Monday, October 22, 2007

America´s Favorite Pastime...Shopping

Here in Ecuador there is no ¨shopping¨ culture. Fortunately. This is one of the things we came to get away from. Sure I miss the convenience of easily being able to find whatever it is you want to find...and then being able to return it if you find out you didn´t really want it, or need it, or whatever. But I don´t miss the constant temptation and in-your-face advertising of all the new neat products that are out there for you to waste your money on.

Yesterday we went to a ¨shopping center¨. Really, just a little plaza with a few fancy stores in it, one of the few that really resemble a fancy shopping gallery, not just a mall. This one is located in Cumbaya, right off the plaza which is part of the little town, and now suburb of Quito, where we live. It has cute, fancy shops, the kind only a few people in Quito could afford. And it has lots of vacant space for rent. It´s done in Spanish style, with fountains, gardens with flowers of many colors, and in an arcade plan which allows you to walk from front to back while looking in the store windows.

I looked in the window of one of the spaces, it must have been a bar before. Nothing there. An empty dance studio next door. Another empty space for rent. The idea that people would come here to browse and buy in such a place is totally flawed...this culture of shopping just doesn´t exist in Ecuador. I imagine the main anchor store does ok, it´s right in the front on the street. But these shops towards the back of the arcade were silent. It was a Sunday afternoon, the time when you´d thing most people would be out shopping...not a soul. The few shops that were open were just about empty, and I didn´t see anyone else around but my family.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Making Invert Sugar II

I returned a few days later to check out the batch of invert sugar I mentioned in an earlier post. It fully liquified and was starting to separate, a clear sign that yes, indeed, I do now have invert sugar. The separation is the sucrose and fructose having been broken apart from what was originally glucose.

I made another batch two days ago and by day two it was starting to soften and separate as well. My initial problem had been that I was expecting instant results; this, I now realize is impossible. But with a few days patience, you will have perfect results.

Making Pate de Fruits or Pectin Jellies

Yesterday I attempted, for the first time, to make pectin jellies. I started with strawberry fruit puree and all the other required ingredients. Adjusting for altitude, I lowered the cooking temperature, mixed up the ingredients, and cooked away. In under an hour I was at the right temperature, and added my acid and poured the jelly.

It set up almost just right, perhaps just a bit soft. I cut them on the guitar cutter and they were almost perfect.

Today, I made a second attempt with blackberry puree. I cooked it up slowly; it thickened to almost a jellylike consistency before I added my acid. I poured it into the frame and left it to set up. After over an hour, it was still fragile and a bit crumbly. Unfortunately, it never did set up firmly like the first batch. Guess I'll have to use it for blackberry jam or something.

I am considering making these for sale here as part of my product line, so I went online to some of the major chocolate/confectionery shops in the US. I was fairly appalled to see that most places charge upwards of $50 a pound for this item. My major considerations for pricing include cost of ingredients and labor, as packaging and marketing are fairly fixed across the board. I thought maybe I could get $10 a pound. But considering that quantity trumps almost all other factors, even quality, I had to go down in price.

The most difficult factor in selling high-end products and getting a decent price for them here is the lack of understanding and appreciation for craftsmanship and quality. The root of this problem lies in the country's economic situation as well as cultural factors. Labor is cheap, even if it is highly skilled. The overall level of quality of most products here is fairly low, so there is no recognition of quality, even when it is obvious. And most people aren't willing, and often are unable, to pay for it.

The lower levels of education and lack of a sophisticated consumer culture makes marketing a high-end product difficult. You can't appeal simply based on quality or craftsmanship. It takes consumer education, and time, to be able to market a product here based on those traits.

Taking Patés de Fruit as a specific example, most people simply equate it with gum drops, those cheap, mass produced, corn syrup laden gum drops with artificial flavors and colors. It's hard to compete on price with these, unless I were to be selling to the mass market. And it's even hard to make people understand that the two are not the same thing.

As for ingredient costs, Ecuador is blessed with an abundance of cheap, fresh, exotic tropical fruits. 500g of passion fruit puree in the US could cost anywhere from $20 to $35. Here, costs are less than a tenth of that. Blackberries are so cheap here you might as well be buying rice or flour. The same goes for other exotic and not so exotic fruits, including strawberries, soursop, orange, pineapple, and mango. So I have reduced the price to $7 a pound, and I'll keep experimenting until I get it right.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Making Fondant and Invert Sugar

I made my first batch of fondant today; it's not something I would have ever contemplated making, but there is a tremendous lack of many items here I need for confectionery. The other two are invert sugar and gianduja, both of which I am also starting to produce on my own.

Following the recipe but adjusting for the difference in altitude, I lowered the cooking temperature substantially and poured out my syrup, this time crystal free, onto my granite slab. It took me several batches of crystallized brittles and toffees to finally figure out the problem with crystallization here was the sugar; most Ecuadorian sugar is not very highly refined and thus had problems staying in a liquid state. I finally found a brand that works, just by chance.

