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...