lunes, 11 de octubre de 2010

Hay Nacatamales

Nacatamales are an almost religious culinary tradition in Nicaragua, a gigantic overstuffed tamale with a standard list of ingredients uniform throughout the country. Nacatamales are prepared fresh in locals' homes; in every pueblo there are several infamous residents who display the sign Hay Nacatamales, meaning they are available for sale on Saturday and Sunday.
The Nicaraguan version of the tamale, wrapped and cooked in a banana leaf rather than a corn husk, is large, undeniably a meal in itself. The key ingredient is either chicken or pork, accompanied by rice, potatoes, tomatoes, an olive or raisin, and a leaf of yerba buena. This is the tried and true recipe, delicious, and available for only $1 anywhere you go. Why mess with a good thing? the only reason I attempted my own was the vegetarian factor. 
Based on hints from neighbors and friends, as well as gringo guidance from this online recipe, i set out to make my own vegetarian nacatamale.
First up, and arguably the most important ingredient: masa. Traditional nacatamale masa is made with lard, the ultimate cooking fat. When I asked around about vegetarian substitutions, I was met with chortles, smirks, and a couple of suggestions. Since I was making a large batch, I went with what I had the most of, sunflower oil. 

Using a pre-packaged masa, I added a cup of oil and mixed until it was too thick to stir. Following a tip from an authentic nacatamale recipe, I squeezed a sour orange into the dough, and then a flavorful veggie-based broth and worked it in with my hands.
The masa is then left to sit for at least 30 minutes. Time to prepare my tasty fillings!
I flavored up a batch of red beans and potatoes,
and a soy meat with summer squash medley. These would be the savory protein-rich centerpieces of my tamales.

Wrapping the masa and filling into a banana leaf was the most fun and most challenging part. I am proud to announce that I myself went out on the farm to harvest nice long smooth leaves with few tears. In order to make the leaf pliable, I warmed each one over a gas burner. The leaves must bend and fold over to hold the tamale inside, and I found this method extremely effective.
A small circle of masa is patted out in the center of a leaf, and I learned after my first batch, a dollop of homemade hot sauce keeps the filling from drying out.
Upon this I heaped shredded cheese, a spoonful of either the bean or soy mixture, and a sprinkle of cilantro leaf. With a few, I also added cooked rice. Later, as I recounted this process to some veteran nacatamale chefs, raucous laughter erupted at the mention of the cilantro. Apparently I was breaking all kinds of culinary taboos.
Sorry, don't have any action shots. The wrapping process took a little practice, eventually I got it. My little banana packages came out cute, no?
These guys were all tossed into a pot which I first layered with bunched up banana leaves in the traditional method for steaming. Being somewhat of a modern chica, however, I did cook with my gas stove rather than over open fire.
Unlike the wood fire fueled kitchens of most Nicaraguans, in which a pot of nacatamales takes up to 6 hours to cook, mine were ready to unwrap and enjoy in about one hour.
Not too shabby!
Die hard fans of the original nacatamale may argue that my masa/veggie creation is only that, an inauthentic copycat of a cultural classic. at worst, I could be accused of culinary sacrilege.
Yet, despite altering the sacred recipe, tasters from the veggie as well as the meat-eating contigency report success!

miércoles, 29 de septiembre de 2010

pesto hummus

Yet another delicious solution to a lack of ingredients!
On the pesto front, I have managed to whip up several alternative varieties, including using almonds, and more recently, cashews in replace of pine nuts. so yum and so easy.
Hummus is another favorite of mine whose ingredients are difficult to procure around here. one time i did locate tahini, the traditional basis of this Middle Eastern spread and days of hummus indulgence followed. otherwise, i have resorted to making a hummus-like dip with simply garbanzo beans and accompanying flavors.
Then finally, the obvious combination hit me:
Pesto Hummus!

Garbanzo beans provide the protein-rich foundation. i use dry beans, soaked overnight, then cooked until  tender in the pressure cooker (only about 10 minutes).

