Daily Outtake: Cleaning the Fridge, Making Wild Mushroom Risotto, and Remembering the Mushroom Man of Mexico City

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
When Orion, our one-year old, is awake, I get no writing done, save the shortest of emails, as in, “Thanks.”

This morning, I dropped our five-year old, Mariel, at school, and walked home, shuffling the order of assignments I needed to tackle today: a revision for GOOD; edits on an AFAR project; a new piece (my first) for VICE; two chef profiles for The Latin Kitchen; finalizing the transcription of my interview with Ruth Behar for Los Angeles Review of Books; and working on the text for the website of a friend. Plus, there are appointments for phone and in-person interviews to be made, published pieces to be promoted, and a couple ideas to pitch out to editors.

In short: a full work day.

I turned the key in the lock and heard “Ahhhh,” the “Good morning” sound Orion makes, and immediately started reshuffling. For four hours, at least, I wasn’t likely to get much of anything done- at least not in the writing department.

I could pack him up and head out to the library or I could go tackle something else on the “Rest of My Life” to-do list… something like doing a deep clean of the kitchen, Orion’s favorite place. He could pull pots and pans out of the cabinet while I scrubbed and consolidated and organized. And so it was settled: we would clean the kitchen while Francisco and Olivia slept and Mariel learned something, we hope, of value at school.
**
A few days ago, I’d spilled a cocktail shaker inside the fridge (of course) and in the process of cleaning up that mess, I’d found a package of dried wild mushrooms that have been taking up residence there since 2012. I put them in a bowl, poured hot water over them, and let them steep, moving the bowl from one place to another over the next two days while I decided what to do with them.

As we finished cleaning, I was confronted once again with the mushrooms. Either I had to use them or lose them, so I picked Orion up and headed to the computer. “Mushroom gravy,” I thought, but Google returned something better. Yes, wild mushroom risotto. Perfect for an overcast fall day.

Wild mushrooms and arborio rice. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

Wild mushrooms and arborio rice. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

We had all the ingredients (well, most of them; those we didn’t have could easily be substituted- red onion for shallots; two slices of bacon for pancetta) and so I set to chopping and stirring. Orion, hoisted over the stove, stirred enthusiastically. I felt accomplished: here we were, in the middle of a workday, making risotto for lunch. We even had a salad leftover from last night’s dinner and a Riesling from Long Island, picked up during Francisco’s visit there last week.

My little helper, enjoying the fruit of our shared labor. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

My little helper, enjoying the fruit of our shared labor. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

I served a bowl for us to share and Orion climbed atop the table, not willing to wait for spoon or fork to be lifted to his mouth. Hand dipped in the risotto, and then the wine, he grinned and laughed, and I was reminded again of how grateful I am to be able to work from home, even if it means continually reordering most of my days to shape themselves around my kids’ needs.
**
Making the risotto also reminded me of a curious encounter I had while walking with Mariel in Mexico City a few weeks ago.

Hurrying along from one appointment to the next, I was distracted by a sudden pop of sunset orange splayed on the sidewalk. Mushrooms! There was a blanket topped with gorgeous, damp mushrooms and a basket of beautiful, plump morels, the biggest I’ve ever seen. Leaning over them was a man whose face was wrinkled by years spent in the sun. Ever the writer (no off-switch, remember?), I started chatting him up, building up to the ask: his contact information. I was too busy to stand around and learn more about his mushrooms at that moment, but I wanted to know more… maybe even write a story about him and his wares, displayed humbly on a sidewalk in one of Mexico City’s ritziest neighborhoods (hey, the man is no dummy). But he rejected my request, as was only right. If I wanted to know more, I had to come back, he said. No website, no email, and no, he wouldn’t give me a phone number. Only his name: Francisco. Si, Don Francisco, I will be back. Back to learn all about your mushrooms.
**
If you’d like to make wild mushroom risotto, this is the recipe I used. As I said, I substituted bacon for pancetta and red onion for shallots. And the mushrooms I used were a mix– I don’t really think you have to use the specific ones she calls for here; whatever you have on hand will do just fine.

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Daily Outtake: Stainless at The 8th Floor

I’ve decided to try something new around here: a daily outtake, a snippet of the day that could lead to something larger–a meatier post, an article, a project–but might also lead to nothing more than the post itself.

Why?

Because if I wait until I have time to write a full post here, I’ll never get around to posting; because I like the idea of using the blog as a scrapbook for filing notes; and because you never know what tidbits of daily life can produce really interesting conversations.

And that’s what I’ve always wanted this space to be: a place where the words I share serve as invitation for you to tell me what you’re doing, reading, thinking, and experiencing.
**

One of the works by Stainless in the "One of a Kind" exhibit. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

One of the works by Stainless in the “One of a Kind” exhibit. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

So today’s outtake is a quick thought about “One of a Kind,” the current exhibit by Stainless that’s showing at The 8th Floor, a Manhattan gallery for Cuban art. This was my first time seeing the collective’s work and I’ll admit I was a bit underwhelmed, though I did find the video installation piece pretty funny.

