Christmas Cookie Exchange

I first experienced this phenomenon a couple years ago when a friend invited me to a Christmas cookie exchange, and again this past weekend. The idea is that a bunch of friends get together and each person brings a small number of cookies to share with every other person. Each person goes home with the same number of cookies they brought, but with more variety. Sometimes there is a recipe exchange included so that if you really like your friend’s cookies you can make them yourself. So here’s my top 9 list of Christmas cookie exchange awesomeness:

  1. It is an excuse to consume butter and sugar. Lots of it!
  2. It lets you see people that you might not normally see, or meet new people if you like that kind of thing!
  3. You can get a good laugh out of other people’s tacky Christmas sweaters (and you can wear one if you like tacky).ugly_christmas_toilet_santa_sweater_2
  4. It usually involves getting to eat other holiday treats like spinach dip, nacho cheese, meatballs, pretzels with hershey’s kisses melted on top, and punch (spiked of course).
  5. You get to bake. This one could be good or bad, depending on how good at baking you are. If you are the person that makes a bunch of cookie dough and then realizes that you don’t own baking sheets, this might not be enjoyable to you!
  6. Variety. Enough said.FNK_12_DAYS_OF_COOKIES_OPENER_H_s4x3.jpg
  7. You make the people you live with happy by bringing home treats, although I warn that this could backfire if your friends can’t bake.
  8. If you aren’t so into the holidays, it can count as your one holiday party!
  9. Did I mention butter and sugar?
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The World of Nations Celebration

Last weekend Asa and I and Asa’s mom, Merrill, went to the World of Nations Celebration here in Jacksonville. The festival has been in existence for a good 20 years and is a great place to go and experience some 30 different international cultures. Each country was set up in their own tent where they displayed crafts and doo-dads for sale, sold authentic (for the most part) food, and stamped passport documents given to each visitor. A main stage central to all the countries exhibited entertainment and ceremonies from each country and local stages had live bands or dancing.

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Each year the World of Nations Celebration is open on thursday and friday for elementary and middle school students to come learn about different cultures. Asa fondly remembers going to the celebration when he was a little tyke.

We had a great time wandering around, sampling local cuisine, and people watching. We even got to sample some empanadas from Colombia which were very different from the ones we had in Uruguay.

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Some fun facts we learned:

– The Ethiopian calendar follows the Julian calendar which has 12 months of thirty days each and a 13th month of 5 days. The calendar is 7 years and 8 months behind the Western calendar.

– The Taj Mahal only took 17 years to build with workmen working every single day.

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– Nollywood is what Nigeria’s booming film industry is called.

– The South Korean flag has a representation of yin and yang surrounded by depictions of the four elements: heaven, earth, fire and water.

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– Angel Falls in Venezuela is 19 times the height of Niagara Falls.

Wedding Weekend

I went up to the Santa Cruz area this weekend for the wedding of a good friend! Despite the awkwardness of showing up to a wedding alone, and not knowing any of the other guests, I had a wonderful time.

The wedding was set up in the backyard of a close family friend. There was a grassy area for the ceremony, a nice patio with adjacent fish pond, a vegetable garden and storage shed, and terraced walking paths and sitting areas. The day was fabulous, without a cloud in the sky and a perfect 70 degrees F.

There were drinks and snacks before the ceremony. The bride and groom brewed the beer themselves, all six choices! There was a very pleasant blue grass band playing before and after the ceremony and lucky for the guests, the bride and groom’s other friends are fairly musical (i.e. can sing fantastically).

The taco truck was a great addition to the after-ceremony festivities, and the pie was a nice alternative to a traditional wedding cake. All in all, I had a great time and am super excited for my friends and their journey through life together. I can’t wait to see the creativeness coming out of that marriage!

You Can Find Anything At The Deli Counter

In many of the large grocery stores we have gone to here in Uruguay, the deli counter has been impressive. Many of the stores also have an entire wall dedicated to deli style serving counters. Also, the deli counter is not just relegated to prepared meats and cheeses.

The following photo is from our neighborhood Devoto grocery store. It just goes on and on.

The deli counter consists of (in order from closest to farthest away in the photo above):

1. A selection of fish.

2. Prepared food. They have individual, daily prepared, single-serve meals of pasta and sauce, tortas, chicken fingers, rice, etc…

3. A section of desserts. A wide section of desserts. They have pastries, both savory and sweet, and a huge selection of small cookies, candies, and bite-size cakes (for reference, the woman with the basket in the above photo is admiring the baked goods collection).

4. A section of handmade cakes, a full 12 inches of round chocolate and dulce de leche deliciousness.

5. A section for pasta. All grocery stores make their own pasta despite there being a slew of specialty pasta stores in every neighborhood (called a Fabrica de pasta). You can purchase boxed fresh pasta with the rest of the packaged pasta in the refrigerated section, but you can also order pasta at the deli counter. I haven’t figured out if there is a difference yet!

