Thursday, June 12, 2008

Casera Cooking (For Chiricana)

As I've mentioned before, your chances of getting decent típico (Panamanian) cooking in a restaurant are, as we say in science, vanishingly small.  Your typical típico kiosko, which is a roadside restaurant, serves rice and beans, a very small helping of potato salad or cole slaw and a very small piece of chicken, fish, or pork, usually pan fried. Some kioskos will serve patacones, which are twice-fried plantain.  Many serve breakfast as well, but usually shut down by about 3 in the afternoon.

When we first moved here 4 years ago, we ate out once a week.  The serving sizes were fairly large, and you could get a whole meal for $1.50.  Coffee was $0.30/cup and was good to very good, depending on where you ate.  Our favorite kiosko at that time was Doña Mary's, which sits at the  junction of the turnoff of the Potrerillos Abajo road from the road to Arriba.  Later, we discovered Las Brisas outside of Dolega.  Both were very well attended by Panamanians, many of them truck drivers, but quite a few casual travelers and some obvious regulars.  

But as time went on and inflation set in, the serving sizes got smaller and smaller to keep the prices the same.  We also got tired of the limited menus and as we settled into our home, began eating out less and less frequently.  These days, we almost never eat out.  The food in any type of restaurant, whether típico or otherwise, is mediocre at best.  There are a few decent restaurants in David, one on the road to Boquete, and that's about it.  There are two quite decent típico restaurants in Boquete, Sabroson and Genesis, or I should say, they used to be.  We haven't been to either one in nearly two years so I can't comment on the quality now.

We first met the Espinosas last year, when Mary started taking Spanish lessons from Maritza Espinosa.  As time went on, we became closer with them, until now Maritza insists to our delight that we are part of the family.  Mary's Spanish lessons after a while also turned into lessons in casera (home) cooking and that's how we discovered true Panamanian cuisine.

I've already talked about some of the ways that Panamanians use corn.  American equivalent cooking is wheat-based; here, it's corn-based.  Tuesday night when I visited the Espinosas, Maritza was cooking crema de maiz.  Like all authentic ethnic style cooking, it's a lot of work.  You start off with "new corn", which means fresh corn ears.  First you "rasp" or shell the new corn, then put the kernels through a molino which, as I've mentioned, is a corn grinder.  Then you cook the ground corn in water until it's soft .  Maritza passes this through a colander which Ricardo has made from the shell of a gourd into which he has drilled fairly large-sized holes.  This is simply to separate out any coarse debris.  Maritza explained that you can't use the usual small sieve because the mixture won't pass through.  I think we could use a standard colander.  after that, you cook it some more until it has the consistency of thick oatmeal (but a much, much finer texture), which is when it's ready to eat.

Maritza filled small bowls for us and for Ricardo, who never needs to be called to the table.  There are lots of different ways you can eat the crema.  Maritza explained that a really good way is to add queso blanco, which is the soft country cheese you can get in the supermarkets and which she uses in bollos many times or if you really want a treat, add nance, a small tropical fruit that grows quite easily in the area.  The Espinosas claim that that's the tastiest way to eat crema.  But since they had neither of those Tuesday night, we "merely" added milk, much as you would to oatmeal, for example.  The crema had gelled in the bowl and reminded me of cream of wheat. The texture is a little coarser, but not much.

It was hot and delicious.  Polite guest that I was, I finished before anyone else, even before Ricardo, who is one of the country's great trenchermen.  We understand each other, Ricardo and I, when it comes to food.

Later, as I was about to leave, naturally Maritza who thinks that we are starving here (never mind that I am 15-18 lbs overweight) filled a bag with goodies.  There was crema for Mary and also a dish that Mary likes a great deal--rice cooked with pineapple.  Maritza told me that the way to make this dish the tastiest was to cook it with hunks of the pineapple rind, although Ricardo warned me not to use commercial pineapple because of the hormones and pesticides that are used.  That eliminates our cooking the dish for a while, since our pineapples won't be ready until next year.  Just in passing, I should add that the corn came from their huerta, which is far more than a vegetable garden--more like a small subsistence farm.  

While you can eat the rice and pineapple dish as is after removing the pineapple rinds, you can also put the pineapple-flavored rice into a blender and make a very refreshing, very tasty drink from it.  I've had it at Las Brisas when I've asked for it.

Part of the 5 lbs or so of food I toted home was a small container of a bean I've never seen before but which the Espinosas had shown me a couple of weeks before.  It's tiny, tiny, a long bean that is about the size of long-grained rice.  Maritza explained how to use this bean--you mix the cooked bean, which takes a long time to cook because it's so hard, with a rather large amount of rice to make quite a tasty dish.  She warned me not to use too much of the beans or the dish will become "mala".  I've had this form of rice and beans a few times at Doña Mary's, and I can tell you that it's excellent.  She gave me a half a cup worth, saying that that was enough to flavor what she considers barely sufficient rice to feed two people (in other words, enough for 6).  They both urged me to plant a few hills of the beans, because a few plants will produce heavily.  I hope to get to that soon.

Before I went to Brasil for the first time 10 years ago, I had no idea that there were so many different types of beans in the world as there are.  We've experimented with just what's readily available in the supermarkets and have settled on one type of poroto that is excellent.  Martitza and Ricardo urged me again to find a bean that is called colombiano redondo grande, which, they say, is the tastiest bean around.  I inquired at our fruit and vegetable kiosko yesterday, but they didn't have any at that time.  We're regulars there, so I asked the young woman who usually waits on us to tell me when they had it in stock, and she will.

You'd never know it from what's available in restaurants here in Chiriquí, but Panamanian cuisine is really good--you just have to have it casera.

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