Nov 9, 2012

Tropical French Cuisine

Painting of "Tahitian Women on the Beach"
by Paul Gauguin
When I think of French food, I don't think of tropical food, I think of coq au vin, salade niçoise, bœuf bourguignon, baguettes, creamy cheese and wine. I was trained in Le Cordon Bleu Program, at the Culinary Academy in San Francisco, and nothing was mentioned about tropical French cuisine. This seems odd seeing as how the Polynesian islands have been an overseas country of the French Republic since the 1880s. French Polynesia includes 121 islands scattered across more than 1,930,500 square miles in the southern Pacific Ocean between Australia and South America. I have spent some time on the beautiful islands of Bora Bora, Moorea, and Tahiti, and yes indeed they do speak French there, and the food is somewhat influenced by French cuisine. Ancient Hawaiians came from that part of the world, so I thought I would explore the French influence on Polynesian cuisine in the last 132 years.

Here's a little background on French Polynesia, so we are all on the same page. Nearly 80 percent of the residents are of Polynesian or mixed Polynesian ethnicity, approximately 12 percent are of European ancestry and 8 percent are of Chinese decent. Generosity, and hospitality are central values in French Polynesia. When guests are invited for a meal, the hosts are not necessarily expected to eat. Tahitians, just like many Hawaiians, greet each other by shaking hands and/or exchanging kisses on the cheek. Unless there is a large number of people in the room, it is considered impolite not to shake hands with all of them. It also is considered impolite to keep one's shoes on when entering another person's home. Restaurants in French Polynesia are influenced not only by French and Tahitian, but also Chinese, Vietnamese, and Italian. Both locals and visitors commonly enjoy a variety of dishes from roast pork and pizzas to chow mein and flaming crêpes. French Polynesian food is known throughout the world because of its exotic fruits, fresh fish and vegetables. Fresh seafood is a staple of the Tahitian diet, like tuna, mahi-mahi, grouper, bonito, parrot fish, barracuda, octopus and sea urchin. River prawns, known as chevrettes, are also popular. Other than fish, pork and chicken are very common. The fruit, pineapple, coconut, and banana are enjoyed as much as they are here in Hawaii. Other foods grown in French Polynesia are ginger, breadfruit, cassava, purple sweet potatoes, and taro. Also lime juice, coconut milk and vanilla, which is mostly grown on Taha'a, an island not far from Bora Bora, are used with a passion in both savory and sweet dishes. A typical meal served in Bora Bora consists of poisson cru, grilled shrimp, coconut bread, yams and fresh pineapple. 

After much research, I have to admit that I can't see that France has greatly influenced the cuisine of the Polynesian people, except for perhaps local restaurant food. Polynesian food is still prepared much like it has been for many centuries, the way it was before the outsiders came. The difference between Hawaii and French Polynesia is that Hawaii has become enriched by so many outsiders. They have made the Hawaiian islands a better place to live, and eat, without loosing ALOHA. 

Tahitian Poisson Cru
You don't have to go all the way to Tahiti to try this delicious appetizer. I don't think it was influenced by the French, but I love it, it's fairly easy to make, and is very Tahitian.
1 1/4 pounds sashimi-grade 'ahi tuna, cut into small squares
pinch of sea salt
1/4 cup lime juice
1 Japanese cucumber, cut into strips or cubes or shaved
1 ripe tomato, seeded and diced
1 tiny hot red pepper, seeded and minced, or a good splash of hot sauce
pinch of fresh-ground pepper
1/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk (canned)
3-4 sprigs green onion, thinly slivered
coconut, freshly grated

Place cut tuna in a large, non-reactive bowl. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over the tuna. Pour over the lime juice, give it a gentle stir, and allow it to marinate 5-10 minutes. Add vegetables and chilies, season with pepper and pour over coconut milk. Gently fold mixture. Taste and correct seasonings, then cover and chill. Garnish with green onion and freshly grated coconut. Variations: Add grated or shaved carrots, diced or shaved red onion or sweet onion, a little minced garlic and/or a pinch of sugar. Makes 6 servings.

