Monday, January 21, 2013

Week 50: A Journey to Nicaragua

I must admit that I am guilty of living in a city full of fritangas yet I knew nothing of Nicaraguan cuisine until I embarked upon this week’s culinary journey.  While I was a bit embarrassed to admit how little I knew of Nicaraguan cuisine, I felt better when I began asking friends who grew up in Miami, Columbia, and Venezuela who also didn’t know.  Apparently, I hadn’t asked the right friends, because as soon as I began my research and started posting photos of my dishes on twitter and instagram, I discovered a group of people professing their love for nica food.  Like other South American cuisines, Nicaraguan cuisine is rooted in dishes from pre-Colonial times that focused on local crops.  Corn is a key ingredient in many of its most popular dishes, including beverages and desserts.  In addition to consuming common cuts of beef and pork, Nicaraguan dishes contain many of the offals, such as udders, stomachs, brains, testicles, and hoofs, plus more exotic species such as lizards, armadillos, boas, and turtle eggs.  To say the least, I had plenty of options when planning this week’s menus.  I focused on cooking Nicaragua’s most famous dishes, and although many are similar to other South American dishes, understanding the nuance of the Nicaraguan approach proved both satisfying and intriguing.

gallo pinto
gallo pinto
Gallo pinto is the national dish of Nicaragua.  This simple dish of rice and red beans seasoned with onions, bell pepper, and garlic is well known in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and both countries claim to be the origination point of the dish.  The name translates to “spotted rooster” which describes the speckled appearance of the beans and peppers in the rice.  Nicaraguans enjoy this dish on a daily basis for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  I liked it, but in all fairness, it didn’t seem any different to me than other basic red beans and rice dishes I’ve tried in the United States.  If someone simply presented it to me with no context of origin, I would assume that it was a vegetarian version of Louisiana Creole red beans and rice.  That is likely due to my Southern American heritage.  Regardless of which country the dish represents, I would be happy to enjoy it on a regular basis…but maybe not daily.

indio viejo
indio viejo
Indio Viejo is a traditional Nicaraguan dish dating back over five hundred years.  The dish only uses ingredients native to Nicaragua, such as tomatoes, sour oranges, achiote, corn, mint, and beef.  Legend states that the stew’s namesake, which translates to old Indian, can be traced back to the days of the Conquistadors.  When the local conquistadors learned that native Nicarao celebrated a tradition of providing food for anyone who asked, they took advantage of the communities and constantly appeared at their feasts in large numbers devouring most of the food and leaving little for the natives.  At one such feast, a conquistador asked the man tending to the pot of stew on the fire what he was cooking, and the man responded, “It’s just an old Indian who passed away recently.”  As the conquistadors quickly left the party, the natives laughed and continued with their party.  Hence, the name.

The dish includes beef that is boiled in water and sour orange juice until it is tender enough to shred with a fork.  Tomatoes, onions, peppers, and achiote flavor the stew, and corn tortilla dough is added to thicken the stew.  My understanding is that the stew should have a consistency similar to polenta as result of the corn tortilla dough added to the dish.  I read several accounts stating that cornmeal is often used in place of tortilla dough.  I opted to make my version with cornmeal, but I don’t think my dish reached the proper consistency.  I kept adding water in hopes of “plumping” the cornmeal, but somehow it never soaked in enough to be creamy.  Instead, my version was gritty.  I think the root of my problem is that someone more familiar with Nicaraguan cuisine would’ve known that the direction to “substitute cornmeal” meant to substitute the finer ground masa harina, not regular cornmeal.  If I try to make the dish again, I will actually make some tortilla dough to attempt a more authentic result.  On a positive note, the flavor of the stew was delicious.  I was surprised at how well the flavor of the sour orange paired with beef.  All in all, it wasn’t a complete disaster, but I definitely need to work on it.

Vigorón is a popular street food in Nicaragua.  The dish originated in Granada in the mid-twentieth century, and its popularity quickly spread throughout neighboring countries.  The dish begins with a plantain or banana leaf used as a vessel for serving boiled yuca topped with a cabbage salad called repollo and chicharrones.  While the concept of the dish is simple, the repollo varies among vendors and family recipes.  Repollo is a pickled cabbage slaw commonly served as an accompaniment to Nicaraguan meals.  A basic repollo includes shredded cabbage, grated carrot, chopped tomatoes, lime juice, red pepper flakes, and scallions.  In most cases, the salad is left to ferment for a few hours or several days to develop the flavors.  (For my vigorón, I made repollo and allowed it three days for fermentation.)  Although the dish is simple and compact, it truly ignites the senses with a variety of textures and flavors.  The yuca provides warm, creamy, and sweet elements, while the repollo offers sour, cool, and slightly crunchy textures next to the rich and crunchy chicharrones broken into bite size pieces.  I found the use of a banana leaf as a vessel for easy “fast food” transport to be a clever idea, as well.  Of all the Nicaraguan dishes I prepared this week, this one definitely stands apart for its ingenious juxtaposition of simple and complex flavors.

