Dozens of figs had swelled to a purple mass, soft to the touch, and desperately hanging on for dear life. Literally, it was a race with the birds. The ripest fruits were already pecked to death, left hanging to taunt us in what we did not discover in time. Birds had wings, but we had sticks. As I was warned, you had to be careful when you picked the figs from up high as they leaked a white sticky sap when broken free. I stood on my tip toes, arm fully extended, beating the figs free from their roots. I wanted those fruits, badly.
What to do. What to do.
I had at least a week to burn while waiting for Brad to maneuver Nacho’s new transmission back in place plus a laundry list of other projects to increase Nacho’s mojo. Each day, I would start by running through the eucalyptus trees and alongside the fields of grazing cows and corn fields. At my turning around point, I would stare out at the countryside in utter disbelief of its beauty. My thoughts often led to the general ideas that most Americans had on this country: cocaine and violence. There is no denying that both of these things exist, but often not known is how little this represents Colombia as a whole. After my mind stopped wandering, I’d continue on, stopping to greet the many families of baby cows and the truck driver I saw daily, as he dropped off his workers to tend to the sheep.
When I returned home, Brad was already to work on the vehicle and would stop briefly when I yelled breakfast was ready. For the remainder of the day, the Olympics played in the background while painted, basked in the sun, watched the cows, cooked, wandered through the yard, or kept Brad company. A few extraordinary days occurred in the mix, and that was when Constanza and Hernando took the time to show me how to cook up some local dishes.
Before we left Susacon the first time around, I attempted to cook dessert figs. I failed horribly and realized I needed some expert advice. Cos accepted the role and tutored me on how to cook figs in sugar water, infused with cloves and cinnamon. While the figs simmered, I learned how to make a custard dessert as well called Postre De Nata.
A few days later, Hernando showed Raphael (a French backpacker and instant friend) and me how to make Sarapas, a corn-based pancake. This variation was a close relative to the arepa, also a corn-based pancake offered on every street corner and home in Colombia. After we made a stack of a dozen or so, Luis made hot chocolate, also a staple in the Colombian diet. Yes, there is heaven on this earth. Next to the spatulas and spoons in the Colombian kitchen, there is a special stirring stick made solely for mixing the chocolate and frothing milk.
40 figs (these can still be green but must be somewhat soft to the touch)
1 large block of panela (8″X6″X3” block), chopped (white or turbinado sugar will work as a substitute)
5 cinnamon sticks
1 dozen whole cloves
Cut the stem off of each fig.
On the opposite side create an X by cutting two 1″ slits. This will allow the milk juices to run out while cooking. In a large pot, add 6 inches of water and bring to a boil.
Add the figs and reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes, or until the figs are soft.
In another large pot, add water (a few inches from the top) and bring to a boil.
Add panela, cinnamon sticks, and cloves. Cook until the panela has dissolved.
Add the sugar water to the figs.
Simmer for 2+ hours uncovered, allowing the figs to cook and sugar water to reduce to a syrup.
*If a fig begins to split, remove from the pot and set aside.
*The figs will be done when their color changes from a green to a dark purple.
Recipe alternatives: Instead of cooking the figs in sugar water, you can leave the canela out and simmer just in water. When the figs have been removed from the heat and cooled, fill them with arequipe (milk + panela).
POSTRE DE NATAS
2 cups of whole milk
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons of liquor (rum, contreou, aguadente)
4 tablespoons of sugar
In a large diameter shallow pot, add milk and bring to a boil. Let the milk stand until a cream forms. This will look like a thin layer of skin on the surface of the milk. Remove the cream with a spatula and transfer to a bowl, repeating until there is no more milk cream. Try to remove the cream each time in whole chunks.
In a separate bowl beat the egg yolk until frothy and light in color.
With a little milk left in the pan (1/4 cup or so), add the egg yolk and mix in a slow moving motion. Some solids will form from the egg yolk (this is fine). Next add the sugar and liquor and continue stirring. Lastly add the cream that was set aside. Continue stirring on low heat and remove before it boils.
Pour into individual dessert cups. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes and then refrigerate. Enjoy when cold.
*If you want to add a tablespoons of raisins, do so while combining the cream and syrup.
1 kilogram of fresh corn kernels (35 ounces)
500 grams of cheese (17 ounces)
1 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup of raw sugar
2 tablespoons of butter (melted)
4 tablespoons of warm milk
1 tablespoon of thick cream (consistency of sour cream)
In a hand grinder (or blender), grind corn kernels to a thick paste. As you grind, a milk will drip from the grinder. Reserve the milk as it will be added back to the corn paste later. Once all corn has been ground, change the setting on the grinder to a finer setting. Process the corn through once more. The end result should be a liquidy paste.
