Friday, December 31, 2010

plantains gone bananas!

any good chef knows how to cook with plantains. so says Lisa of Top Chef: Chicago. 
I use the bananas out of plantains because they are so plentiful here in Nicaragua (at some point, I'll post my recipe for plantain lasagna). After leaving Granada and the mainland, I’ve been on Little Corn for about 2 weeks. If you were overwhelmed reading about my last post regarding getting products to a small lake resort, multiply it by 5 and you’ve got the jist of getting products to the Caribbean (for example, don’t order papaya, because it smushes all over every other item. fail.). One treat (and source of chaos) is the farm on our property, products that I can get without ordering them 10 days in advance. The most plentiful products are yuca, coconuts, and plantains. I have devised a list of what products we can get, and the grounds crew picks the goods up for us in the morning. 
Pablo and his garden crew help me out by helping to harvest any products I need each morning. Most of the time we can get everything on the list, but it depends on how busy the day is and whether different plants are fruiting. Because some of the guys can’t read, I had to reorganize my list system: the template has pictures of each item as well. The guys pick green plantains by the bunch (day-o?). For this recipe, I ripen them under a towel for a few days and they turn yellow and soft, perfect for dessert!
Chocolate Crisp with Plátano Maduro
3/4 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup whole oats
6 Tbs. flour
3 Tbs. cocoa powder
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
pinch of salt
3 ounces of cold butter, cut into cubes
For the filling:
3 cups chopped yellow plantains, boiled until soft
2 Tbs. dark Flor de Caña rum
1 tsp. lime juice
2 Tbs. brown sugar
1 Tbs. flour
pinch of salt
For the topping, combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Using cold fingers or a fork, cut the butter into the dry mixture to create a crumbly mixture with small balls the size of peas. Keep in the refrigerator until ready to use.
For the filling, I used ripe plantains, but they were still a little starchy and raw. I steamed them cut up pieces in a pot with a few inches of water in it until they were bright yellow and soft. Next, combine the cooked plantains with the remaining ingredients and toss well. 
Place filling in a greased baking dish (a 9” round or 3-4 quart pyrex will work just fine). Gently layer the topping over the filling without packing it down. 
Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for about 20 minutes, until topping is dark and crispy. Let cool for 20 minutes before serving.
this recipe is versatile for any tropical fruit. mango season starts soon! *i did not make up the topping for this dessert, it is from a dessert cookbook.
¡Feliz Año Nuevo!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

chapter 2.

accept an executive chef position on a whim and move to Nicaragua. check.

awards night with my kitchen crew
organize a kitchen, learn about national products and cuisine, create seasonal menus, find purveyors, set up a system of purchasing and receiving products, implement hygienic and servesafe procedures, find and train a local staff to cook sophisticated, fine dining cuisine using Nicaraguan ingredients: check.

spend qt with my favorite older brother, Matt... & have some fun: check.

move to a small island in the Nicaraguan caribbean and start again: check. wait, what?

The new gig is an established resort on the island, with great owners and the location is paradise... it will, no doubt, be an adventure. Adios, mainland! hola to this:

Monday, December 13, 2010

one if by land, two if by sea...

On my recent trip back to the US, I realized that I had never really before explained some of the interesting logistics of running a kitchen on an island on Lake Nicaragua.

Hmmm... a big one is limited supplies, planning ahead: for example, we run the range on propane tanks which are monitored based on guest count as well as days passed... it takes about 4 days advanced notice to replace the tanks. I've had a very healthy staff, but if someone goes home sick, it is not as simple as calling a replacement to run in. It involves organizing a taxi to the port & coordinating a boat to come and receive the employee. I bet there are more, but I might be accustomed to them by now, I've forgotten.

Now, I will explain the odyssey it takes to get food out to an island resort in Nicaragua.

detailed schedule of inventory, providers, etc.
 Every Monday I place orders and send a copy of each to reception in the Marina so the receptionist knows what is coming, when, and can check our received goods against what actually arrives. If there is no power in the port (we have a generator on the island), I print the orders out and deliver them with the next boat.

