Saturday, December 13, 2014

Hilachas - a Delicious Guatemalan Stew

Continuing on with my revision of a cookbook / memoir of Guatemala, which I made for one daughter and am now revising for another one, today I made two Guatemalan dishes. Finally, after so many years I have eaten some these things again, and now have photos. I am truly happy on both counts. The first dish is a Guatemalan Stew, called "Hilachas."  The second is a dessert, called Chancletas ("Slippers"), which I will describe in my next blog.


The word Hilachas, translates to "rags." The dish is common all around Central America, and apparently Cuba and Puerto Rico as well. In the southern US it is more often seen on menus as "Ropa Vieja", which means "old clothes". It is not a far difference from old clothes to rags. Easy to see the similarity. In essence, the dish is the same. It is made with a meat that shreds easily, such as flank steak, and shredded into a sauce that is mildly tomato based. In Guatemala, some places made Hilachas adding in potatoes, some add in Chayote squash (Guisquil, in Guatemala) and some add carrots. Some places add all three. In the Castillo household, made by the wonderful maid named Carmen, it was only potatoes. And, despite the potatoes being a starch, the dish was served with rice. 

Despite the fact that Hilachas was served very often, being very economical to make, somehow I never made it myself. I had no idea of what went into the dish, beyond the vague notion of something tomato-y as the base, with meat and potatoes. I wasn't even sure what kind of meat they used. I attempted something with no research one time long ago, was completely unhappy with it, and never tried again.

Writing about the dish yesterday while working on the cookbook / memoir, I thought I would do some research. Even a few years ago there was very little online about Guatemalan foods. So little that it was almost impossible to find out anything. Following on that, even if one could find a "recipe," it was (and still is, in many places) so badly written, with little or no amounts, it was not an easy task to decipher what should really be done. I set myself the task of thinking about every aspect of Hilachas I could recall. And then I went online once again. 

Of course, with a recipe that varies from household to household, it is not easy to pin down how a recipe should be done, but from all the places I read about Hilachas, there was a common thread. They all seemed to use a "sofrito" and the thickening agent is either bread or tortillas. 

What is Sofrito?

While I was familiar with the word "sofrito" I am not sure how or where I first heard it. I know that Puerto Ricans use the term. In essence, a sofrito is the base for many sauces, and it is the base of Hilachas. In this recipe, raw onion, garlic, tomatoes, tomatillos, and a guajillo chile (or two) are the sofrito ingredients. These are blended relatively smooth, or can be done in a food processor. Once pulverized, they are cooked with some oil to remove the raw flavors. In the case of the tomatoes in this recipe: as we are now reduced to flavorless supermarket tomatoes, I used a can of whole San Marzano tomatoes. If anyone is unfamiliar with tomatillos, they add a particular flavor of their own, and are used extensively in Guatemalan cuisine. They are found in far larger sizes here in the US. In Guatemala, they were most often quite small. Maximum, 1 1/2-inches diameter. They are from the ground cherry family and the fruit is encased in a papery husk. The husk is removed before using, and the fruit inside has a sticky residue that needs rinsing.

Creating the Recipe

Once getting the basic ideas together, I set about creating the recipe in a general sense. Flank steak would shred easily, so I would use that for the meat. The sofrito had to have some tomato, but tomato is not remotely the main flavor. This is where I went wrong all those years ago. I would guesstimate that there are about nearly equal parts tomato, tomatillo and onion in the sofrito. Then garlic (just because!) and chile. Some recipes called for guajillo chiles. In Guatemala, the choice would have been chile guaque, but that is not available here. I had neither! I do, however, have some dried Hatch chiles, so I used that instead. A dried ancho or pasilla chile could be used, or even, in a pinch, a combination of paprika and cayenne. 

Pan Frances -
Once the sofrito is blended together and fried, the main bulk of the recipe is done. The meat is cooked and shredded. The stock leftover from cooking the meat is added into the cooked sofrito. Potatoes are added and cooked. And then it is thickened with bread crumbs. In Guatemala, most often this was accomplished by soaking one of the "Pan Frances" or French bread, in some of the broth, until very soft, then stirred into the soup/broth until it dissolves, accomplishing a thickened mixture. And there it is, the basic recipe idea. Here it is, in its final state:

Guatemalan Hilachas

serves 6 or more
Hilachas, served with rice, Guatemalan Style

1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds flank steak
1 quart beef stock, preferably unsalted (or water)
2 teaspoons salt (if using unsalted stock)
1 bay leaf
1/2 onion, skin on for good color in the stock

1 can (14.5 ounces) peeled, whole tomatoes
6 medium small tomatillos,husks removed
1 whole onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 - 4 guajillo chiles, or 1 dried ancho or paasilla
3 - 4 cloves fresh garlic

2 tablespoons olive oil
more salt, as needed
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Spanish paprika
3 ounces fresh bread crumbs (about 1 cup)
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds potatoes, peeled, cubed 
1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped

Earlier in the day, set the flank steak in a large pot with the stock, salt, bay leaf and onion half. Bring to boil, lower to a simmer, cover and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until tender. Remove the meat to a dish to cool, remove the onion and bay leaf, and reserve the stock. Once the meat has cooled, slice it across the grain into 2-inch sections, then shred the meat into thin strips or "rags". Set aside.

While the meat is cooking, place the sofrito ingredients into a blender or food processor and process until relatively smooth. Heat a large saucepan and add in the oil. Being careful, as it will spatter, add the sofrito. Stir and cook, covered, for 15 minutes to cook out the raw taste. Stir occasionally, but be careful of hot liquid splattering. Once the sofrito has cooked, add in the remaining meat cooking liquid to the sofrito, along with the black pepper, paprika and potatoes. Cook this mixture for about 30 minutes, until the potatoes are tender when pierced with the tip of a knife. 

Add in the fresh bread crumbs and stir well. Taste for salt, and adjust. Return the meat to the pot and stir in the cilantro. Heat through and serve with rice, Guatemalan Style:

Guatemalan Style Rice

serves 4 to 6

1 cup long grain rice
2 tablespoons oil or butter
1/2 cup shredded carrot
2 tablespoons thinly sliced onion
1/4 small green pepper, sliced thinly
1/2 cup frozen peas
2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt

Place all the ingredients into a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cover. Cook the rice for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes more. 

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. I would love to hear from you, to help me continue my journey to explore diverse culinary experiences and hopefully to start you on a journey of your own. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.