What I Learned in Guatemala

•June 16, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I just got back from my trip to Guatemala, which is also to say sorry for not posting in awhile. Aside from the Mayan ruins and other natural wonders (I saw my first wild monkey!), the food was worth the trip alone. My entire view of Latin American cooking was upended during my time there. I suppose that is why we travel though, to experience the unexpected. Having grown up in Texas, I though I knew a thing or two about Latin American cuisine. What I got in Guatemala was a pleasant surprise.

Temple at Tikal

A mamba band was playing in the background as I sat down for my first meal in a little cafe at the heart of the labyrinth that is Guatemala City. I choose a traditional chicken stew with rice and tortillas on the side. The dish arrived and it looked delicious with pieces of chicken and various vegetables floating in a hearty yet delicate looking stock. Stewed herbs floated easily around the surface.

I used to labor under the delusion that all Latin dishes were spicy. So, dipping my spoon in and going for my first bite, I was ready for the expected onslaught of heat. My hand ready to grab the glass of freshly made aquas frescas to help squelch the flame.

But it never came. Instead my palate was greeted with a complex and savory flavor that lacked any spiciness to it, leaving me somewhat wanting. I spied some homemade hot sauce among the condiments on my table and added a couple dashes, bringing perfect balance to the dish. Later I was to realize this was their modus operendi, leaving the customer to add heat to their own taste and providing either hot sauces or pepper mixtures to do so.

There is nothing flashy about traditional Guatemalan cooking though it is always filling and satisfying. Almost every meal, including breakfast, comes with black beans. Handmade tortillas were in abundance and always freshly pressed and hot. Lightly seasoned chicken with a hint of salt, grilled or fried, seemed the standard protein though now and again I was treated to some beef. When I was lucky, my meals came with a fresh halved avocado shaped rounder than those in the States. Looking at the meals, they never seemed very large until I stood up to leave and felt astonishingly full.

Start the day with a feast

In all of the places I have travelled to, breakfast is normally a small affair of a pastry or bread with coffee and maybe eggs. Few times in my life have I enjoyed as massive a breakfast as is typical in Guatemala. Not only were there eggs, but various fruits,black beans, potatoes, pancakes, bread and a stewed tomato. The perfect way to start a day after a night of cuba libres.

At many of the cafes and restaurants that I visited there would be little or barrier between the tables and kitchen. The scents and the sounds of the young and old women each at their appointed tasks left nothing secret about how my meal was being prepared as I watched with eager anticipation. Often I felt like I was a guest in somebody’s home. One girl was sweet enough to bring me back to the simmering soups and gave me a spoonful of each to help me make up my mind. Most places had a menu del dia, a prix fixe offering of a surprising amount of food for very little money. And all of it had a certain charm as if your grandmother whipped it up while saying, “You look too thin, eat!”

Your Friend the Pepper

•May 16, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The other night I was eating some herb encrusted chicken with a dash of homemade pepper sauce on the side. Just a smidgen of this concoction of several types of chilies was all I needed because to call this stuff “hot” would have been a laughable understatement. Indeed, just several bites in I was red in the face and perspiring. This is a good thing in my opinion, it makes one stop and respect the meal rather than ploughing quickly through it.

The consumption of spicy foods has other benefits aside from the intangible one I described. What if I told you that chowing down on hot peppers could increase your circulation, fight cancer cells, help with weight loss and make you fall asleep easier and happier? Never would I risk my integrity by telling a lie, its all true. So even if hot foods are not your thing, perhaps it is time to rethink your stance about our good friend the pepper.

Spicy Chicken and Veggies

Mmmm, spicy. Check out the recipie below

Peppers come in all shapes, sizes and degrees of heat. You are mostly likely familiar with jalapeños, bell peppers and cayenne peppers. They all come from the same genus capsicum. The compound in these fruits, and peppers are technically fruits because they contain seeds, that reacts with certain receptors is capsaicin. The concentration of capsaicin is responsible for the amount of “kick” in each variety measured on the Scoville scale. This same compound is also responsible for the plethora of health benefits. Thought to have been developed as a natural defense mechanism against fungus and microbes, capsaicin also has been shown to fight cancer cells while leaving benign cells unharmed. Intelligent, no?

