It’s not easy to capture an entire country’s cuisine in one cookbook — especially when the author lives 3,000 miles away. So when Amalia Moreno-Damgaard began writing her cookbook about Guatemalan cuisine, she knew she would have to make compromises. The challenge was finding substitutes that wouldn’t compromise the integrity of the cuisine.
Peppers can be used instead of chilies. It’s fine to use store-bought chicken broth instead of making your own with chicken bones. To make a meal healthier, oils can be substituted for lard — a trick Moreno-Damgaard learned from her grandmother many years ago in Guatemala City.
But don’t even think of using anything other than a corn tortilla. “The tortilla is king,” Moreno-Damgaard declares.
It’s that kind of homegrown knowledge that fills Moreno-Damgaard’s cookbook, “Amalia’s Guatemalan Kitchen — Gourmet Cuisine with a Cultural Flair,” which was published in 2012. The 420-page cookbook not only provides readers with an array of Guatemalan recipes, it also introduces them to the culture of the country, exploring street foods, breakfast dishes and holiday specialties.
The cuisine highlights Latin American culture, Moreno-Damgaard says, a culture she wants to celebrate. Too often, she says, it’s the stories of violence and corruption that make the headlines.
“Someone needed to go out there and say wonderful things about Guatemala,” Moreno-Damgaard says. She believes she can convey the many positive attributes of her home country by exposing Americans to authentic Guatemalan cuisine beyond the typical rice-and-bean dish.
To gather material for the book, Moreno-Damgaard traveled back and forth from her home in Minneapolis to Guatemala City, where she was born and raised.
“Guatemalan food is a combination of native cuisine and Spanish cuisine, which is the story of Latin America,” she says. And that mixture is a result of four distinctly different regions of Guatemala, each with its own distinct food.
The southern shores offer the freshest seafood; the east produces unique fruits and vegetables; the northern mountains still celebrate Mayan cooking and traditions, and the west coast is home to the Garifuna people — descendants of Africans and indigenous Arawak people from the Caribbean — who bring their own cooking style to the region, including lots of chowders and rice dishes with coconut and plantain flavors.
The woman behind the book
In 1981, Moreno-Damgaard, then just 19, left her home to visit her brother in the United States. She ended up staying, getting her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Fontbonne University in St. Louis, and her master’s degree in international business and culture from Saint Louis University. After college, she built a successful career in international banking, holding a variety of senior-level positions.
Since 2001, she has lived with her husband, Kenn Damgaard, in the Minneapolis area.
Sixteen years ago, when their son, Jens, was born, she decided to give up her banking career to spend more time at home. Moreno-Damgaard says she couldn’t imagine missing her son’s first steps or first words. But with quite a bit of free time on her hands, she concentrated on cooking, making it more than a hobby.
Moreno-Damgaard enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Minneapolis/St. Paul in Mendota, Minn., for her professional culinary arts degree in classic French cuisine.
Then she plunged into a professional career, starting out as a cooking teacher — something she continues to do today. She gives cooking demonstrations at culinary events and benefits, as well as private lessons.
“Teaching keeps me on my toes, because I continue to learn,” Moreno-Damgaard says. “You never stop learning, even about an area you specialize in.”
Nora Tycast recently attended one of Moreno-Damgaard’s cooking classes in Minneapolis. Tycast’s three daughters — all adopted from Guatemala — joined her.
The family has attended many of Moreno-Damgaard’s events, Tycast says, because it gives her daughters a chance to learn and identify with their native culture.
“It’s nice for the girls to see a professional chef, and it’s nice (for them) to see someone who looks like them,” Tycast says. “It’s good to have someone (from Guatemala) up in front of them and being an example.”
In additional to teaching classes, Moreno-Damgaard runs her own business and serves on the board of directors for Common Hope, the Latino Economic Development Center, Women Entrepreneurs of Minnesota and Le Cordon Bleu Alumni Association.
Latin American cuisine
When Moreno-Damgaard moved to the Twin Cities, she says it was hard to find Latin American cuisine or interest in diverse foods. She says she missed the tastes and textures she had grown up with.
“When … we first came to Minnesota, we really struggled to find a Latin American restaurant,” she says. “Even a good Mexican restaurant was hard to find.”
Today, Moreno-Damgaard sees more of an appreciation of international cuisine because the Internet has opened up access to different parts of the world, including Guatemala. She said the wealth of information on the Web about different cultures has sparked an interest in foreign countries and cuisines, and the influx of immigrants to the Twin Cities has exposed the local population to Latin American food.
