It has been years since I had the time to properly cook dinner nearly every night, and I tell you what, it’s lovely. Hooray for being homeless and unemployed!
One of my favorite things about traveling to a new place is to spend three quarters of an hour rummaging around a local grocery store just seeing what’s there. You can tell a lot about a country about its grocery stores. Turkey for instance- very little prepared food. Sacks and sacks of legumes and grains. Expensive and generally limited meat selection. The same veggies in the same order on the shelves, generally everywhere. You can pretty much figure out the cuisine from that.
Panama, I’m sorry to report, did not benefit culinarily from American occupation. The “national cheese” is basically Velveeta.
“Well, considering what America was eating in the ’80’s, before the whole Alice Waters revolution took hold, that kinda makes sense.”
I spent a ridiculous time in a local market yesterday. (There’s a huge super market nearby, but it’s boringly American- set up like any Safeway or Giant- and holds no surprises. I prefer the weird little Fruterias.) It was informative. Potted meat? Yes! Canned veggies? Three aisles! Need flour? You’re gonna have to hunt. Jarred everything? Yessir, we got jars in spades. But no salsa. What is this central America? Why would we have salsa? Oh wait- there’re three cans of lame American brand salsa over there. Mild or Medium, no Hot. What are fresh chilies? Plantains? Enough to feed a small army. Tomatoes? Anemic.
However, one makes do.
I’ve always maintained that the mark of a good cook is a refusal to follow recipes, which is why my recipes are largely nonsensical. Most modern cooks have a suspicious fear of getting things off by a teaspoon or so- I say it makes no difference. I measure spices in the palm of my hand. I eyeball liquids. I trust my instincts, and they seldom lead me wrong.
So here is how to make Make-do Fajitas in Panama.
1. Note how cheap beef is- less expensive for a pound than a container of q-tips- and pick up a package of what appears to be 1/4 inch thick sliced beef for less than two and a half bucks. While you’re at it, pick up a packet of McCormick’s fajita blend. If you were in your own kitchen, of course, you’d make your own blend, but you are in a corporate apartment. Pick up some chili flakes, though. At 40 cents they’re a bargain. Also get a big, perfectly ripe avocado. (That’s one thing I’ll say- I had to walk twenty minutes to find the store that actually had avocados, ((am I REALLY in Latin America?)) but when I did, I had a choice besides the globally ubiquitous Haas.) While you’re at it, pick up a can of tomatoes with chilies.
2. Cut an onion into quarters and more or less thinly slice. Don’t worry about your knife technique here. It really doesn’t matter. Food Network is not secretly filming you. Slice a red pepper (or green, or yellow. I picked red cause green gives me heartburn) into sixteenths. Put the onions in a large frying pan on medium heat and salt them. When they get soft, throw in the peppers. When the raw is cooked out of em, turn the heat to full so everything gets a nice edge of dark brown char, and transfer to a bowl.
3. In the meantime, dice a quarter of an onion and let it sautee gently in a small saucepan. When it’s soft and starting to turn golden brown, (longer than any cookbook will tell you it takes, which is number 4 reason I don’t like cookbooks) add 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, minced. when the garlic starts bubbling and turning yellowish, quick throw in a can of beans- don’t worry about thoroughly draining. You need some liquid. Take a jalopeno, (only ones available here are apparently canned. Whatever.) Slice, scoop out the innards and roughly chop. Add. Add half the can of tomatoes with chilies, or salsa, or whatever you have. Simmer with the lid off so the liquid evaporates. And CAREFUL- the beans will try to stick to the pot long before the liquid evaporates. Do stir occasionally.
4. Take the steak out of the package, (you want it at room temp, so don’t bother refrigerating when you get back from the store.) Realize that packaging is deceptive and instead of 3 quarter inch steaks you have 6 eighth inch steaks. Huh. Salt and let sit for ten or fifteen minutes while the beans bubble. Good time to slice the avocado, toss it with lime juice, put it in a bowl, sprinkle with salt and chili flakes.
5. Member that big old pan from the onions and peppers? Add oil and put on high heat. Slice the steak against the grain. If you are extraordinarily selectively anal retentive, arrange pieces of steak by size on the chopping board. When pan is hot start adding the slices of steak, about six pieces at a time. When they’re all in, wait the length of time it takes you to locate your iced rum and take a sip, and then start flipping. another sip, flick them out onto a plate. Repeat until all steak is flash-fried. (You’ll need to add more oil at some point.) If you try a piece now, it will be the texture of cardboard. Don’t fret.
6. CHECK THE BEANS! I mean it. They’ll stick.
7. Lower the heat on the big pan to medium low and add enough water so it’s about a pinky-nail’s depth. Start scraping all the meat goo off the bottom with a spatula. When that’s all up, add as much of the spice packet as you figure you need. (It’s for a pound, but I didn’t have a pound. I was more heavy handed than I meant to be, but it turned out okay.) Add the steak and cover.
8. Grate cheese, put in a bowl, take to the table. Pour salsa in a bowl and take to table. If you happen to be in a Latin American country that apparently DOESN’T HAVE SOUR CREAM, put yogurt in a bowl and take to table. Find knives and forks and napkins and do what you will with them. Then take the lid off the pan, add the onions and peppers and wait, stirring every now and then until the liquid’s all gone.
9. Plate and serve.
10. Gather all your praise and feel self-satisfied.
That’s your basic Make do Panama recipe.
Huevos Rancheros? Add shit to beans. Make some over easy eggs (anyone protesting that they can’t eat runny eggs is getting a look of pitying condescension from me because I’m pretty sure it says in the bible: Happiness is a Runny Egg). Put eggs on tortillas. Spoon beans over. Serve with guac and yogurt because there STILL isn’t sour cream.
Tacos? Much the same, but with mincemeat.
And so on.