Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Operation Big Bird

Many of you are gearing up for cooking your turkey for the Thanksgiving Day feast - provided you live in or are from the United States - and you have the whole affair planned out.  That was us, too, until we woke up to find out our refrigerator had shut itself off overnight. . . and the pavo - turkey - had lost any semblance of being frozen. 

That moment was one that stirred my wife and I into immediate action.  Carolyn Anne had some volunteering to do that morning, so I did the bulk of tossing things out that would be spoiled, or had already, like the milk had done.  First sour milk we've seen in months. . . hold your nose!  We contacted our landlady who lives above us onsite, and she graciously let us use part of her refrigerator for storage of still cold (enough) items.  Our pavo was one of the items in the landlady's refrigerated section. . . hopefully it had not gone completely bad (it hadn't). 

As a smaller bird of 7.2 kilograms (approximately 16 pounds), it fit on the shelf in its new location - had it been one of the 10 to 15 or even 20 kg birds like I have seen at our Mall del Rio Coral Hipermercado, it never would have had room on the shelf.  Good thing I picked one of the smaller sized birds last October before the week of Thanksgiving (as observed in the USA. . . it's not an Ecuadorian holiday or custom here). The current turkey inventory I've seen is of the larger and grande sized pavos.  Getting one of those really big birds in our horno - oven - may have been impossible, even with the metal rack lowered all the way.  Remember, most everything here in Ecuador is smaller, and that includes conventional ovens, which the average Ecuadorian doesn't have by the way.  Rich gringos us. . .

Good thing I hadn't yet done the usual biweekly grocery shopping for foodstuffs, too.  The refrigerator was largely bare, and we had no spare bags of milk.  The frozen bread loaf had defrosted. . . we would have done that anyway for making the stuffing.  Not a lot of monetary loss of food, so we had dodged a bullet, so to speak. 

Of course, the big task at hand was to pick a date to cook the now defrosted turkey now located upstairs in our landlady's well appointed penthouse suite.  (Think Jennifer Marlow as played by Loni Anderson in WKRP in Cincinnati when you consider what the interior of her living spaces looks like.  Warm wood flooring throughout, custom touches everywhere, and clean as the Dickens.)  Saturday was coming up, and that is a day off from work for many Ecuadorians (unlike the upcoming Thursday, November 26th which is just a regular weekday here in Ecuador).  As we had in fact already contacted some Cuencanas that my wife knows through her volunteer capacity at Clinica Hogar, we likewise scrambled to contact these friends of the new date to come and enjoy a Norteamericana holiday feast.  Saturday worked well in that regard, and actually allowed one of our guests to come, as she had to work the entire day - as usual - this coming Thursday.  The other, with children, couldn't come on such short notice.  Our table is small, as is our condo, and we have just four regular dining chairs here.  It worked out well in the end.

To make traditional savory stuffing, one needs poultry seasoning.  Turkeys aren't sold in any large quantities here in Ecuador and the ones that become available are ones for sale when the gringos would most likely buy 'em. . . in October and November.  Poultry seasoning, it follows, is not available on the grocery shelf like what you'd find back in the States.  So. . . you have to do what the Ecuadorians do and make do with what you have.  Turns out all six seasonings that make up poultry seasoning are available for sale here in Cuenca.  I found via Gringo Post on the 'Net a tienda, Saboress,  that had just changed locations from El Centro to within walking distance of the condo here.  They had all six of 'em, reasonably priced and labeled in English and Spanish to boot!  I let the duen~a - proprietress - of the store know I appreciated that extra unexpected touch and told her I would be back as a customer come Navidad.  

Seasoning and spices obtained, groceries gotten, all that was left was to cook everything up for our invited guests of that Saturday afternoon, and us.  We took out the bird Friday to ensure it defrosted (it had) and placed it in our own refrigerator once again.  Believe it or not, that previous Thursday afternoon our regular housekeeper fiddled with the temperature knobs and - voila! - the motors for the fridge and freezer came back on.  They've been running ever since, but as I told our landlady, I don't trust the refrigerator after what happened that Wednesday/Thursday overnight period when it utterly failed.  I'd noticed the compartments getting warmer and the cycles of the motors getting longer and longer too.  So we're still on track to get a new refrigerator/freezer unit.  This being Ecuador, you can't buy and get it delivered the same day it breaks down.  We'll have to wait 8 to 10 days from the day of the failure to get it here and all plugged in and running.   Patience. . . 

