Saturday, August 13, 2011

When Recipes Fail OR The Bride of "Beautiful Screw-Ups"

Hey kids! It's time for more tales of the strange and unexpected in the kitchen!

OK, as I may have mentioned once or twice, I love cookbooks. But not for the reasons you might think. I love cookbooks for tips and methodologies of cooking, not usually for recipes as they're written. Why? Because most of the time I make something out of a cookbook and follow the recipe to the letter (or somewhat closely), it almost always turns out wayyyyy different than expected. Hence, why I tweak most recipes to my own techniques and understanding. But sometimes, especially when dealing with untried methods or ingredients, I have to follow the recipe as best as possible. Case and point: I was looking through Marcus Samuelsson's Soul of a New Cuisine (basically my favourite cookbook) and found a recipe for Coconut-Plantain Stew. It sounded pretty neat so I decided to give it a shot (I think Kari's jumping up and down going "Yes please, those are two of my favourite flavours!" also sealed the deal).

Now, I've never cooked with plantain before, so there was no way I was going to try winging it. For those of you who don't know what plantain is, it's a larger, starchier, less sweet form of banana. You'll often see it fried as a side dish with Caribbean fare. It's also prominent in dishes from different parts of Africa. Now, I'll reprint the recipe here (again, credit to Mr. Samuelsson for the recipe - I love your recipes, even if I get them wrong, please don't send your legal team after me!):

Coconut-Plantain Stew
4 to 6 servings


- 1 medium Spanish onion, roughly chopped
- 2 red chili peppers, seeds and ribs removed, finely chopped (I was stuck using green chilies, but it had little impact on the flavour)
- 1 cup coconut milk (that's about 250 ml. Most cans are 400 ml. I ended up using the rest of it when stirring in the plantain, see below)
- juice of 2 limes
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup peanut oil
- 5 plantains, peeled, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1-inch pieces (I used 4 larger plantains and it worked well)
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped cilantro
- 1/2 teaspoon ginger powder
- Salt and pepper


- In a large saucepan over low heat, combine the onion, chili peppers, 1 cup of the coconut milk, lime juice and vinegar, stirring to mix well. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the onion has softened, then remove from the heat and set aside.

- Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the plantains and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, turning occasionally, until browned on all sides. Remove the plantains with a slotted spoon and drain on the prepared plate; blot them to remove excess oil.

- Add the plantains, cilantro and ginger to the onion mixture in the large saucepan and heat through over medium heat. Season with the salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

OK, so the part where it told me to fry up the plantain pieces is where it all went wrong. And yet there was a very happy ending.

Not ever having worked with plantain before, I had no idea that it bonds at the molecular level to the frying pan while cooking! Seriously! I thought I'd be partially float-cooking chunks of plantain, instead I spent 15 minutes scraping plantain off the sides of the pan, then stir-frying them, then scraping, adding oil, etc. etc. etc. In a fit of culinary panic (or genius?) I tossed a splash of coconut rum to loosen the fried pieces from the pan which may have helped the flavour.
In the end, instead of having little fried chunks of plantain, I had something that looked more like a fried potato mash (i.e. hash browns).

But, not wanting to waste food or energy, I was determined to make the stew with the plantain "mash". How different could it be? Well, I'm pretty sure Mr. Samuelsson didn't intend for the consistency to be more like batter than stew! Because that's exactly how it turned out. In fact, I had to stir in a splash of orange juice and the rest of the coconut milk to thin it out - something I wouldn't repeat with the OJ in the future because it overpowered the flavour (next time I'll use water or beer). Regardless, what I had was not really something I could serve as is. The taste was wonderful, but the consistency needed to be changed.

Looking at this thick mush, I got an idea: Why not form it into patties/croquettes, bread it a little and bake it?

So, with a quick crank of the oven to 350, and a bit of messy forming work, stew had become patty. I quickly breaded it in regular bread crumbs and laid them out on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.

Now, here's the real question: How'd it turn out? Remarkably well, in fact! The patties has good consistency, were nicely dried out in baking to go from mushy to flaky, and were easy enough to eat with our hands. But the true kicker? Well, as with any good cake/patty/croquette, it needed a side dip. So, I was thinking Sriracha Mayo, but that would have been a bit too rich with such a dense "batter" as this (and it was DENSE!)

Kari to the rescue!

She suggested adding a teaspoon or so of pesto into the mix. It worked perfectly! It also looked kinda neat in the bowl before mixing. Essentially I had a tablespoon of mayo, a teaspoon of pesto and about 1/3 a teaspoon of Sriracha in a small bowl. The juxtaposition of red, white and green reminded me of those "Mexican Flag" Enchilada specials you get at Mexican restaurants. Anyhoo, I stirred that all together and it worked perfectly!

So, there you go, another case of things not turning out as expected, but still being delicious! I leave it up to you, dear reader, to try stew or patty with this one. Good luck, regardless!