Festival de Cacao and bean sprouts

On Monday, I followed the ASA team and bopped down to San Miguel area to meet with the field techs and hear their plans for the next year. I zoned out a lot when they began talking about expenses and budgets, but managed to understand a few key things about what’s going on in the field:

  1. Sometimes the people in charge (ASA) don’t really know what’s going on. So sometimes it’s good to listen to the field techs.
  2. Sometimes the field techs don’t know what’s going on, so sometimes it’s a good idea to prepare recommendations before coming to the table, instead of disagreeing and compromising at the meeting.
  3. Sometimes, no matter what you do, the farmers kind-of like the experimental plot, and don’t want to keep their traditional/conventional farming plots as the control. They see that better management practices actually lead to healthier plants, and so they’ll do away with their traditional plot and adopt those sustainable practices for the entire parcel of land. Awesome for the farmer, kind of a loss for the whole experiment/science part of it, but I guess you can’t really complain too much about this kind of change.

There is a purity in the brute-force experimentation that the team here is encouraging; pared plots or before-and-after plots and making decisions on the fly. The goal is purely to encourage better practices, but they’re already seeing results in yield and plant health. TBD for soil health and fertility (that’s where I’m helping out!).

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This Saturday was the fourth annual Festival de Cacao in Caluco. We drove to this small town in Sonsonate, where cacao producers and processors had gathered to celebrate their product. We went on a tour to see the the cacao plant go from bean to chocolate, with grafting cacao trees to fermenting the beans to roasting and then creating a delicious nugget of chocolate. Cacao has recently seen a revival in El Salvador. What used to be an important cultural food, and even an economic crop (beans were used as currency at one point), dwindled out of the mainstream. It’s incredible to see the farmers sharing information and learning from each other at these events. Cacao is once again empowering them economically and creating a more sustainable agro-forestry landscape.

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In addition to a beautiful drive home, the day culminated in a lot more sugar than I have been used to eating, but I had to try all of the chocolate products! And I stumbled through the door of my house buzzing with sugar and a bag full of everything from cacao soap to a chocolate bar of 100% cacao.

And my little garden I planted in the back of my house has little beans growing! And little radish sprouts! The herbs in the back look healthy. I added a layer of organic worm castings to the soil so that the new baby plants could take advantage of some additional nutrients. I took a huge back of rice casings from the cacao festival to use as fertilizer in the garden, soon to be added– the scraps maintain humidity in the soil while also acting as a fertilizer, and prevent erosion of that important topsoil.

I’ll take the Festival de Cacao as my Halloween experience for the year, thankful that chocolate is in my life, but doesn’t need a repeat for Monday’s holiday.

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Aquí, no solamente hacemos pupusas (We don’t only make pupusas here)

These first two weeks have been a roller coaster of adjusting. With a brief trip back home to say goodbye to my Poppa, and to hug my family close, I’m back in San Salvador.

The house where I’m staying is enormous! I have my own room and bathroom. Two people, Beatrice and Marcos, are there all the time to keep up the house, which used to be the house of the father of the person I’m renting from. She was in no rush to sell, so I get to live here for 10 months, with a gorgeous garden!

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I met the people who I’m working with for the first time when they invited me to the beach to go surfing, which boded well for my first impressions of the team! Their house had a gorgeous view of the ocean at El Sunzal, the beach where we surfed. Despite a year without a board, I stood up twice, albeit for a very marginal amount of time.img_0016img_0012It was also their neighbor’s birthday, so we went to his house, which had a dreamy infinity pool overlooking the densely vegetated cliffside. img_0011

After a few days in the office, my friend Anne suggested baking for the office to help with awkward introductions and so I could show my face around. We made cookies with quick oats and Brookside dark chocolate pomegranate pieces. The office was certainly happy when I brought them in the next day, and everyone sauntered to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee to drink with their mid-morning snack.

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And because we’re on the subject of food, the fish is delicious here! I’ve had it every chance I get. An example below:img_0020-2

I was also lucky enough to peripherally befriend Anne’s roommates, who were going to this festival de los Farolitos in Ataco, about a 2 hour drive away. They invited me along, and after some insane traffic, we arrived and spent a long night wandering the town looking at lanterns and eating bread and humus and sun-dried tomatoes at a restaurant. 14225411_10153607708177757_4584987360039951348_n14237769_10153607708727757_3127101904154386700_nimg_0023-2

To avoid being a fish out of water, I recently joined a pool/gym at Centro Español literally two blocks from my house. I swim outside in a 25 meter pool with the view of a mountain. img_0030-2

I have yet to update on the technical aspect of my work here. I’m based in San Salvador at the CRS (catholic relief service) office, which is the umbrella for all the organizations that work here. Everyone is working on some aspect of watershed management and soil quality and fertility testing. As I test the waters of this new opportunity, I look forward to the moment when I can analyze data and feel productive. Until then, I’m writing and reading about coffee and soils and soil chemistry, and eager to eat more pupusas.

