Frijoles Blancos con Carne de Cerdo (White beans and pork)

This has been on my husband’s list of dinner requests for some time now, and I’ve been putting it off. Not that it is daunting–its actually a very simple recipe. But this is one of those recipes that my mother-in-law makes; a childhood favorite. When he makes this request it is out of nostalgia; and now that we don’t live in Guatemala he is more nostalgic than ever. But I am well aware that any dish I make will never, no matter how delicious, live up to that memory… nor would I want it to. Food in the latino culture (as in most cultures) is very important. There is something about Mom’s cooking that can melt your heart and transport you back in time 20 years before to a specific rainy sunday when she made a favorite dish and life was perfect. I wouldn’t want to delute that memory or the affection this dish revives whenever consumed at her dining room table by recreating it too perfectly or frequently. It would lose its power and meaning. This is partly why I have not asked her for her recipes. It’s something sacred and, while it is not the dominating factor in our visits, will always keep us coming back.

But I can’t make any more excuses. This is the 6th week in a row I’ve promised to make it. So yesterday I bought a ham shank, soaked the beans overnight, and today I threw it together.

Frijoles Blanco con Cerdo is a simple dish of white beans stewed in a tomato-based sauce along with a ham shank. I have a cookbook with the recipe somewhere (thanks to Carla), but I just can’t find it. It was hidden somewhere in the move, but I suspect it will turn up when I’m not looking. So I turned to the never-failing web, and was very disappointed. While I did find recipes with a similar title, very few mimicked what I had in my mind, apart from this. But it is a poorly written recipe…most likely a word-for-word transcription of someone’s grandmother narrating the secret….probably a woman who has never followed a recipe in her life. Ingredients are added and they can’t tell you how much because they just know what looks and feels right. It most likely varies from time to time, and depending on which herbs and spices are available. Phrases like “plenty of tomatoes” and “basil, if you have it around” are the closest to measurement I could descern. So I worked with it, and with my memory of the dish I’ve eaten numerous times, and tried my best. For you, Love.

1 ham shank
1/2 lb beans, soaked overnight
3/4 t salt
1 t oregano
1/2 t thyme
1/2 t basil
1 bay leaf
Water to cover, or 1 liter prepared stock of choice
2 chile guaquillo (or another mild dried chile)
1 t cumino
1/4 t chile flakes (or more to taste)
1 large onion, diced
3 garlic, minced
1 28oz can of tomatoes

1. Add beans, ham shank, salt, oregano, thyme, basil, and bay leaf to a large dutch over and cover with water. Bring to a boil uncovered, then cover with lid and reduce to low heat. Cook until beans are tender, about 1 hour.

2. Meanwhile, head a skillet on medium high, break up chile into pieces, add cumin and chile flakes, and toast in pan til fragrant (2 minutes, high heat). Grind cooled spices, and set aside.

3. Sauté the onion until translucent. Add minced garlic and cook for just one minute. Add tomatoes and ground chile mixture and cook until fragrant and liquid is reduced.

4. Once beans are done, liquify tomato mixture and add some of the liquid from the beans (two large ladle fulls), then add back to pot and stir well to combine.

5. Taste, add seasoning if needed. The recipe says to add bouillon, but if you use stock it isn’t necessary. Bring back to a boil and cook uncovered for 15 minutes. Serve, or wait (this is one of those recipes that gets better with time). Sour cream is a delicious topping on this dish.

Huevitos con Friojoles (Eggs with Beans), and a lesson on the life of a Guatemalan bean.

A busy life requires a few quick and satisfying meals to help you get by. Our lives have been quite busy in the last 4 months and we tried very hard to stay away from take out and restaurants. Huveos con frijoles (eggs and beans) was a staple that helped to get us through, providing us with immense satisfaction and saving us a lot of money. Before I go into the recipe, I’d like to discuss a bit about the Guatemalan bean.

Beans in Guatemala, for many families, are a staple. They go through three main stages throughout the week. Each stage is distinct and lovely in its own way, and I rather enjoy the beauty and logic of their evolution. The idea is based on preserving the beans as well as time; the addition of variety is simply a bonus. A large pot of beans are made at the beginning of the week and prepared using three different techniques at distinct times of the week; each of stage prevents spoilage and extends the life of the bean.

