Meal 131: Panama

For the second year, we invited everyone on the block for a late-summer Nosh. Laura got a permit to close down the street, neighbors brought over tables and chairs, and everyone sat down…just in time for the very first rain of the season to arrive!

Since most of what people know about Panama is its role in transportation due to its canal, it felt appropriate to be eating this meal in a long line in the street! It was also a treat to have the Smiths over from the other side of town; we were happy to have them crash our otherwise neighbors-only event because they lived in Panama and shared stories of living in the American community there.

A big thanks to the two dozen or so neighbors who showed up, both physically as well as for fundraising. It was one of our biggest meals yet in terms of money raised.

Patacones | Twice-fried green plantains | Recipe

Green or ripe, thick or thin or even lengthwise or diced, there’s pretty much no bad way to fry a plantain. But there’s an even better way: to do it twice. Some Caribbean countries call them patacones, others tostones, and all of them start by a quick one or two minute fry, then a smash, then a longer fry to get them crispy. Unlike the other countries, the classic Panamanian way to eat them is with ketchup on the side, a habit attributed to the Americans who built and for a long time ran the Panama Canal.

I figured they’d be popular, so I made nearly one plantain’s worth per person. Even though they’re of course best straight from the fryer, I made them all a bit before dinner and kept them warm in the oven, and nobody complained. They just asked for more.

Chicheme | Sweet corn drink | Recipe

This was kinda like Caribbean bubble tea: a fairly refreshing, milky, cinnamon-y beverage, studded with toothsome kernels of dried then boiled corn. It was fine, but most guests understandably opted for beer or other more familiar refreshments.

Sancocho | Hen soup | Recipe

Most recipes for this mainstay of Panama call for gallina de patio, which pretty much means the post-menopausal hen that’s tottering around outside of the house. It turns out that at both Hispanic and Asian markets, you can find stewing hens in the freezer, for pretty cheap too. (Pretty sure they’re from an environment a tad less prosaic than a rural patio, but we make do with what we can.)

The predominant flavor of the soup is meant to be culantro, a close relative of cilantro with a sort of earthier flavor, but I couldn’t find it so I used plenty of cilantro instead. The soup was tasty, but I should have cooked it even longer, because old hens are really tough. Maybe this would be a good one for a pressure cooker.

Arroz con guandú | Rice with pigeon peas | Recipe

Even if you’ve never heard the name, you’ve possibly had pigeon peas in Indian food; one of the most common dishes in that cuisine is the stew-like, yellow toor dal made with the dried, hulled, split version of the legume. In the Caribbean, it’s typically eaten fresh, though up here you get it frozen when possible and otherwise canned, which we did here. All the same, it’s got a beany flavor for sure, but with a bit of almost smokiness to it. Which makes it perfect to mix with rich coconut rice, as a hearty way to fill your belly and get some nice flavor.

Flan | Custard | Recipe

Flan is a thing pretty much anywhere the Spanish colonized. Usually when a dish is that widespread, you see different varieties and regionalisms evolve, but as far as I can tell, everyone who cooks flan pretty much does it exactly the same way and hardly ever with any flavor variation: a lightly vanilla-scented egg custard with a sauce of caramelized sugar.  (The only variations I’ve seen involve differing amounts of fresh and/or canned milk products.)

I put the request out for a neighbor to help make flan, and there was some confusion and suddenly we ended up with way too much flan. (There was one or two out of the picture!) They were all made with different recipes, and all tasted pretty much the same. The only variation was Holly’s flan cake, which added some much appreciated variety.

Meal 123: Nicaragua

I try not to knock the countries whose food we cook, but I have to admit I've generally found Central American food to be pretty boring. The Nicaraguan food we cooked mostly fits the pattern, with one huge exception: enormous, overloaded, rich nacatamales. The variety of ingredients, from raisins to olives to rice to pork, is so enshrined in each family's recipe that it's like canon; as one fourth-generation nacatamal vendor put it, "We don't innovate. We make everything step-by-step the way we were taught." Joining in our attempt to avoid innovation were Emily (and Stella!), Courtenay, Courtenay Hameister +1 Elia, Julie, David, Nancy, Sue, Kaely, Brett, and friends. Muchísimas gracias to Emily for her guidance in all things Nico — that is, Nicaraguan.

