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  • Arctic Char in Banana Leaves with San Andres Arroz de Coco

    Arctic Char Steamed in Banana Leaves with San Andres Arroz de Coco

    My daughter's babysitter is Colombian, and makes the most amazing tamales wrapped in banana leaves, which influenced this recipe. Wrapping fish in a banana leaf is not only a healthy way to steam a nice piece of fish, but it also imparts really great flavor. The idea of steaming banana-wrapped char came from my friend, the Mexican chef Josefina Santacruz when she came to cook in my restaurant Txikito. I learned about coconut rice on San Andrés, an island off the Colombian coast that is not like the rest of the country. We had some bad weather when visiting, so had to spend a bit of time inside, cooking. There were coconut trees right outside the house, and I made it my business to learn how to make coconut rice.

    Servings & Time

    • Servings 4 servings
    • Prep 1 hour for the fish; 10 minutes for the rice
    • Cook 5 to 8 minutes for the fish; 20 minutes for the rice


    For the San Andrés Arroz de Coco
    • 2 tablespoons organic coconut oil
    • 1 cup organic unsweetened shredded coconut
    • 1 cup long-grain rice (preferably jasmine or basmati)
    • 2 cups hot water
    • About 2 teaspoons brown sugar
    • Salt
    For the Sofrito
    • ¼ cup olive oil
    • 2 onions, minced
    • 2 carrots, peeled and grated
    • ¼ cup minced red bell pepper
    • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
    • ½ to 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano or marjoram
    • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
    • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper or Spanish paprika
    • 1 bay leaf
    • Salt
    For the Fish Packets
    • Four 3-ounce skin-on arctic char or salmon fillets
    • 2 or 3 large banana leaves or 4 pieces parchment paper
    • About 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro


    For the San Andrés Arroz de Coco

    Heat the coconut oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the coconut and toast, stirring occasionally, until just golden, 1-2 minutes.

    Add the rice and cook, stirring, until the rice is opaque and the coconut is browned.

    Add the hot water and bring to a simmer. Add the sugar and about 3/4 teaspoon salt (more or less to your taste), cover, reduce the heat, and barely simmer until the rice is tender and all the water has been absorbed, about 15 minutes (or according to package instructions). Let rest for 2 minutes, then fluff with a fork. Let rest 2 minutes longer and fluff again.

    For the Sofrito

    Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions, carrots, red bell pepper, cumin, oregano, turmeric, cayenne, and bay leaf. Cover and sweat for 2 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring occasionally, until very soft and jammy, about 10 minutes.

    Season the sofrito to taste with salt (1 to 2 teaspoons). Discard the bay leaf and let cool. The sofrito can be prepared up to 1 day ahead of time; cover and refrigerate.

    For the Fish Packets

    Bring the fish and sofrito to room temperature. Cut out the long veins running the length of each banana leaf and set aside to tie the packets.

    Wipe each leaf clean with a damp cloth.

    Cut the banana leaves into four smallish pieces about three times the length and width of the char fillets.

    Run each piece quickly over a flame of your gas burner to make it pliable.

    Or you can soak the leaves in warm water for a minute to soften.

    If you don’t have banana leaves, cut pieces of parchment paper to three times the length and width of the fillets.

    Set out the char fillets, sofrito, cilantro, and salt. Place one piece of banana leaf shiny side down on your work surface. (Or use a piece of parchment paper.) Place one fillet, skin side down, in the center of the leaf and season with salt. Spoon about 2 tablespoons sofrito on the fillet and spread evenly. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro.

    There are a number of ways to wrap the leaves around the fish. A common way is to place the fillet at an angle on the banana leaf and fold one corner over the top. Then fold in the point of the opposite corner, and fold that side over the top. Fold the sides into (somewhat like wrapping a present), then fold the sides under the packet. Tie the banana leaf vein (or kitchen twine) around the packet to secure (or leave untied, as they should stay together since the sides are folded under).

    Another way to wrap the fillet is to simply fold one edge over the fillet, followed by an adjacent edge until all sides are folded, resulting in a more free-form packet that you tie into place with the strip of banana leaf vein.

    Place the fish packets in a bamboo steamer and place the steamer over simmering water in a wok or large pot. Cover the steamer and steam until the packets are a muted green color and fish is cooked through.

    Cooking time will depend on the thickness of the fish, 5 to 6 minutes for very thin fillets or 8 to 10 minutes for thicker fillets. To check if the fish is done (it should be light pink and no longer translucent (a little rare in the middle is fine), use a small knife to cut a slit in the side of a packet and take a peek at the fish.

    For Serving

    Place the fish packets on four plates and spoon some rice alongside. Have your guests unwrap their packets to reveal the fish and sofrito.

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