Ginger-Orange Borscht

Beets might be my favorite vegetable. They are a relatively new discovery for me as we never ate them growing up. I had never considered them, and in the back of my mind the florescent purple flesh most likely made me a little nervous. But after a first taste the fear disappeared, and I have been experimenting with more ways to incorporate it into our diet: steamed, baked, braised, shredded and raw in salads, pureed into a spread. This is the first time I’ve tired a soup. Not sure why it hadn’t occurred to me earlier, but just like carrot or squash soup, pureed into a broth and lightly seasoned, its delicious. With a touch of citrus and ginger, it is fresh and delightful!


Ginger Orange Borsche

Ingredients:
1 yellow onion, diced
2 large carrots, roughtly chopped
2 tablespoons ginger, grated
1 clove garlic
4 large beets, roughtly chopped
2 cups chicken stock
4 cups water
salt to taste
1/2 cup orange juice
zest of 1 orange, reserve a little for garnish
fresh mint and yogurt for toping (optional)

Directions:
Simple simple simple. Sautee onion until translucent, add carrots, ginger and garlic and cook on medium heat until carrots are soft and ginger and garlic frangrant. Add beets, stock, water, juice, and zest. Cover and simmer on medium high for an hour, or until the veggies are tender. Puree, season with salt and pepper to tast. Garnish with additional zest, crushed fresh mint leaves, and yogurt.

Ribollita, Italian Peasant Stew.

We went to Xela (Quezaltenango) last weekend. It was a lovely end to a nice, long break from work. In the 22 months I have lived in the country, I had yet to make it there. It seemed a bit far (although now the highway has improved and it is barely a three hour drive now!), and I never had any business out that direction. But my visa renewal was coming up and I was looking for a cheap way to leave the country. So Mexico it was. Mexico really isn’t close, but from Xela it was a day trip, so we took advantage of the trip. I won’t go into details, my passport is now renewed, and Xela is a beautiful beautiful place I hope to visit again very soon. Hidalgo, Mexico — not a town I’ll recommend.

Whenever I travel someplace new I like to indulge in the culinary treats typical of the town. In Xela it is Shecas…a sweet bread often flavored with anise. We bought half a dozen from a bakery in town, and although they were delicious we were disappointed they had no anise. Oh well, we though. Then, on our way out of town in Quatro Caminos, there were venders at the stoplights selling bags of them. Impluslively I rolled down my window, asked if they contained anise (“si, si” , he responded), and we traded a 10Q bill for a bag of 10 shecas before the light turned green. I ripped open the bag and tore off a bite, and immediately disappointed. Not only was there no trace of anise, they were dry and tasteless. Ugg, I thought. I pondered “what am I going to do with 9.75 dry and tasteless pieces of bread?!”

Then, instantly, an image of old useless bread brought a rush of fond culinary memories. I rummaged through my bookshelf until I found the mini “marble memo” notepad where I scratched down the recipe.
Lets jump back 5 years to November 2004. My junior year in college, study abroad in Rome, Italy. My parents visited for a couple weeks. We toured the country side, including a few days in Florence (Firenze!). We went to the museums, shopped on Ponte Vecchio, and ate delicious Tuscan cuisine. I’m not sure how we discovered the tiny restaurant in that little village tucked in the mountains surrounding Florance. (I should have done proper research here, but in my emotion I didn’t have the time…Mom, do you remember? Do you still have that little ceramic ashtray the restaurant owner gave us?).

I remember very clearly it was very very cold. We took a bus about 20 minutes up the twisted mountain roads and were dropped off on the main street of an empty town. We ate the most delicious**, tender whole chicken, butterflied and grilled to perfection with that crusty blackened skin. We had a tomato stew thickened with day old bread, and we had Ribollita, a white bean stew also thickened with day old bread. There was no one in the tiny place. It was dark outside, but candles surrounded us in every direction giving an old-fashioned glow to the place. I felt like I was back in the 1800s. The owner chatted with us (and now I forget if it was in my broken Italian or his broken English). He explained the preparation of the dish in enough detail that I was successful in my online search at the internet cafe the next day (I don’t think I knew about Google back then). He gave us a little ceramic ashtray that I think my Mom uses for coins.

