Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Thatching the Palapa

The thatch on our big palapa has been in need of some help. It seems that over the years, patch work had been done when various holes appeared, but those and other sections were about shot. In addition, we found out that a number of the supports (a.k.a. sticks) were the wrong size (read: too skinny) and had rotted. It wasn't like the roof was ready to give way, but we knew the sooner we could get repairs done, the better -- especially before the rainy season starts.

Broken ridge support

Sample of holes, damaged thatch, and evidence of bird nest

A couple of doves who are about to be temporarily displaced

We discussed the situation with Fernando, and he knew of a source for the thatch. While one might think, like I did, that any old palm branches would do, such is not the case. There's a certain type of palm that provides the best and longest lasting thatch. It used to be widely available right in this area, but due to over harvesting, it now is only available in select places located in the outlying areas of the district.

On Sunday, Fernando came by with two loads of thatch, along with his son, Hugo, and his brother, Raphino.

This pile represents about 550 pieces of thatch. Fernando estimates that we will need closer to 2,000 pieces to repair the entire roof, but this load would be enough to get them started.

On Monday morning, the guys showed up bright and early and started ripping off the old thatch pieces. This is a dirty job. Between the rotted palm leaves, dirt, grit, bird nests, and who knows what else, it was all pulled to the floor. Bits and pieces of debris were flying everywhere. How these guys managed to even breathe is beyond me. Factor in that there was no cloud cover and temps in the upper 80s, plus humidity, and clearly it wasn't a job for the faint of heart.

After a decent-sized section had been cleared, it was time to start putting up the new thatch.

Starting from the bottom of the grid, what the guys did was take a piece of thatch and, like a tress of hair, separate it into two even pieces. One section would go over the skinny support stick, the other piece would go under. Each layer overlaps the other going up the roof line.

While all of this was going on, Sam was having a case of nerves. He and Tanya spend much of their time under this palapa and here it was being changed. He kept pacing and seemed to be looking for some safe haven while the work was being done. With it being so hot, I let him on the porch.

I never thought I would see the day that these three would share the same space and all would have their limbs at the end of the day. I tried to invite Tanya in, but she seemed content to sack out in a shady corner outside. It should also be mentioned that she has zero patience with Olivia. After about two minutes of her bowing, scraping, jumping, and whining to win Tanya's praise, all that Olivia gets in return is a low growl that clearly indicates, "You're getting on my nerves girl. Go away."

She did get on Sam's nerves a little bit and wisely decided to rest under the love seat, out of his reach.

But back to the thatching...

Here's Fernando adding more pieces. It should be mentioned that he's up there, supported only by a horizontal plank and a few thin support sticks. I can only watch for little bits of time, because I'm afraid he'll slip. Of course, I also have a fear of heights, which doesn't help matters.

By the end of the first day, they had cleared out a good-sized area and had replacement thatch in place.

This process will be completed over and over again during the next few days until the whole roof is repaired. In no time at all, the new thatch will dry out and turn brown, and we'll have a roof without leaks, which will make Sam and Tanya very happy campers.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Sweet and Spicy Tomato Jam

Our tomato plants have been on a tear recently, ripening up almost faster than I can keep up with them. This is not a problem I mind having.

But after making batches of pasta sauce, oven roasted tomatoes, and lots of salsa, I was in the mood to do something different. On some cooking show I saw over the weekend, one of the chefs made bacon jam. And yes, I will be giving that a go in the not-to-distant future because, well, it's bacon. But it got me wondering if you could make a savory type of jam from tomatoes. And the answer is: absolutely.

I spent some time looking at a bunch of different recipes and came up with my own concoction, which I made this morning. Let me introduce you to the cast of characters:

From the left we have:
1 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. coriander
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. red chili flakes
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 brown sugar
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
Juice of one lemon or lime
1 small onion, chopped
2 1/2 pounds tomatoes, roughly chopped

All of these ingredients, plus about 1/2 tsp. of grated fresh ginger went into a Dutch oven. I gave it a stir to combine everything, brought it up to a boil, then reduced it to a simmer, uncovered, for 2 hours. Every so often, I would give it a stir.


Here's what it looked like after an hour:

After two hours, I decided I wanted to make the jam a tad bit smoother. So, I whipped out my immersion blender and whizzed away until the tomatoes got to the consistency I was looking for.

The final result:

The final verdict: There's a tang that pops on your tongue, immediately followed by bursts of goodness from the spices and just the hint of vinegar. Hmmmm, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. This would be divine slathered on any type of burger, drizzled over fish, dabbed on the top of an omelet, stirred into a frittata, schmered on a sandwich, or gently spread over a piece of lovely bread that has some soft cheese on top. I'm sure I'll come up with some more ideas, but for now, this is my new favorite way to work with tomatoes.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Some Quirks of Corozal Living

We heard by word-of-mouth that property taxes were due sometime in March or April. Unlike in the States, you don't receive any kind of invoice or notification, nor does there seem to be any strongly worded messages -- written or verbal -- to let you know what might happen if you're late or delinquent paying those taxes.

