In José Bilbao’s family, like many Hispanic families, food brings people together. “For most Hispanics, food is such an important part of our culture, history and way of life,” he said. “Families often come together, spend the day together and cook all day long.”
Bilbao, an engineering technical lead in the waterways section of Design Branch, represented the Corps during the last Viva Technology event at a local high school. Viva Technology is a national science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) awareness education program that engages underserved K-12 students, teachers and parents through culturally relevant, hands-on activities intended to stimulate interest in STEM careers. He also volunteered for the College Bowl at the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference. Those experiences led Bilbao to take on additional duties as Hispanic Heritage Month coordinator. He generated several ideas to celebrate and recognize the contribution of Hispanics to our culture and their service to our nation.
For Bilbao, the Hispanic Heritage Month Cook-Off was a natural way to get people together, have fun and enjoy great food, while showcasing the diversity within the Hispanic culture. Bilbao was born in Miami to a mother of Mexican and Cuban heritage and a father who came to the U.S. from Cuba when he was only nine months old. Bilbao has visited both Mexico and Cuba, and observed tremendous differences in the cultures.
“There have been many important historic influences on Hispanic culture,” he said. “In addition to Spanish influence, the slave trade from Africa was a huge influence in the Caribbean, especially in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Afro-Cuban music. In Mexico, in addition to the Spanish influence there is a lot that comes from the indigenous cultures, including the Maya and Aztecs. Cubans use many African and middle eastern spices in their food. Many of these recipes are hundreds of years old.”
Each region that Hispanics hail from has its own specialties and comfort food:
• Molé from Mexico (meat is cooked for hours so the sauce made from chili peppers, spices, and chocolate absorbs into the meat);
• Ajiaco from Cuba and Columbia (a hearty stew made from beef, pork, chicken, vegetables like corn and squash and a variety of starchy roots like yucca, malanga and potato);
• Mofongo from Puerto Rico (fried green plantains mashed together in a broth with garlic, olive oil and pork cracklings or bits of bacon); or
• Paella from Spain’s Valencia region (saffron rice with meat and vegetables).
Every country and region uniquely prepares their meals and they are entrenched with the region's history.
During the cook-off, participants and spectators tasted and judged dishes from many countries and traditions. Appetizers included “Papa a la Huanciana” (Peruvian potato salad), “Empanadas de Carne” (baked beef patties Panamanian style), “Ceviche” and “Empanadas” (both popular dishes in Panama). Classic main dishes included “Picadillo Cubano” (a popular Cuban dish), “Arroz con Gandules y Carne de Cerdo” (rice with pigeon peas accompanied by pork meat prepared with seasonings used in Hispanic culture). The sweet ending included desserts such as “Tembleque de Coco” (coconut pudding made with coconut milk and spices), “Bizcocho” (a flavorful Caribbean-style cake), “Pastissets” (sugar cookies from Spain), “Galletas de Chocolate y Ancho Chili” and “Polvorones de Canela” (two types of Mexican-style cookies) “Arroz con Dulce” (rice pudding made with rice, coconut milk, and spices).
Becky Maholland won “Best Appetizer” with her “Chicken Chile Verde.” She is not of Hispanic descent, but lived in California.
“There is a significant influence from Mexican history and culture on the food out west,” she said. “Chili verde, a dish native to northern Mexico, is made of meat simmered in a "green" broth and a mixture of other ingredients. Like many ethnic dishes, chili verde is prepared in a variety of ways in its native country, but the base of this stew is slow-cooked meat, tomatillos and green chiles.” Maholland added, “It was great to share a little bit of everything – similar to the tradition of eating tapas or small appetizers in Spanish cuisine. I always like to participate in Hispanic Heritage Month events every year, and loved tasting other people’s dishes!”
Michael Rivera is from Puerto Rico, where his family made the prize-winning Pastelón de Platano Maduro (Ripe Plantain Pie). He joined the Corps when he came to the United States as a college student in 2008, working first as a student co-op, and then as an intern before he began working as a hydraulic engineer. He described his entry as a local, traditional, Puerto Rican main dish.
