Monday, January 25, 2021

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Belize

The famous author, Aldous Huxley, once observed, "[i]f the world had any ends, British Honduras would certainly be one of them. It is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. It is all but uninhabited." Huxley lived from 1894 to 1963; and, that parcel of land that he knew as British Honduras is known today as Belize.  That name came with the country's independence on September 21, 1981. 

The land known as "Mother Nature's Best Kept Secret" is located just south of the Yucatan peninsula in Central America.  It is a relatively small country, with only 8,867 square miles, which is just slightly smaller than than the State of New Hampshire.  It is also similar to New Hampshire in another respect: namely, smaller populations of people surrounded by large expanses of wilderness.  Belize is home to more than 5,000 species of plants and animals that call the area their home. 

Yet, the history of area is one marked by one particular species.  As early as 1,500 B.C., the Mayan civilzation settled in the area, establishing cities like Lamanai, Altun Ha, and Yalbac. In its late era, there were perhaps as many as one million Mayans living in the area that is present-day Belize. Yet, like the rest of Central America, Spanish conquistadors made their way through the area, claiming it for the Spanish Empire.  British pirates began to make the area their home, with the first permanent British settlement being established in 1716.  The land officially became part of the British empire around 1786.  It remained a part of that empire until its independence in 1981. 

What makes any country interesting is the cultures and people who reside within. The country of Belize is home to a mix of cultures, including Maya, Creoles, Garinagu (a mix of West African, Arawak and Carib Islander), Mestizos and even Mennonites. All of these cultures, as well as the others who live in Belize, have contributed to what could be defined as Belizean cuisine. Some commonalities can be found with Mexican or Central American cuisine, as well as Jamaican food. Yet, the cuisine of Belize retains its own identity. 

MAIN COURSE

For this personal culinary challenge, I am going to prepare Chimole, which is also known as "Black Dinner." It is a dish with roots in the both the Mayan and Metizo communities. It is a dish that was originally prepared by Mestizo families, traditionally on a Sunday. Chimole is a soup that is full of protein.  A whole chicken goes into the pot while the cook prepares pork meatballs to be added in toward the end of the cook.  There are also vegetables and other ingredients, such as a pepper, onion, and tomatoes, but they definitely play a secondary role to the meat.  As for the name "Black Dinner," that comes from the use of recado negro, a very smoky and spicy mixture made from ancho peppers and other spices. The mixture itself can be traced back to the Mayan civilization.

I tried to make both the recado negro and the Chimole.  I thought that my effort to make the spice mixture was going well, because I followed the recipe.  However, as the Chimole came together, it appeared that there was something missing.  The soup was not glack, but rather a deep, dark red. It was more like a recado rojo than a recado negro. I continued with the recipe, which produced the soup in the picture below. 


CHIMOLE
Serves 4-6

Ingredients:
1 chicken, divided
4 cloves garlic
1 pound of ground pork
3 hard boiled eggs (chopped into small pieces)
2 raw eggs
3 tablespoons of recado negro (see recipe below)
Salt
Pepper
1 bay leaf
2 tomatoes diced
1 bell pepper diced
1 onion diced
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon thyme

Directions:
1.  Prepare the recado negro.  In a small bowl, add the recado negro with enough water so that it will dissolve (add the cumin as well).

2.  Prepare the pork.  In a separate bowl, mix the ground pork with the hard boil eggs and raw eggs, add salt and pepper to taste and thyme.  Form into small meatballs and cook in the oven at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes.

3.  Prepare the chicken.  Brown the chicken in garlic, and then put in a large pot. Add the recado liquid and fill the pot with water until the chicken is covered.  Add the diced tomatoes, diced peppers, diced onion and bay leaf and cook over medium high heat for 30 minutes.

4.  Finish the soup.  Add the meatballs and cook for 5 additional minutes.  To thicken the soup, add a little cornstarch mixed with water at the end.  Serve with rice or tortillas.

SPICE MIXTURE

A recado is a spice mixture that originagted with the Mayan people and is still used today by the peoples who live on the Yucatan peninsula and in Belize.  There are three types of recados: recado negro (or the black spice mix), recado rojo (or a red spice mix) and recado blanco (or a white spice mix).  

The recipe for chimole calls for the recado negro. This is a dark mixture that includes annatto seeds, cumin, oregano, cloves and allspice. The mixture is also know for s smoky and spicy flavors, which comes from the use of ancho chiles. As you may know, the ancho pepper is the dried form of the poblano pepper. In order to make recado negro, you have to grill the anchos much like you would roast a poblano pepper, that is, over a flame to char the outside. This roasting should be done outdoors because the roasting of an ancho pepper will produce smoke and a lot of it. 


RECADO NEGRO
Recipe from Mexican Authentic Recipes

Ingredients:
12 poblano/ancho peppers
1 garlic head
6 whole allspice berries
4 cloves
2 tablespoons of oregano
1 tablespoon of achiote seeds
1/2 teaspoon of cumin seeds
1/2 cup of white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon of pepper
1/2 teaspoon of salt

Directions:
1.  Roast the peppers.  Discard the seeds from the ancho peppers.  Roast the peppers on the stove, directly over the fire until all of their sides are totally black.  Put the bowl and reserve.  Repeat the procedure for the remaining peppers.  Cover the roasted peppers with water and let them soak for about 10 minutes.  

2.  Toast the spices.  In a frying pan over high heat, add the allspice berries, cloves and cumin seeds.  Toast for about 1 minute until all ingredients are lightly toasted.  Transfer to a spice grinder and grind to a powder.  Reserve the powder.