Good memories. I would like to go back. I wonder if it is still there. In the past 5 years, on and off I remember the stew and thought on making it, but the timing was never right. But finally it happened and it was magic. The white bean are great. It’s loaded with veggies full of vitamins. It’s healthy. And letting chunks of day old bread absorb the broth and disintegrate completely thickens the stew and creates a hearty, delicious texture. And it’s cheap and easy to make, although a bit of chopping is required. I just ate a bowl and my belly is warm and satisfied. I will sleep well tonight.

Ribollita. Italian White Bean Peasant Stew.

Ingredients:
1 cup dried white beans*
8 cups water
1 red onion, diced
1 yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (optional/more or less to taste)
2 stalks celery, finely diced
2 medium carrots, diced
1 potato, diced (optional)
2 roma tomatoes, seeded and diced
2 bay leaves
3 springs thyme (dried or fresh)
3 sprigs rosemary (fresh)
salt and pepper to taste
4 cups red cabbage, 1/2″ pieces
2 cups savoy cabbage, 1/2″ pieces
1 bunch kale or swiss chard, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 can chicken broth
1 loaf day old bread (traditioanlly “italain peasant bread”, but you can use whatever you have).

Directions:

1) Soak beans overnight. Cook in 8 cups water according to directions (I do it in my slow cooker on low for about 5 hours). Once cooked, reserve all the liquid. Puree half of the beans while keeping the rest whole. The pureed beans will add a nice thick texture to the soup, while the whole beans let you know they’re still there!

2) Meanwhile, cook onions and garlic until soft. Add celery, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, herbs, salt and pepper. Cook until veggies are softened, about 10 minutes.

3) Add cabbages. Cook until softened and flavors combine.

4) Add tomato paste, still well to combine.

5) Add the liquid from the beans, the pureed beans, the chicken broth, and swiss chard/kale. Let simmer on medium heat about 30-45 minutes until potatoes are cooked and the flavors well blended.

6) Add the whole beans, and let warm through.

7) Meanwhile, toast up the old bread. Rub a clove of peeled garlic over each piece. Place a piece in each bowl, crumbling it well.Once stew is cooked, and seasoning adjusted if necessary, spoon a serving over the bread. Mix to integrate the crumbled bread into the stew. Let sit for 5 minutes before serving.

8)Serve with a drizzle of olive oil, and grated parmesean, pecorino, or assiago cheese if desired. Enjoy!

*You may use canned beans instead. Make sure to use water or broth to replace the cooking water from the beans.

**I stated in my last post that the chicken I made was the most delicious chicken I have ever had. I take that back…it is the second most delicious chicken I had ever had. The one I had in Italy was hands down the best!

Las Verapaces, Part 1: Semuc Champey y Coban, and Kakik

Verapaz - Backpacks

The 15th of September is independence day in Guatemala and all of Central America actually. In 1821 they officially split from Spain. I was particularly thankful for the day because Héc got the entire week off! We took advantage of the time and went on an expedition to the highlands of Las Verapaces — the north central part of the country. I had never been to the region but had been yearning to go since the day I saw a photo of the gorgeous green rolling mountains with cascading waterfalls scattered about.
Verapaz - River CohobanVerapa - Cocoa

Left: the Cohobón river running past our hostel. Right: A cacao tree around the park, from where they make chocolate. Some locals were selling a crude, homemade chocolate using the cacao pods and sugar crushed together.
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The reason we had waited so long to make the trip was because its not an easy to place to reach. The roads in the past have been poorly maintained, the highways curve tightly around the mountains rather than cut through the base as in Colorado. Therefore, a trip that would perhaps take no more than two hours in the midwest takes an hard and bumpy four.

