What recipe would you like to learn if you get one afternoon to learn from a Vietnamese grandmother? For us, and some friends, it was crispy banh xeo and Vietnamese egg rolls, called chả giò in the south and nem rán in the north. Since we blogged about banh xeo already, we’ll concentrate on the venerable egg roll.
How are Vietnamese egg rolls different, than say, Chinese egg rolls? Vietnamese egg rolls are typically wrapped with a rice paper whereas Chinese egg rolls are wrapped a wheat base wrapper. They both contain a variety of chopped vegetables and can be made with pork, shrimp, or leaner meats such as chicken or turkey. The textural differences between rice paper and wheat paper is stunning. The rice paper roll is both crispy, bubbly and pleasantly chewy, a great alternative to the wheat based wrapper. Hong’s parents have been making Vietnamese egg rolls for over 20 years in addition to banh cam at their church, raising money for parish activities.
So for one afternoon we were all eager sponges, soaking up tips learned from over 40 years of cooking from Hong’s mom, a mother of four and grandmother of two and soon to be three, making banh xeo and chả giò. We’ve previously posted the banh xeo recipe so we won’t comment too much on that here, except to use a good nonstick pan and go low and slow on the heat for crispy banh xeo. But in case you’re wondering, the banh xeo made by all the learners came out delicious!
So now that we’ve tantalized you with banh xeo, let’s get serious about making chả giò. Its harder to find Vietnamese egg rolls made from rice paper these days. The convenience of the wheat wrapper along with even golden brown color makes it an easy alternative. The main reason is that rice paper is a little tricky to fry and doesn’t get beautifully golden brown like the wheat based egg roll wrappers. When the rice paper hits the hot oil, it immediately bubbles up and blisters. If two egg rolls touch, they will stick to one another. The blistering does calm down after a few seconds, however allowing you to fry as normal.
The filling can be any variety or combination of meats described above. Personally we love pork and shrimp together, but any will do. We always use wood ear mushrooms and bean thread noodles but vary other vegetables depending on what we have on hand or convenient at the market. For vegetables we prefer any combination of shredded jicama, taro, or carrots. Bean sprouts are another alternative. Vietnamese egg rolls typically do not contain cabbage.
Wrapping an egg roll isn’t terribly complex. However, we didn’t realize some of the reasons why we roll the way we do. Hong’s mom said it’s not just to keep the filling inside, but to also have even layers of wrapper around the filling so it will cook evenly and brown evenly. This is most evident at the ends of the egg rolls, when not wrapped carefully, tends to have only 1 or 2 layers of wrapper so it will cook faster and turns dark or burns while the rest of the egg roll is nice and golden.
To avoid this, place your filling on one end of your wrapper paper. Press down each end to form first layer. Crease the bottom, then fold the double layer of wrapper back up, forming 3 layers of paper covering the ends. Use this method whether you’re using rice paper or wheat paper. Another trick we learned is that Mom doesn’t use an egg wash to seal the egg rolls. The egg causes a discoloration at the seal and it dirties the cooking oil. Instead, she makes a simple tapioca starch slurry, cooked to a viscous paste that works like a charm.
Enjoy Vietnamese egg rolls with noodles such as bun thit nuong or simply on it’s own, wrapped with lettuce and Vietnamese herbs such as perilla, balm, mint or basil dipped with some nuoc mam cham and do chua.
We all had a great time eating, learning, and laughing together. Thank you so much Mom!
Vietnamese egg rolls
Yield: about 40-50 egg rolls
2 lbs. ground pork
2 medium jicama, shredded
1 small taro root, shredded
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup wood ear mushroom, soaked
1 cup bean thread noodle, soaked and cut
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons ground pepper
2 teaspoons sugar
2 package (25 pieces) spring roll shells (wei-chuan brand) or packages of rice paper
2 tablespoons tapioca flour
2 tablespoons water
Mix all ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Test flavoring to your tastes by microwaving a small tablespoon for about 30 seconds and adjust seasoning to your taste. Any vegetable such as jicama and taro can be substituted (or omitted) for carrots or bean sprouts. Any type of ground meat can be substituted combined such as chicken or turkey or pork and shrimp.
