’m assuming is supposed to the a phonetic spelling of Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico known for chocolate, queso oaxaqueño, striking indigenous embroidery and beautiful Puerto Escondido. While this restaurant says it is “Mexican inspired,” to me it epitomizes what I see as the widespread practice of dumbing-down “exotic” cuisines to accommodate the timid English palate. Even curry, which is considered by many to be the national dish is rendered bland and prosaic. But I digress, soon I won’t be here, I’ll be in Portland chowing down on tacos and avocados that have flavor! And so tonight, in honor of my deep love for Mexican cuisine (and a desire to clear out the freezer), I made pork tacos with pineapple salsa. Kinda like my one true love, tacos al pastor, only without the spit.

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busy bee

Today I had cream tea. For the first time. I’ve been here 8 months, what have I been doing with myself???

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Lagging

Oh I am falling woefully behind. Today I realized that I am leaving the UK in 8 days, and there is so much stuff to get done beforehand. Lots of places to see and go that I haven’t done yet, not to mention all the packing. Oh the packing. I hate packing. I move like every 8 months, seriously. That’s probably not going to end anytime soon, either. Laundry to wash and hang, volunteering to do, grocery shopping, teach Ben to cook some things, return my library books. Holy cow. So forgive me if the posts are erratic from now on. But I just wanted to throw up some pictures here of last week, Ben and I had a date night, walked downtown, saw another art show, went to dinner. We went to the mongolian grill restaurant downtown and we were really, really hoping it would live up the the Chang’s standard. That’s a high bar to set, no? Well it was pretty good, but completely different than Chang’s. We were so caught off guard by the differences that the hostess thought we were confused (stupid?) and felt the need to explain the whole thing to us. We had to smile and be polite, of course, because we couldn’t very well say “oh we know exactly how it works” because we were acting like total spazes. This place has a few things going for it that are different: wider range of veg, different sauces (fish sauce, green curry paste, sweet chili, BBQ, satay) and also dry spices (oregano, curry powder, paprika) so you can make all kinds of crazy combinations. I tried a mexi-bowl with corn and beef and kidney beans and tomatoes. I also tried a couple curry things, though it doesn’t really work because the whole point of curry is having all that luscious sauce, which just evaporates on the grill. I ate six bowls. Six. Before you faint, let me show you a picture of the bowls.

proof that size does matter


That is not an optical illusion. The restaurant has the smallest bowls on the planet. It’s more like a bowl I would use for ice cream. If I were on a diet. It kinda ruined the whole experience because a big part of the fun is piling your bowl high and scarfing it down. This tiny bowl was one of the things that confused us most. “Um, ar we supposed to use these bowls?” I asked the hostess…oops. Ben and I fasted that day in preparation for stuffing our faces. Oh well, at least I got some spicy potatoes out of the deal. Had a nice chat with the grill guy, too.
Here are just a couple other pictures of town. It was in the 70s for several days and you’d think it was the apocalypse or something. Everyone was out, crowding every public space, drinking beer and getting sunburned. Very sunburned. Apparently Brits don’t believe in sunblock. Ben and I, on the other hand, slathered it on.

a park known as The Level


And another

one of the many tiny alleys


This last one is for Tiffany. I think it’s a sign. I think we need to get our butts to The Victory on Division, asap.

kismet

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More food

I hate cauliflower. Or at least, I did hate it. But I recently discovered that like its friend the red bell pepper, it tastes great when it’s nearly burned. Let me explain. I kept seeing variations of a certain recipe floating around on food blogs. The first time I dismissed it outright. I mean, it had cauliflower in it. Yuck. But then I kept seeing it, again and again, and I guess eventually some part of my brain thought “hey, this many people can’t be wrong.” So I made it and oh my was it good. Surprisingly good. Plus I can feel good about eating it because it has three vegetables. Oh yeah, and it’s the perfect vehicle for the ever-important parmesan.

I roasted my bell pepper by sticking it over the open flame on our hob (stovetop) and rotating it with tongs until it was evenly charred. You can also do this easily on the grill or, if you’re afraid of fire, you can crank the oven and put it under the broiler until the skin blisters and the whole thing goes limp. Also, we didn’t have any fresh herbs on hand when I made this but I’m sure it would be delicious with a sprinkling of parsley, mint or thyme, etc.

veggie-licious


Pasta with Pan-Roasted Cauliflower and Red Pepper
adapted from a bunch of different places, like this and this
1/2 pound dry pasta (1/2 a box), I used spirali (like these but broken into short pieces)
1 red bell pepper
2 T olive oil, plus more for dressing
1 head cauliflower, cut into small florets
1 cup onion, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 tsp kosher salt

