Banana Leaf Roasted Tilapia

Recently I was asked to help redesign the menu for my family’s annual cookout. This presented me with several (very welcome) challenges. I had to create dishes that were simple enough to execute on a relatively large scale, cost-effective, and most importantly, they had to be good.

The first thing I wanted to tackle was the fish course, and that is what I will be discussing in this post.

It can be very difficult trying to decide where to begin.

I decided on tilapia because it is inexpensive and easy to source; it also has a pleasant texture and a mild flavor that takes well to a lot of different flavors and cooking methods.

As for the cooking method, I wanted to try something “different.” I am looking to try something outside of my comfort zone, something that will expand my repertoire, as well as offer what is likely to be a new experience for me as well as my diners.

I took inspiration from the flavors and ingredients of Peru. Peru has a very long and rich culinary history that has quietly had a profound impact on the American diet. I have little experience with Peruvian cooking, so I was not trying to be “authentic.” Instead I wanted to take inspiration from Peruvian ingredients and capture the spirit of Peruvian cooking while using an array of different techniques from around the world.

The result was Tilapia roasted in a banana leaf with choclo and an Aji Panca-infused butter sauce. And here’s how to make it…

Ingredients:
4 tilapia fillets
1 cup choclo (kernels off the cob)
¼ lb. butter (or coconut or palm oil)
2 Aji Panca peppers, dried
2 banana leaves
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic
¼ cup water
1 lemon
Salt
Black pepper

Directions:
1. Soak toothpicks in water (so they will not burn)
2. Break open dried Aji Panca peppers; remove and dispose of seeds. Break peppers into nickel-size pieces.
3. Steep pepper peices in ¼ cup hot water just off the boil, and allow to steep until the water comes to room temperature. Then put it back on the heat, bring it to the brink of boiling, and allow to return to room temperature again. Try to use a small vessel and keep it covered. This should result in a reddish pepper broth, much like you a tea.
4. Add butter to broth and bring to a simmer (long, low, and slow), making sure not to let your butter brown or separate. This may require turning your burner on and off periodically to ensure that your butter does not burn. Leave pot uncovered to allow excess water to evaporate slowly. The butter should take on a pale red/pink color and should remain slightly opaque throughout the process.
5. Add salt and pepper to taste.
6. Sautée choclo with the sliced onion and garlic in butter or oil and salt lightly. Cook about halfway through; it will finish cooking with the fish.
7. Cut banana leaves in halves.
8. Place the pieces of fish, slightly overlapping, on banana leaves; add the (par-cooked) onion-and-choclo mixture.
9. Pour Aji Panca-infused butter sauce over fish.
10. Wrap fish in leaves, making sure to seal well. Use soaked toothpicks to pin together any loose flaps.
11. Place fish in banana leaves on aluminum foil and roast in a 500° oven (or on a grill) for nine minutes.
12. Squeeze lemon over fish.

Wine Pairing:
Now, of course, no meal would be complete without a great glass of wine. I decided to pair this with the Prophet’s Rock Pinot Gris, Central Otago. It is a very ripe and full-bodied style of Pinot Gris, but it contains its richness and concentration quite gracefully. It is full of pineapple, lychee, mango, baking spices, and various other tropical fruits. The acidity is perfect for cutting through the butter sauce, while the fruit is ample and mirrors and enhances aspects of the dish, such as the sweetness of the choclo, Aji Panca, and butter.

Glossary of terms:
Aji Panca – A traditional Peruvian pepper that is mild in terms of heat but has a bright fruity flavor.
Choclo – A species of corn that yields large kernels on short stocky cobs. Has a very nutty, earthy flavor. The texture can sometimes be mealy, especially if choclo is frozen or dried.
Banana Leaves – Often used as a steaming or roasting vessel for fish, meats, and vegetables, especially for tamales. It imparts a subtle flavor but also helps trap moisture and distribute heat in a more even and indirect manner.

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