The typical South American diet might not be greeted with open arms on the Wesleyan campus, with its carb-heavy staples and dependence on frito-ing practically everything. Something must be said, however, for the basic and fundamental human pleasure of sitting at a dirty beach shack with the swish of the sea in the background and a plate of pure, fried, Latin American goodness in front of you.
An excellent example of pure, fried, Latin American goodness is the Colombian pescado frito, or literally, fried fish. The twist here is that in Colombia (and in most countries outside the United States), fish is eaten whole, with the head, tail and fins remaining conveniently attached. Processed fish meat (a.k.a fish fingers) and filets are unheard of in the Caribbean-influenced culinary culture of coastal Colombia – there is just too much unnecessary work involved in chemically treating the already fresh, sweet flesh off the bone. Moreover, cooking the fish whole retains its natural juices and taste, which makes one wonder why processed fish still maintains its tenacious foothold in the American consumer marketplace. The only drawback (or some might see this as another plus) is that the bones might prove a teeny obstruction to uninterrupted consumption – but God gave us opposable thumbs for a reason. Use your hands, people!
This dish is usually served with a mound of fragrant, fluffy coconut rice, deep fried sweet and savory plantains, and some half-hearted raw cabbage strips (Colombians are not known for their consummate salad-making skills). The different textures and tastes combine in a harmony of flavors to make this one of the most simple yet satisfying dishes I had in Cartagèna, Colombia over spring break: crispy fish skin contrasts delightfully with soft rice, sweet plantains cut the saltiness of the fish, and the side salad counters the abundance of oil.
While we might not have white sand and the ocean at our toe-tips here in Middletown, spring is on its way. Serving pescado frito on balmy Saturday afternoons, coupled with a bottle of light cerveza, would be a little slice of tropical bliss in the middle of temperate America.
Pescado Frito (Crispy Fried Whole Fish)
- 1 whole fish, preferably red snapper or yellowtail (about 1 1/2 pounds) – gutted, gills removed, thoroughly rinsed
- 2 limes cut into halves
- 2 cups vegetable oil
- 1/2 teaspoon of mashed fresh garlic cloves, or to taste
- 3/4 cup all purpose wheat flour
- 1/4 cup cornstarch (makes it stick better)
- kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
- Cut a shallow, crisis-cross pattern on both sides of the fish. Using kitchen scissors or a sharp knife, trim the fins, if they are very long.
- Rub fish inside and out with salt, pepper and garlic
- Combine flour, cornstarch, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Dredge the fish in the flour mix and let sit a minute or so, shaking off the excess. Place it in hot (360 degrees) oil. Fry for 4-5 minutes each side OR until light brown and skin is crispy on each side. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.
Serving suggestion: serve with lime wedges.
Coconut rice (serves 4)
- 2 cups jasmine rice
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
Rinse and drain rice in cold water. Place in a saucepan with water, coconut milk, and salt. Place the pot over high heat and, bring the liquid to a boil. Stir and reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting and cover the pot tightly with the lid. Continue cooking for 15 minutes.
Remove the pot from the heat and let stand 10 minutes, covered. Fluff with fork and serve.
Fried green plantains (Patacones)
Ingredients?(8 patacones, serves 4)
- 2 Large green plantains
- Vegetable oil for frying?
- Salt to taste
1. Peel the plantains and cut cross-wise into 1/2” slices
2. In a medium heavy pot, add enough vegetable oil to cover the plantain slices and heat the oil over medium high heat.
3. Add the plantain slices to the heated oil in a single layer. Fry for about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Carefully remove the plantains with a slotted spoon, and place them on a plate lined with paper towels to absorb excess oil.
4. Let the patacones cool for 3 minutes. Then, place the plantains on a piece of plastic wrap and cover with another piece of plastic wrap. With a flat pot cover, press well on the pieces of plantain, flattening them to ¼” thickness.
5. Dip each slice in salted water. Then using tongs add them back in the hot oil in a single layer (you may need to work in batches) and fry for an additional 3 minutes on each side. Be careful when you fry the soaked plantains, as droplets of water will cause the oil to splatter.
6. Remove the patacones with slotted spoon and transfer them to a plate lined with paper towels to absorb oil, sprinkle with salt, to taste, transfer to a serving plate and serve hot.