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Tia Ana helps make the food at Immersion Island something to talk about.  Here are her recipes from Summer 2011.  Provecho!

The menu at Immersion Island was  selected with great care for authenticity, thoughtful of the likes and dislikes, dietary needs and any dietary restrictions of our campers, and with attention to detail in the manner of preparation, modeling what is done in Latin American countries, the Caribbean, and in Spain.  I  fine-tuned these recipes with input from the combined experiences cooking abroad of our wonderful staff.

With the wide range of staff experience, from the high Andes mountains to the seacoast of the Galapagos Islands, with gourmet “gusto” from the city of Lima, and with skills learned in Spain and many Caribbean Spanish speaking countries, the recipes that follow come from the heart, and are a gift to you from our entire staff.  Every recipe has a large helping of “amor” in it.
-Tía Ana
(Aerin Benavides)

Monday-“El Caribe”


Buy yucca root fresh from the ground and peel the brown outer skin off of each root.  Cut the peeled roots into 4”-5” long pieces. Or you can buy it already peeled and ready to boil in most Hispanic or international stores.  Boil the root until it is the consistency of an edible whole boiled potato—do not boil until it falls apart.

Let the yucca root cool.  Cut the large root pieces into “fries”, thin pieces 4” – 5” long and the width of a hefty French fry.  It is all right if some are thicker widths than others, it is hard to have them all be exactly the same.

Heat ½ to ¾ cup of canola oil in a 10”-12” deep skillet.  Heat oil at medium high to high until one piece of yucca put into the oil browns nicely as a test.  Put a single layer of yucca fries into the hot oil in the skillet carefully to avoid splashing hot oil and burning yourself (Tia Ana has some experience with this!)  Do not overlap them or overfill the skillet.  Fry and turn with tongs or a fork until browned and crispy, but not too hard.  Take out of the skillet with a slotted spoon and put the yucca fries on a paper plate or paper towel to absorb oil.  Salt to taste and serve!

Yucca frita is served in Peru with an aji sauce-pureed aji pepper with a little vegetable oil, and then put in the blender with cottage cheese, or “queso fresco” as is used in many countries in Latin America.  Since we had yucca frita planned as part of our Caribbean day, we did not serve the Peruvian sauce with it except once, but it is very good that way!


A common diet for many Latin Americans, not only in the Caribbean countries but also in all Latin America and Brazil, is rice and beans.  This may sound boring, but the way they prepare the beans and rice it is anything BUT boring!  It can be very delicious, and this is what we want to show the campers.

The basic rule of thumb for the Cuban black beans is:

1 *kilo black beans
1-kilo onion
1-kilo tomatoes
1-cup olive oil
1-clove garlic                                                                                                                                       3 bay leaves                                                                                                                                        1-small Caribbean pepper (optional)


  • 1 kilo is about 2.2 pounds

Soak 1 kilo of dried black beans overnight.  Drain beans and cover in water and salt.  Boil and then cook at a low heat simmering until tender and edible.  The Latin American cook tastes the food along the way to be sure it is what it should be.

Meanwhile, chop 1 kilo of red onion finely chopped, as finely chopped as tiny, tiny garlic.  This is very important, my mother in law allows no food processing or smashing of the onion, and she says this takes away the flavor.  Also chop 1 kilo of tomato in very small cubes.  Then chop one large clove of garlic finely chopped. You may want to remove the seeds and chop one small Central American or Caribbean pepper too.

Sauté the garlic, pepper, in three tablespoons of olive oil until tender.  Add onion and sauté until transparent.  Add tomato and let simmer until the consistency of a paste.  This could take 30 minutes or more.  This is the secret.  Drain the cooked black beans and add the tomato/onion mixture and stir well.  Add 1 up of olive oil.  Stir well and serve hot.


