Thursday, March 15, 2012

Recipes from Belize

I hope you'll excuse me if I'm still reeling from the little culinary tragedy I experienced on Tuesday afternoon. That's right, I murdered in the second degree the vintage milk glass mixing bowl from my 1965 Sunbeam mixer. I don't think I've ever been more upset over a piece of broken cookware. I know you can find replacements on eBay (for a fairly steep price tag) but somehow it's just not the same thing as knowing the one I have is the same one that my grandmother used for 40 years.

Thankfully, though, I did manage to put tragedy behind me and move forward with my trip to Belize, though I had to make my cake batter in the smaller vintage milk glass mixing bowl, which was both challenging and messy.

Anyway in case you don't know anything about Belize, here we go:

Belize is a pretty small Central American country with a bit of an identity crisis; because of its proximity to the Caribbean Sea, its wide, sandy beaches and its pleasant, tourist-friendly tropical climate, it is really more Caribbean in temperament than it is South American. In fact, despite its Central American location, Belize is actually an official member of the Caribbean Community. 

Belize is small in both land mass and population; it is only about 180 miles long and 68 miles wide, though it has a very diverse ecosystem capable of supporting export crops such as sugar and bananas. Population-wise, Belize has a grand total of 333,200 residents. If you like US population comparisons, 330,000 and some change is roughly the same number of people who live in Tampa, Florida. So you can probably guess how easy it is to find references to traditional Belizean cuisine, (hint: it's about as easy finding references to traditional Tampa Florida cuisine, which is not very).

So even though there is a quite comprehensive guide to Belizean cuisine on Wikipedia, as far as recipes are concerned there's really not a whole lot out there, at least not online--and let's be realistic, online is really my best resource since I don't know many people who can afford to buy 332 cookbooks, much less have a place to keep them. Wait, what, the library? What's that?

Stew chicken with stew beans and rice.

I did manage to come up with a pretty decent menu, though, given my limited resources. Here it is:

Stew Chicken

  • 1 whole chicken, cut up
  • 2 tbsp white vinegar
  • 2 tbsp achiote paste (called red recado in Belize)
  • 1 onion
  • 1 green bell pepper
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 3 tbsp soy sauce
  • 3 tbsp Worchestershire sauce
  • 2 tbsp cumin
  • 1 tsp thyme
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 to 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 1 to 2 tsp sugar
  • Water to cover
  • 1 bay leaf
Ingredient notes:

1) Called "red recado" in Belize, achiote paste can usually be found with the bulk spices in the ethnic foods section of your grocery store. If you can't find it there, you should be able to get it from a Mexican grocer.

2) Coconut oil doesn't look like oil because it is solid when you buy it, like butter, and it usually comes in a jar rather than a bottle. I'm pretty sure I've seen coconut oil at Safeway with some of the gourmet-type oils, but I got mine at the co-op (which carries a lot of organic, natural healthy-type stuff).

Stew Beans

  • 4 cups dried red kidney beans
  • Water
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 4 to 6 garlic cloves, cut into large pieces
  • 1 or 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp whole cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp achiote paste (red recado)
  • 1 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • 1 tbsp coconut oil

Belizean Rum Cake

For the batter:
  • 1 package Duncan Hines yellow cake mix
  • 1 package instant vanilla pudding mix
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup rum
  • 1/2 cup water
For the topping:
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • A small handful of pecans, chopped
For the syrup:
  • 1/2 cup rum
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 1 cup sugar

Both of my dinner recipes came from a blog written by a national, which I personally think is the most reliable sort of place to find authentic recipes. This particular blog is called "Rice and Beans: A Belizean in the USA." I did have to guess at more than a few things though, unfortunately, since the stew chicken recipe in particular didn't include many measurements, just ingredients.

The dessert recipe came from the Belize News Post, though quite frankly it seemed a bit like a cheat since the first two ingredients are "Duncan Hines yellow cake mix" and "instant vanilla pudding." But the exact same recipe turned up in probably six different places online, so I figured if I was going to make Belizean rum cake I was just going to have to do it the cheater's way.

