Hidden treasures from the cooking pots of Ecuador

We were on a trip to explore the Inca ruins and volcanic beauty of the Ecuadorean landscape, to discover hidden treasures here in the cooking pots, and it was a case of delicious serendipity.

Despite being one of the smallest countries in South America (192,279 square miles), Ecuador, a country of sharp contrasts, offers some of the most dramatically diverse topography on the entire continent.

Among the broad rivers and lofty mountains, inhabitants of the country's diverse regions developed their own characteristic cuisines.

In the northwestern town of Esmeraldas, on the Pacific Ocean, coconut milk, shellfish, and rice play a significant role in the cookery, as do peanuts -- whether they are ground into an extraordinary, creamy peanut soup or an onion- and tomato-based sauce called mani.

In the large port city of Guayaquil, protected from the Pacific by the Gulf of Guayaquil, seafood, rice, and plantains are the three most characteristic foods.

The area in and around Guayaquil is famous for its seviche, or fish, often sea bass, marinated in lemon or lime juice. Thus ''cooked,'' it is served with a sauce of lime and bitter Seville orange juice, oil, minced onion, and chopped tomato.

The chemical action of the citrus juice on the raw fish is actually a form of cooking, but those who prefer fish cooked can enjoy a delicious version of seviche made with boiled, peeled shrimp.

Practically no meal is served in this part of Ecuador without a scoop of snow-white boiled rice, but a much more interesting and exotic starch is the plantain, made in various ways throughout the country but considered most typical of fare along the coast.

A trip to the marketplace in Guayaquil, with a rather dilapidated structure built by Eiffel, of the tower-in-Paris fame, is large and colorful, with fruit stalls outside and meats and fish inside.

Hill after hill of luscious tropical fruits includes familiar pineapples, oranges, papayas, and large bunches of tree-ripened bananas. Ecuador is one of the largest exporters of bananas in the world.

Less familiar is the cherimoya, or soursop, with its green skin and white pulp; the mamey, a yellow, egg-shaped fruit; and the naranjilla, a small, orangy-green crab apple whose green juice is frequently served for breakfast.

Once away from the coast and up in the Andean highlands, potatoes rather than rice become the staple, and there are 10 varieties.

Two of the most memorable potato-based dishes are locro de papas and llapingachos. Locro de papas is a thick potato soup colored golden with achiote or annatto seeds. It is thickened with milk, cream, and grated queso fresco, a mild and slightly salty cheese.

Llapingachos, the Ecuadorean version of potato pancakes, are made of mashed potato, grated cheese, and onions fried in golden annatto oil. Oil or lard colored with annatto seeds is the characteristic cooking fat throughout most of Ecuador.

The fried llapingachos are traditionally topped with a fried egg and served with sliced avocado on the side. The combination is delicious.

In Quito, the main city in the highlands and the capital of Ecuador, one of the most popular regional dishes is caldo de patas, a hearty and satisfying soup made by simmering a shin of beef in water with mote, the hominy (hulled corn kernels) which also plays an important role in the highlands' kitchen.

After this mixture has cooked for three hours, it is combined with a sofrito. This sofrito, the basis of many Ecuadorean soups, stews, and sauces, is made by sauteing the whites of large spring onions, minced garlic, oregano, and cumin or other spices in annatto oil.

The place to try caldo de patas is the Hotel Colon, in the heart of Quito. From 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. every Friday, it is the specialty of the house, and you will find yourself surrounded by dozens of Quitonos who habitually stop on the way home from parties.

Another place where you are certain to find Ecuadoreans enjoying a much-favored repast is in the village of Azogues, near the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca, in southwest Ecuador.

The following cake has a texture somewhere between bread pudding and a moist cake. If you reduce the sugar by 1 or 2 tablespoons you might serve it as a starch component with turkey or ham. By keeping the proportions as listed, or by adding more sugar, if you have a really sweet tooth, you will have an interesting and unusual dessert. It's best served warm.

Torta de Maduro (Ripe Plantain Cake) 3 large ripe plantains (about 11/2 pounds; see note) 2 tablespoons butter, cut into bits 2 large eggs, separated 2 teaspoons vanilla 1/4 cup brown sugar 1 cup (1/4 pound) finely shredded Munster cheese 1/3 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Boil a large pot of water, add unpeeled plantains, and cook over medium heat, uncovered, 10 minutes. Remove, cool, score in three places lengthwise, and peel.

Cut each plantain in 4 or 5 pieces, discard tips and dark spots, and process with butter until mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs.

Add egg yolks, vanilla, sugar, and cheese and process just until blended. Stir in raisins, taste, and add more sugar, if desired. Beat egg whites to stiff peaks and fold in.

Press mixture into well-buttered 9-inch pie plate, cover with foil. Bake at 375 degrees F. 30 minutes; bake 5 minutes more uncovered. Serve warm. Serves 8.

Ripen green plantains at room temperature in about 5 days, or until skin turns yellow and black and flesh feels soft.

Seviche is the perfect dish for a warm summer day. It is easy to make, and since the lemon or lime juice marinade does all the ''cooking'' you don't need to turn on the oven. It is necessary, however, to use freshly squeezed fruit juice and to plan on serving the seviche within 6 hours of the time you begin your preparations.

Seviche 1 pound fillets striped bass or white snapper,scallops, scrod, or swordfish 1 1/4 cup or slightly more fresh lime or lemon juice 3/4 cup finely chopped onion 2 meduim tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped 1 teaspoon minced garlic 1/2 cup light vcegetable oil 1 cup fresh orange juice 1/4 cup additional fresh lemon juice Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste Garnishes: parsley sprigs and popcorn

Cut fish into 1/2-inch, bite-sized pieces and put in glass bowl. Pour lemon juice to covber. Cover bowl and refrigerate 3 hours or until fish is opaque white.

While fish marinates, prepare suace. Blanch onions in boiling water 10 seconds. Drain and refresh under cold water. Combine onion, tomatoes, garlic, vegetable oil, orange and lemon juice. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Drain fish and discard juice. Toss fish in sauce and serve in small bowls of parsley sprigs with a large bowl of popcorn. Serves 4 to 6.

Although bass is the best choice other fish as above, may be used.Boiled, peeled shrimp may also be used but in this case eliminate the initial marination in lime juice and refrigerate shrimp in the sauce at least 1 hour before serving.

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