The past few years have witnessed the casualization of fine dining – food trucks, farmers markets and pop-up restaurants have become the places to find the best new plates within our favorite cuisine capitals. Restauranteurs are whisking off the white tablecloths to reveal rustic wood tables, the walls fall away between prep and dining areas for a sense of the communal kitchen, and breakthrough hotspots are achieving renown more for their wacky flavor pairings than their wine list.
The setting doesn’t get more laid-back than a tropical island in Panama. Many a night spent around the campfire had us thinking up ways to create sophisticated dining experiences in a secluded island paradise. In the glowing embers after yet another extraordinary grilled meal, the concept (and challenge) of our beachfront restaurant, Las Rocas, was born: refined dishes prepared on the grill.
We hit the grill running – garnishing locally-raised chicken in a Panama beer marinade with smoky grilled guacamole, browning fresh farm cheese over tender roasted tomatoes, and topping vanilla ice cream with rum-soaked pineapple caramelized to golden perfection.
We may be throwing some unexpected ingredients over the grates of our island grill, but this casual approach to decadent dining reflects the home-style meals we’ve shared with our local friends here in Panama. As in many Latin American cultures, mealtime in Panama is always a celebrated moment – worthy of the finest fresh ingredients, innovative flavor pairings and preparation focused on the details. Even those of you up North in post-Labor-Day mourning of summer’s end can join in the fun — an ample autumn harvest and crisp nights are perfect reasons to cozy up near the campfire for some phenomenal outdoor cooking.
Liven up the old burgers-and-hotdogs routine and bring an island twist to grilling out with 7 of my favorite success stories from the beach bonfire on Isla Palenque.
For anyone wondering “Wait… where’s the meat?” – a word of explanation:
On Isla Palenque, just a short boat ride from Panama’s agricultural breadbasket, and with opportunities to make a prime catch on both sides of the journey, the meat has been the easy part. Fresh fish, local pork, free-range chicken and grass-fed Chiriquí beef need only a simple marinade to become mouthwatering. But we wanted to create entire meals at the grill, and playing with tropical produce accoutrements for our grilled meats has been a journey of experiments.
Farm Cheese + Summer Tomatoes
Nothing celebrates a great summer harvest like simple grilled food that capitalizes on the abundance of tomatoes come September. Choose tomatoes that are not overly ripe (easy for Northerners hurrying tomatoes off the vine before the first frost, a problem we don’t have down here), slice in half, and remove the seeds (makes for a cleaner grill grate and undisturbed fire). Coat your grill grate in olive oil and grill the tomatoes face down over hot embers for four minutes. Place a fresh, salty farm cheese on the grill in thick slices, turning once as the first side begins to brown; remove when the second side is brown and the center is beginning to melt.
Serving suggestion: Serve stacked, topped with a fresh herb of choice. Here in Panama we love culantro*, but basil would create a wonderful grilled caprese effect.
*Culantro, an herb widely used in Panamanian cooking, has a much larger leaf than the better-known cilantro, and a milder taste. When we call for culantro, cilantro works just fine, but you’ll use less cilantro than culantro. As always, season to taste.
This unassuming green squash native to Mexico and abundant in Central America (available in many US supermarkets) has a soft fleshy texture and crisp flavor. Slice the squash into rounds, and simply toss in olive oil, salt and pepper. Place the slices in a single layer on your grill rack, turning over when the first side has browned. When both sides are lightly caramelized, remove from the grill to avoid overcooking — you want the squash to remain crisp and flavorful. If the green tint of the squash starts to take on a translucency, remove from the grill — that’s the sign of an overcooked (read: mushy) chayote – no bueno.
Serving suggestion: Chayote holds its own as a side dish, but for a vegetarian main, chop the chayote into a mix of avocado, diced onion and culantro and a sprinkling of fresh lime juice for a decadent salad.
Crispy Rice Balls
Many a home-style meal in Panama comes with a side of rice – but how to bring this to the grill? Thankfully, the Chinese population in Panama has influenced the cuisine here considerably, with ingenious applications for our grill routine. Sticky rice central to Chinese cuisine helps hold together banana-leaf-wrapped dumplings containing delicious fillings like shiitake mushrooms and shredded pork — or, as we discovered on the island, it holds its own as a simple side dish a la Panama. Cook white rice using a basic sticky rice recipe (use one part coconut milk, 2 parts water for a truly tropical flavor), roll into 3-inch balls and brush with butter. Grill until the outsides are toasty brown.
Serving suggestion: The golden crust breaks away to reveal a hot and fluffy side of coconut rice — the perfect complement to grilled vegetables or the catch of the day.
Note: Sticky rice can be created in two ways — by using a type of rice native to Asia (available in Asian markets and many supermarkets) called Glutinous rice, or through process by cooking the rice with the right proportions of water and time so that the rice finishes sticky. It may take some trial and error to get it right.