Mix the water and tapioca in small sauce pan on low heat and cook until it thickens to paste and turn of heat and set aside.
Place about 2 tablespoons of filling onto the edge of your wrapper and make one half roll. Crease the ends as shown above, and then fold up the sides. Complete the roll and seal with small amount of tapioca slurry.
Fry in small batches at 350 degrees F. until golden brown. Place on cooling rack.
Note: Rice paper will never brown as nice as wheat based paper. If using rice paper, fry only a few at a time, do not let them touch or touch them for the first minute.
For a pictorial guide on rolling the egg rolls visit The Ravenous Couple blog here.
We are so blessed to be settling into Bellingham life. Each of us commutes twice a week to Seattle for work, which is turning out to be very doable. And we're living close to five grandparents, toting kids to soccer games and playdates, plotting the next phase of our remodel, and making friends. We are not, like so many people in the world, scrounging for our next meal or scheming about how to get our children health care. We are not victims of political unrest or war. We are not waiting in long lines for fuel or applying for assylum. I'm aware, more and more every day, that our reality is not the world's reality. The fact that I can find time and bandwidth to write about food and community means I've been given so much. I just have to say this every once in awhile.
And I have to say, "One Baking Sheet!!" That's all you need for a great dinner. If you've got parchment paper, even better. Bon Appetit has a great feature on this that's inspiring. I've taken to roasting everything – sausages, fish, prawns, bok choy, broccoli, caulifower. Of course, there are the standards like peppers, potatoes, eggplant, onions, zucchini. I've heard Lynne Rossetto Kasper of The Splendid Table say that when she doesn't know what to cook for dinner, she walks in the door, turns the oven to 425 degrees F., and then opens the fridge. I find myself in a similar pattern these days.
Depending on your ingredients, you can start things at different times (as I do here), separate them on the sheet if you don't want them mingled, or mix everything up and throw it in all at once. An essential tip is that the closer things are together, the more they will steam and not roast. They'll still cook, but without the delectable crispy edges.
Dijon Sausage and Broccoli Bake
Serves 4 with some highly unlikely leftovers.
6-8 fat sausages (Italian, bratwurst, etc.)
2 coarsely chopped red, yellow, or orange peppers
1 coarsely chopped onion
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt, to taste
2 tablespoons coarse dijon mustard
A squeeze of lemon or some lemon zest
Bunch of baby broccoli, coarsely chopped (stems included)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt, to taste
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. and line a large jelly roll pan (baking sheet with sides) with parchment paper or foil.
In a large bowl, combine the sausages with the peppers, onion, olive oil, coarse salt, dijon mustard, and citrus. Toss with your hands. Spread evenly on your baking sheet and roast for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine the baby broccoli, olive oil, and salt. Add to roasting mixture after it's been in the oven for 10 minutes, and roast for 15 minutes more, until sausage is bubbling and charred in places and everything's crisping up.
Dump everything into a pretty bowl, put in the middle of the table, and serve with potatoes or bread, if you like. And maybe a dallop of dijon.
Related post on In Praise of Leftovers: Roast Chicken with Fennel, Olives, Potatoes, and Tomatoes
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Have you ever had a “eureka” moment when two things you know well collided on your palate for the first time and made music? A few months ago, we ordered a thin crust pizza topped with bacon and green olives at Marie’s Pizza and Liquors (an amazing old school Chicago pizza joint, worthy of its own post). It was life changing. Since then, we have taken our favorite foodie friends back to Marie’s to sample the pizza and have worked to recreate it at home. This evening, I came very close.
The briny green olives and salty, smoked bacon are a magical pair – Wonder Twin powers activate! With a crunchy-edged pizza crust and a touch of tomato sauce as a canvas, the combination is complete. Brushing the crust with a little bacon grease and crowning the goodies with a light sprinkling of good quality mozzarella sends the flavors to the moon.
