Author Archives: KarenN

Oh, the possibilities of plátanos!

 By Karen Nagy

 When I lived in North America, bananas for me were simply a neatly packaged fruit, easy to grab on the way out the door, peel, eat, and toss. Maybe I’d smear some peanut butter on for a crunchy, protein-filled snack, blend them with strawberries for a quick breakfast smoothie, or if I was feeling decadent, I’d slice them and eat them with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of chocolate sauce. If I was lucky, grandma would take my brown bananas, on the verge of hitting the trash, and turn them into a sweet banana bread. For most North Americans, I think that’s about as much action as this tropical fruit ever sees.

But upon coming to South America 14 months ago, I’ve realized that the yellow banana I know is just one of many varieties, and that the multiple shapes, colors, and flavors of the bananas in the southern part of the Americas have potential far beyond what I’d ever realized in my Oregon kitchen. In a country like Ecuador, which has been producing bananas since 1700, and has grown to be the number one worldwide exporter, bananas are much more than just a mere fruit. They are a primary source of income and a staple food crop for many. And best of all, over the centuries, Ecuadorians have come up with a long list of creative recipes to utilize this abundant fruit.

 

The big sweet plátanos maduros are often lightly fried and eaten with menestra, a saucy bean dish, and grilled meat. The pink plátanos rojos make a lovely dessert when baked whole in the oven. Sometimes I find the amazingly sweet but tiny oritos in the grocery store, and the yellow bananos that are exported to my friends and family in the states are sold for 5 to 10 cents in just about all corner stores for a quick snack.

 

But it’s those plátanos verdes, also known as maqueños, that hold the most potential. They’re slightly starchier, firmer, and have less sugar content than other varieties, and require some form of cooking to make them edible. I’ve decided that they’re sort of like potatoes, in that their flavor is mild and the consistency allows them to be boiled, fried, mashed, or baked. On the coast, they’re often baked til they’re soft, then mashed and mixed with butter, salt, a bit of onion, and cheese (or chicharrón, fried bits of pork) , formed into a ball and fried, making the delicious bolónes de verde, which are usually eaten for breakfast with a bit of the spicy aji pepper sauce.

 

 Green plantains can be added to soups, used as a type of dough in the cheese-filled empanadas de verde, or sliced thin, baked into chips, salted, and sold as chifles, which are a common topping for bowls of ceviche (that delicious cold citrusy shrimp or fish dish). You’d be hardpressed not to find at least one bag of these crunchy chifles in just about any store in Ecuador, no matter how small or remote the place.

 

But my personal favorite use of these of this versatile fruit is the patácon, which is basically a plátano verde, cut into rounds, smashed, and double-fried. The first place I tried patácones was in the Ecuadorian beach town of Canoa, accompanying my $4 filet of dorado, salad, rice, and beans. Patácones often appear in coastal meals with fish, and while they seem like a simple side dish, I learned the first time I tried to replicate them in my Quito kitchen that creating a perfectly round, golden-fried plantain is trickier than you might imagine. I’d either turn them into a crumbly mess or smash them too thin, creating overly crispy pucks when fried.

 

But recently, I had the pleasure of spending a Latin-family style weekend with my boyfriend and his large familia at their house in the Mindo cloudforest, complete with the whole gang: parents, aunts, uncles, little cousins, and even the abuelita. Out behind the house are several banana trees, and to my delight, I got to watch as the family made homemade patacones, using grandma’s time-tested recipe. It seemed all 3 generations of the family knew the tricks, but for me, there were a couple of things I’d forgotten when I’d tried to make them on my own. The family gave me a couple dozen little green plátanos to take home with me, which I used to create my very own patácones:

 

    1. Peel the plátanos.

    Though it sounds pretty self-explanatory, the green skin can be difficult to remove from the fruit. It releases a sticky sap when you cut the peel, so it’s best to wear plastic gloves to protect your hands from the sticky mess, then cut off the ends of the banana, and cut slices lenthwise to make it easier to remove the hard peel in pieces.

     

     2. Cut the plátanos into rounds that are roughly 1½ to 2 inches in height.  

    3. Heat up oil in a frying pan.

    While some type of vegetable oil is undoubtedly what’s usually used in Ecuador, I found that coconut oil lends well to the high-heat frying, and adds a nice flavor to the plantain.