Sometimes it’s the case that the idea of an exhibit is better than the exhibit itself, and that’s how I feel about “One of a Kind.” The questions the exhibit raises, which are articulated most clearly by Ted Henken in his essay found in the show’s program, are pretty compelling, especially in the context of Cuban art, but also, more generally, in the context of, as Henken says, in “the digital age, when virtually any media product…can be perfectly reproduced and endlessly shared an unlimited number of times at negligible cost in a multiplicity of formats[.]”

“Does the value we give an ‘original’ diminish, erode away to nothing in this context…?” he asks, or “does our praise for the ‘one of a kind’ in fact increase in direct proportion to our ability to copy and share (sub) ‘versions’ of it with our ‘friends’?”

The way that Stainless insinuates these questions is by showing works that are “displayed as one of an unknown number of copies, rather than a singular inimitable object.” Now that I find intriguing, as it challenges the system by which art has traditionally been marketed and sold. But the works themselves feel banal to me, especially “Cosmos Advertising,” which depicts stars, planets, and galaxies as brand logos.

So would I recommend seeing this exhibit? If you’re going for the work itself, no. But if you want to challenge basic assumptions about art as merchandise, then yes; the exhibit is worth your time.

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Uber: A three city review

Uber car service in Mexico City.

Uber car service in Mexico City.

I heard about the car service Uber when it launched in New York in 2011; friends and acquaintances who were early adopters described the service as addictive, and I could see why–the appeal of having your own non-surly driver who wouldn’t bitch or sigh or raise an eyebrow if asked to chauffeur you across the Queensboro Bridge, for starters. A company rep had given me a promo code at a trade show and I downloaded the app, but didn’t even make a trip. Uber’s rates didn’t seem competitive compared to taxis, which I avoided anyway, preferring the subway, Citi Bike, or my own two feet to get around the city.

Fast-forward to last month, when I was chatting with my friend Cristina about my upcoming trip to Mexico City. Did I know Uber had launched in the capital last year and that it was fabulous? No, I had missed the news and I remained dubious, despite her enthusiastic endorsement. Still, I downloaded the app again (since I’d deleted it, having decided I’d never use it) and found myself curious enough to try it out when I landed at the airport a couple weeks ago.

I jumped on the airport’s WiFi network (Infinitum has a growing number of WiFi hotspots around the capital and you can “prueba el servicio–”try the service”– for free once a day.) and hailed my Uber car. It arrived in about two minutes, as the app informed me it would, and I knew the driver’s name, what he would look like, the make and model of his car, and his license plate number… all before he pulled up. Already, I was impressed; one of the persistent problems (and some would say, dangers) of taking a taxi in Mexico City is knowing whether a driver and his or her car are legit, much less knowing who he/she is. Uber eliminated that problem entirely, and right away, I could see the numerous advantages that presented to both the passenger and the driver.

Before we pulled away from the terminal, the driver asked me if I wanted a bottle of water and whether I needed to charge my phone. I said “yes” to both, and he produced one of several chargers, including one that fit my iPhone. He pointed out the newspapers in the seat pocket in front of me, noting that they were mine to enjoy, should I want them… and I did.

He asked where I was going and I told him; he punched the destination into an iPhone and away we went. This was novel for Mexico City, too; being such a gigantic metropolis, it’s very common for drivers to get lost or to ask the passenger for directions or–this has happened to me several times in Mexico City–to simply give up after trying to find a destination, depositing the passenger at a curb with a mumbled apology and a “Suerte!”

The car was gleaming, inside and out, and still had that new car smell, and the driver was spiffy, too, dressed in a suit. No 5-o’clock shadow on his face, his hair slicked back… what WAS this? It was different and, frankly, I liked it.

I explained to the driver that I’m a writer and asked if I could interview him about his experience with Uber. He was obliging and I turned on my recorder, letting him chat away about how much he loves driving for Uber. A former taxi driver, he feels more professional and more safe: “We never have to exchange cash,” he says, “and you know that here, someone will kill a taxi driver for a hundred pesos” [about $7.50 at the current exchange rate]. Uber stores the passenger’s credit or debit card information and calculates the charge at the end of every trip. The charge automatically processes by the card company and Uber emails the passenger a receipt. Two more problems eliminated: that of making change (Mexican taxi drivers rarely have the change to break bills, even ones that a visitor might consider small, like 100 pesos) and that of getting a receipt (drivers of street hail taxis in Mexico City rarely have receipts).

I used Uber at least six more times during my four days in Mexico City and every trip was exceptional. The drivers were professional, the cars were in perfect condition, and the trips went off without a hitch. The rates were generally competitive with taxi fares, and for what I was getting, I didn’t mind when they exceeded what a typical trip might cost (during times of high demand, rates are adjusted–upward, of course–for service).

