Mate and I have been doing some transplanting lately preparing for our move and the other day we dug up some yuca root (also known as cassava) to prepare for dinner. This root is absolutely amazing in its versatility, and it also is an excellent staple and can replace potatoes in many cases, it can even be dried and used for flour. Our yuca is just about eight months old now, we are in the dry season and it is READY for harvest.
The mother plant which is like a small tree sends out large roots that can grow up to a few feet long and a few inches in diameter covered by a thick rough skin that must be peeled, exposing a dense white root. The roots will grow out from the main plant or sometimes down into the earth, but they anchor firmly and must be dug with care and a shovel. One plant will yield several nice roots in the right conditions, but their ‘shelf-life’ is only a few days, which is why the roots can be found at the market fully waxed, much like turnips in the States. After scrubbing off the mud and/or soil, and peeling the roots, they are steamed until tender and right out of the pot like a fresh steamed potato or carrot, they are totally munchable. We like to have mashed yuca root with your favorite seasoning and this dish is so good it is hard to stop eating it! Delicioso! The next day I made a pie crust out of more of the steamed yuca root, adding a little bit of flour and some coconut oil and pressing it into the pie plate it is an excellent and healthy alternative for any deserts requiring crust, and even for pizza! There is a grand alarm out now for GMO wheat and so here there are many folks that have eliminated wheat products from their diets and yucca provides a great replacement for it as a crust, and a staple food.
So after digging, cooking, mashing and snacking on yuca root my mind was whirling with all of the most scrumptious foods that are available to us here, foods that I cannot even remember the names of! And so to whet some appetites I will chat up a few. One thing for sure is that you can get fresh lettuces and greens all year around here, with several varieties to choose from. All of the standard lettuces and greens, but there are a few different kinds of Chinese cabbages, wom bok, pak choi, bok choy, and a very thick meated chinese cabbage and the standard crisp thin lettuce like napa cabbage. We have mustard greens, a few different kinds of kale and the standard lettuce varieties, although head lettuce does not do well here, it is mostly leaf lettuce. The ‘traditional’ or common spinach that grows in the states does NOT grow here well at all, I have never been successful with growing it and you don’t see it anywhere. However, there is a wonderful replacement called ‘Malibar spinach’ which grows as a big vine and will fill up an empty spot both up and sideways becoming a wall of spinach vine in a short time and it is hardy. This vine produces thousands of large thick leaves that are not so good raw as they have a mucous like juice, but steamed and used as wraps for rice or other amazing delectable concoctions, or chopped into stir-fry, or simply steamed and served as a side dish the spinach is MUY DELICIOSO, and very good for you as well!
We also have here the traditional broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, leeks, green onions, beets, chard, etc., but there also are numerous other vegetables that I do not know yet. The peppers – so many! Big sweet ones that are excellent for chipotle as well as jalapenos are available at markets. But when you start peeking through local gardens you find an amazing assortment of hot pepper plants with peppers that are so hot that you burn your nose hairs smelling them! Oooh, how we love those hot chilies – LOL. The winter squashes are of several varieties, the young ones are used small and green and often put into soups, however you will also see huge ripe ones for sale in halves or quarters, the rich yellow-orange meat begging to be made into a pie or a yummy squash dinner. Squash (in lieu of pumpkin) pie with yuca crust…yummmmmy! There are many other kinds of roots, potatoes of several varieties and sweet potatoes that grow underground and some that grow as vines above ground, we stroll through the marketplace and ask questions about the unfamiliar varieties to learn more and more of what is available. Friends or helpers will give us a ‘potato’ that they just found in the jungle to try, next thing is we are looking for one to plant! We also have the ever versatile chayote, known as the ‘vegetable pear’, that also grows on a climbing vine and grows easily and in abundance. Chayote can be of various sizes and shades of green, from small light green ones the size of lemons to very large dark green ones the size of a small squash, all are used with the same variety. This vegetable can be peeled and chopped and steamed with other vegetables, used in soups or mixed dinners, and can also be used for mock apple pie! Cut it in half and steam until tender, scoop out the inside and mix with whatever you like, and then bake with a cheese topping – as good as twice baked potatoes! It is known to be an excellent aid in circulatory problems and a good blood cleanser and so it is a good one to have growing in your yard to be picked and eaten often. The list goes on! Most of these vegetables are available year around, however some can be seasonal to a degree, like tomatoes. You can get tomatoes all year, but there are times when all you can get are not yet ripe ones. Squash is available only half of the year (they don’t do well in the rainy season), and there are some others that you only see in particular seasons. You can definitely see when the fresh harvest is in, especially with onions and potatoes. Did I mention avocados? An abundance of avocadoes, from the huge creamy watery kind to the smaller thick sweet ones, all are good and good for you.