nacatamales cooking
in a pot of boiling water
I am a huge fan of tamales.  I rarely pass up an opportunity to order a tamale, but in all honestly, I always get to the center of that delicious cornmeal dough and wish that the small, thin layer of pork was just a little thicker…a little larger…a little heartier.  When I began reading about nacatamales, I was intrigued on several levels.  For starters, I loved the idea of wrapping a tamale in a plantain leaf (or banana leaf in my case), instead of a corn husk, because I knew that would impart an interesting flavor.  Beyond that, nacatamales presented a full realization of my desire to open a tamale and find thick layers of meat and vegetables with my pillow of cornmeal dough.  So, I set out to make nacatamales. 

The dough is made with masa harina, lard, sour orange juice, and broth (I used chicken broth).  I found a broad assortment of recipes for the dough.  The simple recipes included instructions to make the dough and let it rest for thirty minutes.  The more complicated instructions included a process of cooking the cornmeal in water and orange juice over low heat, rinsing it with cold water, placing it in fresh water and resting it for three days with daily water changes.  Even though the latter option presented a few more steps, I decided to try it because it “seemed” authentic and I thought the longer rest time would result in a stronger flavor. 

Upon reading lists of ingredients used in nacatamale fillings, I immediately recognized that the genesis of this dish must have been a cook looking to transform leftovers into a new dish.  The filling includes mashed potatoes, cooked rice, and pork.  For the mashed potatoes and cooked rice, I planned ahead when I was making them earlier in the week and made extra.  For the pork, most recipes called for “cubes” of pork butt, so I braised a pork butt earlier in the week and refrigerated it so that it would be firm enough to cut into cubes.  On the day that I assembled the nacatamales, I sautéed bell peppers, onions, garlic, achiote, tomatoes, fresh mint, and fresh parsley until the vegetables were tender.  Then, I mixed in the pork, potatoes, and rice.

nacatamale filling
After three days of attending to the dough and prepping the filling ingredients, I was more than ready to start assembling these little bundles.  I cut banana leaves into 16-inch squares and placed one cup of dough in the center of the leaf. I added a heaping spoonful of filling on top of the dough, folded the leaf around it, and tied it with string.  Then, I dropped the nacatamales in a large pot of boiling water, cooked them for thirty minutes, removed them from the pot, and let them rest for about five minutes.  When I finally had the opportunity to unwrap my first nacatamale, I discovered a little package of goodness just as delicious as I had imagined.  Wow!  The dough not only maintained its corn flavor, but it also took on the pungency of the banana leaf and the full flavors of the pork and vegetables.  Without question, this dish was the most flavorful and satisfying of the week.

tres leches
tres leches
Tres leches is a popular dessert in most Central American countries, and since moving to Miami, I have definitely eaten my fair share of it.  During my research, I discovered that many culinary historians believe the cake originated in Nicaragua.  The dessert is actually quite simple.  It begins with a white cake.  When the cake has cooled from baking in the oven, small holes are pricked throughout the cake and a mixture of whole milk, evaporated milk, and sweetened condensed milk are poured over the cake until it cannot absorb anymore.  (This reminded me of the infamous 1980s craze for pudding cakes.)  The last step is to add a simple white frosting and serve.  Interestingly, most recipes that I found called for a frosting made with whipping cream and sugar, but when I was discussing the recipes I’d read with a co-worker from Venezuela, she explained that a more authentic frosting would be one made with egg whites and sugar.  She pointed out that whipping cream would be too expensive for most people, and everyone had access to eggs, which is why so many cakes made in Central America have that fluffy, white meringue-style frosting.  I topped my tres leches cake with a thin layer of frosting made with egg whites and sugar.  I was very happy with the flavor, and the texture of the cake with the soaked milk was exactly like ones I’ve tried in local restaurants.  A definite success!

Although I enjoyed all of the week’s dishes, none compared to the nacatamales.  If I learned nothing else, I learned that this dish presents the best reincarnation for leftovers I ever imagined!  Fortunately, I did learn much more, and I ended the week with a newfound respect and understanding of Nicaraguan cuisine.

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