Friday, February 22, 2008

Cooking in a Foreign Country

I think by now I've established that I'm not the world's greatest cook. I can prepare a meal that's both nourishing and delicious, at least to my non-Mexican taste buds, and I've become more comfortable improvising recipes over the past year. This is especially important when following an American cookbook.

I registered for several cookbooks when we were married and among my favorites is Rachael Ray's 365: No Repeats. She takes a recipe then changes up main ingredients so you learn to mix and match things on your own. This is very helpful for those of us who spent more time in restaurants and the frozen food aisle than the kitchen.

I've had to take that knowledge and step it up a notch since moving to Mexico. While the basics are more or less the same, there's always one thing that I just cannot find at the market. We've made alioli sauce with lime instead of lemon (tastes the same) and our experiment with Thai food resulted in a pink curry that thankfully still tasted all right.

The recipe I've chosen for today is Pork Chops in a Sweet Chili and Onion Sauce with Garlic Mashed Potatoes. Right there I've already made a change. Ms. Ray calls for Creamy Cilantro Potato Salad but I'd much rather have mashed. I'm keeping the cilantro so there's some green on the plate. I'm skipping the ingredients I don't like or didn't feel like buying for this one dish (celery and black pepper) and regular Idaho potatoes will stand in for russet.

The ingredient that's stirring the pot? Dark brown sugar.

This is essential. You can't have sweet chili and onion sauce without the sugar! The only form I found in the store is Splenda Brown Sugar. My husband won't touch regular Splenda so I doubt he'd appreciate me cooking with it. Plus it was expensive. We searched the market this morning but no one sells it loose; you have to buy a gigantic bag. As this is the first time I've needed brown sugar in almost a year it would end up shoved in the back of the cupboard and serve as additional bait for the ants.

Finally Ibis told me what to use. "That." he said, pointing at a solid cone that looked vaguely like chocolate, but more of a caramel color. It's four inches tall and the base is an inch in diameter. Reminds me of a giant pencil tip.

"Isn't that chocolate?" I asked.

He confirmed with the cashier and reassured me that it's the closest thing to brown sugar they have. It cost all of 3 pesos (that's about a third of a cent) so I tossed it in the bag with the rest of our groceries.

Now, do you see the problem? Have you guessed what I'll be doing after I finish this post? Yes, I'll be grinding, grating and chopping the solid hunk of sugar so it acts like it's supposed to when I throw it in the sauce. I suppose this makes me a better person or something like that, but I sometimes can't believe I've become a woman who spends over an hour preparing a meal.


Anonymous said...

It's called (I kid you not) panocha or piloncillo. It's just brown sugar in its solid form. Be brave, be bold, make the chile, woman!


Melanie Avila said...

Ibis says it's piloncillo. He wasn't around when I posted earlier.

Still haven't started...

Janna said...

Wow! I commend you for the effort you're putting forth. I hope you enjoyed the dinner!

Melanie's Mom said...

You don't give yourself enough credit. The meal you fixed for us when we visited was wonderful. It was something with chilis -- I don't remember what it was called. There's a difference between not being able to cook and being inclined to cook.

Kate Boddie said...

I mix things up all the time. Just last week I made this Mexican dip and substituted ground beef for ground turkey (healthier) and pretty much just added my own ingredients. The only recipe I followed was how to make my own taco seasoning. Usually you get better recipes that way since you're tailoring it to what you like.

Melanie Avila said...

Thanks Mom. That was rajas en crema, chilies in cream sauce.

The meal turned out well and Ibis said he'd eat it again but I think I'll skip the pork next time. They were a little thin and didn't have much meat so I think it'd be better with chicken.

The mashed potatoes were awesome AND my first attempt!

Doreen Orion said...

It used to kill me that I spent so much time cooking, only to have it all consumed in less than 5 minutes. (OK, perhaps I was hanging out with the wrong crowd.) Nevertheless, my solution was to marry a man who loves to cook. While he makes dinner, I perfect my martini recipes.

No wonder we get along so well.

spyscribbler said...

Chocolate and Chili are a scrumptious mix. Lindt just came out with this dark chocolate bar that has a filling of sour cherries, all spiced with chili.

It is to DIE for.

I love mashed potatoes.

Melanie Avila said...

Doreen, that was our setup till we came here. Now that he's working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, the cooking duties have been passed onto my shoulders. I do have plenty of time and he's figuring out compliments make the next meal better. ;)

SS, that chocolate bar sounds wonderful. I'm addicted to all things spicy now and looooooove móle. Yum.

Turkey said...

I understand how you feel. I often stray from the recipe and I usually forget what I added or subtracted. Needless to say, no meal ever tastes the same. It does sound like a yummy dish though!

Laurie Ashton said...

We have a similar lump of something close to but not quite brown sugar that's molded into one half of an empty coconut shell, then turned out, so it's sold as a half-ball shape. It's actually the sap of the kithul palm tree (similar to maple sap) that's been boiled down. In its liquid state, it's called treacle. In its solid state, it's jaggery. Excellent in the place of brown sugar with a slightly different flavor. Yum!

Have fun grinding it up. :)

Melanie Avila said...

I ended up switching from a spoon to a knife midway through and that seemed to work much better. I just pretended I was carving things.