Think I might be overselling this pizza? Perhaps if you hate olives or if you are vegetarian this combination won’t entrance you in the same way it has me. If dietary restrictions don’t hinder you, set aside a weekend afternoon to knead a little pizza dough. While it rises, sizzle a few strips of bacon and let your mouth water while you create this magical pie.
Green Olive and Bacon Pizza
Makes two 12-14 inch pizzas.
For one pizza, you can freeze half the dough and use half the toppings.
For the crust:
1 (1/4 ounce) package active dry yeast (2-1/4 teaspoons)
1 cup warm water
1 teaspoon honey
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
cornmeal, for sprinkling
Pizza sauce (from a jar or you can make this sauce.)
6 strips smoked bacon
2/3 cup small, green, pitted olives
shredded mozzarella cheese
For the crust:
Warm water should be about 100 degrees F. Stir in honey and yeast. Let stand for 10 minutes, yeast should be foamy. Put flour and salt in a large bowl and whisk together. Add the yeast mixture and stir. Add olive oil and combine. Using a dough hook or by hand, knead the dough for 10 minutes until it is stiff but smooth and elastic. Cover the bowl and let it rest in a warm place for 45-60 minutes. You can turn the oven on 200 degrees F., turn it off and then let the dough rise inside.
Cook bacon in a frying pan until crispy. Set it on paper towel and reserve about 1/4 cup of bacon grease from the pan. When cool, chop the bacon into coarse chunks. Drain olives and chop them coarsely.
Prepare the pizza:
When dough has doubled in size, remove it and punch it down. Separate it into two balls. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. If you are using a pizza stone, preheat it in the oven.
Lightly flour a work surface and press or roll half the dough into a circle. If using a pizza peel, sprinkled with cornmeal and transfer to a pizza stone in the oven. If you don’t have a pizza peel and stone, you can press the dough directly onto a greased pizza pan or cookie sheet.
Before placing the dough in the oven, prick it with a fork all over to avoid large air pockets. Put the dough in the hot oven for 10 minutes to par-bake the crust. It should not be brown but it will be firm in the center.
Remove the dough and brush the crusts with the bacon grease. Top the pizza with sauce, sprinkle bacon and olives on top and add mozzarella. Put pizza back in the oven for 10-15 more minutes or until cheese is bubbly and crust is slightly browned.
Repeat the same process with the other pizza. To freeze dough rub olive oil on the round ball of dough and put in individual plastic freezer bags and in the freezer. Let thaw overnight in the fridge or on the counter before using.
Related post on Whipped, The Blog: Penne with Roasted Tomato and Garlic Sauce
The best thing about spring is the arrival of fresh fruit. And while I enjoy a spicy tomato-based salsa I find that fruit salsa is a little more versatile. Now that mangoes and strawberries are both in season, it’s the perfect time to combine them into a topping for chicken or serve them with tortilla chips at a backyard barbeque.
The main difference between salsa and chutney is that salsa doesn’t use sugar, while chutneys tend to be a sweeter, thicker combination. Fruit salsa straddles both of these definitions since the strawberries and mangoes add their own natural sweetness.
I used this particular recipe three different ways: As a topping for a garlic sautéed chicken breast; mixed in with a couscous and chicken salad; and on top of a whole wheat, pan-toasted quesadilla filled with black beans and shredded Monterey Jack with a dollop of sour cream. All three were delicious!
Strawberry mango salsa
Adapted from Two Peas & Their Pod
1 cup strawberries, hulled and diced
1 medium mango, peeled, pitted, and diced
1/2 avocado, peeled, pitted, and diced
2 tablespoons diced red onion
1 tablespoon diced serrano pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Salt, to taste
Mix ingredients together and let the flavors mingle about 20 minutes before serving. This salsa is best served the day it is prepared, as the balsamic vinegar will eventually discolor the strawberries.
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This recipe was devised as an accompaniment to spatchcock stuffed chicken. By cooking the beets over a long period of time with a low amount of heat, the natural sugars in the vegetable caramelize producing a sweetness which is echoed by the balsamic reduction. This dish almost didn’t make it to the table due to my spring-loaded oven doors. Luckily a quick catch saved the beets which proved to be a perfect pairing with the poultry.