So what does capsaicin do to the human body exactly? First and perhaps most importantly of all it raises the body temperature, which sets off a domino effect so to speak. When the body’s temperature rises, its natural reaction is to increase blood flow so that it might cool itself down. This is how peppers help widen blood vessels and can help those who suffer from poor blood circulation. In that same vein, no pun intended, that increase in body temperature also increases the metabolic rate up to 8%. This makes you burn calories faster and can be that extra boost on your road to weight loss. No risky “diet” pills needed, peppers are all natural goodness.

Pictured: the ultimate diet pill. Photo by Ryan Bushby

Plus, like I said earlier, hot food makes you eat slower. And when you eat at a more relaxed pace, the body has more time to signal that it has had enough. There is often a delay between when your stomach is full and when it lets your brain know to stop. The Chinese proverb, “Eat until you are 80% full” touches on this point for the same reasons. Capsaicin also helps the digestive system by increasing blood flow to the stomach and stimulating stomach secretions that break down food. Eliminate that uncomfortable feeling that comes with over-gorging yourself with a plate of spicy food.

An Australian study has also linked the consumption of spicy foods with improved sleep patterns. Subjects who ate hotter foods had an easier time falling asleep than their counterparts who were fed blander meals. They even had an easier time waking up earlier. As if a good night’s sleep was not enough to make you feel good, capsaicin additionally prompts an increase in serotonin and endorphin levels, the chemicals in your brain that alleviate pain and make you feel good. What more could you ask for?

So if your looking for a way to help loose some weight, feel better after eating or fall quickly into a deep slumber with a smile on your face then start thinking spicy. Below is my recipe for a Spicy Stir-fry. For those adventurous souls who love the heat, add an extra habanero pepper to the mix.

Spicy Chicken Stir-fry

Ingredients:

  • 4 Skinless Chicken Breasts
  • Olive Oil
  • Wildly Natural One Original
  • Wildly Natural One Spicy
  • 2 Tbs. Butter
  • 4 Cloves of Garlic (finely chopped)
  • 2 Green Bell Peppers (chopped)
  • 2 Red Bell Peppers (chopped)
  • 1 Habanero Pepper (finely chopped)
  • 1 Cup of Sweet Corn
  • 1 Large Red Onion

Directions:

Trim the excess fat of the chicken breasts and rub with olive oil. Season to taste with equal parts Wildly Natural One Original and Spicy. Cook for 8 minutes on each side or until done. Next, pour some olive oil and place a tablespoon of butter in a large skillet heated to medium. Add the garlic, peppers, corn and onion and stir occasionally for 15 minutes. Season lightly with Wildly Natural One Original. If you prefer your food very spicy, add some Wildly Natural One Spicy. Cut the chicken breasts into 1 inch strips and mix with the veggies in the sauce pan. Serve and prepare for that sweet sweet burn.

Spicing Up Your Cooking With Beer

•April 29, 2011 • Leave a Comment

An Egyptian proverb goes, “ The mouth of a perfectly happy man is filled with beer”. Well, some beers have spices in them. Spices are used in cooking. So following that logic, why not cook with beer? It might be easier than you think.

The magical combination of water, barley, hops and yeast has been a staple of peasants and popes alike and has been quaffed since the 6th millennium BCE. Some of your favourite foods can benefit from the inclusion of the many styles of beer brewed today. But don’t get into too much of a rush to fire up the grill and crack a cold one my friends, for not just any beer will do.

A Kolsch style beer fermenting

A sound piece of advice when it comes to cooking with beer is, “If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it.” Most mass produced beers are usually inferior choices due to the inclusion of corn and rice in the brewing process which adds a less than pleasant after-taste. Many are also categorized as “light” beers, which translates into “light on taste”. The superior choice is to go with a microbrewed beer made by small, often independent breweries using higher quality ingredients with a greater emphasis on complex flavours and aromas. The more character the beer has, the more it will impart on your food. That being said, the most expensive beer isn’t necessarily the right beer to cook with. You wouldn’t cook with really pricey wine, so don’t break the bank on the beer going into your food.

