Friday, June 12

There Will Be Botanas

If the GRE were all food-related analogies, I would ace that crap blindfolded. Spain: tapas as Mexico: botanas. Duh. The answer should always be botanas.

Is snacking at the root of my love of the Spanish-speaking world? Umm, yes. Definitely yes. Though I've only been to Spain and Mexico, the libation accompaniments I've eaten in these locales have impressed me more than anywhere else.

This time of year (well, this time of year in the States) I'm on the prowl for some quality snacks. Not just any snacks either, I'm looking for small, simple foods that pair well with drinking outdoors in warm weather. Let's face it, summer is the love-child of nature and drinking, obviously.

I love all snacks, but for those lovely June days, a basket of potato chips is not going to cut it. Guacamole, fresh salsa, marinated olives, cheese and fruit, hummus, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto are a few classics that are a little more appropriate for the warm, alcohol drenched days of early summer. Fresh and salty are basically the criteria I'm trying to meet.

Mexico gets it. The botanas here are simple and delicious and are the perfect fit for warm days. If I could modify the Mexican flag, the snake that the eagle is clutching would have "Fresh and Salty" written on its body. Maybe it's already understood that snakes are fresh and salty, but for my taste you never can be too blatant.

The primary snack that accompanies a beer here feels like a no-brainer, but has a couple extra touches that push it up a few notches. Peanuts coated with chili powder and served with a lime wedge may not sound dazzling (they should, but I'll allow that they might not), but they are. Peanuts and beer have always been buddies, but these badboys are a cold Bohemia's soulmate. I'm not sure if they sell these same pre-made spiced up P's in the U.S. (check your local Mexican grocery), but I think some Spanish Peanuts, a little melted butter, a few shakes of chili powder, a tad of minced garlic, a quick toast in the oven, and served with a lime wedge would do just the trick.

Hmmm, I might need to change my Mexican flag slogan to "Chili and Lime," because my next botana favorite is also heavy on these. Or maybe I'll just imagine that the red and green are representative of these. I swear I'm not trying to belittle or offend the entire nation of Mexico by imagining the flag in snack related terms. I think of all flags in food related terms. I think this is a product of my birthday's proximity to the 4th of July and subsequently a lifetime of U.S. flag birthday cakes.

Anyway, moving away from my food-culture broad-brushing and back to the snacks--my favorite bar snack so far is incredibly simple. It is a plate of carrots, jicama, and cucumber cut into strips, topped with fresh lime juice and chili. It is beautiful, fresh, delicious, and light (let the beer bog you down, not the snacks).

This spiced up relish plate, a bowl of chili peanuts, and some guacamole are my botana trio of choice--the perfect way to spend a warm fuzzy-minded afternoon in the sun.

Tuesday, June 2

The Thorn-in- My- Side Birds

You know those books, those lovely, lovely books, that you pick up on a whim and get swept away in the story, the characters, the writing, and the emotions? The ones that keep you up later than you really want to be and sometimes feel an almost human affection for them? A Little Princess, The Grapes of Wrath, Pride and Prejudice, The Book Thief, Love in the Time of Cholera, The Bell Jar. . .the list goes on and on.

This past week, however, I finished The Thorn Birds, which I will be putting on a far different list. A black one. I hated it so much it will be hard not to look down upon people who say they "..thought it was ok."

Sure, I am a snob, but I'll admit that I'm not above liking things that most people think suck--it isn't all Ingmar Bergman films and John Steinbeck novels for me. I could (have, would, will) watch Cool Runnings repeatedly back to back and listen to some serious early '90s music mixes.

The crux of my tirade isn't how could someone love this, but how could apparently everyone love this? Taste is taste, I know it's relative and the idea of "good" taste and "bad" taste are ridiculous, but man, that book sucked it's way throughout most of the 20th century and became a New York Times bestseller--what is wrong with people!?!? (I'd say it was the '70s, but The Da Vinci Code reminds me that my generation is not so innocent either).

I kept reading thinking there had to be some redeeming quality, but the ridiculous dialogue and constant "tragedy" just kept going. I'm not sure if it counts as tragic if I'm exasperated instead of sad, though. I'll say this for Colleen McCullough, she sure is an inventive character killer. Death by pure spiteful will, burning in a bush fire, suffocation by wild boar, drowning-heart attack rescue...nobody dies the same (or a normal) death twice.

Why did I bother reading it? you may ask--I'm an idiot who finishes everything (in terms of books and movies only, unfortunately) I guess. Because if there ever was a time to quit anything, it was after page one of The Thorn Birds. But instead I hated my way through all 692 pages.

The one redeeming portion of the book was at the very beginning where they eat a dish referred to as "Jam Roly-Poly." I hate the name, but I can't blame that on the book, because apparently it is an actual old English dessert. It was described as biscuits laced with jam and topped with warm custard. It was a jam-biscuit beacon amidst my furious hostility at the "life's a shit-storm" theme and obnoxious early-20th-century Australian vernacular.

Moving on from the blinding hatred. . . I don't have an oven, so replicating a biscuity portion of this recipe was not going to be easy. I've faced worst feats before, for example: finishing The Thorn Birds. Stubbornness isn't one of the qualities I'm lacking, so working my way to the end of a book, movie, or final delicious end of a recipe idea are not areas where I am going to give up.

I decided to make a stove top corn bread to use as the base for pudding and jam. I used a basic cornbread recipe and just plopped the batter into an oiled skillet and cooked over low heat--with a final and slightly destructive flip at the end. I'll admit, I was craving buttermilk biscuits through the whole process though, just a thought if you've got an oven.

My toppings were store-bought strawberry jam and homemade vanilla pudding. The pudding recipe is one I've often used for fillings or dousings for anything that needs a filling or dousing (I was obsessed with making cream puffs in HS and this was a perfect filling). Like many delicious standards, this recipe comes from the staple-laden Better Homes and Gardens cookbook (a book worth lingering over).

The final result was pretty good, but only pretty good. The pudding was delicious as always, but paired with the sugary store-bought jam it was slightly cloying, in spite of the unsweetened cornbread as a base.

Luckily, it didn't inspire a passionate hatred like The Thorn Birds. After all, I did discover a good method for making cornbread sans stove and I gorged on the vanilla pudding leftovers the next day--which was quite satisfying.

Maybe it isn't so bad to venture into new and surprisingly sub-par territories, whether for books or recipes (on the rare occasion). It brings to mind past successes (even if it's in a longing kind of way) that should be revisited--I'm thinking cream puffs with the aforementioned pudding and a rereading of Anne of Green Gables are about due for another visit and all the affection I did not shower on The Thorn Birds.