Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Recipes from Aruba

I'll admit, I was a little annoyed to be cooking yet another Caribbean meal from yet another Caribbean nation. Seriously, why do all these Caribbean countries have to begin with the letter "A"? So far, 22% of the countries I've cooked from have been Caribbean. Gettin' a little sick of papaya, you know?

But this time I was definitely pleasantly surprised. In fact, our main course this week is actually Martin's favorite so far, since I first started on this endeavor back in August. Though I did go through several meal plans before I actually landed on the one we ended up eating.

Cuisine ala Aruba: Pan Bati and Keshi Yena.

So yes, Aruba is Caribbean. Let's start there. Like many Caribbean nations, it's tiny, just over 20 miles long, which means you can probably get from one end to another in about 30 minutes, though I guess I'm really not qualified to make that assumption since I have no idea what the road system is like. Despite its small size, it is home to more than 100,000 people and enjoys a thriving tourist industry.

Aruba is in the southern part of the Caribbean islands, in a chain of islands called the "Lesser Antilles." It is actually a part of the Netherlands, which makes its residents all Dutch citizens. So is it really a country? *Sigh.* Maybe if I knew more about political geography I'd be able to answer that question. Maybe I should change the subtitle of this blog to "I'm cooking one meal from every country and sub-country on Earth."

Aruba, another microscopic country in the Caribbean.

Aruba is blessed with a consistently warm and sunny climate, and cursed (depending on your perspective I suppose) with a dry, arid landscape where cactus is one of the more common types of vegetation. Its standard of living is one of the highest in the Caribbean; it has a low unemployment rate and a full three quarters of its gross national product comes from tourism. There is very little agriculture or manufacturing, and much of Aruba's food is imported.

Seafood is one of the traditional staples in Aruba, which is why the first recipe I chose was a grilled swordfish. I adore swordfish and let's face it, I was pregnant for like five years straight so I haven't eaten a whole lot of it in recent years (swordfish is one of those high-mercury fish you're not supposed to go near when you're expecting). So I set out to find some swordfish, which I really didn't think would be too difficult. But, like most of my other seafood quests in this town, I came up empty-handed. I couldn't even find any frozen swordfish, though I'll bet you 10 bucks there will be some at Safeway next week, because that's always what happens.

So I scratched that off my list and decided to go instead for a traditional dish called keri-keri, which is supposed to be made with shark. Now I figured my chances of finding shark would be pretty slim but I asked the local fishmonger anyway, and was bluntly informed that shark was illegal. OK, I can remember eating shark in a restaurant once, but that was many years ago so I guess that its legal status might have changed since then. But as I was thinking this over the fish guy did a double take and said "Oh no, actually it's shark fin that's illegal, shark is legal." And I was thinking, um, don't you sell fish? And do you really get a lot of people asking for shark fin in Grass Valley, California? But OK, that still didn't solve my problem because he didn't have either shark or shark fin in stock.

The recipe did say I could substitute any firm, white fish but since it's traditionally made with shark and I didn't really know offhand which other firm white fish would be correct for the region, I was rapidly ruling out the keri-keri. Also it's made with celery, which both Martin and I dislike. So I went home and regrouped and finally settled on this recipe:

Keshi Yena
(from Caribbean Choice)
  • 1 lb Gouda cheese, sliced
  • 1 large onion
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 2 cups diced cooked chicken 
  • 1 large tomato, peeled and chopped
  • 2 dill pickles, minced
  • 1 large green pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 8 large stuffed green olives, sliced
  • 1½ tbsp garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1 tbsp capers, rinsed
  • ¼ cup golden raisins
  • 1 tbsp prepared mustard
  • ½ cup ketchup 
  • ½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 cup chopped cashews
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme, minced

The old-school way to make Keshi Yena is in the hollowed out shell of a four pound wheel of cheese. Now I'm pretty sure Martin and I could put away four pounds of Gouda in fairly short order, but I didn't have even an extra day to spare by the time I decided on this recipe, so I went with this updated version, which comes from Gasparito's Restaurant and Art Gallery in Aurba.

I needed an appetizer too, and for that I found a great Aruban recipe resource at VisitAruba.com. Evidently Arubans enjoy their fried-balls-of-whatever appetizers, as I had several to choose from. I wanted something a little less artery-clogging, though, so I picked a baked appetizer called Bolitas De Jamon. Here's the recipe:

Bolitas De Jamon
  • 1 egg, beaten lightly
  • 1 cup soft white breadcrumbs
  • 2 tablespoons chopped onion
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/8 teaspoon seasoned salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon French's prepared mustard
  • 1 pound cooked ham, ground
  • 1-10 ounce jar apricot-pineapple preserves

Note: the original version of this recipe calls for one 10 ounce jar each of apricot preserves and pineapple preserves. I thought that was a little excessive, in fact, I only used about half a jar of the apricot-pineapple combo.

On the side I put a popular pancake-like bread called Pan Bati (from VisitAruba.com):
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 cup corn flour
  • 2 tbs baking powder 
  • pinch of salt 
  • sugar to taste
  • 1 egg
  • 1 3/4 cup milk
  • vanilla to taste

 And for dessert:

Banana na Binja 
(from VisitAruba.com)
  • 2 very ripe plantains
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 3 tbsp dark brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp water
  • 2 tbsp port wine
  • Dash of cinnamon

So starting with the Bolitas De Jamon:

I've never actually seen ground ham at Safeway, so I just picked up a ham steak and chopped it, then threw it in my little mini food processor until it was nicely pulverized. I did the same thing with the bread, since I was having a hard time imagining how one might "grate" a piece of soft white bread, which is what the recipe told me to do.