Beer comes in dozens of styles, and brewers are innovating new ones all the time. Your choice of beer should be tailored to best suit what its flavoring. For example, stouts are dark and robust, while Indian Pale Ales are hoppy and floral. Check out BeerAdvocate.com for great explanations for many beer styles. Determining which style of beer to use can be a breeze by following a few guidelines. Dark beers like Belgian quadruples, stouts and more robust ales, which are malty with roasted notes go well with red meats, pork and cheese based dishes. Beers with a more pale colour such as IPA’s, lagers and wheat beers compliment poultry and seafood well. Read the description on the label, most will tell you what style it is if the name of the beer itself doesn’t give it away.

Some seasoned sweet corn baked in some copper ale

Spices make everything better, including beer. Brewers choose spices that mirror the weather, since most beers containing these inclusions are not brewed year-around. Hefeweizens are traditionally spiced with coriander and clove and are great on a summer’s day. Christmas ales are usually brewed with nutmeg and allspice. Use pumpkin ales brewed in the fall for their noticeable use of cinnamon.

Getting beer from the bottle to your plate does not require rocket science. It makes a tasty marinade by itself when paired correctly with the respective protein. Let your steak, pork or chicken sit in some beer over night and you will be rewarded come chow time as the flavour of the beer has infused with the natural character of the meat. You can substitute beer for water in many cases to impart a bold flavour in your cooking when it comes to soups, stews and sauces. Personally, I enjoy the effects of a hoppy beer in conjunction with the heavy use of hot spices to keep the taste buds guessing.

So experiment, you will be surprised with how many different ways you can include beer in your cooking. Below is my recipe for Welsh Rarebit Open-Faced Sandwich which utilizes the robust roasted and chocolate notes that an imperial stout brings to the party. And as always, enjoy with responsibility.

Welsh Rarebit Open-Face Sandwich (serves 4)

Needed:

  • 8 pieces of Slab Bacon
  • 1 loaf Rye Bread (cut into 1 1/2 inch slices)
  • 1 Tomato (sliced thick)
  • 2 tbs. Butter
  • 2 tbs. Worcestershire Sauce
  • 2 tbs. Flour
  • 2 tbs. Deli Mustard
  • 1 tbs. Wildly Natural One Original Seasoning
  • 6 oz. Imperial Stout (room temperature)
  • 12 oz. Sharp Cheddar Cheese (shredded)

Directions:

Cook your bacon nice and crispy, letting it cool on some paper towels when finished. Put the slices of rye bread into the oven until lightly toasted on both sides. Place the bacon and two tomatoes slices on each piece of bread. Bring a medium sauce pan to low heat and melt the butter. Whisk in the Worcestershire sauce, flour, deli mustard and Wildly Natural One Original. Slowly add the beer and then the cheddar cheese, whisking until homogeneous. Pour immediately and liberally over the sandwiches, allowing the bread to soak some of it up. Serve and say cheers.

Garlic Does a Body Good

•April 17, 2011 • Leave a Comment

With such radically different cuisines spanning the globe, garlic often seems a constant. Valued for its sharp flavor and pungent smell, people have used garlic for thousands of years, and not only because it adds a piquant punch. Its impressive multitude of medicinal qualities have long been exploited by mankind. Vampire repellent aside, modern day science can thankfully take out the mystery of why garlic is so healthy for us. Its true power is in its natural mineral compounds and including it in your cooking is an easy way to augment your health.

What makes garlic so healthy then? It is the allicin, a natural sulfur compound formed by a chemical reaction in the plant’s cell walls. A long time folk remedy, garlic has been attributed to help lower blood pressure, aid the cardiovascular system and even combat cancer cells. The allicin from crushed garlic cloves has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties. Countries that consume the most garlic tend to have a lower prevalence of cancer. Its compounds can even help fight aortic plaque deposits by reducing them in size. A multifaceted little plant indeed.