The syrup was hot and thin when I started agitating it with a spatula. Within ten minutes it had whitened up and thickened substantially, after fifteen minutes it took on the short, almost crumbly texture that indicated it was done. This was a fairly thick batch of fondant, and it took a lot of elbow grease to keep it moving.

I decided on making a second batch, but this time with the addition of some cream of tartar in hopes that I would create some invert sugar. I cooked it at least twenty minutes as recommended on several sites, then removed it from the heat when it was still in an early stage of cooking, so that my final product would be substantially thinner than the first batch I made. After agitating it on the slab over fifteen minutes, it was white, shiny, and still fairly fluid. I'll see how it looks tomorrow after it has matured overnight-but it did look, and taste, just like a batch of invert sugar I had previously.

Seems to me that all the invert sugar recipes I find out there-most of which are for brewing beer and thus for a highly caramelized, and thus hard, version-never mention stirring the syrup in order to create crystallization. If you don't initiate crystallization, you either end up with a simple syrup, a crystallized chunk of sugar, or something in between-none of which are just what I am looking for. I made this batch of fondant/invert sugar thin on purpose; so that I could agitate it substantially and get those tiny crystals that go unnoticed in good confections, and so that I could add it and integrate it easily into my recipes. We'll see how it works out, but for now, it seems like the right stuff and has just the right texture, color, and taste.

Eating in Esmeraldas, Ecuador

You don't find a lot of variety here, no imported foods, no fancy vinegars, no fine cheeses. On the other hand, it's about as local as you can get. Nearly everything is fresh, and nothing comes from more than 100 or so miles away; so you can get potatoes and onions and other cool climate foods from the highlands, along with the fresh shrimp and fish, cilantro, melons, and yuca from the coast.

Most people who come to visit here-the economy is largely supported by tourism-eat at the local restaurants. The most typical and commonly found food are "Bolones de Verde" and Empanadas de Verde. Bolones are made from plantains, and are kind of round ball, about ping-pong ball sized, often filled with cheese and deep fried. The empanadas are made by making a dough from green plantains, usually filled with cheese, then fried too. Arroz con Camaron or rice with shrimp, and rice with seafood are other common dishes. Then there's seafood stew, fish either breaded and fried or sauteed with lentils and rice, and fresh langoustines too, usually either sauteed with a garlic butter or sometimes with a mild coconut curry.

Two days back we picked up 5 pounds of fresh langoustines for $25, on the lower end of the price scale. Fishermen with buckets of fresh shrimp and langoustines often come through the neighborhood, portable scale in their pocket, and weigh it out right there for you. You have to peel and clean, but it's well worth the price. Yesterday we had fresh "picudo" tuna, I don't know the variety in English but it's a fairly pale colored tuna, for about $4 a pound. The other common fish here is Corvina, which I don't yet know what is in English. It's a mild, flaky white fish. Today we stopped at the ATM to get cash, and a guy in the street offered us fairly jumbo sized shrimp, about 12 to a pound, for $4/pound. I took them home and sauteed them in a little oil and butter, finished with some white wine, and served them with a risotto made with a stock from the shells we peeled off them.

For the adventurous and strong of stomach, you can get fresh ceviche, either shrimp of fish, right on the beach from the guys with the bicycle carts. To accompany your meal, you can get bottled beer right on the beach. Finally, to finish off your meal a number of guys, either with bicycle carts or some with motorized trikes, will sell you any variety of frozen ice creams from the Pinguino factory in Guayaquil, which distributes throughout the country and makes a run of the mill, but not fantastic, variety of ice creams and popsicles.

Sopa de Bolas de Verde

We ate lunch today at a place just outside the entrance to the community here. Off the highway about 30 yards down the dirt road entrance, the restaurant, dirt parking lot, and house on top stand. In front of the house is the restaurant, a large tile patio covered by a round thatched palm roof, typical here. You sit at one of the tables dressed in Christmas table cloths with poinsettias on them. No pretenses here. You can get soda with a straw just long enough to poke out of the bottle top, a liter of beer, or watermelon, pineapple, blackberry, or orange juice with your meal.

They bring you a menu and a dish of silverware, and there's a pad on the table with a pen. You write down what you want, they come pick it up and read it back to you, and then you get served.

To start I ordred the typical Sopa de Bolas, or Plantain Ball Soup. What you get is a large, deep soup bowl with a reddish, fish base stock, made also with ground peanuts or even peanut butter, which gives it a hearty body for such a tropical climate. Today's soup had a big hunk of yuca, a large piece of fresh firm fish-my guess is tuna, one piece of cooked plantain, and of course, the bola, or ball, of plantain. It's about the size of a golf ball, with a heavy, almost chewy texture, like a piece of unrisen but well baked dough. Not a texture I was really familiar with nor would rush to be, but it had its place with the rest of the items. Occasional you will also find a third or so of a cob of corn, but this is really an unusual addition for a coastal food where corn is not grown nor used much in traditional cooking.