When the island avocados are ripe, we’ve got more avocados than we know what to do with… and by the light of the flickering fire, we started to get ideas. Much like our favorite culinary virtuoso, Ferran Adrià, we took classic guacamole and went elemental on it: skewers of avocado, halved cherry tomatoes, chunks of white onion, and thin slices of hot pepper (if you prefer your guac spicy). Keep each on its own skewer, as the cooking time for each varies slightly; you do not want to end up with a mixed skewer of over- and under-done veggies). Grill, rotating often, until the edges of your vegetables begin to blacken – onion and pepper should be over the hottest part of the grill, avocado and tomato on the cooler sides. Put the grilled vegetables into a bowl (chop down further if desired), dress (to taste) with salt, pepper, cumin, chopped fresh culantro and fresh-squeezed lime; toss and serve. The result: smoky, chunky bites of fresh guacamole that absolutely melt in your mouth.
Serving suggestion: Serve atop grilled chicken marinated in your favorite local lager, lime and chili powder.
Grilling eggplant isn’t so much revolutionary as it is necessary – it’s just so good, we can’t get enough. The bright purple eggplants we picked up from a roadside stand near Cerro Punta, Panama started us on this kick. Luckily, there’s an abundance of ways to serve grilled eggplant (note the way eggplant is used in Greek, Italian or Middle Eastern cooking when choosing your spices). Grill it whole and use the gooey insides to whip up a fresh babaganoush or bruschetta spread for grill-toasted bread,
… or slice the eggplant and stuff with fresh herbs and minced vegetables for an explosion of tastes married by the heat of the grill,
…or cut into thick slices, coat with olive oil and dust with spices and herbs of your choice and grill as you would other vegetables.
Serving suggestion (Panama-style eggplant): Coat thick slices of eggplant in olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic, grill alongside queso fresco and farm tomatoes (see above) and serve stacked – the salty farm cheese, sweet tomatoes and rich, velvety eggplant meld for a flavor that is reminiscent of Italian cooking, but this fresh take using local ingredients is uniquely Panamanian.
Broccoli seems to be in season year-round here in Panama; there’s an abundance of it. I was never fond of this earthy cruciferous vegetable, until I tasted it grilled. Forget the soggy, smelly steamed veggie detested in many an American childhood — when grilled in just a simple coating of olive oil, salt and pepper (try adding minced garlic for an added punch), a grilled broccoli floret delivers delicious crunch and sensational flavor. For best results, cut the florets off where the smaller stalks meet the larger central stem and skewer the florets; rotate until the edges have an even, crisp, caramelized tint. If your green thumb has left you with more broccoli than you can smuggle into your end-of-summer salads, throw it on the grill and give it a chance – you’ll never see broccoli the same way again.
Serving suggestion: Slide off the skewers and top with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. For a well-rounded side, serve with thinly-sliced fresh pepper and grilled rice balls (recipe above).
Bonus Recipe: don’t throw away the stem! The broccoli stem bursts with rich flavor when introduced to the grill. Strip the stem of leaves and chop off the bottom 1 inch. Remove 2-3 outer layers with vegetable peeler to expose the pale green center, coat with oil and grill until charred in spots and tender. Remove from grill and drizzle with a simple vinaigrette: olive oil, 2 tbsp. lemon zest, 2 tbsp. sherry vinegar, 2 tbsp. minced shallot. (Recipe derived from Bon Appetit Sept 2012 issue.)
Panama pineapple is sinfully good, and when placed on the grill, all that fragrant syrup caramelizes, adding complexity to its sweet and sour flavor. A no-brainer – simply grill thick slices over medium heat until the fruit begins to caramelize.
Serving suggestion (main course edition): Play pineapple as a topping for fresh grilled white fish, or, if you’re going to have a burger in Panama, make it a tropical indulgence with grilled pineapple – it really is the best of both worlds.
Serving suggestion (dessert): Soak the pineapple in rum before grilling, then serve atop a scoop of vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt.
- Don’t break out the grates and skewers when the flame is roaring – wait until it has died down and you are left with the glowing embers. They provide the hottest and most even heat for perfectly caramelized flavor instead of a charred disaster.
- Ideally you’d use hardwoods in your campfire — softwoods tend to create a more tarry flavor, whereas hardwoods burn clear and fragrant. However, we normally use whatever logs have washed up on shore, or fallen branches from the trees surrounding the beach – a mix of whatever woods are available usually results in complex smoky flavors.
- Caramel vs. charred: what’s happening when your food begins to brown? It is the process of various carbohydrates reacting to the heat – the chemical composition of your food is actually changing in hundreds of ways! You could delve into scientific volumes about the complex chemical reaction known as caramelization in sugars or as the Maillard reaction in proteins – but if you’re anxious to get grilling, just know that the browning you’ll see occurring means your food is gaining in depth and intensity of flavor. Both carmelization and the Maillard reaction require high heat (above 330 degrees Fahrenheit) to happen rapidly. Follow our campfire tips above (hot embers, not wild flames) and you should be on your way to meals grilled to toasty perfection.