Oh, turkey defrosting - our fridge again.  On Saturday, we began the process of cooking it all up: not only the big bird, but also the mashed potatoes, the sliced carrots, preparing the salad, getting the rolls ready on its serving plate, and slicing up the postres, which were two: a smaller sized torta - cake - we purchased with our always kind landlady's help in finding a nearby panaderia - bakery, and a larger torta I obtained at Coral after scouring all my usual spots in El Centro for a flaked crust pie.  That animal just does not exist in Cuenca or Ecuador to my knowledge, at least not at an Ecuadorian bakery. . . although I've read about available orders of fruit and pumpkin - pumpkin! - pies through reading Gringo Post on the 'Net.  Next year, perhaps. 

We opened the turkey up Saturday morning and Carolyn Anne just about croaked when she found what else there was besides the usual giblets stuck in the craw of our bird. 

"I can't look at it!  Get rid of it now, David!" she shrieked.

"They're part of the bird, you know!" I deadpanned back. " Birds have heads and necks, and yes feet.  So the Ecuadorians don't waste things like we in the States do, eh?  What did you expect from them but this?"

"But I didn't want to see the head and feet!" she animatedly allowed. " Why couldn't they take them away and make it into dog food like everyone else?"

After that surprising discovery, preparation followed the usual way.  One small find: a bit of hair on the side of our bird.  We lit up our flame starter stick and burned it off.  So appetizing to hear, eh?  (grin)

I did a bit of researching to find out how long to cook the turkey, as well as what temperature.  Wouldn't you know: I learned that Celsius - which is how our oven is calibrated - runs essentially half of Fahrenheit.  Divide the Fahrenheit number by two, and you come up with the correct Centigrade cooking level.  I had been cooking our chuletas - pork chops - and chicken legs at double the usual temperature for months!  No wonder our chuletas were not fat and chewier than we were used to than our time in the States!  (I have since baked pork chops at the more appropriate temperatures and the chops are now decidedly softer and easier to cut with a knife.) 

Our bird came out soft, not dry, and with the aromatic smell of the stuffing inside.  Basting was easy enough. . . and we learned that our oven rack wasn't exactly firmly in place, either!  It racheted down a level or two each time we placed the heavy bird (in pan) back in the oven.  It all turned out well, though. 

Next year, we just might go to a restaurant or hotel for the affair.  Who knows what they'll put inside the turkey in 2016 that will drive my wife to the brink of not cooking the thing after all the preparations that have been put into place?

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Different Independence Day

We have just concluded a period in the Cuenca and Ecuadorian calendar that covers a number of holidays and events.  If you know dias de las fiestas in Latin America, you know that the location where you live or are at just generally shuts down.  That was largely true here, as far as I know, with some exceptions. 

Whatever you wanted to do based on *your* North American cultural expectations had to wait until the return of normal business, which starts today.  Remember, you're only one per cent of the local population of Cuenca, according to those who write about such things in newsletters and such here.  You don't get to set the tone for how your special days are celebrated. . . the Cuencanos/as do. 

Last Friday morning, we experienced a citywide power outage.  The whole city went dark around 4:20 AM and lasted for a few hours.  When I got up at 7:00 AM, I checked for electricity service, and the lights were able to come on again.  However, in due time, we learned that our laptop had suffered damage due to the power surge that occurred.  It now has a dark screen that is not workable.  Hopefully it will come back to life without too much time or money spent.  Lesson learned: use a surge protector on the laptop, which I had neglected to provide, though the desktop computer has one.  Simply turning the machine off might have helped, too.  Sigh. 