Next, add the milk and all its remnants to the corn paste. It should be somewhere around 1 – 2 cups.
In a pan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Add to the corn paste in addition to salt, sugar, cream and milk.
Once all ingredients are added, check the consistency. It should be somewhere between the consistency of pancake and crepe batter. If the mixture is too thick, add water. Whether or not you will need to add water will depend on the freshness of the corn. Fresher corn will produce more milk.
Enjoy with hot chocolate!
Every year, ritual goes, that for our birthday, the birthday boy or girl requests whatever cake their heart desires. The only requirement is that it must be made from scratch. No pre-mixes or jars of frosting are permitted. No problem. I love making Brad cakes. There are numerous reasons why, but who am I kidding, the main reason is because I have an insanely strong addiction to eating batter. No, raw eggs don’t deter me. I will take my chances with salmonella any
It all stems from differences in how Brad and I were raised. When I was a young girl, after helping my mom make the batter for cookies or banana bread, she always made sure to leave an excessive amount of batter in the bowl, just for me. I was never too interested in the finished good. Sometimes we’d even save more and stick it in the fridge. And here is where the problem lies. Brad’s Mom always scraped out every last smudge. Only then was the bowl handed over to the three brothers, whom licked it clean like baby kittens. Brad insists this is how it should be. I on the other think differently. Which tradition will live on when we reproduce in the future? Well, let’s just say that Brad is the barbeque guy in our relationship and I, the goddess of the oven. Just try and stop me from bringing that kind of joy to our future offspring.
For my birthday one year I requested from Brad nothing other than a Tres Leches cake. What I got was a 8″X12″ rectangular mass of sponge that, instead of absorbing the “three milks”, floated and bobbed about in a pool of liquid. We tried to save it, and in the end pierced so many forks holes in the top that it ended up looking like a wall caught in between a shoot-out. We drained the liquid and ate what remained. I vowed to one day take the reins and make it myself. This day did come, and what should have been a cake that leaked a creamy concoction from every pore, once again floated instead of absorbed. I guess you can’t always get what you want…at least North of the Mexican border.
This year the idea of baking cakes was scratched. No oven, no cake. Instead, back in February, Brad bought me a Tres Leches cake. It was a proper Tres Leches cake, except for the fact that while hiding it from me, over the course of a winding mountain road, a shoe bin fell on top of the flimsy cardboard box, denting the cake inward. No biggy.
A few days before Brad’s birthday, we were wandering the grocery aisles in Playa Coco, Costa Rica. It was like no other store we had seen in four months. The selection was outrageously good and we left with a massive quantity of food, including all of the ingredients to make tiramisu for the birthday boy.
From the store, we headed South down the Nicoya peninsula to the neighboring beaches of Playa Avellanas and Playa Negra. After snaking through a field of mangroves and popping out at the intersection of the ocean and a river mouth, Brad hopped on the surf board. Soon the waves were dominating. As a present to himself before leaving the waters, he got a surfboard fin to the shoulder, producing a long cut across the front of the chest. It sucks getting older. Luckily, that is what birthday cakes are for.
Included below is the best tiramisu recipe in the world. We’ve made it over a dozen times and it has never failed to impress. Also, in honor of one of my favorite desserts (yes, I am heavily promoting), here is the Tres Leches recipe that was made for Brad and me by Chacho and Ulysesses’ aunt in Mazatlan, Mexico. It still stands strong as the best Tres Leches I’ve had on the trip. Chacho was kind enough to get his aunts tried and true recipe for me. Since then, I’ve translated it to English. I’d love to know if making this particular dessert North of the Mexican border is truly possible, so please give it a go.
Several years ago my dad opened a Mexican restaurant. The main goal for any enterprise is to make money, and so it might seem strange that there was one item on our menu on which we consciously lost money. Every time someone ordered guacamole, we lost $1.00. Why? Because our guacamole was like crack and it drove business through the doors, but it would have been too expensive if we actually charged people what it cost to make it. We bought fresh ingredients from the farmer’s market in Flagstaff and made it by hand. It was with this proud guacamole heritage that Sheena and I prepared for the impromptu Guac-Off at Sole and Diego’s house in Playa Coco, Costa Rica.
