Friday, November 14, 2014

Dominican Vegan: Featuring some of my Living Foods Dishes

For so-called Latinos, denying or omitting certain foods from our diet is either insulting, disrespectful and/or straight up weird.  You are not "Dominican" or "Puerto Rican" or "Mexican" if you do not eat pernil, for example.  It is not traditionally sound to veer off the foods that are prevalent markers of our culture.  The negative backlash so-called "Latino" vegans get is real.  However, for Vegans the process of starting a living foods diet can prove to be immensely exciting if we think of the many recipes our mothers/grandmothers and other women in the family have passed down to us that can now be made exclusively using plants.  Even further down the line, the excitement turns into a curiosity and level of comfort with vegetarian/vegan cooking techniques that can advance us into our own adaptations of certain dishes towards creating a brand new dish from scratch.

These past 7 1/2 years have been a journey of renovation, of deconstructing notions of foods (i.e. there must be a meat item in the dish in order for it to be complete) and creativity.  The kitchen can become a zone where the unknown (X) (2+4=6) is manifested to provide further insight in our relationship with the natural goodness of the Earth.  Through cooking, our equality is reflected with how we use the elements we made and found on the planet.  It is this give-and-take characteristic of our relationship to our environment that shows an aspect of creating.  This process truly provides a why (Y) (2+5=7), we must navigate through the potentiality of "what is" and of "what can become."  By doing this, we are tapping into God, the Creator, the Original man and how he works.  When we do tap into it, we realize it is truly a never ending Zig, Zag, Zig (Z) (2+6=8) of Knowledge, Wisdom, Understanding.  It is in this way that God Builds and Destroys to CREATE.

I live my culture Cooking in this way.

Un Platanal

The Tainos left behind many delicious root vegetables whom we still refer to with their native names.  From name to auyama, root vegetables in the Caribbean, West African, and Indigenous cultures are pivotal items of the diet.  In the Dominican Republic, platanos are like the adapted National root vegetable of the country.  They are not truly root vegetables as they grow in clusters on top of trees, but they are considered root vegetables because of their texture and characteristic.  Part of this, is the platano’s versatility.  Dominicans have platanos virtually at every meal.  From breakfast with the famous mangu to more elaborate dishes like mofongo to the always appetizing tostones or platano frito.  In the Dominican Republic, they are more commonly known as tostones.  They go great with almost every dish.  Especially with locrios (meat-rice dish) or the bandera (rice-meat-and beans) in combination with aguacate (avocado). 

As a vegan, the trick to making these tostones with the aim of having a rich warm inside with a crispy outside is all in what type of oil you are using, how high the heat is and how long you fry it for.  The best oils for frying are coconut oil due to its versatility and ability not to produce carcinogenic agents because it stands up to high heat pretty well.  Safflower and Sunflower oil are also great for frying.  Once you place about 6-8 tablespoons of the selected oil to a frying pan under medium fire, let the oil heat and place your peeled and horizontally cut 1/2 inch pieces of platanos into the pan.  Let them fry on each side until a slight crisp is achieved.  Also check the round sides to make sure they are not raw.  Make sure they get some oil action as well, if not mashing the platanos will turn into a mess.  Once you have fried the tostones the next step is to mash them with something flat.  Usually, Dominicans have whats traditionally called a tostonera, that's precisely used to mash up tostones. There are many different kinds, but my favorite one is the wooden tostonera.  Once, you have fried and mashed all the plantain pieces you are ready to fry them once again. 


When people try to be culinary correct or use culinary technical terms of how you cook a vegetable, they refer to the toston as the Twice-Fried Plantain.  Indeed, the secret to savory crispy tostones is to fry them twice.  However, the correct term is simply toston.  Every dish should have a unique name and not be referred to by how it was cooked, but that's the westernized way of naming dishes. We should definitely know how the dish was cooked yet I'm just unsure if it’s worth having it be a part of the name of a dish.   Once taken off the pan, you should garnish your tostones with some salt for flavoring.  You also have the option of putting a blanket of napkins on your plate to place the tostones so it can soak up the extra oil.

