They say it takes a village to raise a child; it also takes a village to celebrate a birthday in high Nica style!
This year to celebrate my birthday Nick and I decided to try making Carne en Baho, a traditional Nicaraguan party dish that everyone loves, and ask everyone to bring fresh tropical fruit juices instead of big bottles of coke that most parties consume loads of. Celebrating traditional Nica culture is very important to many people, even though on a daily basis hot dogs and coke are consumed in vast quantities in the city. Although it was an odd request to ask of people, everyone enjoyed it and there were plenty of rum shots dropped into glasses of fresh watermelon, mango, and passionfruit juice!
We started out with a vague idea of how to make Carne en Baho and then began asking around. After getting five or six recipes with conflicting tips and instructions we were possibly even less sure we knew what to do, but we carried on somehow. The village continued supporting us, calling and dropping in on the well-meaning foreigners the whole time to make sure we were on track. I’ve included all the little dos don’ts and maybes so you can make your own choices of what to follow. Our next door neighbor Griselda and friend Melaña from Achuapa ended up walking us through the process.
Carne en Baho starts with the salted meat. The cut is called tapa barriga, which is the fat and meat around the stomach, but make sure you get a section that is neither too fatty (like we ended up with at first) nor too little fat (like the extra five pounds of meat we went to get afterward to make up for the difference). It comes in giant flat sections which are scored, and need to be washed four times very well and then cut into long skinny strips. We started with 20 pounds and then went to get an extra five to have enough meat for the anticipated 40 people, and ended up serving over 60 plates!!! Nicaraguans don’t leave their houses empty ever, and so it is customary to send guests home with a plate of food or peice of cake for the generous person left guarding the house. Which means, cook for twice as many!
A marinade is made by blending half the total amount of onions, garlic, sweet peppers, and juiced bitter oranges (or you can mix bitter and sweet) and all the celery and if you like some Worcestershire sauce and/or tomato puree and/or ketchup and/or fresh tomatoes and/or mint. DON’T ADD SALT, if you washed the meat correctly it still has more than enough for the whole dish. Another suggestion is to not get your recipe amounts specified in cordobas (10 cordoba of peppers for example) because foreigners routinely pay the highest imaginable prices for everything and you will end up with a little bit less of everything than you actually need. Try pressuring your village into providing useful quantities such as pounds, kilos, and dozens.
Marinate the meat in the sauce mixing it well in. If you are used to making big roasts you should satisfy your basting urge in this stage because once the lid goes on this dish it doesn’t come off till it’s done. Period.
While meat is marinading, you can start getting your pot ready. If you don’t own an olla that is big enough to bathe in, than you will need to go around to all your neighbors until you find one suitable. Kudos if your neighbor also has a giant metal bowl that fits in upside down as a lid. Asking around for giant pots is also a great way to start spreading party anticipation and invitations. The branches are guayaba branches, which are not sold in any market but essential for a proper Carne en Baho, so there’s another great way to involve the neighborhood and even make some new friends (when the neighbor’s sister’s mother-in-law has a guayaba tree).
Take all the leaves off the guayaba branches and use the fattest parts to create a screen at the bottom of the pot. This keeps a space for the water to boil initially, for the juicy fatty liquid to gather at the end, and keeps the bottom layer from burning. It’s a good thing this dish isn’t any easier to make, because if it was made more often we might have guayaba deforestation issues. At least in my house the leaves all went straight into the compost instead of being burnt in trash piles in the street. After the guayaba branches comes the banana-leaf lining. The leaves should be the young tender ones used for wrapping Nacatamales, not the tough older ones sold for plates and wrapping materials. They go shiny side down, covering the bottom and then the butt end in and the pointy end hanging over the edge to fold over the top.
Now, the layering part. This became a bit of a sticking issue. It seems there are two schools of en Baho makers, one of the All-the-Yucca-at-the-Bottom mind and the other of the Layer-Everything-Twice mind. Our consultants were split about fifty-fifty, and in the end we decided: the fattest yucca on the bottom layer and the skinnier ones the second time around. That meant starting from the bottom we layered: fat hunks of peeled yucca interspersed with peeled green plantain, then one layer of marinated meat, some chopped onions, garlic, sweet peppers, and mint sprigs if you like, then more yucca, plantains, meat, vegetables and finishing everything off with the unpeeled ripe plantains (some say yellow others say black, we went for yellow and they ended up soft and tangy sweet delicious). Finally pour all the remaining marinade and bitter or sweet orange juice over the top.The finished masterpiece…
…is covered up with the remaining plantain leafs…and firmly capped. We added boiling water – 3 liters – to the bottom. Better to pour it in the side along the outer edge of leaves, not over the top where it will wash off marinade. We chose to cook it over firewood, which even in the city is the standard for dishes as big as an en Baho. I’m pretty sure the small tin gas stove in the kitchen was not made for pots of food that weigh more than I do, nor is the size or our natural gas tank sufficient to keep it at a rolling boil for four hours.
The best part of this dish is that it is a ton of work which is completely done six hours before the party starts. Even unlike roast turkeys which need gravy and carving, there is no last-minute prep work. So I had the most relaxed set up for a party ever, with plenty of time to make the shredded cabbage, cucumber, tomato and carrot salad that is eaten with Carne en Baho, blow balloons up and even slip away and plant some seeds and garden for a bit before 2 pm. Just keep the fire going strong for four hours and battle the smoke which wants to fill the house and all our lungs.
When the first people showed up we opened the pot and the most amazing odor escaped. People lined up with plates and I was stuck serving for the first hour of the party, which also was a good way to say hi to everyone. The yucca had softened and absorbed the salty meatiness, the plantains were cooked perfectly, and the meat and fatty bits were tender. As it should be, it turned out to be a nearly bottomless pot which kept on feeding the masses until 9pm.