To celebrate Nick’s birthday this past week he decided to do another Carne en Baho, a traditional Nicaraguan dish that we first tried making two years ago.  The party was planned in a casual, informal style – word of mouth, calling friends, making sure that we invited everyone we ran into out town – but there was no facebook invite or big email sent out.  As the date got closer, friends of friends began asking us what they could bring, and we realized that the word really had gotten out!  So the baho plans became more ambitious and in the end we made the most enormous single pot of food I’ve ever seen.  Possibly too big – although passing out all the leftovers to neighbors and friends was fun and earned us quite a bit of social capital points in the neighborhood (and maybe helped to mend any bad feelings left after having played loud music until the wee hours of the morning).

Putting together the baho is an creative endeaver.

     My favorite part of making baho is actually layering all the ingredients into the giant pot.  It’s a very artistic endeavor, and the aesthetic of packing all the ingredients in to the pirol as tightly as possible is visually very pleasing!  The colors of all the raw ingredients are vibrant and beautiful, but when you open the pot after steaming them for 4 hours they have all faded to a dull brown in the meat juices.  But if you’ve done it right, the smell that then fills your whole house makes up for the not-as-pretty-anymore dish.

     We have learned some things since taking on this endeavor  – this time we sat down before hand with our Nica friends and worked out the ingredient list in weight and volume measurements rather than in prices, so we didn’t have to worry about getting ripped off at the market and coming back with less than what we needed.  In the end, we ordered 50 lbs of salted beef from our neighbor across the street, and got a half a sack of yuca, 50 ripe plantains and 20 green plantains, 5 lbs of onions (enough for salad and chili sauce too), a bucket of tomatoes, a bucket of big green peppers, two dozen each of sweet and bitter oranges, three big bunches of mint, a head of celery, and four heads of garlic at the market.  Don’t forget the plantain leaves to line the pirol too – they need to be shiny green and fresh.  The first batch we bought in a hurry as a thunderstorm began at the market, and when we opened the roll of leaves they were moldy so we had to go find more.  We didn’t add up what we spent, but it probably came to around $150 with the meat included, which is a really good deal considering we served at least 150 plates of food in the end!

Our little friends Naomi and Yulisa, relaxing together after actually helping us with a lot of food prep and sweeping!

     Everyone loves a good party, and thank goodness some people love putting together a good party too!  Two of our good friends Melania and Maria Jose spend the whole day helping us chop and prepare and clean, giving us the space to run some last minute errands.  Hooray for our village.  They have been very supportive!  Somehow we managed to create a space that all sorts of people could enjoy – early in the evening our friends with small kids came and had popcorn and played with balloons and helped with last minute setting up.  Some of them left when the house really started filling up and we opened the Baho.  We asked the DJ from our favorite salsa bar in town to come play, and he has such good taste in music that everyone danced – the real Nica indicator that it was a good party!  At the very end of the evening (er, that is, pushing 4am!) the DJ stopped and some of the guests who are musicians played piano and sang, which was a super sweet ending to a rather exhausting but fun evening.

Oof, just barely too much food even for such a giant pot….

 One of my main objectives was to throw a big party without creating a load of awful plastic and styrofoam trash afterward.  I think we were quite successful at that – we shopped at the market using canvas bags instead of buying packaged produce from the supermarket, and also got a few dozen re-usable plastic cups and plates that are light and pack tightly together so we can store them away easily for most of the years.  We served the Baho on the re-usable plastic plates on top of a banana leaf, so after a person finished the leaf could be put in our compost bucket (oh man, our chickens are having a three-day post-fiesta feast now!!!), and the plate could just be rinsed quickly before another leaf was put on and Baho served to someone else.  We were definitely short overall cups, but when someone asked for a cup we just asked them to find an abandoned one and we (or they) would wash it, and no one ever failed to find a used cup sitting under a chair to grab.  With the largest party that has ever been thrown at this house (probably 120 people in total!), at the end of the night we generated – one giant tub of compost for the chickens to enjoy, one large sack of empty plastic soda and rum bottles (which will be recycled), and one medium kitchen garbage bag of paper and plastic trash.  Not bad!

     As before, we were reminded that it’s important to make extra, because it’s customary here to ask for a plate of food to bring home to the person left watching the house while everyone else is at the party.  Some of our neighbors even came the next day asking for leftovers – a true compliment!  My favorite response was from our next door neighbor, when her daughter remarked to her that the baho was really tasty: “well, my goodness, he (Nick) has lived here in Nicaragua for long enough to have learned something useful by now!!”

Can you smell it?!

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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.

Brigido and Will sang me birthday songs for such a long time that the candles were about to light the cake on fire!