As with most of the positive aspects of our life these days, we fell into this situation by way of not having a plan. We had arrived on the Nicoya Peninsula that morning, and decided to head to Playa Tamarindo. It wasn’t because of anything specific we’d heard about Tamarindo, it was merely the only place on the peninsula we’d ever heard of.
As we approached Tamarindo, we passed a break in the trees where we could see a beach. People basked in the sun on the white sand and surfers were lined up in the water. It had all of the ingredients of a good day, so we rolled Nacho to the roadside and pulled out the surfboards.
It might be of interest to know that neither Sheena nor I really knows how to surf. We’ve been attempting, with varying degrees of success, to catch waves ever since we put down tracks in Baja California. Nevertheless, I sat out there on the longboard while Sheena paddled around on the stand-up paddleboard (SUP), and we took turns getting pulverized by waves. In between watery punishments, we noticed a guy and a girl successfully surfing on their SUPs. After we’d had enough, Sheena decided to ask them for advice.
It turned out that the SUPing couple were Diego and Sole (pronounced ‘so-lay’), owners of a paddleboard
“We’re having a guac-off tonight”, they said. “You guys should come. You can sleep in our guest room.”
And with that we abandoned the idea of Tamarindo and headed back the way we’d come. There are rules to this game, and rule number 6 says if you get invited to a guacamole making party, you drop whatever you’re doing and go. Especially when you have guacamole heritage in the family. The thought of a real bed was also appealing.
And so it was that 45 minutes later we were stepping through the doors of Sole and Diego’s extra nice, super comfortable condo in Playa Coco. It was the first time in three months that we’d set foot inside of a modern home; uniform walls, granite countertops, plush couches, decorations, curtains, and nice beds, not to mention a nice patio overlooking the town.
We weren’t there long before we were whisked out the door by the Americans Heather and Jeff, and their Costa Rican friend Sandy. There was to be a guac-off, so we had to loosen up. We drove Diego’s truck through the mountains and down a 4×4 track to a hidden beach in a cove. Diego had told us that a red tide had come a few days before, but that it should have been gone by now.
I brought along my speargun and snorkeling gear, as I was told that this cove had crystal clear water, and was basically an underwater seafood buffet. In the Pacific Ocean of all places, where my research has shown a distinct lack of fish. Jackpot. As I entered the water, however, something didn’t seem right. Funky smell. The water was rather opaque. “It’ll get better”, I thought. I spent a few minutes fumbling with my flippers and snorkel, then loaded my speargun and put my face into the water. I’m color-retarded, so it took me this long to realize that the water was dark red. I swam away from the shore, thinking that perhaps deeper water would mean more currents and clarity.
After a few minutes I had a boogie man moment. I decided to see how bad the visibility really was, so I placed my hand in front of my face. I couldn’t see it. Being that I was born and raised in a forest, and had spent considerable time in deserts (all far from the ocean), this instantly sent my mind into all kinds of worst case scenarios. Red tide! Still here! Can’t see anything! Could be rocks! Could be sharks! I’m a sitting duck! I’ve wet my pants! Am I drowning? I might be drowning!
I put my little blue flippers in high gear and quickly brought myself ashore. Once I was safely out of shark territory I slowed down and adopted more of a David Hasselhof saunter towards the others. Did you see me almost bag that roosterfish?
Once back at Sole and Diego’s house, it was game time. There were three guacamole entrants; Sandy (using her husband’s secret recipe), Heather and Jeff, and Sheena and me. Diego and Sole made homemade garlic aioli, salsa, grilled chicken, carne asada, and taco fixings. While we made guacamole, Sole kept the margaritas flowing. She may have been trying to throw us off our game, but Sheena and I took our margaritas in stride and perfectly executed our guacamole.
In the end, each of us put our own spin on the traditional preparation. Heather and Jeff infused theirs with finely chopped bacon and ample bacon grease. Sandy added a dash of sugar, extra lime, and some cream cheese. Sheena and I blackened some garlic cloves, turned them into a paste in a mortar, and then stirred them into the guacamole. The stage was set. Judge Diego positioned himself in front of the bowls.
We looked on eagerly as he cycled through the bowls. Chip…dip…taste…(shifty eyes)…chew…(eyebrows tilt)…nod of the head…swallow. So much was riding on the verdict. If we lose, I thought, I will never be able to look my dad in the eyes again. Black sheep.
Finally he finished his rounds and we waited in anticipation. He grabbed a bowl and held it up. “This one is the winner!”
It was our bowl! It had been a while since we’d won at anything, so this was thrilling. Oh, the sweet taste of victory! I strutted around with my chest puffed out while Sheena squealed with excitement.