Roast the pepper using one of the three methods described above. When it is thoroughly charred, put it inside a paper or zip-top bag and seal tightly. Allow to rest at least 5 minutes. Remove pepper from bag and peel off burnt skin. If you did a good job charring it the skin should slip right off. Slice the pepper into strips and set aside. Meanwhile, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain but reserve about 1/2 cup of the cooking water. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil until very hot but not smoking. Add cauliflower and toss to coat evenly. Use a wooden spoon to shuffle florets into one even layer, making sure they have as much contact as possible with the hot skillet. We are trying to brown them and get some crispy edges. Cook cauliflower until it begins to brown and soften a bit, about seven minutes, turning it once or twice so the florets are browned on all sides. I also added a few tablespoons of water to the pan to help things along a bit because my big pieces weren’t cooking fast enough. After about seven minutes, add the onion and pepper flakes. Cook another two minutes or so, then add the garlic and reserved roasted pepper. Season with salt and cook one minute more, until garlic is very fragrant. Remove from heat and toss with pasta. Add a bit of the reserved pasta water or a glug of olive oil if it seems too dry. Taste and adjust salt if needed. Top with parm. Yum.

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No wonder everyone here has curtains up

Our bedroom windows face an apartment building that is only about 30 feet away. On the side facing our flat are many large windows and a couple balconies, which are frequently host to young residents, drinking or smoking, especially in the evenings. I like to look across into the windows at night when the lights are on, and wonder about the people who live there. One balcony in particular is almost directly across from our windows, only a little bit higher because the apartment building in slightly uphill from our place. Tonight I was laying on the bed, playing Angry Birds when I heard someone yell “young lady on the bed: we love you!” and then giggling. Apparently the people in the apartment across the way were having a get together and several of them had stepped out onto the balcony to smoke and Kris-watch. So I did what anyone would do when caught unawares-I waved. Good thing I was modestly dressed…
Coming up: New pictures tomorrow, then another recipe soon.

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Someone needs a dictionary

Far be it for me to bitch (ha ha) but stuff like this just blows my mind. Today I was poking around looking for ideas for dinner tonight and I came across a site which had an amusing name so I went to check it out (this site shall remain nameless, however, because I don’t want to cause any hard feelings in the statistically improbable event that the author should somehow happen across my own blog). It states that it’s a site dedicated to “low-cost home-cooking from scratch” and then goes on to talk about how the author is a real stay-at-home-mom and all these recipes are tested in a real kitchen and eaten by her real kids etc etc. So I’m thinking, ah this is cool, a site about real, honest cooking that involves a little elbow grease but is worth it none the less because we all know that cooking from scratch is better for you and typically also cheaper, yay this is going to be great. Here’s the first recipe on the site:

Mexican Soup
1 can tomato soup
1 can of water
1 can baked beans (or equal amount homemade)
1 medium onion chopped
1 packet taco seasoning
1 can kidney beans drained and rinsed
1 green pepper chopped
1 package hot dogs chopped

Now, I don’t mean to be a snob, but where I grew up, out there in fancy-pants elitist Oregon, “from scratch” meant using ingredients which do not come in processed-can form. Unless you yourself put them into that can last summer after the harvest. So I don’t really see how the author can claim that this is “from scratch” when all she’s really doing is mixing 5 processed foods with two unprocessed ones and heating. To me that’s not really any different than making a frozen pizza. Am I crazy? Am I being a foodie snob? Does this simply represent some kind of intra-country cultural difference? Does this prove that “hillbillies” (her self-description not mine) are failed by their public education system? Not to mention that no self-respecting Mexican would EVER eat this. *sigh*

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Creepy crawlies

I left the wash out on the line overnight because yesterday turned cool and cloudy (despite the unanimous predictions of full sun and 64F) and when I brought it in this morning there were snails on our shirts. Damn snails. Now I have to rewash half of it!

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The meat

This afternoon I realized I never actually said how one would go about cooking a huge hunk of pig to make carnitas or pulled pork. I gave you half a delicious recipe and left you hanging! It goes something like this: buy a big hunk of pork. If you live near a WinCo you can probably go in and buy a package labeled as “carnitas” and it is a very affordable package at that. I think they were about 3-4 pounds and I once used one to make tacos for 6 hungry bank divas, so it goes a long way. Otherwise buy a roast, one that has a lot of fat marbling in it. Season the meat liberally, I use a home-made Mexican blend that has chili powder, paprika, oregano, cumin, kosher salt and crushed red pepper. Plop it in a nice deep pan or cast iron casserole (Le Creuset *sniff*) and cover. Out here in the boonies I have to use aluminium (that’s the English pronunciation) foil to cover the pan because we don’t have anything with a lid. It ain’t pretty but it works. Resist the urge to add any water because pretty soon all that tasty fat will start melting and it will become self-basting, hence the lid. Pop it into your oven and cook nice and low (250-275F) for about three hours or so. I check it at two hours and three hours, flipping the meat each time if it’s not done yet. How do you know it’s done? Well, stick a fork in it and twist. If the meat just breaks apart, it’s cooked. If you’re watching your girlish figure, pour off the pan dripping and skim away the fat, then return drippings to pan. Either way, stir the meat around in it’s juices then crank the oven up to 400 and put the meat back in, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, then flip it and cook another 15. We want nice crispy edges on there. Attack with a fork, a tortilla, a chip, etc.

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