The rice in Latin America has a wonderful flavor and makes eating rice a whole new experience.  To give the rice a Caribbean flavor first we start with Jasmine rice.  Chop 2 large cloves of garlic finely and chop one small onion as finely chopped as the garlic and/or finely chop a Caribbean pepper (with the seeds removed).  Sauté the garlic and onion and/or pepper in 3 tablespoons Canola oil until tender in a thick-bottomed stew pot.  The thick bottom is key to successful rice.  Add two cups of Jasmine rice and lightly toss the rice in the oil mixture until all the rice is coated and stir well so that nothing burns but may be lightly toasted all over.  Add 2 ½ cups of water, 1 teaspoon of salt, and bring to a roaring boil.  Lower heat to the lowest setting, (you can put a peeled onion in to add flavor at this point) put a lid on it, cover it tightly, let it sit, and in 25 to 30 minutes take the peeled onion out, stir and serve.  You will be surprised at how delicious it can be!

Tuesday, Argentina


Empanada pastry
Ground beef 1 lb.
1 medium red onion
2 medium tomatoes
2 cloves garlic
Taco Meat seasoning packet
½ cup water
Mozzarella Cheese
Mild Taco Sauce
1 egg white

In Peru we would have delicious empanadas, a recipe from Argentina, cut in half for appetizers every Saturday before the big family reunion gathering for lunch.  We had moved to Peru from Miami and my children at first said, “We’re going to see them again!”  because they were used to seeing family on holidays only.  They soon became accustomed to going to their grandmother’s house every Saturday to see all the aunts, uncles and cousins and feast.  The empanada crust was a little heavier, almost as heavy as a quiche crust, and that would be a good substitute for empanada crusts that can be found in the freezer section.  The empanada pastry crusts are pre-cut circles about 8 inches in diameter and separated by thin sheets of plastic paper.

To make the meat filling, sauté 2 cloves of finely chopped garlic and 1 finely chopped red onion (it can take up to 30 minutes to chop the onion small enough to please my mother in law’s standards) in 2 tablespoons of Canola oil until tender.  Add meat (about 1 pound for 8 people) and brown stirring often.  Cook this with lots of love and attention.  If there is a lot of grease, drain off the grease at this point.

Chop 2 tomatoes into cubes and add to skillet, also stir in ½ a package of Taco Meat Seasoning and ½ cup of water.  Blend well.  Simmer this until the tomato becomes a paste and the chunks disappear.  Salt to taste, organic seasoned salt is what I use.

To stuff the empanada pastry tiny cubes of boiled potato may be added to the meat mixture, put a heaping tablespoon of the meat mixture in the center of one half of the pastry, then fold the other half over the top of it.  With thumb and pointer finger pinch the pastry shut so that no sauce will escape.  Roll the edge of the pastry up to finish it.

The pastry may be filled with cheese, we used 2-3 tablespoons of mozzarella cheese, and a dot of mild taco sauce on top of the cheese will give it just that zing to make your taste buds sing.  We marked the sealed edge of the cheese empanadas with a fork.

Brush the half moon pastries with egg white before putting them on a greased cookie sheet and into the oven.  Cook them  20-30 minutes, or until browned, at 350 degrees.


My father in law’s favorite cookie was one made of a fine light colored corn flour and has actually two cookies with what is called “Dulce de Leche” in Argentina in the middle.  This is a caramelized milk and sugar that was cooked with fresh cows milk, constantly stirring, for hours upon hours in the old days.  Now we can buy it all prepared in a jar!  Or, if you would like to make it yourself, take a can of condensed milk and do not open the can or puncture it in any way.  Cover it in water in a saucepan with water and bring the water to a boil.  Let it slow boil for one entire hour, turning the can in the water once in awhile if the water boils down so that the can is evenly heated.

When you open the can after an hour with a can opener you will have Dulce de Leche ready to put in the center of your cookie sandwich.  On Immersion Island we use two vanilla wafers instead of the corn flour cookies that take so long to make.  This gives you a nice taste of the alfajor without all the work!


For the overnight camp, to represent the Italian influence in Argentina, we made spaghetti and meatballs.  (We used vegetarian meat-like balls for any vegetarians.) To make the meat balls mix 1 pound of hamburger meat well with 1 beaten egg and one red onion very finely chopped, as finely chopped as garlic, and one clove of garlic finely chopped.  Add dried oregano, salt and pepper to taste.  Form the ground meat into balls about 1 inch in diameter and put into warm spaghetti sauce, 16 ounces or more, to simmer and cook.  Cook all the meatballs at a simmer over medium heat until done (20-30 minutes.)  Serve over spaghetti noodles.