The American artist Ed Ruscha is commonly associated withe the Pop Art movement of the late 1950s. The work shown here is from the mid-1970s when Ruscha began experimenting with a wide array of materials ranging from gunpowder to chocolate syrup. In 1969, he compiled an editioned folio titled Stains which consisted of 75 sheets of paper each bearing the smears and splatters of the different materials.
This dish would be excellent with a handful of nuts thrown in at the end (walnuts or almonds) and feta could be substituted for the goat cheese.
Yield: 6 servings
4 large beets
1 onion, sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
pinch of sea salt and ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried chili flakes
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, divided
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup crumbled goat cheese
small handful of fresh parsley, torn
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. (180 degrees C.)
In a large roasting pan, add the beets, onion, olive oil, salt, ground pepper, dried oregano, thyme, chili flakes and balsamic vinegar. Toss to coat and disperse ingredients. Spread out in a single layer at the bottom of the pan and dot the top with butter.
Roast for 1 hour. Drain off liquid into a small sauce pan and reserve. Return to oven for an additional 2-1/2 hours. Stir occasionally.
Over a medium heat, add additional balsamic vinegar and simmer until thickened, around 3 minutes. Swirl pain occasionally to keep from burning.
Drizzle over balsamic reduction. Add goat cheese and parsley and gently toss. Serve warm or room temperature.
Related post on Feasting On Art: Spatchcock stuffed chicken
The word "slaw" is kind of like the word "casserole" … there’s just nothing appealing about it!
Hey, baby, want some slaw for dinner?
Not that appetizing.
But this slaw is different, nothing at all like its grandfather, the coleslaw, so don’t let the name deter you from trying it. You know the “grandfather coleslaw” I’m talking about. The nasty one found in buckets at the grocery store, or the one so often served next to fish and chips. The one that is literally dripping wet with a nasty mix of mayonnaise and unpronounceable ingredients and the cabbage has gone all limp and soft in this unnatural state.
This slaw is sweet and tangy, crunchy and tender, the perfect texture to be wrapped up in a corn tortilla or on its own. Leave out the tortilla and serve it on a bed of greens with sliced avocado instead. Mmmm. To bad there’s none left….
Every once and a while, I make something that so thoroughly hits the spot that I’m thrilled for days. This was one of those. The best part is that this beet slaw, as good as it is mixed with all the other components of the meal, is just as delightful on it’s own. I find myself with a fork in hand reaching into the beet slaw bowl to have a couple of bites, like drinking from the milk carton.
It’s funny how this simple act feels kind of naughty. Yet there’s nothing naughty about raw beets and pear with the lightest dressing as a quick little snack. This is a “naughty” I can feel good about. If all the things in our fridges could inspire such a feeling, wouldn’t the world be a different place?
The added bonus of this dish is that it’s not often I can put something together that fits many different eating requirements and as you can imagine, I get really excited when I do!
I plan to keep this ditty in my back pocket since it would make an easy meal for raw foodies and vegans alike. Omit the dill crème fraiche and you have a perfect vegan meal (with vegan friendly corn tortillas that is) or a raw meal with fresh sliced avocado and the beet and pear slaw. (Meat eaters aren’t left out, since it’s fantastic with shredded chicken.)
Since I have converted my husband from a beet “hater” to a beet “lover,” grated and shredded beets find its way into our meals quite often. Most often it’s added to a green salad for a little crush and sweetness. This was a nice change of pace and a great way of making beets the main attraction.
Beet and pear slaw on tortillas with dill crème fraiche
4 cups of grated beets
1 firm pear, cored and diced
1 green onion, finely sliced
2-3 tortillas per person
Beet and Pear Slaw*
Dill Crème Fraiche
*In a large bowl, add the grated beets, diced pear and sliced onion. Add the vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Apple Cider Vinaigrette
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 teaspoons raw honey
Combine the above ingredients until honey is well blended through out. Add the dressing to the salad and toss to coat well.
Dill Crème Fraiche
1/3 cup of Crème Fraiche (sub in sour cream or Greek style yogurt if you like)
2 tablespoons fresh dill, finely chopped
Combine the ingredients until well combined.
