6 January 2011

Culinary Food Tour 2011 -Have You Heard of Johnny Mazetti...the Dish?

Joan of FOODalogue is starting the year off with another armchair travel adventure with her Culinary Tour 2011 - The Final Tour. I have really enjoyed travelling with Joan virtually for the past 2 years and have been lucky enough to meet up with her two years in a row in "real time" in San Francisco at Foodbuzz.
This year with her virtual culinary tour we will visit the cuisines of 7 of our neighbours... Panama, Alaska, Turkey, Japan, Thailand, Egypt and Nigeria. Each one of these destinations challenges us to create a dish outside the box. Joan will be travelling virtually wherever her imagination takes us for the next little while through food, sights, and cultural diversity.
Why not join Joan on this virtual culinary journey? How about meeting her in any one of her itinerary stops and presenting your interpretation of the cuisine from that destination? Who wouldn't enjoy taking a journey around the world even if it is from the comfort of your favourite armchair?? No passport necessary, no cancelled flights or long airport layovers. You can also do a little daydreaming through your tastebuds.

We begin our armchair journey in:


"Thick jungles, ocean breezes, small orange monkeys clinging securely to little girls heads, and toddlers being carried by their father's to see the US ships pass by. This was the scene in the 1940's and 50's when families were growing up in the Panama Canal Zone." Combine this with influences from the Native Indians and other Latin American countries and you have some world class food in Panama! Panama has a rich tradition in the culinary arts. Due to its location the country is home to a vast array of fresh and tasty fruits, herbs and vegetables.  Because of the immigration of thousands of labourers to build the canal, Panama City is home to Greek, Italian, Spanish, French and Chinese influences.

 Distinctively Panamanian ingredients and flavours include beans, corn, the root vegetables yucca, taro root and yam, as well as culantro, a flavourful herb not to be confused with the less pungent cilantro. It’s used ubiquitously in Caribbean cooking, most noticeably in Panama’s national dish, sancocho (a culantro-infused vegetable and poultry stew). There is one thing that is consistent about Panamanian main dishes...meat is commonplace. From beef to chicken to pork, Panamanian cuisine offers something for everyone! Fresh fruits and sea foods were staples at the Canal Zone table.

Even though I have never set foot in Panama I still believe that the best way to travel is to immerse yourself in the culture and what better way to start than to stay with the locals and have a weeklong culinary vacation. Cooking holidays are often thought of as being in Italy or France but exploring Panamanian cuisine is every bit as interesting. Travel helps us to better understand and appreciate other people and what makes them tick. Nothing is more intimate, or more effective at breaking down cultural barriers, than cooking and sharing meals together.

Panama is becoming as well known for its corvina as its Canal thanks to the popularity of cooking tours. This small country welcomes tourists eager to know more about the indigenous, European and Latin American culinary influences that pervade Panamanian cuisine. Learn to differentiate between comfort foods like jojaldras (powdered donuts) and bowls of the aforementioned sancocho (chicken soup).

Let's take you on a virtual culinary journey! One of the best ways to explore a culture is through your stomach and this local Panamanian Cooking School provides an in-depth look at the history, culture, ecology and foodpaths of Panama. The program at The Three Sisters Cooking School is the only eco/culinary/historical tour of it type in the lower Americas. Their program celebrates farm to fork,  sea to plate ecotourism tour where you’ll harvest, prepare and relish native cultivars and Panamanian cuisine that have existed here for thousands of years. Classes are held in the expat owner’s home and include plenty of hands on instruction where you will prepare more Panamanian recipes and sample more dishes than most of us can eat. And there’s the added treat of meeting The Three Sisters who are the owners Vietnamese Pot Bellied Pigs!!!

"In the village of El Valle, we started at the market where we saw a lot of interesting vegetables we didn't recognize. The soil in Panama, and especially around El Valle is very rich. As a matter of fact, the village is located in the center of a collasped volcano so you can imagine the excellence of the growing conditions. The most interesting to all of us was culantro, not cilantro mentioned previously. It is a long leafy plant that is used in everything, especially chimichuri, which is a staple here and everyone has his/her own recipe. It's very simple and I would equate with a pesto but even more versatile.
We visited a local panadero who bakes his hand kneaded bread in a clay horno as it’s been done for millennia. Joy of joys when we were able to sample fresh micha rolls hot from the horno. I purchased a dozen for sixty cents and saved them for lunch to savour their wonderful smoky nuance.
When we returned to the village a typical Panamanian lunch was waiting for us at the home of Liliana Gil Rodrigues. Using locally grown ingredients she prepared an everyday meal with no tourist pretensions just lots of cultural immersion. Then we were dropped off for the easy hike to the famed rock carvings of El Valle and  the easy walk back to the villa. Laundry hanging on the bushes and scores of birds in the trees, this is Panama!
 Walking through the streets we spied interesting arrangements of farm stands and carts. Just about anything you needed could be found along the roadway. Tropical fruits nestled with freshly brought in shrimp. One of my first sea food meals I was taught was ceviche. An obvious choice when making a tropically themed dinner."
In modern Panama, traditional cuisine still reigns, but new chefs who have studied abroad are bringing back trends like cooking exclusively with local foods where classic fare such as ropa vieja (spicy, shredded beef over rice), carimaƱolas (yucca rolls stuffed with meat), Corvina ceviche with pixbae tomatoes and cilantro, Creole-style sea bass and breaded crayfish with coconut highlight the menu.

