This time of year, when Old Sol is having his way with us, we often turn to the tropics for culinary inspiration. The tropics, that is, of sandy beaches, blue oceans and cooling trade winds making the palm trees sway.
One reason, of course, is our innate escapist tendencies — especially from Maryland in July and August. Another may be the abundance of tropical fruits and veggies at the market this time of year.
Whatever. Dinner time — whether inspired by the family or by our desire to entertain friends — can take on a relaxed and delicious ambience when we use some of the seasonal products that are near to hand.
Our exercise du jour is to employ two such tropical treasure — mangoes and papayas — in palate-soothing dishes.
And just so you know…
Mangoes are low in calories (67 for half of one) and fat; are good sources of fiber, which helps with cholesterol control; and have ample amounts of vitamins A and C, along with vitamin E and B-6. When shopping for them, look for a flattish oval fruit with yellow-green or reddish skin, which is ripe when very fragrant and yields to gentle pressure. Basic preparation involves removing the skin and paring the flesh away from the large, fibrous pit.
By the way, mangoes belong to the same family as poison ivy, so the mango skin may produce a rash in those who are highly allergic to it.
Papayas are even lower in calories (59 per half), and are also a good source of fiber. They have plenty of folate and large amounts of vitamin C, as well as plenty ofbeta-carotene. When purchasing, look for fruit that is predominantly yellow, bring it home, then put it in a paper bag and keep it at room temperature until it turns golden and yields to gentle pressure.
Papayas seem easier to eat out of hand than mangoes. Wash the skin, cut in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, spritz on some lime juice (or add a scoop of lime sherbet), then spoon up the juicy, mild, evocative flesh while picturing yourself in the shade, on a breezy balcony overlooking the Caribbean. Mmm.
Cuidado: Some people develop hives or other allergic reactions from handling or eating papayas.
This company-worthy first course could also serve as a main course for a special luncheon. You can fix the dressing ahead, then put everything together at the last minute.
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup plain nonfat yogurt
1 tablespoon cognac
2 teaspoons bottled chili sauce (not salsa)
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice (or to taste)
2 firm, ripe mangoes
2/3 cup diced celery
2 whole Belgian endives, plus 12 leaves for garnish
5 teaspoons minced fresh chives, plus 12 whole chives for garnish
1 1/2 pounds lump crab meat
For the dressing, in a small bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, yogurt, cognac, chili sauce and lemon juice to taste. Taste and add some pepper and sea salt if you feel the need. Cover and chill until serving time.
About 30 minutes before serving, halve the mangoes: Cut just the sides of each pit, then use a 3/4 -inch melon baller to scoop the flesh from the mango halves, trying not to scoop up any of the pits. There should be a generous 1 cup.
Trim whole endives and slice thinly crosswise.
In a large bowl, combine mango balls, celery, sliced endives and the minced chives. Add dressing and mix well. Gently stir in crab meat, trying not to break up lumps. Taste for seasonings.
To serve, arrange 2 endive leaves in each of 6 stemmed cocktail or sherbet glasses. Divide crab mixture among glasses. Criss-cross 2 whole chives atop each cocktail. Makes 6 servings.
Mango chicken tandoori
India may not be near the Caribbean, but it certainly has an ocean. The presence of certain spices, plus yogurt, give this main dish a "tandoori" theme. And while you might not have the classic tandoori oven at your house, you probably have a grill.
We accompany with jasmine rice "pilaf" and naan bread, of course. If you want to grill some pineapple to accompany the mango, go for it.
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus 6 sprigs for garnish
1/3 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
4 garlic cloves
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons paprika (not hot)
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/3 cup olive oil
3/4 cup plain Greek-style (thick) yogurt
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
12 to 18 small boneless chicken thighs, trimmed
2 large, ripe mangoes, peeled, one of them cut into 1/2 -inch thick slices and one of them cut into 1/2 -inch cubes
2 cups jasmine rice
3 cups water or part water, part chicken broth
3 tablespoons herb mixture (see above)
Cubed mango pieces (see above)
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
For the chicken, in a food processor, combine chopped cilantro, parsley, garlic, cumin, paprika, sea salt and cayenne pepper. Puree. With machine running, gradually add oil through feed tube and process until well blended. Reserve 3 tablespoons of the herb mixture for the rice (see below). Add yogurt and lemon juice to remaining herb/spice mixture.
Place chicken thighs in a large, zipper-top plastic bag, add herb/yogurt mixture and mix well. Let stand at room temperature for 35 to 40 minutes, moving chicken and marinade around in bag a couple of times. If marinating for a longer time, place in refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before cooking.
Prepare grill for medium cooking. Place chicken on grill (discard marinade). If using a gas grill, reduce heat to low. Cover chicken and cook 20 minutes, turning every 5 minutes, for 15 minutes. Uncover and cook 5 minutes longer. Add mango slices to grill and cook 4 to 5 minutes, turning once..
For the rice pilaf, while chicken cooks, in a medium pan, combine rice water and/or chicken broth, and reserved 3 tablespoons of the herb/spice mixture. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer about 15 minutes. Remove from heat, let stand, covered, for 5 minutes, then fold in the cubed mango pieces and toasted pine nuts.
To serve, arrange chicken on a large platter and garnish with grilled mango slices and cilantro sprigs. Serve rice on the side. Makes 6 servings of 2 to 3 chicken pieces each.
Sweet spiced papaya
In keeping with our quasi-tropical theme, we're thinking dessert now. This simple, juicy confection makes a perfect foil for pound cake slices or a favorite sherbet, or both. And talk about make-ahead: it'll keep, covered and refrigerated, for about 3 weeks.
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon allspice
1 (4-inch) cinnamon stick
3 1/2 pounds firm papayas, peeled, seeded and cut lengthwise into 1/2 -inch thick strips
Mix together sugar and allspice. In a heavy, 3-quart saucepan, spread 2/3 cup of the sugar mixture, add cinnamon stick, then add half the mango strips. Sprinkle 2/3 cup of the remaining sugar mixture over mango strips. Add remaining mango strips, then the remaining sugar mixture.
Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 35 to 45 minutes, until sugar is completely dissolved; shake the pan occasionally but do not stir.
Uncover pan and simmer mangoes for about 10 minutes, until they appear translucent. Remove pan from heat and cool, then remove mangoes from pan to a bowl, cover and chill overnight. Discard cinnamon stick before serving. Makes about 5 cups.