We also found out -- again by word of mouth -- that we needed to pay taxes at the Corozal Land and Survey Department. If you live in Corozal Town proper, you can just pop on over to the Town Hall. After passing the Land Department more than a few times in our trips to town, we knew right where to go. So we grabbed our Land Certificates and off we went.

Just one problem: the Land Department didn't seem to be at its location. There was no sign, no notice, no nothing. Just a building with closed doors. We had run into a similar situation when we needed to renew our car registration. After a short debate, we opted to swing by the Town Hall to see if we might get some advice on what to do and where to go.

A very nice gentleman at the Hall told us that, yes, the Land Department had recently relocated its office. However, it was too confusing to explain where the new location is and instead he suggested he show us the way in our car.

Turns out the new office is just down the street from Lano's, a hardware store David goes to on a regular basis. After parking the car, we popped into the office. There were seven people in line ahead of us, and after seeing it was going to take some time for the customer at the window to resolve her issues, David suggested that he run up the road to a grocery store, where he might be able to score some butter and kitty litter. More on that in a moment.

He returned to the Land Department about 20 minutes later and only one other customer had been waited on. It was clearly going to be at least another hour before our turn came around, so we decided to leave and come back bright and early the next day.

Today we got there a shade before 8:30 and even though the clerk had a "closed" sign on the window, there were already six or seven people waiting. We decided to wait for as long as we needed, just so we could make our payment and have it done with. I mean, you don't want to be delinquent on your taxes, right?

About 45 minutes later, our turn came. I handed the Land Certificates to the clerk, who then entered the lot numbers into her computer. Just one small problem, we weren't in the system yet. Well, it's only been just shy of a year since the Certificates had been issued. Why would one expect that the data would be available?

The clerk, who was very nice, explained that she would have to make copies of our Certificates and send them to Belmopan, where someone there would enter them into the database. It could take about a week, or maybe more. So I said, "So would it work if we came back maybe in two weeks to make our payment?" The clerk smiled and said that the Certificate info might be available by then, maybe not. In other words, whenever we decide to show up and pay is fine.

Clearly we still have some work to do to get with the Belize concept of time and priorities.

Supply and Demand

I mentioned a grocery run David did to find butter and kitty litter; two items you wouldn't think would be a big deal to locate or purchase. If you live in the States, if one store doesn't have what you're looking for, you just go to a different store to get what you need.

Here it's way different. There are a number of items that suppliers bring into the country and then ship to the various districts. If the suppliers run into problems getting the right permits or if they decide to hold stuff in Belize City, we're unable to get our hands on stuff at any grocery store here in town. A month or so ago, the supplier of Pedigree dog food ran into some problems getting the right permit to distribute. As a result, any of us who bought that brand had to purchase something else. And trust in the fact that Pedigree is probably the only decent dog food down here. The rest of the brands are nothing but colored kibble pumped with air.

So this time, it was butter and kitty litter. We heard a rumor that a decent size shipment of the litter is in Belize City, but it's being held there until some negotiations are worked through for pricing. And if you decide to make the hour and a half drive to Belize City to buy kitty litter and it's found in your car, you could get a fine.

This leaves us cat owners in a bit of a lurch. I've already borrowed some from friends and am eyeing our sand pile as the next option. One could choose to make the drive over the border to Mexico, but when it costs non-residents, like us, $37.50 each to make the crossing, well you're talking about some mighty pricey litter. I mean, I love Bronte and all, but seriously.

Eventually, some bags will make their way here. And what we've learned from this latest episode is that we will buy a couple of the biggest bags available and put one aside for situations like this. For things like butter, we did find some yesterday and bought two packages. One immediately went into the freezer. I'll keep adding to that stash when more becomes available.

Now I share all this, not so much because it's quirky or a pain in the neck to deal with, but because for those thinking of moving here, these aren't the type of situations you may hear about ahead of time. The way I look at it, the more you know, the better you can adapt.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dog Biscuit Thanks

Dear Mr. Thomas:

I’ve asked my mom to write this post for me, because, well, I’m a dog. And as we all know, we canines aren’t always the best spellers or typists. Ahh, my kingdom for opposable thumbs!
Anyway, after receiving your recipe for dog biscuits yesterday, my mom decided to give them a whirl during today’s baking marathon. I was sure she would make my cookies first, but no. Instead she decided to make oven-roasted tomatoes. Do you know how long they take? I had to wait almost an hour and a half! Geez.