Below are my completed tostones:

Izayaa's Kitchen: Tostones

Sweet Plantains are just as popular in the Dominican Republic as green plantains.  They are also served as side dishes or are a part of the main dish, as with pastelones de platano maduros, very much like a Shepherd's Pie.  It differs in that it is made with a lower layer of mashed sweet plantains, a middle meat layer and the top with another mashed sweet plantains.  This top layer can have cheese added to it.  I use a commercial brand name "Daiya."  The base for these cheeses are Tapioca Starch with added expeller pressed oils that are able to withstand heat and other vegan added elements that allow it to mimic cheese, like vegetable glycerine (for gooeyness), annatto (for color), salt. citric acid (for flavor).  They also add pea protein which makes the intake of this cheese well worth it, as you will have some protein with it. There are also ways to make your own Vegan cheese at home, however, that's an entire different blog. 

You find sweet plantains all over the Spanish and English speaking Caribbean served in a variety of dishes.  Dominicans eat them with moros (rice-bean dish) to add that savory sweetness to balance their meal.  It's not considered a dessert, so it’s interesting to see others in the Western world think of them as a dessert all on their own without transforming them.  Dominicans also have a different way of cutting them than most other regions of the world.  Instead of cutting the plantain into small rounds, it is cut into three parts, then into strips.  The entire plantain is cut into three quarters.  Those quarters are then further cut into long strips.  That's the way I grew up eating them and they are delicious.  The ones I'm showing below, however, are the more popular portrayal of the sweet plantains.  This is also the easier way of cutting them if you are short on time. 

Izayaa's Kitchen: Platanos Maduros

Most of Europe's culinary innovations and traditions originate from sources in other parts of the world, most notably Africa and Asia.  One such case is that of noodles.  Noodles have been traced back to early China, Arabic (Islamic) speaking nations, Japan, and Palestine.  Each had its own versions of noodles, some made of rice, wheat, and other grains.  By the 13th and 14th Century they were producing and selling pasta in Sicily, an area once dominated by the Moors.  It was the tomato-noodle (with garlic and other spices) combinations of deliciousness that made it popular around the world and adaptable by other countries. These became known as Spaghetti, which comes from the word Spago, meaning cord, string, or twine.  The older origin of this word comes from the later Latin period Spacus, meaning twine and Ancient Greek word Sphakos.  

The European colonization of the Americas brought with it some of the culinary influence of the Moors.  These included pasta noodles or Spaghetti.  Pasta dishes are also a direct influence in any country where there are Italian immigrants, such as with Argentina, who through the centuries have migrated to this Latin American country for various reasons.  In the Dominican Republic, the dish was also adapted and cooked "a lo criollo."  This basically means that the dish was re-adapted to the meet the tastes and culinary methods of the island, with its indigenous and West African influences.  In this case, Dominican Spaghetti is made with your basic tomato-pepper sofrito, along with capers, butter, tomatoes and tomato paste, vinegar, and some cilantro.  It is very common to serve this dish with our crispy Tostones or with rice, beans and a salad.  People say its a carbohydrate overdose, but the spaghetti acts as the meat in this case.  It also show just how much Dominicans love their rice.  Both versions are shown below:

Izayaa's Kitchen: Espaghetti a lo Dominicano w/ Tostones

Izayaa's Kitchen: Espaghetti Dominicano w/ Arroz & Repollo

The trick when cooking Espaghetti a lo Criollo is once the noodles have boiled in water for 20 minutes (not the typical 10-15min), you cook the sauce with the spaghetti inside the cooking pan.  It gives it a richer taste because all flavors have been absorbed by the spaghetti, instead of having a watery sauce cover the spaghetti by placing it on top. 

Most Latin American countries also has their own adaptation of a potato salad.  In the Dominican Republic, we refer to the salad from its country of origin, Russia.  Simply Ensalada Rusa.  Russia is very famous for its potato based foods and drinks, including Vodka.  In Cuba, given the political-social alliance between it and Russia, some people make vodka at home.  It is extremely potent and you are guaranteed to have the worst hangover.  Aside from these examples, contact between countries is sure to have this effect within its cultural elements.  Like Vodka, it makes sense that the potato salad would also experience this degree of fame.  Aren't we glad the Native Americas from the West were able to help out the Irish and other Europeans with potatoes?  I know I am. Our native ancestors were master potato growers.

