This is a post about rediscovering, about meeting traveling old loves again, about more than 300 miles into the past. It is not only about a dish that I had not seen or tasted in decades, it is about going back to a place I haven’t been in for an almost equal amount of time.
It is about discovering that memory is not always treacherous, and that the present does not always get to erase the past.
If you have never heard about it, allow me to introduce Cucumis Anguria, better known in the DR as pepino silvestre. An obscure and poorly appreciated vegetable. A vegetable that brings me back to my childhood, to a past long gone.
As its Spanish names suggests (wild gherkin), this vegetable grows in the wild, especially in areas of low precipitation. It is known in English as West Indies gherkin, and in other Spanish-speaking countries as badunga and cohombro. This resilient vine yields fruits about 4 to 8 cm in length.
In the DR is isn’t grown on a large scale, and is almost never found through chain supermarkets. These bunch I bought at the farmers’ market in Dajabón, on the way to the town I refer to in the second paragraph: Capotillo.
Two weeks ago our family started a pilgrimage in which we crossed the country from Punta Cana to Capotillo. An insanely-long distance, by Dominican standards. Not only was I in search of inspiration, flavors and foods from deep inside the country, I was also in search of some fading memories.
I arrived to Capotillo for the first time more than two decades ago, practically another life. From the trip I remember how impressive it was to see the changes from the cactus forest between Montecristi and Dajabón to the feet of the Central Mountain Range. The climate changes, and the flora becomes green, abundant, colorful. But the most vivid memory of my previous trip to Capotillo was the quiet beauty of the place, the absence of abject poverty, a dignified existence that is refreshing to the eyes and the soul.
Capotillo is better known for its place in history. It was there where the crucial battle against the Spanish empire paved the way for Dominican independence. An impressive and very well-kept monument — that frankly looks a bit out of place on top of the green hill surrounded by pine and palm trees — marks the historical spot. But it wasn’t the monument itself that impressed me more about this small community.
It was the town itself that I remembered the most. For a long time I kept the memories of a small quiet community, impressively clean, with cute little campesino houses, freshly painted with bright colors and gardens brimming with flowers.
And mangoes. Everywhere. So many mangos that they were like a carpet on the road, on the front yards. They would ripen, full of honey sweetness and dripping juiciness, and serve as food to the birds and the land itself. These were the sweetest mangoes I have ever tried.
By the side of the road one can buy them, if you are not inclined to just pick them yourself, along with cashew fruit preserves, dulce de leche, roasted cashew nuts, and many other products made from the local crops. Of course I had to get some to take back home.
If you arrive to Capotillo in search of tourism you will be out of luck. There isn’t any. Except for the infrequent curious traveller, such as ourselves, they have never seen a tourist. There are no hotels or restaurants, and should you find yourself hungry you will just have a local colmado, and under a thatched roof quench your thirst with cold bottled water, and enjoy the conversation with the locals, slowly rocking yourself to a state of bliss in the old, creaky rocking chairs overlooking the flamboyan trees. And dream…
But you have to come visit Capotillo and see for yourself.
And back to our dish, our obscure and humble dish. I remember it from my grandma’s kitchen. This vegetable tastes a lot like regular cucumber, but it does not lend itself to be eaten raw. The mild flavor and interesting texture is best served by the strong flavors of the braised pork.
- 1 lb [0.45 kg] of boneless pork (shoulder or belly), cut into small pieces
- A pinch of oregano
- ¼ teaspoon of pepper
- 1¼ teaspoon of salt
- 2 tablespoons of oil (canola, corn or peanut)
- 1 lb [0.45 kg] of West Indian gherkin (pepinos silvestres), clean of seeds and cut into quarters
- 1 cubanela (cubanelle) pepper (or bell), cut into small pieces
- 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 1 red onion, cut into strips
- 1 cup of tomato sauce
- 2 tablespoons of minced cilantro
- Season the meat with orégano, a pinch of pepper and a teaspoon of salt.
- Heat the oil over medium heat in a deep-bottom pot.
- Add the meat and brown (careful with splatters of hot oil).
- Add half a cup of water and cover.
- Cook until the water has evaporated (be careful you don't let the meat burn).
- Brown again and add another half a cup of water.
- Repeat the two previous steps for 15 minutes.
- Add the gherkins and a cup of water.
- Cover and cook for 10 minutes, or until the gherkins are cooked through (you should taste them).
- Let the liquid evaporate and add peppers, garlic, and onion. Stir and cover. Simmer for 2 minutes.
- Add the tomato sauce and a cup of water. Mix well and simmer until it breaks the boil.
- Season with salt to taste. Add the cilantro, stir and remove from the heat.
- Serve with moro.