The big flavor comes from as much fresh basil as you can get your hands on
Blend the garbanzos first, adding enough water and olive oil for a creamy consistency. then add your basil, a few cloves of garlic, a squeeze of lemon, and salt and pepper to taste.

There you  have it! While not really a true version of either, my hybrid creation is a hearty hummus dip with rich pesto flavor, ready to smear onto a veggie sandwich or to serve as a chip dip.
 ¡Buen provecho!

viernes, 17 de septiembre de 2010

Butterfly Eye

I went for a garden stroll yesterday afternoon, just after a hard rain shower. in the post-storm stillness, the only sounds were my rainboots splashing in fresh puddles and the residual drippity drip from the trees. i had intended to photograph the leaf-cutter ants and their latest conquest amongst our coffee bushes, when i got the sense that someone was watching me. indeed, something had its "eye" on me!
Califo memnon
Owl butterflies thoroughly enchant me. They are not the type to flutter about and mingle in the garden sunshine, rather they prefer dark shady corners and dusk, thus magnifying the intensity of their camouflage. it is rare to see them rest for even a moment, so happening upon this one with camera in hand was a special treat!

A bit further along, I encountered one our most ubiquitous butterfly species, identifiable by its bright red on black wings. Crimson-patched Longwings have been a favorite of mine ever since I recognized them in the rainforest exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
Heliconius erato

I recently learned that Crimson-patched Longwing caterpillars feed exclusively on the leaves of passionflowers. que bueno that i've just planted two different varieties in the garden!

Still assuming I was on leaf-cutter ant hunt, I didn't scan the wildflowers along the trail for winged activity. Yet, directly in my path, hovering low over the wet earth, maybe dipping her probiscus to taste a fresh rain drop, this gorgeous creature beckoned my attention. it seemed i had inadvertently acquired butterfly eye!
Siproeta stelenes, commonly known as the Malachite

With this realization, I sharpened my gaze and noticed, they were everywhere! The quiet aftermath of rainstorm is exactly the time for butterfly chasing.

Not sure what type this one is....

Glasswing butterfly, Greta oto
yes! you can actually see THROUGH their wings!!

Banded Peacock or Fatima, Anartia fatima

See with your butterfly eye

martes, 7 de septiembre de 2010


Introducing yet another fruta de paraíso: STARFRUIT! or carambola.
And again, it is one I happened to discover growing right here on the farm. what a great surprise!
Averrhoa carambola
grow in tropical and semi-tropical regions all over the world, including Florida which is where I first encountered this mysterious star-shaped treat.
Nicaraguans call it melacoton, although by official english translation this word means peach. There are no fresh peaches here, so i guess it's a point not worth quibbling over. Melacoton are not a super common fruit here, and mainly make appearances in tangy fresh juices. The flavor is more sour than sweet, even when the fruit is ripe and yellow.
Luckily this nondescript little tree caught my eye the other day and I was drawn to investigate what interesting shapes dangled from its scraggly branches.
Though somewhat waxy in appearance, the outside skin of carambola is edible and quite tender. For juices the entire fruit is either mashed up or blended into a puree with water. and of course, Nicas add the usual "spoonful" of sugar to sweeten the deal.
If you are a fan of tart and sour, like me, you may also enjoy simply snacking on starfruit. I love its firm crunchy texture and snappy burst of juice inside, which consequently delivers a healthy dose of vitamin C and antioxidants.
Shine on!

jueves, 26 de agosto de 2010

mad chicken disease

A bad case of it too, very very mad. and definitely contagious. It's not as commonly known as mad cow disease, but you better believe it's just as ugly.

If you're not familiar with this dreadful condition, allow me:
Mad Chicken Disease, short for Mad At Chickens Disease, aka Mad That I Feed Chickens Who Don't Even Lay Eggs! Disease.

ahem. this brings me to my point: an update on my beloved chix coop!
Forgive my bluntness but lately the chickens are pissing me off.
Who, us?

