Saturday, February 5, 2011

Winter Break in Belize Part 1: Lobster.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I think these pictures add up to 10,000 at least, especially in the cold wintery weather that we are currently experiencing here in Indiana. My winter break was spent in Belize: at home on the farm and also in the village of Placencia, a fishing community turned tourist zone located on a peninsual of pure sand. These are the pictures of Placencia. Its a pretty sort of place, and not coincidentally, where I will be doing my dissertation research starting (if all goes according to plan) the middle of this upcoming autumn.

Placencia was once one of the biggest fishing villages in Belize, and is known for spiny lobster, the Caribbean cousin of the large clawed animals some of you may be more familiar with. These pictures tell the tale of a lobster fishing expedition that I went on in December. We got a couple conch and a big crab as well. 

Cleaning lobster is best done on the beach. The limes provide a great cleanser for the hands afterwards and keep the lobster sprightly til you get them in the freezer or cook them.

Mark made lobster stew. Lets just say, it was fantastic. Chopped up lobster, cleaned heads and all, sauteed in coconut oil with onion, sweet pepper and a panopoly of seasonings, including soy sauce, cumin, recado and fresh thyme and finished off with fresh coconut milk and cilantro.

A couple leftover cooked lobster tails=lobster tacos for lunch! Sauteed in butter with the ubiquitous onion and sweet pepper (the vegetable back-bone of Belizean Creole cooking), and served in fresh corn tortillas from the tortilleria down the street, topped with homemade pepper sauce, these were absolutely delicious!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Belizean Stew(ed) Chicken

Belizean popular cuisine centers around rice and beans, preferably with some kind of protein accompanying it. Since the beans are usually flavoured with a nice fat pig tail, you can probably already guess that the protein is unlikely to be soy-based. I have yet to meet a Belizean vegetarian although assuredly one must exist somewhere. Fish and other seafood, beef, chicken, pork and even game animals such as deer (antelope in local parlance), wild pig (peccary or warrie) and gibnut (a large and tasty member of the rodent family affectionately nicknamed the royal rat for once having been served to the Queen of England) may appear on the side of a plate heaped high with our traditional staples. Ideally fried plantains and some type of salad (more a garnish than anything) perch on the margins of this loaded platter, and the whole thing is commonly doused by the hungry consumer with liberal quantities of home-made or store bought hot pepper sauce.

You will find some variation of this meal at most Belizean restaurants and in many homes around lunch time, traditionally the biggest meal of the day. (although Kekchi and Maya Belizeans usually eat corn tortillas with their beans). While the diverse nation that is Belize boasts a wide array of delicious foodstuffs, this meal is what most Belizeans think of when they talk about "Belizean food" and it is what they crave when they are far from home. The two staples: rice and beans (or corn and beans for some Belizeans) form the backbone of daily sustenance. The meat is an accompaniment: to eat it without beans and rice would be unusual.

Although animal flesh is relegated to the side of the plate, that does not diminish its importance. While one can certainly eat rice and beans (or stew beans and rice, which is not the same thing) by themselves, most Belizeans strive to ensure that some type of animal accompanies them. Fish and seafood may be stewed, fried, baked, grilled. Land meats are usually stewed to allay toughness, providing a rich gravy to wet the accompanying rice and beans. Stewed Chicken (stew chicken in Belizean Kriol), is a particularly popular choice in restaurants. I got my recipe from a woman in Cayo District who made the best stew chicken I had ever tasted. In the coastal village of Placencia I learned another trick to add to the flavour of the dish.

The recipe I offer below is an amalgamation of techniques from across the country, and I encourage you to make your own changes as you see fit. No two people make stew chicken exactly the same way. In keeping with this tradition, I present the recipe below as it was given to me: with no exact measurements.

Stew Chicken

The meat:
A whole chicken, cut into pieces, or conversely 4-5 chicken legs and thighs or breasts with rib meat, skin on.
(Do not under any circumstances try to make this with boneless skinless chicken breast. In fact, I strongly recommend using either a combination of white and dark meat, or dark meat alone, for the best flavour)

The vegetables:
sweet pepper (green)

The seasonings:
red recado (more about recado here)
Soy sauce
Worchesterschire sauce
fresh ground black pepper
bayleaf or allspice leaf (optional)
cider or white vinegar
coconut oil (1-2 tablespoons)
1-2 tsp of sugar


1. Take the cut up chicken, place in a bowl and rub thoroughly with a mixture of about 2 tablespoons of vinegar and a piece of recado about the size of half an egg.

2. Add several tablespoons each of soysauce and worchesterschire sauce and cumin, and dried thyme, oregano, and black pepper. Don't add salt yet.

3. Chop an onion or two and one large or two medium sweet peppers and chop up 3-5 cloves of garlic.

4. Heat the coconut oil in a large saucepan to medium high heat. Toss in the sugar. Add the chicken, skin side down, and brown, then turn and brown on the other side. Reserve the marinade from the chicken.

5. Add the onion, garlic and sweet peppers, turn heat down and saute until onion is transparent, then add the liquid from the chicken bowl, along with a glass or two of water, enough to almost cover the chicken.

6. Let simmer for 40 minutes to an hour, taste for flavour and adjust seasonings as needed. You may need to add more soy sauce, worchesterschire sauce or herbs to your taste. Add salt if needed.

7. Serve with rice and beans or stew beans and rice, fried plantains and a little side salad (potato salad or coleslaw is classic) for a taste of one of Belize's most popular lunches.