Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Panamanian Food Take 2...or Three Helpings

My newfound love of the cuisine of Panama had me thrilled to no end that I was scheduled for a class with Chef Melissa De Leon at Whole Foods Market Culinary Center. Quick thank you to Chel, who knew I'd love it when she gave me a fat WF gift card for my 40th back in July. Birthday month extended all the way to September is the way to go, most assuredly.

It was a girls night out with Chel, Christine, Rockett and I meeting up at the cheese counter in WF for pre-class vino and lots of it. Sufficiently relaxed and ready to soak up our lesson, we headed down to the culinary center and grabbed front row seats. We were ready to become teacher's pets.

First up on the menu, platacones with salsa chimichurri. I was intrigued with the platacones (plantains) because I'd never tasted them before. Chef Melissa explained that we were using the completely green platacones because the ones that are yellow and green are sweeter. We wanted savory platacones for this appetizer. After peeling, she chopped the platacone into inch thick rounds and transferred them to a frying pan holding medium hot oil until they were golden brown.

Chef Melissa explained that most cooks then press the hot platacone into a round disk by using the bottom of a clean bottle. She demonstrated this and used a knife to carefully slide the platacone disk off the bottle. Others may use a wooden press that forms the wedges into tiny cups. She did both, and returned the platacones to the oil to fry again. Meanwhile, WF staff brought out the finished product to us to enjoy. The crispy cup was filled with chimichurri salsa, a garlicky delight.

I'd never tasted chimichurri but now that I have you can bet I'll be eating it often. Chimichurri is usually made with parsley as the primary herb but the Chef substituted half of the called for amount with cilantro. The result was a chimichurri tailored for the Tex Mex palate. The lime, garlic and onion in the salsa claimed just the right sassiness for the mild platacones. The cups, Chef Melissa explained, could be filled with any number of foods such as ceviche. I'm thinking they'd be great for guacamole, sour cream or spinach dip. Pico de gallo holders! A handy little dollop of raspberry chipotle dipping sauce in an edible cup.

Platacones devoured and our glasses of champagne half gone, we moved on to crab cakes. Chef Melissa kept the cakes simple, mostly crab meat with a bit of shredded coconut and a few other ingredients. She pan grilled them with a bit of oil until both sides were browned. Panama, she explained, means 'an abundance of fish' and it's less than hour from the Pacific coast to the Carribbean coast.

As she was chatting, she was slicing mango and chili peppers for a mango salsa. The sweetness of the mango pairs well with the heat of the peppers. The crab cakes were topped with a tomato chutney, mango salsa on the side. The chutney was deeply flavored, with fenugreek and cumin seeds browned in olive oil along with Roma tomatoes. An incredible plate of food, with the tomatoes a rich brown color after carmelizing in the spiced oil. Perfection with a glass of white wine!

Dessert was a lucious coconut and chocolate flan. I've never been a huge fan of flan. It always seems too delicately flavored for me and really, eating an almost tasteless chilled jellyish cream isn't my favorite. This flan is the mother of all flans. It is the alpha to omega of flan. It is a tidal wave of flavor in one tiny little bite. I didn't get a picture because it disappeared off my plate too fast. It was divine with the tiny cup of Panamanian coffee we were served.
Our evening even had entertainment. Local dancers with a Panamanian troupe visited, showing off the elaborate dress costumes that are painstakingly hand made.
Delicious foods, delightful friends and a cooking diva. It was a fantastic evening. We exchanged promises to keep in touch with Chef Melissa, to visit Panama and to plan a girls night out the next time she is in the states. I'm certain Panama Boutique can help us plan the perfect trip once they kick off their cooking tours in the Spring.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Savoring the Foods of Panama

One mouthful and I fell in love with a country I’ve never visited. A coconut explosion of lime, mint, cilantro and lemongrass marinated tilapia that has woken up my taste buds to the wonders of Panamanian food. The baked banana leaf wrapped fish, paired with rice and black beans and accompanied by a baby greens salad with coffee vinaigrette was the main attraction of an evening this week with Chef Melissa De Leon.