“I chose this dish because I wanted to surprise people with something different. It’s something you would not normally have at a restaurant. It’s more of a home-cooked meal.” The dish has layers of sweet plantains, seasoned ground meat, shredded cheese and beaten egg to hold it together so it doesn’t crumble. Plantains look like large bananas, but are usually cooked rather than eaten raw. They are often served as a Latin American side dish, as tostones (green plantains that have been sliced and fried, pounded flat and fried again until crisp and golden brown) or as plátanos maduros (ripe sweet plantains sliced and fried in oil).
Enid Gerena combined several different recipes to create her own “Flan de Coco,” which won “Best Dessert.”
“There are so many types of flan – vanilla and cheese flan are both very popular, and there is even chocolate flan. Since I am from Puerto Rico, I decided to make a flan that reflects both Hispanic and Caribbean ingredients and flavors.” While flan is traditionally made with sugar, milk and eggs, Gerena’s prize-winning baked coconut custard was made with coconut milk.
Bilbao was very pleased with the turnout for the first-time event. “All the participants brought some wonderful dishes and the turnout was amazing! There was a lot of enthusiasm and we got a lot of positive feedback. I hope we can do it again next year, and have even more people participate.” he said.
“In America, you have the opportunity to chase your dreams – that’s why so many Hispanics come here,” said Bilbao. “But we remain very proud of our cultural heritage. Hispanics take pride in the way they prepare their meals, the tradition of each dish, and how each recipe was passed down from "abuela" to "mama" to "hija" (grandmother to mother to daughter).”
Here are two of the winning recipes from the contest. Perhaps they will be handed down in your family too! Enjoy!
Becky Maholland’s Chicken Chile Verde
2 pounds tomatillos, husked, washed and dried, and cut in half
10 medium Anaheim peppers, cut in half, seeds removed (Poblano or other large, mild peppers may be substituted)
1-3 jalapeño peppers
1 cup diced yellow onion
4 garlic cloves
2 cups roughly chopped cilantro
1-2 tablespoons cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
Juice and zest of 1 lime
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups chicken broth
2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place tomatillos and Anaheim peppers on large greased baking sheets. Roast until tomatillos are golden brown (about 10 minutes), and until peppers are charred. Let peppers cool and then peel.
2. In a blender, combine 6 peppers (12 pepper halves), tomatillos, jalapeños, onion, garlic, cilantro, cumin, paprika, lime zest and juice, sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Blend until just smooth to make salsa verde.
3. Chop chicken breasts into bite size pieces. Heat large frying pan on medium-high with a small amount of canola oil (1-2 teaspoons). Add chicken and quickly sear outside for a minute until partially brown and put in bowl. You may need to cook chicken in smaller amounts so that it gets seared (too much in the pan may release too much liquid and prevent searing).
4. Dice the remaining Anaheim peppers. Pour salsa verde, chicken broth, diced Anaheim peppers and chicken into a slow cooker.
5. Cook in slow cooker on low for 6-8 hours. Season with cumin, salt and pepper to taste.
Michael Rivera’s Pastelón de Platano Maduro (Ripe Plantain Pie)
Ripe plantains (skin should be dark yellow with some black spots - the darker the sweeter)
1 pound of ground meat (beef or turkey)
Shredded cheese of your choice
2 eggs, beaten
Seasonings of your choice, such as Adobo, Sazón, garlic and tomato sauce
1. Peel and slice ripe plantains into thin slices.
2. Sprinkle seasoning (Michael uses Adobo Goya) on the layer of plantains.
3. Cook ground meat and season to taste (Michael uses Adobo Goya, Sazón Total, two cloves of pressed garlic and a 4 ounce can of Goya tomato sauce)
4. Set a layer of plantains in a baking pan (Michael uses olive oil to grease pan)
5. Pour a layer of ground meat over layer of plantains (repeat this and the previous step until all of meat mixture is used, making sure to finish with a layer of plantain on top).
6. Pour the beaten eggs over the pie.
7. Bake at 250 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes.
8. Spread shredded cheese over pie.
9. Bake for another 3 to 5 minutes until melted.