But once the tomatoes were finished, I saw her crank up the oven temperature and start making the cookies. You know what? Even the dough smelled delicious. It might have had something to do with the bacon fat she mixed in with the shortening. I begged and begged to taste the raw dough, but was told it might not be a healthy thing to do – you know with a raw egg and all. Funny, I’ve seen her taste test raw cookie dough -- like she did later when she made some chocolate chip cookies -- and it never was a problem. Me senses a bit of a double standard here. But I digress. Hmmm, I wonder if that's why I sometimes get called "Pinhead"?
Anyway, after she rolled out the dough and cut it into smallish pieces, she put them on a baking sheet. You know, it’s tough being a small dog. No matter how hard I tried to get my nose up to the island where the baking sheet was, I was just a little too short to snag a sample.
Then she put them in the oven. And I waited.

And I waited some more.

Thirty minutes is a long time in dog time.

But then they were done!

But wait, first they had to cool off. Sigh.

But then it was finally time for a taste test!

I wasn’t immediately sure if I liked them, so I asked for another. And another. And another.
Mr. Thomas, these are the best! I would eat them for breakfast and dinner if I were allowed. Somehow, I doubt that will happen. But, I don’t mind at all to get them after hearing the command "sit." I even got one or two when I showed off my newest trick of balancing on my two back feet. Now if I can only master the whole “fetch”, “stay”, “roll over” bits I could be in dog biscuit heaven.

Thanks again for sharing your recipe.

P.S. I think my mom will need to make the bulk quantity next time, ‘cause I saw her give cookies to my adopted brother and sister, Sam and Tanya, and they were all smiles.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Concrete Treasures

On Saturday, I had the opportunity to stop in at Contour Concrete, located right here in Corozal. I had heard about and seen some of the decorative pieces courtesy of my friend Colleen, and the two of us went to see if we could find any treasures.

The owner, Ruel Hall, is a good friend of of hers, so while the two of them chatted, I strolled through the shop, which is outdoors and just plain fun to walk through. At almost every corner, there are all kinds of pieces that catch your eye, including large pedestals, flowerpots, an array of concrete lions, plaques, candle holders, you name it. Oh, and he has a variety of plants for sale too!

Ruel and his crew make many of their own molds and cast everything right there. I would love to be there some day when they are pouring the molds, just to see how it's done.

And while there were many items that tempted me, here's what I came away with:

I love this plaque. We think this will end up in our bathroom, once we finish remodeling it. The border mimics the tile we picked out for the top of the vanity, so it will be a great addition.

Meet Bob, the "sea fish" and our new doorstop. I took one look at this guy and knew he was coming home with me.
Don't know if it was being at the Santa Rita ruins or what, but I thought this plaque was really neat. We have it hung on the wall next to the range, and I sorta' think of him as my good luck kitchen charm. And based on my last batch of pizza dough, well let's just say having a magic charm in the area is a good thing. More on that in an upcoming post.


How can you go wrong with buying a smiling sun, especially with the weather we have here? I'm thinking about hanging this one over my new desk, which will be in the kitchen area.

And take a wild guess on what this haul cost me. Go ahead. How about $30 BZD or $15 USD? Can you believe it?

I will definitely be making return trips to see what things Ruel has that I didn't even know I needed :)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

One Ton Tomato...I Have a One Ton Tomato

Does anyone else remember this parody of "Guantanamera"? On the rare occasion that I hear this song, I always belt out the parody version of the chorus. And now I'm going to be humming this tune for the rest of the day.

Anyway, it's taken a bit of time for our veggie garden to mature, but in just the last couple few weeks, things started growing like crazy.

Our sweet corn has tripled in size, and we can't wait until the ears appear. The great thing is that we can grow corn all year round, providing you remember to water it.

And our tomatoes? Well, they're starting to ripen at a furious rate. You can see Olivia is doing her part to check that all is in order.

Unlike growing veggies in the States, you have to pretty much start everything from seed. I tried and tried doing this for tomatoes, but none of my seeds would sprout. Fernando and his brother, Raphino, took pity on me and delivered about 10 starter plants. While we lost a few, the rest are doing just fine.

Matter of fact, I've been busy making all kinds of tomato-based recipes to stay on top of our crop.

In addition to making batches of roasted tomato sauce and containers of salsa, I tried out a new technique -- oven roasted tomato slices.
You guys, it really doesn't get much easier than this.
Start out with some ripe tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and the herbs of your choice. In this case, I used fresh parsley, oregano, and basil.  You can also used dried herbs.
Core and thinly slice the tomatoes and put into a bowl. Finely chop the garlic and herbs, then toss them in with the tomatoes. Sprinkle some salt and drizzle with olive oil. Gently toss everything together until the tomatoes are well coated.
Then all you do is place the tomato slices on a rack that's on top of a baking sheet.
For easy clean up, put some foil or parchment paper on the the bottom of the baking sheet.
Pop into a pre-heated 275-degree oven for about 1 - 1 1/2 hours.