    4. Fry!

    Wait til the oil gets good and hot, then gently drop the plantain rounds into the oil, let them cook for a couple minutes, then flip them, to cook both cut edges. It’s okay if they’re not cooked all the way through at this stage.

     

     

    5. Smash ’em!

    Remove the plantains from the oil, turn off the heat, but reserve the oil. Once the plátanos have cooled a bit, put them between a plastic bag to prevent them from sticking, and one by one, smash them by placing a heavy cutting board on top of the bag, pressing down slowly with both hands. Careful not to make them too thin!

    6. Fry again. Yup, that’s right.

    Once they’ve been smooshed into delicate pucks, turn on the heat again, and give each side another light frying until they’ve turned golden and crispy.

     7. Disfruta! 

    While they’re usually seen next to fish or beans, they make great potato replacements, and are a delicious breakfast item with a fried egg and some salsa. For a snack, try patácones with a bit of salt, guacamole and hot sauce.

     

     

    Have other favorite foods or recipes making creative uses of bananas or plantains? Post them here!

     

     

     

Making the Great Escape

By Lorraine Caputo

This past Patagonian winter, guests were fixing their dinners around the hostel’s large kitchen table. Conversations wended from the our different day trips to the usual, “So, hey, where’re you from?” James* from NYC, lost his job on Wall Street. Sara from England, who became unemployed last year, decided to bike the Carretera Austral. She and her Spanish partner were the last to cross at Paso Dos Lagunas from Villa O’Higgins to El Chaltén before snows clamped the border shut. Chris, a recent university graduate, is exploring South America before striking into the tight work market. Many others, too, are refugees from the economic crisis gripping North America and Europe. Some have decided to just get away for a while and rest before going back to fight for the few jobs there are. Others have bought a six-month or one year ticket, or are just hitting the road with no return fare. They’ll try to wait the crisis out.

For years, these people were just aspiring travelers. If they were lucky, they had a few weeks of vacation a year, but never seemed to be able to take them. Or perhaps, with the employment uncertainty, they couldn’t dare ask for a vacation, even a short one. Others worked in whatever they could find, scraping pennies for the day when they could ditch that dead-end job and journey. Now with the economy the way it is, there’s the time–and a bit of savings. Now James, Sara and Chris have finally put aside the tale tomes of others and leaped out of the armchair. They’ve packed their bags, bought a ticket and headed off for their own adventures in another land.

Are these travelers fool-hardy, especially those delving into “exotic” Chile and Argentina, two of South America’s most expensive countries? Some of them may find they’ve gone through their money faster than they thought they would. They’ll have to end their trips early or rack up credit card debt to make it through to their fly date.

How can you travel, whether for a few weeks or a year, and yet have a bit of money to tide you over once you get back home? To travel on a budget, you have to be disciplined and ready to expand the boundaries of your comfort zone. You won’t be able to go to all the hot tourism spots, only a few of them. You’ll have the opportunity to break out of the so-called “gringo” trail and get a closer understanding of the countries you visit. That is the ultimate reward.

A few burnished veterans have kept the fine art of shoestring travel alive and are ready to teach a new generation of travelers. In V!VA Travel Guides’ new bi-monthly blog on budget travel, you’ll learn tips of how to travel with less money. Tell us any questions or topics you’d like us to cover. And until next time, Safe Journeys!

*Names have been changed.

Hungry? Top 10 places in Latin America to taste the weird and the wonderful.

 by Karen Nagy

 

Argentina: Morcilla

photo by Raúl Hernández Gómez

photo by Raúl Hernández Gómez

Argentine’s are known for their meat and for throwing a good BBQ. And when they’re slaughtering all those pigs and cows for tasty steaks, they don’t let much of the animal go to waste. In fact, the congealed blood is used as the primary ingredient in morcilla: a dark sausage flavored with garlic and onion, and a bit of meat from the head of the animal.