Ground ham. I just did this in my mini food processor.

When the ham and bread are ready, mix them together with the  egg, breadcrumbs, onion, parsley, seasoned salt and mustard. Note: I halved this recipe and I still needed a whole egg to bind it all together.

Add the rest of the ingredients ...

Now roll the mixture into one or two inch balls and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes.

... then form into 1 or 2 inch balls.

When the balls are done, let them cool for a few minutes. While they are cooling, put the apricot-pineapple jam into a small saucepan and heat to simmering. Then drop the balls into the jam and roll them around until they are coated and heated through. Serve immediately.

The Bolitas De Jamon are glazed with apricot-pineapple preserves.

Now on to the Keshi Yena. I have to admit, I don't think I've ever seen an ingredient list quite like this one, which is kind of what drew me to this recipe. Dill pickles and raisins? Oh-kay ...

This dish has to bake for about 30 minutes, so you could prepare it ahead of time and then stick it in the oven when you are ready, which is what I did.

Start by melting the butter over medium heat. Then add the onions and sauté until they turn a golden brown color. Stir in the remaining strange concoction of ingredients (except for the cheese).

Keshi Yena: That is one strange concoction of ingredients.

If you're making this ahead of time, it is probably a good idea to let everything cool a little so the cheese doesn't melt prematurely.

Butter a baking pan and line it with slices of Gouda. Then pour the chicken mixture on top, and cover it with the rest of the cheese slices.

Cheese on the top, cheese on the bottom, everything else in the middle.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, then put it under your broiler for a few minutes, just long enough to start browning the cheese.

The finished dish. It tastes way better than it looks.

While the Keshi Yena is baking, move on to the Pan Bati. I was already putting this recipe together when I realized that it called for "corn flour" instead of "corn meal." In the UK, "corn flour" means "corn starch," but I was pretty sure that wasn't the translation to use for this recipe (yuck). "Flour" did imply something finer than cornmeal, though, so I just took some cornmeal and ground it finer in my food processor. That seemed to work pretty well.

Pan Bati goes together almost exactly like pancakes. Just mix everything together in a large bowl, then gradually add water until the batter is slightly thicker than pancake batter.

The Pan Bati batter should be a little thicker than pancake batter.

Fire up your pancake griddle, adding a little spray butter to prevent sticking. Pour the batter on the griddle. When the Pan Bati is a golden color on one side, flip. Remove from the griddle when the Pan Bati is firm and golden on both sides and keep warm until ready to serve.

Pan Bati: they look just like pancakes don't they?

The Bananas na Binja was easy to make, which is good, because I didn't find them particularly easy to eat. More on that later.  When I first found this recipe I vaguely hoped that the "banana" part of the name meant that there were bananas in it, and that the word "plantain" as it appeared in the list of ingredients was simply a mistranslation. Before I made this I'd never actually eaten plantains, but I hadn't exactly heard great things about them, either. But alas, I was able to verify that Arubans call plantains "bananas," and that they call bananas something else entirely.

For this recipe you need ripe plantains. Really, really, ripe plantains. They should look something like a banana you were planning to throw out. I am told this is because a riper plantain is a sweeter plantain ... though I think it's only fair to tell you that my plantains were pretty ripe and they didn't really taste sweet. At all. It might just be a question of what your palate is used to.

This is one of the ripe plantains I used. Does it really get any riper than that?

 Anyway, first peel the plantains and slice them in two lengthwise. Then mix the sugar, water, port and cinnamon together and set aside. Melt the butter over medium heat and saute the plantains until they turn a golden color. Flip them over. Pour the port mixture over the plantains and bring to a boil, then cook until the liquid reduces down to a syrup. Serve hot.

Looks yummy doesn't it? Tastes awful.

OK, so here is the Robins family verdict:

The Bolitas De Jamon were delicious. I might actually make them for New Year's Eve this year. The apricot-pineapple glaze was a nice compliment to the saltiness of the ham.

The Keshi Yena was really good. Really, really good. In fact, Martin took a few bites and asked, "where is this from again?" "Aruba," I said. "We need to go there," he replied. This was Martin's favorite dish out of any I've made in the 14 weeks I've been doing this.

The Pan Bati was pretty good. Bland, but bland was actually a nice compliment to the very flavorful Keshi Yena. It didn't taste at all like a pancake, obviously; the corn flour was its most notable flavor.

And now the Bananas na Binja. Have you ever eaten plantains? If not, imagine a dessert made with potatoes. Yes, just take a baked potato and pour some port wine syrup over it. That's pretty much what this dessert tasted like. Neither Martin nor I ate any of it. In fact, I'm sorry to say I had to spit mine out. Gordon Ramsey would be so proud. I thought it was awful. Maybe a connoisseur of plantains would disagree with me, but I think that's probably the last time I will try eating them. I might be convinced to try them in a savory dish, but for a dessert ... no way.

In fairness, though, the syrup was pretty good. In fact, Bananas na Binja would probably be delicious with, you know, actual bananas.

Oh, and my kids didn't eat any of this. Circumstances this week just made me feel like Martin and I were better off visiting Aruba alone.

Next week: Ashmore and Cartier Islands. And for those of you who have actually heard of Ashmore and Cartier Islands, yes, I know. Just bear with me.


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