The first stage: frijoles parados, the whole bean. The beans, usually black or red colorados, are soaked for at least an hour and up to overnight, depending on the freshness of the bean. Then drained, and simmered for an hour or two, often with onion and garlic. Simple and delicious, and the water becomes a thick syrupy texture.

Second are frijoles liquados, literally liquefied beans. They are much like re-fried beans you would encounter in a Mexican restaurant, running into your rice and sneaking under the shell of your tacos al pastor, making it deliciously soggy. They are the whole beans simply liquefied and reheated in the frying pan. Near the beginning of the week they are very runny, and towards the end they begin to thicken with each additional reheating.

Finally, my favorites (pictured above) are frijoles volteados, or flipped beans (for lack of a better translation). These aren’t ready until the very end of the week, after being reheated numerous times at breakfast and dinner each day. The beans become dry, and when stirred clump to the wooden spoon. At this stage, when they are being reheated, and gather in a messy ball, much like a dough as it comes together. Once they are dry enough, a few swift tosses of the pan accompanied by a expert twirl of the spoon, the above appetizing log-like shape is formed. I will brag a little here: I have pretty much nailed this down, something I’m proud of as a gringa. In this form and texture, the beans lend themselves well to being spread a toasted tortilla. They slice nicely, as butter, but a few unruly morsels of richness always scatter from the loaf and you have you mop them up with some soft fresh bread. Don’t let those go…they are the best part, and there is little I love more…

except, huevitos con frijoles (eggs and beans). Heat a little oil or butter in a large skillet over medium. Scoop up a generous heap of the dry and crumbly beans (lets say 3/4 a cup, if you squish them in), and add them to the pan. Break them apart with a wooden spoon so they are mostly crumbs, and let them heat through. Once they’re all warmed, break 4 eggs over the pan and let them cook just a bit without stirring, until you see the whites of each egg just begin to turn from clear to white. Then here is the trick: stir and don’t stop until they are cooked to your desired texture. I prefer mine creamy, not too done, or else they can be a bit dry. The constant movement gives the smooth (but crumbly) texture that I like. They should be a bit shiny, and they’re deeply rich.  When done immediately remove from pan to serving plate. Taste, then add salt if needed (usually my beans are already seasoned, so just a tiny pinch of salt is needed). I usually eat it with a splash of hot sauce. On a toasted tortilla they are the best.

Ceviche

This turned out to be a lot simpler than I originally imagined. Perhaps because ceviche is a delicate little beast, and I have been sick from it at least once. I don’t know why I trusted Los Chavos in Zona 5 to keep me safer than I could keep myself, but I had never considered attempting to mix up a batch of this Latino sushi any more than I would consider making my own plate of yellowfin sashimi or beef carpachio. It just seemed like a bad idea.

But the heat of summer is already arriving to Guatemala City, and Sunday morning I woke up sticky, sweaty, with the sheets stripped off and the fan pointing directly me. I was craving something fresh and light, but was not in the mood to drive to Esquintla, further towards the impending heat, to our favored and trusted ceviche joint, Blanquies. Why not make it, I thought.

I threw the idea out there, not so confidently and as more of a test of Hec’s reaction. He was intrigued by the idea, and I soon regretted making the suggestion as he grew increasingly enthused and I increasingly concerned thatt we’d just make ourselves sick. Time away from work is not something I can do this week. I took it back, saying I thought it wasn’t such a good idea, only for him to convince me otherwise. We had tilapia in the freezer, and bought a half pound of baby shrimp from the grovery. We were in for it, I thought.

Just to be safe we let it sit in the bacteria-killing lime all night long. Maybe that wasn’t necessary, maybe that wasn’t even the safest rout, but in my mind it made sense. It was delicious, if not a bit acidic…but what do you expect from a cup of lime juice? In the end the acidity got to me, and I was trying to remember the others I’d tried before. Perhaps a day of marinating is too much. We’ll try only a couple hours next time.  It’s been about 12 hours since we ate, and so far no signs of sickness. I’ll keep you updated.

Ceviche

Ingredients:
4 fillets of tilapia (or any seafood you prefer)
1/2 lb baby shrimp
1 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
1 red onion, finely minced
4 large fresh tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 dash favorite hot sauce
2 t salt
1 t dried oregano
handful or two of fresh cilantro
ketchup for garnish (optional*)

Directions:
Mix fish of your choice, lime juice, onion, tomato, hot sauce, salt, and oregano together and let sit at least an hour, or until fish change from raw translucent colors to pink/opaque and flaky. Add cilantro at last minute. Let each mix in own ketchup (if desired), more cilantro, and additional hot sauce. Finish batch within 48 hours, and be careful, if you save leftovers, not to double dip your spoons which will easily contaminate the batch.

