It was 17 below zero at my house this morning, the kind of cold that makes your breath catch, your nose freeze, and the dogs stay curled up in a pile on the kitchen floor, refusing to relieve themselves outside. The kids' brains were frozen too, until I fortified them with huge mugs of Lala's Chocolate Caliente, the hot chocolate my Ecuadorian host mother taught me to make.
The high country of Ecuador is a lush alpine rain forest, with a temperature in the 60s throughout the year.
Cold days like this always get me thinking about my next adventure, far, far away from 17 below. It's not just me; plotting to leave Jackson Hole is a favorite local indoor past-time. The next best thing to living here is leaving here, and everyone loves to venture out to explore new mountains, oceans, rivers, and cities. And for me, and I suspect for you too, a unique set of customs and food.
A few of the friendly faces I encountered while trekking in the páramo of Ecuador.
Which reminds me that I have not yet shared with you the recipes from my trip to Ecuador. Last summer I found myself childless (!) and husbandless(!!) for one whole month. With my boys in summer camp in Canada, and my husband exploring the waters of the Arctic in a canoe, I headed south to do some climbing, to brush up on my Spanish, and to eat.
Green bananas are used in savory pastries like empanadas verdes.
The city of Quito, with Cotopaxi looming in the distance. At 19,347 foot peak, it is the tallest active volcano in Ecuador.
Perched at 9,350 feet, Quito is encircled by one spectacular volcano after another. On a rare clear day, the summits of five peaks--Chimborazo the tallest at 10,561 feet--can be seen from any high point in the city.
Chimborazo is the tallest peak in Ecuador, and one of the most massive volcanoes in South America.
Initially, I was more impressed by the mountains than the food of Ecuador. But once I moved on from the fixed price "tourista" plates so popular in Quito, I was able to sample the real food of Ecuador, the comida típica, the food of the people of the páramo.
On my way to climb the 15,728 foot volcano Cerro Guagua Pichincha, I stumbled onto market day in Llao, on the outskirts of Quito. With uncharacterstic directness, this woman offered me a bowl of chupe de fava, or fava bean stew, with tiny Andean potatoes in a garlicky broth with a fish paste of clams.
The páramo of Ecuador is the lush alpine highland between the forest line at 9,000 feet and the permanent snow line at 17,000 feet. The indigenous people of the páramo are exceedingly shy and wary of strangers, especially those wielding cameras. Food became a conversation-starter, and these hard-working farmers would briefly shed their shyness when asked about the comida típica, their everyday food.
Beautiful girls wearing the typical bright wool wraps and Panama hats of the highlands, selling gorgeous, freshly dug leeks.
I would love to give you a recipe for the chupe de fava that I wolfed down on my way to climb Guagua, but I don't think I could do it justice. The fava beans were nothing like the ones I had coaxed to grow in my stubborn high altitude garden. These fava beans were fresh and grassy, toothsome and rich. Harvested and shucked that morning for their Saturday Market, these were fava beans as they should be, prepared simply and served with pride by the farmers.
Fava beans at the market in Otovalo.
After 14 days of hiking and climbing in the highlands, including a failed bid for the summit of Cotopaxi, I landed in Cuenca, an historic Spanish colonial city where I planned to attend Spanish language school and stay with a family.
Back in the city, but this time staying with a family, it was nice to enjoy the comforts of home.
Cuenca is a college town and a popular destination for students studying abroad.
Flowers cost just pennies in the market in Ecuador.
Fresh poultry at the Cuenca Market, and the secret to Ecuadorian Chicken Soup (more on that later).
In Ecuador, fruit is more likely to be sold from a wheelbarrow than it is from a supermarket shelf.
Which brings me to Lala and her amazing hot chocolate, the best I've ever had. As a hopeless chocoholic, I was thrilled to learn that my host mother was a chocolatier. After spending the day in school with my Spanish tutor, I would wander through the city's cathedrals and museums, or hike to the highest point and look down on the four rivers that converge in Cuenca. Eventually, I would find myself at Lala's chocolate shop.
Lala in her chocolate shop, Dulces Tentaciones, in Cuenca.
A steaming cup of Lala's chocolate caliente, made with unsweetened cocoa, cinnamon, a touch of locally roasted coffee, and shavings of dark Ecuadorian chocolate, was served with sugar on the side. Dark, rich, and not too sweet, Lala's hot chocolate is the very best.
Lala taught me how to make her hot chocolate, and many other useful things. Like how to take photos of the shy indigenous people without embarrassing yourself or them (don't ask to take a photo, sneak one). And how to carry money in the market (front inside zippered pocket, no purse), and to never use a credit card in the city (cloning is a common practice).
Taking home the chicken on market day.
I hope you make some hot chocolate to ward off these negative digit days, and start plotting your next escape.
For a printable version of the recipe, click on the file below it.
To read more about my adventures in Ecuador, check out the upcoming issue of Dishing, Jackson Hole's new foodie magazine.
Lala's Hot Chocolate
Be sure to use good quality dark chocolate, with 65% to 75% cacao solids.
• 1 liter whole milk
• 5 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
• 3 oz. dark chocolate, grated
• 1 cinnamon stick
• 1 cup strong coffee (may be omitted)
• Sugar, to taste
1. Place whole milk in a heavy saucepan with a stick of cinnamon, and bring to just below the boiling point.
2. Whisk in the five tablespoons of cocoa, the grated dark chocolate, and the coffee. Combine well and whisk until frothy.
3. Serve in warm mugs with sugar on the side, one teaspoon or more to taste.
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