The first destination on our itinerary was Semuc Champey…or a hostel which lies just outside. Semuc Champey is a natural reserve with beautiful aqua-blue lagoons positioned on top of a “stone bridge”, as it is called. The bridge is a rock formation which makes a type of cap over the Cohobón river. It is truly a paradise….but to get there is quite a journey, as it is located in the middle of nowhere. You first must make the windy journey from the capital to Cobán, which lasts about 4 hours. The only problem is that, even if you purchase your seat a head of time, you will be among 20 or 25 people crammed into a 15 passenger van. Personal borders do not exist here. It didn’t seem to matter that we in the van were already uncomfortably full…if someone on the side of the road hailed us down we came a-screeching to a halt, the ayudante (the bus driver’s helper) would toss the new passenger’s baggage carelessly on the roof, then ask everyone to scoot over a bit more. At one point a poor old man had someone else’s grandma sitting on his lap and I half expected to be handed a stranger’s baby to hold for a time.

Verapaz - microbus

From Cobán you must take another 2 hour microbus to Lanquin. The bus is usually of the same variety as the previous, packed to the max; but it passes through some of the most gorgeous green country I’ve ever seen, so I completely forgot that my legs were numb. I won’t compare it to Ireland or Switzerland as I have heard do others, but only because I heard a Swiss girl drone on and on about how Switzerland is so much prettier than Guate. To me, it was absolutely breathtaking: rolling hills, strangely pointy mountains, everything covered in a lush-mossy green. The two hours passed in a flash as a gazed out the window…despite the little girl getting car sick just in front of us.

Verapaz - Sunsetting in Lanquin

As the sun began to set we arrived in Lanquin, a little pueblo only 12 kilometers or so from Semuc, and where our hostel was located. We relaxed on a stoop outside a tienda and enjoyed a cold beer while waiting for our final transport to arrive. Within a half an hour we were whisked away to our hotel, in the middle of nowhere, and were safely in our little bungalow as the most fierce thunderstorm with a brilliant electric show began. We nestled into our rather hard beds and fell asleep to crashes of thunder and flashes of lightening.

Verapaz - Hiking to MiradorVerapaz - High Cliffs

The next day we awoke quite late, inhaled a very salty breakfast from the sparse menu our little rustic lodge offered, and then ventured into the jungle to explore some lagoons and hike some trails! The entrance to Seumuc was only 200 meters from our lodging, but once in the park we hiked an agonizing 1.2 kilometers nearly vertical. (You Amazing-Race trialthelon types are probably rolling your eyes at me…but this was basically rock climbing people. And that’s not my kind of sport!) The goal was the mirador (or viewpoint) where we got a glimpse of the mystical lagoons and rock bridge. Once we arrived at the top e rested for quite some time, relaxing in the shade, talking with Santiago- one of the many “rangers”, and gaining the courage to descend back down. It was slippery on the way up, and I imagined myself bouncing off the cliffs on the way down. It wasn’t as bad as in my mind, although I bit the dust (or mud, rather) a few times.

Verapaz - Mirador

At the bottom again, we wandered to las pozas (lagoons) where we floated around, protected from the savage heat, for a few hours in the late afternoon. I could have spent an entire week just swimming in the pools…but unfortunately we aren’t children on a summer vacation, nor are we retired like someone I know. (Hint hint…you guys need to check this place out sometime next year!

Verapaz - Pozas

The next day we visited Las Grutas de Lanquin–a large network of caves located just outside the town of Lanquin. We had to hike a shadeless kilometer to get to the entrance, but once there we spent an hour or so wandering around in the damp caverns, enjoying the shelter from the sun. From the caves we caught a bus back to the city of Cobán. We were exhausted from all the hiking and were looking forward to sleeping in a comfortable hotel, hopefully with cable TV, a luxury we don’t enjoy at home. It took us quite awhile to find such a place. I don’t know if I mentioned before, but Cobán is located in a particularly cloudy region of the country. The guides all say it is sunny for three weeks a year — in April — and the rest of the year a gloomy sheet of clouds sits over the city. We were lucky (or perhaps not) because it was very sunny and sometimes unbearably warm. It did provide for beautiful scenery. However…while walking around in the sunny afternoon, the sky opened up and began to pour down rain while the sun remained. How odd…

Verapaz - HallwayVerapaz - Monja Blanca Sign

We finally found a Hotel within our budget: Monja Blanca. It was a beautiful yet strange place. The property was the traditional colonial style with the rooms along corridors surrounding beautiful courtyards filled with fruit trees and tropical plants. The rooms and hallways were lined with beautiful antique furniture, and little details such as a fresh glass pitcher of pure water in each room, took us back in time. But the joint was vacant. We rang the bell and waited so long we almost left before the doorman answered. He led us through one courtyard and into another. The sun was starting to set, and no lights were lit within the residence, and it was eerily silent. I have to admit that I was creeped out, but the doorman was very cheery, and led us to a cozy room with good ventilation, a clean hot shower, and cable TV 🙂 The price was right, so we stayed. He didn’t ask us for a credit card, a name, nothing. He gave us the key and told us we could settle everything in the morning. Such trust you don’t often find these days.

