This is a Central American staple dish. It shows up in slightly different variations throughout the region. The Blue Zones research revealed that a diet of corn, beans, and squash was primary nourishment for centenarians living in Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula. Elsewhere you might find squash swapped out for soft, sweetly fried plantains, or the addition of rice, guacamole, and pico de gallo in Mexico. But there will almost always be beans and tortillas. Today I'm sharing my version of this south-of-the-border staple dish, inspired partly from my travels in Latin America and partly from the Mexican food of my childhood.
I lived in a remote indigenous village in the highlands of Guatemala one summer conducting research for my Master's thesis. To reach this village I traveled five hours from Guatemala City by bus on the Pan-American highway and then transferred to a "chicken bus" which led me further away from civilization along a rough, dusty dirt road to the village I would call home for the summer. There I lived with a local woman and her daughter who were happy to take in visitors for extra comfort and safety while the father was away working. (Though, I'm not sure how much extra comfort and safety I could really provide! ;-).
To be honest, it was not an easy summer. To begin with, a 23 year old woman traveling alone was not looked upon favorably, much less understood, by the traditional indigenous community. Then the first-hand research I led (working with the local clinics and speaking with woman with 6, 7, 8 kids about the taboo subjects of sex and women's right to birth control) was challenging, but ultimately rewarding. And language proved to be a daily toss-up, as I spoke Spanish which was not always helpful in understanding K'iche' (or Quiché), their indigenous language.
Needless to say, once home each day I sought refuge in the kitchen where I would sit as close to the wood-burning stove as possible without burning myself, watching the mom make dinner for us. Even with no running water in the kitchen (they went downstairs to wash dishes), only a wood burning stove for heat, and meager utensils to chop, blend, and saute food, she managed to make the most humble but comfortingly delicious meals. I wish I had pictures of the meals now but as foreign as I was to them, taking pictures of their food would have been even more foreign, bordering on insulting. She would rotate a few meals but the one I most vividly remember and we ate most often (for breakfast as well) was cooked black beans, blended and refried, thick corn tortillas (homemade of course), queso fresco (similar to feta but less salty), and soft, sweetly fried plantains. There would also be avocado on the table and sometimes she would add a fresh salad of radishes, tomatoes, lime, and salt.
To them this was their mundane, daily cuisine but it was pure comfort to me. In reality it had many similar components to the Mexican food I grew up on, and I still hold this sort of humble meal on a pedestal (and luckily for me, so does my husband). For my summer version I'm taking cues from the Costa Rican centenarians and making the most of the yellow summer squash available at our famer's markets. To that I added hearty, creamy stewed Barlotti beans (similar to pinto beans) and blistered corn tortillas. And tacos in my house are never, ever complete without guacamole (or chopped avocado with lime) and some sort of salsa.
Layer the beans, squash and toppings into the tortilla like we do, or eat it all with a spoon in one hand and a tortilla in the other. Either way, I hope this Latin American meal provides as much comfort and joy to all of you as it does to us.
- 8-12 corn tortillas, blistered
- Sautéed Summer Squash (recipe below)
- Stewed Barlotti Beans (recipe below)
- Guacamole (or chopped avocado with squeeze of lime)
- Tomato salsa (or pico de gallo)*
Stewed Barlotti Beans
Notes: Barlotti beans are also known as Cranberry or Roman beans. Pinto beans have a similar creamy consistencyand would make a good substitute, as would black or adzuki beans.
- 3 cups (534 gr or 2-15 oz cans) cooked Barlotti beans
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
- Salt, to taste
- Up to 3/4 cup water(or reserved cooking liquid if you cooked beans from scratch)
- Chopped fresh cilantro to finish
- Add beans, garlic, cumin, and salt to a small pot over medium heat.
- Add enough water for a thick stew-like consistency. You can smash some of the beans with a fork for a thicker consistency.
- Stew beans, covered, until warmed through and flavors combine (~10 minutes). Garnish with cilantro, if desired.
Sautéed Summer Squash
- Knob of ghee (or butter)
- 1 large scallion, chopped
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- 5 small to medium firm yellow squash
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) water
- Handful fresh chopped cilantro
- Squeeze of lime
- Halve squash lengthwise and slice into half-moon shapes (1/4 in thick).
- Melt ghee in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add scallion and cumin and cook 30 seconds, or until cumin is fragrant.
- Stir in squash, turn heat to medium-high and cook on one side for 1-2 minutes, or until squashbegin to brown. Toss to cook on other side for another minute.
- Stir in salt and water. Stir with wooden spoon to pick up brown bits at bottom of pan (that's flavor!). Reduce heat to simmer, cover with lid and steam for 3 minutes, or until squash are beginning to soften in the middle but remain crisp-tender around the edges.
- Remove from heat and finish with cilantro and lime. Serve warm.
*A good quality jarred salsa works well. But if you want to make your own, pico de gallo is a fresh tomato salsa that requires no recipe. It's best to make per personal preference, tasting as you go. Mix together diced tomatoes (or halved cherry tomatoes), chopped scallion or red onion, fresh jalapeno or red chili, fresh cilantro, lime, and salt. Toss everything together, and let marinate (stirring occasionally) while preparing the other components. Or make ahead and remove from fridge in advance so it can come to room temperature.