This is really a soup that makes a whole meal, as I was barely able to finish off the delicious whole red snapper I ordered to follow, leaving aside the lentils and rice which accompanies almost every dish at the restaurant, and most others in this region.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Beast

I got this new stove last week to speed up my candy making, as neither the hot plate nor the simple four burner stove I had available were of any use. It´s a locally made stove, cost me $100 from a store on the main drag that specializes in metalwork, specifically kitchen equipment. Imported models were over $400. I figured heat is heat.

This thing I call the beast will blast a flame a yard high if you´re not careful when you open her up, it´s really made for cooking 10 gallon pots of stock or soup. I put on my 10 qt. stock pot and can boil 4 quarts of water in under five minutes, or caramelize 2 pounds of sugar in under 5 minutes. It has really speeded up preparation of sugar based fillings and is the closest thing I could find to a candy stove.

Ecuadorian Ice Creams

The best ice creams are made with fresh ingredients, and that goes for sorbets too. Fresh fruit is abundant in Ecuador, and it is put to good use. Some of the best ice creams, though they are really sorbets as they lack any cream or milk products, are made from blackberries and guanabana. Blackberries are so abundant here, you can find frozen blackberry pulp in the market for juice, and can buy a pound or so of blackberries in the market for $1. Same goes for strawberries.

Guanabana is another commonly found tropical fruit, which makes great juice and ice cream. It´s white in color, and has a refreshing, apple-pear flavor without any tartness. A great choice for an ice cream is to pair it with blackberry, as they tartness of the blackberries is smoothed out by the guanabana.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Gastronomic Tour of Northern Ecuador

Yesterday we headed up to the province of Imbabura, in the northern part of Ecuador. Usually we head out mid-morning, stop and have lunch somewhere, go check out the town of Cotacachi where there's a piece of farmland Maria's uncle has cattle on, then on to Ibarra.
Our first stop was the Hotel El Indio, in Otavalo. We had a good typical Ecuadorian lunch there. No photos, as it was nothing extraordinary and I didn't think about taking pictures. I had Trout Almandine; we also ordered grilled chicken, beef fillet, and shrimp. As is typical in most of Ecuador, everything is served with french fries and rice, and a little salad of chilled poached vegetables, usually carrots, peas, and cauliflower.

Our next stop was the Heladeria in Ibarra, which has been around since 1896. The lady who owns has passed on, I believe. But she was able to construct more than one multi-story building in it, and has two locales, if not more. The two stores are right across the street from one another, and are always busy. One scoop costs 60 cents, and you can ask for two flavors. A bowl costs a $1. The ice cream is soft and pure fruit flavor. They still make it the old way, with copper pots on top of ice and straw-I guess that insulates-the ice cream turned by hand. It's really sorbet, as there is no cream used, just fruit and sugar.

From there, we stopped for Empanadas de Morocho, another Ecuadorian food often eaten as an appetizer or just a little snack. Morocho is a variety of white corn, which is ground and used fo make the dough for these. They usually have peas, rice, and sometimes a little ground meat inside. You stop in this place and just tell them how many you want, and then and there they fire up the fryer with fresh lard and serve you on very economical grease-absorbent pieces of paper. It's handy to bring along some plates in a picnic basket. They also have delicious ají, typical Ecuadorian hot sauce, which you spoon over to serve. The place is just off the main plaza, don't miss it.

On the way back we stopped in Cayambe, which is outside of the Imbabura province, still in Pichincha. This town is famous for its "bizcochos" or biscuits, which are not a traditional biscuit in the sense most Anglo readers would know. They are a light, savory, crunchy lady-finger shaped pastry, delicious with coffee or tea, or for breakfast. They are almost as ethereal as puff pastry, just a little more dense. There are dozens of bakeries making these at all hours in Cayambe, and you can stop in at any time of day and get them fresh and hot, usually about 15 of them for $1.

Below is the slideshow of the tour.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


Today we had Quimbolitos, which are little cake items-they're not desserts and they're not a meal. They are cooked in a steamer. You make this kind of cake batter with a few raisins in it, put it in an achira leaf, wrap it up like a tamale, and steam it until it's done.

The achira leaf gives it a kind of mild citrussy flavor, more sweet than savory. You eat Quimbolitos either for breakfast or at evening tea time. Dinner is kind of optional here, I think most households opt for something similar to what is called "onces" in Chile. You usually have bread, cheese, maybe some cold cuts, jam, and if you want, some of the leftovers from lunch. This is all served with coffee or tea, or sometimes colada, a drink I'll discuss in another post.Quimbolito.jpg

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Empanadas de Viento

Empanadas de Viento are a typical Ecuadorian food, oftentimes served as an appetizer or as a snack in the evening. They have a typical flour, butter, water and salt dough. On the inside, they are filled with a mix of green onions lightly sauteed in fat/oil with achiote for coloring, and Ecuadorian Farmers Cheese, or fresh cheese.

It sounds strange, but they are delicious with a little sugar and Ecuadorian Ají (chile pepper sauce) on top. You get the mild crispiness of the dough, the saltiness of the cheese and onions, the spiciness of the chiles, and the sweet sugar all in one bite. MMMMM!