Friday, 22 January 2010

The Familiar in Unfamiliar Surrounds

(reposting this since the original was completely overwhelmed in Japanese spam for some reason!! had to delete it!)

For lunch today, I found myself reheating canneloni in the microwave. In a kitchen that hadn't be used for cooking in for at least two years. In remote, Northern Nicaragua.

How on earth did I end up with this for lunch??

The canneloni specifically came about after a plaintive request from my erstwhile landlord, Henry. He is half Nicaraguan, half American, or "medio-gringo" as his friends say. He has been living with his Nicaraguan-Canadian wife, Emma, here for years now, and together they run a small cafe, called Picoteo. Picoteo actually means "snacks" or "little bites", and they serve up nachos, cakes and typical Nicaraguan fare like tostones (slices of plantain, flattened and fried), tacos, and the ubiquitos gallo pinto (white rice and red beans, cooked separately and the fried together, occasionally with onion if you are lucky). They opened the cafe two years ago, and are so busy that they eat all their meals there, which is why their kitchen hasn't been used for so long. But Emma apparently gave up cooking for herself years ago, and Henry was making very hard-done-by complaints about not having had proper canneloni for twenty-two years!!
So I made them canneloni, which was actually quite a feat of technical and culinary engineering in that kitchen - I found that neither Emma nor Henry actually knew how to light the middle of their oven, for instance. It is gas, and I didn't think it wise to stick my head in a gas filled oven with a lit match, but we got there eventually. Locating ingredients proved difficult as well. Nicaragua has an abundance of fresh, fantastic quality, predominantly organic and exotic (from my view point) fruit and vegetables. However, finding familiar things, European ingredients, is easier said than done. The only mushrooms I could find were canned, for example. (I then had to butcher the tin with a machete because Emma does not own a can-opener!) Fresh veg is cheap; ludicrously so in the market, so I spent hours chopping up fresh tomatoes. Although Nicaragua produces a great many vegetables, it does not manufacture cans for them to go in. A 400g tin of tomatoes in the supermarket here cost five times as much as the equivalrent does in Britain, because all canned stuff in Nicaragua is imported from Costa RIca.
That said, other ingredients are incredibly cheap. For my meat stuffed canneloni, i bought half a pound of export quality minced beef, for less than a dollar. This goes to show how much crap I eat in Britain - this mince was amazing: it actually tasted of meat! Impressive. Nicaraguans have no concept of intensive farming. Beef cows (well, bulls, I assume), roam around freely, eating the things cows are supposed to eat (rather than sheep brains), and with the possible exception of the oxen used to pull carts, they have pretty happy lives. And you can taste it. The 'export quality' thing bugs me though - like coffee, Nicaraguan produce is quality graded, and the best stuff is exported for the best prices, leaving normal Nicaraguans to eat whatever is left over, crap coffee and fatty, tough meat.

My canneloni was good, but not the success I was hoping for however. What spoilt it, was the topping. Nicaraguan cheese does not melt. Nicaraguan cheese (and, from what I know, cheese all over Latin America) is straight out of the cow. Like Indian paneer, it is curd cheese, just the solids separated from the whey. Unpasturized in fact. And in the absence of refrigerators, it is usually crammed full of salt to preserve it. Definitely an acquired taste! Acquiring it means potentially risking contracting TB as well! I have done my best and am now quite adept at crumbling the stuff into my gallo pinto for breakfast. In Cafe Picoteo, they serve tostones topped with little cubes of deep fried cheese, and apart from being a heart attack on a plate, it tastes fantastic. However, trying to melt it into white sauce for a pasta topping just doesn't work. It just goes slightly grey and lumpy. It did toast quite nicely in the oven (eventually) and tasted fine, but my presentation skills were somewhat lacking

Overall, I was quite impressed with the canneloni, and it certainly made a change from incessant rice and beans. I have also conquered my fear of Emma's kitchen, and proved to myself at least that it is possible to create "familiar" dishes almost anywhere...

