Thursday, August 29, 2013

Filipino Chicken Adobo

This past weekend I caught an episode of America's Test Kitchen (ATK). Aired on most PBS channels, this is what I think cooking shows should be all about -- the techniques and science that go into making a meal. And while the show's host does do an occasional stunt or two to make a point, you won't find the celebrity chef showboating that seems to be all the rage these days. Yeah, I sound like a crankypants, old thing, but when the Food Network ditched chefs like Sara Moulton and brought in twits like Sandra Lee, well, let's just say the craftsmanship of cooking was singing its swan song on that particular TV channel.

In any case, the ATK is hugely informative, provides good product reviews for kitchen equipment and ingredients, and any recipes I've made from their show or cookbooks have been on the money.
Case in point: this recipe for Filipino Chicken Adobo. For starters, I thought, like I suppose many people did, that "adobo" meant a spicy, red, chili-based sauce. And while it can be that, it's also much more. Here's what ATK has to say on the subject:

"While many Americans think of “adobo” as the tomato-based sauce packed in cans with chipotle chiles, the most basic definition of the word is “sauce” or “seasoning.” The Spanish term originally referred to a vinegar- or chile-based sauce or paste that was added to meat as a preservative. Over time, the term came to apply to similar dishes in Latin American and Filipino cuisines. In the Philippines, where adobo is considered the country’s national dish, it’s a braise commonly prepared with chicken or pork. Vinegar and soy sauce (acetic acid and salt are natural preservers) flavored with aromatics like garlic, bay leaves, and black pepper serve as the braising liquid. The tangy cooking liquid is then reduced to make a sauce, and the dish is served with steamed white rice."

The other thing I found interesting was how the chicken was cooked, but more on that in a minute. First let's take a look at the ingredients:

Ummmm, chicken (surprise!) -- specifically bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs.

The rest of the cast and crew:

Please welcome 3/4 cup cider vinegar, eight peeled garlic cloves, four bay leaves, two teaspoons of black pepper, and a partridge in a pear tree. Okay, so maybe not that last one.

But wait! There's more! You'll also need 1/3 cup of soy sauce, which will serve as a marinade for the chicken thighs.

Let those babies soak up that marinade for 30 to 60 minutes in the fridge.

Now here comes the interesting (well, at least I thought it was interesting) way to cook the chicken.

Remove the thighs from the marinade (don't toss the marinade; you'll need it in just a bit), and place the thighs skin side down into a unheated pan.

I know! How weird not to preheat the pan. It was explained on the show that this technique is like when you are rendering fat from bacon. Start with a cold pan. Anyhoo, with the thighs in a cold pan, crank the heat up to medium-high. You're looking to sear the skin, which should take about 7 to 10 minutes.

In the meantime, whisk together the coconut milk, vinegar, garlic, bay leaves, pepper, and soy sauce.

Once the thighs are brown, remove them from the pan and discard the fat in the skillet. Then you'll put the thighs back in the pan, skin side down, and add the coconut milk concoction you just whisked together.

Bring everything up to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes.

Then flip the chicken over and continue to cook for about 15 minutes. When done, remove the thighs to a plate and tent loosely with foil.

Pick out the bay leaves from the coconut mixture and skim off any fat from the surface. Cook the liquid over medium-high heat until the sauce thickens (about 5 to 7 minutes).

It's time to plate!

I made some white rice while the chicken was simmering and while the sauce reduced, David knocked out some steamed broccoli. BTW - it's now "officially" his job to figure out what veggies we'll have with meals and to prepare said veggies however he likes. YAY! 'Cause you all know by now my whole thing about even thinking about the veg in the first place.

But enough about all that. The taste. Oh my, the taste. The skin on the the chicken had a beautiful caramelization and the meat was just as juicy as could be. And while I was afraid that the eight cloves of garlic would overwhelm the dish, they mellowed out big time. But the sauce was the hands-down winner. It was slightly tangy from the soy sauce, had a nice little pop from the cider, but all balanced out with the coconut milk. 

Without a doubt, this recipe has a home run, and I would highly recommend giving it a go yourselves. You won't regret it for one little second.