In a hot pan, heat the tortillas. Put a few slices of avocado at the base, top with 2 heaping spoonful’s of Beet and Pear Slaw. Add a dollop of crème fraiche and serve immediately.
To make the Corn Tortillas, use the recipe from Gnowfglins e-course. Wardeh turned me on to Bob’s Red Mill Masa Harina that is already soaked in limewater to make it consistent with traditional cooking methods. It’s also made from GMO free corn flour, which is not easy to find. Now if I could only find corn meal already soaked in lime I would be a happy camper.
Addition to consider: Add fresh mint or cilantro, ginger, apple or a little cabbage to the slaw to change it up. Or incorporate the Dill Crème Fresh right into the slaw for a different take on the same dish.
Use a firm or almost under ripe pear so that it doesn’t get mushy when the ingredients are mixed together.
Sour Cream or Greek Yogurt can be substituted for the crème fraiche but nothing beats the real thing. Where I live, crème fraiche is one of the few things I can buy that doesn’t have a bunch of added ingredients, even when I buy organic.
Related post on Beyond the Peel: Maple Roasted Yellow Beets and Apples
I can barely even keep track of all the wonderful rhubarb recipes I've seen lately.
From this amazingly inspirational round-up on Punk Domestics to several recipes in Marisa McLellan's brand-new cookbook, Food in Jars (including pickled rhubarb stalks – doesn't that sound interesting?), to this gorgeous rhubarb crusted crumb pie from Apt. 2B Baking Co. and this uber comforting milk and honey pudding with stewed rhubarb from Autumn Makes & Does, I've been thoroughly overwhelmed by good ideas.
There are so many that I've been at a loss as to where to begin.
But then I saw this recipe for rhubarb johnnycake pop up on The Hudson Valley Food Network's Seasonal Eating page and I sprang into action! You see, I have been wanting to make this simple yet scrumptious cake since I tasted it at the Woodstock Farm Festival committee meeting a few weeks ago.
The recipe comes from Cheryl Pfaff, an excellent local cook and caterer who has served as the farmer's market manager here in Woodstock for the last few years. Check out her blog, At The Farmer's Market for tons of mouth-watering recipes that feature local, seasonal ingredients. My only complaint was that she did not make two of these cakes since we were fighting over the slices at the meeting....
As John Hodgman would say, "You're welcome." Enjoy.
By Cheryl Pfaff of At The Farmer's Market
2 cups sliced rhubarb
3 tablespoons raw sugar
1/4 teaspoons ground ginger
1 cup corn flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup raw sugar
1 stick of unsalted butter – softened
2 eggs (use local, free range, organic if you can get 'em)
2 tablespoons sour cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. and grease a 9” springform pan.
Toss the sliced rhubarb with 3 tablespoons of sugar and the ginger. Set aside.In another bowl, whisk together the corn flour, baking powder, and salt.
In a separate bowl, beat 1/2 cup sugar with the butter until creamy. Beat in the eggs, sour cream and vanilla.
Add the corn flour mixture to the butter mixture and stir just enough to combine. Pour the batter into the cake pan. Arrange the rhubarb slices on top of the batter and sprinkle the top with a little sugar.
Bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. Slice and serve. Goes great with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.
Related post on The Garden of Eating: Apple Bundt Cake
Julia Child famously said, “If you’re afraid of butter, just use cream.” We’re not afraid of butter. It sees a lot of action in our kitchen, if in moderate amounts. Sometimes, it’s just a pat added to oil in a pan to give something a little buttery goodness.
So compound butters already have something going for them in my book because, well, they contain butter. Simply put, compound butters are butter with something added for flavor. Those herb butters that come with dinner rolls in some restaurants are an example.
Often, though, compound butters are used as finishing sauces for fish, meats or vegetables, a dollop placed on the still hot food just before serving, melting into and onto it as we eat. The herbs, aromatics and other seasonings team with the butter’s richness to elevate almost any dish. The French are of course masters at compound butters (or beurres composés). Beurre à la bourguignonne is a classic – and classically simple. Butter, garlic and parsley are mashed together to form a paste. Among other dishes, this beurre composé is used with escargot.