Refresco de chia con tamarindo | Tamarind-chia drink | Recipe

There's a surprisingly broad range of non-alcoholic drinks in Nicaragua. Emily brought over a premixed cebada, a barley-based drink, while I whipped this one up from scratch. Well, sorta. I bought whole tamarind pods and tried to soak and strain them, but they were super old and tough, so I cheated and used an Indian tamarind concentrate. Way easier! I put the chia on the side, because not everyone enjoys boba-like texture in their drink.

Vigorón | Yucca with slaw and pork rinds | Recipe

It's odd how sometimes a very particular combination of foods becomes a common thing, almost like someone's late night fridge raid accidentally got enshrined in the national culinary canon. In this case, it's plain boiled yucca root with a mildly tangy cabbage slaw and fried pork rinds, wrapped in a banana leaf. It didn't do too much for me, though it was fun learning to make chicharrones from scratch.

Nacatamales | Deluxe tamales |Recipe, Article

I am a huge fan of Mexican food, but I'm just not a fan of the tamales, most I've had are pretty dry and almost all corn with just a bit of some filling. The Nico version, on the other hand, is rich and just about bursting with filling.

To start, the pork is great just on its own, in a vibrant red sauce. I was stoked to find the sour oranges fresh at Providore, and since every recipe called for a different cut of meat, I went with pork shoulder because I needed the skin for the chicharrones, and the generous layer of fat for the masa. Now that's how to avoid a dry tamal, just douse the corn in lard! The third component of the tamal is all the other random stuff you fill it with: rice, potatoes, tomatoes, onion, mint, olives, prunes, raisins, peanuts, capers, and chiles. You practically clear the pantry! Then it's all assembled on top of banana leaves — which themselves contribute to the flavor and moisture — wrapped and steamed for several hours.

Oh man, I loved these! So much flavor and color, so many textures, every bite a little adventure. They're so filling that I can hardly believe that the traditional accompaniment to a nacatamal is, I kid you not, bread.

Gallopinto | Rice and beans | Recipe

Very similar to the Costa Rican version with which I'm more familiar. According to Emily, this recipe was fancy compared to typical, which should be little more than leftover plain rice and beans, stir-fried. That said, this still didn't have a ton of flavor, the tamales were way better.

Maduros en gloria | Creamy sweet plantain casserole | Recipe

In extreme contrast with the Spartan plainness of gallopinto, this dish lives up to the name that literally translates as "ripe ones in glory." The ripe ones in question are fried sweet plantains, and the glory is layers of cultured cream and sweetened salty hard cheese.

Meal 110: Mexico

Just like other great cuisines like Chinese and French, there's plenty of regional variety in Mexico's food. And just like rice with Chinese and bread with French food, there's a ubiquitous starch tying it all together, in this case tortillas. This meal's menu is an attempt at a sample of regional foods, all while trying to get good variety at the table. From the oven-baked, olivey-sauced huachinango a la veracruzana representing the Caribbean coast's fish and heavy colonial influence, to the annatto-coated and banana-leaf-enrobed cochinita pibil demonstrating the Yucatan's tropical direction, to a beefy salad called salpicón that reflects the livestock and temperature of the North, this meal drew from the many reaches of the country.

We had a pretty full house, with friends including Alondra, Derek, Jen, Quinn, Katia, Sarah, Estel, Julie, Levi, Kaely, Brett, and Mayra and family.


These humble corn flatbreads are a battleground of authenticity, at least in my world. When I pronounce the name with the best Mexican accent I can muster, with a trilled R and a slight affrication on the LL, Laura critiques me for putting on airs. (Don’t even get us started on the pronunciation of bruschetta.) And I’d blithely figured that homemade tortillas would be far more “authentic” than store-bought, until I read this fascinating article making the point that most people in Mexico buy their tortillas out of the house, so in many ways doing the same would best replicate how people eat today.

