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 115: Montenegro

While the language, culture, and some of the food of this little seaside country are definitely Slavic, the food of Montenegro evinces a strong Italian influence. It's the consequence of centuries under Venetian rule and influence, plus the lingering effect of being a hop across the Adriatic from the boot of Italy. The result is a cuisine that is both high in milkfat but that also has a place for delicate flavors. Really, it was quite delicious. Ellenby Ellenby Ellenby Ellenby Elizabeth Elizabeth +1 Tink Tink +1 Kristin Winslow Ana DLR Ana DLR +1 Anna Marti Anna Marti +1 Anna Sagatelova

Our guests were the Ellenby family, Elizabeth, Tink, Kristin, Miguel, Ana, Anna, Anna, and friends.

Sok od Šipka | Pomegranate juice

Across much of Montenegro, wild pomegranates grow abundantly, and families press the juice and boil it down to syrup for use all year long.

Pomegranate juice is a fantastic example of the huge price differential you can find when shopping at an ethnic market. I found a three liter jar of the pure juice for $9 at the Russian market; you’d be lucky to buy a liter for that price at your local supermarket. Since it was already at drinking strength, it seemed silly to boil it down just to reconstitute it, so we enjoyed it straight.

Appetizer spread

In browsing various descriptions of Montenegrin food, just about all of them talked of a good meal starting with preserved meats and various cheeses. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t find the specific meat items they called for (in particular, a local variation of prosciutto), and the descriptions of the cheeses were quite vague. So I did my best and bought some stuff that looked good from the counter of the Russian market. Surprisingly, the most popular component was a generic-looking cheese that was sliced as a wedge from a hefty round; it was kind of in the direction of a queso fresco, but a bit firmer, and a bit squeaky on the tongue.

Pogača | Rustic bread | Recipe

A rich bread for a rich meal! Note how all the liquid comes from animal products, there’s not a drop of water in the dough. With all that lactose, it’s a quick riser, so there’s not a ton of flavor development from the yeast. But this bread has a solid crumb that’s equally good with cold cuts as well as soup.

Raštan | Collards | Recipe

With all the heavy meat and dairy in the rest of the meal, thank goodness there's a common dish of greens to provide a bit of balance. I made them without the pork because we had some non-red-meat eaters, but it was still nice. I like the bit of flour in there to make it a bit saucy, too.

Brav u Mlijeku | Lamb in milk | Recipe

What a happy accident! Since I ran out of stovetop space, I put the pot of lamb chunks in a milk bath into a low oven, left it uncovered, and then kinda forgot about it until the smell was irresistible. The milk got really thick, and the lamb got really soft, so it was all one great, smooth mess of a really dense and spectacularly tasty dish. Delicious as it was, I'm not confident I actually made it Montenegrin-style — while I heard many mentions of lamb in milk, details on the preparation were few, so I turned to this recipe from nearby Italy instead. Any leads, my friends?

Riblja čorba | Fish soup | Recipe

So simple, so tasty. It hardly requires a recipe: simmer fish with some vegetables and garlic, strain it and remove fish, cook rice with olive oil in the broth, put fish back in. Despite the lack of any exotic ingredients or flavor combinations, as long as you’ve got good fish (in this case, rockfish and black cod from the farmers market), you’ve got a great soup.

Smočani kačamak | Fatty porridge | Recipe

Can’t decide between polenta and mashed potatoes? Well, how about both, mixed with a hefty dose of sour cream plus some cheese! It was really tasty and extremely unnecessary given how much other rich food we had. Everyone ate it anyway, because it’s as yummy as it sounds.

Pomegranate sorbet | Recipe

Probably the most appropriate way to enjoy Montenegro’s most representative fruit would have been to simply peel and eat, but they were out of season. Given the Italian culinary influence, I figured a sorbet would be appropriate. It’s hard to tell if this is something they’d actually eat in Montenegro, but it was a delicious and light conclusion to an otherwise heavy meal.

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 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!

