Poached Pear-ables.

May 10, 2013

Poached Pears 012Juicy couture. Or something.

I took a cooking class in Valparaiso, Chile, where we poached pears in red wine and spices that hugged me all cozy-like just as mulled wine in the winter does. Although I had heard about poaching fruit, I had never actually tried it before myself. It was a true revelation; classy and delicious.

Since alcohol isn’t always an appropriate option here, I thought I’d give pear poaching a second go with something a bit more innocuous. Like apple juice. I mean, even babies drink apple juice. Glug glug.

Anyway. The finished product emerged like a dream, and as an added bonus, my house filled with wondrous smells of Christmastime and snowfall. Which is obviously totally appropriate in May (bring on the cold weather already, Paraguay!).

Apple cinnamon poached pears are a great option for a no-fuss but fancy-looking dessert. Stash this one away for your December dinner parties.

Or Friday morning mission meetings.

Apple Cinnamon Poached Pears
Inspired by marthastewart.com
Serves 8

8 ripe but firm pears, peeled
4 cups of apple juice (I used a Frugos brand that tends to be thicker in consistency)
1-2 cups of water
1/2 cup of sugar
5 cinnamon sticks
5 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg

Slightly slice the pears on the bottom so they will stand nicely on your serving platter afterwards.

Combine the apple juice, water, sugar, and spices in a large pot. Add the peeled pears and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the pears are soft to the piercing but not disintegrating (tip: poke from the bottom so you don’t mar the surface of your fruit). Remove from heat.

Pour half of the liquid into a small saucepan without the whole spices, and simmer until the sauce reduces down into a deliciously thickened glaze. Leave the pears in the remainder of the liquid to continue absorbing the spicy flavors.

When ready to serve, remove the pears onto a plate, drizzle with glaze, and accompany with a dollop of fresh whipped cream. Serve warm or cold.

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“You could make cookies with this recipe, right?” one lady inquired.

“Uh, what?” I hesitated thinking my Spanish listening skills were muddling up my comprehension, but then the woman repeated her question verbatim.

I explained that cookies (the tasty kind anyway) generally require flour, significantly less liquid, and another type of bakeware. So while my procedural list for apple cinnamon bread pudding would produce something delicious, it could never result in children of the small round disc family without drastic alteration. Frankly, it would be a completely different recipe, so no, you couldn’t make cookies with this method.

“Oh yeah, it would probably be too sweet,” she responded. I was terribly confused.

Fortunately baking up a double batch of the bread pudding rich in aroma was much more straightforward and the recipe facilitated a perfect cooking workshop. It was simple and engaging as each individual in attendance had the opportunity to peel and core apples or chop bread or learn the art of measuring cups (muahaha, minions! I mean…).

Not to mention, I got to pull one of those TV cooking show moments when I opened my oven and magically pulled out a nicely browned finished product. Rachael Ray, everybody.

In all seriousness, our Taller Navideno de Damas was a festive afternoon of community, Christmas crafts, and spicy cinnamon. Check out the pictures below for peeks of the other stations available.

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La Ruta: The Gift of 2012.

January 15, 2013

2012 was a difficult year for youth ministry at Mi Esperanza. For me personally, it was frustrating to see a promising group of mildly excited (which seems to be the optimistic norm—Bieber fever aside) teenagers dwindle down to a bare bones lackadaisical attendance. Towards the latter months of the year, a dismal average of just two or three were showing up on Saturdays. This drop mirrored the unfortunate regressive pattern of leaders as well.

It was not simply about the numbers either. Kids, many of whom were displaying rapid growth, started falling out of our contact and defaulting instead to apathy or worse, destructive behaviors, despite my best efforts to keep in touch.

Youth group was such the foreign concept to these kids to begin with, I was aware it would be an uphill battle. But pouring blood, sweat, and sometimes tears week in and week out, and seeing little fruit if not big steps taken backwards can be disheartening in spite of that predetermined knowledge. Not to mention, adolescent ministry is in no way a natural strength of mine, so this year was certainly a stretch and a glimpse of learning to love those who can be difficult to love.

To be honest, by year end, I went in each week expecting the worst, if anything at all. Every time I made any plans or dared to envision something better for the week’s objectives, leadership and ministry hiccups and cultural norms would disrupt everything and leave me entirely disheartened.