One of my favourite restaurants discovered virtually was Barrandas in the Bristol Hotel in downtown Panama City. The chef is Cuquita Arias de Calvo who has been called the “Martha Stewart of Panama” and indeed she is. ( She actually took some courses from Martha.) Chefs are a special breed. They're dedicated artists who live and breathe food. Some are ambassadors of international cuisines cooking fresh and local has taken Latin America by storm and multicultural blending is the operative phrase.

Chef Cuquita Arias de Calvo is a La Prensa columnist and past television cooking show host. But that description doesn’t totally do Cuquita justice. Cuquita has created dishes that bring together the best of local ingredients with culinary influences from the region’s immigrant populations. Updated traditional recipes include plantain won tons, sea bass in tamarind sauce, maize soup, grouper in ginger and chicken roasted in pumpkin seeds.  Her brother Raul Arias de Para is the owner of Panama’s most highly acclaimed ecolodge- Canopy Tower where in the evenings, candles are lit on granite-topped dining tables, and guests shed their hiking boots for bare feet. We ate wonderful white-sea-bass ceviche, sweet plantains, and bollos(fresh corn tamales). All the recipes are supplied by Arias de Para's sister, Cuquita Arias de Calvo. Cuquita grew up loving the Panamanian dishes served in her traditional family home and has now turned these Panama dishes into haute cuisine.

With culinary influences the world over it is not surprising that one of their famous dishes would have roots in an Italian restaurant in Columbus, Ohio!!Have you ever heard of Johnny Mazetti? If you’re Panamanian (or have lived in Panama) you probably have. Funny thing is, in putting this post together, I came to learn about the history behind the dish.  Johnny Mazetti, the dish, is very popular in Panama, so I Googled it.
In the construction days of the Panama Canal (1904-1914) a legendary figure named Johnny Mazetti developed. In the absence of Italian spaghetti a meal called Johnny Mazetti rose out of the steamy jungle that could be made from the ingredients obtainable at the commissary that served these brave construction workers.
Johnny Mazetti is a baked pasta dish, or casserole, consisting of noodles, tomato sauce, ground beef, and cheese   The dish originated in Columbus, Ohio as mentioned at the Marzetti (with an "r") restaurant, and spread to other parts of the United States as variations of the recipe were published in magazines and cookbooks during the mid-20th century.
Johnny Marzetti also gained a great deal of popularity in the Panama Canal Zone, where it was served at social occasions and on holidays since at least the early WWII era. The Canal Zone version of the dish typically includes arturo sauce, celery and green olives, and is almost always spelled “Johnny Mazetti” by Zonians no "r". The importance of Johnny Mazetti to the culture of the Canal Zone was such that most Zonians are unaware of the origin of the dish and are surprised to learn that it did not originate there.” It reminds me of Hamburger Helper only much better of course.
**Johnny Mazetti**
1 lb ground beef
1 green pepper, chopped finely
1 onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 large can mushrooms
1 clove garlic
salt and pepper
2 cans tomato soup
1 can tomato sauce
Dash of hot sauce
1 teaspoon chopped capers
1 can Arturo sauce (recipe below*)
1 bottle chopped stuffed olives
1 packages boiled noodles
1/2 lb grated American cheese
1/4 lb grated swiss cheese
1/4 lb grated mozarella
3 strips bacon fried and crumbled finely
1/4 cup red or white wine (use white wine on odd days red on even)

Cook ground beef; add remaining ingredients except cheese. Simmer slowly until green pepper, onion, celery are tender. Place all ingredients with 1/2 of cheese in casserole or baking dish; sprinkle the top with remaining cheese and crumbled bacon. Bake in 350 oven for 1 hour. Yields 6 – 8 servings. (Johnny Mazetti is better when cooked and then frozen and then reheated so always put some away for rainy day).

**Arturo Sauce**
1/4 cups finely chopped mushrooms
1/4 cups water
1/4 cups tomato sauce
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cups cider vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large clove garlic
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Pinch of ginger, nutmeg

Mix all ingredients together.

