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.

 

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.