In the end we had a really nice dinner with our new friends. We rested in a clean and comfortable bed, ate great food, and laughed our brains out, thanks entirely to the kindness of strangers.
We didn’t follow a recipe for our guac, but if you want to make it on your own, here’s approximately what we did:
Nacho’s Guac-Off Championship Winning Guacamole
Cut up the following and put in a bowl:
– One large tomato
– One small white onion
– A handful of fresh cilantro
– Five avocadoes (cut them in half and spoon the insides into the bowl, save the pits for later)
– A teaspoon of salt, and one of pepper
– The juice from one lime
Now do this:
– Throw five or six garlic cloves in a skillet with a splash of oil and fry them until the skin turns black
– Mash up the garlic in a mortar or in a bowl with a spoon. Now add it to the guac bowl.
– Stir up all of the ingredients with a fork, mashing the avocadoes as you mix. Once everything is a nice chunky consistency, stop mixing. Don’t get it too creamy, you want it chunky.
– Throw the avocado pits back into the bowl and stir them in.
– Taste with a spoon, add some salt, taste, add salt, etc. until it blows your mind.
As we walked through the weekend market in Nebaj, Guatemala, I continuously glanced over my shoulder, searching for my honey. These types of markets aren’t made for large people. The rule of survival of the fittest has alienated any shopper of non-Mayan descent. Watching Brad attempt to maneuver through the crowds was painful, his sheer height at 6’3″ made it necessary for him to walk with a bend at the waist and in a low crouch. Even still, his head skimmed the tarps strung above the stalls and walkways. Women continuously side shuffled around him, sucking him into a black hole that he couldn’t release himself from. Every other shopper walked effortlessly, head held high, baskets atop, and holding live chickens under their arms.
I hand selected my tomatoes and piled them into a bowl. Methodically, the bowl was placed on one end of a weighing scale by the vendor. Holding the scale up high from the middle, the small-framed lady eyed it with concentration, throwing a few more tomatoes in until level with the one kilogram weight (a bag of rice) on the other end. On the way out, a group of women worked a tortilla stand. I watched as they broke off a ball of dough, smashed it between their palms, pinched the edges to perfection and threw the patties on the skillet. They looked a little different than the standard corn tortilla.
“Hola, que es este?”
One of the women looked at me strangely, unable to understand why I couldn’t identify what she was making and said “Tortillas dulces. Platano.”
Ah, sweet tortillas made of plantain. That was a new one. We bought a dozen and off we went. Brad breathed a sigh of relief as he stretched out his back.
Much of the Guatemalan food came as no surprise, with masa continuing to be the staple, served with meat, rice and beans. We did, however, run across some delightfully new dishes.
While in Antigua, we often went to the local market for lunch. While there were plenty of restaurants and cafes targeting the tourist crowds, the local market was where it was at. As we walked down a row of food stands, people leapt out from every corner, blocking the walkway for as long as we would permit them, all the while shouting out the meals of the day. One young lady spoke so rapidly that I quickly became hypnotized, my eyes locked on her bulging neck vein, ready to rupture from the physical endurance of nonstop announcing. Her voice however did not lure us in as much as the visible popularity of the restaurant. Two long benches stretched parallel to each other, packed with local families and workers. As a Mexican once told us, if you don’t know which local joints are good, just look for the locals and go there; you are guaranteed good food and affordability. Here we had the pollo en pipian, chicken in a tomato-pumpkin seed sauce, a local Antiguan dish for $1.50.
In the same market on a different afternoon we had chile rellenos. These were much different than the spicy Mexican chili rellenos we’ve experienced, usually composed solely of cheese inside. Guatemalan chile rellenos were on the lighter side, without cheese and stuffed full of finely minced meat, carrots, green beans, and spices. They were then covered in egg batter, fried, and served with a tomato sauce on top.
During the craziness of Semana Santa, we came across a church with hundreds of people pouring through the arched entrance. Inside was a hidden comedor area with dozens of food vendors. I presumed, based upon the organized groups of purple robed men, that it was one of the staging areas for the processions. Here is where I discovered platanos en mole. Heaven!
The last gastronomical wonder of Guatemala were the licuados, a frothy blend of fruit, ice, and water or milk. While it may sound just like a smoothie, it most definitely is not. Licuados are lighter and thinner in consistency. Only a little bit of ice is added to make them cold and a little thicker, all the while creating a frothy top with flavorful liquid at the bottom.