They should still be slightly brown around the edges, but still pliable. The pop of flavor from the tomatoes will make your taste buds do a little happy dance. We use them on all kinds of things -- sandwiches, pizza topping, pasta, even with some sliced French bread and cheese for a bit of a nosh.

This is a great alternative to completely dehydrating the tomatoes. It takes way less time, which means I'm not having the oven going for a good eight hours or burning through butane. Pop the finished tomatoes into a zip-lock bag, and throw 'em the fridge. They'll easily keep for a week, if you don't polish them off before that.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Swimming InSanity

Yup, we took the plunge -- so to speak -- and bought a pool. If you've been following our blog, you might remember back in October I posted a preliminary drawing for an above-the-ground cement pool, which we were considering to go under our small palapa.

Well after giving it more thought, we decided to hold off on that for the time being. For starters, the location was all wrong. There would be no way for the water to warm up to a reasonable temperature, if it's living under a thatch roof, plus the schmutz from the thatch would fall into the pool. Then we weren't sure exactly where a semi-inground pool should go, not to mention how often we would use it. And then there's the whole challenge of finding a reputable pool builder here in Corozal.

So we decided that an above-ground, soft-sided pool was a good alternative. This baby is 16' round and 48" deep. It's way big enough to bob around in -- with or without a floaty toy -- even with friends sharing the water.

We purchased the pool at a local store, A & R, and they were kind enough to deliver the box to our house. Considering said box weighed over 200 pounds, we were happy we didn't have to try and lug it in and then out of our car by ourselves. The reason it was so heavy is that in addition to all the metal support posts and liner, there's a ground cover sheet, the ladder, filter, floating skimmer, small vacuum, skimming net, plus a pool cover. Not a bad deal.

Once the pool arrived at our house -- same day of purchase -- we got to work mapping out our plan of attack. The first step was to figure out where we wanted it. We opted for the backyard, so David measured off the circumference.

If you look closely near the foreground you will see the orange cord that got laid out. The next day, it was time to clear out all the rocks and anything else that could potentially pierce the liner. That was my job. I know, the glamour of it all.

Anyway, with rocks out of the way, we laid down the ground cover sheet, then placed the liner on top of it.

From there, we slipped all the support bars through the top sleeves of the liner, then snapped the vertical support posts into place all around the circumference.

The instructions lead you to believe that this whole process should take two people about one hour. Of course, the diagrams in the user manual also show two sweet young things in bikinis doing the assembly. The reality was that it took us close to two hours, and no sweet young things in bikinis appeared, much to David's dismay.

Be that as it may, with the pool put altogether, we could start filling it with our garden hose. This took a couple of days, but we wanted to take the slower approach, versus having some group like the fire department fill it up, to ensure we had no leaks. Everything was looking good by the time Thursday morning rolled around. The pool was full with 5,200 gallons of water and all was right with the world. Until late Thursday afternoon.

I had been out with a group of friends, and upon my return, David said he noticed that two pinholes appeared and we were leaking water in a spot just under that strap you see running around the pool. Now it wasn't a deluge, mind you, but it wasn't going to get any better if we didn't do something about it.

The patch kit that came with the pool presumes you will be using the patch in the pool when there's no water in it. The prospect of dumping 5,200 gallons of water didn't really appeal to us, if you know what I mean. And it's not like we have a plethora of pool supply stores in the area. And on top of that, it was the Easter holiday, so even if there was a store that might carry some kind of underwater patch kit, they would be closed.

So we paced, we scratched our heads, we paced some more, and brainstormed. We finally hit on the idea of using plumber's putty. Granted not the most elegant solution, but we figured we didn't have anything to lose, except water. I jumped in the pool and applied a goodly portion to the holes from the inside, while David slapped a decent sized piece of putty on the exterior. Lo and behold, it seems to be working!

But just to be on the safe side, we got in touch with our friends, Colleen and Bruce, who are visiting family in California. They generously agreed to pick up a couple of underwater patch kits and toss them in their luggage. Hopefully, we'll have those to work with later this week. David also called the manufacturer and they instructed him to contact their distributor for Central America, which happens to be in Puerto Rico. We'll give them a call tomorrow in the hopes they will ship us a new liner. This way, we'll have a back-up, should more leaks crop up.

In the meantime, we had another important upgrade to do. It seems that while we thought the ground was fairly level where we placed the pool, it turns out that when it got filled with water, the frame started to sink into the ground on one side. So yesterday morning we got out our jacks and raised three of the support posts causing the problem and inserted a shim under each one. Water level is now even and goodness ensues.

So for the foreseeable future, whenever we can't stand the heat and humidity for one more second, it's a quick couple of steps out the back door and into a pool of sanity. YEAH!!!!!!