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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hot Summer Nights: Embrace The Heat

I had an interesting day yesterday.  I ran into my Puerto Rican born friend at work.  I hadn't seen her in a while. I asked her how she was dealing with the heat.  "I love it!", she proclaimed. Uh.  Ok.  "But it's soooo humid", I said.  "This isn't humid.  In Puerto Rico, you can take a cold shower and as soon as you step out of the shower, you're sweating.  That's humid.", she replied.  I was clearly going nowhere fast.  Think.

"Have you ever been to The Caribbean Pot spice shop in Old San Juan?', I asked. We had been there on our last visit to Puerto Rico, bought a suitcase full of spices, and signed up for their newsletter. With perplexed curiosity, she said, "No".  "I get their weekly newsletter full of recipes with great photos.  Wanna check it out?", I teased.  Finally had her.  Hook, line, and sinker.  I scribbled the web sight, on scrap paper and handed it to her.  She then started thinking and talking about the food she grew up with. Her childhood food memories. Yuca Escabeche was one of her favorites.  She described it in minute detail. I took notes.  As she spoke, her face transformed into softness, her voice began to lilt, and her body totally relaxed.  I want that, I thought.  I want to feel that.

I did a bit of research, left work, and headed straight to the African Caribbean Market in search of yuca and other ingredients.  I was going to make the yuca escabeche with pernil, a pork shoulder roasted with sofrito.
Armed with my list, I walked into the market and went back to the fresh produce section.  I had no idea what yuca, or cassava, even looked like.  Everything looked like roots.  I grabbed a couple of narly looking things and headed to the front of the store where a beautiful woman was sitting behind the  counter on a tall wooden stool with her child in her lap.  They were reading.  I handed her my Sazon (annatto, culantro, achiyote, garlic, and salt seasoning), a bottle of sofrito, and my yuca.  "You want me  to slice it to make sure it's ok?', she asked.  "Uh, sure", I said."  It felt ok.

She pulled a machete out from under the counter and in one quick motion, whacked it in half.  Alrighty then.
"It is no good.  Needs to be snow white in the middle.  Get another one.", she said.  Rule follower.  I brought another one to the counter.  Whack. "No good either."  I followed her back to the yuca patch where she proceeded to destroy her entire stock of yuca  with the machete until she found two that were snow white in the center.  Thank God.

I left the store with my stash, all my fingers, and a smile on my face.  Mission accomplished.

Traditionally, yuca escabeche is served at room temperature.  As soon as I got home, I brought a pot of well salted water to a boil, peeled the yuca, and dropped it  into the boiling water to cook for 30 minutes until tender.

While the yuca boiled away, I prepared the marinade.  I poured 1/2 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup white wine vinegar into a small sauce pan, turned the heat on to medium, and added 4 thinly cloves of garlic, 1 large sliced shallot, 3 bay leaves, salt, and 10 pink and black peppercorns.  As soon as the marinade came to a simmer, I shut down the heat and set it aside.   When the yuca was fork tender, I pulled it  out of the water, sliced  it into rounds, and doused it with the marinade.

The pork was pretty simple.  Pernil usually calls for a roasted pork shoulder.  I had leftover shredded pork from a previous roasted shoulder in the freezer and pulled it out to thaw while I prepared fresh sofrito vegetables to combine with the purchsed jarred tomato based sofrito.  Using what I had on hand, I sliced green bell peppers, baby poblano peppers, garlic, onions, and Spanish green olives.

Everything was ready to go.  My place' was mised, so to speak.  Off to the parlor to drink wine and chat with Michael.

When it neared time to eat, I slipped back into the kitchen, got a saute pan screaming hot,  added olive oil to the pan, and sauteed the aromatics until tender before tossing in the sofrito, green olives, capers, the shredded pork, the Sazon seasoning, and a cup of wine to loosen the sauce. While that simmered, I threw on a pot of rice to serve as a base.  30 minutes later, it was done.

I plated the rice, topped it with the pork, and buffered the yuca escabeche with gorgeous sliced red tomatoes.

The yuca resembled a potato in texture, although a bit more dense.  It was nutty, flaky, sweet, and bitter.  It became translucent and absorbent when cooked which allowed it to completely soak in the unctuous marinade. The luscious oil was lip clinging and soft while the pickling-spiced vinegar gave a piquant jolt.  The paper-thin sliced garlic and shallots were cooked, yet firm, allowing their flavors to permeate the marinade along with tiny toothsome crunch. The pink and black peppercorns were strewn about about like hidden perfumed jewels. While eating it, I understood my friend's joy.  Her revelation about yuca escabeche.. Her wanting to have it and share it with me.  Got it.  Totally.

The pork was very complex.  Highly seasoned and savoury.  The sofrito was aromatic and rich, punctuated with occasional bursts of briny olives and tart salty capers.  It had deep flavor. Dark briny flavor. A stew with major attitude that paired beautifully with the buttery tart yuca escabeche.  The sliced tomatoes were perfect foil to the richness with mouth cleansing sweet acidity.

Two nights ago we sucumbed to the blazing heat and ate light fresh fruit for dinner.  Last night, inspired by my friend's food memories, I embraced the heat and cooked head on with  caribbean spirit at full speed.

I'm glad I did.

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