My friend Janelle works with an organization called Health Horizons International, which builds up a network of community workers to help manage chronic illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure in the poor communities of the Puerto Plata region, Dominican Republic.
One of the community workers, Mercedes, loves to cook as much as I do! So Janelle arranged for us to spend a day cooking together and learning some traditional Dominican dishes. Getting to the rural community of Arroyo de Leche (“Milk Creek”) involved a ~40 minute ride with three of us astride a motorcycle (a common mode of transportation in the DR). The dirt road was washed out and rutted from recent rains, with a couple of large mud-puddles that got our feet wet along the way, and there were a few spots that were so steep we had to get off the motorcycle and walk. I was actually glad for the chance to stretch my legs at those intervals, not being used to riding like this! But what a great way to enjoy the beautiful countryside.
When we arrived to Mercedes’ house, she had already started cooking some beans (guandules) for our lunch. She showed us their brand new kitchen space, with a stove heated by firewood. The little outbuilding next door housed a kitchen table and sink area to wash the dishes and vegetables. It was obvious from the beginning that we were in for a great cooking adventure! Chickens and dogs roamed around while we cooked.
Mercedes immediately offered us a huge “snack”, including a firm white fresh cheese (simply called queso blanco), cooked batata (white sweet potato) and yucca. It was a huge plate, considering we would be eating lunch in a couple of hours, yikes!
We helped (well not really, Mercedes did most of the work) prepare three dishes for lunch, beans and rice, fried plantains and cheese, and a potato salad. The beans were already cooking when we arrived. I unfortunately don’t have any amounts of ingredients for the recipes, but there are a number of recipes out there (like this one) on the web for guandules or habichuelas guisados.
When the beans were tender, we mashed dried oregano, salt and garlic together in a mortar and pestle. A bit of the bean liquid was placed in a smaller pot, and these seasonings were added, along with chopped shallot, peppers, cilantro, and winter squash. While those cooked for a few minutes, we partially mashed the beans in the pot, than added back the vegetables with some water. Some liquid sazon seasoning (sazon liquido, sold under a couple of different brand names) and chicken bouillion were also added to taste. This continued to cook for a bit so that all the flavors could blend. The beans were served with rice.
The next dish we made was a potato and vegetable salad with mayonnaise, a version of the “Russian salad” that I’ve seen in many different cultures around the world. Potatoes were peeled, boiled in salt water, and diced, then we added a can of mixed vegetables (carrot, pepper, and corn), chopped raw onion and pepper. Vinegar, oil, salt and mayonnaise were added to taste to make a tasty potato salad.
Our final lunch dish was fried guineos (small sweet bananas), green plaintains, and white cheese.
A couple of fresh tomatoes were sliced to go along with the meal and it made a lovely and filling plate for lunch.
After lunch, Janelle and I took a walk to the house of another friend in the same community, Corinna, who is a superb gardener and surrounds her house with beautiful tropical plants. We got a tour of all her growing things, including pineapples, coconut, cacao, bananas, and many, MANY more plants. When we returned to Mercedes’ house, Corinna and her two daughters came along to socialize and help enjoy the desserts – arroz con dulce and habichuelas con dulce.
Arroz con dulce is a form of rice pudding, I’m not normally a huge fan. But Mercedes’ arroz con dulce was amazing! The rice was cooked with coconut milk, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and salt until the rice had whitened and was cooked tender. Then evaporated milk and heated regular milk were added, along with vanilla and LOTS of sugar – they grow that stuff around here :). It continued to cook down to a thick and creamy consistency. Before serving, it was tasted to adjust salt and sugar, then served warm. Delicioso!
The last dish that we finished (and the first we started!) was a batch of habichuelas con dulce, a special dish for Easter. Janelle and I helped pick out the rocks from the beans first. Then Mercedes rinsed the beans and got them on the stove to cook, with cinnamon sticks and cloves.
Much later in the day, the beans were mashed manually through a sieve to collect the bean “juice”. Some water was added to the bean solids, cooked a little more, and then mashed through the sieve again. This was repeated 4 times! [in a typical kitchen, this would be done with a blender, but Mercedes' blender was broken, so she had to do it the hard way!] By the end we had a large pot of bean juice, to which was added milk cookies and raisins. It was served like a hot drink.
This special Easter dish is made in large batches and shared with family and friends. We actually got another batch of habichuelas con dulce from a different friend of Janelle’s during that Easter weekend. It wasn’t my favorite dish, but I’m glad I got to see and taste it – since it’s a major culinary part of their Easter celebration.
Wow, what a day! We rode back on the motorcycle right at dusk, and were definitely too full to need anything for dinner.