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!