P.S. If you are on Facebook, you might want to check the America's Test Kitchen page and "like" it. By doing so, you'll receive feeds on all kinds of helpful tips, demos, and recipes.

P.P.S. This post is in no way a paid endorsement; just passing on, what I think, is a great resource.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Turning Dreams Into Reality

Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul –
and sings the tunes without the words –
and never stops at all.
Emily Dickinson

While money for Ashani’s schooling was hard to come by, she and her family never lost hope that they could make her secondary education a reality.

One of the first things they did was buy a piglet. Yes, a piglet. It was Ashani’s job to raise the pig and keep it healthy, so they could get the best price possible when it was slaughtered and the meat was sold. 

During the time she was taking care of the pig, a series of fortunate coincidences came to pass. For starters, her father, Andreas, was earning a steady salary working as part of the crew excavating the Santa Rita ruins, located right here in Corozal.

Ashani and her father, Andreas

Temple face at the Santa Rita Ruins, Corozal

Andreas is a font of knowledge when it comes to all things related to the Maya, not to mention the local flora and fauna. He’s also thrilled to pass on what he knows to anyone who might be interested. Turns out, there were two ladies volunteering at the dig who were more than happy to have him be their teacher.

Cathie Grondin Kelly

Colleen Steege
As the weeks went by digging in the dirt at the ruins, Cathie and Colleen came to learn not only more about the history of the ruins, but also about Andreas and his family. A strong bond of friendship was forged.

Andreas introduced Ashani to Cathie and over subsequent meetings, Cathie came to find out about Ashani’s desire to attend IT-VET and enroll in the Cosmetology program. Her long-term goal is to open a shop of her very own.

As I mentioned in the previous post, it costs over $600 BZD to walk in the door of the Vo-Tech school. On top of that, there is the cost for uniforms, books, and school supplies. All told, Ashani and her family were looking for ways to come up with $900+ BZD to turn a dream into a reality.

Cathie knew about the pig Ashani was raising for education funds; matter of fact, she and Colleen had already placed their orders. But might there be some other avenues worth exploring to bring in more money? 

During subsequent get-togethers between Cathie and Ashani, Cathie learned Ashani had a love of painting and had won an award for one of her pieces while attending primary school. After Cathie saw the painting in question, a thought came to her mind. What if Ashani did more paintings and sold them at the monthly Art in the Park festival, held right here in town? 

Ashani was keen on the idea, so Cathie offered to cover the costs of canvases and paints. Ashani got down to work and started producing some one-of-a-kind paintings.  

Photos courtesy of Cathie Grondin Kelly

And what about that piglet Ashani was raising? Well, when the time came, the pig was butchered, the meat was packaged, and Ashani hopped on her bike to make deliveries. Now I’m not talking about a quick, around-the-corner bike ride either. With 15 pounds of pork tucked in her backpack, she pedaled for about an hour and a half to make deliveries here in Corozal Town, then made the return trip home.

Between the sale of the pig and the possibility of sales from the art festival, Cathie determined there just might be enough money to move ahead with enrolling Ashani at IT-VET. But there were a few bumps in the road that had to be dealt with.

For starters, Ashani’s uniform:

Uniform pattern from IT-VET

According to school rules, girls attending IT-VET need to wear a beige blouse and brown skirt. Sounds simple, right? Well, you can purchase the blouses in town, but they only have one pocket. School rules state the blouse must have two. That means material has to be purchased and a seamstress or tailor hired to make a matching pocket.

Ashani modeling new school blouse with two pockets
School rules also dictate that girls must have a straight skirt with a kick-pleat in the front. Again, pretty straightforward, at least on paper. Problem is that only box pleat skirts are sold in the stores. So, once again, material must be purchased and the skirts have to made. 

Then there are the books. Ashani will need at least six books, which can only be purchased at the school. Unlike some other IT-VET programs, her books will only be used for the upcoming school year. Next year, she’ll need to buy the ones for the next level of her studies.

On top of that, school rules state separate notebooks are required for each subject, plus a separate notebook to write down assignments. Then there are the pens, pencils, backpack, and whatever other school supplies she will need, and whatever other supplies each of the teachers may require of their students.