Chef Melissa is visiting Austin from her home in Panama City. Wednesday night she held court at the Travis Heights home of a co-owner of Panama Boutique, the local company that organizes tours of the Central American country. Gathering the group close, she demonstrated how to form croquettes of yuca dough. Showing us the raw root vegetable, Melissa admonished the assorted food enthusiasts to not let the fear of the unknown prevent you from cooking with unusual ingredients.

Yuca, also known as manioc, cassava or mandioca, has a delicate flavor somewhat like extremely plain potatoes, without the earthy starchiness. Mixed with ricotta cheese or another queso fresco, they’re the perfect foil for any number of fillings. We were using a mixture of chorizo and steamed broccoli in our croquettes. Volunteers rolled the filled puffs in seasoned breadcrumbs and sprayed them with a bit of oil before hustling them in the oven. The night was young, more cooking was in store but we were all hungry for a taste of exotic goodness. The finished appetizers were browned and crunchy bites served up with an orange-tamarind dipping sauce. The serving tray circled the room only once before returning empty to the kitchen.

We were spellbound by the idea of the main dish, let alone the production. Wrapping anything in banana leaves and baking it is the stuff of Caribbean vacation meals, not dinner in Austin. Chef Melissa showed us just how easy it is to impress your friends with a meal most often found on outside the states. The marinade was incredible on its own, a mixture of finely diced ingredients that had a powerful citrus punch but once cooked mellowed to a pleasantly zippy crunch of fruits and herbs. The leaf wrapped fish made for a pretty plate and the marinade juice soaked into the rice and beans, adding a sassy sharpness.

“Love is the secret ingredient” said Chef Melissa with a smile. Her passion for cooking is obvious, as she gave tips for working with the staples of Panama. Even beverages were brought in as ingredients. The coffee vinaigrette is an easy and unusual dressing but the deep, earthy flavor was complimentary instead of overpowering the greens.

As the fish was pulled from the ovens, the class broke down into small groups to eat. The simple combinations of ingredients easily found in Austin but so exotic to most of us were quite delicious. With the exception of fish purchased at Quality Seafood, all the necessary foods were found at Fiesta. Banana leaves, it seems, are not completely uncommon in our city’s kitchens.

Chef Melissa’s Coffee Vinaigrette

Yield: 2-3 servings
1 tsp very finely ground coffee
½ tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
¼ cup sherry wine vinegar
½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Combine all ingredients and store in refrigerator until ready to use. Drizzle vinaigrette over salad greens, bread or meats and serve immediately. Can be stored in refrigerator for up to 1 week

Visit Chef Melissa's blog, The Cooking Diva, for more recipes and insights into the land of Panama. And for information on cooking tours of Panama check out Austin's own Panama Boutique.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Cocktails, Killer Dessert and Hangin' With a Chef

It's not every Tuesday that I get a five o'clock whistle text from Chel with one single word "bevies?". Okay...that statement isn't exactly true. "It's almost every Tuesday" would be more accurate. It's a great way to wind down after the work day and most Tuesdays our SO's are off doing their own thing, too. Yesterday we met up at South Congress Cafe, a hipster hangout with delectable food and a small selection of great beer on tap. I always give kudos when the draft is a higher quality than Miller Lite or Budweiser.

We hung out, chatting it up and drinking a rita on the rocks and a bellini. Neither of those cocktails were doing it for us so we switched to beer. I had a Stella Artois and Chel chose a Firemans #4 and we happily caught up on life while waiting for our appetizer, the chipotle shrimp quesadilla. The quesadilla was simple yet fabulous, with three types of gooey melted Mexican cheese, pico de gallo and marinated shrimp. It was served with guacamole, sour cream and more pico....mmmmm!

