Sunday, March 6, 2011

A la boliviana

As you may have noticed in the world "map" according to Argentines I put up awhile ago (I write "map" in quotations though I know all maps are subjective...this site is an awesome way of exploring this), Argentineans think of Bolivians principally as uneducated laborers, mainly domestic workers and vegetable sellers. You don't often hear the same rancor towards them that you do towards Peruvians-- I can't count the number of times Argentines have told me that Peruvians come to Argentina to steal-- whereas Bolivians are considered hard workers, though they also tend to be looked down upon in Argentine society. In some ways many Argentines' relations to Bolivians remind me of many Americans' relations to Mexicans.

A Bolivian classmate of mine named Karla, who is a doctor, works for an HMO doing ambulance calls. She told me that often when she gets to the house, they open the door, look her up and down and say, "you´re the doctor?" She´s a very composed person, so she told me she just calmly replies, "yes, good afternoon, would you like me to take a look? If not we'll be on our way." She said they generally chill out, though the nicer the house, the more jodido the people tend to be."People always assume I went to medical school here," she told me. "They're always surprised that we have universities in Bolivia." 

I had told her that I wanted to try Bolivian food but had never had the chance; though there are more Bolivians than Peruvians in Buenos Aires, for whatever reason Peruvian restaurants are much easier to find, at least inside the city limits. We started talking about cooking, and a couple of weeks later she came to my house; the plan was to make a Bolivian meal with American dessert. We went to the market and bought plantains, meat, vegetables, eggs and olives to make stuffed sweet plantains, and pears to make an upside-down cake. Karla took out her apron and knives (!) and began chopping onions, using a plastic bag to cover her fingers holding the onion. "If I don't do this, patients ask me if I cook a lot because they can smell it on my fingers when I examine them," she explained. I love watching people from other cultures cook for the first time-- everyone has their own rhythm and techniques. She began to do three things at once: steam the plantains, make the sauce for the filling, and cook the meat. I tried to help but to be honest I mainly just asked a lot of questions. What began to take shape was exactly the kind of South American cooking I love-- sweet ripe plantains on the outside, a savory meat and vegetable filling, with sweet and salty pockets due to the raisins and olives. It's fried but not greasy, as the batter protects the plantain from soaking up the oil, and the filling is already cooked. One large stuffed plantain + green salad: perfect meal for me.

The filling here is made with meat, but I would bet any kind of farmer's cheese or mozzarella would work great instead...and now that I think about it, a fresh goat cheese would be fantastic.

Bolivian Stuffed Sweet Plantains

4 ripe plantains (they should be completely yellow)
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
½ med. onion, or 4 scallions, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
pinch red pepper flakes (opt.)
freshly ground black pepper
½ tsp. cumin
1 med. tomato
4 oz. ground meat
¼ c. peas, fresh or frozen
1 hard boiled egg, very coarsely chopped
handful green olives, very coarsely chopped
¼ c. dark raisins, soaked in hot water for 10 min. and drained

For the batter: 
1 egg
2 tbsp. flour
1 tsp. sugar

oil for frying

Cut the stems and bottom nubs off of the plantains, then half them, leaving the skin on. Steam the plantains (in a steamer basket over water, in a pressure cooker or in a covered pot) until they are completely soft. The plantains will be very hot; as soon as you can handle them, slip them out of their skins and mash them all together until you have a smooth mixture.
While the plantains are steaming, prepare the filling. Over medium-low heat, heat the oil in a medium saute pan and add in the onion. When the onion has softened, after 5-8 min., add in the garlic, red pepper flakes, ½ tsp salt, ¼ tsp pepper and ½ tsp cumin. Let cook, stirring occasionally, another minute or two, and then add in the the tomato. Once the tomato has mostly broken down, add in ½ c. of water. Leave the mixture simmering over low heat.
In a dry pan, cook the ground meat over medium heat. Add in ½ tsp. salt and ¼ tsp. pepper. and cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is no longer pink. Add in the tomato-onion mixture and the peas, stirring to combine well. If the mixture is liquidy keep it simmering until it´s moist but not soupy. Taste for salt. Stir in the chopped egg, olives, and raisins.
Take a 1/3 c. portion of the mashed plantains and flatten it out into a 6-in. circle on top of a sheet of plastic wrap. Add 2 Tbsp. of the meat filling to the center of the circle and the use the plastic wrap bring up the edges of the circle together to form a continuous ball (without letting the filling break though). Use the plastic to help seal the edges together. 
Make the batter: beat the egg with the flour, sugar, and a pinch of salt. Heat 2-3 in. of oil for frying in a smallish pot over a medium-low flame. When the oil sizzle immediately if you drop a bit of the batter in, dip the ball in the batter, turning gently to cover on all sides, and fry one at a time, turning and basting with oil. Remove to a paper-towel lined plate with a slotted spoon when well-browned but not burnt. It´s traditional to serve this with rice on the side (this would work well); I like it with something fresh and acidic, like a green salad with avocado and a cilantro-lime dressing.  
Serves 4.

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