Everytime I cook with yuca I’m taken back to a very special time in my life. Exactly a year into my Ecuadorian adventure a friend of mine and I were invited to spend some time visiting our friends who own a cacao farm in Mendez which is a small jungle town located in the southern portion of the Ecuadorian Amazon. I had been to the jungle before, lots of times, but this time was going to be truly different, something I had dreamed of since I got here, a real experience. Any other time that I had traveled to or through the rain forest something that always caught my eye were the humble homes made of slats of wood, sitting on their stilts, far off the road, framed by the impressive local flora and fauna. What would it be like to live there, work there and prepare food there? My very good friends were about to give me an education that I would never forget.
After a peaceful night’s rest and a hearty country-style breakfast it was off to get dressed up in my work clothes, for today I would learn how to harvest cacao, among other things! Despite the heat and humidity it was important to protect yourself from the sun and bugs so I started rifling through a big bin of clothes to find some gear, a bandana for my head and neck, a baseball hat, a t-shirt and a collared button-down shirt, sturdy work pants and of course rubber boots. And with that we were off to find out where chocolate comes from! Once we arrived to the plantation my friend’s mom got out her machete and got to work. That’s right, I said MACHETE. That jungle-mama started wacking and hauling big bunches of cacao over to us. She split each one in half so that we could harvest the seeds, or cacao beans, but in the mean time we learned that it wasn’t just the seeds that are edible. The juicy, citrusy, cotton candy-like fruit that surrounds them is simply divine! So there we sat, on the floor of the Amazon, filling buckets full of organic cacao beans and indulging on the fruit as much as we could. The beans would soon be sent off to Germany where they would be processed and packaged into a high-quality bar. But at that moment I couldn’t imagine enjoying that cacao any other way – so close to it’s inception.
After we had gathered enough cacao we packed up the truck and went in search of other jungle delicacies. As we traveled along, evey once in a while the truck would stop and my friend’s brother would disappear into the forest, with a machete of course, and return a couple minutes later with the loot. At one point we all stopped and went in search of yuca. Little did I know at the time that this implied going in search of what looks to be a small tree, the Cassava Plant. Upon identifying it, my friend’s teenage bro bent down the thick stem and started pulling and tugging on it. After struggling for a few minutes he eventually cried uncle, or should I say mommy, begging the help of his jungle-mama (that lady was awesome and quickly became my hero)! Between the two of them, out popped a root network which sprouted several nice-sized yuca tubers, ready to nourish us and replenish the energy we had expended that day in the hot Amozonian sun, not to mention delight us with it’s earthy and creamy flavor and texture.
These days when I get the urge for some yuca I just run up to the market at the corner of my street, but preparing it still takes me back to that day. I love how a chunk of yuca comes encrusted in the soil it was planted in and how even in my apartment I can still get my hands a little dirty when peeling and cleaning it. I love how that soil turns into mud in my sink because it makes me feel close to the earth and all it has to offer us, so many edible gems, ready to be explored.
There are some things to remember when chosing and preparing yuca. First, in my experience, it seems that the thinner chunks of yuca are softer and easier to work with. You want the yuca to be bright white on the inside and plan to prepare it within a couple days of buying it for the tastiest result. When peeling yuca, I like to stand it up on it’s widest end and slice down. Off will come a strip of it’s woody outer peel. From there you will see a division between the peel and the white edible portion. When the yuca is fresh you can use a paring knife to seperate the peel from the white portion and from there take the peel off in one piece by hand or little-by-little seperate with the knife and pull secitons off by hand. The most important part is that all that is left is the white part of the yuca, nothing purple, or any other part of the peel. Yuca also has a small but visible string running down it’s core. It is best to chop around the string or remove it when chopping.
Yuca can be used in many different ways but I find this recipe is a great intro to yuca and oh SO satisfying ever single time!
Preheat over to 200° C/400° F. Peel and rinse yuca. Chop into medium sized fry-shaped pieces, making sure to chop around or chop out the string at the core of the yuca. Add the yuca to a pan of boiling salted water. Boil for 15-20 minutes or until just soft enough to easily smash with the back of a fork. Drain the yuca and toss it in olive oil and a couple of generous sprinkles of sea salt. Add a dash of black pepper if desired. Place the yuca fries on a baking sheet ensuring that they are not touching or overlapping. After baking for 10 minutes, flip each yuca fry over and continue baking for 10 more minutes. The yuca fries should be golden and crispy on the outside yet soft and creamy on the inside. Top with a sprinkle of smoked paprika, fresh flat-leafed parsley and yogurt and garlic sauce.