Cooking with Nicaraguan ingredients and some things that are speciality items
I found lentils where I'd found brown rice in the past and decided to make lentil and brown rice stew, a staple in graduate school and later. I also had a block of 100% cacao solid that I'd bought at Matagalpa Tours, so I decided to try adding that. The other thing I had was a bottle of green sauce.
Lentils cook quicker than other beans, generally around the same time brown rice cooks, so it's a good one pot pairing. I don't time this, but it's probably about 35 to 40 minutes to done enough. About half way done, I put in either butter or sour cream and about a thumb joint to two thumb joint chunk of chocolate. Add some coriander seeds (locally available at one of the pharmacies), some red pepper flakes, and some black pepper and salt, and add any kind of cut up vegetables or parsley and finish cooking. Add green sauce to taste when serving.
The things that I've never been able to find in Nicaragua: quinoa, bulk almonds (supposedly these are grown in Nicaragua but I'm not sure that's correct information or we're talking about a tropical seed or nut that's called almond but isn't quite), good hard cheeses (supposedly one can find these at Selva Negra, but aging hard cheeses requires a steady temp of 50 to 55 or so, and this would require refrigeration or a very deep and high elevation cave), and good Chinese tea. Getting bean curd requires going to Managua.
What I'm trying to do is figure out ways to cook what I can get locally (Matagalpa counts as local) and use what sauces I can either buy or make.
Soft cheeses and crema are common enough -- best substitute for mozzarella is quesillo, a kneaded and braided cheese. Two places in Jinotega make cheeses and the La Norteña cheese seems to be be best cheese labeled as mozzarella, but that works better as a mild melting cheese. Cuajada seems to be the local bean curb substitute, or salt substitute if the maker over-salted it. Most of the Costa Rican substitutes for cheddared cheeses and hard cheeses are pretty hopeless. Nobody is importing block parmesan of any great quality.
Meats at supermarkets seem to be limited to chicken, pork, and beef. I've heard of a slaughter in the market that has peliguey (hair sheep, not a cross between goats and sheep as some will tell you), and I've seen muscovy ducks in town though not at the market itself. Muscovy ducks are less fatty than Peking/mallard ducks and the breasts are a delicacy. Plucking ducks is no fun, but try skinning them. I see lots of pigeons around town, not sure how it would be to set up a dovecot and harvesting squabs. Nobody else seems to try this either, so I suspect people are a bit squeamish about what these might have been eating.
Most chicken here is brined. If it's fresh and hasn't been frozen, this actually improves the flavor and texture. If it's been frozen, the salt content goes up as water sublimates. If you're making stock, try to get a fresh hen that hasn't been brined.
Most of the beef here tends to be less typical from carcass to carcass than US-grown beef. I've had filet mignon that was amazingly tender and some I had to stew. I generally buy something that I can try as a steak and stew if it's not tender enough. Shanks are commonly available and about the only bone-in beef that shows up. The typical way of handling tougher cuts to meat is to brown with onions and then add water and a bay leaf and put it on simmer for two or so hours. It's done when you can push a chop stick or dull knife blade through the meat. Handiest thing to have for slow stews here is either an electric slow cooker or a dutch/french oven. I brought a very small Staub oven down, but for more than one person, the bigger ones would be better. Despite the claims of La Cruset, there are $50 substitutes for this available from various outlets, probably at the Price-mart or whatever it is in Managua. Beef can also be braised in tomato sauces, and probably in fruit and peanut sauces.
The pork here can be rather problematic -- I cook anything pork in vinegar and water. Most stores carry various dark vinegars, some local varieties, some imitation balsamic vinegars. It's all good. Green peppers, hot peppers, achiote paste, onions, and chunks of pineapple make good additions. Boil the vinegar and water down to a reduction with the pork, add the vegetables and a little oil, fry a bit, and add more liquid to finish. Goes well over potatoes, rice, or bread.
Fish -- this must be fresh. The various guapote are tastier than tilapia. I've had this at a friend's house on Apanas. Capers do show up in the supermarkets from time to time, limons are pretty readily available.
Tomatos are always available and most of them look like paste tomatoes. I have a food mill that I use for making tomato sauce as it strains out the seeds and skins. I haven't seen dried peppers of the sort I used to use for chili sauces in the US, but the food mill is better than a blender for anything with skins, seeds, or small bones (fish heads) and for making mango purees with fewer fibers for drinks (blenders will chop the fibers up smooth enough for ice creams). Quick tomato sauce -- put about two pounds of washed tomatoes in a lidded sauce pan. Add about an inch of water, and put on low heat until the tomatoes are cooked. Run though food mill and use either as a soup base, or boil down a bit with seasonings (basil, oregano, garlic, or just salt and pepper) for a sauce. You can cook things in this -- chicken, fish, pork, beef, rice, noodles, vegetables, or combinations of these things. The less you cook the tomatoes, the brighter and fresher the sauce will taste. If you didn't cook the noodles in the sauce, you can use it like a spaghetti sauce, but I prefer cooking noodles in sauces (saves pots, thickens the sauces slightly).
If you can get basil, I found that peanuts or peanut butter make a reasonable substitute for pine nuts or walnuts, but haven't tried different cheese here to see what would do as a substitute for Romano. If you can't find or grow basil, anything green that you can eat raw can be turned into a sauce of some kind if you have a blender.
One of the things I've had here is squash in milk -- and milk is available in forms varying from the milk sold from someone's cow in the country to powdered milk from Costa Rica. Milk can be boiled down (Indian cooking) and made into something like fudge. Easy way to do this is add milk powder. The milk sold by street venders seems to be mostly or only skimmed since cream gets turned into crema (at least in Jinotega). First time I bought milk from a vender, I pasteurized it in a copper bowl with an outer jacket of a bigger stainless steel bowl; second time, I just boiled it. Also, milk can be blended with fruit for ice cream (no added sugar necessary).