In the Dominican Republic, there are variations of this dish.  Some serve it with apple, which is more common during Christmas season where whole apples are an item of choice to serve as snacks, along nuts.  My vegan Ensalada Rusas are made two ways, one with beets and the other without.

Izayaa's Kitchen: Vegan Dominican Ensalada Rusa with Beets

Izayaa's Kitchen: Vegan Dominican Ensalada Rusa without Beets

To make this rich creamy salad, I use Vegenaise, red onions in apple cider vinegar with carrots and tayota also known as chayote in other parts of Latin America.  If you want the red coloring you can use beets.  Some people are not beet fans, but I find it adds a nice additional texture to the salad. This salad is served to accompany any meal.  It is especially seen during birthday celebrations and the holiday season.  Immigrant communities in the United States serve this salad during Thanksgiving and Christmas.  There are many adaptations of this salad around the world and I find that the simpler the ingredients and choice in vegetables for this salad, the better the taste. You can definitely over-kill the salad by adding too many ingredients. 
Lunch time in the Dominican Republic is anywhere between 12pm-2pm.  It is at this time that the heaviest meal of the day is served.  The most popular being La Bandera: rice, stewed beans and a meat, usually chicken accompanied by a salad.  The ensalada rusa if requested can be served during this time.  Below is a vegan "La Bandera" with ensalada rusa.  

Izayaa's Kitchen: Vegan "La Bandera" w/ Ensalada Rusa

Dominicans eat a lot of white rice.  It is a contributor to the expanded bellies and overweight reality of many so-called Latina women.  More importantly, the rice is void of nutrients and turns straight into sugar.  Rices like Jasmine Brown, Basmati Brown, long grain or short grain Brown rice are better alternatives and can be cooked to tasting perfection by itself and in other dishes requiring rice. These rices have richer flavors with earthy aromas that actually pair better with the stewed beans to make one complete protein.  I've gotten plenty of comments and questions from people who are transitioning into denser rices about the process and cooking time of the rice.  The best way to cook rice is to leave it in water for a few hours (just like you do with bagged beans). Then you double the amount of water to rice ratio. For instance, if you are using 2 cups of rice, then you will use 4 cups of water.  You let the rice boil then simmer under low fire.  After 45 minutes check on the rice.  By having the water the rice in water for a few hours prior, allowing it to expand, the outer shell of the rice softens so that maximum absorption of this complex carbohydrate can occur at the cellular level.  Cooking the rice without doing this allows for an improper digestion of the rice.

Beans are usually seen as the side dish in the meal. They are the most overlooked aspect of the whole meal and they usually don't receive the shine they deserve.  If they are not cooked correctly and to perfection it can alter the dining experience all together.  Vegan Dominican beans do not contain meat pieces as it is very common for Dominicans to add for a smokier taste and denser feel.  There is also no chicken or beef bouillon added.  The best habichuelas guisa are made by using the essential Dominican herbs: cilantro and oregano.  West pumpkin (not butternut squash-yuck! not a fan) is an amazing add-on to the beans.  When they cook with the beans you can break some so that it becomes part of the broth and this adds richness in flavor, thickness in texture and a sweeter taste to balance out the salty components of the seasoning.  The beans are defitnetly the component of the meal that brings and binds all together. 

The "chicken" drumstick seen here is made from soy-protein isolate. Vegan meats like these are a great way to transition into a vegan/vegetarian diet as at the beginning we still tend to crave the taste and texture of the chicken, beef and pork.  The protein from the soy is extracted using hexane, which although is used for many purposes, such as a solvent to extract edible oils, commercial glues and as a cleaning agent in the printing industry, is toxic.  Therefore, limited use of these products should be practiced.  Living in New York City the place to go for these items is MayWah located in the city's Chinatown.  They sell retail and wholesale.  To make the soy chicken with a bit more pop, I like to add a crust filled with spices that provide crispiness and flavor to the meat.  Black and Brown folk love fried chicken, so adding this will make that vegan fry chicken we all crave for after going vegan. The crust can be made using panko crumbs, different spices, maple syrup for binding, and any other elements you want.  Below are two other alternatives I use to make the "meat" for the bandera dish.  They are tofu and tempeh, both rich in protein and made from the soybean.