*This is, in my opinion, a strange addition Guatemalan’s like. But I have seen recipes which call for ketchup. I don’t think it adds balance (being acidic in itself), and is sort of taints the dish. I tried it, and wasn’t crazy about it, but many find it necessary.

Chicharrón de Pollo

Chicharrón is, by definition, the skin of a young pig, deep-fried. Gross, I know. But it was actually the tipping point in me returning to meat. My first few months in Guatemala I tried to remain. But after offending some, and baffling others, and eating nothing but rice and potatoes in my homestay, I started to give. A bite of chicken here, of beef there. But I still considered myself a vegetarian…until I went to Zacapa.

“Just try a bite,” they said. So, I did. It was like bacon but a million times more amazing. Thick cut slabs. Crunchy yet chewy. Saturated with flavor (and fat). Salty. Delicious. After tasting, I let out a little groan of joy and said “I guess I can’t consider myself a vegetarian anymore.”

Now what you see above is not traditional chicharrón. I don’t even like it, but Hec loves this crap. When we get Pollo Campero (Guatemalan KFC) I give him the skin. Whenever I get a piece of chicken with skin, he gets the skin. I don’t like the texture and I don’t like the flavor. We make a prefect combination.

So when I was making my latest roasted chicken, I decided to remove the skin entirely, save the thighs and wings. Knowing this would break Hec’s heart, I decided to crisp it up in the frying pan with a generous glug of oil. That way I didn’t have to eat chicken with the skin, and he could enjoy it in its most exhaled form: fried.

I share this with you not so much as a recipe or technique, but more of a cultural nuance. Guatemalan’s love their chicharrón. I do enjoy a piece of the real thing every once in a while as well.

Quesadilla de Zacapa

We American’s know quesadilla to be tortillas filled with melted cheese among number of other ingredients. In Guatemala, while you do find this Mexican dish in many locations, the quesadilla is a sweet cake found primarily in the eastern part of the country, specifically the state of Zacapa. It uses a very salty crumbly cheese, queso seco (literally, dry cheese) that turns into a powder when you rub a chunk of it between your fingers. I suppose something like parmesean could be used as a substitute in recipes calling for queso seco, although it’s flavor is sharp like a cheddar or even blue cheese.

Recipes vary. Some use rice flour, others all purpose. Most of them contain a lot of butter, lard, cream, ect. My version is much healthier, if not too close to tradition. I was very pleased with the outcome, although it wasn’t a replica of the original treat.

Ingredients:
1 egg
1/2 cup fat free milk
1/2 cup plain greek style yogurt
3 T butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup queso seco or parmesean cheese
1 cup whole wheat flour, or rice flour
1 t baking powder

Directions:
1)Preheat oven to 350F
2)Beat egg. Mix together milk, yogurt, butter, and sugar.
3) Add the cheese. Combine thoroughly.
4) Mix in flour and baking powder until just combined.
5) Bake until toothpick comes clean, about 45 minutes.

Hec’s Mole

I love mole. Although mole varries quite a bit from place to place. In mexican restaurants it is generally (correct me if I am wrong) a spicy dish served with chicken. In Guatemala it leans toward the sweet side and blankets fried plantains. I LOVE mole with plantains, but only Hec’s mole. Everything else is too sweet. His recipe combines the spiciness of Mexican mole with the dessert-esque plantain version. Although we enjoy it with chicken as well. I’m not sure how Hec came up with this recipe…but I believe it was inspired by quite a few different recipes.

Ingredients:
– 1/2 lb drinking chocolate (in bar form)
– 2 oz pumpkin seeds
– 2 oz sesamee seeds
– 1 large stick of cinnamon
– 1 large, dried chile pasa
– 2 dried chile huaque
– 1 dried chile sambo
– 5 roma tomatoes, cut in halves and seeded
– 2 pieces of toasted or old bread, for thickening, if desired

Directions:
1. In a frying pan, toast the pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, cinnamon, and chilies. Allow to cool, then grind until a fine powder.
2. Boil two cups of water, and add the chocolate. Whisk until dissolved.
3. Cook the tomatoes in a pan until soft.
4. Blend together the chocolate, tomatoes, and spices.
5. If you wish for the mixture to be a bit thicker, break the bread into piece and blend it into the sauce.
6. Serve with friend or cooked plantains, or over chicken.

