Hecho Con Amor

PHOTOGRAPHED BY TINA SARGEANT

Nicaraguan food is unique and diverse, with many dishes influenced by other cultural cuisines. This creative fusion along with the thoughtfulness taken into each dish not only creates a delectable meal, but also an experience that reminds us why meals are meant to be shared with those we love.

 

Nicaragua is the land my parents once called home. The first place they knew. My two siblings and I are U.S.-born children of foreign-born parents. I am a second-generation American, and I am thankful every day.

Growing up with privilege has allowed me to grow in an entirely different environment. An environment that leaves me ignorant to their early lives lives filled with struggle, hope, determination, and war.

Although my siblings and I grew up in America, it never meant we had to strip ourselves from all the culture and traditions that ran through our veins. Nicaragua has always been my home away from home. Because of that, the love my parents had for food and where it came from has never gone unnoticed.

My mother always made food a top priority. Every day after school, she would pick us up, drive to the local grocery store, patiently remove all the junk food my brother and I would try to sneak into the cart, and then drive home to cook us dinner. The amount of work my mother did throughout the day must have left her dead by this time. But even then, she always managed to cook us a beautiful meal. From cow’s tongue dressed in the most decadent sauce to squid ink fried rice, we could always expect to go to bed with our bellies full.

There is only so much my parents could do in Lakeland to give us a taste of their country. For us to get the full experience, we had to see it for ourselves. Every year since I was a year old, my parents would take us to Nicaragua for two weeks. We’d spend that time traveling back and forth between Masaya, the city where my mother grew up, and Majagual, the beach where my father grew up spearfishing.

In Masaya, we’d walk the crowded streets full of life in search of a good fritanga stand. You’d always know you were getting close when the smell of carne asada (grilled meat) filled the air. The best home-style Nicaraguan foods come from fritanga stands. From delicious vigoron (recipe below) to queso frito (fried cheese), you can always find something that will make your taste buds want to hit a Mariah Carey high note.

In Majagual, we’d camp on the most beautiful, untouched beach. A beach so beautiful, it would bring tears to my eyes. A beach that held so many of my father’s memories. A beach where I learned how to make my very first ceviche.

I remember like it was yesterday: my father and I would wake up early and head down the beach toward the jagged rocks. We’d find where all the cucarachas del mar were hiding and spend hours pulling them off the rocks with a sharp tool, usually a shell we found on the walk over. On our walk back, we’d collect limes from all the citrus trees swaying in the sweet, salty air.

Once we were back, I’d watch my father detach all the cucarachas del mar from the shells. He’d put them on a large flat rock he’d find nearby, and with his pocket knife, he’d split the limes in two and drown the little critters in lime juice. And just like that, I’d be eating the freshest ceviche of my life. As simple and rustic as it was, I’ve never had anything better.

It’s about coming together and sharing experiences with the people you care about. When we live in a world full of fast-food joints, restaurant chains, and frozen TV dinners, it’s easy to forget these things.

That’s what Nicaraguan food is about. It’s about knowing where your food comes from and preparing it with thoughtfulness and love. It’s about coming together and sharing experiences with the people you care about. When we live in a world full of fast-food joints, restaurant chains, and frozen TV dinners, it’s easy to forget these things.

With that said, I hope these recipes inspire you. I hope they get you cooking with intention and heart. I hope they get you dancing around your kitchen with the people you love. I hope you enjoy them. Buen provecho, Lakeland!

RECIPES

Tamales

La masa

3 1/2 cups masa harina for tamales (20 ounces)
3 cups very hot water
1/2 pound lard
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup cotija cheese, grated
1 1/2 tablespoons baking powder
1 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons salt

In a large bowl, mix the masa with the hot water until evenly moistened. Add the cheese and knead several times to make a smooth dough. Remember to not be afraid of getting your hands dirty; your hands are some of the best tools in the kitchen.

In a mixer fitted with a paddle, beat the lard with the butter at medium speed until smooth, about 2-3 minutes. Add the salt and baking powder, and beat at medium-low speed until it has been incorporated, about 2 minutes.

While the machine continues to mix the ingredients, add the masa in four batches. Continue beating and occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl, until the masa is smooth.

Pour in the chicken stock and beat until the masa is soft and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes.

Wrap the tamale masa in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 30 minutes. The masa can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Before assembling the tamales, return the masa to the mixer and beat the dough at high speed for 1 minute.

Tomatillo Chicken Filling
3 cups shredded rotisserie chicken
8 tomatillos, cubed
1/2 yellow onion, cubed
4 garlic cloves, halved
1 serrano pepper, halved and seeded
1/2 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
1 lime, juiced
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

Preheat the broiler. On a sheet tray, add yellow onion, garlic, tomatillos, and serrano peppers. Drizzle some olive oil and season it with salt and pepper. Broil the vegetables for about 10 minutes, or until they get charred around the edges. Place the serrano, onion, garlic, cilantro, lime juice, and tomatillos in a blender and blend until smooth. In a large sauté pan, combine the tomatillo mixture and the shredded chicken, and heat through.

Set aside in a bowl to cool.

The Building Process

Bowl of masa

Bowl of tomatillo chicken filling

15 corn husks, hydrated

15 banana leaves, cut into small squares

Extra banana leaves to cut into strips and tie around tamales

Before wrapping the tamales, make sure the dried corn husks have been hydrating in a bowl of water. This will make them easier to work with. Once the corn husks have softened, place one small banana leaf square in the center of your corn husk. With a spoon, scoop a heaping spoon full of masa and fill the corn husk. Fill the center, leaving the top and bottom sections free of any masa. Add some of the tomatillo chicken filling right in the middle, making sure there is enough room and masa to wrap around the filling.

