Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Eating in Honduras can be tough

Peace Corps tells you that everyone thinks they have the best site by the time they leave. We weren’t sure about La Esperanza when we first got here, it was smaller than we had hoped for, although it was nice and cold. But now, after more than a year, we would definitely say that we think we have the best site. It’s because of the food.

Our time thus far in service has allowed us to take up a number of new, one might say old-fashioned, cooking practices as well as perfect many others. This has been the result of two coinciding phenomena, 1) we have a lot of extra time on our hands to make things from scratch we normally would not and 2) our selection of food products (while uniquely excellent in Honduras) is still sub-par compared to the States and we can’t get food that we normally enjoy, such as good bread, butter, cheese, pizza, Italian food etc. Thus, we have to take matters into our own hands. We thought we’d explain some of our food habits and cooking forays for you to enjoy (or be jealous of).

Best Farmers’ Market in Honduras

First of all, Gracias a Dios, and Gracias a our project directors, for putting us in a site meant for foodies. We don’t like to brag, but we have possibly the greatest farmer’s market in all of Honduras. Not only is the market full of your standard Honduran fruits and vegetables like bananas, potatoes, and tomatoes, there are also local apples, strawberries, peaches and blackberries and seasonal mushrooms and vegetables like eggplant, snap peas, butternut squash, and white beans that are unavailable anywhere else in Honduras. We also get to try exotic fruits that we either didn’t get a lot of or weren’t at all exposed to in the U.S. like mango, papaya, guava, sapodilla, soursop, annona, noni, nance, passion fruit/granadilla and lychee. The market is open every day of the week and just two blocks from our house, something rare even in the US. Yes, we are spoiled. We’ve had a chance to use some of our unique ingredients to make things like peach & berry cobbler, apple zucchini brownies, butternut squash ravioli and soup, eggplant parmesan, fried mushrooms, homemade ginger ale/beer, and spicy Moroccan white beans.

Chorros, a local wild mushroom (Caesar's mushrooms if you want to look them up)

Block of unrefined cane sugar (known as panela, piloncillo, or dulce here)

Salsa Sundays

While fresh tomatoes are not entirely seasonal here in that we can get them year round, they do increase in price four-fold during the off season, from L.5 in February to L. 20 a pound now. In spite of the inflated prices, we have gotten into the habit of having Salsa Sundays. You might think that salsa would be common in Honduras, but Honduras is not Mexico. There is a salsa-ish side dish called chimol, but it’s more like pico de gallo, not spicy and not well chopped/blended. The only ‘salsa’ here is jarred, supermarket salsa like Pace or Tostitos. But we can get all of the ingredients to make a delicious Mexican (or is it Tex-Mex?) salsa, so almost every Sunday, we buy a pound of tomatoes to make a big bowl of fresh salsa. Throw everything into the blender and that is our lunch, chips and salsa - sometimes even with cheese if it’s during one of our grocery store’s cycles of having real cheese.


Our primary grocery store in town has expanded its cheese section immensely since we arrived, going so far as to now import from Wisconsin things like gouda, swiss, monterey jack and to our great pleasure, feta. Not all the time mind you, it cycles between periods of abundance and scarcity. But we still can’t get true ricotta or fresh mozzarella for our Italian cravings, so we turned to making it ourselves. Our cheesemaking process begins with a 15 minute walk to the other side of town to a house in a strange cul-de-sac (yes, they exist here!) where we can buy milk fresh from the cow that comes in twice daily. We bought a large plastic container specifically for the purpose of transporting milk that comes in quite handy. We request our bottles of milk, they fill up our container and we’re off. Cheesemaking might sound scary, but the basic principle is add some chemicals to milk and heat it to get it to curdle, let it sit, and you have cheese. We add citric acid in granular form that we got from a cheesemaking kit, but you can also add lemon juice and the like to start the curdling. This basic form is ricotta. To get mozzarella from this, you add a little rennet (which here they get from soaking animal intestines, but we have vegetable rennet tablets) to hold the curds together with that familiar cheesy elasticity. The only real difficulty here is the lack of microwave, which makes heating and stretching the curds for mozzarella much more difficult. Instead, Nicki’s dons housecleaning gloves and submerges the cheese by hand into a pot of near-boiling water, then stretches the cheese like taffy. The mozzarella we form into a ball and cool in ice water, then it’s ready to enjoy – and much more delicious than quesillo. It’s still quite a process so we don’t do it that often, but it’s absolutely essential for a good lasagna, stuffed cannelloni, or on pizza.