There are countless variations on compound butter, another thing I like about them. You can chop up just about any combination of herbs and perhaps an aromatic (chives, garlic, shallots and scallions are all good bets) and mash them into room temperature butter. Add spices, if you like, and a little salt. Some recipes also include lemon juice or lime juice. You then re-chill the butter, forming it into a log, if you like.
For this recipe, I took a slightly spicy direction. Jalapeño pepper provided the heat. (Only a little, as it happened – have you noticed that jalapeños are all over the place in terms of heat? The recipe below calls for removing the seeds and ribs; if you think your pepper isn’t going to be very hot, leave some in.) For the other flavors, I took my cue from La Cocina, a Mexican storefront restaurant in our neighborhood. When we order taco dinners there, they always ask if we want them topped Mexican style (cilantro and onion) or American style (tomato and cheese). We always choose Mexican. I substituted shallot for the onion to give it a little hint of garlic without adding garlic and having it overpower the other flavors.
Cook the steaks however you choose. I seasoned strip steaks with salt and pepper and pan-seared them to medium rare, but grilling them would make them deliciously smoky.
Cilantro Jalapeño Compound Butter
Makes 4 to 6 servings
4 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons finely chopped jalapeño pepper, seeds and ribs removed
2 teaspoons finely chopped shallot
2 tablespoons (packed) chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Cut butter into chunks and place in a bowl. Bring to room temperature (if you’re a little impatient, and the butter’s still a little stiff, that’s OK). Mix the remaining ingredients in a separate bowl (this will help distribute their flavors more evenly throughout the butter). Add the cilantro jalapeño mixture to the butter and mash with a fork until thoroughly combined. The lime juice won’t completely mix into the butter, but that’s okay.
Form the compound butter roughly into a ball or log shape in the bowl with the fork and transfer it to a sheet of plastic wrap. Wrap the compound butter in the plastic wrap, shaping it into a log. Place the wrapped compound butter in a bowl and refrigerate (the bowl will catch any stubborn lime juice that escapes from the plastic wrap). Chill for at least a few hours to let the butter re-harden and the flavors swap around. You can make your compound butter a day or more ahead from when you want to use it.
Remove the compound butter from the fridge while the steaks are cooking. When you plate the steaks, top them with a slice of the butter. Serve.
Related post on Blue Kitchen: Pan Seared Lamb Chops with Lemon Caper Sage Butter
I almost didn’t go. Even though the thought of spending Chocolate Week at Cotton Tree Lodge in Punta Gorda, Belieze, sounded like a home run as a vacation adventure it was a lot of money and I was having trouble finding someone to go with me. When I called to find out how much room was still available I was told there was only one cabana left: the Jungle House.
All of the other cabanas are nestled around the Cotton Tree Lodge with views of the Moho River. The Jungle House was a quarter of a mile away by itself. Um. By myself and deep in the jungle? I wasn’t sure about this. But after some prompting from friends and family that it would “be good for me” I took a deep breath and sent in my deposit.
And then I thought of my friend Carol. Carol bakes and blogs at The Pastry Chef’s Baking. A business manager at a media mogul in Silicon Valley Carol had once taken time off from work to get a culinary arts degree before deciding she’d rather keep her love of baking as a hobby. Nonetheless, Carol is a true chocolate geek. So I sent her an e-mail seeing if she’d be interested.
“How much time do I have to decide?” she wrote back. I explained that I had already reserved the cabana, she just had to figure out her flights, and could really have up to the last minute to decide. Within a half hour I got a response.
“I’m in.” Phew.
* * * * *
After surviving a violent thunderstorm and a chorus of howler monkeys the first night we stayed in the Jungle House at Cotton Tree Lodge, I was ready for something a little more structured.