Coconut-date chocolate-chip cookies

In the winding up of the winding down of the semester, my peers and I are hunkering down for the whirlwind of graduation. I’m not allowing myself to think about it yet, and to decrease the stress and increase procrastination (inversely proportional when time<1 day?), I rode my bike down to Deals and Steals. Biking uphill (up a drumlin– I live on a cool glacial feature!) with a bag of flour and a small container of chopped dates ($0.99!) and a can of coconut cream is no easy task. So these cookies were made for mental diversion via physical exertion.

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Recipe:

  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 1/4 c. coconut cream
  • 1 c. white sugar
  • 1/4 c. brown sugar
  • 2 eggs, room temp
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 1/4 c white flour
  • 1/2 c whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 c. unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 1 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 c. pitted and chopped dates

Preheat the oven to 375F. Cream the butter, coconut cream and sugars until well blended. Add eggs one and a time until combined. Mix in vanilla. Add at once the flours, baking soda, salt, and the coconut, dates, and chocolate chips. Mound on cookie sheets, and bake for 10ish minutes until light brown around the edges and maybe a bit on the top. Store in a container once cooled. nom nom nom. Feeds 8-10 out of season swimmers on a Friday night.

Convection Oven Baking

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In the Ilam Apartments at the University of Canterbury, our “oven” is a convection oven/microwave. It is finicky, and only likes to have its buttons pushed certain ways. To get it to be an oven, you have to push the third button on the outside 5 times until 230C comes up on the display, then you have to preheat it, but only after the door is closed otherwise it becomes a microwave again if you push “Start” too soon. So after it beeps to let you know that maybe it’s ready to work, you can put your dough/otherrawthing into the microwaveoven BUT don’t shut the door before pushing the elongated mini-button inside the door. Must push button until desired temperature is displayed, then don’t forget to push the time on the outside row of buttons before closing the door or else it turns into a microwave again. So after all of these buttons are pushed in this exact order, you can close the door and push start. And then sometimes it decides it wants to be a microwave anyway and you end up with burnt granola– true story.

This week I’m vibing with the microwave-oven. I’m pushing its buttons but I think we’re on good terms. Here’s one of the first successful things I’ve made (see above photo):

Coconut-Banana Granola Bars/cookies (from my friend Robyn)

  • 1/2 c. oats
  • 1 mashed banana
  • 1/4 c. chocolate chips
  • Few tablespoons c. shredded coconut
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 375F. Mix all ingredients together. Form into cookie or bar shapes and place on a lined cookie sheet (I made the granola bars in an 8×8 square pan, but it’s the only oven-proof pan I have, so run wild and free with other pan dimensions and shapes). Bake 10 minutes, flipping cookies/bars around halfway through if you remember (unclear if this is necessary in a normal oven, but it helps when using mr. finicky here). Take out, let cool, happy snacking!

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Also a hello from some happy surfers! Ashley and I had a blast in the waves this past Thursday– we surfed on the remaining swells from Typhoon Pam! I promise I’m studying…

Costa Rica: Week 3 and Vegan Banana Muffins

On the way back from Monteverde this week, we saw a sloth hanging from a power line strung over a steep cliff. Whatcha thinking, Mr. Sloth? It began to rain shortly after, and then pour, and then a crack of lightening zapped the pavement right next to the bus. We all relished in the memory of the sloth hanging peacefully, not caring to think about its fate in the thunderstorm. Our professor remarked that sloth’s don’t tend to think very far in the future…

Earlier this week, there were too many overripe bananas. The night before we left for Monteverde, I turned them something more delicious: vegan banana muffins were brought on board for the trip from Atenas to Santa Elena, where we stayed in El Bosque Lodge.

Banana muffins– first baking experience at the field station

Here’s Sarah showing off her Banana muffin– first baking experience at the field station.

We went on several hikes: one at the Monteverde Biologic Station and three in the Children’s Eternal Rain forest. It was in the latter that we conducted our Tropical Ecology research for our field exercise. After sifting through several ideas, Blair and I partnered up and decided to correlate heliconia density with the number of fruits they produce. We will crunch data this week and see if we found any correlation, but it was fun to putz around in the forest for 3 hours staring at some beautiful plants. White faced capuchin monkeys also paid us a visit, and an agouti. Lots of friends on trail!

