I’ve already traveled south of the US border twice. The first time was at college with my family, the summer following the passing of my grandmother. We took a plane to Mexico in an effort to escape the depressing atmosphere back home. It sort of worked because during those months, the only places I experienced tranquility and comfort were in those seemingly distinct worlds of the air and sea, where I could soar through the clouds and float on the surface of crystal-clear waters.
This summer’s trip I took to Belize was completely different. I was given the opportunity to visit Belize, sample the local cuisine, and attend the Flavors of Belize cookbook launch party. It was an amazing, uplifting event that was so much fun that it almost seemed frivolous, yet I welcomed it all. Simone and I were welcomed into the McNab family’s home by Rachael of McNab Design, and they lavished us with attention for six days. After reflecting on the experience for more than a month, I decided it was time to share my thoughts with you along with a recipe that was influenced by the book and my trip.
To be completely honest, I had to look up Belize on a map when I first heard that this trip might be possible. Belize is located south of Mexico, in case you, too, spent the majority of your geography class wondering how your balding teacher managed to look so much like a gerbil. The Caribbean Sea and Guatemala form its eastern and western borders, respectively.
It was surprisingly simple to travel to Belize; the flight only takes two and a half hours from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport (U.S. flights to Belize go through DFW, Houston and Miami). Because English is Belize’s official language, there was no real language barrier, and local businesses even accepted American dollars, which increased convenience (at an exchange rate of one American dollars to two Belize dollars).
I would return to Belize primarily for the beauty and adventure it offers, despite the fact that there is a lot of delicious food to be found there. I am so thankful to McNab Publishing for inviting us to tour Belize. To say that they showed us around would be a major understatement—they took us over and under and all around Belize.
During our six-day stay, we snorkeled over the barrier reef and stroked a nurse shark’s belly in open waters with San Pedro’s Belize Dive Connection, zip-lined over the rainforest and floated through an underground crystal cave with Chukka Tours and climbed up the Xunantunich Mayan ruins. We hiked through the jungle, swam under waterfalls and practiced yoga on a screened-in yoga platform with Katharine on the grounds of Hidden Valley Inn.
Belizean food, like the people, is a big mix of diverse cultures, including Mayan, Caribbean, British, Mestizo, Garifuna, Creole, Chinese, Indian, Lebanese and Mennonite. I tried to learn as much as I could about the various influences while I was eating, but reading the summaries of each culture’s influences in the Flavors of Belize cookbook on the flight home helped me make sense of it all.
I didn’t get to see the cookbook until I got to Belize, but I’m pleased to be associated with such a well done publication. The cookbook provides a thorough representation of Belizean food, from typical rice and beans to crazy soups (like black relleno and cow foot), seafood, chicken and pork, and desserts, too. The vibrant photos by Matt Armendariz present Belizean food at its best, so if you don’t get a chance to visit Belize, you can always buy the cookbook. (I promise they aren’t paying me to say any of this!)
Also read: Spicy Sun-Dried Tomato and Broccoli Pasta
Typical Belizean meals consist of coconut rice, beans, meat (chicken or pork) and a small side salad. Since Belize relies heavily on imports, dairy products can be expensive and hard to come by (a pint of Blue Bell ice cream goes for twenty American dollars!), and greens like kale don’t grow well. I can’t imagine finding quinoa or other health food store staples there. However, great seafood is easy enough to find along the coast, and the fresh cashews, coconut water and tropical fruit are real treats.
The recipe I’m sharing today is more of an abstract, Belize-inspired meal than anything else. I stuffed myself silly in Belize, appeasing my guilty conscience with promises to eat kale and quinoa when I got home. “Kale and quinoa,” I’d say in my head as I lifted yet another ceviche-covered fried tortilla chip to my lips. “Kale and quinoa,” I’d say out loud at breakfast while I sopped up refried black beans with Belizean fried bread, called fry jacks.
Something about Chef Rob Pronk’s recipe for “tropical” pesto, made with cashews and cilantro, captured my attention on the flight home. It occurred to me that I could combine it with the kale and quinoa I vowed to eat during the trip when I got home. I cooked the quinoa partially in coconut milk, like Belizeans do with rice, and mixed in big handfuls of chopped kale and bright green tropical pesto.
- 1 cup quinoa, rinsed under running water in a fine mesh colander for a couple of minutes
- 1 cup light coconut milk
- 1 small bunch of kale, stems removed and leaves chopped (for a total of about 4 cups chopped kale)
- ⅓ cup chopped red onion
- ⅓ cup large, unsweetened coconut flakes*
Tropical Cilantro-Cashew Pesto
- 2 cups cilantro, packed
- scant ½ cup raw, unsalted cashews
- 4 cloves garlic
- ½ cup olive oil
- salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- ½ lime, juiced (or more, to taste)
- pinch red pepper flakes, optional
- In a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup coconut milk and 1 cup water, and bring to a boil. Add the quinoa, cover and simmer for 15 to 17 minutes, until the water is absorbed. Remove from heat, fluff with a fork and mix in the red onion. Cover and set aside.
- Make the pesto: combine cilantro, cashews and garlic in a food processor. Start processing the mixture, and slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Season with salt, pepper, lime juice and red pepper flakes, all to taste, and blend well.
- In a medium serving bowl, combine the warm coconut quinoa, chopped kale and pesto. Mix well with a big spoon and season to taste with salt and pepper, if necessary.
- In a skillet over medium heat, toast the coconut flakes for a few minutes until golden and fragrant, stirring often. Top the salad with coconut flakes and serve warm.