Carrying home our leche de vaca

Giving it a taste - 'Ahh, fresh milk'

Straining the curds

Finished ricotta

Fresh mozzarella ball

We should have thought of it earlier. All this time we’ve been buying fresh milk to make cheese and it only just recently occurred to us to skim off the cream layer for heavy cream, whipped cream and butter. The process for making butter is maddeningly simple. Let the milk sit. Skim off the creamy top layer. Put cream into a jar, shake and voila, butter that is 1000 times better than anything we can buy here. It was especially delicious on some simple biscuits and wheat bread and we look forward to putting it to better use in the future.

Skimming the cream off the milk

Delicious fresh creamy butter


As we said before, we’ve had time to go back to basics with some of our cooking practices. In the U.S. we, and probably you all, were accustomed to having a variety of fresh, delicious breads at your local supermarket, grocery store or specialty store, rye, wheat, French, baguettes, you name it. Here, bread is a very distant second to the tortilla. Grocery stores stock regular white Wonderbread lookalikes and sometimes wheat, plus a few hotdog or hamburger buns; that’s it. We’re lucky enough to have a bakery in town that does French bread, but other than that, just pastries. After a few months of eating crappy sandwiches, we decided we’d had enough, and started making our own bread, which honestly we had never had the need to do before.

French bread fresh out of the oven

Now, you say, bread is easy, throw everything in your mixer for a bit, let it rise and bake! Well, we have no mixer, so everything is with wooden spoons and hands. Flour is tougher than you think. Also, our concrete laden house and cool temperatures make rising unexpectedly slow. We found it’s best to let the dough sit the fridge overnight. We don’t do it every day or even every week because it’s an arm-exhausting event, but at least twice a month we make some type of bread. We’ve done white loaf, honey wheat loaf, cinnamon sugar, wheat free form, French bread, pitas, cheese herb bubble bread, foccacia and breadsticks. We aren’t experts, and we probably won’t have the need to make too much bread when we get back to the States, but it’s been interesting to try new recipes and cooking techniques and nothing beats a fresh loaf of bread, hot out of the oven, smeared with olive tapenade, pesto or made into crunchy grilled cheese sandwiches.

Cheese herb bubble bread

Cinnamon bread

Exotic Ingredients

Every trip we take to Teguz culminates with a mandatory trip to Mas x Menos, a supermarket with many luxury, exotic and imported items from the States and elsewhere. Here, we spend half a month’s wages stocking up on things we can’t find anywhere closer to us, namely canned tomatoes, parmesan cheese in a block, chocolate chips, kettle potato chips, prosciutto and even Celestial Seasonings tea. These are the things that are now as exotic to us as pink sea salt, hand trimmed saffron and white truffle oil are to you all in the U.S.

Tempura shrimp sushi


Anyone who knows us will probably also know we are pizza lovers, but not just any pizza. We strive to create an authentic Neapolitan Italian style pizza with the crisp yet chewy crust, pure tomatoes, mozzarella and basil and a good douse of olive oil. Since we left Italy, we’ve been plagued by a lack of proper pizza making tools and ingredients, most notably a wood burning oven. As you can imagine, it hasn’t gotten any easier being in Honduras, but we still strive to do the best we can, and have made some pretty delicious pizzas. When we feel up to it, we will make fresh mozzarella. We finally got a basil plant for fresh leaves and we can do a great pesto pizza. We’ve chanced upon prosciutto and Kalamata olives in other sites and lovingly cradled them on the way home. Recently we even came across a recipe for pizza with bacon and a cracked egg on top. It’s a little difficult to get it cooked just right, but if you’ve never had it, and come across it on a menu somewhere, don’t shy away, it is amazing.

Pesto pizza with chicken and Kalamata olives

Bacon egg pizza

Cooking Without Power

One of the biggest cooking challenges we have encountered is the power outage. This being the third world, this can happen as often as every day. Because we are in a larger site, a power outage rarely lasts longer than a few hours (unless it was a planned all-day outage), but we have had outages that have lasted several days. Having a gas stove, you might think that we shouldn’t have a problem cooking when the power goes out. After all, we actually can still cook. But what you are forgetting is how much closer to the equator we are. The length of our days varies only about one half hour throughout the year. That means that it is consistently dark at 6 pm. And during the rainy season, dark (especially without power) means pitch black. Have you ever tried to cook by candle light? Try it. It’s not that easy. Lack of power also means that we cannot open our fridge if we hope to preserve anything inside, so many powerless nights we revert to some old staples like spaghetti marinara and PB&J.

Here are some things we’ve been able to conjure up in our Honduran kitchen. Recipes available upon request.