Let’s talk about some of the wonderful fish we have here: prawns and shrimp are available at some times and not at other times, and they are tasty. There are fresh water shrimp here as well, but you may have to go get those yourself! There are several kinds of snapper, sea bass, snook, tuna, and other local fish that provide a delectable choice for cooking. Ceviche is served everywhere here and it is one of our favorites to make in our kitchen, preferably with sea bass. It is very important that you have good limes, and there are so many different kinds of limes and lemons here that I have in no way come close to having that one figured out! I recognize a couple of limes that I know are good for ceviche, and this is important. The other kinds of limes can be sweet, sour or so extremely acid that you should be careful what you use them for, NOT for ceviche. Anyway, fresh sea bass and mandarinas (limes), a little bit of onion and cilantro, sometimes we put a spoonful of fresh made tomato salsa in there, but Mate has a secret ingredient that makes his ceviche ONO beyond anything they serve here, and I hesitate to divulge this secret….ok, I won’t. You will have to eat some and guess!
Moving along to tuna…oh how we love our fresh tuna. We have been getting our favorite ‘mercury fix’ for almost forty years – we probably should be dead by now, but we aren’t, we just keep fixing it in different ways. I guess there is the parasite issue, as well, when it is eaten raw, but we are still here and raising hell in the kitchen and planning on raising a lot more hell in the kitchen for many more years. Anyway, tuna is available as fresh as you can get it, but it is seasonal. Absolutely ONO, we like to eat it raw as sashimi, or in sushi made with nori wraps and fresh cucumbers (did I mention those before? Lots of cukes here, easy to grow), avocados and scallions; also we like to make poke, which is an Asian-Hawaiian dish that takes many forms but generally speaking you chop the fresh fish with several other vegies of your choice, a little sauce and spices of your choosing for marinade and some time in the frig before chow down. We like wrapping a slice of fresh raw tuna (ahi or atun) with rice in marinated spinach leaves then dipped in wasabi sauce…are you salivating yet?
Of course I didn’t mention all of the wonderful spices that we grow here as well, or perhaps in another blog I mentioned it, but ginger is a primary for us to grow here and we use it religiously for cooking and healing. Turmeric, chilies, cilantro, dill, rosemary, basil, oregano – we grow them all to be used fresh and for spices. Cinnamon and pepper also grow in abundance here and are available, as well as vanilla beans. Yep, home grown vanilla beans, make your own vanilla extract for baking! The abundance is amazing and all are within easy reach of even folks residing in town. We like to produce our own – most of the joy is in growing your own and creating from your own fresh garden produce.
Fruits – now this is a broad subject and I cannot even begin to name them all, but there are so many different kinds of fruits here, and so many different kinds of the same fruits here, that it will take me the rest of my life to learn them all! You look at some of these hanging from trees and wonder ‘what the heck is that’ only to be inspired to open it up and taste it…wow, this is called a custard fruit? Full of seeds with this white creamy incredibly sweet custardy flesh inside – makes a fantastic smoothie with pineapple, bananas and/or papaya. Smoothies are amazing, the combinations endless, it is a favorite breakfast for me. Home grown pineapples, white and yellow – these are as sweet as can be; the bananas have as many varieties or more as the lettuces! In the states there is one kind: shipped from somewhere else. Here there are apple bananas, little sweeties, fruity bananas, purple bananas, and so on. There are also platanos, which are very large banana like fruits that are used similarly, but primarily they are deep fried green as platano fritos. You can use any of them for fresh, fried, or baked in meals or desserts, these gems are definitely a daily rite. But bananas are eaten and enjoyed by everything: dogs love them, kids love them, horses and cows love them – in fact, all I have to do is wave a banana in the air and my horses come running – and pigs love them. If you like to eat pork there is nothing better than fruit fed pork, lots of bananas. All of the unsold bananas and fruit go to the pigs. The piggies are fed some corn, and taro root is also fed to them and whatever other extra vegetables on hand, but the fruit is what makes the pork so delectable.
Well now that we have established that our home is a food utopia, it can be well understood why there are so many raw food folks that live here! Here there is the standard fare of rice and beans, most of the locals do not bother to be too creative with their cooking, they are quite bland feeders, but enter the gringo and the restaurant menus have changed. The farmer’s markets offer all of it to whoever chooses to welcome it into their home kitchens. Always there, always abundant, raw, vegetarian or anything goes…feast freely and enjoy!