Cooking things in yogurt is fairly common in Asian cooking. One way to deal with meat is brown it with an equal weight of onions, a tablespoon of whole cumin, a teaspoon of coriander seeds, red pepper to taste, and add liquid, then cook that down to an onion jam with the meat before adding yogurt and more onions. Cook that down to make a yogurt and onion jam with the second batch of onions still in chunks coating on the food, be careful not to burn. The yogurt can be even a bit crusty on the meat. I've done this with lamb. It also works with potatoes for vegetarians.
Crema (the real country kind, not the kind with additives in it from the supermarkets) can also be churned for butter.
Most grains can be turned into porridge material by either running them through a blender or using a corn grinder (available in most markets for around $50 -- mine is a Victoria and Corona is the other common brand). It's also possible to grind peanuts for peanut butter. The common hand cranked mills won't make fine flour easily but are used locally with calcium chloride treated corn to make masa for tortillas. I think most of us are better off locating the local torilla factory and buying fresh tortillas from them. The mills will also grind coffee. Worth having if you make porridges other than oatmeal or want to try making your own tortillas or coarse meal breads (I used to use a Corona for cracked grains to add to finer ground whole wheat bread flour for more interesting loaves). The locally available grains seem to be trigo (wheat), millon (milo), corn of various kinds, and rice, generally long grained white around here, but I understand some places in Nicaragua grow sticky rice. If you have a such a mill and are willing to clean it out, you could try running cooked grains through it to make puddings but probably a meat grinder would be better for that (suet, raisins, grains, sugar, and cinnamon would be getting close to mincemeat). Milo is not one of the better millets for making into breakfast cereal but is available locally. It's rather coarse cooked whole, try grinding it. The common Nicaraguan use for it seems to be popping it and coating it in melted raw sugar.
Noodles in various shapes are commonly available -- generally plain durham wheat only, no whole wheat. It's possible to make whole wheat noodles at home -- basically use an egg per cup of flour to start, mix in more flour and knead smooth. Roll it out with a broomstick sanded smooth or an Italian rolling pin, let dry for a while, then cut into whatever noodles you want. I've done this a couple of times. Noodle machines are out there, but tend to be more fussy than they're worth. Should be gnocchi recipes on line -- yes, http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/mario-batali/gnocchi-recipe2/index.ht... -- another thing that can be done with local potatoes and flour.
There are a range of bottled sauces available -- either use them as is, or figure out from the list of ingredients how to duplicate them with fresh herbs and vegetables.
Ginger is commonly available -- better ginger showed up at Sebaco than shows up in the local market. You can actually eat ginger as a cooked vegetable -- slice it across the grain, relatively thin, and add it to stews fairly early. It's excellent with beef. Also, cut fine, it makes a topping for salads, and can be brewed like tea. Plant a rhizome and harvest new growths for green ginger, even more delicate and even better as fresh shredded topping for salads, or on fruit. (I'm curious as to what Nicaraguans use ginger for as I see it a lot but haven't noticed it as a spice in restaurant food). Recipes on line for anyone who wants to make their own ginger ale.
I haven't tried the various other root vegetables available in the markets. Most things can be fried or boiled and mashed.
The chayote squash is excellent as a raw dipping vegetable.
The typical hot pepper condiment is like a Southern US equivalent: hot pepper strips, onion strips, and maybe mustard seeds in vinegar. Only the vinegar tends to be used on the food in the US; here some of the pepper and onions are added to the food, too. I've had one of these at a Nicaraguan finca, another made from wild peppers at Laguna Apoyo. I've never seen it at a store here. Try looking for very hot peppers and white vinegar, onions and anything else to taste. Slit the peppers if you're using them whole. Pour boiling vinegar over the peppers. Store for a few weeks before using. Between the vinegar and the peppers, there won't be bacteria, but if you'd feel better, store this in the refrigerator. Add more vinegar as you use the sauce.
Powdered red pepper goes well with fruit too, and adds something interesting to hot cocoa, just a touch.
I'm not sure I've seen a food mill here other than my own, but I recommend having one, along with a blender with a glass beaker. Decent cast iron shows up from time to time. I've even found a Griswold pan here (someone else got the bigger ones). I brought down one copper saucier, but frankly, the pots with pads of aluminum between stainless steel at their bottoms are as good a pot as anyone really needs and cheaper than the various flavors of All-Clad, much less copper. I have two All-Clad pots with lids -- nice to have, but not critical. For just boiling water, pasta, or treating corn with calcium cloride, a big steel pot with an enamel finish will be cheap and locally available, even if they don't last that long. The enamel finish is generally marblized or flecked.
The other handy thing to bring down is the enamel on iron casserole dish I mentioned earlier. It can go on a stove top or in an oven if you have one. Le Cruset makes the classic one of the kind. You can bake bread in them, make stews in them, and serve from them at the table. They're inert with any food unless they're cracked or crazed. Let them cook off before washing them.
Knives here are decent enough. If you make bone-in chicken stews or make your own chicken stock from scratch, pick up a decent heavy cleaver and look for a cross section of tree log that's food safe, and find one of those Nicaraguan welders to put an iron or steel band on it about two inches down from the cutting surface. Or just figure you'll break a cutting board every once in a while. I brought down a knife sharpener, but you can use sharpening stones rather than an electric sharpener (Chef's Mate is a good brand if you do decide to go that route).
Nicaraguan grown, cooking eclectic.