Sunday, March 22, 2009

Food - El Salvador versus Cuba

It has been a week since the election and so far so good. Nothing crazy has happened although some of the business community here are very pessimistic and are expecting El Salvador to follow the pattern of Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Others are expecting this country to follow the example of Brazil and it is a good sign that President Elect Funes went to visit Lula first.

Okay, it is not my intention to make this into a political blog and I have been spending way too much time this week arguing politics at parties ... so let me talk about something else. I was trying to decide whether to write about dentistry in San Salvador or food ... and I think the latter may be more fun.

I came to El Salvador after 13 years living in Havana. Havana has a vibrant culture and, seemingly, a diverse and interesting cuisine. Think about all those great cocktails invented in Cuba (Mojitos, Cuba Libres, and Daiquiris).
Yoyi carving the pig in Yeya's kitchen
Think about Cuban sandwiches, roast whole pork cooked in a caja china, yucca con mojo, tostones and maraquitas, and fresh seafood. In reality, we ate a lot of cabbage (organic since the farmers didn't have the money for pesticides) and frozen chicken from the US (hormone enhanced giant chicken legs in 30 lb boxes with Russian writing on them) that fell off trucks.

We also had a lot of lobster tails (at a dollar per tail, it was cheaper than the imported hamburger) but there is only so much you can stand and with Fatima being allergic to it, I only cooked it when she was off island.
Too much lobster!

Vegetables were really lacking. Sometimes all you would find was cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, and fruit. I only found green beans once in 13 years! Cauliflower maybe 4 time. Napa maybe 6 times - and of course I bought ever head they had so that I could make kimchee.

Organic baby arugula salad in Cuba
The best produce we had was organic baby arugula that would cost a dollar for a giant plastic bag (until hurricane Wilma flooded the little farm in Miramar) and watercress.
So when I moved to El Salvador, I was blown away by all the great food and produce. Four kinds of lettuce, zucchini, radicchio, daikon, strawberries, fresh chili peppers, fennel, sweet corn ... YEAR ROUND! A lot of it comes from Guatemala where I think they have the climate at altitude to grow through every season. We also have some nice culinary surprises like fresh mozzarella and a nice salty crumbly local cheese we use like Feta.
Caprese on a stick with a balsamic dressing

The wines from Chile and Argentina are plentiful and very inexpensive - our house wine is an Undurraga that costs $3.60 a bottle. The meats are good although I have to confess that I buy most of that at Pricesmart so our beef is from the US and the fish is farm grown Tilapia.

A dinner party in Havana with tamales and tacos
When we cooked for a large dinner party in Cuba, we would have a general idea of what we wanted to make and then we would try to find it. Depending on the outcome of that, we would have to change or tailor what we could serve. We did a lot of Mexican with tortillas brought in from visits to El Salvador. Our chicken mole was pretty popular.

In San Salvador, I can get an idea from the Food Channel or off the Internet, find everything I need, and then make exactly what I wanted to.
Indian food dinner - butter chicken and homemade Nan

In the past year, that has meant such dinner parties like: Thai food with Jasmine rice, coconut milk curry, Pad Thai, and a green papaya salad; Indian food with a Goan grilled curry fish, butter chicken and home made Nan bread;

Hand-rolls with avocado, tomago and shrimp

Japanese sushi handrolls with tofu miso soup; and a lot of beef with great salads and veggies like green beans with butter, garlic and almonds.

We have a nice condo but unfortunately we don’t have a private garden for a barbecue. There is a common parkette and I am contemplating setting up something there but it is a bit inconvenient. So we usually barbecue at friend’s houses.

A lot of big two pound sirloins on the grill and we recently did a proper barbecue with brisket and pork, cooked for 8 hours with a lot of hickory smoke.
Pork and brisket in our improvised smoker
I am not much of an appetizer maker but I cooked for a friend's birthday party and she wanted some appetizers so we did pesto grilled chicken kebobs with grated manchego cheese, a nice caprese salad on a stick with local fresh mozzarella and a balsamic dip, and bacon wrapped figs with a mascarpone dip.


Bacon wrapped figs with mascarpone dip

I have also been lucky to find plenty of friends who love to eat and also one who is a professional chef. Minh, of Minh's Cuisine, is a Thai and Vietnamese chef and he is just awesome to cook with. I like cooking and think I am a decent "cook" but Minh is a "chef" and is teaching me a lot. We once did a rotisserie boneless leg of pork and someone thought it was a bit dry. He was carving and said we should make a sauce. A quick rummage through the cupboards produced two cans of pineapples - through the blender, then into a saucepan with two sticks of butter, a touch of ginger, a splash of soy sauce, and finished with some sliced green onions and we had a 4 minute sauce done.

Now the big question is, what are we making next weekend?

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