Blair off trail at El Bajo Tigre in the Children's Eternal Rainforest at Monteverde

Blair off trail at El Bajo Tigre in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest 

Recipe for Vegan Banana Muffins:

  • 3-4 ripe bananas
  • 1/3 c. oil (canola or veg)
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/4 c. water or other liquid
  • 2 c. Flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • chocolate chips or nuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 375. Beat bananas and oil and sugar together until smooth. Add vanilla and liquid. Add the dry ingredients to the bowl and stir until just combined. Fills 10-12(+) muffin tins. Bake 20-25 minutes until centers are fully baked (check with toothpick or lightly touch for spring-back). Serve to hungry jungle [human] friends.

Peac[h]ing Out

I leave the wonderful city Chicago for Costa Rica tomorrow morning; the urban jungle for the literal one. City of the Big Shoulders to land of the Cavendish and mangoes. Yum!

It is hard to leave Chicago where I am surrounded by culture and humid wind pouring off the lake. I know Chicago down to the timber of the L rolling down the track. I feel a particular pride with my city that I try to impart on my traveling companions. Because who doesn’t love the distinct smell of the red line in the morning? Or the Matrix-like method of biking on the lakefront, avoiding dogs and runners and rollerbladers… or the general NOISE. Chicago is noisey, and I’m eager for a lil respite; replacing city commotion with bug chirpings and whirrings.

I’m a city girl gone rogue.

In the days that remain in Chicago, I have used the kitchen to its full advantage.  Once again, I found peaches on the counter that were on the brink of decay. This time, Peach Crumb Coffee Cake was the solution.

Peach Crumb Coffee Cake

Peach Crumb Coffee Cake

Recipe for a variation on Nick Malgieri’s Peach Crumb Coffee Cake

  • For the cake:
  • 1 (1/2 c.) stick butter 
  • 3/4 c. sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 5 peaches, peeled and cut into 10 slices
  • For the Crumbs
  • 1 1/4 c. all purpose flour
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1/4 c. brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 stick (1/2 c.) unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350. Butter a 10in. round cake pan (springform works well). Peel and cut peaches. Place in a bowl and sprinkle with cinnamon. Let sit until the cake is ready. Cake: Beat the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy (5 min). Add the whole egg and beat until incorporated. Then add the yolks, one at a time, and beat well after each addition. Mix in the vanilla. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into the batter. Stir until combined, then pour into the cake pan. Lay the peaches evenly over the top in a spiral. Crumbs: Mix the flour, sugars, and cinnamon in a bowl. Add melted butter and mix with fingers or the paddle attachment to achieve coarse crumbs. Evenly layer crumbs over the cake. Bake until center comes out clean, 45-55 minutes. 

This yields a delicious coffee cake. Try to let cool completely before slicing and eating with tea or coffee: a perfect send-off from a Midwest summer

Zucchini Bread

I cannot get enough of the show Top Chef, so when I saw Gail Simmons’s book “Talking with my Mouth Full” at the library, I checked it out immediately. The importance of food in Gail’s life was apparent; the memoir moved between food-driven anecdotes such that I felt the stress of her crazy schedule, and seamlessly transitioned to the kitchen, eating her mom’s Zucchini Bread… 

… which is what inspired this loaf. It is summer, and “4 giant zucchinis for $3” at the farmers’ market means that there is an excess of zucchini lying around. Hopefully, with this bread, the zucchini purchasing and consumption will reach an equilibrium:

Zucchini Bread

            Zucchini Bread

          Zucchini Bread 

      (makes 2 loaves, adapted from Gail Simmons)

  • 1 c. Whole Wheat Flour
  • 1 c. White Flour
  • 1.5 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 3 eggs, room temperature
  • 1.5 cup sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract (or replace 1/4 c. sugar with vanilla sugar and omit)
  • 2-3 cups shredded and drained zucchini
  • 5 chopped Medjool Dates

Preheat oven to 350. Butter two 9x5in loaf pans. In a medium bowl, combine flours, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, and baking powder. In another bowl, beat eggs until frothy. Add in sugar, oil, and vanilla and mix well. Add in the zucchini and dates and mix. Add flour mixture and stir with rubber spatula until JUST COMBINED. Divide batter between loaf pans. Bake 45 min or until center is fully baked. When cooled slightly, invert the loaves and serve or cool completely and store. 

The dates and zucchini make for a very moist and satisfying loaf. There are many possibilities to tinker with and modify this recipe. Enjoy enjoy and savor the zucchini while still summertime fresh.