But, darnit, homemade tortillas just taste better, so we made them. In a nod to practicality and acknowledging the reality of how most tortillas are made in the Mexican kitchen, we used the ubiquitous Maseca flour rather than seeking the more flavorful, rarer, and far more expensive freshly-nixtamalized masa. We got a mini tortilleria going in the kitchen for an hour, passing from mixing to balling to pressing to toasting on the griddle. They were simply delicious.

Salpicón | Shredded beef salad | Recipe

Just as with the Southwest and West Texas across the border, cattle is king in the north of Mexico, so I went about looking for beef recipes from this region. The search ended when I arrived at this dish of cold shredded beef with citrus, onion, scallion, cilantro, and chilies, kind of like a bizarro land-lubber ceviche where the base ingredient is cooked forever rather than not at all. Then again, there was also cheese, so maybe this metaphor falls apart.

Anyway, this was a really yummy dish. If you've got the time, it'd make for a great potluck dish: easy to scale, interesting enough to raise an eyebrow, tasty enough to satisfy, and no need to reheat. What with how hot it is in that part of the world, it being cold is perhaps the best part.

Birria tatemada | Roasted goat | Recipe

Birria comes in two variations. The more common one is as a rich soup, but since this was a meal built to have an abundance of bites on a plate, I went for the roasted version, known as tatemada from a native word related to roasting, one of the treasures of the state of Jalisco. I do not regret the decision.

Usually I decide what dishes to cook for these meals, but sometimes the dishes find me. For the Mauritania meal I had bought and defrosted two goat legs, but it became evident that that was one leg too many, even for a crowd of 15. The day after that meal I got to researching how goat would work into a Mexican meal, and this dish soon showed itself to be the obvious choice.

The overnight marinade is a beautiful blend of worlds: toasted dried chilies and allspice from the New World, and cloves, oregano, and cumin from the old. From there, it's as simple as roasting until the meat is falling apart, perfect for its role as party food.

Mole verde de pollo | Green mole with chicken | Recipe

The name comes from either the Spanish moler, to grind, or the native word molcajete for the three-legged stone bowl in which ingredients are traditionally ground. The “seven moles of Oaxaca” are thoroughly codified, and I chose this one for two reasons: to demonstrate how not all moles are made with chocolate, and to represent the tomatillo, an important if lesser-used native vegetable. (Yes, it's actually a fruit, I know that.) In fact, I used the last of these tart green fruits from the collection I froze the prior summer. (Confusingly, the recipe calls for "tomate verde," or green tomato, but rest assured that it's tomatillos you should use.) Pumpkin seeds add some thickness and texture when tossed with the tomatillos in the blender, which is way easier than grinding in the traditional way. Even though I forgot to add the cactus thanks to all the commotion in the kitchen, and the ingredients and technique are fairly simple, this was a tastier dish than I expected. Once this year's tomatillos come in, I very well might make this again.

Cochinita pibil | Annatto-rubbed roast pork | Recipe

If the Yucatan Peninsula had a national dish, I’m pretty sure this would be it. (A heads-up from a friend though: apparently it’s considered a breakfast food there, so don’t expect to find it for lunch or dinner!)

While traditionally made with a baby pig, hence the name, it’s more common to use a hunk of tougher pig, such as shoulder. A generous coating of a deep red annatto, garlic, and citrus rub penetrates the meat overnight and then through the course of a long, slow roast on the grill, with banana leaves holding in the flavor and generating steam. Both because I’m an overachiever and ran out of cooking space, I did this one on the grill, with lump charcoal and mesquite chunks. The result is irresistible for any carnivore: meat tender enough to pick apart with your fingers, with a tangy flavor that runs all the way through, and of course that smokiness from the grill dancing with a slight musky flavor from the banana leaves. Assuming you’ve got the time to make it — and it’s definitely worth making in the oven if you don’t have the equipment or the will to grill — taco night will never be the same.

Huachinango a la veracruzana | Snapper in tomato sauce | Recipe

On a group trip to Mexico in high school, we went to a nicer restaurant one night. Orders got mixed up and our dean of students ended up with my order of huachinango a la veracruzana. Upon discovery of the error, Dean Dean (yes, he was Mr. Dean) refused to give me my dish, claiming that he liked it so much he couldn’t stand to give it up.

