Monday, November 11, 2013

Guatemala Dreaming: Trying out some typical recipes

Page from the cookbook for my daughter - note the
very stained page from my notebook.
Tomatillos (Miltomates)
Lately I have been thinking about Guatemala, talking about Guatemala and making Guatemalan dishes that I had not made in a while, as well as some I had never made. I really enjoyed my time in Guatemala. I was 20 years young and willing to learn so many things that so vastly diverged from anything I had previously known in my upper Midwest upbringing. I made a "cookbook" of a sort for my oldest daughter when she turned 40, with all sorts of recipes and photos. Unfortunately, though I had made many of these recipes, I had not been so photography-mad back then. Nowadays I take photos of almost anything I make, to have a record of it in case I may need it some day. With a blog, website and Pinterest, I do use a lot of photos. I do have a couple of notebooks and a handful of recipe cards I wrote out, with lots of typical Guatemalan dishes, some of which I had made often and others I have yet to try. My sister gave me the idea to make this cookbook, mainly because some of my recipes are so terribly stained you can really see how well they have been used. The result is one I am quite proud of - and yet - the pictures and the recipes are for the most part, not "mine." I "Swiped from the best with pride," as they say, filling the pages with photos I took from the internet, since it was meant only for my daughter's eyes.

At this point in time, I could nearly fill the book with food photos of my own. I have been consistently making dishes and getting photos where possible. I wish that I had photos of all the places I visited back in the 1970s; sadly, I do not. Short of a nice long photography trip back to Guatemala, I have little hope of ever having those type of photos for a book. It was a most interesting time in my life and one I will always treasure. One of the many spices I learned about while there was Annatto:

Annatto - Bixa orellana

Annatto Seeds (Achiote)
Annatto seeds, called achiote (a-CHO-tay) in Guatemala, are a spice from the pods of the Bixa orellana tree. The tree produces fruits that are vaguely heart-shaped, with thick, spiky hairs all over them. When the fruit matures, the pod opens to reveal the orangey seeds inside. The seeds are orange to red in color, and the outer, powdery orange coating on the seeds is what is used for flavor and color in so many of the dishes in Guatemala as well as many of the other central, South American and Caribbean cuisines. It will make rice a lovely yellow color similar to saffron, though with a different flavor component. Depending on how much annatto is used, more flavor can come through, lending a signature flavor to things such as Hilachas, the recado that goes on top of tamales or chuchitos and Arroz con Pollo. This is by far an incomplete list, as these seeds are use widely and extensively. 

I was cautioned, while in Guatemala, to avoid ever grinding the whole seed, as the inner seed is bitter and will ruin the flavor of a dish. I have never substantiated this admonition. 

While I mainly write of these seeds as a spice, the reddish color they lend is also used in other varied ways. In some of the native cultures of these countries the red color, which rubs off of the seeds easily, is used "cosmetically" as a lip or cheek color. Many American processed cheeses, as well as some Cheddar or Colby cheeses are given their appetizing yellow orange color with annatto seeds. 

"Pollo en Jocon" or Chicken in Green Sauce
So that brings me back to the present. I love the flavor of Green Sauce or "Salsa Verde". It uses tomatillos as the green base, along with all other green things, such as green pepper, celery, parsley and cilantro. I have been making it recently and using it to braise pork, which is heavenly, but not Guatemalan so far as I know. What I had never really made was Carne or Pollo en Jocon. This is a stewed dish with either beef or chicken, and a green sauce thickened with corn tortillas or corn masa (a substitute can be using corn masa flour as the thickening agent). It is served over Guatemalan Style Rice, usually made as the Guatemalans do, with the addition of onion, carrot, peas, celery and/or green pepper. Sometimes annatto seed is cooked in oil and this colored oil is also added. Since my son and his wife were coming to visit this past weekend, I decided sort of last-minute to make the Carne (Beef) en Jocon. It was a real hit; so much so that the kids were arguing over the leftovers later. I decided to make it again, since they obviously had not had their fill, and this time with chicken.

Today, for whatever reason, I started thinking about Pepian, another very typically Guatemalan dish, and one I have never made. It is another stew type dish, made with beef or chicken usually, but this sauce is more red, and made with tomatoes, toasted sesame and pumpkin seeds, dried chili peppers such as ancho and guaque and possibly some annatto seeds for color. It is also served over rice, but may have the addition of vegetables such as carrot, potato or chayote squash. There are so many wonderful flavors in Guatemalan cooking and sometimes I become nostalgic. I am so grateful both for the time I spent in that country and for my ability to cook all these wonderful dishes.

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I am also on a spiritual journey and hope you will join me at my new blog, An Eagle Flies.