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Doctor Coffee´s Cafe fantasies

I am thinking a great deal about my cafe. I am dimly aware that I am getting impatient and over-ambitious again, and this is probably a result of being bored and lonely on fieldwork. At times I can get passionate about my PhD, of course I do. Despite not enjoying Costa Rica, this is still an amazing opportunity. I have three years to travel, talk to people and write about coffee. That is exactly the sort of thing Bel enjoys. But right now, I am fed up. I want to actually get on with things - start putting all the stuff I have learnt about coffee and Central America into practical use.

Without wanting to jinx things, there is the minutest possibility that an opportunity to get started with my cafe may present itself in a few months time. I just do not want to get my hopes up in case it doesn't happen. But I can still fantasize.... My main problem is just that Dr Coffee's Cafe is never going to exist in Darlington. I am adament about that. From experience, I know that the sort of place I want to open just would not work in that dull, chavvy little town. I am resisting the urge to point out how I know this, and what it would take to actually stay afloat - not things that I would consider doing. I hope I won't sell out. Even ignoring the world economic crisis and my total lack of finances, I do not fit in in Darlington, why on earth would my cafe? But escape maybe possible.... and soon, I hope.

In the mean time I am planning and scheming, and collecting recipes for things that would work well in cafes. I am leaning away from Mexican food, particularly not Tex-Mex, because it is done too often, and usually quite badly. Last week I got to dabble in the Carribean, some things I liked, and can be done simply and quickly, providing steady supplies of plaintains and coconuts can be procured. Other things I liked too, but are potentially problematic - not being next to the Carribean sea is an issue - I doubt I'd be able to serve up blue crab salad, for instance. Also, Carribean food is based around slow cooking - it fits their outlook on life! Huge vats of stews bubbling away, usually with rather unappetising parts of a pig in them (I always tone down my patented Trinidad Pepperpot, leaving out the trotters, for example). The stuff is usually fabulous, but more suited to restaurant cooking than quick, small plates in a cafe.

Here in the Pacific side of Costa Rica they live off rice'n'beans as ever, but usually in the form of Casado, which is the 'house plate'. Funny word, casa means house, obviously, but I am casada - married. I am assuming the food is called that because it is what bored housewives cook up everyday? That says it all really. I can't afford to eat out at restaurants in Costa Fortune, so I either cook for myself here, or go to "Sodas" which are fast food sort of places that serve up fried chicken, or casado - rice, beans, some sort of meat, and salad. It is extremely boring.

So, I don't think I will be taking many culinary tips from Costa Rica. And neither will I be getting my coffee from here. Not that Costa Rican coffee is not good, it is, but it's the principle of the thing! I am not a fan of how it is produced here. (sorry, I mean I am not comfortable with the quotidean knowledges and practices embodied by actors in the production of this commodity. Obviously.) But that is a different story entirely.

Coffee will come from Nicaragua; Solcafe in particular. I would really like to serve it up Cuban style, and French pressed, and Turkish style as well as good espresso. And the food will be a mix of Peruvian/Andian, Argentine cowboy food, ("meat and heat") Nicaraguan simplicity, Carribean colour and Amazonian exoticness, suppliers allowing... Maybe not the guinea pig or iguana though... I want to be the first person in Europe to import Flor de Caña rum, and maybe even Peruvian Pisco. And beer in litres. Inca Kola, anyone? I am also collecting bits and pieces to decorate the place with while I'm here. Cyberllama will rise again, and possibly incorporate the evil looking Nacho pots that Emma has in Picoteo as well.... and there will be rocking chairs and hammocks so people never get round to leaving.


Why aren't I infinitely rich and able to get on with all of this immediately?

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Simple rice and beans

Central Americans eat a lot of rice n beans. This is usually in form of 'gallo pinto', the pinto referring to the type of bean (red pinto, or "frijoles" in Nicaragua, and black pinto in Costa Rica), and Gallo actually means 'cockerel'. Gallo Pinto has no chicken in it, but the white rice and red beans is supposed to look like the spotted feathers of a rooster, or so I am told. (I have to be American and say "Rooster" not Cock, because there is a company in Nicaragua who make chicken stock cubes. Their slogan is "el gallo mas gallo!" The most chickeny chicken! But it's the masculine word, so it could just as easily translate as "the cockiest Cock". I bought my friend a Gallo Mas Gallo t-shirt, hoping he doesn't get it.)