What dish could cause an authority figure to swindle a student? A baked dish of snapper in a sauce of tomatoes, capers, olives, chilies, and herbs. The Caribbean coast is where the Spanish launched their conquest of what’s now Mexico, leaving a legacy of a local cuisine with a higher degree of European influence, hence several ingredients that are more often seen in the Mediterranean.

Snapper’s both an environmentally iffy choice and wasn’t available when I was looking, and the fishmonger accidentally sold the somewhat similar rockfish I’d ordered, so I ended up with a black cod. What an unexpectedly great substitute this flaky yet soft fish made, melting in the mouth along with that tangy, almost marinara-like sauce.

Arroz a la mexicana | Tomato rice | Recipe

Either this recipe, or my preparation, failed. Perhaps it was the fault of the “sauté then simmer” function of my rice cooker, but it came out pretty flavorless and quite mushy. To be safe, look for another recipe, and make sure to do this one on the stovetop.

Frijoles de la olla | Black beans |Recipe

I made these with the classic recipe, and it turned out just right: beans that are tender yet retain their shape, and with enough flavor to stay interesting but not so much that they overpower. If you can find epazote, a sort of razor-toothed herb that’s somewhere between mint and basil with an earthy overtone, it adds a subtle depth and apparently also improves the beans’ digestibility.

Agua de tamarindo | Tamarind drink | Recipe

You’ve likely seen them: those big, pale brown pods, some of which are broken, exposing haphazard strings coated in a darker brown goop. Maybe you’ve even tasted one and recoiled from the tartness. Well, with some hot water and a lot of sugar, you can turn tamarind into a tasty, refreshing drink. Also works great as a mixer for margaritas!

Flan | Custard | Recipe

One of the region’s preferred desserts is torta de tres leches, “three milks cake,” made with a can each of evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and light cream. Another is flan, that cold, jiggly custard with a caramel sauce, just as they enjoy in Spain and France. So what a delight to see that you could make a tres leches flan!

The hardest part of the recipe is making and pouring the caramel, it requires particular attention to avoid burning the sugar or yourself. The second hardest part is setting up a bain marie for even cooking in the oven. Other than that it's as simple as opening cans and blending the contents. The result is a flan that’s thicker and milkier than the traditional custard. It was a hit!

Meal 84: Jamaica

I was surprised to read in my research for this meal that a lot of Jamaicans wish they'd never gone independent from the United Kingdom, missing the economic stability and lower crime of that bygone era. It turns out that this tropical island, which on the surface is about as different as possible from that European one, has a fair amount more in common with it than you would think, at least through the lens of food. The patty, for instance, is probably directly derived from the Cornish pasty. The saltfish in the national dish was introduced through English trading ships, as was the quirky and beloved starch-on-a-tree, breadfruit. Even sorrel, that cheery drink, came on slave ships from West Africa. That said, it's held on good authority that jerk meat is a homegrown creation, and in fact allspice, found throughout the cuisine as mostly a spice for savory dishes, is native to the island.

Our guest of honor was Lois, from Jamaica! We also dined with Heather, Sarah, Brian, Chris, Betsy, and Christen. Despite the fact that it looks like I was pasted in the front there, I swear I was actually there, it's the lighting.

Planter's Punch

There's plenty of disagreement over whether this drink comes from South Carolina or Jamaica, but either way, this drink is a sweet, tropical refresher. Tropical juices and grenadine (which I made from scratch by boiling down pomegranate juice and adding sugar) hook up with dark rum and a dash of bitters, and voilà. There are as many recipes as bartenders!


The word in Spanish for the flower, and the rich red drink it makes, is jamaica. So I’m not at all surprised that the island with the same name loves to drink what we call hibiscus and they call sorrel. It’s got all the color and staining power of beets, with a fruity sourness reminiscent of pomegranate without the sweetness. Accordingly, when making a drink from the dried sepals, you sweeten it after a boil and long soak, and sometimes even add other flavors like ginger and clove. I made this one fairly tart, and Lois said she liked it that way, so hooray. Just be sure to not spill any on yourself or the stain will likely not come out! Goes very well with rum, by the way.

