Tapado: Caribbean Coconut Fish and Plantain Soup

 

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Somehow we ended up with a table-full of green plantains last night, which it turns out are NOT the ones you make yummy sweet fried plantains with. Is that common knowledge? I felt totally uninformed and unworthy of my food blogger status. Well, now I know (and so do you!).

The internet told me I could deep fry them, tostones style, or make a dough out of them and stuff them with meat or whatever, bolo style. All options sounded fine, but in a eureka moment, I remembered cooking with green plantains once (I think they were green bananas then, but I believe they can be used fairly interchangeably), at a very steamy cooking class in Livingston, Guatemala.

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I got out my journal, go me for being obsessive about notebooking, and immediately found the recipe I jotted down after the class. It was a very simple affair, made of what was local and available, namely lots of coconuts and fresh fish, with very little else.

Livingston, Guatemala is totally different from the rest of the country. It’s a Garífuna enclave on the Carribean coast, where it is steamy, humid, and damn tropical. Almost all food has to be brought in by boat and is hence pretty pricey. Its budding tourism industry is one of the prime sources of income for the area, but there’s not much to do in the oppressive heat — despite being on the coast, the only nice beach is accessible only by boat and the hostel options are all of the dreaded “party” variety, where invariably some huge Australian dude has slept all day and now has 40s of beer taped to his hands and is challenging other dudes into pull-up contests. #yolo #traveltolearnaboutothercultures #ohmy.

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Some enterprising folks at Rasta Mesa started a cooking class to teach us bumblers how to make the traditional and ubiquitous soup of the region, tapado. It was a laid-back, steamy afternoon, with children running around and intermittently (and impressively) playing drums. “Class” was in the loosest sense of the word — I got the feeling the instructors were just making themselves dinner and we were around to help chop some vegetables and maybe babysit. Which was totally fine with me. The experience was only tainted by the one hostelbro who decided to get over his hangover, leave the hostel for the first time, accompany us to class, and flirt with all the women present. Despite his presence, it was a tranquil and delicious afternoon that I’m glad has come back to me.

tapado-4Note on recipe: When we made this in Guatemala, we used small white fish, hacked into thirds, with their bones and eyeballs still intact. The versions I saw around town had all sorts of seafood; I decided to use just shrimp but use whatever you prefer. For a vegan meal, you could use roasted sweet potatoes or green pepper chunks instead of fish. If you don’t have access to green plantains, don’t use bananas or yellow plantains, they’re too sweet and soft. The green variety is not sweet at all — it’s very starchy. Try subbing potatoes or yuca.

one year ago: rice noodle salad with carrot-ginger dressing and unstuffed eggplant with yogurt sauce 
two years ago: kale Caesar salad and black bean mango corn salad
three years ago: easy rhubarb cake and roasted beets + greens with mint yogurt sauce

more Guatemalan food: rellenitos de plátano (for when you need to get rid of yellow plantains) and quichon de verduras (Mayan veggie stew) 

Tapado

adapted from cooking class at Rasta Mesa

2 tablespoons olive oil
½ pound raw shrimp (mine were tail-free but either way is fine)
Pinch each of: garlic powder, granulated onion powder, cayenne
Salt
1 onion, diced
2 medium tomatoes, chopped (save the juices)
1 jalapeño, diced
2 cans full fat coconut milk
Small handful fresh basil leaves
2 green plantains, peeled and in bite-sized chunks
Juice from ½ a lime
Chopped basil and/or cilantro, to serve (optional, but nice)
Cooked white rice, to serve

Heat a big saute pan (for which you have a lid) over a high heat. Toss shrimp in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of oil, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, and salt. Add to very hot pan and cook on each side for just 2-3 minutes, or until they just turn pink. Remove from pan and set aside.

Add 1 tablespoon oil to same pan. Lower to medium heat. Add onion and a bit of salt, and scrape up any bits left by the shrimp. Cook onion for 3-4 minutes, or until it’s just turning translucent. Add tomatoes and their juices and jalapeño. Cook for another 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, until the onion and tomato have broken down and become somewhat jammy.