Moving swiftly on from chickens, here is my recipe for gallo pinto, Nicaraguan
400g dried red pinto beans, boiled for 4 hours in salted water or (45 mins in a pressure cooker)
You can of course use a tin of beans, but I am aiming for authenticity, and a gallo pinto breakfast is nothing without the smell of beans that have boiled over night, filling the whole house in the morning.
Equivalent weight of white rice, cooked separately from the beans.
1 small white onion.
Vegetable oil.

Fry the chopped onion in the oil until browned. Then add the cooked rice and stir until coated with oil, then add the beans. Stir until well mixed, but gently so that the rice does not mush.
Serve the result with a large lump of white curd cheese, corn tortillas, and hot chilli sauce. And if you want to really fill up, add fried or scrambled eggs and fried plantain slices on the side.

I stayed on a coffee farm out in El Campo of Nicaragua for a while, with a local family. They ate rice and beans for every single meal without exception, three times a day. This was Rice And Beans, not fried together like gallo pinto, mainly, I think, because they couldn't afford vegetable oil very often. For breakfast you got it with fresh tortillas - made from maiz grown on the farm, soaked over night in water and then ground at 4am every morning by the dedicated Doña Maximina, then patted out into tortillas and griddled. I fell in love with those tortillas, they are absolutely nothing like anything you can buy in the supermarkets at home. Occasionally, for lunch you got a bit of grilled chicken with your rice and beans. The chicken had probably been running round under your feet that morning. They were happy chickens, and exceptional tasting. Not only were they annoyingly free range (anyone who has accidently met an indignant chicken nesting in the latrine in the middle of the night will quickly become a fan of battery farming...) but they were also entirely corn fed. All the maiz that couldn't be used for tortillas became chicken feed. The meat was juicy and full flavoured without any additives whatsoever, and the eggs we got with our evening dose of rice and beans, were naturally huge and bright yellow.

The other maiz based Nicaraguan favourite is Nacatamales. Traditonally served at weekends, these things can fill you up for the following week. They are maiz meal dumplings, stuffed with onion, herbs (oregano, I think), a little chiltoma (like bell pepper) and either beef or chicken. These are then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. It gives a decadently greasy, very heavy and oddly textured meal in one - there is no way you could consume anything else with it, it is so filling. I once tried something very similar to this in Peru, there just called 'tamales' and I hated it. I can't figure out what it is the Nicaraguans do to their dumplings that make them so good!

If all this sounds dull, then please read on. The key to Nicaraguan cuisine is simplicity. They rely on the abundance of great ingredients close to hand, that they don't need to really do much to them, everything naturally tastes great anyway. Other dishes I've adored here are pollo en salsa jalepeña, which is just that: chicken breast with a creamy jalapeno sauce, served with yet more rice; nachos con frijoles (fried tortilla slices with ground up frijoles to dunk them in) curvina tipitapa - fried red snapper smothered in tomato and onions (and rice), and vigaron, which is a large tortilla stuffed with cabbage salad, boiled yukka and fried pork rind, doust in chilli sauce.

Of course, not everything is so familiar, but still the simplicity remains. In a tiny place in Esteli, I tried sopa de garrobo - Iguana soup. The recipe is as follows:
Remove feet and head from medium sized iguana.
Place in large pan of water.
Add chopped onion, sliced potato or yukka, some chiltoma, salt and tumeric and boil until the iguana meat is soft enough to joint easily in your fingers.
Serve with tortillas. And rice if you have room.

And if I've mentioned the word "fried" too often for comfort, I'd like to point out that I've lost over 8 kilos in the four months I've been out here, without trying. Simple, but delicious Nicaraguan food is a winner with me!

Sunday, 5 October 2008

"Can I have a decent sized bunny please?"

