Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mark's Serre: a tale of the Belizean Love Affair with Coconut


The Coconut. Round, brown, full of tasty white meat. Stacked up like cannon balls in your grocery store. In Belize coconut oil and coconut milk are ubiquitous ingredients in both Belizean Kriol/Creole and Garifuna cuisine. All Belizeans enjoy coconut flavoured rice and beans, or stew beans and rice, often accompanied by the rich umami of pigtail. But coconut oil and milk pop up in other places too: a wide range of breads, soups and stews demand their presence, and the oil is used to fry everything from plantain chips to fish.

Coconut milk based stews include crab soup, conch soup and serre, a delicious fish stew. All these hearty  concoctions are the coconut equivalent of a cream-filled chowder, and just as rich, tasty and filling. I was lucky enough to eat all three during my time in Placencia, but Serre is probably the easiest to replicate anywhere a well stocked supermarket can be found. This is my friend Mark's recipe. A fellow foodie and Placencia native, his love of the sea and good cooking led to some memorable meals, ranging from freshly caught lobster salad and conch ceviche to braised barracuda steaks with sour cream. This was one of my favorites.


Mark’s Serre

Fish: about 2 pounds of mackerel, barracuda, culibri, any firm fleshed fish, steaked or cut into other bowl sized pieces.

Coco yam about 1 lb (or dasheen or taro root, found in most well stocked produce sections, in the "exotics" section. Ask your grocer, or substitute potatoes if you absolutely have to. See a picture here: coco yam)

Cassava root about 1 lb (again, most well stocked produce sections in a grocery store will have this around. See a picture here: Cassava root)

Onion (about two medium, finely diced)

Bell pepper (about two medium, finely diced)

1 can (2 cups if fresh) coconut milk

Water

Garlic (plenty, finely minced)

Cumin

Black pepper (fresh ground, to taste).

Cilantro

Salt

Preparation:

1. Peel cassava and coco yams (collectively known as ground-food in Belize because they come from the ground), cut into big chunks. The brown skin of the cassava will come off along with a white thin layer of underlying flesh. Finally chop onion, bell pepper. Crush black pepper, salt. Cook all vegetables and ground-food in a pot with coconut milk, plenty of minced garlic, pepper, a little cumin, salt and enough water to completely cover the ground-food. Cook until ground-food is tender. Add minced cilantro to taste .

People often include breadfruit, ripe plantain or green plantain fu-fu (cooked mashed green plantain dumplings) in this stage of the serre.

2. Once fish is cut into steaks or pieces, fry until browned in a little coconut oil.

3. Place fish in pot, on top of the stew of tender ground-food and vegetables, simmer til fish is done. This won't take long, test with a fork if need be.

4. Serve with pepper/onion sauce.


Pepper or Onion sauce

This is an essential accompaniment to the Serre. The acidity of the lime and vinegar and the heat of the habanero cut the richness of the coconut milk and create a perfect balance of flavor. Whether you call it pepper or onion sauce depends on the ratio of onion to habanero-go with what works best for your tastebuds and heat preference.

Habanero peppers

Onion

Cilantro

Lime juice

Vinegar

Preparation: Mince an onion and add to taste a quantity of finely minced habanero pepper. Remove the seeds and white internal membrane if you want to tone down the heat even more. Add minced cilantro, lime juice, vinegar and salt to taste. Some people like more vinegar, some like more lime juice. Experiment and see which you prefer. Let the whole concoction sit in a glass container. You can leave it covered on the counter for several weeks and it will stay perfectly fresh as the onion and pepper pickle themselves in the lime juice and vinegar.

Serve with Serre and other heavy stews, with refried beans at breakfast, on top of guacamole or anytime you need some hot pepper flavour.