Melanzana parmigiana (Eggplant Parmesan)


Egg sandwich on homemade wheat bread

Moroccan chicken and beans with freshly made pitas

Butternut squash ravioli

Spicy honey stir-fry

Cinnamon sugar pumpkin doughnuts with raspberry sauce

Blackberry apple fruit leather (it's a little dry because we left it in the oven too long)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Just Another Day at the Beach

It’s been a month, but I’m finally getting around to writing about my parent’s trip to Honduras. While Nicki and I are not really beach people, my parents are, so we decided to take them somewhere on the north coast, Tela, which is pretty close to San Pedro, where they flew in and out of. Plus we had never been to Tela, and had heard good things about it.

Tela grew and developed largely in the early 20th century as the Honduran headquarters of United Fruit Company (Chiquita). While there is still banana production in the area, United left Tela in the 70’s and there are only a few of their buildings left in part of the large beach resort in town. The agricultural production seems to have switched to palm oil, since now the entire highway there is surrounded by rows of massive palms as far as the eye can see. The main visible infrastructure left behind in Tela is the railroad. United built an extensive network of trains to transport its people and bananas. The only remaining rail in Honduras is a passenger train from Tela to San Pedro Sula. While I’ve always been intrigued by the train when Nicki and I see it near the bus station, we took the much safer alternative in Honduras, a private rental car. Being PCV’s, we are forbidden from driving, so my parents were forced to take the wheel, not always a relaxing endeavor in Latin America. But after driving on a lot of dirt roads near our town, and constantly cursing them, my parents were delighted that Tela was big enough to be completely paved.

We stayed at Hotel Caesar Marisco’s, which was recommended by our friends. Few Honduran coastal towns have much of a beach, but Tela has one of the best. Our hotel was right on the small boardwalk along the beach, a group of 4 or 5 hotels and restaurants. It is only a couple blocks long, but is also one of the few areas in town where you can be reasonably safe walking around at night. There were plenty of people in the hotels and restaurants, so it was fine to walk to dinner, but not really anywhere beyond that. We ate at the restaurant in our hotel a couple times, which was no better or worse than the others. The best part of the hotel was the roof top pool, from which we could watch the people walking up and down the boardwalk. It was a nice relaxing spot to get away from the heat of the coast.

The main reason we chose to go to Tela was its proximity to several national parks, and plenty of tour companies to take you to them. We went with Garifuna Tours because they had a three day, three tour package for the price of two. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough people to do that tour, so instead we went on two tours with them, and drove ourselves to the final one.

For the first tour, we hopped in a boat that took us across the bay to Punta Sal National Park (officially Parque Nacional Jeannette Kawas). Jeanette Kawas was an environmentalist who was one of the leading voices trying to prevent development and deforestation in the area of Punta Sal to preserve the natural wildlife. While the group she organized succeeded in creating a national protected park, Kawas herself was murdered in 1995 by opposing activists, so they named the park in her honor. The boat ride got off to a slow start, seeing as how the river we were on lacked the strength to reach the sea. We jumped out and watched as the guide, driver, and several other guys pushed the boat on halved PVC pipes over the beach to get to the bay. As we sped away, we noticed a guy digging a trench to connect the river and bay and wondered if he would even be close to done by the time we got back. The boat ride was about an hour, and when we got there, we disembarked and followed the guide through the jungle. He explained about pirates who used certain trees as masts, and provoked the howler monkeys with his calls. My dad walked straight into a spider web with the gigantic golden silk orb-weaver spider. Luckily the spider didn’t seem to notice and my dad made it out alive. It was an interesting hike, except for the swarms of mosquitoes and the Peruvian couple who lagged behind and who needed everything re-explained in Spanish. At the end of the trail, we met up with the boat driver again who drove us back around the point, crashing over huge waves, to a small clearing and beach where we had lunch, typical Garifuna fare of fried fish and rice. It was nice relaxing at the beach, but unfortunately the water was too choppy for any good snorkeling, which was supposed to be the highlight of the trip. On the trip back we confirmed the trench wasn’t quite low enough yet for the boat to get through. We went for it anyway, and this time my dad and I helped push the boat through.

Guys pushing the boat across the beach into the bay

Golden silk orb spider (leg span of about the size of your hand)

Beautiful Punta Sal

On day two, we set off in the opposite direction, east, to Punto Izopo, another national park, this time to kayak up the Rio Platano. On the way, the driver started asking us where we were from, in English.

The States, we said.

Yeah, ok, where? asked the driver.

Michigan, we said.

Yeah, ok, where? asked the driver, maybe a little rudely.

Grand Rapids, do you know where that is? we asked.