A brief history: These are my first ever chickens
; I acquired the role as their caretaker almost one year ago during which time we have shared many ups and downs.
When Mama Canela began laying, I looked optimistically on our future egg producing/eating exhange. Her girls, the Chicklets, also started popping out a daily egg. happy days!
Sadly, a frustrating period commenced, as Canela became broody and refused to lay eggs. I tried every trick in the book, enduring her angry pecking and dramatic squawking as I attempted various anti-broody techniques. A stubborn hen, Canela refused to yield for many weeks.
Patiently I waited until the joyous day when she resumed egg laying service.
This brings us to recent incidents.
For about a week after our vacation, eggs were rolling in! then, one day instead of 3 eggs, I found only 2. the next day, only 1. eventually, you guessed it: 0 eggs.
The girls all seemed normal, eating well, no sign of broodiness. I beefed up their feed ration--maybe they were malnourished?? Still, no eggs.
Meanwhile, the coop was overtaken by a voracious ayote squash vine, a live decorative shade structure.
The squash leaves were so large and dense,, they were able to hide these from view:
Sneaky sneaky STRANGE chickens!! They had been laying eggs on the roof of their coop! which makes no sense. Are they doing this to upset me on purpose?? it's not cozy, private, safe, or any of the things a nesting box should be. but, there they were--a secret stash of perfect protein.
Well, now that the laying question was settled, we could get back to our previous arrangement, right?
not. so. fast.
Egg-laying ceased. from that day on, I have yet to find another egg. and i've looked, oh I'VE LOOKED! i've spent mucho tiempo in the coop this week, watching chicken tv.
what I did start to notice were the feathers. everywhere. fluffy down, long wing tips, you name it. all over the ground.
It appears my chickens are MOLTING. and during the 6-9 week molt, hens stop egg laying.
Seriously? because these girls have spent more time the past year off the nest than on.
is it any surprise that these chickens are making me MAD??

so for now, it is off to the mercado to BUY eggs, and stopping by the chicken coop each morning to gather squash ;)

viernes, 20 de agosto de 2010

"Starting" Over: a photo tour

Since getting back a month ago I've had to re-start the garden. With warm tropical temperatures day and night and just enough sunshine in between rainstorms, my new seeds have been spoiled into sprouting! Here's a rundown of my recently-started starts:

the results of a mixed bag of bell peppers. i can't wait to find out which varieties i've got.
and turning over a new leaf: turnip top greens! Seven Top turnip greens are grown only for their leaves, with no edible root to speak of. their flavor is much like mustard greens, they lend a spicy zing to sandwiches.

Not sure what type of chile peppers I have here--a friend brought the seeds from Mexico. Its gorgeous red peppers have a light, fruity spice

Gulp, here i go AGAIN with the upside-down tomatoes. i am so determined to have a healthy tomato plant!! (If you are unfamiliar with the upside tomato technique, see my Last attempt which was not successful; I did actually cultivate fruit during my first time around.)

Out in the garden, heavy rains nonwithstanding, my bush beans sprouted and are growing with a ferocity that would impress old Jack. Beautiful violet blossoms just showed up.

Finally, I started new luffa seeds, as my first plants have all died off. Since the luffa grow along the fence, I also planted a few cucumber seeds thinking they may be a nice climbing pair. Now i am unsure which is which!
The old luffa harbored one last fruit, which was looking a little too brown by the time I went to pick it. Our frequent rains are great for growing plants, but don't allow much time for anything to dry out. Several of the final luffa fruits rotted on the vine. anyway, as I was leaning in to harvest this last one, I stopped short. Someone was taking advantage of its dark color!
do you see who i see?

