Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Traveling with Mr. Rogers
What’s cooking? Dominican Rice with Plantains and Bacon, and Grilled Fish Dominicano

I had my doubts from the beginning. You’d think the idea of a trip to the Dominican Republic – escaping an onslaught of wintry weather (even in Austin!) – would be one anyone would embrace. But it was billed as a golf trip, and I do not play. And while I’m happy to have those nice stretches of time on my own, it’s all the associated activity that drives me crazy. At least in my experience, the Golf Playing is invariably preceded by the Golf Talking (what they’ve heard about the course, who designed it, how the teams will form, carts vs caddies, blah blah...), and followed by the Golf Analysis (who played well/poorly, that crazy thing that happened on the 15th hole, the birdies, the bogies, blah blah...), and, at least in our house, there’s also the Golf Watching and the Golf Napping. So the idea of a week spent – regardless of venue – enveloped in Golf made my eyes roll back in my head.

Adding to my discomfort, did I mention that I barely knew any of the other 12 people on the trip?

We breezed through customs at the airport in Punta Cana, and headed for the car rental counter. Just as we got there, the lights in the airport dimmed, then went out. After a couple of minutes, they came back on, but that brief interruption was enough to fry the computer systems of our rental car company, and it was a full 2 hours before we could finalize a contract and make our way to the only van available on the island, which we needed for carrying... the Golf clubs.

The a/c in the van didn’t work really well, the odometer was closing in on 100,000 miles, and the hatch door wouldn’t stay open on its own, so that one of us literally had to hoist it up in order to get our suitcases in or out. This trip is doomed, I said to myself.

As we headed out of the airport, I realized I needed an attitude adjustment. It was a vacation, after all, to an island I’d never visited before, staying at a house that – if the photos were to be believed – was fabulous, and as for the people,... Well, at times like these, it’s helpful to remember Mr. Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood), who I’m told always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker he once met: “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love, once you’ve heard their story.”

It turned out that the rental car was a complete aberration on the trip – the lone 0 in a field of 9s and 10s. Yes, there was lots of Golf, but the house was even better than the photos, the people were mostly lovable, and the island is beautiful. Best of all, though, the house staff included the delightful Guillermo, our chef. Guillermo spoke almost no English, and I was one of only two Spanish-speakers in our group, so the Kitchen Goddess was consulted on the menu for almost every meal, and Guillermo and I spent some part of every day discussing the local cuisine and the many wonderful ways to prepare it. What fun!

Our charming and gracious kitchen staff. Guillermo is the big guy on the right.

* * *

One of the Dominican foods Guillermo introduced me to was plantains, plátanos in Spanish.

On the outside, plantains look almost exactly like bananas. And, in fact, they are members of the same family. So were my grandmother and my great Aunt Irva. But my grandmother was sweet and soft – like a banana – while my Aunt Irva was more of a plantain – thick-skinned, starchy, with less sugar, and not really edible raw. Hmmm...

Well, anyway, it turns out that with the right treatment, plantains are delicious. So maybe, with the right treatment, Irva might have been a little easier to take. Or maybe if she hadn’t been named Irva. We’ll never know.

In any case, the first thing to know is that, as plantains ripen, their flavor changes dramatically. Green plantains are firm and starchy, tasting much like potatoes. You have to cook them – bake, boil, or fry – first, then mash them and combine them with other foods. One such treatment is a mofongo, a dish that originated in Puerto Rico but is ubiquitous in Dominican restaurants: green plantains that have been cooked and mashed with garlic paste and formed into cups that are then fried and filled. The ones pictured here – from one of Guillermo’s dinners – are filled with chopped shrimp and topped with guacamole. Mmmm...

The riper plantains – which look like beat-up bananas, as in the photo here – are relatively sweet, and when cooked, taste like a cross between butternut squash and sweet potatoes. When you fry them, you get a slightly crispy outside that’s actually sweet.