This weekend saw the first ever Darlington Food Festival.

We missed it yesterday by going to Gateshead to buy Carl some new corals and shrimps for his marine aquarium from the dudes at Cyberaquatics. That night I made seafood stir fry - and yes I am aware of the irony. Cyberaquatics has been branching out, and now stocks snakes, lizards and various cute furry rodents, including "Classic rabbits." Quite what was classic about them I don't know, they just looked like your average bunny to me. I think they must have had a population explosion though, because there were five little bunnies in one cage, and they were priced at £6. Not bad! They were pretty big too - I silently named one "Lunch" and seriously considered getting one for the ferrets (a bag of ferret food now costs £5.49...). Carl told me I was cruel. I don't think the ferrets would have agreed.

But as usual, I digress...

This morning we toddled down to the food festival, held in the Market Square. The website claimed there would be "around 100 stalls". There wasn't, but as the Darlington Councillor shows on his blog (with a video) it was absolutely packed on both days. Typically, the first stall we encountered was a guy from Wakefield selling exotic curry mixes, chutneys and pickles. Carl got his beloved Lime Pickle, I tried an award winning aubergine chutney (with aubergines grown in Yorkshire), and picked up some tips on marinating paneer... After that we spent quite a while "sampling" artisan cheeses from Wensleydale (caramelised onion cheese being the favourite here). Of course I had to try The Coffee Company (the only one?) - who had a proper espresso machine with a hand pump. We were accosted by a wandering band with trombones all dressed as chefs outside the Caribbean food stall, and also by a bloke dressed as the mad hatter, advertising the Mad Hatter Tea company. Having sampled that North-East staple foodstuff - chorizo, we bought plenty of exotic sausages from Broom Mill Farm near Bishop Auckland, including chilli,lime and ginger sausages which I can't wait to try.

Inside the main tent there were cookery demonstrations done by a "TV chef" who I'd never heard of, (having looked it up, it turns out she's on This Morning - never having got up in time for that, this could explain my ignorance!). There were also more stalls - fantastic Pie Men with proper thick pastry pies crammed full of Serious Meat. We tried a Cumbrian Rocket from the dried meat stall- a fiery hot pepperami type thing. There were also a few fudge stalls which my parents would have loved, more cheese, and more sausages. One stall was decorated with a load of feathers- ah ha! A purveyor of the finest ostrich meat! - steaks, mince, pies, even a joint of sorts, constructed with ostrich and chicken breasts. From Preston!

I really, really enjoyed the festival, it was great (and inspiring) to see really good quality produce available fresh, often organic, and well, just Real Food I suppose. There was one stall selling t-shirts promoting the Slow Food Movement with lots of information leaflets, which I relished until I noticed it seemed to be mainly about things happening in Italy. There were several other stalls which we didn't get a chance to see, but with the exception of our sausage man, nothing was spectacularly local. Sure, Wensleydale, Wakefield, Cumbria and Preston aren't that far away, but then chorizo, lime pickle, and ostrich steak aren't really typical dishes of Northern Britain either. There was some black pudding on offer, but I was expecting to see more "traditional British cuisine" from "local" sources. - But then, I wouldn't even know what that would entail actually.

But back to the point...between the fabulous pies and the Cumbrian Rockets, there was another miscellaneous meat stall. It had beef sausages with Newcastle Brown Ale in them, which was good, but it also had a huge tray of vacuum-packed (but still bleeding) rabbits and hares. These,even without their heads or skin, were far larger than my "Classic Rabbit" Lunch, and considerably less messy to consume. I proffered a fiver, asking "Can I have a decent sized bunny please?". I got one. I love rabbit - it has such a distinctive smell, and really rich taste. We wandered home to cook it for Sunday lunch. ("Lunch" went into a casserole, with red wine, onions, carrots, parsnips, garlic, rosemary, and my own secret ingredient, a double shot of espresso - and very nice he was too. The ferrets approved of the leftovers as well!)

On route home however, I saw something which shook me to my very soul, sent icy shivers down my spine, and produced indignant levels of bile in my stomach.