Makes 1 cup

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  1. Oh, Val, your imagination is as rich as a bowl (no make that 2) of Johnny Mazzetti! Great start to the tour. Keep the campfire burning. We'll be joining you soon!

  2. I'd love to actually visit Panama, but a virtual visit for today will be great! Interesting story behind this dish, and the Arturo sauce sounds fantastic.

  3. Always fun and interesting to find out more about dishes like this one. I have friends that mentioned that Panama is indeed a country well worth a visit .

    Val, here's wishing you the very best from this newest year ;o)

    Flavourful wishes,

  4. You've trumped it again Val! Great insight into the culture of Panama and a great dish to boot! The Arturo sauce sounds amazing...I need to get organised for this culinary tour. Let's see how many destinations I can manage.

  5. Thanks for your visit, I just love doors and have more to put in a post sometime. You look as if you have some good recipes here. I will be back. Diane

  6. How interesting - I knew virtually nothing about the cuisine of Panama so this was a welcome tour. The pasta dish sounds really tasty too.

  7. You transported me there and I had a great time. Will be joining you soon.

  8. I was in Panama over a year ago and loved its people and nature. I visited a small Indian village. It was a fantastic experience!


  9. Another coup!!! I wasn't nearly as creative. Such a great post and maybe Panama should be on the list - after Italy that is :)

  10. I had friends in Dallas who had lived in Panama for a few years (the husband worked as a engineer for the canal I think); anyway, I remember her telling me how she tried to stick to American food for fear of catching illnesses. We are a lot more open these days to other cultures, and this Johnny Mazetti dish sounds like the people there of Italian ancestry were getting very homesick! Interesting post, thanks for the entertaining story.

  11. You have such a beautiful imagination and writing style! And this dish looks delicious, as always, I might have to try! Do you ever use buffalo meat? This is my new favourite meat to work with!

  12. Great post, Val! I enjoyed reading about our southern neighbor's culture and cuisine. Johnny Mazetti looks like something my family would love and I can give them a little geography lesson during dinner. Thanks for all this great information.

  13. Val, I really love to visit here. I never knew Panama had a distinctive cuisine and I do appreciate the backstory. The casserole is marvelous family food that would be appreciated anywhere in the world. I certainly will be able to share and enjoy it with my grandchildren. Have a wonderful day. Blessings...Mary

  14. This was sent to me by my next door neighbor in Panama. I was born and raised there, and it really does bring back some great memories.

  15. Wow! And to think that "Johnny Marzetti" that was a mainstay at my western PA (close enough to Columbus, OH, I guess) had such a rich and colorful history.

    In mid-winter traveling to Panama like this was wonderful!

  16. this dish sounds awesome--it has a little bit of everything in it, from capers to nutmeg. nice one, val!

  17. Absolutely post dear Vall!! gloria

  18. This dish looks full of great flavors Val.

  19. This looks great! I never knew about the 'Arturo' sauce. Loving it. Not too long ago I made this combining the Mazetti recipe with mac & cheese. It was awesome! Thanks for visitig my country.

  20. Val!
    Your detail has made me want to visit - and attend that cooking school!!!! NOW!
    What a great, informative and motivating piece of writing. The recipe is almost secondary - but, I said ALMOST. It looks really delicious and sounds like something I could actually make without too much stress. I love learning about new cultures and making food from cultures I have visited or from the teachings of my friends.

  21. If you had given me that dish to taste blind and asked me to guess with which country it is associated I would NEVER have guessed :o) Love the backstory! My dear friend's daughter is doing a year in Panama with AFS at the moment so I have a newfound interest in the place. Thanks for all the info!

  22. Wow looks delicious and I am now hungry :)
    Thank you for recipe and by the way excellent blog !!!


  23. So glad I found your blog through this tour. Your research and account is fascinating as well as a really original recipe. I've learnt so much about Panama from this round up.

  24. Thanks for the story behind the Mazetti dish, really interesting to see the migration of dishes into different parts of the world.
    And such a versatile 'Arturo sauce'. I think it will be on my next pasta :)

  25. The detail you include in your posts always amazes me. It's like sitting down with a magazine -- and Panama? Who knew! The recipe sounds so similar to something my mother made called goulash, I'm fascinated now wondering about the connection. The American cheese is a surprise.

  26. In reading up about this recipe Kellypea they did mention that it also went by the name goulash. I make a goulash with fewer ingredients but the exact same principal.

  27. My husband was born and raised in Panama. I went with him 4 times and it is a wonderful country and the food is terrific. I learned to make most of the recipes in your article. But Mazetti was his mother's favorite. She always made this dish for large gatherings and family events. She said it was the go to dish for very large groups when she lived there. The Arturo sauce is the key! When she was alive she had anyone coming 'stateside' bring her cans of Arturo, which were hoarded and saved for special occasions!!


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