Archive for the ‘Central America’ Category

These are my fallen angles. For a Day of the Dead gathering with Mexican friends I made two things: a traditional calabaza en tacha (candied pumpkin) and these creatures, my Catrinas. The classic calavera, or sugar skull, is an icon of Día de los Muertos celebrations in Mexico, but, no surprise, that they are impossible to find where we live in the UK. I could not find chocolate skulls either, nor any three-dimensional moulds to make any sort of calavera. I couldn’t find even two-dimensional skull or skeleton forms, despite Halloween. But I did have a Christmas angel cookie-cutter, and if you look closely…

I should be clear: I do not claim these as ‘authentic.’ I’ve no research to suggest that anyone in Mexico left anything like this on an altar this weekend. But they are inspired by a famous icon that has become associated with Día de los Muertos in Mexico, the Catrinas of José Guadalupe Posada. These are my far-inferior version of his wonderful etchings, albeit in gingerbread form. It really is meant as an homage.  Had I more talent, my cookies would have had hats and handbags.

What did my Mexican friends think? That there must be something heretical about turning angels into skeletons. There probably is. But my Catrinas were warmly accepted in the spirit of the afternoon regardless, next to the pollo recado rojo in tortilla and the pan de muertos. They know I mean well, stumbling through life with enthusiasm, if not clarity.

PS: For those in need, I used the gluten-free gingerbread men recipe from the Sainsbury’s site, with real butter instead of dairy-free spread, and making sure to have xanthum gum onboard. They were stealthily good, and are well worth repeating at Christmas…with a different glazing pattern.


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This charmingly candid photograph shows the chiles en nogada that I made for a backyard pot-luck last month. Chiles en nogada are in essence peppers stuffed with pork and fruit, covered in a walnut cream sauce and pomegranate seeds. The recipe is said to be almost 200 years old, comes from an area just southeast of Mexico City called Puebla, and is traditionally served around Mexican Independance Day, in a tribute to the red, white and green of the flag. The particular occasion for us was a luncheon wishing some Parisien friends au revoir, but as it was the weekend before Mexican Independence Day and the party’s hosts were Mexican, I decided to give this dish a go, thousands of kilometres from its natural home.

The distance matters: the chiles of chiles en nogada are meant to be poblano peppers, and these are impossible to find in the UK, at least out here in not-London. So I substituted grilled and peeled green bell peppers instead, and incorporated a few small diced green chilies into the filling to try to recreate the slightly picante flavour of the poblano, if not the shape. The filling is a saute of diced cooked pork, onion, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, almonds, apple, and diced dried apricot (again, faking the candied innards of a cactus that I couldn’t find locally). The walnut sauce is not a bechamel, but a no-cook mixture of creme fraiche, quark, sour cream and sugar (a crazy combination to mimic the proper queso fresca), ground walnuts, and (gluten-free) bread crumbs. Pomegranate and cilantro to finish, for the patriotic flourish.

So my Mexican friends very graciously ate this version of chiles en nogada, which was more improvised than authentic, and proclaimed it accurate. ¡Such good manners! For a study in contrasts, behold the bowl of mole sauce in the upper left corner of the photo: it’s makings were transported by suitcase to the UK from a market in Mexico City. Now that’s impressive dedication to the real thing.

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indio.jpgIndio Viejo, the “old Indian” is a rather politically-incorrect name for a dish, but, then again, so is moros y cristianos, the name of the Cuban black-bean version of indio viejo’s accompaniment. For an outsider, indio viejo is full of contrasts and surprises: the beefiest cut of beef served with the bright acidity and sweetness of fruit, a dish that has a great deal in common with warm sweet polenta yet it is full of fresh bright green mint. The first time I made it, my husband asked me how much pineapple was involved; the combination of orange juice and mint had somehow created between them the scent of pineapple.

This version of indio viejo concentrates on these contrasts and surprises. I use no tomato because I think there’s already plenty of acid and sweetness here, although most recipes either include tomato or give instructions for a sweet salsa topping. I use no cumin because it is the mint that fascinates me here, but other cooks may disagree. All the recipes I found did agree that the beef must be treated with a long simmer in liquid, but some recipes went a step further and called for simmering in orange juice, infusing the meat with orange flavour and providing acid to help it tenderize. I have found that this works well, but the orange does dull somewhat in the broth, so an economical way to return a bright orange flavour to the dish is to finish with the juice of one good orange, freshly squeezed. This stew may be thickened with water-softened corn tortilla (a good way to use older ones) or with cornmeal, which I use because it is more likely to be in the cupboard. I also specify coarse rather than fine cornmeal, because my attempt with a finer grind was a pasty gluey mess, whereas the coarser grind thickened like a polenta, was easier to work with and to me had a more pleasing texture in the end. I add mint off heat in order to maintain its brightness. As an final additon the mint will not soften at all, so I do chop the leaves very finely.