Wednesday Los Andes


In the Andes Mountains, which stretch along the western side of South America, we celebrate foods from Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.  The potato is indigenous to Peru, and there are over 3000 varieties there!  In honor of the most delicious potato in Peru, the yellow potato, I bought yellow Yukon potatoes.  They can be peeled before boiling, or as the cook at my in laws’ does it, you could peel them easily after they are boiled.

I count one potato per person, and make a puree with a little milk, butter, salt and a sprinkling of the most exquisite tasty pepper, the aji.  This pepper is long and orange usually, and can be bought at Latin food markets either frozen or canned in a puree mixed with oil.  The fresh pepper has to be de-seeded and de-veined before chopping finely and mixed in.   The canned aji can be mixed in the mixer with the mashed potatoes.  Salt to taste.

The meat for the filling of the pastel de papa is prepared just as the filling for the empanadas, except instead of adding taco seasoning and water; add plenty of aji in the garlic and oil at the beginning.  Mmmmm mmmmmm, this is wonderful tasty meat filling.  Without the boiled potato cubes, of course!  There’s plenty of potato in the mashed potatoes.

Use a Pyrex 9 x 11 baking dish, or larger if needed, and grease the bottom.  Put in a layer of mashed potato, a layer of meat filling to cover it, the entire filling, and then a layer of mashed potato on top.  Cook in the oven uncovered at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until slightly browned on top.

In Peru this is served with rice.  We do not eat potato and rice in the same meal here, but they do often.


The best rice to use for the Peruvian rice is parboiled rice, and you can use the same method as for the Caribbean rice, but without the onion, and with aji instead of the Caribbean pepper.  If you have a whole aji you can put it on top of the rice as it cooks with a lid on, and it will give a beautiful decorative effect.  My husband would love to steal the decorative aji off of the top of the rice and de-seed it and de-vein it on his plate, chop it finely, and mix it with his rice.  His mother’s cook then decided to put two aji’s on top because she made one for him, and one for decoration.


For the overnight camp we made one of my daughters’ favorite dishes—before they became vegetarians that is!  Lomo saltado when well prepared is one of the best meals I remember from Lima.  The meat must be carefully cut into small strips like thin French fries.  In truth, in the finest homes in Peru, this dish is made with the beef tender, the filet mignon filet—but in most cases we use a regular cut of rib eye or rib roast and Adolph’s meat tenderizer.  This is a lesson about Peru as well, because the meat tenderizer is made from papaya, and there is a lot of papaya in the jungles of Peru and Ecuador.  The meat tenderizer is put on just before cooking.

The thing that takes so much time is the cutting, but the cutting is the beauty of the dish, and the way it tastes so good.  First cut the meat as described above, about ¼ pound per person, and ¼  an onion per person should be cut in wedges.  Cut ½ a tomato per person in wedges also.

In a large skillet, sauté 4 cloves of garlic finely chopped in 4 tablespoons of Canola oil.  Put in a generous heap of aji, or two finely chopped de-seeded and de-veined ajis.  Mix well and heat well.  In this hot mix sauté the meat to sear in the juices.  Remove the meat from the skillet and put aside, keeping it warm.  Now add a little bit of oil if needed and sauté 80% of the onion and 80% of the tomato.  Let it cook down to a chunky paste.  Now add the meat back in to the skillet, 20% of the onion, and 20% of the tomato and heat well until the onion is transparent.  This is a trick to make some of the tomato and onion a little firmer than the first part, the meat is not overcooked, and it looks great.  Now top the meat, onion and tomato mixture with French fries (frozen ones you have heated one layer thick on cookie sheets in the oven) and salt to taste.  Enjoy!

Thursday, Spain


Overnight camps need breakfast, and with a little Nutella on the bread we knew that would be European.  We also heated the milk each morning as was done in Latin America; by the time we got to Thursday they were drinking more hot milk than cold.  This immersion thing was working!  So we thought we’d add in the tostada from Spain.