During this time, Cathie was posting about her relationship with Ashani on Facebook. People took notice and wanted to help. Some wanted to donate supplies; others money. Cathie set up an education fund, in Ashani’s name, at a local bank. 

In the meantime, Ashani was busy preparing for the August art festival. As the day of the festival neared, she had an impressive array of paintings, some magnets she made of some her paintings, along with a collection of clothespin dolls.

Then inspiration struck Ashani again.

She noticed Cathie had a mobile in her home, one made out thorns and bits of nuts and coconut shells, which look like dancers. 

On the day of the festival, Ashani arrived at Cathie’s house with a few thorn dancers she and her mom, Betty, made. One thing is for sure – this child is tenacious and creative.

With the help of some of Cathie’s friends, Ashani had two tables for her display.

Two of Ashani’s paintings were sold prior to the festival, along with a couple of the dolls. During the festival she sold two paintings, one magnet, one clothespin doll and one of the thorn dancer mobiles. Considering that August is the slowest month for the Art Festival and it was her first time participating, it was a great start.

I had the opportunity to chat with Ashani a couple of days ago. She’s incredibly excited to begin school in just a couple of weeks. And what was patently obvious is the fact that she recognizes that it’s a privilege and a luxury that many other children her age can’t have.

Through Ashani’s hard work and the generosity of people like Cathie, Colleen, and their mutual friends, a dream is about to become a reality. But there’s more work to do, as Ashani is a few hundred dollars short of her education funds goal. Another bump in the road came about when the IT-VET supervisor strongly recommended that Ashani take a taxi to the school each day versus riding her bike. It makes sense, because it’s safer, but that means figuring out a way to cover the taxi fare for the school year – about $200 BZD / $100 USD.

But Ashani isn’t deterred and plans to continue her painting, adding more craft items, and selling them at upcoming Art in the Park festivals, all the while keeping up with her studies. In the meantime, her parents are figuring out ways to come up with the money needed to purchase uniforms and school supplies for their 4-year-old son, Ilan, who will begin primary school.

But Ashani and Ilan aren’t the only ones heading to school. Their father, Andreas, is too! He is one of only a select number of people invited to receive training to obtain an official Tourist Guide license through a program sponsored by the Northern Tour Guide Association. And while it means making the 45-minute bus ride to Orange Walk to attend his classes, all the books and lessons are free, and he sees this as a golden opportunity for he and his family.

Speaking for myself, I am honored to tell Ashani’s story and that of her family. It is a not-so-subtle reminder of things one takes for granted…the relatively small gestures that can make the difference in the life of a child…the reminder that there is hope and dreams can come true.

In future posts to our blog, I’ll share Ashani’s progress, hopefully more stories of local school children, along with some possible avenues on ways our blog readers can lend support.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Educating Ashani

It’s that time of year when endless television commercials hawk all the back-to-school specials and savings. You know the ones I’m talking about – where you see parents gleefully filling shopping carts with school supplies, while the kids trail behind them looking morose at the thought of having to endure another nine or ten months of learning.

I watch these commercials with a different perspective these days. You see, here in Corozal – and I would guess many other areas of Belize – there are loads of kids who wish their families could afford to send them to school. Kids who really, really want to learn. Kids who will go to lengths, many of us can’t imagine, to make their educational dreams come true.

Kids like 14-year-old Ashani.

Photo courtesy of Cathie Grondin Kelly

In Belize the education system is based on the English way of doing things. There are three learning levels: primary, secondary, and tertiary. 

Primary education lasts for eight years and includes two years of infant classes and an additional six standards or levels. The majority of schools in Belize are affiliated with various churches, but the government also supports the schools. 

At the primary level, education is mandatory and considered “free,” meaning that unless a child is enrolled in a private school, the only costs a family has to cover are for uniforms and school supplies.

But here’s the rub: when you consider that the minimum wage in Belize is $3.30 / $1.65 USD per hour for agricultural and manual laborers, as well as domestic workers, it’s easy to understand why families struggle to find the money to buy those uniforms and school supplies.

Ashani was lucky in that regard. Her dad, Andreas, worked multiple jobs to ensure Ashani had what she needed for primary school, while mom, Betty, tended to Ashani’s two younger siblings and her elderly mother-in-law.