For one, I set out this year to revamp or create, really, the role of Game Master. I took it upon myself to come up with innovative and engaging games that would involve the teenagers and show them activities that could actually be enjoyable. For months, the kids hated me and that treacherous half an hour of “fun.” Why the F (to use inappropriate young people lingo) was this crazy American girl forcing the group to engage in ice breakers requiring critical thinking or even worse, orders to pass a grapefruit chin to chin without hands? But though it frustrated me that so many would refuse to participate in even the most innocuous of games, I kept at it, concocting relays and activities ever more embarrassing than the last.

Slowly, they started warming up to the concept of organized group games, and each week, another individual would dare join in. On one particular instance, I noticed the entire group enthusiastically competing in the impromptu Around the World basketball game I’d taught them and set up with a rubber ball and a wicker basket. We played it every week for two months, which they initiated! Occasionally, even a too-cool-for-school dude would assent to shovel cereal down his throat while blindfolded or scream like a little girl in the name of winning, and dare I say, enjoy themselves while doing so. Talk about internal happy dances.

It was a yearlong journey of ups and downs with a predominant predilection for less than positive results. When it came time to plan our big year-end bash before adjourning for summer break, I was excited about what I had on tap but expected nothing.

And then I got the surprise of my life. Everything went according to plan with participation success far surpassing even my wildest dreams.

I began the afternoon with a holiday-themed activity and challenged the kids to create a nativity scene using two rolls of bread. Much to my delight, the most unruly, non-participatory teenage rascal not only willing jumped in, he got so involved with his project (that may have included interpretive elements like magic carpets and headless turtles), he ended up taking home the prize! Never did I think I’d live to see the day as he proudly paraded his chocolate bar of a trophy. A crackly race of unraveling tape balls filled with treats followed as teens competitively tore at the sticky tape and good-natured trash talk wound about the table. Silly string attacks and sugar cookie decorating brought on ever more laughter and camaraderie.

And then came 2012’s crown glory: the first ever La Ruta White Elephant gift exchange. I had explained the rules the previous week and strongly suggested everyone bring a small wrapped item. Again, I expected this endeavor to complete fall through, but as alluded to previously, everyone was mysteriously in top form and each little individual showed up with a package to contribute to the pile. I have never been more proud or more astonished.

I think in the end, I was left with a pencil pouch and a packet of dried out markers, hardly a brag-worthy stash of loot. Oh, but the joy and experience of seeing an entire group of my Paraguayan teenagers happily, actively involved and having fun…easily one of 2012’s best gifts.

Thank you, Jesus.

It was frigid and night had long fallen. Our weary troupe of travelers, fresh off a long (albeit it breathtaking) train ride, plodded through quaint alleyways, leaving one unlucky leader to wrangle with the map while the rest of us grumbled. Having been hours since we last ran out of provisions, we were also famished nearly rendering us oblivious to the festive Christmas decorations adorning every corner and the reflection of twinkling lights in the canals liberally throwing romance in the air. Even a beautiful city like Venice can only be so beautiful when the primal instincts of hunger have taken over.

Lacking the wherewithal to hold out any longer, we ducked into the first lighted cafe we encountered. We crammed ourselves and our big winter coats cozily into a tiny booth, and ravenously ordered the most Italian-sounding items off the menu. I salivated anticipating my gnocchi ai quattro formaggi, imagining rich, gooey cheese and fresh herbs sprinkled over the top.

Enter the rude awakening. Each plate that arrived was progressively uglier than the last. And in spite of our voracious hunger pangs that often transform even the most average entree into world-class fare, it was the worst meal in the history of ever. To this day, I still gag remembering how I forced myself to choke down every last bite (of course, we had unwittingly chosen a tourist trap that was priced accordingly), eyes watering and honestly fearing resurging vomit with each swallow.

We had been served what looked and tasted like over-microwaved (you know when your cheese cements to the plate when you leave it in for way too long? Times that by ten.) vittles that had seemingly been re-heated several times over the last century. It was horrifying. But it was winter break and we were best friends on the adventure of a lifetime. The exhilaration of backpacking around Europe with three of my favorite people was just enough to keep the tears at bay.

It wasn’t enough to prevent a long-standing grudge against gnocchi though. That nasty plate of pure hate is the stuff my food nightmares are still made of, and I have not dared try any other variation since then.

Until now. With a surplus of ricotta in my fridge and precious lemons begging to line my tastebuds, this concoction of lemon ricotta gnocchi popped up in my recipe search. I figured something fried in butter couldn’t be that bad. Intrigued, I had to try it even as terrifying visions of that scarring night haunted my instincts.

Gnocchi and I have officially mended our previously irreparable relationship. (Venice still owes me.)