When it comes to cooking garlic, you have some options. Though the cloves are the most widely used part of the plant, the stems and leaves are also edible as well. The cloves have the highest concentration of flavor and can be roasted, squeezed, sautéed and even fermented into a sauce as is done in the Koreas.

The trick to releasing its flavor is how finely you chop the cloves. When the cell walls are damaged, they release sulfur containing compounds, including allicin, that are responsible for the distinguished taste and aroma of garlic. The finer you chop the clove, the more the cell walls become damaged and more allicin is released. These compounds can be lessened with heat, which is why garlic mellows after being sautéed. It is also worth keeping in mind that a portion of these sulfur compounds are fat soluble, which means if you sauté them the garlic flavor will become infused in the butter or olive oil being used.

It is no surprise then that such a potent healing device could cross over into the world of superstition. In Eastern Europe, garlic was believed to protect against vampires and other evil spirits. This is pretty amusing since it has been postulated that the aroma and taste of garlic cloves is a natural defense mechanism against predators. So savor the irony the next time you smell garlic and include it often in your cooking to keep away the evil spirits of poor health.

Check out this recipe for Wildly Natural One Garlic Chicken for an easy way to bring garlic into your kitchen.

Wildly Natural One Garlic Chicken

Needed:

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
½ cup whole wheat bread crumbs
¼ cup whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons Wildly Natural One Select seasoning
4 skinless boneless chicken breasts

Directions:

Bring a medium sauce pan and oil to low heat. Add in the finely chopped garlic and allow the oil to become infused with the garlic. Preheat the oven to 400. In a large bowl mix the bread crumbs, whole wheat flour and Wildly Natural One Select seasoning. Dip the chicken breasts in the oil and garlic mixture and then dip into the dry ingredient mixture, coating both sides of the chicken breasts. Place in a baking dish and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until done.

A Very Brief History of Spices

•April 3, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Walk into a modern day kitchen and you will most likely see a spice rack or find a cabinet full of dried, bottled leaves. Most likely there will be spices from all over the world, from Asia to the Caribbean. Man has used spice for a variety of applications other than cooking for thousands and thousands of years though. Some would even say that spice was the major impetus for the beginning of The Age of Exploration. There are many fantastic stories about man’s relationship with these coveted commodities. Did you know that Alexander the Great’s horse supposedly first discovered Himalayan Sea Salt when it started licking a mountain? Here is a very brief history of man and spice.

History has left us with a record of the many uses of spices. Since 50,000 BCE., humans have been collecting specific plants not for their caloric value but for their taste and curative properties. It is believed that the first use of herbs and spices was of a medicinal nature. Indeed, scientific studies have yielded results showing that certain spices can inhibit the growth of certain bacterias. For example, garlic has anti-fungal properties because it is rich in allicin and natural sulfur compounds.

The Romans have a storied past with spices. The great author and naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote about the uses of clove in the 1st century CE.  We can thank them for the modern day namesake for one thing. The English derivative comes from the Latin root of “species”, a multifaceted word meaning sight, appearance and also beauty. This romanticized meaning must have stemmed from the panoply of colors the Oriental spice merchants displayed for the citizens of the Empire when their caravans arrived through the gates of Rome.

With the many plagues and pandemics of the Middle Ages, spices were once again called into service for their healing properties. Doctors believed at the time that people fell ill when the bodily humors became imbalanced with each other. Spices were prescribed to return these humors to the proper levels. Science has since moved beyond the theory of humorism, but the healing powers of simple spices are effective nonetheless.

What drove the great explorers of Europe and Asia to venture forth on uncharted routes to uncharted lands? Spices of course. The trade of these valuable commodities was big business indeed. The Republic of Venice grew wealthy and powerful due to its monopoly over the spice trade in the 16th century, prompting others to find new ways to import and export their goods. Christopher Columbus was famously searching for a new overseas route to India in an attempt to bring Spain into prominence in the spice trade.  Jamaican all-spice, a key ingredient in Wildly Natural One, was brought back to Europe for the first time by Columbus during his second voyage and quickly became popular.

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