They're putting a fucking TESCO EXPRESS in the Cornmill!!!!! Aaaaaaaaaaargh!!!!!!
Darlington actually achieved a certain claim to fame in a wonderful book called Tescopoly by Andrew Simms - we are one of very, very, few towns in the UK that doesn't have a Tesco. In fact, we saw off Tesco when they planned to build a massive one right on the corner of the market square, 200 yards from Sainsbury's. Three planning applications to turn an old petrol station on North Road into a mini Tesco have already been rejected as well. Go us!! We shall RESIST!!! Or so I thought. But no, for some INSANE reason, someone, somewhere has agreed to let the corporate monopoly take over an empty unit in the shopping centre.

It just makes me so angry that this is being built, when there are small, independent,companies offering fantastic quality food from a few miles down the road. Instead of supporting our indoor market and shopping there, it's a safe assumption that a good proportion of the Darloite population will traipse round a generic, soulless supermarket buying completely unethical, mass produced, over processed, unseasonal food shipped in from the other side of the globe - because it's "convenient." Tesco is "easy" and non-scary. Food is 'sanitised' and made appealing by packaging; it looks safe and uncomplicated to prepare. My Lunch bunny was quite literally bones and blood and guts in a bag - turning him into something edible was quite a task. But it was completely worth it, and I far, far prefer eating like that. Hopefully events like the Darlington Food Festival will convince other people of that too!


Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Some good grease....Wasted.

My university project at the moment concentrates on the idea of food waste. Specifically, mine is coffee waste and is dwelt on a great deal on my other blog. However, in the more general literature review, I've had to quickly learn a lot of discourse about food waste, both socially and in more pragmatic terms.

Project 5 of our Waste of the World programme concentrates on UK waste management strategies; that lucky team get to delve into the maze of inconsistent, contradictory recycling guidelines, where each and every local authority has its own set of rules. The bit that caught my attention was the celebration of a relatively new scheme using an Anaerobic Digester. There was a massive one built in Ludlow, which my Dad's Wasteless Society were heavily involved in. The idea was simple: get everyone's "green" waste - kitchen scraps, grass clippings, "organic" waste, collected in the local recycling scheme and put it in this Digester. It squashes it all, decomposes, and then the resulting gases and presumably some of the compacted waste can be used as fuel.

Get rid of the governmental strategy papers and funding bids and community cohesion plans and all the other bureaucracy surrounding these schemes, and what you get is basically a giant compost heap. Theoretically, it's a sound idea. Except the whole concept relies on the cooperation of the local community. To encourage people to recycle, the local council decided to only run a rubbish collection service every fortnight, but to collect the green waste for recycling every week. This not only stopped people composting their own waste for their private gardens, it also meant that they had plenty of non-compostable rubbish building up whilst only being able to dispose of it once a fortnight. As such, they started putting plastics, wood and all their inorganic waste in the green recycling bins, and hiding it under organic waste so that they could get rid of it. And of course, this waste going into the digester meant the machinery broke, and strangely enough, this stuff didn't decompose well either..... So much for well researched, joined up government....

Where I live, private recycling is very good; we have regular collections of paper, glass, and tin, the council gave out free compost bins as well, there is a huge "household waste recycling centre" up the road, and the two of us now produce less than half a black bag of non-recyclable rubbish a week. However, the same cannot be said of business recycling. It does not exist in Darlington. When I worked at the cafe, all the kitchen scraps, food past its sell by date, coffee grounds etc - all of it, despite being mainly recyclable or compostable, got chucked in the regular bins and collected weekly destined for landfill. We used to sneak the less disgusting bits home with us, just cos... well, because it seemed such a waste.
Worse still, I worked at a very busy pub in the middle of town, the sort of place that's open from 8am to 1am seven days a week. There was no facility to recycle the glass that the pub generated. Every day we'd fill one of the big green wheelie bins with discarded glass bottles, and the whole lot would end up in landfill, as would all the waste from every other pub in town. The amount of waste from those alone is unimaginable.

