Cooking in the Tropics

Last year while I was waiting for our Tunisian landlord to get air conditioning installed in our apartment, I did a couple of posts on cooking for hot weather. When we are not having hurricanes and tornados here in Florida, the weather here is also very hot. And unlike Tunisia, where the sweltering wind off the Sahara desert kept things pretty dry even by the coast, Florida is more of a tropical place. In fact, I’m convinced that if we let our lawn go for, say, six months, we’d probably end up with not a knee-high grassy field, but a full-out jungle. Seriously. You can almost see the grass growing.

It reminds me a lot of the Philippines, where it was so hot and humid (sticky is how I would describe it, really) that I would walk outside and be soaking wet in five minutes, from a combination of sweat and water from the air. While we were there, we stayed for several weeks at a little hotel in Manila. Actually, “hotel” is a little grand. It was called “Pension Natividad,” and it was more like a hostel with a few private rooms, a communal pot of something that they cooked up every night, and a little improvised basketball court where the locals and Peace Corps types would shoot hoops in the evenings.

Pension Natividad had a little refrigerator in the lobby with cold drinks in it. And one of the drinks (by far the best) was the homemade lassi yoghurt.  My favorite flavor was the mango lassi, and to this day, whenever it is sticky hot outside, I am transported back in front of that refrigerator, trying to make up my mind if I need another mango lassi today. One evening a week or so ago it occurred to me that maybe I could make my own lassi. I put equal parts of milk, yoghurt, and mango pulp in the blender, along with a squirt of raw Florida wildflower honey. Heaven.

If it’s too hot to even push blender buttons, tied for best cool drink in the Philippines is coconut water fresh out of the coconut. To. Die. For. Here I am after a long, hot, marital-problem-inducing hike, enjoying one immensely. Axa, not so much.

Green coconut water has become quite the thing these days. It’s full of electrolytes, and is touted as a sort of natural form of Gatorade. You can now get it at Wal-Mart packaged a little more conveniently (i.e. bypassing the need for a machete) in a carton. I keep one in my refrigerator for when I need a healthy, natural, but certifiably mood-altering pick-me-up.

It’s also the season for six-for-a-dollar plantains (you know, those huge green bananas that you can’t eat raw). I saw them on sale at the Latino market where I shop, so I bought them and figured I’d look up how to cook them later. Fortunately, my brother Samuel went on a mission to Puerto Rico, and is a great cook. He sent me recipes for authentic Puerto Rican Mofongo and Garlic Shrimp. With his blessing, I substituted bacon for the pork rinds and chicken for the shrimp, so I can’t claim to have honestly tried the recipes as written. But they were good! My only problem was that I didn’t have the baseball-bat-sized mortar and pestle he informed me the recipe was actually talking about. I managed to mash my plantains anyway, but it was a lot of work. Still, it was worth it. Yum!

Yesterday I had a crazy craving for canned oysters. So I ate some. A lot, actually. As in, two cans full of oysters, right out of the tin with a fork. Before anyone jumps to conclusions, I am not pregnant. But I was having my period, and the craving made a lot more sense to me when I looked at the Nutrition Facts on the side of the can and realized that it was by far the most concentrated source of iron available in my house at the time.

I try to make a point to eat lots of iron-rich foods when I’m having my period, because one time at college I went to donate blood while having my period, and they told me I was too anemic. Another time I managed to give blood, but promptly fainted in the middle of my philosophy class, disrupting a lecture on Aristotle and the golden mean. Waking up on the floor in the hallway of the Smith Family Living Center with several anxious fellow-students peering down at me has got to rank as my most embarrassing college moment ever. Or at least second most embarrassing.

What I usually do to celebrate the monthly occurrence is to make liver for dinner. I typically chicken out and buy chicken livers to make pâté. If you’ve never tried it, you should. It is superb. Just don’t be put off by the greyish color. This month, though, I decided to go for it and make liver and onions. I’ve tried this before, with less than palatable results, so I was a little choosy about a recipe. I finally settled on one that touted itself as “Absolute Best Liver and Onions.” I followed the instructions religiously, and it turned out delicious. My kids even complimented it for the entire first half of dinner, until they finally clued in to the fact that it was liver.

What do you like drinking and cooking when it’s summertime?

photo credit: mango lassi