Tuesday, March 25, 2008

If You'd Like to Come Visit

For anyone who has Google Earth on their computer and would like to visit, try this!

Copy and paste 11°47’55.45”N 86°05’31.09”W into your search bar and come take a tour of the property before construction started!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

An Easter Promise

It's ninety degrees outside, it's ninety degrees outside. Thank goodness it's the dry season, so the humidity is only 50%, so it only feels like ninety three degrees outside.

That is what would be running through my head if I were part of this caravan of ox drawn carts (ok, they're really Brahman cattle).

Hundreds upon hundreds of people travel days upon cart or foot to a little church in Popoyoapa, a neighbor of my little town of San Jorge, just before Easter.

Why would they travel this way? Is it because they're poor and have no other way to travel? That's impossible, the food they consume in this journey alone would be way more expensive than bus fare.

And it's certainly not because it's a comfortable way to travel, although they are incredibly well organized for Nicaragua (carts are numbered and have signs for where they're from). They certainly make the best of it with noontime rests and taking advantage of a swimming hole/laundry area.

They go because they've promised. It's a pilgrimage of sorts, and besides prayers and mass, it fulfills one of the most important promises of the church, it provides community.

Traveling at a slow pace, being jostled in the cart with the awkward motion of cattle walking. Eating together (even the cows get in on it with roadside grazing and food strapped to the roofs of the carts). Simply being together or playing together.

And what is Easter's celebration if not the fulfillment of promise?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Fruit That Tastes Like Eggs?

So I was taking progress photos of construction today when Lenard (our NPH representative onsite) told me that he had just learned of a new fruit that comes from the tree pictured above.

This isn't a completely rare occurrence for me on the site, we have nim, star fruit, a fruit that has almond-like seeds, mangos and bitter oranges among others.

But then he told me you can fry it with onions and it tastes like eggs! So of course I had to try it.

The fruit grows on the tree and when it falls and opens, it reveals soft light yellow pillows surrounding a shiny hard black seed. Pull those squishy sections off the seed and they have a cheese like texture in their yield to your bite and taste like a mild mushroom.

Lenard mentioned they're called 'Huevos de Yanquee' or 'Yankee Eggs'. Does anyone else know a different (possibly slightly more polite for anyone that speaks spanish) name?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

No Evergreens Available

So as you can see we have a roof on the first house! Construction tradition as I know it dictates at this point we'd stick a Christmas tree at the highest point, but I'm pretty sure that's not gonna happen.

In the meantime, however, we do have a whole lot more shade to work in, and the roof was designed high, specifically to allow hot air to rise and keep the living areas cool. It's such a relief! Ok, maybe a bit more for those workers who actually labor on the site, but I appreciate it too!

While we watch the new advances on the first house such as glassblock going in bathroom windows to allow for natural light, the other three homes are advancing quickly as well getting close to finishing the 'crown beams' at the top of the concrete block walls.

We're making finish decisions at this point, such as what color of floor tile and where to put it. The architect rightly recommended placing it up the wall to about a 3' height similar to what is done in schools for ease of cleaning what kids leave behind. Then we rightly replied, is that free? No? Ok, we have some higher priorities for our money right now.

So we're on to less glamorous, but absolutely necessary items at the moment such as roads, water tank, water distribution, electrical distribution and waste water treatment!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Raw Sugar Making

I have a history with sugar. Most days I love it, but it never seems to really love me back. Or maybe that it loves me tooooo much! It never wants to leave! But how do you really understand your love, until you know their history? A history that started before you ever came along.

Sugar, the molecule, has a long history with the world, but this batch of sugar here has a story much simpler.

Sugarcane grew in a field in the Nicaraguan sun. At the beginning it was a short green sprout, it simply looked grassy in the field that had only days before been smoking with fire to clear the remnants of the previous harvest.