But last year, when it came time for Ashani to start her secondary education – two years at IT-VET, the local Vo-Tech school – the money just couldn’t be found.     

Just what kind of costs are we talking about? According to the IT-VET website, here’s what’s involved (all costs in BZD):

Identification Card                                       $10.00
Registration                                                $40.00
Workshop/Laboratory Fee per level                 $100.00    
Trainee Insurance                                        $13.00
Testing & Certification Fee                            $100.00
Support Subjects booklets (5) @$20.00ea.      $100.00
Tuition/monthly                                           $300.00
($30.00 x10 months)

Total = $663 BZD or $331.50 USD

On top of these expenses, there are the costs of uniforms, books, and other school supplies. 

Now I’m no math whiz, but if the family breadwinner is only bringing home $528 BZD a month (presuming he/she is being paid $3.30/hour and working 40 hours a week), it’s not difficult to understand why it’s so hard to find the funds to cover the education costs for a single child. Factor in that the average family has 3.6 children and, well, it’s just prohibitive. As a result, it came as no big surprise when reading a recent UNICEF report to find out that 40% of heads of households in Belize hold no formal education.

Ashani spent most of last year in tears watching her dreams slip away. But this year, this year, she and her family determined things would be different. Somehow, someway they would find the money to make going to school a reality.  

Coming Up: Turning Dreams into Reality

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Slices of Life from Belize: August 17, 2013

A Tropical Wave This Way Comes

Earlier this week, all eyes were on the weather forecast.

A tropical wave was bearing down on us, and forecasts called for gusty winds and heavy rain. The storm was due to hit on Thursday and extend into Friday.

We lowered the porch tarps, made sure all loose objects in the yard were put away, made sure we had adequate supplies and waited.

The skies were gray, the humidity was really, really high, and it felt like something was going to happen.

But it didn't. It was a bust. Yes, we got a shower yesterday morning, but that was all. Matter of fact, the skies cleared by the afternoon and we were in the pool at Casa Winjama's Happy Hour.

On the flip side, today the weather is gorgeous. Temps in the upper 80's, low humidity, partly cloudy skies, and a wonderful breeze (we don't even have our ceiling fans running!). Just the kid of day you imagine paradise being.

Lizards on a Train

I want to give a shout-out to our very good friends, Colleen and Bruce Steege, who are on their dream vacation of traveling across the U.S. by train. But they aren't making the trip alone. Ladies and gentlemen, please say hello to Wanda:

Photo of Wanda, courtesy of Colleen Steege

Colleen and Bruce hooked up with Wanda in Cancun (the starting point of their journey) and have been having one adventure after another in her company. If you have some time, be sure to check out their blog, Lizards on a Train. I dare you not to laugh out loud at least a few times.


I've recently become obsessed with playing Bingo Blitz through Facebook. But all the sound effects drive me nuts, so I turn them off...or so I thought. A few days ago, our financial adviser, Brian, called us on our MagicJack number. The MagicJack and phone are connected to my computer.

After I chatted with Brian, I turned the phone over to David and decided to play another round of Bingo. I couldn't hear anything, but all of the sudden I heard David saying, "Hold on a minute Brian. There's music and other noise in the background. Why the heck is someone yelling B7, N32?"

He then walked over to my desk and saw I was playing Bingo. Apparently, even though I muted the sound, it still carries over on the phone. Oops. Needless to say, I closed the game and found something else to occupy my time for the duration of the call.

Technology...a learning experience at every turn.

Corn and Orchids

One might not think these two things go together, but they do on our property.

This orchid just popped yesterday. Haven't a clue as to what it's called, but it sure looks pretty.

This one hasn't bloomed yet, but I never tire of looking at it just the same. It has such an other worldly look to it.

And the corn I mentioned?

Fernando planted it on the lots we have on the other side of the lane. Believe it or not, the seeds went in about two months ago. I've never seen corn grow so fast in my life. In another couple of weeks, it will be ready to pick. While he will sell most of it, a bunch of ears will be coming our way. Can't wait!

Quick Bites

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am now the proud owner of a slow cooker. Over the last couple of weeks, I've been experimenting with all kinds of recipes. 