On the schedule the next morning for Chocolate Week led by Taza Chocolate, was a trip to a local cacao farm. We would see how cacao pods are grown, meet the farmer, and have lunch with his family. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting. I think I was imagining some kind of plantation where the trees grow in neat rows kind of like an apple orchard and that maybe afterward we’d sit around a big farm table in the kitchen and swap stories. Wrong, completely wrong.
Meet Eladio Pop, cacoa farmer.
The only way to tell that we were on a farm was a tiny hand painted sign high up in a tree featuring some kind animal. Otherwise it seemed as if we had just walked directly into the jungle, which is exactly what we did. There are no “rows” on a jungle farm, no fences, no barns. Everything is growing all at once all over the place, blooming, withering, and crashing to the earth at different times.
Eladio told us he had been a farmer for 36 years, he started when he was 14 years old. After primary school, there really is no other choice in Toledo than to go into farming. “My mother said, ‘If you like mangoes, you should get to work and grow mangoes,’” he told us. He liked the mango tree because it was “permanent,” and not like corn that has to be planted every year.
His success with mangoes gave him “courage to try other things, and permaculture farming,” an agricultural system that preserves the relationships found in natural ecologies. This explains the weird-looking animal on his sign – the agouti, basically a guinea pig on long legs. Although shy and rarely seen, its taste for fruit and ability to crack open nuts helps to distribute seeds throughout the jungle farm. “The agouti is my friend,” said Eladio.
Eladio started farming cacao when he was 20. That is more than 30 years ago. It was also about the same time that he and his wife began having children. They have 15 children; at the time of our visit the oldest was 31 and the youngest was just over 2 years old. Even though the Pops straddle either side of 50, they are already grandparents several times over, with some grandchildren older than their youngest child. “The cacao has been good to me,” Eladio said with a grin. Even though we learned a lot about growing cacao that day, all I could think about was his wife bringing a new life into the world every two years. Every two years for 15 years. I can barely comprehend this productivity rate as a single, childless urbanite. Edit news files on an endless production cycle? No problem. Produce 15 children? My mind reels.
But like any large farming family, the many hands have proved useful for harvesting the southern Belize jungle of its offerings. Every weekend the Pop family comes to the farm to gather bananas, mangoes, lime, cacao pods, sour plums, ginger, all spice, jack fruit, sugar cane, and more. As he led us through the thick brush, wending us up steep hills and under the low hanging banana fronds, we stopped to taste each one of these – fresh, tart, and sweet.
Bananas felled from the tree and sliced with a machete had the flavor of apples. Mangoes were thick and meaty. We sucked on large sticks of sugar cane, and ate “coco-soupa” (little coconuts) that tasted like cookie dough, a treat carried to school in the pockets of local children. Wandering through the tall grasses, Eladio came to an abrupt halt, stooped, and dug in the dirt to unearth fresh ginger root. We marveled, how did he know how to find it? With a shrug he said he remembered the spot of its plant before it shriveled to hay.
Ten years ago, Eladio sold 700-800 lbs. of cacao. In 2009, he sold 400 lbs. of cacao. Hurricanes and blight have taken their toll on the trees. All of his beans, like every cacao farmer in Toledo, are sold to the British chocolatemaker Green and Black’s and are used to make its Maya Gold bar.
The cacao grows throughout the jungle, all the trees at different stages of ripening in a perpetual cycle. The colors of a ripened cacao pod vary widely, from yellow-green to deep red.
We chewed on raw cacao beans, sucking on the sweet and tangy pulp before biting into the bitter bean. Cacao beans are fermented before they are roasted. They are covered with banana leaves for up to six days to build heat and drive the sugars from the pulp into the bean. Every second day they are stirred. The fermenting process varies from chocolatemaker to chocolatemaker. Taza Chocolate takes their fermenting process very seriously. You can read more about their process here.
At the end of the jungle tour, Eladio climbed with us into the back of the bus. We bounced in our seats as we bumped over rutted roads to his family’s compound where his wife and oldest daughter, dressed identically in turquoise cotton dresses, were preparing our lunch. Eladio got philosophical. “The jungle,” he said, patting his chest and gazing out the windows at the blur of passing green, “is my heart. It is my house, and my church.”
We silently nodded. No one wondered what he meant.