In only six short months, the cane grew taller than a man (although Nicaraguan men tend to be short, still it was pretty tall) and extended a feathery flower to the sky. When the time was right, it was cut, bundled together with its neighbors and loaded onto an ox cart.

From the field it was carried to a nearby shelter. Some canes are taken to large processing plants to become white sugar, this cane stayed closer to home, which means less processing.

The cane was fed through a large pressing machine moved by large belts in turn powered by a loud diesel motor cooled by large barrels of water.

From the pressing machine ran the juice, out of the cane and into the tank. There the juice (which also can be drank at this point tasting kind of like sugary iced tea when fixed with lime juice and ice) was transferred by hose into a metal vat with a fire boiling the juice from underneath.

The fire is fed by the remains of crushed cane, tended by a man who has not bathed (Nicaraguans have a fixation on body temperature, it’s considered damaging to be in a room with air conditioning if you have a fever, by the same token, if you’ve cooled your body by bathing, it’s considered dangerous to tend the fire in such a hot location).

As the water boils off, the juice is transferred from one vat to another. Some of it is skimmed off and used as animal feed. In Spanish the word for this part is molasses (I never really liked molasses that much to begin with).

The boiling continues until the sugar is ladled into molds and left to cool into a crumbly brick.

The bricks are bundled into bags where I bought my five pounds of sugar bricks for about seventy five cents.

It is really raw sugar with a distinct and strong molasses flavor remaining, but it is at the heart of the Nicaraguan economy and Nicaraguan celebrations. And I’m pretty sure I’ve eaten enough, it’s part of my heart too.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Butter Rum Caramels

What is caramel?

Caramel the candy, dulce de leche, carmelized sugar, cajeta. They’re all variations of one another, some with an added dairy product (cream, milk or butter), cooked to varying degrees of stickiness or hardness based on sugar percentage and temperature.

What is Rum? Well that one’s easy. It’s fermented sugar cane juice with the label ‘Flor de Caña’! made here in Nicaragua. Ok, that’s not the only rum in the world and it’s probably a little more complicated than that to make, but for all purposes here in Nicaragua, it’s the only one that exists.

Put them together and what do you have? Terrible deliciousness.

This is one recipe I really did follow just as I was supposed to with two small modifications.

First, I added half of the sugar as white and half as brown to minimize a grainy texture.

Second, we don't have candy thermometers here at the orphanage! While I tried to estimate by putting a drop of it in cold water to see how hard it gets, that method apparently takes a little while to get the hang of. The first batch turned out soft and gooey, as in more like caramel sauce than caramels. This second batch turned out a little hard, more like penuche, brown sugar fudge than caramels. I suppose that means I need to make a third batch so it will turn out just right!

Although all the candy has disappeared quickly, so it certainly doesn't affect the desirable taste!

Butter Rum Caramels from Epicurious

Vegetable oil for greasing
2 cups packed light brown sugar (14 oz)
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon dark rum
1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Special equipment: parchment paper; a candy or deep-fat thermometer

Line bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper and oil parchment.

Bring brown sugar, cream, butter, salt, and 1/4 cup rum to a boil in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan, stirring until butter is melted, then boil over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until thermometer registers 248°F (firm-ball stage), about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and remaining teaspoon rum. Pour into baking pan and cool completely until firm, 1 to 2 hours. Invert caramel onto a cutting board, then discard parchment and turn caramel glossy side up. Cut into 1-inch squares.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Chocolate Fudge

I swear I’m not addicted… depending on your definition of addiction.

In the name of social justice I have given up all sorts of things at various times, bananas, meat, clothing from certain countries, but one thing I never gave up, couldn’t ever give up, was chocolate.

And now, that’s okay!

In the town of Matagalpa resides a chocolate factory, El Castillo, that not only produces the chocolate-iest chocolate that could ever melt in your mouth, but actually respects and tries to help local cocao farmers improve their lives.

I’ll leave them to explain more on their website, but for this site, we continue with our regularly scheduled fudge confab.

