Friday, January 18, 2013

The Experts Weigh In: Cooking Up Jungle Gourmet


Every cook has a story of his or her ‘journey’ into the world of food. It often starts at a grandmother’s kitchen table, with memories of floured hands rolling fresh dough or the smell of a ‘signature’ dish in the oven. Similarly, I grew up in a house where family dinner was a nightly commitment, and I logged some serious hours with my mom in the kitchen. So while my culinary journey started at a very young age, it wasn’t until this last year that I really started to make it my own.

It was exactly this time last year that my boat pulled up on Padi’s beach. I had ventured to Costa Rica to work as a chef at Punta Mona, a center for sustainable living and education a mere two hour hike through the jungle from Puerto Viejo, the last town north of Panama on the Caribbean coast. And while I undoubtedly learned to cook at the hem of my mother’s apron [poetic license – my mom doesn’t actually wear an apron], it wasn’t until I went to Costa Rica that I learned to really love food; to move beyond the stove [although I certainly spent a lot of time behind it] and start to really see the full picture.

Have you ever come up with a menu plan and then grabbed your boots and machete to go gather your ingredients? I have.

Have you ever gathered coconuts, shucked them, scraped out the insides, and processed the meat to make your own coconut milk? I have.

Have you ever peeled rotting bananas, let them ferment for three weeks, and then squeeze out the juice to make vinegar for salad dressing? I have.

Have you ever planted hot peppers and then turned them into your own hot sauce? Watched a single fruit ripen on a tree for days until it’s just right? Gone to the greenhouse at 2 a.m. just to encourage the plants to grow? Eaten a meal made entirely of things planted, harvested, and prepared by your own hands, all within 100 yards of your bedroom? I have.

I learned to identify at least three different kinds of limes, as well as fruits with foreign names and exotic flavors. I learned to cook vegetables that were considered poisonous if not prepared properly [talk about stressful!], and I can confidently build and cook over a fire with the best of them. And yes, I learned that it is possible to eat too much raw cacao [It’s bad, trust me].

At Punta Mona, food wasn’t just about sustenance. Food was everything. An excerpt from my journal at the time:

‘The cries and moans of excitement and joy heard at least once a day over a piece of exceptionally delicious, fresh fruit never fails to make me laugh. You would think it was 
some sort of a ‘fantasy island’, and I guess in a way it is.  
It’s that kind of simple pleasure that governs life here in the jungle.’

The meals prepared in our open, outdoor kitchen, which produced three meals a day for up to forty-five people on two gas burners, an open fire, and no refrigeration, were a direct reflection of the love put into the land.

Every meal was a small miracle, and my holistic understanding and appreciation for food is firmly rooted [pun intended] in my time spent at the farm.

A few nights ago, I played 'personal chef' in Lauren's kitchen. My Rondon-Caribbean Coconut Stew is classic Caribbean fare, and was a staple at Punta Mona. Rondon can be loosely translated to ‘run down’, and is typically made with whatever leftover meat or fish you’ve ‘run down to’ at the end of the week. We never had any meat at the farm, but we always had a plethora of vegetables to use and it never came out the same way twice. This dish always took a while to prepare, as it required cleaning and slicing some pretty substantial root vegetables and grinding a ton of coconuts for milk. But it was worth the work - the result is a thick, flavorful, slightly spicy, super satisfying stew packed with farm fresh produce. Served with plantain chips and toasted coconut [sauté pan + coconut + soy sauce … I die], you can practically feel the Caribbean sun beating down.

Rondon – Caribbean Coconut Stew
If you can’t find the Caribbean vegetables, any root vegetable combination would be good. Try to find yucca if you can… it adds a lot of thickness to the broth and is also just delicious.

1 medium yucca, peeled, washed, and cubed
1 medium yellow yam, peeled, washed, and chunked
2 large carrots, peeled and sliced
2 small / medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 Tbs. fresh minced ginger
1 small hot pepper, seeded and minced
1 can of coconut milk
1 Tbs. curry powder [or more]

In a large pot, sauté the onions in oil [coconut oil if you have it] until tender. Add the garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds to a minute.

Add the coconut milk and all your vegetables to the pot. Add about ½ - 1 cup or so of water, or enough that your vegetables are mostly covered but not totally. [You can also add more coconut milk if you have a lot of vegetables].

Reduce the heat to medium-low, and let the vegetables simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the minced hot pepper, curry powder, and salt and pepper. Continue to simmer the vegetables until everything is tender.

While the vegetables are simmering, prepare your plantain chips...

Plantain Chips
A classic Caribbean side dish. Although typically fried, I started mine in a pan and then moved them to the oven in an effort to make them a little healthier. Delicious.

2 green plantains
2 T. EVOO [or coconut oil]

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with tin foil.

Peel and slice the plantains into ¼ inch thick disks.

Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium – medium / high heat. Add the plantains in a single layer [I did two batches] and cook until the outside is slightly browned [about 1-2 minutes per side]. Transfer to a foil lined baking sheet, spray with a little cooking spray and add salt. Mix all the chips together.

Bake for 10-ish minutes. Try not to eat all of them before dinner is ready.

Buen Provecho!

Sarah Kagan landed in Brooklyn this Fall, and man, I'm glad she did! We discovered we were neighbors after crossing paths at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Our friendship has been fast and furious. I mean, hello! She cooks for me! Who wouldn't adopt her? We also share a love for all things Costa Rica, having both lived there previously. Sarah is also a certified yoga teacher, having received her certification in India, where she lived in an ashram for 6 weeks and practiced yoga for 5-6 hours a day. In her free time, you can find her running in the park (she just completed her first half-marathon!) or cruising through the farmer's market for fresh goods. Sarah also teaches cooking classes in the city and is the new Director of Health and Wellness for Butter Beans Kitchen. You just might find her teaming up with me very soon to run nutrition and cooking workshops... so stay tuned! Sarah is a mover and a shaker! Who knows where she'll be next!

Check out Sarah's blog Beyond the Batter for more great recipes!

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