Yeah, of course, I used to work at Steelcase. (Obviously….)

It turns out he never actually had been to Michigan, he had worked for Steelcase in California, but being that Grand Rapids was the headquarters, he knew about it.

The whole protected area of the park turned out to be traversed by a labyrinth of rivers through mangroves and trees. The driver turned out to also be our guide so we jumped in our kayaks and started exploring. It was quite a long exhausting day paddling up and down the small side streams, but fun learning about the different legends of ghosts (which turned out to be birds), and seeing all the tiny crabs crawling into our kayaks that we kept mistaking for spiders. It was cool and quiet in the secluded inlets, where more than once we thought we were lost for good. The day ended with another Garifuna lunch of tasty seafood soup at a beach shack, but first we stopped to watch a local woman making casabe, a grilled flatbread made out of mashed yuca (or cassava) root. It’s somewhat bland when plain, but very good when sprinkled with garlic salt.

Kayaking the Rio Platano

Getting lost in the tannin colored inlets

Adorable Garifuna girl watching us as we unload our kayaks

On day three we went to the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, a joint project of USAID, ESNACIFOR (a forestry school in Siguatepeque), and the Honduran national government. More than anything it serves as a recreational park for the residents of Tela and educational area for Honduran school children. There were swimming holes and bike rentals, and even a visitor’s center. We opted to get a guide who took us on a one hour walk through the park, telling us about all the trees and their fruits along the way. We saw a cannonball vine whose fruit are so big and heavy they could be used as cannonballs, a cork tree, a decorative red pineapple plant, a naked Indian which is has a smooth and reddish bark, and a gamba whose big hollow roots can store hundreds of gallons of water. He also plucked things off trees to let us taste like kettle fruit, which had a soft spongy textured flesh around huge seeds and applepears, a red apple shaped fruit with the texture of a pear. All very fascinating tropical plants. Because it was close to town, we opted to go back for lunch and relax the rest of the day in the pool.

Decorative pineapple

Bob and Nolan around the ol' cork tree

Eating an applepear

El tunel de bambu

It was tough to see my parents leave, but it was good to be able to see them, and show them where we’ve been living for the past year and a half, and even to take a vacation to the beach (once in awhile).

Friday, August 5, 2011

Where in the World is...?

Thought we’d give you an update on how our World Map project is going and share some pics.

We finished up drawing all the countries two weeks ago. It took almost two months to get the oceans painted, and lines and countries drawn, which seems like a long time, but we only work with the kids one hour a week and we were out of town a bit in those two months. We did have to correct quite a few errors in the drawing and had to jump in and add a new country when South Sudan separated a month ago, but overall the drawing turned out really well.

We were excited to finally start painting, since now you can really start to see the countries take shape. We anticipated the drawing being the most difficult part, something the kids would have trouble with, but actually the painting might be a little harder. As with the drawing there are excellent artists and well, not-so-excellent ones. Sadly, it seems like kids don’t get much chance to paint things here because their form is quite bad. They like to hold the paintbrushes at the very end where they of course have the least control, then they sort of blot/poke/smash the paint in globs onto the wall or just make big brush strokes back and forth paying no attention to the lines. Neither of these techniques really serves them well in painting very small, intricate, and irregular shapes.

To be sure, some kids are great at it; you just have to learn how to pick out the good ones to do the trickiest stuff. If the kids are really shy and not that excited about painting, then they probably aren’t very good at it. The best ones seem to be those who come forward, even when it’s not their turn and ask to help or steal the paintbrushes from their friends (nicely of course). I have to restrain myself a lot of the time from jumping in and strangling the kids who are taking too much liberty with their paintbrushes, but it’s been good for me, being somewhat of a perfectionist, to give up some control. It’s still hard to watch as the kids aren’t that careful at staying in the lines that others painstakingly drew with such precision, jagged coastlines becoming broad, straight edges before our eyes.

We draw a big crowd of kids every day when we’re painting from all the classes, including the students that Nolan and I teach. We try to get them involved by pointing to countries or bodies of water and asking what they are, and then telling them interesting facts about the country. So far, kids are surprised by how small Honduras is compared to most other countries. They also were amazed by the quantity of islands in the South Pacific and the fact that they were their own countries. Their knowledge of Central America is pretty good, but even South America they are unfamiliar with; and these are 8th graders who might be as old as their late 20’s. It’s an interesting comparison to the group of students in Michigan with whom we exchange letters. When we asked them if they knew where Honduras was, almost all of them wrote back that of course they knew where it was, and they were 5th and 6th graders. It gives us hope that the map project will help not just their art skills, but also their exposure and knowledge of the countries of the world.