Did I miss the street hail taxis of yore? Of course, I did… but only in the way that your dad misses the days of walking uphill to school in the snow, both ways. Which is to say that I missed the idea and the image of the street hail taxi–especially the green and white Beetle taxis that hurtled down the streets when I lived in Mexico City–but I didn’t actually miss the experience of the street hail taxi.

New York
Fresh from my fantastic experiences with Uber in Mexico City, I returned to New York, more eager to test the service here. I still expected the rates to be somewhat higher than taxis, so when I landed at JFK, I requested an Uber and selected the option to calculate the projected trip cost. The price was competitive and so I confirmed my request… but the car was at least 16 minutes away. Grr. The taxi line was long, but I’d wait it out. Why taxi drivers are complaining about Uber when there still seem to be incredibly long lines at both area airports is beyond me.

A couple days later, headed back to the airport again–LGA, this time–I requested Uber again. A female driver pulled up and my family and I tumbled into the back seat. The level of professionalism and polish I’d enjoyed in Mexico City just wasn’t there. The front passenger seat was filled with kid detritus; she had obviously just dropped her kid off at school. There was no bottled water, no phone chargers, none of the extras that made the value of the trip in Mexico City worth every peso.

Miami
Eager to convince my skeptical husband that Uber really was worth the money, I requested another Uber at the airport in Miami. This driver arrived with a towel stretched across the back seat. “Um, I feel pretty uncomfortable,” Francisco whispered to me, pointing out that while I felt my experience in Mexico City had been highly professional, in the U.S., our experiences so far had felt like we were being picked up by a friend of a friend: someone who was pleasant enough, but who wasn’t really making a tremendous effort to provide an experience worth paying for.

Because I needed to pay with a credit card and because I needed receipts for work, I continued using Uber during our Miami trip, making at least eight trips over the course of two days. None was exceptional and two drivers declined to give me a ride once they showed up, citing that since I have children, they would need car seats. One driver called en route to say that traffic was so slow he suggested I just cancel my car request and walk back to my hotel, which I did (and was charged a $5 cancellation fee). The cars in the Miami pool were of varying quality. One Crown Vic looked like it just rolled off the back lot of a police precinct. On more than one occasion drivers, though equipped with iPhones just as in Mexico City, didn’t come to the correct pick-up point or seemed confused about the correct drop-off point, even though I’d entered both accurately into the app. It was a good thing the driver who thought I was going to Fort Lauderdale double checked with me verbally before he actually drove there.

The Take-away
So will I use Uber again? If I’m in Mexico City, absolutely. In New York City? Only when I’m in a pinch that a taxi can’t get me out of. In Miami? Next time, I’ll rent my own car.

Have you tried Uber? Where was it and how was your experience?

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Recommended: Myanmar (Burma) Photography Trip with SOU Workshops

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Selu Vega
**

One of the scenes you might see in Myanmar

One of the scenes you might see in Myanmar.


One of the many perks of my job as a freelance writer is that I’ve been able to travel all around the world and meet some really interesting people, many of whom have become friends. One of these people is Selu Vega, a photographer from Isla de La Palma, one of the Canary Islands. From the moment I met Selu, I knew we’d be pals. He’s a friendly, happy, funny guy, the kind of person you just feel better being around.

Selu is teaming up with another photographer, Arturo Rodriguez, a documentary photographer and winner of World Press Photo, to lead a photography trip to Myanmar (aka Burma) this December. The 11-day trip promises to be incredible in every way; Selu and Arturo have thought through every logistical detail and will be facilitating the on-the-ground workshop in English and Spanish.

All of the details about the trip, along with registration information, can be found on this page.

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Now on Bookshelves: Charcutería: The Soul of Spain

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Courtesy of Artisan Books
**

I read cookbooks the way most people read novels.

The problem with this is that most cookbooks are too big and bulky to toss in my backpack for casual subway reading or in my carry-on to get me through a long flight.

Too meaty for a carry-on.

Too meaty for a carry-on.

I received Jeffrey Weiss’ Charcutería: The Soul of Spain the day before our recent Utah trip and I was so bummed I couldn’t haul it along with me.

When I got home, though, the shiny, meaty book was waiting for me and I jumped right in; it was an invaluable resource to consult as I worked on an article about Spanish hams for The Latin Kitchen.

That article was published earlier this week in English on TLK and in Spanish on Francisco’s blog, LatinListUSA. Even if you don’t read Spanish, I hope you’ll check that one out, too, as it has some delectable photos from the US and Spain.

And I hope you’ll check out Weiss’ book as well. It’s excellent, not only because of what you’ll learn about hams and chorizos and other types of charcuterie, but because of all you’ll learn about Spanish culture. Weiss’ enthusiasm for both subjects is unrestrained, and the book is an excellent addition to a cook’s, food lover’s, or traveler’s library.

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