We took a nap, showered, then went in search for K’akik, the meal Cobán is famous for. K’akik is a traditional Mayan recipe of chunto (wild turkey) in a bath of herbs, veggies, and toasted spices including tomato, chile guaque, cinnamon, cloves, mint, and cilantro. It is traditionally served with the simple, sweet corn tamales wrapped in banana leaves. It was a delicious and filling meal after a hard day of hiking and traveling. I have never made the dish, however I have posted the recipe below. It doesn’t seem too difficult, although it surely takes some time to let the bird stew to a tender texture.

Verapaz - Kakik

Kakik. Also Cack-ik, Kac-Ik, Caquik. Serves 4-6.

Ingredients:
5 pound wild turkey (or a store bought chicken would work just fine)
One entire bulb of garlic
Two or three sticks of cinnamon
One pound of tomatillos
10 o 15 tomatoes
4 chiles guaques (or spicy dried peppers)
10 cloves
One bunch of cilantro
One bunch of mint
One bunch of green onions (just the greens)
Achiote y sal to taste (I’m not sure if this is easily available in the U.S. Try Mexican grocers, but its ok to skip. It gives the deep red color of the stew, but not much in terms of flavor)

Directions:
1. Place the turkey in a large pot and just cover with water, bring to a boil, then reduce to suimmer. Add the garlic, cinnamon, and cloves. Cook until the turkey is done.

2. Meanwhile, sautee the tomatoes, onions, tomatillos, and chiles. Once they are all tender, puree them. Pass them through a collendar to remove the chunks and leave only a smooth sauce. Add the achiote to some cold water to dissolve it, then add the the mixture.

3. Add the mixture to the cooking bird and simmer for some time on very low heat, until the bird is tender.

4. Traditionally served with rice or simple corn tamales, as well as cooked carrots, squash, potato, and corn on the cob.

Recipe roughly translated from here: http://www.quetzalnet.com/recetas/Cack-ik.html

Seafood Avgolemono (Greek Style Egg Lemon Soup with Calamari and Tilapia)

Avegolemono - Rings of Squid

Avgolemono soup reminds me of Solonica, located on 57th Street in Hyde Park Chicago. It was just two blocks from my place, and was a frequent breakfast stop, especially mornings (or afternoons) after a party. It is a diner-style restaurant but the menu is sprinkled with Greek-style culinary treats such as moussaka, omelettes with spinach and fetta, spinach pie and, my favorite, baklava. Avgolemono was also on the menu. It traditionally is an chicken stock thickened with eggs, scented with lemon, and served with rice, and sometimes herbs such as mint or dil.

My recipe is slightly different. In fact, I began making this stew with something completely different in mind. I was going to make a simple seafood stew, featuring the many pounds of squid we recently bough without taking note of the expiration date (thats why it was so inexpensive…) But didn’t read the recipe carefully. After I finished making the stock (step #1 in my recipe below) I realized that the recipe called for mayo. It called for mayo. I despise mayo. So I thought and I though. What can I put in place of the mayo? I didn’t have yogurt prepared, which is my number one go to substitute for mayo. I thought milk would be too watery for the consistency I was looking for. I don’t do cream any more willingly than I do mayo. But what is mayo, anyway? Eggs, lemon, salt, and oil. Huh. Eggs and lemon sounds an awful lot like Avgolemono…and lemon goes wonderfully with seafood. So it was settled. Instead of they mayo I added the juice of two lemons (limes actually- lemons are almost impossible to find in Guate, but I found the limes to work just as well) and 4 eggs.