Serve with an earthy gallo pinto and perhaps a mild salsa, a good sour cream, and a California chardonnay.

Nicaraguan Beef with Orange and Mint (Indio Viejo)

2 hours 30 minutes, including 2 hours simmering; serves four

1 lb flank or skirt steak
2 onions
4 garlic cloves
2 cups orange juice
1 tsp salt
1/3 cup coarse cornmeal
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 green pepper
1 juicy orange
a small bunch of fresh mint (a half-dozen sprigs or so)

1. Quarter one of the onions and toss it into a saucepan with two of the garlic cloves, and the flank steak. Add the orange juice and then add water to cover. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer until the steak is fork-tender, about two hours.
2. Strain the meat, onion and garlic, reserving the broth. Remove the meat from the onion and garlic and leave it to the side to cool a little.
3. Dice the other onion and chop the green pepper. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and sautee the onion over medium heat until soft. Add the pepper and continue to sautee a few minutes more. Mince the two remaining garlic cloves and add them as well.
4. Shred the steak (fingers are most efficient). Add it to the frying pan.
4. Mix the cornmeal with 1 cup of the reserved broth in a bowl, and stir to remove any lumps. Add it to the frying pan and stir as it thickens to prevent it from sticking to the pan.
5. As the cornmeal thickens (like polenta) add the rest of the broth in small amounts to establish a thin-to-medium porridge. It will take about fifteen minutes of constant stirring to cook the rawness out of the cornmeal. If the broth is gone before that point use water. Taste for salt.
6. Remove the mint leaves from the stem and chop them very finely. Squeeze the orange for its juice.
7. Off heat stir in the juice and the mint. Taste for salt agian.

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gallopinto.jpgGallo Pinto is the speckled rooster, the omnipresent beans-and-rice dish for Nicaraguans, a comfort of every day, sometimes at more meals than one. Nextdoor, the Costa Ricans have a speckled rooster of a different colour, made with black beans, but the red rooster belongs to Nicaragua. Unlike a pilaf, the rice in this dish is cooked on its own before meeting the other ingredients, much like a Chinese stir-fried rice, and this makes the texture of the final product easy to control. The flavour of this version of beans-and-rice is deep, round and nutty; nuttiness is a wonder of lightly seasoned beans.

Millions of Nicaraguans will eat gallo pinto today, no doubt expressing a host of variations on the core recipe. Personally, I think this dish is best kept simple, so where one certainly could add so many regional spices, I just use bay and garlic, lots and lots of garlic. The ratio-of-consensus in traditional recipes comes in at 6 cloves of garlic for every cup of dry beans. so to that I defer. I admit there is much personal preference in this: I find that if any bean dish is complicatedly seasoned, the round flavour of the bean disappears entirely. Besides, I can’t imagine that any dish made daily in a household, a dish made to accompanying everything else, should be terribly complicated. Because the beans need to spend mellowing-time with the garlic, and because canned beans are never as purely flavoured and often mushy to boot, it is worth cooking your own from dried. Where I would have preferred to use the small Mexican red bean, I had to use kidney beans because they are far easier to find in the UK. Kidney beans are larger, and so they make for a clunkier photo, but they are still mesoamerican beans, and still delicious.

For breakfast, serve with sour cream and a cup of good coffee. Later on in the day, gallo pinto complements a fruity Nicaraguan stew.

Nicaraguan Red Beans and Rice (Gallo Pinto)

90 minutes, including 75 minutes simmering; serves four

1 cup dried red beans (Mexican or kidney), soaked all day or all night
1 dried bay leaf
6 cloves garlic
1 cup long-grain white rice
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced

1. Drain the beans, place them in a saucepan, and cover with water by a few inches. Bring to a boil and skim the foam. Toss in the peeled garlic cloves and simmer them together, uncovered, until the beans are tender but not mushy, about 75 minutes (if your beans are older it will take a little longer).
2. About forty-five minutes into the bean-simmering, rinse the rice grains several times and cook as per usual.
3. Heat the oil in a heavy pan and saute the onion gently until soft and golden.
4. When the beans are tender, drain them, reserving the liquid. Remove the garlic and bay.
5. Add the beans to the sauteed onion and stir. Add the rice. By the spoonful, add just enough reserved liquid to colour and moisten the rice, but not so much to cause clumping and goopiness. Easy does it.
6. Salt to taste.

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