The Story

Tortas de Espinaca
The Nicaraguan secret: how to live to be a 106.
By Lindsay Sterling
Jenny Sanchez learned many of her magical dishes, including chancho frito and gallo pinto (previously featured here), from a family helper when she was a young girl. Her mother made sure all seven children watched and listened in the kitchen because in Nicaragua, Jenny explains, “You have to know how to cook.” Usually by the time you’re fifteen. When I asked a group of twelve-year-old Kenyan-Americans in Lewiston if any of them cooked, hands shot up: “I cook!” “I do!” “Me too!” When I ask people born here when Americans learn to cook, they say: “What’s your definition of cooking?”
Answering the question with a question shows, in my view, some discomfort in the concept of hundreds of millions of us never learning how to cook at all and relying almost completely on the business world to feed and nurture us. No one can say for sure that not cooking causes cancer, obesity, divorce, or depression, but I think it’s pretty hard to argue that not cooking is actually good for us. So when I ask the question, when do Americans learn how to cook? How about we define cooking as making a delicious meal out of raw ingredients and we start right now.
The dish Jenny is teaching us today is tortas de espinaca, potato-spinach pancakes served with rice and topped with cheese, fresh tomatoes, and hot sauce. She learned this particular dish when she was in her twenties and student in a Nicaraguan nursing school. The class was called economia dieta and it taught her how to cook healthy foods for patients within the hospital’s budget. Nurses? Cooking? Ah yes, food is the foundation of our health, in body, mind, and spirit. Isn’t it?
The list of ingredients today is humble: fresh spinach, red pepper, green onion, garlic, eggs, grated potato, salt, hot sauce, and cheese. The magic is in Jenny’s method: basically coating a whole bowlful of cut veggies with raw eggs and lightly frying scoops like pancakes. As she’s chopping spinach she holds up the stems and instructs me to use them: “This is vayta min.” She folds the eggs gently into the vegetables and makes me write down “no whipping” because whipped egg makes the texture of the tortas not as good. She generously covers the bottom of a saute pan with olive oil. When it’s hot, she folds the egg into the vegetables once more to evenly coat them and scoops a ladleful into the oil. It’s sizzling as she’s encouraging the running mound of green and red into a rough pancake shape with her flat spatula. After about five minutes, when the edges of the pancake are lifting ever so slightly off the pan, she flips the pancake away from herself (to avoid getting splashed with hot oil), revealing the underside to be beautifully browned. It’s surprising to me with all that fresh spinach in there that each pancake gets a little crispy on both sides, but it does.
As we’re talking about health, it’s worth noting that Jenny’s father’s sister, Tia Margarita, is a Nicaraguan-American living in New Jersey, and she’s 106 years old. For her birthday present Jenny sent her lipstick, blush, and Chanel #5 perfume, which she pronounces (to my delight) Channel Number 5, like its a TV station. People often ask Tia Margarita what her secret is. As told to me by Jenny, here it is: “No drink. No smoke. Lo [love] everybody. And don’t buy a cellular.” You might add: cook tortas de espinaca.

Copyright Lindsay Sterling June 2010