When I first moved to the Dominican Republic I stayed with my future mother-in-law for a couple of months. Although I had visited the country several times before and eaten Dominican food at friends’ houses, comedores and restaurants, this was my first real immersion in a traditional Dominican household. As a vegetarian I ate more or less what the rest of the family were served, with the exception of the carnivorous components, like this popular pastelón de papas (potato and beef casserole).
Indeed, my mother in law went to special lengths to treat me to her favourite vegetable dishes, delighted to have someone who actually welcomed vegetables, in contrast to certain other members of the family. Her berenjenas guisadas and molondrones en salsa de tomate were particularly memorable. My sister-in-law Charo, not a great fan of vegetables herself, would occasionally appear with a pyrex of tasty pastelon, made without meat for my benefit. One day I gave her my Venezuelan family recipe for sweetcorn pie, which she adapted and made for me.
Although largely appreciative, one thing I had to admit I was missing at the Dominican dinner table was the little pot of pepper without which I find difficult to eat. This is not exactly a surprise, as adding pepper to your food is by no means a universal culinary custom, those monstrously oversized pepper mills in Italian restaurants notwithstanding! Many restaurants in Spain do not put pepper pots or mills on the tables, unless they cater for a significant foreign clientele. French dining tables apparently never have salt or pepper pots. I have been told that French cooks consider it impolite if you dare to ask for salt as well as pepper, the implication being that their food is not to your liking.
Now, I grew up in a household where relatively little salt was used in cooking and it was up to each person to add salt to their taste. In many Dominican households this decision is made for you – in the same way as coffee is served sweet by default – and more often than not the food is far too salty. When I lived in England among the “vegan police”, it was considered unacceptable by some of them to use any salt at all, and I was often accused by my more health-obsessed friends and housemates of using too much salt in my cooking. I would like to see their faces if served macaroni cheese as made by a lady I know in Santo Domingo! I soon learned to stop saying “se le fue la mano con la sal” (“your hand must have slipped up with the salt”) when I realised it was really supposed to be that salty.
Anyway, back at my mother-in-law’s, I decided to buy a pot of ground black pepper as I really was finding it hard to eat my tomato salad without it. The rest of the family viewed the offending item with suspicion, and when we moved out into our first apartment, I was given the pepper to take with me… It’s funny when I look back on it.
Although this makes the family sound far from adventurous in their gastronomic customs, this was not at all the case. I had brought a pot of Marmite (TM) with me, as it is another thing I find it difficult to live without. Popular lore suggests that if you were not introduced to this idiosyncratically English concentrated savoury spread of yeast extract at a very young age, it is close to impossible to acquire the taste as an adult. Even Marmite’s own advertising campaigns stress the fact that you either love it or you hate it. But my Dominican family took to it in a big way, most of them, anyway.
When we moved to Cotui, we soon befriended a family who lived down the street and before long the two daughters were regular visitors to our apartment. Alina (who was 10 or so) watched me with curiosity one morning as I was making toast for my breakfast. “Would you like some?” I asked, thinking I would offer her some toast with peanut butter, jam or cheese. But she zoomed in on the Marmite and insisted on tasting it. I proceeded with caution, warning her that it was not sweet, despite its rich chocolate-like appearance. To my surprise, she loved it.
The next morning her little sister Nati (age 7) appeared. She had obviously been recommended the Marmite experience by her enthusiastic sibling. “Quiero probar la mantequilla de tu pais!” (“I want to taste the butter from your country!”) was her request. I had become complacent about the power of Marmite to provoke strong reactions. I spread a small amount on a slice of toast. She bit into it. “WACALA!” was the spluttering reaction, and I lack the precise words to describe the expression on her face.
- 2 lb [0.91 kg] of ground beef
- 1 teaspoon of salt (or more, to taste)
- ½ teaspoon of pepper
- 1 onion diced into tiny cubes
- 1 cubanella pepper diced into very small cubes
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- A pinch of oregano
- 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil (soy, corn or peanut)
- 1 cup of water
- 1 cup of tomato sauce
- 1 tablespoon of parsley finely chopped
- 2 lb [0.91 kg] of potatoes, peeled
- 1 cup of milk
- ¼ cup of butter
- 1 teaspoon of salt (or more, to taste)
- 2 egg yolks (optional)
- 2 cups of grated mozzarella cheese
- Butter for buttering the pan
- Season the meat with salt, pepper, onions, cubanella pepper, garlic, and oregano.
- In a shallow pan heat a tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Add the ground beef and brown. Add water and the tomato sauce. Simmer over medium heat until all the liquid has evaporated.
- Taste and season with salt to taste if you find it necessary. Mix in parsley.
- Remove from the heat and reserve.
- Heat the oven at 350 ºF [170 ºC].
- Boil the potatoes until they are cooked through. Mash the potatoes, while still warm, until there aren't any lumps.
- Mix in potatoes milk, butter, salt to taste and yolks (taste for salt before you add the yolks), and mix well. Put half of this mixture in the baking pan, cover with half the cheese. Top with the meat filling and then the remaining half of the cheese.
- Finally cover with the remaining potatoes. Bake until the top is light golden.
- Serve hot with green salad.