Central American is a small group of countries lying on the bridge between the North and South continents: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. Like many Latin American countries, cuisine in Central America is a delightful fusion of flavours and ingredients from the Mediterranean, as well as those from native Mesoamericans. Many countries in Central America also have influences from the Caribbean and therefore its Afro-Caribbean population. The prevalence of coastline means that there is a strong reliance on seafood, as well as native vegetables and tropical fruits. Central American food always strikes me as being particularly well-balanced and fresh, with local cooks having a strong intuition for combinations of textures and flavours, so that each dish has sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami components. My meals this week turned out just as I imagine visiting Central America to be – bright, vibrant, fresh and delicious! All I was missing was a shot of guaro (sugar cane liquor) to wash it all down – but I think that may have necessitated quite a long siesta…
In Spanish, casado means a married man, but there is some confusion about how this relates to the dish. Some assert that it’s because single men would ask for it in restaurants for lunch, as they wanted the same larger portions that the married men were having at home. Others say that it refers to the many ingredients of the dish that are “married” together on a single plate. Again there are also stories that the dish is enthusiastically eaten by newlyweds because they would not yet be familiar with each other’s tastes and preferences, and would therefore make a meal that offered a wide variety of options. Whatever the connection, casado hails from Costa Rica, and is a highly variable meal where a protein (such as chicken, pork or fish) is served with accompaniments such as a stew of black beans, pico de gallo, white rice, fried plantain bananas, picadillo and salad. Pico de gallo (literally meaning beak of the rooster) is a mix of chopped onion, tomato, coriander, chillies, salt, oil and lime juice, and is popular as a side throughout Latin America. Picadillo is a generic name meaning “mince” or “hash” that describes any sort of finely chopped components mixed together. It can involve meat, but generally the accompaniment to casado is vegetarian. I made my picadillo with turnip and carrot, boiled in stock and lightly fried with oregano. Attentive blog readers will know that some of my favourite meals are those that offer lots of varieties, and Latin countries are particular experts in this field. Casado is one such meal, offering a delicious and perfect balance between meat, vegetables, carbohydrates, legumes, fruit, and most importantly, flavours.
Sopa de mariscos
Seafood soups/stews exist in myriad forms all over Central America. Some names are rondon in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, tapado in Guatemala and Honduras, and sopa de mariscos (seafood soup) generically in those and many other places. The wide predilection for this meal may lie in the thin, coastal nature of Central American countries, and like the very best seafood recipes, the rules for what can be included are very relaxed. The general instructions I’ve found are to use whatever is fresh, in season and available, which would hopefully be a simple enough ask for seaside-dwelling Central Americans. To make my version, I tried to follow this relaxed ethos, partly because that’s how I cook anyway, but also because I didn’t want to favour any one country with such a widespread dish. I sautéed onion, garlic, capsicum and carrot in butter, then added fish stock, cream, wine, tomato paste and coconut milk. The latter seems to be a common element in many seafood soups of this region, and clearly distinguishes them from the “sopa de mariscos” of Spain. To this broth I added a mixture of seafood, including fish, prawns, mussels, octopus, squid and clams, then simmered it all gently to let the flavours infuse. I garnished it with parsley, and found it to be a wonderful surprise. I love seafood, but am slightly picky about its preparation, generally preferring it to be simply prepared with clean flavours. This soup, however, despite its many ingredients, was sublime. It incorporated all of the best parts of imported flavours from Spain with Afro-Caribbean influences and local Latin innovations and ingredients. I ate mine with some bread to sop up the broth, which was secretly-lick-the-plates-on-the-way-back-to-the-sink delicious.
Pupusas and curtido
Pupusas are very popular in El Salvador and Honduras, and although there is evidence that the recipe is over 2000 years old, the precise origin of the dish remains disputed. However, the best guess anyone can make at the etymology of the word is that it also means “swollen” in the language of the native Pipil people of El Salvador. For this reason, the issue was seemingly settled during negotiations for the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, where Honduran delegations conceded that El Salvador was the true home of the pupusa. However, some very aggressive websites on the internet have warned me that the issue is in fact not in the past, and that one ought to be careful about attributing the pupusa to any particular country. So here we are. The El Salvadorian and/or Honduran pupusa is made with a dough of white corn flour, salt and water, wrapped around a filling. These fillings can be simple cheese, refried bean paste, native vegetables or pork chicharrónes. I stuffed mine with refried bean paste and cheese, combining cooked onion, garlic, tomato, spices and kidney beans in a food processor, and frying the resulting paste until thick and sticky. I then mixed in some grated mozzarella once it was cool, and placed spoonfuls of the mixture into little cups of dough, and sealed the dough into a ball and flattened it into a thin disc. I fried these discs in a hot skillet until brown, and served them with avocado, salsa and curtido. For the salsa, I simmered tomato, onion and capsicum with some water and oil in a pan. Once soft, I food processed it until thick and smooth. It had a great flavour – the capsicum especially added a nice extra dimension usually not found in plain tomato sauces. Curtido is a traditional accompaniment of pupusas, and is a lightly fermented and pickled vegetarian dish of grated cabbage, flavoured with carrots, onions, oregano and vinegar. There must be something special about cabbage that lends itself well to pickling and fermentation, given that so many international iterations pop up in the form of Korean kimchi, German sauerkraut and the like. I had both red and green leftover cabbage, so I made two different types of curtido, and found it a delicious sour addition to the doughy pupusas, fatty avocado, and umami salsa and beans.
Fiambre, meaning “served cold”, is a Guatemalan dish that is traditionally served on the consecutive dia de todos los santos (all saints’ day) and dia de los muertos (the day of the dead). On the day of the dead, Guatemalan families traditionally visit graveyards to share an offering of their dead loved ones’ former favourite foods. As time went on, family size grew, as did the number of deceased, and so the fiambre was born as an all-inclusive salad that would contain any favourite ingredient that one could possibly think of in a single preparation. The salads are therefore often a collaborative family effort and can contain over 40 ingredients. Fiambres differ wildly between families, because if a beloved uncle 50 years ago famously adored beetroot, then it might feature prominently in his descendants’ fiambres, whereas another family might favour corn. It’s also traditional to share your fiambres with extended family and friends, which sounds like a delightful and dignified culinary tradition to honour the dead and strengthen the existing familial and community bonds. I think that this salad could be given a lot of titles, including “the mother of all salads”, “supersalad” and “ginormosalad”, but I think it best embodies the infamous and eponymous Seinfeld episode of “the big salad”. In the show, Elaine describes her ideal big salad by saying “it’s a salad, only bigger, with lots of stuff in it”. I think the variable nature of fiambre means that this is actually the most helpful recipe you could find. There is also a type called “divoriciado”, in which all of the ingredients are served separating, satisfying the fussiest of eaters. In my fiambre, I included mixed lettuce, spinach and rocket, parsley, pickles, red cabbage, peas, corn, carrots, radishes, palm hearts, tomatoes, olives, capers, green beans, cauliflower, potatoes, beetroot, ham, chorizo, prawns and hardboiled eggs. That’s 22 ingredients without the dressing (which was a mustard vinaigrette): many fewer than those cooked by enormous Guatemalan families. However, I like to think that it’s a respectable number, given that I did it by myself and am a beginner to the fiambre concept. I found the fiambre very tasty, and enjoyed the blatant rejection of any hint of a “less is more” concept in the preparation of food. I suspect that this would be a great way to explain a hurried tossing together of everything leftover in the fridge into a salad as the deliberate and exotic recipe of fiambre.