Dominican cuisine is highly flavored without being spicy.  Guillermo made a perfectly delightful rice dish for us, to accompany a marinated whitefish that was so good, some of our folks were heating the leftovers for breakfast the next day.

The Kitchen Goddess was eager to reproduce this masterpiece fish. Turns out, Guillermo cheats a bit and uses a flavoring packet (see photo) that the KG cannot find – nowhere, nohow – despite her best efforts, which, as you know, are pretty damn good. But Guillermo sent her off with a sample, and she has used that one sample to reproduce the mix of flavors for all of our benefit.  Lots of garlic and lime, with hints of sweetness from the paprika and parsley. The Kitchen Goddess is not to be deterred.

The KG's marinade spices -- I think it would be good next time to add fresh parsley to the marinade.

Step 1: Remove the ends
Kitchen Goddess notes: (1) Guillermo cooks his rice in chicken broth – “Es más rico,” (it’s richer) he says. And I agree. But if you don’t have any chicken broth handy, or just prefer a lighter flavor, use plain water instead. (2) I found plantains in one local grocery store. Correction – I found one plantain. But a store that caters to a more Latino population will likely have a larger supply. If you buy a green plantain, you may have to wait a week for it to achieve that beat-up look. Have patience. (3) Plantains -- even the ripe ones, are tough to peel. Best is to cut them into pieces a couple of inches long, and slice the skin lengthwise before attempting to remove it.

Step 2: Cut into chunks.
Step 3: Slice skin lengthwise, then remove peel.

Dominican Rice with Plantains and Bacon

Serves 6.

1 cup rice
Chicken broth in whatever quantity directed by your rice package
1 tablespoon butter
½ teaspoon salt, plus more for plantain bits
2-3 slices bacon
6 tablespoons grapeseed (or canola) oil
1 ripe (yellow and blackened) plantain
1 spring onion, white and green parts

In a large saucepan, cook the rice according to package instructions, substituting chicken broth for all or part of the water. Add the tablespoon of butter and the ½ teaspoon of salt to the liquid.

While the rice is cooking, peel and dice the plantain (see photo).

In a medium-sized frying pan, cook the bacon until crisp, and remove it to paper towels to drain. Discard the bacon fat and wipe the skillet clean.

Add the grapeseed oil to the skillet and heat at medium setting until the oil is hot. Add the plantain dice and cook, stirring and turning the pieces as they brown, for 6-7 minutes, until all pieces are golden. Remove them to paper towels to drain.

When ready to serve, crumble the bacon and stir most of it into the rice, along with most of the plantain dice. Reserve some of both the bacon and the plantain to use as garnish on top of the rice. Slice the spring onion very thinly on the diagonal, and sprinkle on top.

Grilled Fish a la Dominicano

1 pound whitefish fillet (I used cod, about 1 inch thick)
¼ cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lime
2 cloves garlic, minced
Marinade seasoning:
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon paprika (smoked is best)
¾ teaspoon garlic powder
¾ teaspoon parsley flakes
¼ teaspoon white pepper
⅛ teaspoon ground cumin

Using paper towels, pat the fish dry and place in a shallow baking dish. In a small bowl or jar, combine the olive oil, lime juice, and garlic. In a separate small bowl, combine the spices and parsley flakes, and use a mortar and pestle to grind the blend together until the parsley flakes have turned to powder. (Alternatively, pile the combination between two sheets of waxed paper or baker’s parchment and use a rolling pin or the side of a jar to crush the parsley flakes to a powder with the other ingredients. Then at some point, get yourself a small mortar and pestle –  it’s a useful kitchen tool.)

The only photo I have of the fish. Mysteriously, the cooked fillet disappeared before I could get the camera out.

Add the marinade seasoning to the oil/lime juice/garlic and mix well. Pour all over the fish and marinate 30 minutes. Grill the fish on medium-low for 9 minutes per side. Or bake at 450º for 20-30 minutes, turning once.

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