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)
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
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
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)