LeeksAvgolemono - With Veggies

The result was a lovely light lemony cream sauce, and rich in protein. I followed most of the directions of my original inspiration, but the lemon and eggs took the dish hostage-which I was greatful for. The dish was perfect. There were groans of joy throughout the entire meal. In addition, the veggies I used added a nice texture, color, and flavor that traditional chicken broth wouldn’t have provided. This broth was a perfect way to feature the calamari and tilapia.

Seafood Avgolemono (Serves 6 -8)
For Vegetarian version, use vegetable broth instead of chicken, and omit seafood. Perhaps chickpeas or white beans would be a nice addition.

Ingredients:
1 pound squid, cut into rings
4 tilapia filettes
1 pound new potatoes, boiled separately and put aside (optional)
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups water
1 cup white wine
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 carrot, sliced
1 leek, sliced
1 small onion, diced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 tomato
1 bayleaf
4 eggs
2 lemons or limes
1/4 teaspoon paprika
large pinch of salt
8 garlic cloves
Olive oil and generous fresh black pepper. This is important!

Directions: 1. Add olive oil to a 4 quart pot, and add carrots, leeks, and onion. Cook on medium heat for about 10 minutes, making sure not to brown the veggies. One the veggies are tender, add the tomato, and cook another two minutes. Add the fennel, thyme, and bay leaf, along with the chicken stock, water, and wine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 3o minutes. At this point I prefer to strain the veggies, and set them aside. I will add them in later. For me, it makes preparing a creamy broth much easier. However you can keep them in if you prefer.

2. Prepare the egg mixture: Beat the eggs well. Add the juice of the lemons and whisk together. Peel all the garlic, and place in separate bowl or plate. Add the salt, and grind together to form a nice paste. This will ensure that the garlic combines well into the soup. Once into a fine paste, whisk the garlic into the eggs. Set aside.

3. If you want to make this ahead of time (lets say the night before, or in the morning), you can let the stock cool, and cover it and the eggs well and keep in the fridge up to 24 hours. When you are ready to prepare the rest, about a half hour before eating, bring the broth to a simmmer and let the eggs sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.

4. Temper the eggs. Ladle a half cup of the hot broth into the egg mixture, whisking vigorously. Add another half cup and continue whisking. This ensure that the egg does not “seize” and start cooking when it enters the hot broth. Add the egg mixture to the broth and whisk until well combined.

5. Add the squid and tilapia (torn into bite-sized pieces) and cook for a few minutes until opaque and flaky. If you removed the veggies and wish to have them in your soup, you can add them at this point. Add the potatoes, if desired, at this point as well. (So, Alton Brown says that the veggies after being cooked for so long are “worthless” as far as nutrients go. But for me they still have flavor, texture, color, and fiber. So I keep them. It doesn’t hurt.)

6. Serve drizzled with olive oil, fresh cracked black pepper. Look at the picture below…this is important. A few mint leaves would also add a lovely touch.

Avgolemono - Pepper and Olive Oil

Sopita de Zanahoria y Güicoy con Loroco (Carrot and Squash Soup with Loroco)


One Saturday, like many, we were driving from our apartment in Vista Hermosa to the in-laws’ place in Mixco. Depending on the day of week, month, the weather, recent accidents, and a number of other factors, this 7 kilometer journey can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour and a half. Saturdays in the mid morning don’t tend to be too bad, but this particular day was miserable. And with the 80º F, 90% humidity, and our air-condition-less car, it was unbearable. In a city like Guatemala — which has somewhat recently faced clumsy and uncoordinated growth, the streets are arranged in a windy and illogical manner and overcrowded with beat-up and smoking vehicles that wouldn’t last a mile in California without being pulled over for a smog violation — you think twice before going out at rush hour and avoid rolling down your windows to get some air flow. But on this more-tropical-than-usual July day, with the traffic gridlocked and moving at tortoise speed, having the windows down was not an optional, it was necessary. But we suffered through the smell, and occationally rushed to roll up the windows when a cloud of black would billow from a red city bus.