Baked Mahi Mahi with a Vanilla Cream Sauce
Here you will see the French influence of butter and cream in this mahi mahi recipe.
1/2 cup white wine
2 tablespoons spring onions cut fine
1 vanilla bean
4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon of olive oil
4 six- to eight-ounce mahi mahi fillets
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 475˚F. To make the vanilla sauce, heat the wine in a saucepan together with the finely cut spring onions and the vanilla been cut in half lengthwise. Simmer until there's only a bit of liquid left, add three tablespoons of butter to the sauce, and reduce heat to a gentle simmer, being careful not to bring to a boil. Simmer about two minutes, until syrupy. Then pour in the cream and add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer the sauce until it is reduced for about 5 or 6 minutes. In a separate oven proof saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add remaining one tablespoon of butter and allow to melt. Add mahi mahi, season with salt and pepper and cook 1 minute. Transfer skillet with fish to oven and cook for an additional 3 minutes, until opaque. Place the fillets on individual plates, remove the vanilla been, and drizzle with vanilla cream sauce. Serve immediately with petite green peas sauteed in shallots, butter, and lemon juice, and finished with some lemon zest. Hot French bread on the side. Makes 4 servings.

Chevrettes à la Vanille et Coco
(Shrimp in coconut vanilla sauce)
1 tablespoon butter
2  tablespoons canola oil
2 pounds white shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 Tahitian vanilla bean
1/2 cup light rum
1 cup canned coconut milk, shaken
1 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper, to taste

Heat the butter and oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp and saute until just pink, about 2-3 minutes. Remove the shrimp to a plate and set aside. Saute onion in remaining butter and oil until translucent, about 5 minutes. Slit the vanilla bean down the middle and scrape out the seeds. Add the rum, vanilla bean pod and seeds to the pan with the onions and bring to a simmer. Cook until the rum is evaporated, a minute or so. Pour in the shaken coconut milk and cream. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer slowly until the sauce is thickened and its volume is reduced by about half. Remove the vanilla bean pod and return the shrimp to the pan. Simmer to heat through and season with salt and pepper. Serve hot over Gingered Jasmine rice with spinach gratin (recipes follows). Makes 4-6 servings. Note: This recipe would also work well with fish or chicken.

Spinach Gratin
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
2 pounds spinach, rinsed, drained, and chopped
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 375˚F and butter a gratin dish. Sauté the onion in the olive oil for five minutes in a medium saucepan set over medium heat. Sprinkle the flour over the onions and continue sautéing the mixture for 30 seconds. Add the salt, pepper, dried thyme, and spinach to the pan and stir until the ingredients are combined. Cover the pan with a lid and turn the heat to low. Allow the spinach to wilt for 3 minutes. Stir the milk and heavy cream into the spinach mixture and turn it out into the buttered gratin dish. Stir together the melted butter, bread crumbs, and 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, and sprinkle the bread crumbs over the gratin. Bake the spinach gratin in the preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until it is hot and bubbly, and the bread crumbs have turned golden brown. Makes 4 servings.

Gingered Jasmine Rice
1 quart chicken stock
3 cups jasmine rice
1 to 1-1/2 cups water
1/2 cup yellow onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 (1-inch) chunk fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
2-1/2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 drizzle toasted sesame oil