Once you have filled the corn husk, fold the sides and the bottom into the middle. Do not fold the top part down. You want to keep that open to let some steam out.

With the extra strips of banana leaves you cut earlier, tie the tamale around its waist. Do not tie the tamale too tight; you don’t want to give the tamale an hourglass figure. You just want to make sure it’s tightly sealed.

To begin steaming the tamales, locate a large lidded pot. Use a metal strainer at the bottom of the pot to keep the tamales above the water. You don’t want the tamales getting wet. Fill the pot up to the metal strainer and add a pinch of salt to the water. Stack the tamales inside the pot, standing up, with the open end facing the top. Do not lay them on their side. Turn the burner on the stove to high and bring the water to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cover the pot with the lid. Steam the tamales for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, checking the water level every 15 minutes. Remove and let cool for 5 minutes.

Tricolor Tostadas

1 package of corn tortilla tostadas
Refried Beans
2 29-ounce cans of refried beans
1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 tablespoon garlic powder
Salt and pepper
Roasted corn for garnish
2 ears of corn

In an oiled pan, sauté the chopped garlic and onion with a little salt, pepper, and garlic powder, over medium heat. When the onions have turned translucent, add the two cans of refried beans. Cook the refried beans until they are nice and hot.

For the roasted corn garnish, simply cut the kernels off the cob and roast them on a sheet pan with a little drizzle of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast the corn in the oven at 400 degrees F for 30 to 35 minutes, or until they have dehydrated. You want them to have more of a dry, chewy consistency.  Sprinkle some of the roasted kernels over the refried bean tostada when you are ready to serve.

Roasted Tomato Salsa
4 vine-ripened tomatoes, whole
2 garlic cloves, halved
1 jalapeño, halved
1 yellow onion, quartered
1 lime, juiced
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Queso fresco for garnish

Preheat the broiler. Place the tomatoes, garlic, onion, and jalapeño peppers on a sheet tray. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Broil the vegetables until the outsides are charred, 7 to 10 minutes. Place the charred jalapeños in a small bowl and remove the seeds. Add all of the charred vegetables into a food processor and blend it until the salsa has a smooth texture to it. Set aside in a bowl to cool.

For the queso fresco garnish, simply crumble the cheese over the roasted tomato salsa tostada when you are ready to serve.

Guacamole Nica (Online Exclusive)
4 ripe avocados, cubed
1/4 cup yellow onion, finely chopped
4 limes, juiced
4 hard-boiled eggs, cubed
1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
Pickled red onions for garnish (see below)
1 1/2 cups white wine vinegar
1 1/2 cups cold water
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
3 cups of boiling water

In a large bowl, gently mix the cubed avocado and hard-boiled eggs. Add the salt, pepper, onion, lime juice, and cilantro. When mixing together, remember to not mash the avocados. You want some of the avocado cubes to hold their shape, creating a chunky guacamole. Place mixture in a bowl and keep refrigerated.

(Tip: to keep the guacamole from turning brown, save the seeds from the avocados, or the limes you squeezed, and place them in the guacamole when you refrigerate it.)

For the pickled red onion garnish, combine the vinegar and cold water with the sugar and salt in a medium bowl. Stir until the sugar and salt dissolve. Put the onion slices in a colander and slowly pour the three cups of boiling water over it. Rinse under cool water, drain, and then add the onion to the vinegar brine. Cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled. The pickled red onions can be refrigerated for up to a week. Place some pickled red onions over your guacamole tostada when you are ready to serve.

Vigoron

1/2 pound chicharron
Yucca
3 pounds frozen yucca
1 yellow onion, quartered
4 garlic cloves, halved
1 cup olive oil
3 quarts water
Salt

In a large pot, combine the water, olive oil, yucca, onion, garlic, and salt. Bring it to a boil and cook until the yucca is fork-tender (similar to boiling potatoes). Remove from heat and drain the yucca. While it’s still hot, use your hands to remove the woody spines from the center of the yucca chunks. Set aside and let cool.

Slaw
1 bag of shredded cabbage
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 vine-ripe tomato, finely chopped
1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped
8 limes, juiced
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
Salt and pepper

In a large bowl, mix the shredded cabbage, onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. Add the lime juice, olive oil, and apple cider vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and refrigerate until you are ready to use.

Tamarindo Champagne Cocktail

1 bottle of prosecco
Tamarind Syrup
2 cups tamarind pods, peeled
3 cups granulated sugar
3 cups water
1 lime, juiced

In a large pot, combine the water and granulated sugar. Set the stove to medium-high heat and whisk the mixture until the sugar has dissolved. Add the tamarind pods and lime juice. Bring to a boil. Once the syrup has boiled for about 2 minutes, lower to a simmer. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool.

Dehydrated Limes
2 limes, thinly sliced

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F. Line a sheet tray with parchment paper and evenly distribute the lime slices on the parchment. Make sure the lime slices are nice and thin. Pop it in the oven and let it dehydrate for 4 to 5 hours. Try not to open the oven too often. Let the limes do their thing. You’ll know when they’re done when they lose their stickiness and start feeling rough and dry.

Cocktail
2 ounces tamarind syrup
5 ounces Champagne
1 dehydrated lime slice for garnish