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Cooking with Jessi

April 9, 2012

If you think that I eat rice and beans all day, you are wrong. Though I do not have access to refrigeration or meat, I eat like a queen. Now, I never really cooked meat even when I lived in the states, so if you are a big meat-eater, then you will naturally be inclined to disagree with this assertion. I’ve learned which vegetables last a long time (+/- a week) – carrots, cabbage, eggplant, onions, tomatoes, and which ones last only a few days – broccoli, celery, green beans, bell peppers, tomatoes, and cilantro. Combined with my daily dose of plantains, eggs, and, yes, sometimes beans and rice or noodles, you can imagine why I’m quite content with my Panamanian diet.

My taste has adapted to both love the local varieties of food such as boiled green bananas, chicken soup, and anything these people make out of corn. But, I’ve got to admit that I just love when I can cook something to my own gusto, or enjoyment. Though I miss cheese, bread, Asian food, and leafy greens, we volunteers have a way of inventing food to suit our tastes. So, I wanted to share with you, dear reader, how to cook using simple ingredients, no refrigerator, and some creativity, in the style a la voluntaria.

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Photo: In a kitchen like this, who can get anything done?!

Ricotta Cheese

  1. Boil milk in a pot (powdered milk even works!)
  2. Add salt and/or other herbs to taste (such as red pepper or oregano)
  3. Squeeze lemon juice (plucked from the tree in your back yard) into boiling milk
  4. Watch it curdle and drain the contents through cheesecloth (or my home-made cloth coffee-filter if you live in the campo)
  5. Woila – campo cheese! So fresh and delicious. It can sit overnight for the morning, but if you wait any longer then it will go to the dog.

Veggies with Curry Peanut Sauce

  1. Sautee ginger (grows everywhere here but no one cooks with it!), garlic, onion, carrot, celery, bell peppers in a pan with OLIVE OIL (expensive but essential to happiness)
  2. Add a little bit of water to get the vegetables softer
  3. Mix two spoonfuls of crunchy peanut butter with a little bit of white vinegar, a spoonful of curry powder, a little bit of cumin, spicy sauce and salt. I always used to buy the mixes at the grocery store – it is so not necessary! It tastes way better making it yourself. You can also use milk with curry instead of peanut butter to make a creamy yellow curry sauce.
  4. Once the veggies are pretty much done, pour the peanut sauce over it and let it soak it.
  5. Serve with chow mien noodles (if you’re feeling fancy) or a boiled plantain (I love boiled plantains)
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Black bean patties

  1. Start by boiling beans for a minute or two in the morning and leaving it to soak all day to reduce cook-time for dinner. You can use canned beans but fresh beans, especially when they are grown by your neighbor, are way tastier. And we don’t have trash collection so I don’t want to buy cans.
  2. As it boils the second time, add onion, garlic and salt once they are a little soft but not quite done.
  3. Drain water and mash beans all together using a fork.
  4. Add one egg and some flour until they are thick enough to form into patties
  5. Fry patties with a little bit of vegetable oil in a pan – flip and enjoy with ketchup, mustard, cabbage, and whatever else your mind needs to convince yourself that it’s a burger.

Banana Chocolate Cake

Embarrassingly, I have become quite the Little Susy Homemaker in my time here. What can I say? I just love toiling around my one-room hut (my bedroom, kitchen, closet, and desk all in one!) making delicious stuff. And cake is the one thing that I can share with all my neighbors (they hate anything with spice so none of the above is to their liking). I don’t actually have a legit cake recipe, so I just mix all the key ingredients together and mess around with the measurements until it tastes like cake batter.

  1. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda (where there is doubt – use both!) and salt in a bowl. If you have cacao powder (usually grown and processed in my friend’s community on the other side of the mountains), replace some of the flour with the amount of cacao you want to use to make your cake chocolaty.
  2. Add an equal amount of sugar.
  3. Add one egg, a splash of vanilla, a little bit of vegetable oil, and a banana if you happen to have one rotting away in your house (which you usually will if you live around here).
  4. Mix and pour into a small pot.
  5. Since I don’t have an oven, the trick is to invent one. You can either put small rocks, a used tuna can, or some other balancing device in the bottom of your larger pan. Add a little bit of water and heat up (to simulate pre-heating in an actual oven). Place the small pot with the batter inside of the larger pot and cover with a lid.
  6. I don’t know how long it takes so I just periodically poke it with my fork until it is time to take it out.
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Right?? Are you convinced yet? Whoever said Peace Corps was hard just wasn’t creative enough! But, I do have to admit that since I live in Panama I have access to a wider variety of vegetables and spices than I would if I lived in a more isolated country. But whatever, it makes my life more enjoyable!

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