 

 

 

Belize: Agouti

Found throughout lowlands and rainforests, this rodent is one of the biggest in Latin America, weighing up to 13 pounds. While they are easily tamed and make for affectionate pets, the agouti is still hunted by lots of indigenous communities for its meat, which is apparently quite tasty, kind of like a gourmet pork. However, it should be noted that three species of agouti appear on the endangered species list.

 

Bolivia: Chuños

Potato preparation is nearly endless: hash browns, french fries, baked potatoes… 2-year old freeze-dried papas? In the high plateaus of Bolivia, dehydrated potatoes are a staple in the diets of Quechua and Aymara communities. For five days, the purplish-black variety are exposed to the freezing nighttime temperatures of the high Andes, then left out in direct sunlight, and finally stomped on to remove any excess water. This process creates a wrinkly, mealy (and apparently still edible) food source that can then be easily stored and transported. The chuño is often used in soups, or turned into flour, which can be purchased in most grocery stores and markets in Bolivia.

 

Brazil: Feijão

photo by Kai Hendry

photo by Kai Hendry

This traditional recipe was born in colonial Rio de Janeiro by slaves who used discarded pig parts to create this now popular stew. Feijão has become the national dish of Brazil, eaten today by all social classes. It is made by slow-cooking black beans with a variety of salted pig parts: snouts, tails, feet and ears. Some recipes also include smoked pork ribs, bits of bacon, beef tongue and loin, and it’s usually served with rice, greens, and orange.

 

Colombia: Hormiga culona

For centuries, big-butt queen ants have been collected every spring upon emerging from underground nests, toasted in salt, and eaten as a traditional snack in the Santander region of Colombia, typically as a Semana Santa treat. But recently this delicacy has been gaining popularity outside the borders of Latin America, as well. Apparently the crispy, nutty taste of the hormiga culona lends well to gourmet recipes: Belgian-chocolate-dipped ants and lamb in ant sauce are two of the hottest new ways to enjoy this 6-legged snack.

 

Chile: Ubre

In certain regions of Chile, the udder of a cow is just as likely to show up on your plate as it is to be found being pumped in a dairy. To prepare this giant gland, it’s soaked in water for a couple hours to remove any last bits of remaining milk in the teats, then tossed on a charcoal grill. The texture is spongy and the taste is smoky. Buen provecho!

 

Ecuador: Lemon ants

photo by Jon Connell

photo by Jon Connell

You have to wonder who first discovered that these tiny ants have a citrus flavor, but they’re eaten live and are truly lemony, and are now on the menu for most intrepid travelers visiting the Ecuadorian jungles. Read more here.

 

 

 

 

 Mexico: Tacos sesos

Tacos are a staple in Mexican cuisine. Tacos sesos aren’t that much different from the usual chicken or beef version, but instead of the typical bean and meat combo, these tacos use cow brains as the main filling. Brain tacos are typical street food in Mexico—and make a nice mid-day snack for hungry zombies.

 

Nicaragua: Huevos de tortugas

For five out of the seven types of sea turtles in the world, the Pacific and the Caribbean beaches of Nicaragua are some of their preferred spawning sites. While many international tourists come to Nicaragua to see the arrival of the turtles during these periods, others come for the eggs. Though this has now been recognized as an environmental no-no, it is part of the Caribbean culinary traditions in Nicaragua to eat sea turtle eggs. Usually raw. The eggs look like steamed ping pong balls with a soft shell, and typically a hole is poked in the top, a couple drops of hot sauce or lemon juice are squeezed in to “cook” it with a bit of salt, and the raw concoction is followed by a shot of rum. While it sounds exotic, leave the eggs to make turtles, not people-food. 

 

Peru: Cuy

photo by Jorge Gobbi

photo by Jorge Gobbi

This typical Peruvian meal is called cuy because that’s the noise this animal supposedly makes. Commonly known as a guinea pig and a pet in North America, the cuy is a main Peruvian food source: bred in captivity, skinned, put on a skewer, and cooked on grills throughout the country. The meat contains zero cholesterol, and is often served with peanut or hot pepper sauce. This animal has played an important role in Peru for centuries: cuy bones were apparently found in the tombs of the most important Pre-Incan authorities, and today Peru has dedicated one day every September to celebrate their favorite furry critter.