Get a taste of Belize from your own kitchen

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Our son Ross just returned from a mission trip to Belize. Upon his return, some of the conversations were about the food. You cannot visit or live in Belize without eating rice and beans; they are the national staples, and most people eat them every day. Rice and beans, usually cooked in coconut milk and served together, is often served as a side dish. Another national staple is "fry jack," much like our johnny cakes, that is served for breakfast, often smeared with beans, alongside eggs.

Fry Jack

This fry jack recipe is copied exactly like it reads from a Belizean food Internet search I did.

Fry jack is made out of flour tortilla dough that is deep fried instead of baked. Traditionally flour tortilla dough is made with lard, but in Belize many people have replaced it with cheap vegetable shortening imported from abroad. Most recently, many Belizean recipes for fry jack call for the use of vegetable oil. This recipe makes 32 fry jack, but you can keep some of the dough balls in a zip-top bag in the refrigerator for several days, so you don't have to cook them all at once.

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

1 1/2 cup white flour

1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup vegetable oil

about 3/4 cup of water or as needed

Belizean cooks will "knead some flour," as flour tortilla making is called, on a big round board specially designed for tortilla making. You can use a clean countertop. If you want to make it even easier (though less traditional) you can also use a mixing bowl. Measure out your flour, salt and baking powder into a pile on your countertop. Make a well in the center and pour in the vegetable oil. Using your hands, work the oil into the flour until you have little pebbles of oil-saturated dough evenly distributed throughout the flour.

Make a new well in the center of the mixture and pour in the water a little at a time, using your other hand to stir the flour into the water in the center of your pile. Keep adding the water and mixing it in a little at a time until you have formed the entire pile of flour into a rough ball of slightly sticky dough. If you are using a bowl, do the same thing. Depending on the moisture content of your flour and the humidity, you may need more or less water to obtain a slightly sticky consistency.

Once you have your dough, liberally sprinkle your counter with flour and begin to knead. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes until it is smooth and stretchy. Then roll it out into a snake shape and cut it into 8 equal sized pieces. Take each piece and roll it into a ball between your two palms (or on the counter top). Cover the dough and leave the balls to rest on a lightly floured surface for at least 30 minutes.

Once the dough has rested, take a deep saucepan and fill it with at least 2 inches of high-temperature cooking oil. I used grape seed oil, but canola or sunflower would work as well. Set over high heat. To test if the oil is hot enough, drop a tiny scrap of dough into the pot. If it bobs merrily to the surface upon contact, the oil is ready. If your oil starts smoking, it's probably a bit too hot, so turn down the burner a little. And don't forget to retrieve your test scrap or else it will start smoking too much as it turns into a little piece of wizened carbon.

Now grab one of the dough balls and pat it out into a circle, about 6 inches across. Take a knife and cut the circle into four pieces. Once your oil is hot, drop one piece into the saucepan. It should cook very quickly, so don't leave it alone. After 10 to 20 seconds, check to see if the side in the oil has browned. If so, flip the fry jack over with a fork and let the other side cook, then lift it out with a slotted spoon. As a child making fry jack on the farm, I used old dry banana leaves to soak up the excess oil, but you can let them drain on a plate lined with paper towels.

If you are serving these with refried beans and eggs (and you really should), I strongly suggest you make the refried beans before cooking the fry jack. The eggs can then be quickly scrambled afterward, while the fry jack stay warm in the oven. Cold fry jack are certainly edible (try one with some jam), but nothing beats a freshly made one with some refried beans, so please don't try cooking them ahead of time.

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Here are a couple of rice and beans recipes that I found interesting.

Belizean Traditional Rice and Beans

1 cup red kidney beans

1 cup thick coconut milk

1 garlic cloves, optional

Salt and pepper

2 cups rice

1 onions, sliced

1 piece of salt pork or pig's tail, cut into small pieces

Soften beans (soak first) with garlic. Boil until tender and whole, adding salt meat (previously boiled to soften) when almost tender. Add the milk, onion and seasonings.

Wash rice, then add to the beans. Cook over gentle heat until liquid is absorbed.

Stir gently with a fork, and add a little water from time to time until rice is cooked.

Serve hot with a meat dish. Some favorite meat dishes with rice and beans are stuffed baked chicken, stew chicken, stew fish, fried fish or meatballs.

Belize Rice and Beans

1 pound red kidney beans

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup coconut milk, either squeezed from grated coconut or bought prepared, canned or made from powered variety

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon thyme

2 pounds cleaned rice

1 medium onion, sliced

6 to 8 cups of water

1 small pigtail or salt beef or pieces of bacon

Wash the beans, then soak them for 4 hours, using the 6 to 8 cups of water. If you are using distilled water, soaked beans only needs 2 hours to soften. Boil beans until tender with the garlic, onion and pig's tail/or salted beef or bacon pieces. Pre-wash the pigtail or salt beef and cut off excess fat. You can use a pressure cooker to cut down on the time. Season beans with black pepper, thyme and salt. You may opt not to add the salt if you used salt beef or pigtail above. Add coconut milk. Stir and then let boil. Add rice to seasoned beans. Stir, then cover. Cook on low heat until the water is absorbed and rice is tender. If necessary, add more water gradually until rice is tender. Usually, one cup of rice absorbs two cups of water, although rice grains can vary in the amount of water they absorb. To warm up leftover rice and beans, you can sprinkle with water to re-moisten.

Have a great Independence Day holiday weekend and, until next time, happy cooking.

Susan McClanahan is administrator at the Cape Girardeau Senior Center. Send recipes to her at news@semissourian.com or by mail at P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, MO 63701. Recipes published have not been kitchen-tested by Southeast Missourian staff.

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