I began with what would probably be a great recipe – Nigella’s Fudge. One can of sweetened condensed milk…. 350 grams of chocolate (75% Volcano Mombacho Chocolate)… 30 grams butter… taste check… whoa!

For anyone who loves, as in luuuuuuvs, dark chocolate, it’s probably fine right there. No one in Nicaragua will touch the stuff, though. Their idea of chocolate is a Snickers bar. I knew if I was going to have any help eating this (which is absolutely necessary!), I had to make an adjustment.

So to keep the texture workable while sweetening it up a bit, I alternated between adding cups of powdered sugar and short pours of a donated can of Vanilla Ensure. For some reason, the fudge gods were not offended, and I ended up with gooey, chocolately fudge! Phew!

Now just to liquefy it enough for the needle…

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Cashew Nut Fudge

For those of you who know I can happily eat a 1 lb bag of candy corn (happy before, not after), it will come as no surprise that last week we made batches of fudges (can that be plural?), all with an emphasis on local ingredients.

First up is Cashew Nut Fudge from India, by way of Epicurious. Many Indian recipies actually translate quite well to Nicaragua given similar climates and therefore similar produce. In the end, it’s a quiet, mellow candy. Soft and nutty (go figure), and almost seems to have a jelly like texture.

Cashews, or marañón as they’re called here in Nicaragua, are picked by hand with one nut per fruit. Only the poorest tend to take these jobs because much care must be taken when picking not to burn your skin with the toxic juice located in the nut’s shell.

Once processed, they’re sold in plastic bags on street corners, or in my case, a 3 pound bag for $20 straight to the car by vendors standing at stoplights.

While using ingredients that are completely common, this combination isn't. As one of my co-workers commented (while happily eating the candies) "it's always the gringas that make this sort of thing!"

Cashew Nut Fudge Recipe

Monday, March 3, 2008

Counting the Days

It was one year ago that I got on a plane headed for, well, I wasn't sure what I was headed for. Mexico and Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos, yeah, but I wasn't really sure what that meant.

I wasn't full of idealized dreams, already having worked professionally for a few years in construction and even more years with non-profits. I didn't expect to change the world (I wouldn't mind it, and sometimes I'm delusional enough to try, but usually realism wins). And I wasn't set on having a life changing experience myself.

And one year later, well, it still seems like just my quiet little life. I go to my office each day. I try to behave myself. Sometimes the days speed by full of productivity. Other times I'm frustrated by the bureaucracy and bruisings. I may officially work for an international multi-million dollar organization, but I really work for the kids. I divide up my 24 hours according to what is most important to me. I travel a bit when I can. Really, it's not any different than anyone else.

I'm not minimizing the experience, I just want to say, it's your Fill-in-the-Blank-Iversary too! In the last year you've made the same choices I have. Choices according to time, money, values, pressures, fears and desires.

The challenge is to be aware and choose wisely. All resources are precious and need to be spent carefully. Here in Nicaragua, where there is so little, it's simply a little more obvious. But before your next Blank-Iversary, you can make your choices more conscientiously too!

Just spend a few moments to think about what really matters, if your actions follow your values, you'll be amazed where it takes you.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Blessing of Houses

I managed to get enough in the way that I was inadvertently blessed as well. I'm not quite sure what that makes me, but it sure couldn't hurt!

The benediction of the first four homes took place last Wednesday by Bishop Hombach from Granada (originally from Germany).

It all went well, with only the slight hitch of having invited everyone for a mass, but apparently forgetting to tell the priest this. So in classic Nicaraguan fashion, we skipped what wasn’t prepared and went on to the blessing, dancing (by the kids' dance group) and eating!

This is our general contractor praying while his guys work in the background. No one thought to work out before hand whether or not they would work through the whole service (at least no one who was part of the planning committee).

This is our board president (and Nicaraguan congressman) talking with Willy, 6, from Casa Asis and Johanna, 18, in her year of service.