Sheena here! Well, while I originally intended on blogging right from the get go of our trip, time seriously does fly when you are having fun. For any of you who have been near me for extended periods of time know that the most likely thing I’d choose to blog about would be food. I love cooking, baking, experimenting with new flavors, and finding healthy, wholesome ingredients.
To say the least, food preparation has become quite the challenge on the road. How I miss the oven and a fridge large enough to pack five children inside. Not that I would ever do that. Luckily, something I find equal enjoyment in is tasting the local foods while traveling. Brad and I are up for trying just about anything anywhere; road side stands, comedors, markets, they are all game. Given my slight stomach issues, some of you may be thinking I should be a little more selective. Good news though, my weak tummy has been doing crunches lately and building strength for the next round of countries we are approaching.
With every new country, we have become familiarized with a new set of flavors and sensations. I often forget how different the food truly is from home. Not so much the basic ingredients per se, but the arrangement of them into meal time staples. I’ve become quite accustomed to the deliciousness of the mashed plantain, the dirt cheap bowls of fruit topped with yogurt, your choice of cereal toppings and honey, freshly squeezed lemonade, non-refrigerated boxed milk, eggs sold in bags, water sold in bags, mangoes topped with chili powder, tortillerias on every street corner, taco stands.
The same goes for the general way of life in Central America. It is no longer a surprise to see mangoes littering yards like garbage, truck drivers taking a midday siesta under their vehicle; hammock strewn up to the underside of the vehicle frame. It is no longer strange to see livestock walking down a busy city street, 25+ people in the back of a pickup truck, red tuk tuks, baskets being balanced on top of heads, and people taking baths in the river and drying their washed clothes on river rocks and barbed wire fences. It’s rare not to see a hammock outside of every home, often inside as well. A few weeks ago we rented a room in a well off family’s home, and interestingly enough, a hammock was strung up between two beams instead of a couch. Many sites have become common place from day to day, and we often forget how spectacular they are.
Anyway, I’d like to share those experiences with you, and better late then never (I think), I’m going to back up and start with Belize.
Our first food stop in Belize was at a road side stand worked by cousins – two chocolate skinned younger girls, shy in demeanor, but unable to conceal their bright smiles. We sat down under a strung up blue tarp and filled up on rice and beans, barbecued chicken, and coleslaw. Every lunch from here on out was a similar concoction of fare: paper plate in hand and food doused in Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce and pickled hot peppers and onions. There were of course varieties; potato salad instead of coleslaw, pork instead of chicken, but every meal included a tall bottle of Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce. She was one smart entrepreneur as I’ve never seen a product in so many back alley restaurants and mom-and-pop grocery stores. I can only compare its popularity to a bottle of Heinz ketchup on the table in all American burger joints. Marie Sharp also made some fabulous chutneys and jams, my favorite being the mango and guava jam.
Breakfast was a delicious encounter. After talking with Taiowa, a native of Belize, he insisted we must try the fry jacks for breakfast. A fried dough that puffs up and is eaten with other morning staples: beans, eggs, meat, and fruit. Given that they are fried into a hollow plumpness, they are of course perfect for stuffing with other treats. From experience, I can tell you fry jacks do not disappoint. They reminded us of Indian fry bread from the Native Americans in Arizona. And while I didn’t see the Belizeans eating their fry jacks with honey or jam, I know this would be an undeniably perfect replacement to stuffing them with protein. Besides the fry jacks, there are also Johnny cakes, a fluffy local biscuit, sometimes made with coconut.
With every heaping mass of rice and beans consumed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, there are equal portions of seafood devoured. No surprise here as the country’s coast bumps up against turquoise waters laced with coral and schools of fish. A taste of lobster is a must here, however if you come during the non-harvesting season, those critters are illegal to cook up and dip in butter. Due to past overharvesting, they are left to play and make more lobster babies. So it goes, no lobster for us, however we did get our fair share of snapper, shrimp, and conch fritters (deep-fried balls of battered conch meat).
As for something really authentic, we got a taste of few Garifuna dishes which made their appearance in Belize 300 years earlier. Hudut, Bundiga, and Cassava bread were all brought over when escaped and shipwrecked slaves settled along the coast of the region. They mixed with the native Caribs, forming the Garifunas. Hopkins was one of their primary settlements, and where we tried them all. Hudut is a coconut broth fish stew, accompanied by mashed plantains and cassava bread (hard flat biscuit made from the cassava root). Bundiga is made of clumped grated banana cooked in a coconut milk and served with snapper. Both were unique, with the bundiga being the most original and the hudut being something we would consider cooking in the future.