Buy bolillo roll (6 count) package.  This is sold at Food Lion.  Cut the breads in half vertically, and then cut each half horizontally in half again.  Put on a cookie sheet flat side up.  Melt 1 stick of butter (they use olive oil in Spain, but we thought we’d go with butter) over very low heat and brush lightly the flat side of the breads with melted butter using a pastry brush.  Put under the broiler for ONLY (and I learned this the hard way) 2 minutes or less, only until lightly toasted.  Serve with slices of ham rolled individually, slices of mozzarella cheese in slices rolled individually, and with Nutella as an alternative, we had some happy campers.


For the overnight camp I made the Spanish tortillas for the first time in my life. I adapted a recipe from Tapas by Richard Tapper, ( p. 44) published by Periplus
The ingredients are very, very simple:

5 Potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
15 Eggs
2 large Onions, thinly sliced
Olive oil, lots and lots of olive oil
2 skillets

I pre-boiled the potatoes until done but firm and peeled them and sliced them before starting.  I put a generous layer of olive oil in the skillet.  I mixed the 15 eggs well and had them ready.  I put the potato in the hot oil in the skillet and lightly browned the potatoes.  I added the onion and stirred it a little until the onions were transparent.  I poured the eggs on top and lowered the heat below medium, to cook but not brown the eggs.  When the omelet was cooked at least ¾ of the way, I got another skillet and generously greased it with olive oil.  I put it on the first skillet with the omelet in it as a lid.  Then I flipped the skillets, just like the waffle iron at the motels’ breakfast buffet, and the omelet then fell into the other skillet, which I put on the burner.  I then cooked it some more, flipped it again, cooked it some more, and flipped it yet again.  It took four flips to get it right, and oh, it was wonderful.  The secret we found, with advice from staff that had lived in Spain, was to use plenty of olive oil.  According to Harmony, who had lived in Spain, they use it over there on everything.


First lesson:  do not put too much rice in one pan!  There’s a reason they do it in a wok in Spain!  Ah!  Anyway, with a 2-cup package of yellow saffron rice, a brand with a flamingo dancer on it, I just followed the directions on the package of yellow saffron rice exactly, except I added more olive oil than was in the package recipe.  As I lowered the heat to have it simmer I added in three chicken breasts cut into ¾ inch cubes to cook with the rice.  In this way the chicken was not overcooked, and the rice absorbed the flavor of the chicken.  I added organic seasoned salt to the water to season the chicken.

When the rice and chicken mixture was done, it took longer than the package said it would, almost an hour, then I added in blanched frozen vegetable mix (corn, green beans, peas and carrots) and Presto!  Paella!  It was one of the campers’ favorite dishes.  Warm and from the pot it was perfect!

At the Baile for fun we made fake sangria with chopped fruit in either an “agua de sandia” a watermelon flavored drink, or a Mexican soda called Sangria.  We also served tapas on small plates with tiny toothpicks—small fried puffs, tiny sausages, marinated cheese in, yes, olive oil, or tiny pieces of ham rolled up.  And, not to be forgotten, olives.

The taste of Spain would not be complete without dessert though. . .


The best and easiest recipe for flan is from my husband’s cousin Cawi, (that’s her nickname, her real name is Claudia) from Lima.  She calls it “Tocino del Cielo”  Heaven’s Bacon. . . but there’s no bacon to it!  This was a big hit with the campers, and very easy.  The trick is to be sure to use a loaf pan.

2-14 ounce cans of sweetened condensed milk
8 eggs
½ cup sugar

Beat the eggs well and add the condensed milk.

Caramalize ½ cup of sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat, and put in the bottom of a loaf pan.  Heat oven to 300 degrees.  Put the milk and egg mixture into the loaf pan over the caramel, and put the loaf pan in a shallow pan with water in it.  Cook for 45 minuetes or a little less until firm.  Cool and store in refrigerator.  To remove the mold from the loaf pan, put in a pan of warm water to melt the sugar caramel, and then turn upside down and serve!  Spoon any spilled caramel back up on top of the mold.  In the summer this is great served cold.

Friday Mexico


Mexican lunch was catered from the wonderful Torreros Restaurant of Carrboro, but we made the dessert.  A favorite in all Latin America, the Torta or Pastel de  Tres Leches.  Of course my brother, in Texas, says there’s a Torta Cinco Leches now, but not to be outdone, I will say, our cake had at least four milks:

Evaporated Milk
Condensed Milk

So, not to be left too far behind those Tex-Mex gourmets, we’ll just name this


This is a recipe from the Miami Herald, by Charles Trainor Jr., on the Herald Staff.  Although many nations claim the Tres Leches as their own, the Miami Herald says a Miami homemaker may have created it.  In this way we have come full circle in our week at Immersion Island, from the Caribbean, to South America, to Spain, and to Mexico and Miami.  On our way back to North Carolina we stop to have a fiesta and our decorated torta.

