As a person who enjoys cooking, I’ve learned that you never know when creativity and inspiration will strike. Which also means that, like a writer, there can be periods of time where you’re just completely blocked (welcome to my last year). And during those times, it’s ok to follow the recipes you know and to think inside the box because you can’t choose the be inspired. What this has meant for me is that for awhile I haven’t been cooking with heart as much as out of a need for food to eat. And it’s been a little disheartening to say the least. But as I stated, you never know when creativity will hit you and for me it was when I was gifted the world’s largest papaya…. oh ya… and a tree of plantains and about 100 of the largest limes you’ve ever set your eyes on.
You may think I’m kidding about the papaya being the largest ever. But I’m pretty certain that if it’s not the largest, it’s definitely somewhere near the top. The thing was literally the size of my head. I did, however, over-exaggerate a tiny bit when I said a tree of plantains and 100 limes (there were probably 10 plantains and probably 20 limes). But regardless of the size of the papaya or the number of limes, it is important to note that I was overwhelmed.
You see, about a week ago, I set out for a two and a half month journey to Guayaquil, Ecuador where I will be working for the Red Cross for the vast majority of my summer. And though I have taken some Spanish courses and have tried to bone up on the language for my trip, nothing could have prepared me for the experience of entering a country where very few people speak the language. And maybe more importantly, nothing could prepare me for a country where people order food for you without asking your preferences (after five years I ate my first meat on my first day in the country->luckily it was steak…. mmmm… my favorite). But the thing about that is it also shows just how amazing the people here are. They may not realize I was a pescetarian for five years and a vegetarian for seven months, but they’re the type of people who take you to lunch and want to show you the food of their culture. I have no regrets having eaten that steak nor the many others, chicken, and fish that have followed in the past week. I am here not only to work for the Red Cross, but also to fully experience the culture of this amazing country. And if that means eating some meat (and what seemed to be stomach-> I didn’t want to know) while I’m here, I have no qualms with that. Plus, the food is pretty darn good. Fried plantains left and right, bananas like you’ve never tasted before, cherimoyas, GIANT papaya (and I didn’t like papaya… but down here it really has flavor), fruit I’ve never seen before, yuca bread, cheesy everything, fresh-caught fish, and yes… rice and beans.
Like I said, the people here are also amazing. I came down here knowing no one and although I live in my own apartment, I feel like I’m a part of an Ecuadorian family. My friend (whose mom I work for) has a girlfriend whose aunt found me my apartment and it happens to be in the building where her mother and daughter and daughter’s adorable family live. I’ve been to two birthdays, multiple lunches, and I’ve really seen the city from the eyes of someone who lives here. My coworkers have taken me walking through beautiful parts of the city, make sure I get home safely every day, and have introduced me to exotic and crazy foods. And everyone here has made sure that I know how to stay safe.
I know this is a food blog, but I’m really in love with it here and it’s hard to stay on subject. Finding my inspiration. Going back quickly to how nice the people are here, yesterday my neighbor/landlord dropped by just to give me the world’s largest papaya, a tree of plantains (verde) and a giant bag of gigantic limes. I thanked him before heading back into my apartment wondering what the heck I was going to do will all of the limes (seriously I could’ve made ceviche for a 300 person party and would still have left-over limes). And I’ve loved the fried plantains I’ve been getting everywhere, but they’re normally breaded and I have very limited supplies in my little kitchen (and I keep forgetting to pick up pepper and salt and sugar when I’m at the store->though I do have my staples of cayenne and paprika). And like I said… I really didn’t think I liked papaya.
So today, after the jelly debacle of 2011, I was forced to call into work and tell them I could not make it. Since they don’t need my help with patients until tomorrow (I do desk work too), it went over smoothly and I went back to cleaning up the mess (since those of you who read this are my family or friends I assume you already know about the jelly debacle of 2011). This clean-up inspired me to clean my whole apartment and soon I was facing the giant bag of limes and the question of what the hell I was supposed to do with them. So I started to google. Key lime pie, key lime pie ice cream, fish tacos, ginger lime salad dressing, cilantro lime mayonnaise, etc. Well, since my oven is not working yet and I don’t have an ice cream maker… and I don’t have fish or ginger or cilantro or mayonnaise…. maybe I’d look into plantains. Fried plantains, sweet fried plantains, breaded fried plantains, coconut shrimp and fried plantains, plantain chips, etc. Alright then, looks like I’ll fry some plantains. But once again a lot of the recipes called for a flour coating and I don’t have flour. And at the very least they call for salt. So I decided to brave my limited resources and throw the recipes out the window for the first time in almost a year. What I came up with was a hodge podge of different options for plantains, all fried (I’m going to try to mash them up later) and all in need of a little salt or sugar (next time I go to the store I won’t forget). They’re not the best things I’ve ever made, but I’m happy to say my block has finally lifted. Up next, finding a way to use a thousand limes.
It is important to makes sure the oil is steaming before you put the plantains in. You don’t want them to be oily when you go to eat them. On that note, remember to put them on a paper towel when you take them out of the oil to get any excess oil off of them.
Sprinkle cayenne pepper on one side of the plantain slices (to taste). When the oil (I used olive but I think vegetable would work as well or better) is smoking hot, drop them in cayenne side down and wait until a light golden. Flip them over until lightly golden on both sides. Serve with hot sauce (I like Cholula) and cheese (dairy eliminates the spice factor plus added the salt I didn’t have myself).
Mix lime juice, cayenne, and paprika and coat the plantains. Fry (but be careful-> the water in the lime juice and oil do not mix well) until golden brown on both sides. Less cayenne will stick to these, so just add salt.
This was my favorite decision because it allowed me to do so much with the plantains. Fry the plantain slices in oil until golden brown on both sides. Serve with fruit for a delicious fruit salad (I ate it with part of my papaya grande), a light white cheese for an Ecuadorian favorite, the lime/paprika/cayenne sauce from the previous option, or anything you have lying around. But don’t forget the salt :).
I did not get to make them this way, but I will as soon as I get to the store and I’ll update you all on how they tasted: rub the plantain slices with cinnamon and sugar and fry until golden brown for platano dulce mmmm.
I’ll admit that in the states, plantains are not going to be grown locally and will have some long food miles attached to them. I could get off saying that at least you’re not eating fish or meat and therefore you’re being more sustainable, but I’ve used that a number of times and each time I do I feel a cringe of guilt for leading you to believe that food miles don’t count as much. Plus, this is a side dish and I can promise it’d taste good with a macadamia nut crusted halibut with a papaya salsa. So instead, I’m just going to tell you this: one of the great things about traveling is that you get the chance to try exotic foods like plantains, cherimoyas, and damn good papayas. And as in the case with the papaya and the banana (and all fruits and vegetables), they taste better when they’re locally grown and in season because they are not picked early so they can be shipped, they’re fresher, they’re juicier, and they’re just freaking amazing. So maybe instead of trying to recreate this dish, which is only really sustainable where I am, you’ll be inspired to go check out some of your local fruits and vegetables and find a couple of new options for how you can cook them and really enjoy them the way and at the time they’re meant to be enjoyed. Plus, when you’re on vacation, you’ll really appreciate the produce that comes from the location you’re visiting. It will be another experience of your trip instead of just a side note. I’ve been reading a boo,, Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, who speaks to this. Americans have lost their love of food because we can have whatever we want whenever we want it. Our grocery stores are stocked with fruits and vegetables from around the world and though we get them at any time of the year, we’re not really experiencing them because they’re don’t taste up to par with the flavor they could have if we would wait until the right season.
Happy Summer and I wish you all amazing travels and amazing food experiences.