Wash and rinse the jasmine rice thoroughly in several water baths to remove starch, then drain. Add 1 tablespoon of canola oil to a lidded pot. Turn on medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the minced garlic and cook until fragrant for 1-2 minutes. Transfer the garlic with the oil into a small bowl. Set aside. In the same pot, add 2 tablespoons of oil. Sauté the onions in the oil over low heat for about 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently until golden brown and tender. Transfer to a platter, leaving the remaining oil in the pot. Add the rice to the pot. Stir to coat all the grains with oil. Add the whole black peppercorns, sliced ginger, chicken broth and 1 cup of water. Cover with the lid. Bring to a boil for 2-3 minutes, place 2 long chopsticks across the pot and place the lid on top (letting a little steam out keeps the rice from boiling over, without letting all the liquid evaporate too quickly) then lower the heat to a simmer for about 8 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons of butter, the caramelized onions and salt, plus an additional 1/4 cup of water. Seal the pot with an aluminum sheet and cover it with lid. Cook on medium-low for another 10-12 minutes. Steam should escape from the pot. Turn off the heat and wait at least 5 minutes for the rice to set without removing the lid. Check doneness of the rice; the rice should be tender and all the liquid absorbed. If not, add another 1/4 to 1/2 cup of water and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the reserved fragrant garlic and drizzle with the garlic oil. Gently fluff the rice with a fork. Cover one more time and allow to rest for another 5 minutes. The rice is ready. Drizzle with sesame oil and serve warm. You can garnish with sautéed green onions, shredded fresh ginger and cilantro. Serve with roasted chicken. Makes about 10 servings.

Tahitian Sweet Bread
6 ounces all purpose flour
4 ounces whole wheat flour
6 ounces sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 fluid ounces plain yogurt
2 large egg whites
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teasp crystallized ginger, minced fine
the juice and zest of 2 oranges
4 ounces dried mango
4 ounces dried pineapple

Preheat the oven to 350˚F, and lightly grease a 9x5-inch loaf pan. In a large bowl, mix together the flours, sugar, soda, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, mix together yogurt, egg whites, oil, orange juice, vanilla and ginger. Add the yogurt mixture to the flour mixture and stir just until combined. Do not over-mix or beat batter until smooth. Stir in orange zest, mango and pineapple until just blended then pour into the prepared tin and level the surface. Bake for about 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in the loaf pan for 10 minutes before removing bread. Continue cooling bread on a wire rack. Makes 1 loaf.

Caramelized Banana Crêpes
with Roasted Macadamia Nuts

A crêpe is a type of very thin pancake, usually made from wheat flour or buckwheat flour. The word is French in origin, originating in Brittany, a region in the northwest of France. Crêpes are served with a variety of fillings from sweet to savory. The fresh fruit found here in Hawaii and French Polynesia, mango, papaya, pineapple and banana, make a perfect filling for a sweet tropical dessert, using French crêpes. Simple caramelization of fresh tropical fruit to enhance the natural sweetness, and warm crêpes, topped with roasted Macadamia nuts to add crunch and texture.

Ingredients for basic sweet crêpes:
1 cup wheat flour (leveled)
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 cup milk (full, low, or nonfat)
1/2 cup water
2 teaspoons unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs

Procedure for basic sweet crêpes:
Combine flour and sugar in a bowl and set aside. Blend milk, water, melted butter, and eggs in a blender. Slowly add in dry ingredients and blend until smooth. Cover and set in the fridge for one hour. Spray an 8-inch frying pan and heat. Pour 1/4 cup of batter into the pan and swirl the batter so that it fills the pan in one thin layer. Cook on one side until for about 1 minute or until lightly browned (as seen by carefully lifting the crêpe with a spatula). Carefully flip on the opposite side and cook through. Repeat until the rest of the batter is finished. Makes 12-14 crêpes.

Ingredients for caramelized bananas:
4 large bananas, sliced
4 ounces unsalted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar

Procedure for caramelized bananas:
Melt the butter and sugar in a large frying pan or saucepan on a medium heat. Once sugar has dissolved, add the bananas. Watching carefully, gently cook until the bananas are well caramelized, and sauce has thickened, about 5 minutes.

Ingredients for caramelized banana crêpes:
one recipe basic crêpes
one recipe caramelized bananas
1/2 cup crushed, roasted macadamia nuts
vanilla ice-cream to serve, optional

Procedure for caramelized banana crêpes:
After preparing a stack of crêpes, set aside. Prepare the caramelised bananas. Fill each crêpe with 2-3 pieces of banana. Drizzle caramel sauce over the finished crêpe and garnish with a few roasted macadamia nuts. Vanilla ice-cream optional. Makes 4-6 servings.

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