Thursday, November 10, 2011

(Belizean) Breakfast Series: Fried Fish and Johnny Cakes

I think a fish head is probably one of the more controversial aspects of seafood consumption in the United States of America. Many Americans find it difficult to eat an animal when it is staring at you from the plate. Where I'm from, however, its a tasty meal. Some fish, like groupers, are even prized for the delicate and flavourful meat found in the cheeks. Not only in Belize, but in restaurants across the globe, no stew would be complete without the depth of flavour found in your average fish head (we just leave the head in, while the average American restaurant makes fish stock from it and then throws the head away). And most fish are fried whole, head and all.

In the coastal regions of Belize, fried fish is not only good for lunch, but is also considered a hearty breakfast, instead of the sausage and bacon that many Americans traditionally associate with that meal. Another favorite is fish hash, made of left over fish, picked off the bone and sauteed in coconut oil with minced onion, garlic and sweet pepper. Regardless of how it is made, if fish is on the menu for breakfast or tea, a popular accompaniment is johnny cakes.

These delicious quick breads are loaded with coconut flavour, flaky almost like a biscuit, and flattened for quick splitting, like an English muffin. They are standard breakfast and tea fare for many people in Belize, and they are very easy to make. Some people use vegetable shortening or lard in these along with the coconut milk, personally I like to up the coconut flavour even more by using coconut oil. All you need is:

2 and 1/2 cups wheat flour (I like to use white whole wheat flour, or half white and half whole wheat flour)
2 heaping tablespoons virgin coconut oil (refined coconut oil has been bleached and deodorized so it doesn't smell or taste like coconut at all, which I think completely defeats the purpose of using it).
1 and 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 can or about 1 and 1/2 cup full fat coconut milk
You can bake these in the oven or in a cast iron pan on the stove top. If you are baking them in the oven, turn it up to 350 degrees before you begin and get out a sheet pan. Otherwise, put a cast iron pan or a griddle on your burner and turn that on medium heat.

1. Dump the flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl and stir to mix.
2. Add the coconut oil and work it through the dry ingredients with your hands until you have small pieces no bigger than the size of peas evenly distributed throughout the flour mixture.
3. Add coconut milk while mixing with a clean hand or a spoon until you have a firm, but not sticky ball of dough. You may not need all the coconut milk, depending on the moisture content of your flour.
4. Knead this dough for an minute or two, just enough to bring it together into a firm ball.Then roll it out into a snake on the counter top. Pinch off balls about twice as large as a golf ball and let them sit on the counter for a minute.  Then pat out each ball into a circle about 1/2 inch thick. With a fork prick the dough through on the top.
5. If you are baking your johnny cakes, place them on an ungreased cookie sheet and put them in the oven for 15-20 minutes (check on them and if necessary flip them over to slightly brown the tops. They wont take long to cook). If you are doing them on the stove top, place several at a time in your cast iron pan, dutch oven or griddle. You will want to cook them for 3-5 minutes on the first side and turn them once they have browned slightly and cooked half way through. You can also put the lid on the pan to hasten cooking.

Classic accompaniments to johnny cakes are refried beans, hashed fish, fried fish or fresh corned fish, ham, cheese, eggs, or for a sweeter approach, butter and guava jelly. Johnny cakes are Belize's egg Mc-muffin. In gas stations and shops across the country you can buy them stuffed with fish, refried beans, pulled stewed chicken, or a basic ham and cheese. However you eat them, they are quick and easy to make and delicious to eat warm, at room temperature, or re-heated in the toaster. So next time you pass those cans of coconut milk at the grocery, forget about Thai curry and think brunch-with a Belizean touch.