Tag Archives: coconut milk

Tilapia Baked in Banana Leaves

This dish solved a couple of problems for me. What to do with the banana leaves we had to

Jonathan with banana leaf
That’s a big leaf.

hack off the plant by our front door, and what to do with all the lemon basil we got in the CSA box this week. Like cabbage and grapes leaves, banana leaves have been used for millennia to wrap food. They are cheap, biodegradable, and sustainable. Unlike grape and cabbage leaves, you can’t really eat banana leaves. Perhaps you can (you can eat the fruit and the flower) but I have never heard of it.

Here is the recipe.

  • Four small tilapia fillets (about one pound.)
  • Two large, undamaged banana leaves.
  • Small bunch of lemon basil.
  • One cup of coconut milk.
  • One inch cube of fresh ginger
  • Two garlic cloves.
  • One teaspoon of fish sauce.
  • One teaspoon of crushed coriander seeds.
  • Zest of a lime.
  • A sprig of culantro (tastes like cilantro, but survives the Florida summer.)
Wrapping the fish.
Wrapping the fish.

Heat the oven to 350 F. Blend all the ingredients except the tilapia, banana leaves and culantro, in a food processor. Cut each fillets in half, so that they are about as wide as they are long. Pace the fish in a suitable container and pour over the marinade. Cut the stems from the banana leaves and tear the leaves into almost squares so that you have eight squares. The squares need to be big enough to fold over and enclose the fish. Wash the leaves carefully. Place a fillet in the center of each leaf square, add some of the sauce. Add a culantro leaf. Fold the two sides of the banana leaf square over the fish and then fold the other two ends to form a packet. Place the packets in a baking tray, with the folded side down so that they do not come apart. They can overlap. If you are a belt and braces kind of person, cover with tin foil. Bake in the oven for 15 to 25 minutes (depending on the thickness of the fish.) You can check to see if they are done by opening one packet and seeing if the fish flakes apart. Serve with rice. Note that I left out the chili peppers from my version. This is a delicate, fragrant, dish that I don’t think needs the heat.

It is fun to let everyone open their own packets at the table. It can be messy, but the fragrance of the packets as they open is one of the pleasures of the dish.

Tilapia is one of our most sustainable fish species, especially when it is farmed in ponds in Latin America. The fish grows quickly, is largely vegetarian, which means producers don’t have to catch fish to feed to fish, and since it grows in ponds (or sometimes tanks) it has less impact on the environment, if managed properly, a big if. Many people seem to object to fish farming because it seems unnatural, but that strikes me as silly. Fish seem to be the last major food source for which we rely on wild resources. It is akin to relying on hunting for meat, or gathering for vegetables and grains. We are not going to feed seven billion people with hunter-gather techniques. So let’s farm fish if we are to eat fish at all. Sure, it will impact the environment, but so does agriculture. The question is can you do it in a sustainable, productive way without too much unwelcome impact on the natural environment? Only if we stop pillaging the oceans and farming predatory fish like salmon and start eating bait fish like sardines and farmed tilapia.

The Fish Issue

My favorite thing to do with a bunch of amaranth leaves is to make Jamaican Callaloo. Callaloo seems to be one of those words that is used to mean the soup, the cooked vegetable, and the growing vegetable, at least in Jamaica. Callaloo soup in Trinidad seems to be made with a different plant. I use a a variation of this recipe.
Amaranth grows very well in Florida. Once you have it in the garden, you will never get rid of it and it is a green that will survive the heat and humidity of a Florida summer, so I am not surprised to find it in Frog Song’s CSA box this week.

Here is the recipe that makes enough for four.

Thyme, okra, chopped amaranth stems, coconut milk, chicken broth, crab meat, scotch bonnet pepper, amaranth leaves, onion and garlic. Ready for callaloo.
Thyme, okra, chopped amaranth stems, coconut milk, chicken broth, crab meat, scotch bonnet pepper, amaranth leaves, onion and garlic. Ready for callaloo.
  • One large bunch of amaranth leaves.
  • One onion, sliced.
  • One clove of garlic, sliced.
  • Few sprigs of thyme.
  • Half a dozen okra.
  • Four cups of chicken broth. I like to make my own, but we didn’t have any in the house today.
  • Half a pound of crab meat (more about that later.)
  • One whole scotch bonnet or habanero pepper (I got mine from a friend’s garden.)
  • One cup of coconut milk (I have seen various callaloo recipes with this, but having made the soup with it, I don’t think it adds much to this recipe.

Wash the callaloo thoroughly. It can be one of those gritty greens. Separate the leaves from the stems and chop the stems roughly. Add all the ingredients, except the crab and the okra, to a soup pot and simmer down until cooked through. Perhaps 20 minutes. Remove the scotch bonnet pepper and be very careful to keep it whole. This way it adds great flavor but not intense heat to the soup. If you purée the pepper, watch out! It will be very hot. Strain the solids and place in a food processor and purée. If you prefer a non-puréed texture, strain the solids from the liquid and chop finely. Return to the liquid. Add the crab meat and the chopped okra. Add salt and pepper to taste and heat through. I served it with lovely Olde Hearth whole wheat levain bread.

Jamaican Callaloo.
Jamaican Callaloo.

So the verdict? Bethany likes it, but would prefer better crab. Sam is not so keen. Deborah is too polite to say. I agree, a can of crab from Publix is not a great ingredient, but this is why I titled this post the fish issue. Getting good seafood is a big problem in Central Florida. Wholefoods has some good choices, but they are very expensive. Lombardi’s isn’t great. Publix’s is slightly cheaper, but the quality is not great and you are buying into the global seafood industry (my crab came from the Philippines) with all the problems that come with it; unsustainability, poor labor conditions, and environmental damage. See this interview with Paul Greenberg on NPR’s Fresh Air for more on this issue.

My callaloo would have been great with fresh crab caught from the end of the pier by the kids on a family vacation. But is that the only way to have seafood in my diet? That doesn’t strike me as globally sustainable either. We will return to this issue when I write about our second course.