Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cooking with Soy

For those of you readers who know me personally, you know that I’m not a great cook. I do enjoy baking, but growing up with a super-Mom who was an amazing chef sort of hindered my cooking abilities. You’d think that this would have caught up to me before now, but living in the U.S. on my own during college, this was never a problem. There were always fresh vegetables available to throw together a good salad or pre-made food at Fred Meyer (one of my favorite stores). In Peace Corps, now that I’m no longer living with a host family and I’m officially “on my own”, my lack of cooking knowledge can be frustrating. I’m learning some basic staples, slowly but surely: beans, pasta sauces, stir fry, etc.

I’ve also been sharing my baking knowledge with some friends here who are lucky enough to own ovens. We’ve made banana bread, cakes, cookies… I’ve introduced them to the novel concept of wheat flour. They’re slowly coming around, but prefer their white bread for now.

In return, Nicaraguan women are always eager to teach me how to make Nicaraguan food. I’ve made corn pudding, tamales, soups, pasta dishes, tacos, fruit juices and even pizza with them. A Nicaraguan woman (or 13 year old girl for that matter) is a thing to see in the kitchen. In Nicaragua, as in many Latin countries, the kitchen is still mainly the woman’s domain. They are groomed from about the time they can walk to run errands, cut vegetables, pick out meat at the market, fry rice, bake beans…Each household has a certain ways of peeling oranges, certain rules for cooking (no eating Nacatamales - a traditional dish - before sleeping), and no citrus when you’re sick (!)

In my quest to learn how to cook for myself (since tomato and onion salads and oatmeal can get a little old, even I’ll admit), and in an effort to improve nutrition practices with local mothers, I’ve started cooking with soy. Soy is nothing new to my food vocabulary – I am a vegetarian – but in the U.S. I always bought pre-made soy milk, tofu and soy meat. In Nicaragua, you’ve gotta start with the actual soy BEAN. I guess I knew they existed: edamame, roasted soy nuts… But I never thought much about how the bean was changed into the milk, the meat, or into soy sauce. I first learned about cooking with soy through Peace Corps – many volunteers teach local women how to use soy beans to add protein and omega-3 fatty acids to their diets. Soy beans have twice the amount of protein in them than red beans and they also have the same type of fat (omega-3) that salmon does. Soy also contains no cholesterol and is rich in fiber, iron, vitamin B and calcium.

Needless to say, it’s a great food, especially in nutritionally inadequate Nicaraguan diets. And it’s cheap (even by Nicaraguan standards), $0.50/pound. When red beans can often rise radically in price depending on the season, soy beans can be an economical substitute.

So, how do I get all that good food out of this hard little bean, you ask? Well, after putting together about ten soy “workshops” with various groups in my site, cooking with soy is one thing that I do feel pretty comfortable with. I’ll walk you through the steps. Below is a group of ladies making soy that I worked with. They´re all mothers of special needs children. 1. Buy one pound of soy. Clean the soy beans, picking out any twigs, rocks and dirt that come with it. Wash the beans with water, rubbing them with your hands, changing the water three times or so.

2.Put the beans in lots of water to soak for 12 hours.

3. Wash again, rubbing with your hands to take off the outer shell of the bean (although this is optional).

4. Grind the beans at the local mill (if you’re in Nicaragua), or with a hand mill, or even using a blender with water. Mills are everywhere in Nicaragua – a fellow volunteer once equated the number of mills here the prevalence of Starbucks’ in downtown Manhattan. They are mainly used for grinding corn for tortilla and for coffee.

5. For every pound of beans, add one gallon of water to the ground beans.

6. Using a cheesecloth or fine strainer, strain the ground beans from the water, saving the water in a separate container.

7. This liquid you now have is the SOY MILK! The leftover ground beans are SOY MEAT! So easy, I know…You can understand why I like doing this.

From here, you usually boil the soy milk, constantly stirring. Some people like to add vanilla extract, sugar, cinnamon, etc. to give it flavor. Nicaraguans like to add Maizena which I think is like a cornstarch, to make a pudding. You can also blend the milk with bananas to make a smoothie. Or mix it with rice and sugar to make Arroz con leche. Others use the milk to make flan, or yogurt. To make soy yogurt, add ¼ cup of yogurt bacteria (or just plain yogurt) to every liter of milk. Heat the milk and yogurt mixture slowly until it’s the temperature of “blood” (gross, I know). Take it off of the heat and put it in a clean container and cover with a towel for 3-5 hours until it takes form. Refrigerate. You can add fruit or other flavorings to make it tasty. Above is the group of mothers enjoying the soy food we made.

Using the soy meat, you can mix it with spices and vegetables to make “sausage.” You can also make fried soy cakes by adding an egg, some flour, veggies and spices and forming little round cakes. Another recipe I have calls for adding a few bananas, an egg and sugar and cinnamon to the soy meat and then frying the cakes to make a sweeter treat.

Last week, during my “volunteer visit” which I wrote about in the previous blog, we made soy chili, which is by far my favorite soy recipe. We added the soy meat to sautéed onion and garlic, lots of tomatoes, tomato paste, chili powder, green and red peppers, and some water and cooked (probably for about 40 minutes). (The soy meat takes a while to cook – otherwise it turns out a bit crunchy). Then we added a few cups of cooked red beans. YUM!! I’m sure it would be good with some cheddar cheese on top, but of course that’s not available down here except in Managua.

In the future, I’m planning on making soy flour, soy cheese (aka tofu), and one of my favorite snacks, roasted soy beans. It’s pretty fun making something from scratch. I also have plans to make my own peanut butter, and maybe even my own chocolate. I get inspired by other volunteers who have cooking classes in their sites and are experimenting. Peanut butter is a “value added” product that some Agriculture volunteers are trying to promote in communities that produce peanuts.

Above is my aerobics class group enjoying the soy milk we made (also in the photo, second from the right, is my site-mate, Kristen, a Small Business volunteer). I’m sorry I don’t have more photos of making soy, when my computer was stolen in December, a lot of my photos were lost. I encourage you to try making some soy – the beans are available in the bulk section at most stores. I found it in my small hometown in Alaska while I was home in January, so it should be available pretty much everywhere.

That’s all for now. I’ll keep you updated on my cooking adventures!

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