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Updating Panamanian Market Cuisine

Written on February 5th, 2011 by no shouts

As Chef Juan Linares was designing his new cooking class to include fresh and different ways to use ingredients found at most markets in Panama, he began thinking about the rich supply of farm products we have here in Boquete, often called “Panama’s market-basket”.

So many of Boquete’s newer residents and visitors see these various ingredients in markets, and they can’t imagine how they would ever learn to use them in their daily lives the way most locals do.

We commonly see otoy, tree tomatoes, plantains and tiny red peppers offered on menus in local restaurants. Achiote seeds, culantro and packs of panela fill the shelves of our local markets, but so many of us don’t know how to use them.

With that in mind, Chef Juan opened up his second series of classes offering techniques and tips on how to prepare more of these common foods to make our local Boquete cuisine even richer and more appealing.

Twelve lucky participants gathered in my kitchen to help Juan prepare Tropical Cosmopolitans, Plaintain Chips, Ceviche, Red Sweet Chili Rice, Round Salad with Fresh Tomato Dressing, Fish Moqueca, and Corn-Coconut Pudding. Each dish was made using farm-fresh ingredients such as those listed above.

Well, not every ingredient was found in the local market. The Herrerano Seco comes from Panama City, Boquete’s favorite alcoholic beverage. Juan and I both demonstrated how local residents use it with tree tomato syrup to make a very appealing and tasty cocktail.

It was fun to see Juan’s Round Salad take shape as eager participants assembled the variety of ingredients into gorgeous, colorful towers and then topped them with fresh tomato dressing and chiffonade of culantro.

To my good fortune, photographer Betty Dabney joined in on the fun, and she graciously contributed all the photos in this blog.

Thanks very much for your photos Betty, you captured the essence of the evening.

We understand that you’re an excellent cook as well as a photographer, having attended a couple of the finest International culinary schools. It’s so nice to have you join in some of our culinary events here in Boquete.

This little mountain town has so much to offer, especially when it comes to sharing talents of its residents and visitors. Chef Juan and Betty, two very talented friends, are busy doing just that.

Enjoy the markets in Boquete, they’re bountiful!

Creamy Chicken and Broccoli Soup

Written on February 1st, 2011 by no shouts

It’s nice to have visitors coming to Boquete from all over the world, especially when the weather is beautiful and all systems are up and working.

The crystal clear water is flowing, internet is fast and television reception is perfect, and we have high definition service! Life is good here in our little mountain town in Chiriqui Province, Panama.

What better way to spend the day of the final Superbowl playoffs than making a big pot of piping-hot, nourishing chicken and broccoli soup. Visitors Carmela and Jack went to Volcan, on the far side of Volcan Baru, and brought back three big, bright heads of fresh broccoli for us. I was inspired.

Chicken is the staple in every Panamanian’s daily diet, so I thought it would make the perfect ingredient to accompany these gorgeous heads of broccoli, and to add protein to make the soup a main dish.

My built-in stove top includes an electric iron grill, which made it easy to cook the chicken breasts, and it seals in the chicken flavor and gives it rich color.

The soup came together easily. I first cleaned and prepared the broccoli and set it to simmer. And, I included most of the stems to add more of the rich vitamins. The remaining ingredients were chicken broth made from Maggi Consome’ de Pollo, a few chopped onions, my “Bella” herb blend and evaporated milk.

When everything was ready, I got out my new black ceramic soup pot with two lids. It was made in China and cost $50.00 in a local Chinese market. It is a little over 12 inches high, weighs 12 pounds and is safe to use on the stove top. The double lid catches the steam and drips it back into the pot. It’s a very clever design, indeed.

Finishing the soup, I de-boned the chicken, cut it into bite-size pieces and added it to the pot.

By the time our guests appeared, the soup was piping hot and ready to serve. Warm, home-baked sourdough bread from Mort’s clay oven was just the right accompaniment.

I added a few croutons and we all enjoyed this healthy, refreshing soup, as well as lots of good conversation with new-found friends.

What a beautiful afternoon in Boquete!

What is “Southern Mexican Style” Cooking?

Written on January 19th, 2011 by no shouts

In February, Boquete Gourmet is hosting two very talented local chefs, Sharon and Dave Langham, who will share their knowledge of Southern Mexican cuisine with 24 very fortunate Boquete residents.