Getting back to the festividades, we went through in order: a very muted version of Halloween as observed here in Cuenca, the appearance in homes and buildings of Christmas trees and ornaments (both held on Saturday), All Saints Day or Dia de los Santos on Sunday, Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos on Monday, and finally Cuenca's Independence Day or Dia de la Independencia on Tuesday

On Friday the 30th, the traffic in our neighborhood started to build.  It was like freeway traffic in Southern California, but at city street speeds. . . which was about the speed of walking more or less.  You could see the traffic coming in from outside the city coming from specific directions, and the traffic from Guayaquil especially was thick.  Over 100,000 people flooded into Cuenca from all over Ecuador, and even other countries according to reports.  I saw a license plate from Venezuela, as well as a VW Campervan from Argentina which had painted on the back roof "Argentina a Alaska" (Argentina to Alaska).  Ambitious, eh?  (grin)  In that same general area of El Centro downtown, I've seen a newer model VW Vanagon with California plates months ago.  Probably staying at one of the hostels in El Centro.  Anyways, with the tourists taking nearly every available hotel and hostel bed in town, the place was jumpin' with tourists. . . mostly speaking Spanish, of course. 

Their objective was to take part in the various activities surrounding the dias de las festividades which were centered in the El Centro of Cuenca, as well as the area along the Tomebamba River just to the south of El Centro.  A parade with different high school students in school uniform started the process for the days of celebration, which was Friday, and was centered about Parque Calderon, the city square of El Centro downtown.  From that start, the different dance venues began, and the street fairs full of different foods, drinks, regalos (gifts), and other wares such as clothing and hats - the Panama Hat is made here and is centered in Cuenca, by the way - were set up under tarps using folding tables and chairs.  Streets were blocked off and dedicated to the different vendors of food, drink, and wares. 

It was like having the Antelope Valley Fair without the parking fee and long walk (we took Cuenca Transit buses to El Centro), and a lot more relaxed and decidedly less big business commercial.  Just the Mom and Pop folks there, and plenty of 'em.  Expats too, showing their food and gifts.  It's open to anyone who wanted to get a city permit for a booth. 

We heard plenty of fireworks, but didn't see any go off.  The Cuencanos like the noise more than the sights of 'em from what we can figure out.   There was music and free concerts, where even one of the major streets of the south of Cuenca, Remigio Crespo, was blocked off for a street party.  We didn't attend any, however. 

Halloween is not a big thing here in Cuenca.  One expat who writes from time to time in Cuenca High Life wrote about his young son going door to door Trick or Treating. . . his responses were fewer than if he were in the United States, but he still enjoyed the going out.  Most residents were not prepared for a Trick or Treater to knock on their door, unsurprisingly.  Our Iglesia Verbo church had a pastor bring a witch's hat to let the secretaries try the thing on just for fun and take some photos on the church's Facebook page.  They tried it on willingly and in fun, but one hesitated at first before finally succumbing to a smile and a por favor from the pastor involved.  That was the extent of Halloween 2015 for us. 

Meanwhile, on the same day as Halloween, our landlady got out the Christmas ornaments and tree from storage, and began with the help of the guard on duty to assemble them and install the Christmas lights.  The reception room soon began to take on the appearance of Navidad as well as the drive into the underground garage, which was lighted up with Christmas lights that sparkled with a light white glow at night.  I later found out this is a normal custom to do it this time of year with Ecuadorians.  Even the mall I frequent, Mall del Rio, already had its tree up in the main court area.  At least they don't have these items up in September, like you sometimes see in the United States more and more often.  Earlier and earlier it gets Stateside. . . soon there *will* be Christmas in July if the trend continues. 

According to Cuenca High Life, Day of the Dead or Dia del los Muertos is when people visit and apparently perhaps decorate the gravesites of the dead in one's family.  So people stay in town for that day, which was Monday.  Tuesday was Cuenca's Independence Day (from Spain, by the way) and traffic was the lowest amount I had seen the whole period.  Mind you, the buses were still running - if not as many of them - and were generally empty in the earlier morning, unlike when it's a workday.  Middle of the day they were full as usual.  Meanwhile the streets were still blocked off in El Centro for the different vendors who were still there for five days straight.  Plenty of people, and a relaxed feel where extra tables and chairs were provided for tourists.  We never had a problem walking around or finding a place to sit. . . or finding a place open so we could use a restroom for that matter, too. 

Definitely not like an Independence Day in the United States, but something enjoyable and relaxing here in Cuenca. . . which suits its laidback nature as a tranquilo, calma kinda place to live.  !Viva Cuenca!