Tag Archives: Caribbean cooking

Funchi: Polenta the (Easier) Aruban Way

20 Jun

You may know that my dad is from Aruba, One Happy Island.

If you are not familiar with Aruba, it is part of the Netherlands Antilles, about 13 nautical miles off the coast of Venezuela (18 or so regular miles), south of the Caribbean hurricane zone, and notable for its absence of rainfall and its white sand beaches and crystalline waters. With sunshine guaranteed year-round, it is extremely popular with honeymooners and northern folks from wet places who want to know their vacation dollars won’t be wasted on a week in a monsoon.

It’s a gorgeous little place – and I mean little – Aruba is about 30 km (19 miles) long and about 8 km (5 miles) wide. You can drive around the island and dispatch with most of your touristic cultural obligations in about half a day, and return in good conscience to your beach towel for the duration of your stay.

Mind you, the natives, while welcoming, may make you wonder what your own educational system is doing wrong. Virtually everyone in Aruba speaks English well, in addition to Papiamento – the local language-, Dutch – which they study in school, and Spanish – which most people speak and understand tolerably well. Yeah, four languages per person is par for the course. Just putting it out there.

Pedro’s always made Aruban dishes here at home, and one of my favorite sides in the world is funchi – a corn meal mush that gourmands will recognize it as a close cousin of polenta. Lazy – I mean pragmatic – cooks like myself will recognize it as a lot less work than said continental cousin. Rather than spending a sweaty half hour or more over a steaming copper pot busting your biceps turning it with a wooden spoon, this takes about ten minutes and the results are very satisfactory.

Grilled in slabs…yum!

Then you can pile any number of savory dishes on the top – fish with onion and pepper sauce (mojo isleno) is one of the most popular. I love slabs of it grilled; it makes the inside creamier and the outside crunchier, like  surullitos or corn fritters, without the grease.

Since Pedro decided to abandon his crazy-ass diet for lunch on Father’s Day (and then promptly wrote me out of the food prep), I decided to make him some heritage food. You can check out the original VisitAruba recipe I adapted this from by clicking the link (and troll around the page to learn more about this tiny paradise). Be it known that Pedro provided critical advice for this, so while it is made by a second-generation Aruban (me), it was supervised by an real-live authentic native. And it was a terrific success — dear old Padushi started speaking Papiamento right away. Dushi! Masha bon, danki……

Topped with grilled salmon – not quite an Aruban traditional dish, but delicious just the same…Funchi is as adaptable as any Caribbean Islander

Funchi (Aruban Polenta)

1 ¼ Cups cold water

1 ½ Cups coarse/stone ground corn meal

½ tsp salt

1.5 Cups boiling water

1 Tbs olive oil (plus a little bit for greasing a mold or bowl to turn the funchi into)

In a heavy saucepan, mix cold water, corn meal, and salt. When relatively smooth, with no big lumps, stir in the boiling water and oil and bring to a rapid boil. Lower heat to medium low and continue to cook, stirring continuously, for another five minutes, or until the mixture is stiff and pulling away from the sides. Turn the funchi into a greased mold or bowl and cover with a plate. Turn it over onto the plate and allow to cool slightly before scooping out and serving. Or allow to cool completely, cut into one inch slices, brush with oil and grill until crisp on both sides.

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Sofrito for freezing (Puerto Rican mirepoix)

30 Jun

The green and lush fragrance of culantro is one of my favorite rainy day smells. In the kitchen garden I kept at my late grandmother’s house in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, I had a vigorous crop and whenever it rained, the drops activated the fragrance, the scent pervaded the house, and I got hungry!

Without culantro (which we call recao), Puerto Rican food just isn’t as vibrant; it can’t taste quite like abuela’s. It is integral to sofrito, the starter to so many recipes, including beans, soups, stews and rice dishes. It is the equivalent of the French mirepoix, that combination of sauteed/roasted onions, carrots and celery that is the base for so many Gallic dishes.

Recao – culantro

Unfortunately, culantro is not as well known in the U.S. and doesn’t grow super-well in my planting zone, although I have had some small successes over the years (Thanks to Vic Muñoz for her growing tips). So I hit the local Latin supermarket on occasion and buy some pre-cut leaves from Costa Rica. Because once cut, recao loses its potency quickly, I use twice as much as I would if I had just gone out back and snipped some. And because it is sold by quantities much bigger than I need for a single dish, whenever I do buy it, I make enough sofrito to freeze.

The same goes for ají dulce, the non-spicy small pepper that looks like a habanero, but isn’t at all spicy. I buy a bunch at once — along with the recao — and make sofrito to freeze. You have to be careful and taste it before adding it to the sofrito, because sometimes the store makes a mistake and labels the hot ones as sweet ones, or, I’ve been told, ají dulce planted too closely to ají bravo (angry, aggressive) will take on the spiciness. I can actually smell the heat when cutting habaneros (also called scotch bonnets); the volatility  is no joke.

Ají dulce – the sweet sibling to the hottie habanero

The following recipe is for those who have access to these products. If you don’t have a Latin market nearby, investigate the Asian/Indian markets, as they too use these ingredients.

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