Let’s just pretend it hasn’t been, like, two years and jump right into the food, shall we?
Last year, I spent a fair amount of time in Central America. My wife and I planned a great honeymoon in Mexico to start, followed by a friend’s wedding in Costa Rica and a different friend’s wedding in Belize. Many, many US Dollars, Mexican Pesos, Costa Rican Colónes, and Belizean dollars later, I had a new appreciation for sun and Piña Coladas along with a newfound hatred for stingrays. That’s another story.
One thing these tropical climates have in common is the food. Similar variations on things like ceviche with a decidedly local flair. Sometimes the mangoes are the freshest and best option, other times the plantains can’t be beat, and different types of shellfish exude freshness based on the morning’s catch. However, you also find local staples in the form of prepared frozen chicken paired with beans and rice.
Let’s backtrack a bit. I have said multiple times that fresh herbs and spices are the only ways to prepare a fresh tasting dish. However, I’m fully aware that all of us don’t have a freshly stocked herb garden and a fully maintained greenhouse at arms reach. I was in college once, too. So, let’s revamp and take another stand here. Dried herbs and spices can be a great staple to have in any well-stocked pantry. You just have to take the time to properly open up the flavors they have to offer. You only need to be willing to put in the extra legwork.
Most of the time, those ground and dried powders in little baggies and plastic containers are no good. The problem is, as they are ground they are automatically exposed to oxygen, causing them to give off most of their aromatic and flavor compounds. Added to that, the powders most often have other ingredients as anti-clumping measures and preservatives. So, if you do need to use dried herbs and spices, make sure you buy them whole and not powdered.
Once you have your whole herbs and spices, you also need to open up the flavors. The easiest way to do this is through heat.
It’s easier than it you’d think. You just need a dry skillet and a bit of patience, and you can bring out some of the best aromas and flavor compounds those little cumin seeds and ancho pods have to offer. Add a bit of dried ancho pepper pods and you’ve got a fragrant, spicy, and delectable mixture. If you really want to make this process easier, you can also invest in a small, bladed coffee grinder to pulverize your lovely spice mixtures into a fantastic dry rub. I haven’t invested in one of those yet, so I just use a food processor, which takes just a little bit longer. Once your dried herbs are to a satisfactory consistency, you can add other flavor compounds and aromatics. In this case, I just tossed in a bit of fresh lemon zest and a few garlic cloves. Use what you like.
For the chicken, I always try to go whole for a few reasons. A) It is much cheaper to get a whole chicken and portion it out the way you like, B) After you are done with the meat, you still have bones leftover to make a killer stock and soup base, and C) That skin makes a great protective layer to keep the meat underneath juicy and tender. to be honest, cutting a chicken up into useable chunks is a bit of a challenge, but there are plenty of youtube videos with pointers and tips to make it easier. Find the way you like best, and don’t be afraid to mangle a few bits of meat. I find it’s easiest to just bisect the sucker, fold it open, and fit the knife where feels most natural. Don’t cut yourself.
As far as flavoring with your nice herb mixture, another great reason to utilize a whole chicken is the fact that you can stuff all that delicious flavoring underneath the skin, thereby sealing it in a lovely little pouch that won’t break away from the chicken. another bonus, the fat from the chicken skin will seep through the spices and herbs, then infiltrate your chicken like a well-trained, flavorful special forces team. That cumin and ancho will add pizzaz to your chicken faster than you can say, “freedom.” For chicken, your best bet for this under-skin stuff
Let’s talk about a sear for a bit. Caloric content aside, I love using butter to brown up a bit of meat. Honestly, with a well-seasoned cast iron skillet and less than a tablespoon of butter, you can make more headway than any amount of “healthy” oil on an aluminum or stainless steel or teflon coated pan. Use those pans for veggies, but get a cast iron skillet for your meats. Mine has seen lamb, steak, chicken, pork chops, and everything in between, and it’s the non-stickiest nonstick pan I’ve ever come across. Your meat will gain the best possible crust seared onto it with a cast iron skillet.
One more thing to note for the sear: Do NOT use salt yet. Granted, I’m a bit of an anti-salt enthusiast. I think I use less salt than any and every recipe calls for, simply because I think salt can really hide a lot of other flavors from a dish. The subtleties of cumin and the fragrance of garlic can be covered up incredibly fast by the harsh zip of salt. That being said, I understand if you want things saltier than I do-to each their own. However, you need to be patient with your salt addition. One of the unique properties of salt is that it draws moisture up from the meat. To brown your meat, you need less moisture, and if you draw moisture from your meat it will become-you guessed it, drier than a Saharan picnic. It also won’t brown properly. So sear it before you add your salt, and you’ll be left with an infinitely juicier piece of meat.
Okay, chemical properties aside, I’m going to give you my go-to method for chicken. Regardless of my love for cast iron skillets, stovetop cooking is an imperfect method for chicken. By the time it’s fully cooked, you are left with a dry outer piece of flesh. My solution is a bit of a halfway mark. Essentially, I sear my chicken on a piping hot cast iron skillet, then throw the skillet in the oven (325-350 degrees) for 15 minutes or so. That way, you get your sear the skin and you get a juicy roast texture for your flesh. Pull it out and let the chicken cool for about ten minutes, and you have a world-class preparation of a blue collar piece of meat. If you are counting calories, rejoice! This sear-then-roast method also works when you are working on a boneless, skinless piece of meat.
For your beans, keep it simple. If you have the time, soak the beans (black, kidney, pinto, or whatever is in the pantry) overnight to soften them up. If not, boil them for two minutes and let them sit in the hot water for an hour. Regardless of the soak method you use, after the beans are nice and soft go ahead and drain that grimy water. Then, all you have to do is simmer your beans using enough water to go about half an inch over the surface of the beans for an hour to an hour and a half. Every so often, pull a bean or two out, and once they are tender enough you can serve them up. Before you start simmering, add your aromatics. I like to keep my beans simple, and in this case I added just a half a rough-chopped yellow onion and a few cloves of garlic. Again, I didn’t add salt until the end, but for a different reason. Your beans are going to soak up all the salty water you have in the beginning, but only the water is going to evaporate. If the bean broth is perfectly salty at the beginning of the simmer, it will be like drinking the ocean by the end of the simmer.
As for your rice, I found a great way to prepare and serve rice while in Belize. Use your normal portions of rice to water starting with two cups of whatever’s your favorite. I love jasmine rice. Take two cups of rice and four cups of liquid, but replace half that liquid with a can of coconut milk. It is seriously delicious. I use two cups of chicken broth, two cups of coconut milk, and mix it with the two cups of rice. Then, you bring the whole mixture to a boil and let it simmer for about twenty minutes. The fat from the coconut milk, along with the coconut flavor, will add incredible depth to your rice.
Now, all that’s left is to plate it up. I live in Colorado, so unfortunately I couldn’t find great plantains, avocado, or mango, but you can add just about anything fresh to this dish. I made do with a nice squeeze of fresh lime juice over the beans. The freshness went along great with the creamy coconut milk rice, and the juicy skin-on chicken is already among my wife’s favorite meals I’ve prepared. Enjoy your gourmet on a budget.