Summer passed by simultaneously in a blink and interminably. If I’m truthful, after a Summer with a health challenge and now having to lose the weight gained by more bagels and less cardio, I’m beyond ready for Fall. Beyond. If you know me personally, you know that my favorite time of year is Winter. Fall is a strong contender, however. It is my dream one day to see the lovely fall foliage of Vermont and tap for maple syrup in true Hallmark Channel idyllic fashion. Yep. I’m definitely head-over-heels for the classic, sappy Hallmark channel. I don’t care that the movies aren’t realistic. It does the job of taking me out of reality into another world of magic and happiness and wonder where the biggest challenges are to choose the handsome lumberjack over a big city promotion or to try to save the beloved town pier from the evil corporate developers. It’s like all of those Nicholas Sparks novels-turned-films. You just know there’s a happy ending and a lovely distraction in there for you. Occasionally, you get the treat of a good cry to wash your soul.
Despite Fall’s emergence, I’m still reminiscing about a fun meal I made earlier this Summer from a recipe in an old Shape Magazine issue from 2015. When I worked at Sprouts, we occasionally sold banana leaves for culinary use. I was always incredibly intrigued by this concept. I really shouldn’t have been though. When you think about Mexican and South American cuisine, you can’t help but notice how they use plenty of natural resources to cook with, serve with, and worth with. It’s as if they were being “eco-friendly” before it was trendy. I really want to meet the first person was who looked at their “failed” corn crop full of corn smut and decided to try it anyway. We wouldn’t have the delicacy known as huitlacoche had someone not at least tried it. Corn husks too make the ideal wrapping for tamales. Likewise, banana leaves have long been great for cooking as well.
A couple years ago, I found an amazing recipe for conchinita pibil that called for the dish to be cooked in banana leaves. I didn’t have access to banana leaves at the time, but corn husks made an adequate substitute. This time, I wanted the real thing. I’m always trying to work with different techniques or ingredients. I enjoy the classic dishes certainly, but turning on Top Chef in college turned on a creative side of me that I have a weakness for exploring. That’s part of the fun for me. I didn’t grow up getting to experiment with different ingredients or recipes. We were always busy with school or sports or our church community. That didn’t leave a whole lot of time for crafting or cooking all the time. I’m really living my most creative life now I guess you could say.
My first introduction to anything “Veracruz-style” was during my lighter, fitter days. I went through this whole phase where I was completely obsessed with anything Jillian Michaels. We loved watching The Biggest Loser. (The OG seasons with Bob Harper and Michaels were the best!) I bought a couple of her DVDs and even some pieces from her line of athleticwear in collaboration with K-Swiss. One of her videos included a complementary meal plan with recipes. One of which was Zesty Shrimp Veracruzano. I didn’t really question what “Veracruzano” meant at the time. I honestly thought it had something to do with the shrimp, but I wasn’t too far off. Her recipe wasn’t super fancy and didn’t utilize banana leaves, but it was a nice intro. It wasn’t until much later when I found out that Veracruzano referred to the style of dish rather than the shrimp.
Veracruz cuisine by nature is coastal as Veracruz is the Mexican state which stretches over most of Mexico’s coastline on the Atlantic side. It’s no wonder a great portion of their cuisine is rife with seafood. Being coastal, it also has been influenced by centuries of Indigenous peoples mingling with Spanish conquerors and colonists with Afro-Caribbean slaves. It’s definitely a region I’d like to explore when travel is more accessible again. The Zesty Shrimp Veracruzano was good, but the most famous iteration of this dish is actually made with snapper. If you’re looking for a family-friendly version, Better Homes and Gardens has a good version here. This version was more ideal for a couple on a Friday night at home when you just want to kick off your shoes, shred your workwear (along with the stresses of your workweek), and spend a nice, relaxed meal at home.
When I came across the recipe in Shape, I was inspired to take my experience with Veracruz-style seafood en papillote where I previously had not. I could have simply used parchment paper to wrap the fish. That’s definitely an acceptable substitution, but working with fresh banana leaves was something I really wanted to try if I could. Especially since banana leaves are super affordable at the local Michoacana. I had The Mr pick some up for me on the way home from work one day. You get a ginormous bag for $2-$3! Truthfully though, I have far more practice with parchment paper. As you can tell in the picture, wrapping banana leaves for me was like trying to harness a toddler at a birthday party after the cake’s been served. This just tells me I need more practice, right?
Since I couldn’t find a clicky link to share the recipe, I’ll transcribe my take on this delicious meal below. A note: My recipe called for mahi mahi (which I used just out of convenience sake), but if you have access to red snapper, I highly recommend using this instead to a lend a more authentic feel to the meal.
2 lg pcs banana leaf (or 1 lg square parchment paper)
1lb mahi mahi fillet (or red snapper if you’re wanting to go more traditional)
3 sprigs thyme, stripped
1 fresh or dried bay leaf
2 med tomatillos, chopped
2 Roma tomatoes, chopped
2 (or 4!) cloves garlic, chopped
2 tbsp capers
1) Preheat oven to 350°.
2) On a lg baking sheet, lay banana leaves flat, side-by-side or crosswise, to create a wrapper big enough to completely enclose the fish. Place fish of choice in the center and season with salt, two sprigs of thyme leaves, and the bay. Layer on the tomatillos, tomatoes, garlic, and capers. Wrap leaves around contents. If you need to secure the bundle with baking twine, like me, feel free! The object is just to make sure everything stays together.
3) Slide baking sheet into the preheated oven and bake for 20-30min until fish is tender and flaky.
4) Serve with herbed or Mexican-style rice (a friend and I are big fans of the Goya mixes) and sprinkle with the leaves from the 3rd sprig of thyme.
This really was a fun recipe. I honestly could have pulled it off with parchment just fine. If you’re of the Dave Ramsey mindset, you would’ve just told me to use the parchment in my pantry and move on with my life. The Tiffani of 7 years ago would’ve told me to do the same. However, if I’ve learned anything from personal (private) events from the last 7 years it’s that you can’t put things off to “maybe” in the future. Just go for it now. Make it work. Make time for whatever it is… and enjoy it in the now. We’re not promised tomorrow. Sorry-not-sorry, Dave.
If you could travel to anywhere in the world to sample regional cuisine, where would you go?
Currently Reading: Quest for the Best by Stanley Marcus
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8: There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.