We do try and do our bit for the environment though, and we even help that pub with its recycling. We run our car off used vegetable oil. My husband converted the (diesel) engine on our old Peugeot to run off chip fat - it's not an overly complex thing to do, since diesel engines were originally designed to run off peanut oil in the first place. We get our fuel from the pub kitchen. The big fryers are emptied and cleaned once a week, and there is usually 30 litres of oil awaiting our collection in big buckets on Sunday afternoons. We take it home, and put it through a very fine filter set in a water butt in our garden (to get the chips out!) and then it is ready to go straight in the car. Of course, if for any reason there is no oil to collect (and while we're on the subject of food waste, pub kitchens are infamous. One of the most common reasons why there is no oil sometimes is that the chef has refilled the fryers and forgotten to put the plug back in the bottom and flooded the entire kitchen with 30 litres of grease...) - we can always buy vegetable oil straight from supermarkets and chuck it in the tank, but nowadays even that is expensive!

Free, recycled fuel is definitely the way to go, though. True, our car does smell of chips, especially when stuck in a traffic jam, and virtually every one of my husband's t-shirts has splashes of veggie oil down it, but these are small prices to pay, given we can smugly laugh at everyone else queuing up to pay £1.30 a litre for dino-diesel. Carl even got on TV, have a lookee at his video HERE.

Veggie cars are sustainable too. There is a lot of hand wringing by environmentalists over biodiesel using up precious grain crops that in turn push up world food prices, etc. Mass producing palm oil involves destroying rainforest and so on and so forth. But what no-one considers is how much oil is used, and then disposed of by cafes, restaurants, pubs up and down the country on a daily basis. This oil can easily be filtered and used as fuel, as we do. In our experience, most places are happy to give you their oil, as some have to pay to have it taken away. Or worse, they simply chuck it down the drain. I read somewhere that 300 tonnes of reusable oil is poured down the drain every day in the UK. Vegetable oil is a very misunderstood substance, I think. We found a few drums of the stuff at the Household Waste Disposal site, and asked if we could take it for the car. We were told we couldn't, because it had been classed as Hazardous Waste, and we'd have to pay for it and fill in loads of forms or something.... doh. Vegetable is not flammable unless under highly intense heat or pressure - if you drop a match in it, it will go out. If you spill it, it will biodegrade in a matter of days. How or why it could ever be hazardous I cannot fathom.

At the beginning of July we drove our veggie mobile all the way down to Buckinghamshire, to what is now the annual Biodiesel Buddies Barbecue. A guy has a field, and everyone who runs their car off chip fat (or tractor, landrover, or caravan, come to that) congregates there to discuss the merits of biofuel. As a veggie-oil-fanatic's WAG, I found myself cooking for 20 veggie geeks over a campfire. It was bloody brilliant. I made potjiekos and Trinidad Pepperpot and my infamous potato salad and rice and even very special campfire coffee. But I digress....

The 'convention' also involved others demonstrating their latest ideas for veggie burning efforts. Chug had an old Lister engine and was trying to run a generator off veggie oil. Others had Turk burners. Making biodiesel involves mixing veg oil with methanol and caustic soda, and the end result produces biodiesel and glycerin. The Turk burners allow you to burn that glycerin by-product, and one bloke was even seeing if he could use them to heat his house. Someone else had designed a system (for some reason, elegantly wrapped in a green velvet curtain) that allowed you to reclaim the methanol from the biodiesel so you could reuse it. We also had a compost toilet which was infinitely less smelly and more civilised than conventional portaloos, and even solar powered fairy lights- very pretty!

The Lister engine, a Turk burner and the methanol reclaiming drum.

For more info on all this, please have a look at the Biodiesel forums that inspired all this.

The possibilities with this fuel from food waste are endless. If Ludlow get their anaerobic digester working, you may even get cars running on reclaimed/recycled LPG from compost... or something like that. My understanding of the chemistry here is very vague, but I appreciate the concept. Food doesn't have to stop being useful after we've finished eating. Your car can eat the leftovers!