I didn't want to disturb the speckled one, so the rotting luffa remains.

martes, 17 de agosto de 2010

Platanos & Homemade Salsa

A close relative to bananas, though larger, starchier, and generally less sweet, plantains are a staple of Nicaraguan cuisine. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner platanos are served in one form or another. If you don't like them at first, you will!
Most farms and quintas grow at least a few plantain trees, their gigantic green leaves and spectacular flowers making sure you don't forget this is the tropics. Plantain and banana trees flourish during our rainy season, and continue to produce fruit throughout the dry times. Every year new trees are planted amongst our coffee bushes to provide shade, guaranteeing me a constant supply of plantains in the kitchen.
Platanos require cooking in order to be palatable, and their form and flavor vary greatly depending on when and how they are cooked. Green unripe platanos are frequently fried up as a side dish, sliced in rounds or in the case of tajadas, in long thin strips. In the latter, plantains serve kind of as nachos, topped with meat or cheese or anything you want. As I inherited a local mandoline slicer over a year ago and have never used it, I decided it was time:
Tajada Time!
Slicing plantains so thin was time-consuming, not to mention a bit dangerous; bare hands near a wide blade required careful attention. I wish I had taken a picture of the uncooked strips to demonstrate how delicate they were.
Here I am frying them up in a generous pool of sunflower oil.
The ideal tajada is thin and crispy like a potato chip. After a few batches, I got the hang of it!
All the hard work paid off when the tajadas were served! We topped them with refried beans, soy "meat," shredded cabbage, and my new homemade hot sauce--see below for recipe. On the side I served cooked chayote squash.
I am always experimenting with new salsa recipes, this one is a favorite. and very easy! The recipe I found calls for jalapeños, for which I substituted our local chile pepper, congo. Congos are tiny so I used a whole handful--use your own discretion when choosing spiciness level. Hot peppers, along with several tomatoes and a few cloves of garlic are tossed with olive oil and then broiled.Once the tomatoes are blackened, remove from oven and cool. Peel off tomato skins, then blend it all up. Add cilantro, salt, and a squeeze of fresh lemon. that's it: roasty, flavorful, spicy sauce!
¡Buen provecho!

domingo, 8 de agosto de 2010


At long last, I am so proud to brag that I am growing my all-time favorite flower!!! After many years of oohing and ahhing over its dramatic colors and showy displays, envying other gardens cascading with its tropical vine, even obsessing over its tangy fruit juice, I GREW IT! it is mine. and not just one, but TWO thriving plants!

Without further ado, allow me to introduce my garden's latest showstopper:
The family Passiflora is large and varied, so identifying specific species is a bit out of my league. Passionflowers stand out with their dazzling bold blossoms, typically pollinated by large bees and hummingbirds (both of which I have seen buzzing by this very flower).
Passionflower of course produces passionfruit, a baseball-sized fruit that Nicas call calala, which is popular in juice. In the market they are sold a ripe yellow color, so as of yet, the calala in the photo is not mature.

I can take a pretty good stab at this, my second vine, being the largest of all passionflower varieties, Passiflora quadrangularis.
Granadilla is a gigantic fruit, also containing a tart flesh used for refreshing drinks. It is especially large for growing on a vine, but sorry--I do not actually have any fruit on this guy yet.
isn't this blossom enough???!
The granadilla vine is part of my vision of a natural shade patio; an edible, ornamental, and also functional plant!
the flowers dangle straight down, as will the fruit

For now I am perfecting the art of passionfruit juice so that I'll be ready when my own crop is ripe ;)

Calalas contain dark colored seeds encased in a slimy pulp, which I know, does not look super tasty. but stay with me...
In Nica it is common practice to serve fruit juices with their pulp and/or seeds, leaving you with gulps of chunky beverage to enjoy, or if you're like me, with a tricky "straining of your own glass without looking too gross" technique. Therefore, in making my own batch, I press the pulp through a strainer, extracting as much of the tangy flavor without the actual globs.
Add water in the straining process, about 1 cup per fruit, and sugar to taste.
PASSION in a glass: ¡Deliciosa!