Izayaa's Kitchen: Red Marinated Baked Tofu

Izayaa's Kitchen: Pinto Beans. Jasmine Rice, Red Marinated Baked Tofu

Izayaa's Kitchen: Black Beans, Jasmine Rice, Pan-Fried Tofu Strips , Platano Maduros

Tofu is a plant protein derived from the soy bean.  It is made by extracting the milk of the soy bean and then curdling that milk to make firm blocks.  Hence, the Chinese reference to tofu as "Bean Curd."  Tofu is an amazing protein because you can use it in almost any dish, from appetizers to desserts.  It is controversial topic of discussion as many people claim it is unhealthy to eat.  However, many of these resources are not peer-reviewed scientific works.  Most of the sources that claim soy is unhealthy are paid or tracked back to the Meat and Dairy industry who want to discourage plant diet intake.  All studies of GMO soy must be separated from Organic Whole Soy.  Cited research must denote which of the two they are researching.  Soy can be dangerous when it is GMO, like Corn, and added in a non-whole form into foods.  When soy is consumed in its whole form, it is healthy, especially for men.  The reason men get so concerned with their soy intake is because of the hormone estrogen found in soy.  But, when you are consuming whole soy you are actually intaking good estrogen for your body.  The problem is with consuming packaged foods.  Men should be more cautious with consuming foods that have soy as just one other "chemical" added.   In many Asian countries soy has been consumed for thousands of years and no real health problems have been traced to its consumption.  This is why my diet contains plenty of whole soy; tofu, tempeh, miso, and natto.

In the first dish, I made a tomato based marinade to soak the tofu in while baking.  The trick is extracting all the extra liquid from the tofu prior to its baking.  This tofu goes great with the rice and beans as it’s reminiscent of the pollo guisa'o that's a part of the bandera dish.  The other tofu is pan-fried under medium fire.  I cut the firm tofu into strips and I place on a pan where 4 tablespoons of cold-pressed oil has been heated.  I let the tofu fry until golden and I then add spices along with chopped onions and peppers.  Once all has caramelized without burning, they are ready to take out of the pan. 
Izayaa's Kitchen: Baked Tempeh w/ Jasmine Brown Rice and Pinto Beans
Tempeh is extremely delicious and has a nutty texture.  Like tofu, it can also be transformed into many savory dishes.  It is native to Indonesia and it is made by first soaking, then dehulling and partially cooking the soy beans.  Then a fermentation starter containing either the fungus Rhizopus oligosporus or Rhizopus oryzae is mixed in with the soy beans. They soy beans are then placed in a thin layer and covered.  They are left to ferment for a day and a half in temperatures in the high 80s Fahrenheit.  The result are delicious earthy cakes.  They can be baked, fried, and engaged in any culinary technique.  They soak up flavors perfectly.  In the dish above, I baked the Tempeh in a Ginger-Sesame Marinade.  It resembles a Teriyaki sauce upon tasting.  The bandera dish above is being served with a side of platanos maduros. 

The kitchen is a place of comfort, a place to let loose and allow the potentiality of something to materialize.  It is also a place to test and measure the right and exactness of what our ancestors have passed down.  Traditional Dominican foods, in my case, have proven to be scientifically sound (biochemically) when cooked solely with plants.  The food retains the living elements that allow for proper cellular function and overall health of the body.  There’s a metaphysical sensitivity and awareness that’s achieved in which you feel Earth’s consciousness.  Meaning, you become more in tune with who you are while simultaneously understanding your connection and role in all of creation.  In order to understand this, we must continue to nurture the wonders of the Earth and its many gifts.

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