Saltfish and ackees | Recipe

While jerk is by far the best-known Jamaican food up here, the undisputed national dish is a breakfast food that looks like scrambled eggs but is made from an oily fruit and a salty dried fish. It’s curious that, even though they’re surrounded by abundant seas, the national dish is made from long-preserved fish from Canada, but colonial legacies will do strange things. At least the fruit is quite native: ackees look a bit like oversized lychees, but aren’t very sweet. So long as you remember to soak the fish overnight, the dish is a cinch to whip together, and tastes quite a bit better than it looks or sounds. I’d definitely eat this salty, moderately greasy, and tasty plate as a hangover cure.

Patties Recipe

A Jamaican patty is flaky, tinged yellow with curry, and traditionally stuffed with an allspice-heavy, moderately spicy ground-beef filling. I did that, as well as a vegetarian version with chorizo. As I continue to struggle with pastry, I gave up rolling out big sheets of the patty dough, and instead rolled out individual rounds, which was tedious but worked ok. The patties baked up nicely and were really quite yummy.

Jerk chicken Recipe

Once you’ve whipped up the off-white marinade, heavy with onions and the classic thyme and allspice, you’ll wonder how it’ll turn into that super-dark coating that you think of when you think of jerked meat. Well, it takes patience: first for the long marinade, and then the slow grill, but darken it will. It turned out so damn well: I’m sure part of it is due to having used tender local well-raised chicken, but that long marinade just took it to beautiful, spicy, flavorful places.


Ever heard of the Mutiny on the Bounty? The ship was on a mission from the Caribbean to the South Pacific to bring back samples of the tree that grows this big, fleshy, surprisingly bread-like fruit that was rumored to be super nutritious, as cheap food for slaves. It turns out the scaly fruit is kind of a health dud, and the slaves originally refused to eat it, but it eventually became a beloved part of the cuisine of the islands. It’s easy enough to cook: just roast it whole over fire (like I did) or in an oven (if that's more convenient), and cut it open. So what’s it like? Well, it looks like one of those smooth-skinned avocados blown up to several times its size, and tastes something between a banana and an artichoke. They’re kinda hard to come by — this was the fourth Nosh for which I looked in West Indian markets for breadfruit and the first time I got them — so if you happen to see it, do yourself a favor and give it a try. I doubt you’ll develop a craving, but you probably won’t hate it either.

Ice creams: Grape-nuts | Mango

Turns out Jamaica has a pretty big ice-cream culture, so for my final act before selling my machine, I whipped up a few frozen treats.

I was surprised as you probably are to learn that Grape-nuts ice cream is one of the most beloved flavors in Jamaica. (Weirdly, it also is in Maine.) I can see why: there’s something about how the malt plays off the sweet and cream, and the crunch in contrast with the soft, that’s just really delightful. The mango ice cream, with a squeeze of lime, was pretty alright too, though I think the chunks of fruit were too big and got kinda icy.

Meal 75: Honduras + Holy See

Our first, and only, two-state meal! Here's why: the Holy See, as the "legal personality" of the Vatican City, is one of two non-member permanent observing states at the UN. The other, Palestine, has a cuisine well worth exploring, but setting aside quips about wine and wafers, there's nothing distinctive about Vatican cuisine, at least compared to the city of Rome that surrounds it. That said, the next UN country alphabetically happens to be a Catholic one — Honduras — and it was December, so it just made sense to do a Christmas party combining this Central American country's traditions with a few splashes of Roman cuisine. Thanks to the more than two dozen friends who stopped by and enjoyed this hybrid meal, along with random drinks left over from previous meals!

As in many Christian countries, there are ritual foods for this holiday. Without a doubt, tamales are on the top of the list — if a family makes tamales but once a year, it'll be for Christmas. Never mind that I'd made tamales recently for Guatemala, I just couldn't do a Honduran holiday meal without them. At least it's an opportunity to compare, right? Along with the tamales, I made roast pork and tried and failed at a dessert. I made up for the apparent lack of vegetables with an artichoke antipasto, and thankfully I made an  Italian dessert that actually worked.

