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.

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