Thursday, January 23, 2014

Recipes from Honduras

The great civilization of the Mayans fell in the 16th century, leaving behind only its monuments and its culinary traditions. Today, the food in modern Honduras echoes those Mayan influences, with staples such as corn and beans coming together with Spanish ingredients to create this modern, Central American cuisine.

Until I started doing this blog, I had no idea how many preconceived notions I had about cooking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at one of these world recipes and thought to myself, “There’s no way that’s going to work.” And then been wrong.

It happened again this week with corn tortillas.

Now I know, you’ve probably made corn tortillas before and are laughing at me. But when I looked at the ingredients and saw that corn tortillas are made entirely from masa flour, salt and water and nothing else, my first thought was, “There’s no way that’s going to work.”

I’ll get to the details in a minute, but I’m sure you’d have already guessed that we're in Central America just based on the above comment, even if you hadn't actually read the title and intro of this week’s entry. Yes, we're in Honduras, a fact that pleased me immensely because I love food from Central America.

Honduras is bordered by Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Historically, it's one of the regions that Spain conquered and oppressed back in the 16th Century. It stayed under Spanish rule until 1821, and since then has had about 300 internal rebellions and civil wars, which works out to about one every seven or eight months. The nation has also had a sort of unstable relationship with El Salvador and in fact fought a war with its neighbor in 1969 that was misleadingly titled “The Soccer War,” since it broke out shortly after Honduras and El Salvador met for a World Cup elimination match. It was a short lived war that really stemmed from a disagreement about the economic impact of immigrants from El Salvador, but you know how history loves a good story.

Copan, Honduras. Photo by Mario Pleitez.

Speaking of stories, Honduras is also known for Lluvia de Peces, a phenomenon where fish literally fall from the sky. Or not, depending on who you believe.

Anyway this week’s menu does not include any fish, from the sky or otherwise. I stuck with a pretty basic menu instead:


  • 1 1/3 lb beef flank or skirt, cubed
  • 1/2 cup seville orange juice
  • 4 garlic cloves, mashed
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

The next three recipes come from This is Honduras:

Refried Beans
  • 1 3/4 lb canned red kidney beans
  • 2 tbsp ground cumin
  • 6 tbsp oil (canola or sunflower)
  • 2 tbsp chopped onion
  • 2 tbsp chopped green bell pepper
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 white onion, finely diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, finely diced
  • 1 diced tomato, finely diced
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp powdered garlic (optional)
Corn Tortillas
  • 2 cups masa flour (such as MASECA)
  • 1  1/4 cups water
  • 1/8 tsp salt
Let’s do the carneada first, since it needs to marinate for a while. But first a word about Seville oranges, otherwise know as “bitter orange” or “sour orange.” You can’t buy them here in California, or at least not in my part of California. Now this carneada recipe says you can substitute tangerine juice but that’s not what I did, because I thought it would be a little too sweet. Instead I used the Cook’s Thesaurus substitution for bitter orange: 2 parts grapefruit juice, one part lime with a little bit of orange zest. My results were excellent. If you can’t find Seville oranges, I suggest you use the same substitute I did.

OK so first you will want to cut your beef into strips that are one inch wide. Then mix the rest of the ingredients together and add the strips, turning until they are completely coated with the marinade. Let marinate in your fridge for a few hours, preferably overnight.

Heat your BBQ. Now I personally swear by charcoal, though I know it isn’t as popular as propane. This recipe mentions charcoal specifically, though I'm sure you could get by with using a gas grill. Anyway cook the strips on your grill until medium rare, then slice into smaller pieces and serve with the corn tortillas and chimol.

Next the chimol, which is easy to make and can be prepared ahead of time:

Toss the vegetables together and add the cilantro. Add the lime juice and salt to taste, and powdered garlic (if using; I did). Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Now the beans:

Open up the can and pour the beans directly into your blender, liquid and all. Pulse until mostly a paste with a few whole beans remaining.

Meanwhile, heat a small amount of oil in a large pot and add the onions, peppers and garlic (I like to add the garlic last so it doesn't burn). Cook until the onions are translucent. Add the beans and stir in the cumin.

Reduce heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans thicken.

Finally the tortillas. Mix the masa flour with the salt and water. Your dough should be smooth and not sticky, but it shouldn't be too dry either. I had to add a little more water to mine then the recipe called for.

Now separate the dough into golfball sized balls.

Flatten each ball with a tortilla press. If you don't have a tortilla press, you can put the balls between two layers of plastic wrap (I actually used a ziplock bag) and flatten with a rolling pin. Your tortillas should be pretty thin, no more than maybe a millimeter.

Now heat up a large frying pan over high heat.

Here's where the magic happens: I was pretty sure these things would just fall to pieces in the pan. After all, they were just held together with nothing but water. But they didn't so much as crack, and when I served them they held together fabulously--unlike store bought tortillas, which tend to split when you fold them.

So here's how to make perfect corn tortillas: Transfer the flattened dough to the pan (don't use any oil, it should just be a dry pan). Cook on one side until the tortilla starts to curl around the edges, then flip. It should have some golden spots on the cooked side.

Cook on the other side until you get some more golden spots, then transfer to a warm plate. I put damp paper towels in between each one and they were perfect when I served them.

And so was everything else. The beans: delicious. The chimol: delicious. Really just a simple salsa but the peppers were a nice twist. The beef: to die for. The combo: heavenly. It really was a very easy meal to put together but before we were finished Martin was already talking about how we should recreate it for some friends.

Next week: Hong Kong.

For printable versions of this week’s recipes:


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