Carciofi alla romana | Artichokes with mint and parsley | Recipe

There's an herb that apparently grows in Lazio, the region Rome and the Vatican are in, called mentuccia, which they say tastes somewhere between mint and parsley, so that's substitution #1. And artichokes aren't in season, are really expensive, and aren't all that tasty this time of year, and plus it's tough to find true Roman-style artichokes, so I used hearts from a can, substitution #2. It didn't look fanstastic, but you know what, this darn thing was tasty. I mean, probably anything braised with those two herbs plus a generous dousing of olive oil and a little wine added for braising would. Maybe I'll try this someday with frozen artichoke hearts, or even an entirely different vegetable like artichoke.

Tamales | Recipe (scroll down for English)


Compared to the Guatemalan tamales two months prior, I had an easier time making these. In large part it's because the recipe I followed is less fussy, no pre-roasting all the vegetables, no complicated seed-based sauce. But with the benefit of experience, I didn't concern myself with making perfect squares out of the banana leaves, and I was fearless with adding copious amounts of fat to the masa.

As the animated image shows, there's a wide variety of ingredients in a Honduran tamale! In order, it's: a banana-leaf wrapper, lard-laden cooked corn mass, pork in a vegetable sauce colored with annatto, pimiento-stuffed olives, raisins, canned chickpeas, rice, green peas, and potatoes, wrapped up and ready for steaming. (I found the recipe ended up with way too much masa, but not enough raisins or chickpeas, relative to the pork sauce. Your results may vary.)

After an hour and a half of steaming, the textures become a gradient of mushiness, but individual nuggets retain their flavor: a briney olive, a bright burst from a pea, an incongruous bolt of sweet from a raisin. They were really convenient for the ongoing meal service of the party, as being kept warm for a few hours didn't have any adverse affect.

Pierna de cerdo al horno | Roasted pork leg | Recipe (scroll down for English)

Multiple expat blogs complain that cumin is about the only commonly used spice in Honduras. I can see how that would get old, but my, this was tasty. Poke the big hunk of meat all over (I used a shoulder butt partly because I find that a hilarious term that sounds like faux anatomy, and also because I couldn't easily find a whole pork leg), insert slivers of garlic, and bathe with a cumin-wine mix overnight. Bake it low and slow, uncover and spray with water at the end to crisp up the skin, and enjoy. This whole thing was just about entirely gobbled up by the end of the evening.

Panettone | Sweet yeast bread with fruit | Recipe

There's a deep tradition of sweet cakes around Christmastime in Italy, panettone being perhaps the most famous. I'm always a fan of using unorthodox techniques and equipment to achieve results, so I was tickled to learn that instead of buying a tall, round panettone mold, I could easily use a parchment-paper-lined industrial-sized can. Chef Joe at work hooked me up with a few sparkling-clean #10-size cans that once held grape jelly, and I got to work.

I was a bit hesitant to try this recipe given the mixed reviews, but I'm glad I did. They key seems to be giving the yeast enough time to do its thing. Compared to a standard packaged panettone, this one as lighter and fluffier, quite reminiscent of a brioche. A dash of King Arthur Flour's shockingly pungent Fiori di Sicilia extract gave a lovely aroma of orange. And since I chose the fruits that went into it (raisins, apricots, and candied kiwis!), I enjoyed them. Best of all, panettone preserves and ships well, report my parents after receiving the extra!

Torrejas | Fried syrup-soaked dough | Recipe (not that it worked for me!)

Well, this one was a dud. What I'd heard discussed as being the Honduran equivalent of French toast ended up looking and tasting really dull and unappetizing. Part of the challenge was recreating pinol, which I understand to be a sort of chocolate and cornflour blend, but I probably estimated the proportions wrong. Also, it was supposed to end up flat like slices of bread but took on the shape of uneven meatballs. And the sweet, cinnamon-seasoned syrup didn't really penetrate, so the whole thing was, frankly, gross. Oh well, at least we had panettone!