6. A ham section. In the U.S. this would be the deli meats section, but in Uruguay it’s the ham section. A normal grocery store here has a selection of 20-30 different kinds of ham (none of them peppered or honey-baked, just regular ham). There is sometimes a selection of salami (maybe 5 different types). And you can buy what look to be individual hot dogs, which are probably actually some kind of fancy sausage (although most sausage is bought already packaged from the refrigerated section).

7. A cheese section. Most of this cheese is mozzarella which is fairly common. The rest is either Colonia or parmesan. Colonia seems to be a general term for a cheese that comes in a lot of different varieties: colonia farming, colonia suiza, plain old colonia. All the cheeses, parmesan excluded, are rather flavorless. There is absolutely no equivalent to a good extra sharp cheddar cheese from the U.S. There are imported cheeses in the refrigerated section like brie, cambefort, blue cheese and sometimes gouda, but they are extremely expensive and sometimes not very flavorful either.

8. A beef section. Name a part of the cow and they will have it at the deli counter. Want ground beef? They have that too. They also have Asado meat (a cut of the ribs), a variety of filets and steaks, and tongue (yep, it’s true – they use it in a traditional dish called guiso).

As you will notice, there is the complete absence of a poultry section. You can get packaged chicken in the refrigerated section, but a specialty store probably has a much better selection.

Also, each of the separate sections have a little take-a-number machine. Each section has one or two dedicated workers serving behind the counter. Even so, sometimes there are hoards of people waiting. No one ever seems to mind, they just take their number and wait.

I Like My Lettuce With a Little Dirt On It

Last Friday while I was making dinner I realized that I really enjoy finding a bit of dirt on my produce. It means it’s fresh, no one tried to shine it up for me, and it wasn’t processed.

Friday is farmer’s market day, the day that we stock up on every little bit of fresh produce that we think we can manage to eat before it goes bad. We would much rather go to the farmer’s market to procure fresh produce because 1. it’s fresh and 2. its cheap.

Not only is the produce available at the farmer’s market fresh, but most of it is naturally or “responsibly” grown. In fact about 10% of Uruguay’s GDP is agriculture. Uruguay is a small country with a lot of undeveloped land that can be used for agriculture, and much of that farming is done without the use of pesticides and insecticides. Considering that it takes about 7 hours to reach the borders of Uruguay, most of the produce is also produced very locally! Uruguay even made ChinaBusiness’ top 10 Organic Farming countries list.

This tendency to work the land naturally also carries over to the cattle industry in Uruguay. The cattle raised in Uruguay, giving rise to the two biggest exports for the country, beef and leather goods, are all grass-fed, never given hormones, or kept in pens. The USDA has also granted Uruguayan beef grass-fed certification for U. S. markets.

Obviously it’s a great start and there’s always room to improve, but I gotta say that the produce available in Montevideo tastes much better than what we find in U.S. grocery stores.

Next time you prepare a meal, think about where your food is coming from. Find out about farmer’s markets in your area and think about eating locally. Also, for people in the U.S., think about checking out the Union of Concerned Scientists who are making concerted efforts at improving farm bill legislation to make it easier for organic farmers to survive and prosper.

Grapamiel

Grapamiel is a traditional Uruguayan liquor made from a mix of grappa and honey. Grappa is distilled from the solid grape residue after it is pressed for making wine. As Grappa is an Italian brandy, it is to figure out how it made it’s way to Uruguay with the huge Italian influence in the country. It is the national drink of Uruguay, although it is severely outnumbered by bottles of whiskey in all the stores.

As you can imagine, it is a fairly sweet liquor with about 25% alcohol. It is not readily available in the states except maybe some speciality liquor stores. Some websites say all one has to do is to mix grappa and honey and it will taste the same. We haven’t tried.

Our favorite brand of grapamiel, El Pirata!

There are a lot of brands of grapamiel. Some are more sweet and others have more grape flavor. Either way, grapamiel is super cheap. The above bottle of Pirata (about 1L) costs $7 US. We think it’s a great after dinner sipper and it should definitely be on everyone’s list to try if given the opportunity (e.g. if you find yourself in Uruguay or we bring some back for you)!

Farmer’s Market Perks

One of the perks about the farmer’s market near our house, other than being super close, is that there is the added benefit of lunch.

There is a pair of people that set up shop on the corner each week to sell fresh empanadas and torta fritas. What makes this even better is that they are fried to perfection.

We can’t figure out if the empanadas are made by them or picked up at a store prior to their farmer’s market appearance. Regardless, they usually have “carne” (beef with some hard boiled egg – yeah they put hard boiled eggs in a lot of things, especially empanadas) and “jamon y queso” (ham and cheese) empanadas.

Torta fritas are basically discs of fried bread with a hole in the middle. It is a traditional Uruguayan food to eat when the weather is nasty or rainy. If people don’t want to make them at home, there are plenty of these little stands that get set up to sell them. Usually there are at least one at most farmer’s markets.

At our little farmer’s market, this pair does great business. Regardless of the time we arrive to claim our snacks, there is always a line. It’s definitely worth the short wait!

One of the other great things about empanadas and torta fritas: the price. A single torta frita sells for 13 pesos (about 50 cents US) and an empanada costs a mere 23 pesos (about a dollar US). I can easily get a lunch for a buck fifty US!