So to do this meal, you have to plan ahead, which is not something I'm usually very good at but this time I somehow managed not to botch it up. Just remember that the beans need to be soaked overnight, so put them in a cooking pot and cover them completely with water just before you go to bed the night before you plan to make this meal.

Don't forget to soak the beans.

The next afternoon, add some more water to the pot so that the water is about two inches above the beans (don't drain them). Put the pot on the stove and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for a few hours, checking every 20 minutes or so until the beans are about the same firmness as al dente pasta.

Now add the onion, garlic, and all the spices except for the salt. Continue to cook until the beans have the same firmness as you'd find in canned beans. Then add the salt and the coconut oil.

Add the onion, garlic and spices and cook until the beans are soft.

The beans can continue to cook covered on low pretty much indefinitely, as long as you keep checking them to make sure they aren't losing too much liquid, which obviously leads to burning. So you can begin the chicken at the same time as you add the onion and spices, or you can wait until the beans are more or less finished.

Either way, the chicken is fairly straightforward although there are a lot of ingredients:

First, mix the achiote paste with the vinegar and rub it all over the chicken pieces.

Rub the chicken with a mixture of achiote paste and vinegar.

Put the pieces in a large bowl and add the Worchestershire, cumin, thyme, oregano and black pepper.

Add the rest of the marinade ingredients and toss to coat.

Chop the onion, pepper and garlic and set aside.

I'll mince the garlic with my garlic press just before I add it all to the pot

Melt the coconut oil in a large saucepan. When it has melted completely, add the sugar and swirl to distribute. Remove the chicken from the bowl, reserving the marinade, and brown both sides in the oil and sugar mixture.

Brown the chicken in a mixture of oil and sugar.

 Add the onions, peppers and garlic. Saute until the onions are translucent.

So far, so good ...

Add the marinade to the pot and then add enough water to "almost cover" the chicken. Let simmer for 40 minutes to an hour, until the chicken is tender and the juices run clear. Adjust the seasonings if necessary.

Now just simmer until done!

Now on to the cake, which I made while the beans were still soaking:

First put the cake mix, vanilla pudding, eggs, rum and water into a mixing bowl (this is the part where I killed my vintage bowl).

What's this a picture of? I can't remember, because I killed my mixing bowl.

 Blend with an electric mixer for three minutes.

To make the topping, melt the butter and pour it into your cake pan (I used a springform pan, but the recipe calls for a bundt pan). Add the brown sugar and spread around with the back of a spoon until evenly distributed, then sprinkle the pecans over the top.

Spread the brown sugar and melted butter evenly over the bottom of your cake pan.

Pour the cake batter into the pan and bake for about 35 minutes in an oven preheated to 350 degrees.

This was yummy batter. Of course, I never met a cake batter that wasn't ...

About five or 10 minutes before the 35 minutes are up, put all the syrup ingredients into a small saucepan and bring just to a boil. Remove from heat.

When you take the cake from the oven, prick it all over with a skewer, then pour the rum syrup over it.

Before ...


 It will seem like an awful lot of syrup, because it is. But use it all because you want your finished product to be really rummy and moist.

After the syrup has soaked for a few minutes, turn the cake over onto a plate until ready to serve.

Fortunately, you can't tell from this photo how pathetically lopsided this cake actually was.

This meal was definitely nice on a cold evening, and though I did enjoy it I have to admit I found the chicken and beans (which I served with plain white rice; Belizeans sometimes use coconut rice) to be a little generic. The rum cake on the other hand was really tasty, and had to go to work with Martin the next day for fear that I might eat it all when no one was looking. It was sadly quite rummy though, making it inappropriate for my children, much to their huge disappointment because they've lately been on a Jack Sparrow kick and were quite sure that consuming rum cake would drop them permanently into the good graces of the entire fictional pirate community. Oh well.

Next week: Bengal, India

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


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