Dia de Todos los Sants, Part 2: The Giant Kites of Sumpango, and Fiambre.

I cant seem to make my mind up about the weather these days. The rainy season this year was quite pathetic. I can’t remember even a handful of days with the torrential downpours which are characteristic Guate between June and October. This dry spout made things quite hot and steamy in the country, not to mention what it did to the poor agro workers. But it has been wanting to rain. You can feel it hanging in the air. Your clothes become damp and uncomfortably stick to you back. Anyway, I have been whining about the weather, that its too hot, that I want the winter to come so I can use my sweaters again.

Last week I sorta got my wish. It started raining, and there were rumors of global warming pushing back the raining season until November and that this was just the start. (Lies… I looked on the map and saw it was spin off from Hurricane Ida.) Now she’s died down a bit and its hot again. But for a few sweet days it was actually cold. One night I was miserably cold and wondered what I had been thinking. The cold brought on a new predicament for me: I can’t sleep without my industrial-strength fan. We live in a big city, so I need the fan to put me to sleep, and to drown out the noises of the cars passing at night, and the 3am deliveries at the gas station next door. So…the first night of cold — which required long pants, three layers of shirts, and an extra blanket to take the chill off — I unsuccessfully attempted to sleep without my fan. After two hours of tossing and turning and unable to ignore the speeding trucks, or the clanks over at the gas station, I ventured out of my covers into the crisp apartment to turn the fan on. I had to put the space heater on for an hour or so just to bring my body temperature back to 98.6ºF.

The next night was chilly but not as cold, and those following have started climbing back into the uncomfortably warm temperatures, where I barely can use a sheet.

So…I’ve bored you with discussions on the weather…but it’s all going to tie together now. November 1st, All Saints Day in Guatemala, was a perfect fall day by my standards. In the morning it was quite brisk, sweater worthy, but the sun was out and the sky was so blue it hurt your eyes. It was a very pleasant temperature. I was pleased to finally break out my sweaters for the first time of the year. I wore one that Hec refers to as my Grandma Sweater, which doesn’t deter me from wearing it because it is warm, fuzzy, and in my opinion cute. And on this fall-like day (which are rather few in Guate, so a rare treasure) we drove an hour and some west of the city, just far enough to reach the rolling hills, but not too far of a drive to make it tiring. The destination? The town of Sumpango.

On November 1st this tiny pueblo holds a famous a giant kite festival. People in this community spend months and thousands of dollars in materials and man labor building beautifully decorated kites more than 10 meters wide. The frame is constructed of giant bamboo branches thicker than my arm, and the face is made of colorful tissue paper. Each kite has its own theme, sometimes religious, somethings social criticizms, sometimes just really pretty.

We departed from our apartment around 7am and arrived a little after 8. The traffic was light on the highways, but even at this early time the parking space in the town was filling up rapidly. We parked in a basketball court, watching the attendants instructing cars to double park…we knew leaving might be a little difficult come the afternoon. But oh well…

We wandered around looking for giant kites soaring in the sky to guide us to the activities, but it was too early. We followed the crowds of people until we arrived at the cemetery. Indigenous families, ladino families, and tourists packed into the small cemetery. Families were painting the graves, sculpting mounds of dirt where there lacked a stone, carefully arranged flowers, and burned incense as they prayed. It was a spectacular sight.

Further into the village the streets were lined with vendors selling handicrafts, kites, and food.

Finally we arrived to the soccer field where teams were assembling their kites. While they had spent months working on the face, they would carry the materials to the camp and put it together on the morning. Watching the teams tie together the gargantuan branches, and then at the end hoisting the giant disk up for display, was quite an attraction. In a nearby field families were camped out, having bbqs, and flying their kites.

We only stayed to watch the first round of flying due to the intense heat of the unexpected afternoon sun. While they were the children’s kites, they were still larger than anything I’d seen in the US: on average they were 2 meters wide! It was quite a spectacle watching the kites soar, and sometimes dive into the crowds below.

Before we left, you better believe it, we had some yummy food. Abodado asado (grilled marinated steak) with beans, rice, and blue corn toritllas. These tortillas can’t be beat. I’m not crazy about meat, but this was spectacular…even if it made me a little sick the next day.