Somewhere in Zone 1, about halfway to our destination, we were stopped at a busy intersection. The traffic light changed to red, and vendors — selling items as varying as polarized windows to fruits and veggies — sprang into the alleys between cars, holding their items in the air towards windows and shouting out their prices. A girl of about 14 years old came right up to my open window and stuck a pound bag of loroco in my lap and requested 10Q (about $1.50). Loroco, a flower found mainly in Guatemala and El Salvador, is only in season for about two months during the beginning of the rainy season in Guatemala (July and August). It is a culinary delicacy used in a variety of dished, but my favorite is Pollo en Crema con Loroco; a cream based chicken stew. Without much time to consider the purchas, Héc pulled out a 10Q bill from his wallet, and the exchange was complete. The light turned green and we were on our way.

Later in the evening when we got home, I put the bag in the fridge, where it stayed for a couple days. Every day that week, while scrummaging through the fridge for ideas on what to prepare for dinner, I would come across the bag sitting there lonely and, assuredly, getting more withered each moment. The flower is rather frail, which is the reason you don’t see it outside of Guatemala often unless pickled, which in my opinion completely ruins its delicate and unique essence. But the truth is I was intimidated. Pollo en Crema was the only dish that came to mind when thinking of loroco. And I wasn’t about to attempt to recreate the delicacy that Abuelita Zoila or Betty (la suegra) have been mastering for years. Too many expectations, I thought, and to be honest it is something so sacred and revered in the household that out of respect I didn’t want to go there. It would almost be like making pumpkin pie at any time other than Thanksgiving. It is a meal we eat once or twice a year, and prepared by Betty or Zoila. That is it. Perhaps some day Betty will take me into her kitchen and bestow upon me the rights to attempt the dish.

So what was I supposed to do with this flower? Because it isn’t readily available in the U.S. or Europe, you cannot find many recipes posted online. The recipes are posted in the minds of the Latina women from these two Central American countries. And from my memory, I’ve seen it only in queso fresco, a farmers cheese; in empanadas with from Yolanda’s, located at a populated comedor outside of Zacapa; and in pollo en crema. That is it. But by Wednesday I realized I should use them before they go to waste. So I poured the flowers into a collander where I washed them thoroughly, picked off the woody stems, and tasted a few here and there to get some ideas.

Finally I settled on this. I had been planning to make a carrot soup with star anise, because we bought a huge bag of star anise and had only used about one pod to make garam masala. But decided that I would substitute the loroco for the anise, and also include some leftover güicoy (a winter-type squash) I had sitting in the fridge.

It turned out lovely. I used lots of onion, a bay leaf, and a single garlic clove (which is very uncharacteristic for my cooking, as I have been known to eat entire roasted blubs straight up. I believe deeply in their health benefits). And at the end a splash of milk for added creaminess, which Héc, my lactose intolerant lover, said could be left out. Its a very simple recipe, but that simplicity really let the flavor of the loroco shine, which is exactly what I was going for.

Sopita de Zanahorria y Güicoy con Loroco

Ingredients:
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion
1 garlic clove
2 bay leaves
3 cups shredded carrots (about two large carrots)
2 cups cooked squash (probably about 1 acorn squash- and I supposed you could use uncooked)
2 cups water
2 cups stock (vegetable or chicken, whichever you prefer)
1/2 pound loroco*
milk (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

Directions:
Sauté onion and garlic in olive oil until translucent. Add the bay leaves and let cook until fragrant. Add the carrots and squash, add water, and cook uncovered until softened, about 20 minutes. Add stock, and let cook for another 10 minutes. Take the pot off the heat, and let cool slightly before pureeing. I use a hand blender so I don’t get any more dishes dirty, but if you use a food processor or blender, make sure you let it cool enough. Once pureed so that it is very smooth (or to your desired consistency), put the mixture back in the pot and on heat. Add the loroco and cook on high for 20 minutes or until the flowers have become very tender. Add milk at the very end if you like, but it can easily be left out. Salt and pepper to your liking.

*if you are not in Guatemala or El Salvador, you may want to try this with squash blossoms. I haven’t, but I believe it would be delightful, although a bit

With the left over loroco I made a lovely fritata of red onion, cheery tomatoes, and loroco. The soup went really well with a spicy corn bread chock full of fresh corn.