3.  Blend the ingredients.  Transfer the ancho peppers to a blender and set aside.  Peel the garlic cloves and put them in the blender.  Also add the white vinegar, pepper and salt and blend all of the ingredients very well. 

*          *          *

In the end, as I noted above, this personal culinary challenge did not produce a "black dinner."  More of a deep crimson dinner.  If a Belizean looked at my chimole, he or she would have thought I used a recado rojo rather than a recado negro. Upon reflection, I think that may have been due to the fact that I did not roast the peppers long enough to ensure that they were "totally black." Given anchos are dried poblanos, I was a little hesitant to let them go too long on the grill, lest I be left with charcoal. (I suppose if I had charcoal for anchos, that would have produced a black dinner.)  

I also struggled a little with the pork meatballs.  The use of 3 hard boiled eggs and 2 raw eggs produced a very wet mixture that was difficult to shape into small meatballs.  I think 1 less of each type of egg would have probably worked a little better in terms of getting the right consistency for the meatballs. 

In any event, the soup itself was delicious.  For my first time making this dish, I think that is all that really matters.  Until next time, 

ENJOY!

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Cola de Res al Mole (Oxtail Mole)

If I had to identify the one thing about cooking that most intrigues me, it is the mole. A mole is a traditional sauce that is a fundamental part of the cuisine throughout the Estados Unidos Mexicanos.  I have spent some time on my blog talking about the different types of moles and even a little about the history of mole sauces.  I even prepared a mole, a Mole Verde Zacatano, which is one of the simpler moles that comes from the State of Zacatecas.  

However, as much as these sauces have interested me, I have not been able to explore them as much as I would have liked.  I needed something to get myself back on track when it came to learning about these sauces.  That "something" just happened to be a cut of meat that I have never prepared before ... oxtail.

A long time ago, oxtail was actually the tail of an ox.  The ingredient was used in connection with the "nose to tail" philosophy of using all parts of an animal.  The tail often made its way into soups and stews, such as those that were first prepared by French Huguenots and Flemish who lived in Britain during the seventeenth century. Oxtails lend themselves to slow cooking, because they are full of collagan.  As that collagen breaks down, it infuses the liquid with a lot of flavor.  The use of oxtails, especially oxtail stew, has become a feature of many cuisines across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. 

But it was one recipe that immediately caught my eye and returns us to the subject at hand: a recipe for Oxtail Mole (Cola de Res al Mole).  I now found myself back on the path of learning about these wonderful sauces.  Two Mexican States lay claim to the original mole sauces: Oaxaca and Puebla. (A third Mexican State, Tlaxcala, also has a claim, but most of the articles that I have read focus on the Oaxacan and Pueblan origin stories.) Puebla is best known for the mole poblano, while Oaxaca is known for seven moles: mole colorado, mole negro, mancha manteles, mole verde, mole amarillo, mole chichilo, and mole coloradito.  Each sauce is a labor intensive effort, following a general pattern that begins with the roasting of whole spices and continues with the grinding of those spices into a paste, the addition of stock at low temperatures until the sauce begins to form. 

I am not too sure where this recipe fits into the mole universe. The recipe comes from McCormick, the global corporation that manufactures and sells a whole range of spices.  I initially viewed the recipe with some suspicion.  After all, I did not think that a multi-national corporation would put much thought into a very particular element of Mexican cuisine. There was no explanation as to the source of the recipe, or its ties to the moles of any particular Mexican State. Nevertheless, the thought of preparing an oxtail mole won me over because it was so different than preparing oxtail stew. 

In the end, it was worth the effort to make this dish.  The recipe provided a good way to introduce myself to the use of oxtail. I can also sort-of notch another effort at making a mole-style sauce. It feels a little like skirting around Oaxaca or Puebla, trying to make an easy mole without diving into the full process of making one of the more traditional sauces.  Still, I have a lot of time to continue building on these experiences.  I just have to find that time.  

COLA DE RES AL MOLE

Recipe adapted from McCormick

Serves 4-6

Ingredients:

  • 4 pounds of oxtails, about 12 pieces
  • 1.5 tablespoons coriander seed, ground
  • 1.5 tablespoons sesame seed
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon ground Saigon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons anise seed, crushed
  • 1.5 teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 2 cups carrots, coarsely chopped
  • 1 pound pearl onions, peeled
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 2.5 cups beef stock
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 tablesoons sugar
  • 1 ounce semi-sweet baking chocolate, chopped
Directions:

1. Prepare the oxtails.  Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.  Mix the seasonings (coriander, sesame seed, black pepper, cinnamon, salt, anise seed, and smoked paprika) in a shallow dish.  Coat the oxtails with seasoning mixture.

2. Brown the oxtails. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a 5-quart Dutch oven on medium high heat.  Add half of the oxtails, cook on all sides until browned.  Remove oxtails.  Repeat iwth the remaining two tablespoons of oil and oxtails.  

3.  Cook the vegetables.  Add carrots to pan, cook and stir on medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes, until golden brown.  Add pearl onions and garlic, cook and stir for 3 to 4 minutes or until lightly browned.  

4.  Prepare the base.  Add wine, stir to loosen browned bits in the bottom of the pan.  Stir in beef stock and tomato paste. Bring to boil. Return oxtains to pan.  Cover.  

5. Braise the oxtails.  Braise the oxtails in the oven for 2.5 hours or until the oxtails are tender.  Transfer oxtails and vegetables to a serving platter and keep warm .

6.  Finish the mole.  Stir sugar into pan.  Simmer 5 minutes or until sauce is slightly thickened.  Remove from heat.  Add chocolate and stir until chocolate is melted.  Skim fat from liquid.  Spoon sauce over the oxtails and vegetables. 


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