The latest one I tried was for a turkey breast. I took info I found from some online recipes, combined that info with a recipe I used to make pre-slow cooker days, and came up with this:

I made slits in the breast, then stuffed the openings with slices of garlic and rosemary. The breast went into the slow cooker, which already had some sliced onions on the bottom. After pouring some melted butter over the top of the breast, I put on the lid and let it cook away for about six hours. The shot above is what it looked like when it was done and ready to rest for a bit.

And here's the final plating. Mashed potatoes, broccoli, the turkey and a lovely gravy that I made from the drippings. Overall everything tasted really good, but the turkey wasn't quite as tender as I had hoped. I plan on trying it again, but with a bit more liquid to see if that will help. Has anyone tried using wine in slow cooker recipes? Does it work or does the taste get funky? Would appreciate any advice.

On a different food-related note, I had my first taste of a smoothie just the other day. I know, I know...hard to believe I've lived this many years and not had one. But here's the thing -- I am just not a fruit loving girl. I mean a slice of lime in a vodka and tonic is grand, but it never occurs to me to eat a piece of fruit. Weird, I know, but that's just the way it is. It's rather ironic, this tendency of mine, considering we have all these trees producing bananas, plantains, tangerines, limes, and grapefruit.

But as we had a stalk of bananas already ripe, David decided a batch of smoothies might be a possibility. He whipped it up in the blender and poured it into a glass. I took one sip, hoping it might taste like the nectar of the gods. Ummm, nope. I don't think it had anything to do with the recipe itself, I just didn't like it. The banana smell and taste was strong, and my taste buds weren't in love with the texture. 

Now all that being said, we do plan to play around with other smoothie combos. Hopefully we'll hit on one that we both like. I'm thinking maybe we need to add some ice cream or maybe some vodka??? Guess that defeats the purpose of healthy eating, huh?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Property Taxes are Paid! (Finally)

You might recall that back in April I had a post about our first attempt to pay our property taxes. It was on that initial visit to the Lands Department when we found out that even though our Land Certificates (a.k.a. deeds) had been officially ours for a year, there was no record of them in the system.

We went back multiple times in the last few months to get an update. The time before last, progress had been made. We were in the system, but the calculations of what we owed hadn't been figured out.

So we waited another couple of weeks and tried again. And, EUREKA! We finally found out what we owed. But, of course, making the payment wasn't quite as quick as one might have hoped.

After we handed our certificates to the clerk, she oh-so-slowly tapped one key at a time on her computer keyboard.

She found our records.

With the first certificate in her hands, she oh-so-slowly reached for a sticky note.

The sticky note was affixed to the certificate.

Then secured with a paper clip.

Another set of keystrokes.

Then she carefully wrote the parcel number down on the sticky note.

Then the tax year.

Then the amount of taxes owed for that lot.

This routine was repeated three more times for the remaining certificates. All told, it probably took about 20 minutes for her to complete the task. It was as much fun as watching paint dry.

But it wasn't over yet.

She then needed to print out a receipt. I thought there would be one receipt for all four certificates. But no -- a separate receipt was required for each one.

So after picking up the first certificate, she oh-so-slowly removed the paper clip.

Then she removed the sticky note.

A few keystrokes later, the receipt details were sent to the dot matrix printer that had the spindle-fed receipt forms.

Finally the first receipt was ready.

Then after the clerk oh-so-slowly ripped the first receipt at the perforation, she then very carefully removed the spindle feed bits on either side. Oh mercy.

After finally locating her stamp, she pressed it slowly, but firmly to the top copy. Then after a short pause, initialled the receipt.

This whole process was repeated another three times. It was at this point we remembered that it's possible to pay your property taxes for 2-3 years versus just one. But we were soooooo close to having all our paperwork that we decided to just forget about it until next year.

Approximately 45 minutes after initially handing over our stuff, we found out how much we owed: a whopping $10.40 BZD for each parcel to make a grand total of $41.60 BZD or $20.80 USD.

We thought it a bit odd that all four parcels were taxed for the same amount, as each are slightly different in size. But you go with the flow, and for what little needed to be paid, I just wrote this whole process off as another exercise in patience.