Add both cans of coconut milk, one can’s-worth of water, small handful whole basil leaves, the green plantains, and bunch of salt. Bring to a boil, then partially cover and reduce to a simmer. Simmer for about 20 minutes, or until plantains are totally cooked. Partially mash some of the plantains with the back of a wooden spoon to thicken the soup. Add lime juice and shrimp — cook for another 2 minutes or so until shrimp are reheated.

To serve, ladle into a bowl, add a spoonful of white rice, and sprinkle with fresh basil and cilantro.

 

Mayan Quichon de Verduras, Take 1

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Our cooking classes at PLQ are taught by a friendly, explosive, and hilarious lady named Oti. She is friends with my host family, and has occasionally shown up at lunch time, bearing fruits or baked goods. She is well-liked by all, and, it seems to me, a bit of a gossipy yenta. She likes to tell stories in her incredibly fast Spanish, complete with imitations and reenactments. She turned to me after one of them and asked if I understood. (I had gotten maybe 30%.) She began the story again, in slower Spanish, but as the story progressed and she got excited, her Spanish continued to speed up. Maybe that time around I got 50%. Her upbeat attitude extends to her class, where she spends half an hour “while the chiles soak” telling us about her family drama and her visiting grandson and naughtily suggesting I need a Guatemalan boyfriend in addition to my American one. She’s an uplifting presence and I’m always glad when our paths cross.

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I’m daily thrilled by the generosity and kindness of the people I meet here. People are so willing to strike up a conversation! Yesterday, for example, I went on a trip to Laguna Chicabal — a sacred Mayan lake set in the crater of an old volcano. On the microbus on the way there, the guy next to us began to ask, in slow and measured Spanish, about where we were going, where we were staying, our jobs, language skills, etc. He was eager to figure out who the four gringa ladies in the back of the bus were and excited to tell us a bit about himself too. (I think he’s a traveling alternative medicine salesman who speaks Spanish and Mayan Mam but that job part was a bit tricky to understand.) Right before we got off, he asked if I had “the face” — we realized after a moment he meant FaceBOOK and wanted to be friends, but at that point it was too late to exchange any info (no sleep lost). I’ve had similar conversations with cafe employees, guys I’ve salsa danced with, and other people waiting for their tostadas at the stalls in the market. It’s a fun, informal way to practice Spanish, although in some cases I fear the conversation is initiated because they’re vying for that nonexistent, elusive position of Guatemalan boyfriend. Lo siento, amigos. 

IMG_3118IMG_3125The recipe below is written exactly how Oti (with our ample slicing and dicing assistance) made it for our graduation dinner last week. No tweaks or improvements. It was certainly tasty — the sauce was good enough to eat with a spoon and I had a moment of annoyance that there were so many vegetarians this week and so not enough for seconds. It’s deep and musky and chile-heavy, with a slight spiciness cut by the tomatoes. I love that this is an extremely old and simple(ish) Mayan recipe. People have been making some form of quichon, which is only found in Quetzaltenango (a brief internet search showed surprisingly little internet evidence of this dish) for centuries (albeit with chicken). But I have some ideas about how I’ll update this recipe to give it just a bit more varied flavor — the chiles really do dominate — roasting the veggies instead of boiling, adding more garlic and perhaps a second type of chile, thickening the stew with something other than white bread mush, adding something green. But alas these will have to wait until the day of kitchen return. In the meantime, it will be vale la pena (worth it) to bring the smells and techniques of the Mayans into your kitchen, although I’m pretty sure they didn’t process white bread in a blender in the pre-Spaniard period. See Notes below recipe for ingredient tips.