 The easy stuff, actually, is proteins. Fisherman stop by to sells freshly caught guapote and mojarra. We also have a weekly drop off with scaled, gutted fish from a friend of the head of maintenance. I order Pellibüe, the shorn sheep, butchered into primal cuts. This is a verbal order when I see Don Leonel, the marina boat tour captain. I order 3 days in advance and pay in cash. He gets the animal from his neighbor on Zapatera island and then drops it by the staff dock on his way to work at the port. I now give him a cooler with ice as well. The first time he dropped off a freshly butchered animal, still warm, I couldn't stomach butchering it. The freshest I've had, but I do like to handle my meat when it is cold, not body temp.
 I place orders for most dry goods through email, which is great. I have different vendors for bulk, organic, fancy products. The companies that email are easy to understand, reliable and consistent. For the most part, obviously. They drop their goods off in our marina office during office hours, the goods (hopefully) get checked against my order sheet and the receipt, and then sent out to the island with the next boat.
 Dairy: 2 days a week with the first boat leaving the island we send a cooler of ice for the chicken, dairy, beef or herbs that come to the port.
eggs: we've had very few broken eggs. I am so grateful for this. bread gets smushed, so we order shorter baguettes that can fit into the plastic bins.

Twice a week I order goods from the market, as well as include a list to the local grocery store. After a few months, we had desired products down pat, and our taxistas (a husband and wife team) are doing a fabulous job of substituting or omitting items if the first choice was not available. Rice and beans come from the market, not a bulk provider, because "why would we sell rice and beans when you can just get them from the market?" It nice and frustrating to work in a society of content & little competition.

 For produce from the market, Doña Modesta can be reached at one of 3-4 phone numbers. Modesta doesn't have her own phone, so I call all of her friends and family to see if they are nearby to her. Her son will take the order if he picks up, which takes half the time. Quick tip: ask for a half dozen (media docena) each/pounds of an item, because seis and tres (or, in Nica, with no S: sei y tre) are just too similar to the ear, especially the 80? year old ear of my produce vendor, Doña Modesta. Once it is ordered, I confirm with the taxista, and it is picked up, checked and delivered to the port with the next day's afternoon staff!

 Managua: twice a month we send a taxi to the country's capital for Organic Grains, Dried Fruits, Domestic Salamis, Cheeses from the north of the country, and a run to "PriceSmart" (like Costco, complete with chicken bakes!). This involves preordering products 7 days in advance and coordinating a good day with the taxista, who will keep the products cold in his fridge if he can't get back to the port before our last boat.

 Just like in the US, sometimes things don't arrive, or arrive in not so awesome condition, I talk to the chain (vendor, taxista, receptionist, boat driver, kitchen staff who unloads), and we do better the next time.
 this process also involves cash from the accountant, credit slips, facturas; a jumble of finances that would be a blog in itself. but like most of my experiences here in Nicaragua, somehow, it works.

all in a day's work.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

spotlight on: cajetas!

mango, coconut, sweet milk, mystery flavor
Cajetas in some cultures refers to a dessert made from milk (condensed, goat, you name it). In Nicaragua, they are a very Granadino delight... sold year round in individually portioned baggies or on styrofoam variety platters.  The basic gist is that a cajeta must be sweet, but that is about the only rule. Some are in pasty/pudding forms, some are hard as rocks, and some are like sticky caramels. The ingredients are any number of sugars, grated fruits, candied fruits. They often, but not always, have ginger, coconut or milk. Many, many, many are dyed pink with framboise, to make them 'mas alegre!', I think. 

Elsa also gets to wash the burnt pot afterwards
In town, cajetas are not made from scratch, they are mass produced for sale. However, it is rather easy to make certain flavors from scratch, and it's a great way to cook leftovers or pantry items that are soon to spoil (note: not fun to clean up).

I don't particularly crave cajetas on their own, but I have fun discovering local products that I can then showcase in my dishes. In this case, we made basic thumbprint cookies stuffed with my favorite flavor- a soft tamarind/coconut blend- ¡que rico!