A new Cuban restaurant opened in my hood last month, and, hankering for a Cuban sandwich the other day I finally checked it out. As it turned out I ended up ordering the chicken, served with a tangy and garlicky bright green mojo sauce, and, bonus, a side of crispy and delicious yuca frita, yuca fries. Yuca fries are more common then French Fries in much of Latin America and Cuba, and not something you see everywhere here, so I am always excited to get them when I can.
Yuca is another name for cassava, a plant native to much of South America, and also sometimes goes by the name, manioc or Brazilian Arrowroot. It is common to see this somewhat gnarly and elongated brown tuber/root in grocery stores and markets throughout Toronto, but as it is not native to our climes, it isn’t on everyone’s radar. In the tropics and in the developing world, however, it is the third largest source of carbohydrate, right behind corn and rice. My mother-in -law, who grew up in the Great Depression used to say that (wheat) flour was God’s gift to the poor. No doubt if she lived in the tropics she’d say the same thing about this amazing and versatile food crop.
Cassava is most often processed into cassava flour, which is free of gluten and is a favoured substitute for wheat flour or a number of other applications including being used as a bio-fuel, animal feed, as the starch or sizing used in starching shirts. When it comes to prepping it for supper, the root is most often cut up and fried like French fries, or boiled and mashed and served like mashed potatoes. And for dessert, how about this classic Filipino cake made by grating the root veg right into the cake batter!
Don’t eat it raw, though. Raw cassava, like many plants, contains quantities of cyanogens, precursors to cyanide that exists in the plant to protect it from insects. This can be remedied by soaking the cut up tuber for several hours or simply by cooking it.
Interestingly, many of us have been eating cassava for years without even being aware of it. That old standby truck-stop and diner dessert, tapioca pudding, is actually cassava; the starch extracted from the plant is processed into those darling little pearls. Cooked with milk and egg the tapioca pearls are transformed into that wonderful, luscious custard.
Making tapioca pudding the other night, I decided to tinker with the standard recipe a bit; since it is already gluten free, why not make it vegan as well? I used coconut milk in place of milk, imparting a rich, coconut flavor, and substituted a tablespoon of incredibly healthy ground flax for the egg, which made the pudding firm up beautifully. One of the characteristics of cassava is that it has little taste on its own, so you can pretty much flavor your tapioca it how you like; maybe a little cinnamon or cardamom and vanilla, and to sweeten it you could use maple syrup instead of sugar. I opted for organic coconut sugar in keeping with the tropical vibe, giving it light caramel flavour and colour and and topped it with fresh papaya and grated coconut. A little raspberry preserve is also delicious on top!
Tropical Tapioca Pudding (vegan)
Makes 4 small servings
1/3 cup quick cooking pearl tapioca
1 can coconut milk
¼ cup coconut sugar
1 tablespoon ground flax
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a saucepan mix tapioca pearls and coconut milk. Cook over medium heat stirring regularly until mixture starts boil. Turn heat down a little and stir often until it starts to thicken, about fifteen minutes. Stir in sugar and salt and flax. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Pour into bowls and let it cool about fifteen minutes before serving it warm or refrigerate and serve cold. The colder it is the firmer it will be. Serve as is or top with fresh fruit or preserves.