Wednesday, February 29, 2012

RECIPE - Fish in a Banana Leaf (Peixe na Folha de Bananeira)

In Brazil, where banana plants grow like weeds almost everywhere and where lots of people have a banana plant in their backyard or, if not, in their neighbor's, the large flat leaves of the plant are a perfect material for wrapping food that's going to be steamed or roasted.

The technique, and the culinary advantages, of using a banana leaf this way are basically the same as using a sheet of parchment paper as classic French cuisine does in their "en papilotte" dishes. By wrapping a banana leaf around a piece of fish or meat, or around a seasoned mixture of seafood or vegetables, none of the natural flavor of the food is lost during the cooking process. There's no evaporation and lost of consequent loss of flavor.

There are thousands of Brazilian recipes that call for the use of banana leaf as a wrapping. Many of the most traditional are for fish - the combination of fish and banana leaves is an old and traditional one in many parts of Brazil. But there are recipes for other proteins in banan leaves, as well as sweets, such as coconut puddings, and savory carbohydrates (click here to read about pamonha, Brazil's tamale).

Banana leaves are less easily obtained in non-tropical climates although they can sometimes be found frozen in Asian or Latin American markets in North America and Europe. You can substitute aluminum foil for the leaf in any recipe that calls for it and the result will be practically identical. However, you'll lose the visual appeal of a banana leaf. A plate with a small "present" enclosed in a banana leaf has a natural beauty that aluminum foil lacks. So if you can find banana leaves, frozen or not, for this recipe for fish or for any other recipe calling for them, go with nature's wrapping.
RECIPE - Fish in a Banana Leaf (Peixe na Folha de Bananeira)
Serves 2

1 whole fish, scaled and cleaned, about 2 lbs (1 kg)
1 bunch cilantro
1 small hot chili pepper, dedo de moca, jalapeno, serrano or similar
salt and pepper to taste
juice of one lime.
2 banana leaves
Cut the chili pepper in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds and veins (unless you prefer a spicy dish). Put the cilantro, the chili pepper and the lime juice in a blender or food processor and blend until you have a chunky puree. Do not overblend.

Wash the fish well inside and out. Dry with paper towels. Make two or three parallel cuts in the skin on each side of the fish, cutting into the flesh. Rub the cilantro puree into the fish, inside and out. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Spread out one banana leaf. Place the seasoned fish on the leaf, then cover with the second leaf. Using toothpicks to seal, fold over the edges of the two leaves and close the seams with toothpicks.

Place the package in a large roasting pan or lasagne pan. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the leaves are dry and beginning to brown. Remove from oven and let stand for five minutes before unwrapping the fish.

Serve immediately accompanied by white rice.

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