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one year ago: Buttermints and Mushroom, Olive, and Farro Stuffed Acorn Squash

more from Oti and Guatemala: Rellenitos de Plátano

Traditional Mayan Quichon de Verduras

feeds 4-6

4 carrots, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks
6 small potatoes, peeled and in bite-sized chunks
1 or 2 guisquil (aka chayote – or use sweet potato or any other squash)
*5 dried paso chiles (aka ancho chile) – can find in a Mexican grocery store
6 cloves of garlic
1 large or 2 small onions, cut in strips
12 small plum tomatoes
*6 pimientos gordos (aka big pepper) 
*8-ish slices of pan frances
salt

Boil the carrots, potatoes, and guisquil in ample water until tender. Strain and reserve the water. Now you have veggie broth!

Meanwhile, toast up your spices. We used a comal, or a thin tortilla grill that you put right on the flame of your stove, but a regular cast-iron or ribbed skillet would work just as well (and you could probably roast them in the oven too). Heat the pan up nice and high, and then toast the chiles, garlic, onion, tomatoes, and black pepper until they have char marks on all sides. Turn frequently. Depending on the size of your pan, do this in batches so you don’t crowd the pan. The black pepper balls only need a minute or so.

Next, soak the chiles in plenty of warm water until soft and easily pliable, about ten minutes. Remove and discard the seeds and inner membranes of the chiles. Tear each chile into 2-4 pieces. Meanwhile, tear bread into small pieces; put in a bowl with a bit of warm water. Mush with your fingers until it reaches a paste-like consistency. Only use enough water to make it like — the only comparison I can think of is matzah ball soup dough. Not so wet.

Next, we blend! First add to your blender the chiles and a bit of the veg broth from earlier. Blend until totally smooth. Add to boiled vegetables. Next, add the grilled onions, tomatoes, garlic, and black pepper with more broth. Blend until smooth and add to veggies. Finally, add the watery bread paste and blend til smooth, adding to veggies when done. Add more salt than you think you need and stir well.

Return vegetables to heat and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 10 minutes to thicken. Feel free to add more bread or more broth to reach your desired consistency. Our final product was like a thick Indian-style curry. Serve with tortillas and/or rice.

*Ingredients Notes

Chile paso is more commonly called the ancho chile in other parts of Central America. They’re dark brown in color and fairly large — more wide than skinny and long. As Oti says, “Solo pica un poco” — they’re a pretty mild pepper with a very small kick at the end. They’re commonly used throughout Mexico and could be easily found at a Mexican or international market.

Pimiento Gordo is a type of black pepper. These black orbs are slightly larger than our regular pimiento negro (normal black pepper) and have a slightly different flavor. I asked Oti if you could use regular black pepper and she basically said absolutely not, they give a completely different flavor to the final dish. But I don’t think the Mayans would care too much if you gave it a try…

Re pan francés: I was looking through a typical Guatemalan cookbook and was surprised many recipes included pan frances as a thickener for sauces. And indeed, Oti used a whole bag of day-old stale bread between this and the meaty-version (if you’re curious — replace the veggies with boiled chicken parts and voila). The breads she used were about three inches long and an inch wide, and very airy. This was not a dense delicious baguette, it was more akin to Wonder Bread. The bread lends no flavor to the dish, only texture. I’m going to experiment with other options when I have my kitchen back — I think corn starch, peanut butter, or a simple roux could all do the trick without all the unnecessary white bread starches.

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From the veggie-loaded rice we made — no recipe, just posting cause I’m impressed by our dicing skills with that sorry excuse for a knife.

Guatemalan Rellenitos de Plátano

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…aka mashed plantains stuffed with slightly sweetened black bean paste, deep fried until caramelized and satisfyingly crunchy. The jury is out on when you’re supposed to eat this delicacy–I was served it at dinner with scrambled eggs and black beans, but felt it may be more appropriate for dessert.

