Yuca or Yucca …
December 19, 2012
I just love preaching during Advent, and I suspect it shows. I recently served as guest preacher at San Patricio, delivering my first Advent homily in Spanish. It’s clear my Spanish is improving, as I felt more comfortable preaching … knowing where to place tonal inflection, etc. And I guess I didn’t make too many mistakes, because it was the first time I’ve received an ovation by an entire congregation for a sermon. I was giving what was clearly a closing statement as the cheering began.
In any event, Christmas is about a week away, and I suppose I should be waxing poetically and prophetically about Advent, the coming of Christ, the Incarnate Word, and so forth. I’ve learned to trust my instincts, though, when writing. While I’ve been thinking about issues related to the holiday season, what I’d like to share is a little different from what you might expect.
One of the first questions friends at home tend to ask is, “How do you manage living in another country being allergic to wheat?” Yes, I admit, having food allergies can be a pain. But, frankly, it’s a bigger problem for me in the States, where so much of the food is processed. That’s not to say, however, that I don’t have the occasional challenge here in Colombia.
For example, one of my favorite breakfasts or lunches is some kind of chopped fruit in yogurt topped with granola … what is usually referred to as a yogurt parfait. In Colombia, I have yet to find a store that sells wheat-free granola. Although some do not list wheat as an ingredient, I’ve learned from experience that oats and wheat tend to be processed in the same facility. So, if it doesn’t specifically indicate “wheat-free,” I skip it. Not finding wheat-free granola, however, has not stopped me from enjoying an occasional parfait. Several brands of granola bar are sold here, including Nature Valley. Not all of their granola bars are wheat-free, but I know I can eat several types. My solution for a parfait? … I buy the almond granola bars, and then beat them with a meat mallet before opening the packet. Voila … granola parfait!
Around the holidays, food is usually an even bigger issue for me than other times of the year. I recently felt the need to turn down an invitation to attend a Thanksgiving dinner. Much as I would have enjoyed going, I was concerned about my food allergies. I could envision a turkey stuffed with bread-based stuffing, dinner rolls being passed around the table, gravy thickened with roux (flour and butter), vegetables in flour-based cream sauces, and a side table covered in wheat-based pastries. I could also envision my host being overly conscious about what I could and couldn’t eat, and a number of well-intentioned friends around the table trying to convince me to try things, “because they’re sure this or that doesn’t have much wheat in it.” Much as it pained me to say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” I decided it was better for all of us if I declined.
While it can be a bit disconcerting to have to think so much about what and where you eat, doing so can also offer new opportunities. You may recall my mentioning cunape, a Guarani Indian cheese bread, in one of my blog entries from when I was studying in Bolivia. I tend to make it every Saturday morning as a weekend treat. Recently, I decided I wanted to be able to make it while back in the States. But before hitting the grocery store to buy flour, and have it take up precious space in my suitcase, Chuck agreed to go looking for yuca flour in the Boston area. The adventure turned out to be quite educational for both of us.
It turns out that what you and I call cassava or tapioca flour is, in fact, yuca, a woody shrub native to South America and other tropical and subtropical regions and known for its edible, starchy, tuberous root. Many of us assume that “yucca” and “yuca” are the same plant, because they are often used interchangeably (incorrectly) in labeling. Yucca is actually a different, unrelated fruit-bearing shrub. According to Wikipedia, cassava is the third-largest source of food carbohydrates in the tropics, and is a major staple food in the developing world. It is one of the most drought-tolerant crops, capable of growing on marginal soils.
In recent years, the folks in the gluten-free community have discovered yuca, cassava, or tapioca, depending on what the local grocer carries, as a great wheat flour alternative for cooking. If you are eating wheat-free, or gluten-free, I encourage you to give “yuca” flour a try.
While I tend to be a pinch of this, and a pinch of that, kind of cook, I’ll do my best to offer you my cunape recipe to help you get started. Consider it a holiday gift to anyone interested in a gluten-free recipe. (*If you’re the kind of cook who prefers more specific, detailed recipes, you can perform an online search for cunape recipes … hint: the best recipes will have some kind of link to Bolivia).
Even if you’re not interested in cooking cunape, I encourage you to read the recipe. I’ve weaved some things about cooking in Colombia into the recipe that you might find interesting.
1 cup of flour (yuca, cassava, tapioca)
2 cups of cheese (In Colombia, I use one cup each of a country cheese a little like feta in texture, and another a little like mozzarella in texture – I say in “texture” as they have different flavor. You’ll need to experiment. My first experiment will be with 2 cups of white, sharp, Vermont cheddar. If you want to get fancy, head to a Latin market and ask for “Queso Fresco,” which is a salty, soft cheese and pair it with something more like mozzarella in texture)
~ 1 tsp. (or rather, one of my pinches) of sugar
~ ½ tsp. (or rather, another pinch) of salt
½ tsp. Baking Powder (and for the record, this ingredient is controversial among Bolivian cooks … most don’t use it)
1 egg (beaten)
1 splash (and I mean JUST a splash) of milk … I usually beat the egg and milk together
Pre-heat the oven to ~400*F. I describe my apartment oven as a wall mounted, “Easy-Bake” oven, like the kind that little kids get for Christmas. In addition, the temperature gauge is in Celsius. So, I’m assuming I’m setting it at about 400*F. Experiment … 400, 425, 450 … somewhere in there will be just right.
Measure the dry ingredients, and use a fork to mix. The flour will be a VERY fine powder, so take your time. Otherwise, you and your kitchen will be covered in flour in no time (which reminds me of the time our puppy, Ellsworth, found a 5 lb. bag of flour and threw a kitchen party while we were at work).
Grate the cheese(s). Using your fingers, mix the cheese and the dry ingredients. Continuing to use your fingers, add the egg/milk mixture. The final “dough” should be VERY dry. What you want is a texture that requires you to push hard to form a small ball of dough. If the mixture is too wet, continue to add flour a little at a time until the dough looks as though the dough is TOO dry. Using your hands, form balls a little larger than a ping-pong ball. It should take a little work to get the ball to stay together. Before placing on an ungreased baking sheet, use your knuckle to create a large dent in the bottom. You should have 9 to 10 balls. Place the baking sheet in the oven for about 18 minutes. Balls will look a little like baked biscuits and should be golden in color when they are cooked. They are best when eaten right out of the oven, but can be stored in a plastic bag after they cool and reheated in the microwave (I usually heat 2 at a time, on high, for about 30 seconds).
If you don’t try making cunape, but have a hankering for a gluten-free, holiday dessert, I suggest you look up a recipe for Philippine cassava heavy cake made with brown sugar and coconut milk. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s on my list to make sometime soon.
Even if you don’t experiment in your kitchen, at least you’ve learned that yuca and yucca are different plants, yuca, tapioca, and cassava flour are, essentially, the same thing, the root (manioc or mandioca) from which the flour is made is a major food source for the poor in tropical and subtropical environments, and the flour is gluten-free.