Sunday, December 30, 2007

Belizean Rice and Beans, Escabeche in the Dutch Oven

Back in the early ‘80’s, I spent some time working for my church (an LDS Mission) in Central America. That time included a six month stay in Orange Walk Town in the northern parts of Belize.

Belize is a wonderful country, with a small, tight, and yet very diverse people. There are a lot of Hispanics, many from Guatemala, there are a lot of Caribbean Black Creole. There are a lot of British there (because Belize used to be British Honduras). To that mix add Chinese and Hindu, and all in a town smaller than Paris, Idaho (trust me, that’s small).

I learned a lot from teaching and working with these wonderful people. One of the things I learned was that you could make incredibly delicious meals without fancy pots or pans, or even without stoves. I remember meeting a guy outside his house one day. We all struck up a conversation. He had cut a big 55 gallon oil drum off at only about a third high, and had a metal plate over it like a lid. He had it on top of hot coals and was shoveling more hot coals on top. What was he making? His wife had made Coconut Bread, and he was in charge of baking it (under her watchful eye). He told us to come back in about a half hour.

We did, and it was some of the most delicious bread I’d ever tasted.

One of the church members there used to have us over for lunch a lot. He worked a hard day at the sugar factory, then he would come home and fix shoes for extra money. He took some of my worn out fancy Mr Mac shoes and re-soled them with tire treads. That lasted me through the rest of the mission!

Anyway, his wife (and just about everyone else there in OWT) used to make us this delicious onion, chicken and vinegar soup, called “escabeche”. Man, that was good stuff. It’s really a staple of Belizean cooking. She had this little stand in the back of her house (a shack, really). She’d start a fire with wood chips and twigs and cook up the meal.

There were really two things that stand out in my memory as defining Belizean cooking. One was this soup, and the other was their rice and beans dish. Both were humble, “peasant dishes”, if you will, but they were the most delicious things I’d ever eaten up to that point. And I made our Branch President’s wife teach me how to make it one day.

I’ve made it several times in the intervening years, but today, I did it in my dutch oven. And, to complete the feast, I made the rice and beans.

A note about authenticity: I have made a few alterations to these recipes. But not much. Really, simplicity is good in these ones. Also, it goes to show that you don’t have to have a schnazzy professional oven to cook a great meal. Remember? Heat on food is all it’s about!

Another note: As I’ve been traveling and interacting with people of different latin backgrounds, I’ve discovered about three or four unique dishes, all bearing the name “Escabeche”. A few of them, notably the Peruvian one, are fish dishes. There are others, though. It seems like in most cases, the only thing they really have in common is the name.

So, if this doesn’t look like your idea of what an “Escabeche” recipe should look like, sorry. It IS a Belizean Escabeche, though.

Dutch Oven Belizean Escabeche

12” Dutch Oven

20+ coals below

10” Dutch Oven

17+ coals below

  • 2-3 lbs of chicken. I like the boneless frozen chicken parts, but you use what you like.
  • 8 cups water
  • 4-5 Large white onions
  • ¼ cup fresh chopped cilantro
  • ½ tsp thyme
  • Liberal shakes of oregano
  • Liberal shakes of salt and black pepper
  • Liberal shakes of Celery salt
  • 2 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 2 sliced jalapeno peppers
  • 2-3 Cups white vinegar
  • ½ cup lemon juice
  • Corn tortillas

I started out with the Chicken and the water in the 12”. Simple enough, just boil the chicken, with the dutch oven covered.

While that was boiling, I sliced up the onions. You really need lots of onions. Slice up what you think is enough for a typical onion soup, and you’re at about half what you’ll need. Then add some more after that. This soup is mostly onion with some broth. Then, I chopped up the cilantro, sliced the jalapenos, and added all the other spices together in a bowl, and set that aside.

Once the 12” dutch oven was boiling, I put the 10” dutch oven on some coals, with a thin puddle of oil in the bottom. When the 10” oven was heated, it was just about the time that the boiling chicken was “done”.

I pulled the chicken out of the broth, dripped it off, and set it to fry in the 10” dutch oven, in the oil. Be careful, because it’ll splatter! I stirred and turned the chicken pieces to brown on all sides. That helps it get a little crunch and gives it a bit of fried flavor.

In the meantime, while the chicken is frying, I poured all the onion mixture into the broth in the 12” dutch oven. Add in the vinegar. I always wonder how much vinegar to add. Generally speaking, I say go large and put in more toward the 3 cups. It depends on how daring your audience is. Still, without a good strong vinegar taste, this dish can end up wimpy. The lemon juice is my own addition to the recipe, and I really like the flavor it adds.

Then I added the browned chicken back into the onion and vinegar broth.

Normally, I’d say to reduce the coals to just a simmer at this point, but since I was cooking in the dead of winter, I kept some strong coals on. Just let this cook until the onions are soft and the chicken has absorbed the vinegar.

While this was simmering, I worked on the Rice and Beans:

Dutch Oven Belizean Rice and Beans

10” Dutch Oven

7 coals below
13 coals above

  • Slices of salt meat (bacon, sausage, whatever ya got)
  • 2 cans red beans, with liquid
  • 2 cups white rice
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic
  • Liberal shakes of salt and black pepper
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk (about a half can)
  • ¾ cup water

After frying the chicken, use the same hot 10” dutch oven and coals to cook the salt meat. This time, I used smoked sausage, sliced pretty thin. Once that was browned, I added everything else, adjusted the coals as written, and cooked it, stirring occasionally, until the rice was done.

Actually, you don’t even need the meat. In most cases, Belizeans don’t include it. But they sometimes did. I like it, myself. One lady used to make us Rice and Beans, and serve it piled up high on the plate with a couple of pieces of barbecue chicken on top. THAT was yummy!

The two dishes were served side by side, the Escabeche in a bowl, with corn tortillas on the side, and the Rice and Beans on a small plate. The people there often eat the escabeche without utensils, using pieces of the tortillas to pick up the onions and the chicken with their fingers. Some will fold the tortillas to make spoons to get the vinegar broth, others just drink that from the bowl. We used to joke that a greenie missionary became a true Belizean elder when he could eat a whole heaping bowl of Escabeche without touching his fork or spoon.

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