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For those of you who have, in a passing moment, considered the swanky sweet potato and contemplated the absence of recipes lately, I supposed it’s only polite to let you know — I’m in Guatemala! Two months sans kitchen, reliable internet, or good showers. (My apologies if the third part is of no importance to you.) I’ll have five weeks of intensive Spanish lessons and living in a home with an incredibly lovely family but where I’m not exactly welcomed in the kitchen. As decadent as it is to be given three meals a day without needing to wash a single dish, I miss autonomy. I love mornings experimenting with the perfect scrambled eggs, or daydreaming about what to make for dinner during the late afternoon stretch. I miss being inspired by whatever appears in my CSA, at the farmers’ market, or perusing my favorite blogs for ideas. It’s a funny feeling never knowing what to expect at a meal — when is the last time you had so little say in what you ate? For me, it was probably early high school at summer camp. Strange. (Don’t get me wrong, dear reader, I am Loving my time here! Every day presents a new aspect of the regional culture or the immense natural beauty or the fraught political atmosphere. My Spanish gets stronger daily, and I’m meeting curious new minds, both local and the traveler-variety.)

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However when the opportunity presented itself to take a cooking class last Friday, I jumped at the chance! Turns out “cooking class” was a subtle ploy to have students help make the traditional dinner we were to be served that night at the weekly graduation festivities, but I jumped on board just the same. The above-mentioned rellenitos were a great hands-on, tactile project. I definitely recommend making these with kids—you treat the plantains like play-do! All four of us attending the “class” certainly took some frustrations out on these fried pillows of plantain-goodness. There isn’t much of a recipe for these love bundles, so feel free to adapt as you see fit. Please forgive this bare bones recipes. It is not sophisticated (and in fact I use the word “mush”), but it combines two important Guatemalan staples and is worth the effort.

 

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The first batch of the little buggers… this is me patiently waiting the requisite minute so I don’t completely burn my face off.

Note: Guatemalans are super into pre-cooked refried black beans. You can get them at every grocery store and cornerside tienda in an astonishing variety of package shapes and cooking-methods (boil in a bag! microwave! grill!). The consistency is very paste-like — I believe the beans have already been cooked with spices and oil and then blended. I’d try this recipe with refried beans out of a can, or make your own bean mush with a some cooked black beans, savory spices, and a blender. You don’t need so much for the recipe though, so make sure you choose something where you can use the leftovers.

Additional Note: In the spirit of “seize the day” and trying to soak in my Guatemalan environment, these photos are unedited and straight from my phone. Apologies to anyone who may be offended by this.

Just a smattering of the pre-cooked bean options available at your local Guatemalan supermarket… Mmm mmm, look at those silky black beauties.

one year ago: honey and cinnamon apples, cheesy bulgur risotto with broccoli, and Indian-spiced cabbage and onions

Rellenitos de Plátano

as remembered from my PLQ cooking class

medium-ripe plantains (no black spots but not green)
black bean mush of choice (see note)
ground cinnamon
sugar
flour to coat
oil to fry
powdered sugar (optional)

Peel plantains and boil in a big vat of water. When they’re very soft, scoop out with a slotted spoon onto plates. Use forks to mash the plantains into a paste like consistency. Set aside.

Place bean mush in a bowl. Add cinnamon and sugar to taste. You want a slightly sweet final product, not an approximation of Asian-style red bean paste. For the giant vat of plantains we used, we probably added about 1 t cinnamon and a bit more sugar. Taste as you go.

Take a small handful of plantain “dough” and flatten it into a patty or pancake a bit bigger than the palm of your hand. The patty should be about a centimeter thick, maybe a bit less. Scoop 1/2 tablespoon or so of bean mixture into the center of plantain patty. Fold sides up and around bean paste and fold ends in, forming a cylinder-esque bundle about two inches long. Coat generously in flour by rolling on a plate with a shallow layer of flour and using your hands to pat it gently in. Wash your hands throughout the process as necessary.

In a deep frying pan, bring about a half-inch of oil to a simmer. Gently add rellenitos and fry until golden brown. Don’t overcrowd the pan. I would try about 10 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels. I ate these as part of a dinner, but if you want them for dessert, sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve warm.

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From yesterday’s hike up Volcan Santa Maria. We started climbing in the dark at 1 am and made it to the top (above the clouds!) for a chilly and incredible sunrise.