Meal 70: Guatemala

Corn, beans, tomatoes, squash, peppers, turkey...if it's a classic New World food, chances are you'll see it in Guatemalan cuisine. While it's incorporated smatterings of good stuff from Europe (note the olives in the tamales), by and large this meal could have been cooked six hundred years ago, before a conquistador set foot on Mayan lands. However so ancient the ingredients may be, the techniques  aren't: I made liberal use of the blender, and really wish I'd had a food mill, since there was a lot of tedious straining of blended sauces. We were fortunate to have some experts on hand: Mica on the left grew up in Guatemala, and Christen on the right met Laura on a human rights delegation in Guatemala. Between them are Alex, Laurel, Diana, Jennifer, Grant, Sophie, and Suzanne.

Tamales colorados | Red tamales | Recipe: Crisco; Lard: SpanishEnglish

Guatemalan tamales filling

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I find Mexican tamales too dry, and too sparse on filling relative to the mass of corn. Happily, Guatemalan tamales suffer neither of  those challenges. Rice and fat moisten up the masa quite well, and the filling is intended to be generous.

OK, this was a lot of work. Even making the pumpkin-seed-based tomato sauce was the effort of an average dish, what with individually toasting the different seeds in addition to simmering the sauce. Add to that cooking up the pork, roasting the peppers, and especially the forearm-building effort of mixing the masa...and now it's time to trim the banana leaves, and finally to assemble and wrap the tamales before a good 90 minutes of steaming.

The results were well worth it, a tasty bundle of flavor with so many different textures and directions. But I can understand why most Guatemalan families don't make this more than once a year!

Kaq'ik | Turkey and smoked chili soup | Recipe

This soup pre-dates the arrival of the conquistadores, and some consider it the national dish of Guatemala. As with so many ancient recipes, there are as many variations as there are abuelitas, but the important part is to have turkey, chilies (including a smoked variety), and a tomato-rich broth. There are two aspects I particularly liked about this recipe. The first is that you broil all the vegetables, including even the dried chilies, lending a depth you just don't get from sauteeing. The other is that it has you use just turkey legs, rather than the whole bird, and I'm much more a fan of dark meat, especially to go along with those roasted veggies. While not so labor-intensive as the tamales, this certainly isn't the simplest soup to whip together, but I didn't at all mind the work after enjoying the depth of flavor from the roasting combined with the slow simmering of the turkey.

Frijoles negros | Black beans | Recipe

While the tamales and kaq'ik are special-occasion dishes unique to Guatemala in their preparation, it's the black beans that led the folks who'd lived in the country to reminisce. I cooked them in the crock pot, a technique I'm growing to love because it really allows the flavors to meld while also preserving the structural integrity of the bean. This recipe has plenty of vegetables, including a whole head of garlic, plus onion and bell pepper. I didn't add salt at all, because the topping took care of it: the appropriately named queso duro frijolero, or "hard cheese for beans." Saltier even than parmesan, it suits its title so very well. I'm glad I made a double-batch, because we enjoyed the leftovers throughout of the following week.

Ayote en dulce | Squash stewed in sweet sauce | Recipe: SpanishEnglish

Though we were a month out from the Day of the Dead, Guatemala has such a particular cuisine for that holiday that I felt compelled to make something from it. I chose to make this winter squash simmered in a sugary, gently spiced sauce, which is then boiled until syrupy. I'd say the dish was okay, but didn't quite bring the flavor punch I'd been expecting. I'm pretty sure I got the right kind of green-skinned, fairly smooth squash (thank you, farmers' market!), so either I started with too much water and hence had to boil it too long to thicken it, or maybe this dish is just supposed to be subtle.

Atole de elote | Corn and milk drink | Recipe

This drink, on the other hand, was more of an intense experience than I'd bargained for. You go through a lot of corn -- one ear per cup of drink -- and blend the kernels with milk, then strain it out and sweeten and cinnamon it up. With the nuttiness of the fresh corn plus the richness of milk, this warm beverage is a thick one. Would probably go even better on a chilly day, perhaps even as a breakfast drink.

I'm posting this on World Food Day. That marks one year since we did that epic Democratic Republic of the Congo meal for 75 at the youth hostel. We've now raised just about $16,000, enough for 64,000 meals. Please take a moment to think about the joy of food and the comfort of food security -- it's something we really oughtn't take for granted.