When we could, we had campers come in to the kitchen who were interested. They would verbally interpret the recipe they read in English and tell me in Spanish what they were to do next.  It was amazing how well they managed this, after a week of immersion.  They wanted to learn how to make the cake from scratch, and then how to soak it in the milk, how to make the icing from scratch, and how to color the icing and decorate the cakes with our symbol of Island life—the Palm tree.  You can try the recipe at home!  It’s a lot of fun, and I know of no better cake to soak up the milks than this recipe.

For the Cake:
1-cup sugar
5 large eggs, separated (and even one drop of yolk in the whites will ruin things!)
1/3 cup milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract (and we had vanilla from Mexico)
1-cup flour
1-½ teaspoons of baking powder
½ teaspoon of cream of tartar

For the Milk Syrup:

14-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk
12-ounce can of evaporated milk
1 cup of heavy cream
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

For the Meringue

1-cup sugar
1.2-teaspoon cream of tartar
3 egg whites (again, no yolk in the whites!  Won’t fluff up if there’s yolk in there!)

We separate the egg whites one by one over a separate bowl, so we would not accidentally drop a yolk in the whole bowl of egg whites if a yolk broke.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Generously butter a 13 by 9 inch cake pan.  (We used real butter; this is the best way to make it come out right when the cake is done.)
To make the cake, beat ¾ cup of sugar with the egg yolks until fluffy.  (Fluffy is hard to translate to Spanish!!!)  Add milk and vanilla; fold in the flour and baking powder.  (Folding is very important because this puts air in the batter.  This was an opportunity for me to show the campers how to fold in ingredients, and use a little science.)

Beat egg whites in mixer with cream of tartar and the remaining sugar (which using our math skills, would be ¼ cup of sugar!)  Gently fold into the flour mixture.  Pour batter into prepared pan.  Bake the cake until firm and an inserted toothpick comes out clean, 30-45 minutes.  Let the cake cool in the pan before un molding onto a large, deep platter.  This is so important, because if the cake is not cool enough it will stick in the pan, or come apart.  Not fun.  Better to wait until the cake pan is cool to the touch.


To make syrup, combine the milks and cream in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla.


Pour the syrup over the cake, (poking it with a toothpick if you need it to absorb faster, but the cake will have lots of air holes, it’s a sponge cake.)  Spoon the overflow back on top until all the liquid is absorbed.

To make the meringue, place ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar in a heavy saucepan with ¼ cup of water.  (Do not forget the water.  This is a disaster.  I did that once.)  Bring to a boil and cook uncovered to the soft ball stage, 239 degrees on a candy thermometer.  This is when a spoon stirred in it and lifted up makes balls as it falls back into the pan.

Beat the egg whites in the mixer to soft peaks with the cream of tartar.  Add remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar and continue to beat until stiff peaks form.  Pour the boiling syrup in a thin stream into the whites while beating constantly.  This makes a wonderful icing/meringue.

Pour the meringue onto the cake and spread with a wet spatula.  (Save some of the icing to color and design the cake with.)  Refrigerate for 2 hours before serving, and don’t count the calories!  The recipe says this is for 10 servings, but we think it serves more people than that!  Maybe 16!

To design the cake, use wax paper to make a cone and cut a hole at the tip of the cone.  Fill the cone with the colored icing, close the top and squeeze down like a tube of toothpaste.  Use brown for the trunks of the palm trees, green for the leaves (use the Immersion Island t-shirt as a guide for how to draw the leaves) and blue to write “La Isla” and draw waves!

We at Immersion Island Camp know it works to immerse ourselves in Spanish and to not only see, and hear what it is like to be in a Spanish Speaking country, but to smell that aroma of food cooking for the big mid day meal, and to taste the wonders and spices of these countries.  We hope you try to make some of these recipes at home and enjoy them!