Saturday, September 1, 2012

Cooking in Belize...A Change for the Better

One of the first adjustments I needed to make when we moved here was figuring out what to cook and where to do our food shopping.

Back in the States, I would scour through the literally hundreds of recipes I collected to figure out what meals I wanted to make in the week ahead. Then I would make up a menu that listed a meal for each day, including side dishes and sauces (if applicable). No two weeks were ever alike and few dishes were repeated. With those details figured out, I would make up a grocery list, by aisle no less, with everything I needed to get. 

And if that doesn’t describe some serious anal-retentive behavior, let me also go on the record to say I don’t ever recall opening up our fridge and pantry, eying various bits and bobs, and exclaiming, “Wow, I know exactly what to make for dinner!” I followed recipes to the letter, at least for the first time or two I made a dish. An improvisational cook, I was not.  

When we went to the grocery store, in no time flat we would fill up our shopping cart. No dawdling in the aisles, no deep perusal of various products. I was a woman on a mission. There were occasional times when we would need to make a second stop to score some ingredient I was looking for, but usually one trip was all that was needed.

Here, well, here I had to change my entire approach. 

In days of yore, a variety of cream sauces made an appearance on a regular basis. Things like mushrooms, a variety of fresh herbs, spices, heavy cream, Tater Tots, French Fries (gosh, I love these), various cheeses, vinegars, oils, Arborio rice, couscous, to name just a handful of stuff, would routinely find a home in our shopping cart and into our pantry. 

While on our trip here in March, I kept an eye out for foodstuffs I routinely used and made note of those I thought I might be able to get on a regular(ish) basis and those I couldn’t find (that list making mentality is genetically a given; it can’t be ignored). 

There are no grocery store chains here. All the stores are individually owned and operated, mostly by Chinese families. No two stores carry the same products. For instance, in some you can find canned tomatoes, in others not a trace. Some carry frozen meats and poultry, others don’t.  In addition to household items like dish detergents, trash bags, and cleaning supplies, you often find a limited supply of canned goods, condiments, and toiletries. Things like rice, flour, dried beans, and sugar are measured out in various weights and are displayed in plastic bags. Some of the stores put a code for the brands of flours, others don’t.  

Two-pound bags of flour (top), rice, and black beans. It cost .90 (US) for the flour
and .75 (US) each for the rice and beans.

While most stores do carry boxed milk (unrefrigerated), you generally won’t see gallon or even quart jugs in the refrigerator section. Some block cheeses are available, along with small packages of mozzarella. You can also purchase packages of individually wrapped cheese slices. But you’re not going to find anything like Brie, Gouda, Gorgonzola. 

Most of the grocery stores do carry a small selection of potatoes and onions. But for any other veggies or fruit, you need to go to the open air market. Most stalls carry tomatoes, carrots, onions, potatoes, cabbage, limes, bananas, and other common items used in local dishes. Much depends on what’s in season and what the vendors can get. So some weeks you might see zucchini or avocados, but the next week you won’t. 

Recent veggie purchases. Total cost: about $8.00 (US).

Fresh fish and meats are also available at the market, both cut to order. The other option for purchasing fish, meat, and poultry is to visit one of the local butcher shops or, in the case of chicken and turkey, the Caribbean Chicken store. 

We go to Frank’s Meat Products almost on a weekly basis, and you kind of have to wrap your mind around what to order before you go in. It’s a tiny place, and you see two large chest freezers to your right as soon as you walk in. On the left is the counter and right behind that is a small area for the cutting/prep with more chest freezers. While they have some items pre-packaged, most meats are cut to your specifications. While there is a hand written list of all the meats and poultry they have, there is no price per pound. For instance, on one visit to Frank’s I wanted beef shanks. I hadn’t a clue as to how many pounds it would be, but I did know I wanted them about an inch to an inch and a half thick. So, the thickness was what they went by to put the order together. Once any meat is cut, they show it to you for inspection. If you like it, it’s wrapped up and you’re good to go.

Beef shanks from Frank's

The cows here are grass fed, so are very lean and tend to be on the tough side unless you use a cooking method like braising to help soften them up. And the chickens, oh my goodness, these babies are really, really, I mean really lean. I have yet to purchase a whole chicken or chicken parts that had any fat of any kind that needed to be trimmed off.

So what this all comes down to is that while I still make up a menu every week, which usually contains lots of chicken, fish, and rice dishes, I have to kind of fly by the seat of my pants when it comes to getting ingredients. If I see green beans at the market, I have no idea when they might make another appearance, so I’ll buy them and work them into a meal somehow. It also means taking time to really peruse what’s available at the market and in the grocery stores. And it means making multiple stops to get what I need. 

But you know what? It’s fun, and I discovered I can improvise really good meals on the fly. Granted, we don’t have all the cream sauces and gourmet ingredients that we were used to, but the ingredients we do have access to are all fresh and not treated with any preservatives. As a result, we are eating in a far more healthy way than ever before and have dropped some unwanted pounds.  And when we do happen to discover some unexpected treasure, like French Fries or make the two hour drive to Belize City to pick up cheeses and other “exotic” bits, it becomes a treat to savor than taking it for granted. 

Change…it’s good for the soul.

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