Hanging out in a SoCo hot spot is always entertaining. There was a small group in the bar who had accents I just couldn't place. European, judging by the skinny jeans one of the guys was wearing. Or should I say they were wearing him? Skinny jeans with their tight, smooth fit just don't appeal to me, especially on men. It makes their legs look like toothpicks, their backsides flat and accentuates their tiny waist and hips which in turn just pisses me off. Really? Your waist is the same size as mine was in 9th grade? How nice for you.

I did get to see Austin high society ladies, all decked out in Nordstrom attire, fully accessorized, meet up and air kiss. Their cheeks never so much as brushed each other's as they muah muah'd ever so politely. Freakin' hilarious. I tried to sneak a peek at what they were drinking as we left to indulge in some retail therapy.

Parts & Labour has to be one of my favorite stores on the strip for two reasons: the tee shirts and the jewelry. I don't know who designs the majority of their tee's but it's someone who shares my sense of humor. I laughed at the shirts that said "Sorry, I'm straight" and "Sorry, I'm gay". So Austin appropriate. After trying on oodles of rings and finally deciding that no, I did not need anything although I did want lots of things, we tripped on down Congress to Vespaio.

Vespaio's bar is absolutely one of the nicest to sit and sip a chilly flute of prosecco, which is exactly what we did. Tom, the master mixologist of a bartender, pointed us toward a heavenly dessert as well. It was a hazelnut doughnut with a mild spice cake flavor that had decadent port poached figs layered on it and topped with a honey gelato. Sprinkled around the plate were crumbly bits of hazelnut brittle or toffee, I'm unsure which. The next time I'm in Vespaio I'm going to ask if I can order just a tiny bowl of the deeply flavorful figs and a scoop of the gelato. Okay, maybe with a bit of the buttery candy, too. This is one of those desserts that you remember long after you forget who you were with when you first tasted it (although I promise not to forget you, Chel). The honey gelato was such a creamy, icy delight with a delicate sweetness that lent just the right amount of balance to the figs. Never again will I look at their chocolate offerings, never. And coming from me, that's saying a lot.

While we were lingering over our bubbly, a man dressed in chef's pants came to sit next to us. After almost every staff member had stopped to say hello to him, we couldn't bear it any longer. We had to introduce ourselves. Turns out he was Brenton Childs, executive chef at Bess Bistro. Ever so shy, Chel and I chatted away with Brenton, talking about everything from his upcoming long awaited and much needed vacation to the fact that neither of us had yet eaten at Bess. I cut to the chase immediately and asked what should I order at Bess if I was in Austin only long enough for one meal. Brenton's answer is to order the Porcini Crusted Halibut, which sounded mouthwatering as he described the pan seared fish plated on top of braised cabbage and onion and served with a big ole lump of crabmeat and some vermouth cream. I know what I'm having, when I visit Bess soon. Very soon.

The conversation turned to cocktails, as Tom had mixed up the city's finest Manhattan for Brenton. Chel and I had already discussed the best dirty martini in town (Sullivan's) and so I quizzed the Chef again, asking what to drink at Bess. He immediately recommended the Bess Cocktail, a refreshing glass of demi-sec with a squeeze of fresh lime juice to contrast the sweetness of the sparkling wine. Sounds like a perfect drink for our warm climate, the kind of cocktail you can sip as you relax into your evening.

I always enjoy talking with people who are passionate about their lives. Brenton is the type of person who has a zeal for his work and for his ambitions. While speaking of his cookbook, titled The Convert, the Chef explained he likes to create dishes using foods that many people avoid. The ones where they'll say "I hate _____, ever since I was 9 years old and I had to eat it". One such creation is the caramelized cauliflower Brenton has on the menu at Bess. His father avoided cauliflower at all costs, explaining he hated it and his mother used to make him eat it. Brenton thinly slices the cauliflower and cooks it down to a buttery caramelized softness so rich in flavor that has his father ordering it each time he visits.

The evening came to a close, with Chel and I promising to stop in at Bess once the Chef is back from his vacation and telling Tom we'd see him again, on a Manhattan kind of night. Air kisses exchanged, I headed home, happy to be living in Austin.