Related posts on Kitchen Report: Lunch at the Pop compound and learning how to make a delicious Mayan chocolate drink, The Jungle House at Cotton Tree Lodge, Taza Chocolate Tour
Our first day in Cambodia began with a row of uniformed customs officials, splendid and unsmiling and endless. They collected visa fees and photos and scrutinized and stamped and handed passports up the line while I shifted from foot to foot with excitement and tried to look like the sort of person who should definitely be given her passport back and admitted to their country.
The town of Siem Reap was an intoxicating jumble of extremes: the sun, the dust, the humidity, the sense that an encroaching jungle might just take back this crumbling mix of faded colonial architecture and humble shacks at any moment.
After sunset, the heat still washed over us in waves like steam rolling from a shower. The smell of dust and exhaust fumes still filled the air. But without the remorseless tropical sunshine beating down, we were able to leave the pool and venture out of our hotel, to find the streets even livelier after dark. The town pulsed with life. Traffic whizzed by like a slow river without regard for lanes – a blur of scooters carrying entire families, tuk-tuks, and a few cars – horns honking and voices calling out. People filled the narrow sidewalks, some slowly walked, but more stood clustered around open shop fronts, or waited for their turn at open-air food stands.
“Tuk-tuk?” “Tuk-tuk?” chanted the drivers as we passed, reclining in the back of their own motorcycle trailers as they waited for fares.
We dodged and scurried to cross the street, sighing with relief upon reaching safe harbor on the opposite side.
Pub Street pulsed with life. We strolled past the open-fronted restaurants and bars that lined the streets, filled with travelers from everywhere, speaking every language. I glanced into stores that sold everything from souvenirs to sandals. A few street performers set up on corners, and a few children selling trinkets sidled near the outermost restaurant tables.
After wandering down a relatively quiet pedestrian side-street, we settled into chairs outside a restaurant called Le Tigre de Papier. A lean cat passed under tables, brushing ankles, hoping for a handout, then he rolled on the dusty pavement, coming to a rest by my foot.
As we perused the menu, the heat pressed against me like a giant restraining hand – utterly enveloping, preventing hasty movement, but increasingly comfortable as I slowed my breathing and relaxed into its velvety embrace.
Slowly, we ate amok fish from bowls made, origami-style, from banana leaves, with steamed rice on the side. The flavor of this dish was rich, complex, slightly sweet, and similar to a very mild yellow curry – full of spices, but not hot and spicy.
After scraping our plates clean, we leaned back in our chairs, relax, and watched the city night life pass by. The key to Siem Reap seems to be in its pace – it is a vibrant town, but not a town that is in a hurry. People – locals, expats, travelers – move without haste, talk without pressure, and have time for a drink or a meal, time for a conversation and a smile.
Amok dishes (usually fish, but also chicken or shrimp) were on every menu in Siem Reap. And while no vacation meal recreated at home will taste quite the same – lacking, as it must, that vital something imparted by context – it is possible to produce a creditable and tasty replica.
Should you not be able to track down a pre-made amok spice blend, try creating your own approximation by combining roughly equal parts chopped lemon grass, kaffir lime zest, galangal, turmeric, garlic, and dried red chile flakes and pulverize in food processor. These ingredients are readily available in most Asian grocery stores.
2 tablespoons amok spices
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons fish sauce or soy sauce
1 tablespoon garlic (crushed)
2 tablespoons shallots, minced
15 ounces coconut milk
1 lb. firm fish fillets, such as snapper, tilapia, or catfish, cut into chunks
4 banana leaves (or substitute collard or other sturdy greens)
Mix amok spices, sugar, salt, fish sauce, garlic, shallots, and coconut milk. Submerge fish fillets in mixture, cover, and let sit in refrigerator for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, assemble banana leaf boats (here is a short but amusing how-to video, or use your own origami skills). Alternately, you could simply line four small ramekins with banana leaves.
Fill banana leaf boats (or ramekins) with fish mixture and place in steamer. Steam for about 30 minutes, or until fish is cooked through and very tender.
Serve with steamed rice.
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