She says she has more to tell people about Latin America, so she’s writing a second cookbook about Guatemala. She plans to detail more specific aspects of the cuisine as well as provide a more in-depth look at the culture. In recent trips to Guatemala, Moreno-Damgaard spent time with chefs — both professional and hobbyists — to gather local knowledge. She also spent time exploring rural Guatemala to more clearly define its regions.
Because of the influences from Spain, the Caribbean and the Mayans, Guatemalan food is “the deepest, the most diverse, and the most delicious” in Latin America, Moreno-Damgaard says. She says the flavors, ingredients and history are the most varied in the region. She is excited to be sharing the cuisine with those who relate to her passion for healthy and flavorful food.
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Pepián Negro (Spicy Chicken and Pork Vegetable Stew)
Pepián negro (black pepián) is from Guatemala department, which includes Guatemala City, in the south-central part of the country. It takes its name from the blackened tortillas used in the sauce. There are also red and yellow pepián with varying ingredients, made with turkey, chicken, beef or pork, in Quetzaltenango, Suchitepequez and other regions. All varieties have some ingredients in common, such as pan-roasted seeds, peppers, cinnamon and tomatoes, but they may have different finishing touches. Pepián can be made with any kind of protein. Serve it with Arroz Guatemalteco (Guatemalan vegetable rice) and Tamalitos de Queso (fresh cheese mini tamales in banana leaves), which provide a nice break between spicy bites.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
3 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 2-inch pieces
1/2 pound pork butt or shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 cups fat-free, low-sodium chicken stock
1 small, whole yellow onion, peeled and t-scored*
1/2 cup unchopped cilantro, include stems and leaves
1 cup quartered Roma tomatoes (about 2 large tomatoes)
1/2 cup husked, quartered tomatillos (3 to 4 large tomatillos)
1 small yellow onion, cut into thick slices
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 guaque (guajillo) chile, seeded
1 zambo (mulato) chile, seeded
Para Espesar (Thickeners)
Choose one of the following:
2 corn tortillas blackened in toaster oven to medium brown, soaked in hot stock for 10 minutes;
or 2 tablespoons instant corn masa flour, browned in a dry pan over medium-low heat until medium brown;
or 2 tablespoons white rice, browned in a dry pan over medium-low heat until medium brown, then soaked in cold water 10 minutes
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon ground pan-roasted pumpkin seeds
1 tablespoon ground pan-roasted sesame seeds
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup small cubes of potatoes, cooked al dente
1/2 cup fresh green beans cut into 1-inch pieces, cooked al dente
1/2 cup carrots sliced on the diagonal, cooked al dente
1/2 cup güisquil (chayote squash) cut into 1-inch cubes, cooked al dente
1 cup loosely packed, finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Cilantro leaves, finely chopped, as garnish
1. In a medium pot, cook the chicken and pork in the stock with the yellow onion and cilantro over low heat until the chicken and pork are done, about 30 to 45 minutes. Remove and reserve the onion and the cilantro. Set aside the pot of chicken, pork and stock.
2. Heat a skillet for 2 minutes over medium heat and add the tomatoes, tomatillos, onion and garlic. Adjust the heat to medium-low and pan roast the vegetables until they are charred all over and mushy, about 8 minutes.
3. Separately, pan roast the chilies over medium-low heat for about 3 minutes. Keep a close eye on the chilies, as they burn easily. Then soak the roasted chilies in 1 cup of very hot water for 10 minutes.
4. Combine the roasted vegetables, the reserved onion and cilantro, the soaked chilies, half the soaking water, and 3/4 cup of the hot stock in a blender. Add the thickener of your choice and purée to a fine consistency. The purée should look smooth and velvety.
5. Heat the oil in a medium skillet. Add the purée and seasonings. Add the cup of finely chopped cilantro. Cook for about 3 minutes. Add the sauce to the pot of chicken, pork and stock. Add the al dente vegetables and stir. Simmer covered to blend the flavors, about 10 minutes. The sauce should be medium thin — about the consistency of steak sauce. If the sauce is too thin, cook the stew a bit longer to thicken it. If the sauce is too thick, add more stock or water. Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed.
6. Serve the stew garnished with chopped cilantro leaves.
* Note: To t-score an onion, make a 1/2-inch-deep, cross-shaped cut at the narrowest end of the onion. The onion remains whole.
Main photo: Amalia Moreno-Damgaard’s salpícon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Landry.