When this “Cooking Southern Mexican Style” class was first offered, curiosity ensued. I was asked several times how the south of Mexico was different in their cuisine compared to the rest of Mexico.

Wikipedia explains that there are six regions of Mexico that differ greatly in their cooking styles. In the Yucatán, for instance, a unique, natural sweetness (instead of spiciness) exists in the widely used local produce along with an unusual love for achiote seasoning. In contrast, the Oaxacan region is known for its savory tamales, celebratory moles, and simple tlayudas while the mountainous regions of the West (Jalisco, etc.) are known for goat birria (goat in a spicy tomato-based sauce).

Central Mexico’s cuisine is largely influenced by the rest of the country, but has unique dishes such as barbacoa, pozole, menudo and carnitas.

Pueblos or villages have their own style, cooking more exotic dishes in the Aztec or Mayan fashion with ingredients ranging from iguana to rattlesnake, deer, spider monkey, and insects.

Southern Mexico, on the other hand, is known for its spicy vegetable and chicken-based dishes. This cuisine has a considerable Caribbean influence due to its location. Seafood is commonly prepared in areas that border the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, the latter having a famous reputation for its fish dishes, à la veracruzana. Southern Mexico is about as far away from Texas as you can get and still be in Mexico, and Sharon promises that her menu won’t be Tex-Mex style, for sure!

Now that we have all this knowledge, everyone is wondering what the menu will be for the Langham’s first class in Boquete. Sharon and Dave are excellent chefs, as visitors to the Tuesday Morning Market know very well. Their tamales, sauces and pates are very popular, making it sometimes difficult to find the exact dish you are wanting to serve, unless you come to the market early.

To learn more about this “trendy” cuisine, you will want to join one of Sharon and Dave’s upcoming classes offered in Boquete, beginning February 4 - 24. Please email for more information on this spicy class.

Difference Between Herbs and Spices

Written on January 2nd, 2011 by no shouts

For centuries, herbs and spices have been used to make food more exciting and tasty. Everyone interested in becoming a gourmet cook is very familiar with what these long-treasured ingredients can do to the flavor and scent of each dish.

This photo shows a typical spice market in Morocco, one like David and I visited several years ago. I still have some of the exotic spices I purchased on that trip. According to the Wikipedia article about spices, the spices I bought are way too old to hold much flavor or color. However, I use them often and enjoy the Mediterranean flavors they still impart.

This is a typical bunch of herbs, shown fresh and green. I’m sure you already know the difference between herbs and spices, it’s very evident here. Herbs are the green, leafy part of the plant and spices come from any other part, the seeds, bark, flowers, roots, stigmas or buds.

However, there are at least two plants that are both an herb and a spice. Can you name them?

While roaming the shelves at The Bookmark Bookshop in Dolega recently, I couldn’t resist picking up Jacqueline Bellefontaine’s book, “Microwave Herbs & Spices”, written over 20 years ago in Surrey, England. The book suggests that herbs can easily be dried in your microwave, on HIGH for 2-4 minutes.

Lay the herbs in small quantities, about 1/2 ounce at a time, on paper towels. Turn them every minute and they are dry when they become crisp. They can be stored whole or crumbled. I was served whole dried basil leaves in Costa Rica recently. It was a big surprise to see the chef using this technique.

Jacqueline bunches her list of herbs and spices together, rather than separating the leafy herbs from the spices that come from other parts of the plants, like the seeds, berries, roots or bark. She points out that both herbs and spices should be kept in airtight containers, not in the cans in which they are packaged.

It’s your turn to use your spices and herbs any way you would like. No recipe is needed. Look at this sweet potato dish and use your imagination. Just clean and slice your potatoes, brush them with a little olive oil, sprinkle them with spices, herbs or both. I used ginger, nutmeg and 5-spice, but use whatever you have on your shelf that may taste good.

Grill slowly on your barbecue grill turning every couple minutes until they are soft. Then, enjoy the finest, most memorable dish you’ve have so far this year!

OK, which two plants are both herbs and spices? Coriander and dill are each an herb and a spice; coriander leaves and seeds, dill weed and seeds.

Have fun with your spices and herbs this year.
Use them liberally to “spice up your life”!

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